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Pickle Me This

April 4, 2019

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott

One of the first essay collections I ever fell in love with back when I was first falling in love with the essay was Pathologies, by Susan Olding, who was later kind enough to write a short piece at 49thShelf about the essay form. Olding wrote, “In an unstable world, we want to know what we’re getting, and with an essay, we can never be sure. Partaking of the story, the poem, and the philosophical investigation in equal measure, the essay unsettles our accustomed ideas and takes us places we hadn’t expected to go. Places we may not want to go. We start out learning about embroidery stitches and pages later find ourselves knee-deep in somebody’s grave. That’s the risk we take when we pick up an essay.”

It might be the risk, but it’s also the reason, as demonstrated by Alicia Elliott’s remarkable and now-bestselling debut, A Mind Spread Out On The Ground. A collection of essays that examine stories and ideas from all angles, not one side, or even (more importantly in this age of polarization) both sides, but instead acknowledge a myriad of viewpoