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Pickle Me This

July 2, 2014

Miriam Toews and Lisa Bird-Wilson

all-my-puny-sorrowsThings are busy around here with the usual summer things (swimming pools, barbecues, celebrating Canada Day at Queen’s Park, not sleeping at night, lazy days, beer and chicken wings with my husband on a rooftop patio) and with a top-secret project that is going to keep things quieter on the blog front this summer. Which is as it should be–you’re all out gallivanting anyway. But I did want to share two amazing things I’ve been up to lately in celebration of two really excellent books.

The first is All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, which I was lucky enough to review for Canadian Notes and Queries 90, their summer issue. It’s out now. The review was a pleasure to write, to be working with material that was just so good. The book is the most hilarious heartbreak I’ve ever experienced. A teaser of my review:

“While markedly different in style and tone, All My Puny Sorrows reads as an interesting companion to Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir, Wave, another book about grief and trauma, in which Deraniyagala recounts the loss of her family in the 2006 Boxing Day tsunami. Both books are haunted by narrators whose voices are measured and understated, existing to evoke the dead and the past rather than to illuminate the present, partly because the narrator in the present is a hollow shell of grief. And that grief itself remains a quiet presence in the text, until it doesn’t, bursting onto the page with a torrent of rage. Interestingly, both narrators enact their rage by making obnoxious phone calls, describing themselves as “haunting” the calls’ recipients on whom they (inappropriately, but who can blame them for that?) lay blame for their tragedies.

Unlike Wave, however, and just like everything Toews has ever written, All My Puny Sorrows is also terrifically funny. The young version of Elf is a wonderful character, with her dramatic flares and karate-chop gestures. The most hilarious scene in the book takes place at a funeral (of course) when a young child steps up and begins to eat the ashes of the deceased. Elf and Yolandi’s mother emerges as the real hero of this story, a woman of unlimited faith and optimism (and who, in shock after her daughter’s death, answers every utterance with, “Ain’t that the truth”). And this is Yolandi’s revelation as well, that all this grief has not been put upon her alone, and that her mother, in her obsession with Scrabble games and detective novels, is trying to decode the mystery of things and put words together so they mean something, just as Yolandi herself is.”

just-pretendingI am also very pleased with my interview with Saskatchewan Metis writer Lisa Bird-Wilson about her short story collection, Just Pretending. I read the book in early May and found it incredibly affecting. Bird-Wilson’s answers to my questions were thoughtful, challenging, provocative and profound–just as her book is. And a taste of that?

Also, don’t you think there’s something a bit unfair about criticism that turns on the fact that stories made the critic feel bad? It’s unfortunate, but I’ve really noticed that audiences want you to read things that are funny—boy, they love that kind of thing. I find myself sometimes trying to excise funny bits from my stories and use them for readings—shame on me for bowing to the pressure but we all want to be liked, don’t we? I guess it’s human nature—we want to be able to laugh together—but in order to laugh together we also have to cry together sometimes. And sometimes we just laugh our way through the pain because there’s nothing else you can do.”

Reading the whole thing here.

June 29, 2014

Mating for Life by Marissa Stapley

mating-for-lifeThe cover doesn’t lie—Marissa Stapley’s Mating for Life is the perfect novel for dockside, for reading on the beach. By which I mean it adheres to a certain formula. The ends all tie up into perfect solutions, tragedies averted. By which I also mean that it’s a pleasure to read, this novel about Helen Sear, a woman who is part Joni Mitchell, part Gloria Steinem, a former folk singer whose relationships with men throughout her life had been like the relationships fish have with bicycles, except with a lot more contact. Contact enough for her to have had three daughters with three different men, these daughters now grown and trying to reconcile their complicated family legacy. They’ve each responded differently to their mother’s example, creating their own selves from those parts of her they’d embraced or rejected. Or at least had attempted to reject—it will turn out that they’re each more like their mother than they’d previously understood, and unlike her too in ways all their own.

The novel begins at Helen’s summer cottage north of Toronto, where Liane (the youngest) is spending a week alone trying to finish her dissertation and to sort out her feelings toward her fiancé. And it was here where I began to notice something beyond a formula at work, and to be delighted by the unabashed bookishness of the narrative–a perfect novel for dockside that features people who are reading on docks. And reading specifically too–Liane notices a man at a neighbouring cottage reading at the end of his dock, something with an orange spin. She swims close enough to see that it’s Junkie by William Burroughs and she’s disappointed, plus a but disturbed. Later, rifling through the cottage library, she turns up a copy of The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff, and begins to read its wonderful first sentence…

Meanwhile, the oldest daughter, Fiona, is starting to lose it after more than a decade of trying to attain domestic perfection, trying to prove to the world that she’s nothing like her mother at all. When her husband reveals a secret from his past, the veneer of her life is cracked, and she’s not sure she can put the pieces back together. Living not far away is the middle sister, Ilsa, whose attempts to emulate her older sister’s are beginning to prove an abject failure. She’s got two small kids, a husband who ignores her, and her once-successful career as a painter is as stalled as her marriage. She starts to wonder if the spark she’s missing might be found in an affair with a former teacher, and she’s far too aware of what she’s doing when things finally cross the line.

Unbeknownst to her daughters, Helen has also embarked upon a complicated domestic arrangement. She has fallen in love with a good man who wants to marry her, which might sound uncomplicated to most women, but most women haven’t spent decades solidifying a public reputation for independent womanhood. She’s not sure whether her new feelings mark an evolution or compromise of her principles.

The chapters alternate between the points of view of Helen and her daughters, as well as those of other women–the estranged wife of the man Liane watches reading on his dock, their eldest daughter, the woman whose just the latest to shack up with the owner of the local marina, a man whose virility is legend (which she hopes might give her barren womb the boost it needs to finally make the baby she’s been longing for). Each chapter is preceded by a short paragraph on the mating habits of various wild animals, the habits reflected in the behaviour of the characters who will appear. These allusions serve to further the questions posed by the narrative about human relationships and whether their patterns are learned by nature or nurture. But they also bring the animals themselves into the story in a really interesting way that calls to mind Alissa York’s Fauna, both in the rural cottage landscape and in the city settings too.

As one would expect from a novel about a folk singer, Mating for Life is as full of musical references as it is literary ones. And speaking of the literary references, this is the only book I’ve ever read in which a major plot point hinges on a copy of the literary magazine The Malahat Review. It terms of its allusions and also its sense of place, the novel seems compellingly charged with the world in a way that is a pleasure to encounter.

The book is not without its problems—dialogue can be stilted and expository, I could have done without the thoughts in italics that underlined what Stapley’s impressive prose was already making quite clear. Sometimes the adherence to formula broke a spell, and maybe I am being nitpicky, but I spent a lot of time figuring out how the marina owner, who had grown children, could have only read one book in his life “for school” and had that book be Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, which was published in 1999. Maybe he’d gone back and got his high school equivalency, I wondered? (A possibility!). But do you know what’s so wonderful? The reference to No Great Mischief wasn’t casually made, thrown down for solid literary cred, but for its brilliant last line which I won’t reveal here for spoiler reasons, but which ties in so perfectly to everything that Mating for Life is all about. Formulaic or not, Stapley’s narrative was constructed with such care.

There are also truly splendid bits of prose. A standout line for me was, “The lake was like a garage-sale mirror, smooth but mottled.” It’s an image that has lingered in my mind.

Mating for Life is the type of summer book that I’d pass on to my mother and my sister, the way we did with Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters years ago. It’s the kind of summer book I don’t encounter so much anymore, me with my head jammed far up my literary ass and therefore unable to soak of summer books for summer books’ sake the way I once could. Because summer book or not, I need my books to be good. I need lines of prose to stick in my head and characters with three dimensions, and for the most part, Stapley delivers, showing the messy, complicated, infinite, wonderful and never-boring threads of women’s lives.

June 26, 2014

Status Update by Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang

status-updateWith Status Update (which was nominated for the 2014 Pat Lowther Award), Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang employs a clever device both for the purposes of her own literary inspiration and to provide her reader with a gateway to the collection. Tsiang used status updates by her Facebook friends as writing prompts for each poem, sometimes adhering to the narrative implied in the update, other times using the words or ideas therein as imaginative points of departure, Tsiang embodying the voice of the status updater in some poems and using the material of her own life in others, every time showing that social media conversation is worthy of literary concern, that Facebook statuses are just another example of the art which can be located in the corners of ordinary life.

I found this conceit really useful. A challenge I’ve encountered in reading poetry is how to grasp a collection without a theme or overarching narrative, and while the poems in Status Update are wildly disparate in approach and tone, their connections are implicit and results in compelling readability. The original status updates, which are included with each poem, also offer points of familiarity and access–many of these are memes I’ve encountered on my own Facebook feed, I recognize the names of the updaters too, who range from prominent Canadian literary figures to a boy I was in a play with in grade 8. (Tsiang and I grew up in the same town, and probably have a few Facebook friends in common. Further disclosure: she was also one of the writers in The M Word, and her essays refers to this collection, to the complicated considerations she must make in writing about and being inspired by her daughter.)

The poems themselves? They’re rarely what you would expect from the figments that inspired them. The final poem stems from a question about whether the world of Facebook can possibly be as sunny and wondrous as status updates and vacation photos would suggest, and Tsiang concludes her resulting poem with the disturbing and wonderful, “Unfold the picnic basket, / and set out the watermelon. / The adults are planning murder-suicide/ and the children are drowning in the lake.” Some poems are glosas, such as one inspired by an update by Carolyn Smart, “thinking of Bronwen Wallace and the 21 years gone by.” which is followed by four lines from Wallace’s “Coming Through”, and Tsiang’s resulting piece, which concludes with, “Lessons you have taught me by example:/ there are some people/ you could have trusted your life to/ and their death displaces you.” What a marvellous knot of literary homage–I love this.

I’m moving through the collection backwards (and note: there is an index at the end of authors of the updates that inspired each poem–I love this too) and picking out my favourites from this book which I read in order at the time. “Dave Hickey wonders if his tv misses him”, which is written in the voice of the television, each stanza imploring, “Look.” Particularly striking: “Look: the sun will kill you. So will/ fish, plastics and cell phones. I will tell you/ the cause of SIDS at five o’clock. Don’t/ put your baby down before that.”

And incredible poem is “Break Into Blossom”, which is inspired by a line from the poem “Blessing” by James Wright, in which Tsiang’s narrator contemplates the enormity of the love and loss implied by being a parent: “When she was born, the colours shifted in her eyes:/ dust to earth, as if she were becoming more solid/ within my gaze. How carelessly I held her,/ like the earth shouldering the skies./ Suddenly I realize/ all the thousands of ways I will lose/ her, and I am overcome, as by a death/ with her still sitting there, singing quietly/ to her stuffed monkey. The world is astonishing/ in this small room….”

There is lots of humour too, as well as poignance. One update inspires Tsiang to write a rejection letter to herself: “Dear Sarah, While we read your manuscript with interest, it doesn’t fit with our publishing mandate. Maybe if it had more tomatoes, ripening on the vine…” Or another  poem (perhaps not funny, depending on your point of view), which begins, “The dog knows when you lie…”

Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang is a writer doing remarkable things. She’s author of some wonderful picture books (including A Flock of Shoes), non-fiction kids’ books, YA books, and editor of an anthology of Susans. (I also loved her previous collection, Sweet Devilry.) With Status Update, she shows that she’s got even more tricks in her back pocket, but also such a talent for turning words into vivid moments, and a refreshing viewpoint on the world.

June 23, 2014

One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories

“I had an abortion.” This is not a confession, but instead is the phrase with which my essay, “Doubleness Clarifies” (which was published in The M Word and online this spring) has been received by readers, more than any other, or at least it seems as such from my point of view. And these readers are not confessing either, but rather are stating a fact of their lives, a fact they seem eager to share. Like me, I suppose they’ve spent a long time feeling as though abortion stories were not to be shared, and they were grateful finally to have an excuse to talk about this fact of their lives, a fact which has been perhaps sad, complicated, maybe neither, but undeniably important.

one-kind-wordIt’s not shame that keeps women from talking about their abortions, but rather fear of seeming impolite. It’s funny that in a society in which 1/3 of adult women have had abortions and most people understand the procedure to be a necessary part of women’s health, that we kowtow to the sensibility of  a minority whose vocal stance allows them to set the tone on the issue. That abortion is unseemly, dead babies, something that marks us, something which we have to hide at all costs.

All costs? The huge cost of hiding our abortion stories, of course, is that the vocal minority gets to tell us everything we know about abortions, much of which is wrong. (Increased breast cancer risks, post traumatic symptoms and regret, photos of aforementioned dead babies.) They get to influence the people who make the legislation, because the rest of us are too polite to speak up. They get to tell us everything we know about the women who have abortions too, which is that there is a type of woman this happens to and that her experiences are uniform.

With the new book, One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories, edited by Kathryn Palmateer and Martha Solomon, with a foreword by Judy Rebick, we learn that everything they told us about abortions, and the women who have them, is wrong. In striking portraits—photographs accompanied by short first-person essays—we learn that women who have had abortions are women of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences. We learn than many of them are mothers. Others never wanted to be mothers, and it’s that certainty that made the decision to have an abortion quite an easy one to make. Some women look back on their abortions with mixed emotions, or sadness, grief or relief. And most of them look back and are grateful that the choice was theirs to make.

As I wrote in my essay in The M Word, reproductive freedom remains a revolutionary thing for a woman to get away with. Not because we don’t get away with it, but because when we do, we don’t talk about it. Which leaves a woman contemplating abortion or who’s had an abortion feeling that she’s so alone, that no one has ever been where she’s going and come out fine on the other side. And so that’s why a book like One Kind Word is so hugely important, representative of the real experiences of so many women. Experience as depicted by those who’ve lived it rather than those for whom abortion is an abstract moral issue—this is so significant. The book is also important because it creates a space where women who’ve had abortions can see themselves reflected, and the book provides an occasion for women to speak up and say, “This is my story too.”

One Kind Word was an online portrait gallery before it was a book, the project gaining huge momentum and inspiring so many women to be a part of it. (It also has a precedent with Jennifer Baumgardner’s Abortion and Life.) Many participants note that they felt as though they had an obligation to speak up in order to counter the abortion rhetoric which has been hijacked by patriarchal interests, to speak up for those countless other women who did not yet have the courage to represent.

This was not a book that told me anything I didn’t know already, instead confirming the fact that I exist. Which is not meant to be an honourable purpose for a book, literarily speaking, though anyone who’s ever told you this has probably been a man who sees his existence confirmed in his reflection in most everything he ever encounters.

The book’s editors write of their intention to have a copy of One Kind Word in every clinic waiting room across the country, and while this is a very good idea, I’d like to have it gracing coffee tables too. First, because it’s a book of beautiful images, good for flipping through, but also because it places our abortion stories right where they belong—firmly ensconced in the domestic ordinary of our various and remarkable lives.

One Kind Word launches tomorrow night (June 24) at Another Story Bookshop in Toronto. 


June 22, 2014

Based on a True Story by Elizabeth Renzetti

based-on-a-true-storyI make a point of reading everything Elizabeth Renzetti writes, her Globe and Mail column one of my Saturday morning go-to’s. So I was always going to read Based On a True Story, her first novel, which Renzetti describes as an alcohol-soaked comedy of failure and revenge”. I was thinking Kate Christensen’s In the Drink, Lucky Jim, and “Absolutely Fabulous meets The Devil Wears Prada,“as its back cover tells us, a blazing pink cover with lips, a lurid green type. The green is referential, the same lurid green as the book in the book, a book also called Based on a True Story, which is a surprise bestselling memoir was washed-up soap star and notorious drunk, Augusta Price. I was thinking also that Renzetti’s novel would be a send-up of tabloid culture and the current state of journalism (especially post phone-hacking scandal) in the style of Annalena McAfee’s 2011 novel The Spoiler, which had a similar set-up, but Renzetti has her tabloid journalist (young Frances in her cardigan) sacked not far into the story (which I suppose is a reflection on the current state of journalism in itself), so the narrative turned into something different. Something more like another novel about a woman called Augusta, Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt, mainly in that there are many many madcap shenanigans.

After far too many silly novels trying oh so hard to be smart, it was really refreshing to discover a smart novel that wasn’t afraid or ashamed to be silly.

The writing is as sharp and skilful as you would expect if you’d ever read a Renzetti column, with snappy dialogue and perfect cultural references. Augusta Pierce is a fantastic character, and another notable literary bolter, her complete lack of maternal instinct and similar lack of compunction for such a lack refreshing to encounter. Her self-destructive tendencies too—such a smooth slide down the spiral. And she’s got charisma, which explains her hangers-on—old friend and saviour Alma Partridge, one-time paramour Kenneth Deller (who now makes his living as “Mr. Romance,” host of a radio call-in show for the lovelorn) and pines for her across the world, and Frances the sacked journalist who agrees to ghost-write Augusta’s next book, but not before accompanying her on a journey to California to stop Kenneth Deller from writing his tell-all book first.

Augusta goes to great lengths to assert that her own book is just a version of the truth, the version she chose to share, though the excerpts from it that we’re privy to attest to its being a compelling read all the same, or perhaps because of this. (You really can’t always say this about excerpts from fictional books either. I will admit to skipping all the italicized parts of Possession.) And Augusta herself, with her sordid history, her mountains of baggage and disappointments, comes to be such a multi-dimensional character that it’s too bad that she’s given such a two-dimensional world to live in, that the narrative Renzetti constructs is less plot than scaffold. Material this good seems deserving of more.

Still, Based on a Truth Story is a worthy novel based on its insights, if not its plotting. Renzetti resists cliche in more than a few places, but in particular with her conclusion and its dose of sober realism (or unsober realism, as the case may be). “We have work to do,” says Augusta Pierce in the novel’s final line, and so too does Renzetti, and I hope she’s prepared to get hard at it one of these days, because her second book is going to be wonderful.

June 18, 2014

All My Loving by Beth Kaplan

all-my-lovingNine years ago today, I got married, and about ten years ago, when this date was selected, what first occurred to me was, “How cool! Paul McCartney’s birthday.” Because to me, June 18th has always been Paul McCartney’s birthday first, at least since I was a Beatles-obsessed 13 year old and organized a Paul McCartney Birthday Bash in my dorm room during our Grade 8 year-end trip to Ottawa. (It was not a wild bash. I recall jumping on a bed, and turning the volume all the way up on my Sony Sports Walkman so we could listen to The Beatles’ 1967-70 through the headphones.)

As I did to a lot of things, I came to The Beatles late, about 20-some years late. Being a Beatles-obsessed 13 year-old in 1992 was a curious thing. It involved feeling inordinate, impossible pain at John Lennon’s murder; trying to be a vegetarian because of Linda; scouring the TV guide every week in order to schedule tapings of Paul McCartney on Saturday Night Live or showings of John Lennon Imagine on Much Music. I even kept a scrapbook, comprising clippings of Paul McCartney’s son’s surfing mishap, various Beatles’ legal troubles, and a cut-out of the “Be My Yoko Ono” lyrics from my Barenaked Ladies’ “Gordon” cassette tape liner notes. I made Beatles posters in my Grade 8 art class–they weren’t very good. I bought Beatles’ biographies written by Geoffrey Giuliano and Hunter Davies. I built a Beatles shrine in my Design and Technology class, specially designed to store my cassette tapes and biographies. I was forbidden to talk about them at the dinner table. I listened to their music over and over (and learned to play their songs on the guitar). I remember listening to Hey Jude for the first time when I was about 11 years old, sitting in my backyard with a red battery-powered cassette player, and it was as though I’d discovered for the meaning of life. The meaning of my life. For a few years, it really was.

So I was eager to read Beth Kaplan’s memoir, All My Loving: Coming of Age With Paul McCartney in Paris. Kaplan was fortunate enough to fall in love with the Beatles at just the right time, on the cusp of her own adolescence and the Beatles’ fame. The memoir is based on her own diaries, scrapbooks and short stories (in which she fantasized about being Paul McCartney’s wife and/or [gasp!] his lover). In a fun and breezy fashion, she puts her reader in the mindset of a 13 year old girl who is as confused by the world as she is by her terrifying range of emotions, and who is also in thrall with The Beatles. Like many of her peers, her identity as a “Beatlemaniac” was one of her first acts of self-definition, a small rebellion against her conservative parents. Though they’re not so conservative–the book begins with young Beth ecstatic at the news that her parents are attending a Ban the Bomb demonstration, and therefore she is free to turn the radio dial and hear “She Loves You” for the very first time, and I love the way she describes her visceral reaction to the music, the way she’s transformed by it and so is the world around her.

WordCloud-originalKaplan outlines a complicated relationship with her parents, even more complicated than the average teenage love/hate, and while she alludes to her own parents’ experience (her father experiencing anti-semitism as a professor at Dalhousie University; or the time her mother reported of The Feminine Mystique, “I took one look at Betty Friedan and put the book down”) and she is indeed chronicling a cultural phenomenon, there is a lot in the book that is particular also. But the particularity is not always explained, instead the reader receiving the unfiltered thoughts of a solipsistic teen girl and all the contradictions that entails. (One of the many times I laughed out loud was when her list of “hates” included The Dave Clark Five and “intolerance.”) This approach makes sense in the grand scheme of the project, but it also leaves the reader with a lot of questions.

But then, the Beatles are the focus, as they were for 13 year old Beth, her parents’ own dramas firmly in the background. Or perhaps the Beatles were her escape? And Paul McCartney in particular, her chosen Beatle, the proxy by which she explores notions of love and lust and sex and longing. During the time she recounts in the memoir, she moves with her family to Paris for her father’s sabbatical year, and the Beatles are a consolation of her loneliness during this time, and also a bridge between her and her French classmates.

I was especially amused by her friend in France who had learned to speak English through Beatles lyrics, and so only spoke as such, expressing her gratitude with, “Thank you girl” and other such phrases. And it made me think about how those of us who learned about life through the Beatles are similarly equipped, not so literally, but still, to us, the world is all Strawberry Fields, A Day in the Life, Help and Penny Lane, etc. I knew these songs before I knew the world, is what I mean, and in a way, these songs are still my foundation, fundamental to my vocabulary. (Longing for love meant longing for someone to get high when they see me go by. My oh my). It is probable that Beatles songs have affected the shape of my brain.

1969-12marypaulI went to see Paul McCartney at Exhibition Stadium on June 6 1992 on his Live in the New World Tour. It still stands out as one of the most extraordinary days of my life, and I will never forget the excitement, but also the sadness at my realization that I was just one tiny person is a sea of people that night, that he couldn’t see me at all. That indeed, he’d been the subject of “All My Loving” (for I too was a Paul girl, even though he was not far away from being 64 at the time) but to him, I didn’t even exist. That all my loving was only a drop in the ocean… and it was heartbreaking. Such is the pain of being a 13 year old girl.

And even though she did it at the right time, a few decades before me, Beth Kaplan’s memoir brought the whole thing back. The roller coaster ride, the battles, and the unbelievable excitement of being on the edge of something huge–such confidence too that in just another year or two, surely we’re going to have the whole world figured out.

June 12, 2014

Viviane by Julia Deck and Linda Coverdale, trans

vivianeViviane by Julia Deck, translated by Linda Coverdale, is a spectacularly deceptive novel in a variety of ways. A small book, at just 149 pages, I figured it would be a quick read, but it wasn’t because I read it twice, and then skimmed it again. Deceptive too because I thought I knew what I was getting into, but I didn’t. I’d recently read The Dinner by Herman Koch, and Viviane was comparable—a narrative voice whose grasp of reality is hard to gauge, is she the problem or is it the world? But while Koch’s unhinged narrative comes at his story with a terrifyingly cold sense of control, Deck’s Viviane has lost control and scarcely even realizes.

She knows something is amiss though–”You are not entirely sure, but it seems to you that four or five hours ago, you did something that you shouldn’t have.” (The narrative moves between first, second and third person, employing also the informal second-person that would be clear in the novel’s original French, and the first person collective–this movement signifies Viviane’s tenuous hold on her own self and her story.) She seems to think that she’s just killed her therapist, cold blooded murder, but then she’s torn between hiding her crime and going back to the scene to find out exactly what had happened. Throughout all this, she’s caring for her 12 week old infant daughter on her own, having just left her husband and a disastrous marriage. She’s been on maternity leave from her job as a communications executive at a cement company, and she’s terrified that she’s being edged out of her job just as she was forced from the marriage.

It’s a disorienting novel. Viviane dashes around Paris, stashing her infant wherever she can manage. She tracks the other figures in the murdered therapist’s life, scours the papers for details, haunts her ex-husband and maintains a complicated relationship with her mother who may or may not be dead. It is never clear whether her reports are accurate–she starts one day twice, seemingly with no memory of the other. Her grasp of time and place is clinging and desperate. The baby herself is not a convincing presence, though nor is she for Viviane herself, or any mother of a newborn:

“There’s this child in our hands and we wonder how it happened. The babysitter handed her over without a fuss, pretending to believe she was our legitimate property. We sneak off with her… Once safely in the sixth-floor apartment, we settle into the rocking chair and observe the child for a very long time, waiting for a response, a revelation.”

Viviane is deceptive also because it’s rife with mysteries that are never solved. What went wrong in the marriage? Is she experiencing postpartum psychosis? Is the child in danger? How much can we believe of what she tells us, particularly since she doesn’t really believe any of it herself. And yet even without answers, Deck weaves an intriguing web of possibilities.

Viviane made a huge impact on the French literary scene when it was published in 2012, winning the French Voices Award, and Nominated for the Prix Femina, the Prix France Inter, and the Prix du Premier Roman for a first novel. 

June 8, 2014

They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson

they-left-us-everythingWhen Plum Johnson’s mother died, as eldest daughter, she was charged with the task of packing up the contents of the family home. This would be no easy task for anyone, but particularly not for Johnson whose parents’ lakefront house on Oakville Ontario was both enormous and stuffed with the materials of decades and decades of family life (including ancient receipts, her father’s impeccable financial records, antique cans of soup, books and more books, and a wasp’s nest). Johnson left her own home in Toronto and moved into her parents’ house, figuring the task before her would take six weeks or so, but she ended up staying for over a year, an experience she recounts in her memoir, They Left Us Everything.

In some ways, Johnson’s is the kind of story that many readers will relate to–a tale of years of demanding elder care, about the peculiar grief of losing one’s parents and the complicated and surprising emotions which accompany this, about coming to terms with who our parents were and the people we wished them to be. But in others, her family’s story is more, well, storied (so much so that her mother has an entire shelf in their home related to books published by or about members of their family). Her family’s interesting background remains peripheral in this memoir, but informs the fascinating lives of the characters who populate it. We learn about her mother’s privileged upbringing in the American South, her father’s war exploits, the early years of her parents’ marriage in Asia, and their eventual settlement in Canada (which was a compromise between their respective heritages). Not everyone has a huge house on the shores of Lake Ontario to come home to for years and years, and there is a hint of exotic to Johnson’s family’s everyday life that makes for a compelling read. Also compelling is the terrific bond between Johnson and her siblings.

Johnson does a specular job of weaving the personal with the universal here, of making her parents so present in a story about their loss, of untangling the difficult legacy of inheritance—all this stuff, but then it’s everything that’s left of her parents in the world. And so Johnson delves into it all and discovers that she never really knew her parents after all. Her approach is similar to two other books that I enjoyed so muchBaking as Biography by Diane Tye and Outside the Box by Maria Meindl, in which women’s lives are discovered through unlikely archives.

In the end, They Left Us Everything is a literary mishmash just as much as the cupboards in Johnson’s parents house were repositories for every kind of thing. It’s a tale of grief, but also a record of fantastic stories, memorable characters, of family life in the mid-20th century, a scrapbook of fascinating objects, a portrait of family ties, and what it means to be a daughter and a mother. It’s an artfully crafted memoir, and a really wonderful read.

June 2, 2014

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

roxane-gay-an-untamed-stateFor about two-thirds of An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, I wasn’t sure what to think. The book begins with the most majestically-crafted sentence (“Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.”) but then that huge and generous perspective disappears and we’re left with a narrative that moves narrowly between the Before-and-After lives of Mireille Duval Jameson.

Before, ensconced in a fairy tale, confident of her wit and wiles, American born and raised but returned to Haiti, the land of her parents’ birth, her family’s opulent lifestyle conspicuous against the nation’s wider poverty, but this was the only life she knew. And then After, ripped away from her husband and child to be held captive for 14 days and subjected to rape and sadistic violence. From a bubble to a prison then, and while the novel was compelling, there was a flatness to the narrative, its dialogue, and I wanted more in exchange for the violence to which this book’s reader must bear witness—though I will note that the violence is described sparingly, more gestured toward than elaborated upon. Disturbing, yes, but not gratuitous. But still.

And then Mireille is freed (which is not a spoiler) and suddenly, the whole project comes together in the most mesmerizing way and the book became difficult to stop reading. In An Untamed State, the plot is not the point, but rather the point is psychology. First, the psychology of one who is suffering from post-traumatic stress and trauma, as well as the brutal revelation that there is so such thing as safety in the world, not truly. She leaves captivity disconnected from herself—she had to make herself into nothing in order to survive what was inflicted upon her, so how can she get back to the woman was, a wife and mother? Gay’s narrative enacts the processes that Karyn L. Freedman (necessarily, this being non-fiction) more cooly explains in her stunning memoir, One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery. Both books show that trauma is not something one can move on from, but rather that it must be managed and treated on an ongoing basis, like a chronic condition. Which is both heartbreaking, that one never gets over this, but also hopeful—that there is a process at all, and life in the aftermath.

What is most compelling about An Untamed State are the family dynamics that run like fault lines through the entire text. When Mireille is kidnapped, her father refuses to negotiate with them, sacrificing his daughter with his unwillingness to abandon his principles. When she is freed, Mireille has to account for her father’s role in what happened to her, and Gay does a terrific job in making her father a fully-developed, complicated character whose actions are (almost?) understandable, instead of the far more convenient tyrant he could have been. Similarly, her mother’s compliance with her father’s point of view is troubling for her, and even the dynamic she has created with her own husband—she’s hardheaded and hotheaded, prone to running away in hopes of being found, and this time when her husband is unable to find her, the balance between them is upset, perhaps forever. It is remarkable how consistent the characters’ behaviour and actions are throughout the entire novel, and how these actions resonate so very differently in the context of Before and After.

Gay’s allusions to myth and fairy tale add marvellous texture to the novel, and perhaps go some way toward explaining the flatness I was initially confronted with as I read it. There is a deceptive simplicity to the novel that belies its remarkable originality, as does the fact that it’s a really good read. It’s that rare thing—a page-turner whose pages you’ll still be turning in your head long after the book is done.

May 23, 2014

Pluck by Laisha Rosnau, and a giveaway!

pluckHaving finally learned to read poetry has been the greatest revelation. And so I’ve been reading Laisha Rosnau’s Pluck for the last six weeks or so, living with the book, dipping in and out of it, carrying it in my bag. One day after reading it in the sandbox at the park (as you do),  I opened it again while in bed and sand poured out of the pages, all over my duvet, which was definitely inconvenient but perfectly fitting too. Because Pluck is gritty, about nature and domesticity, about the spaces where they overlap, sometimes comfortably and sometimes otherwise. It’s about the spaces where our selves overlap too, the people we are and who we used to be, and who we hope to be, and what we might become.

The first poem I read aloud at the table was “Accumulation,” a poem that plays with language to illustrate the way that stuff builds up around us, particularly when you add children to the mix: laundry and plastic. And the heartbreaking, wonderful, so perfect ending, “Please me, you please, what pleases us, pleases them, again and again–yet/ how can we please each other, do each other justice, just us/ we and us and you and me and all we’ve collected, accumulated/ amassed, a mess, amen–”

These are poems about the chaos of family life, about what we have to prove to ourselves and each other. And this chaos is juxtaposed against a more natural order, a world outside where birds fly into windows and injured fawns show up on the lawn (and even inside the house, above the marriage bed, paintings of great horned owls hang on the wall). There are secrets and compromises in these tidy lives we have made, most strongly expressed in “The Music Class”, formally a variation on the villanelle (I think, though this variation may be its own form) in which a woman takes her child to a music class to discover the child and wife of a man who’d raped her years before: “Out children go to music class/ at the same school I went to as a girl./ We make up a life… then, he kept the radio on and I caught notes/ in my throat when he forced himself in my mouth./ We make up a life,/ Sometimes on instinct. I kicked open the door/ instead of biting down though, if I had, perhaps/ our children wouldn’t go to music class…”

The poems in Pluck are about the desire to create–our own lives, new lives, poetry–and about the way these desires are complementary and otherwise. I loved “Late” about a woman perusing obituaries critically (and I’ve been there–so fascinating): “The women, their lives canned and quilted, baked/ into the memories of their children, and I wonder;/ Really? Is that all that those left behind chose to record?/ I love a canned peach but, good Lord, if anyone mentions/ mine when I am dead, my time was not well spent.”

Pluck is a curious, surprising and absorbing collection, rife with familiar points and then shifts to keep one from getting too comfortable within. It’s a book that interrogates language just as it asks questions of the world, nudges into dark and dusty corners, and illuminates the complicated many-sidedness of love and life.

I was looking forward to this book, and it definitely lived up to my expectations. And so it is to my great joy that I can share the goodness. The publisher was kind enough to send me a review copy of Pluck, but I’d already bought a copy in the store (of course!) so I have an extra copy to giveaway. If you’d like a chance to win it, leave a comment below and I’ll make the draw on June 1st.

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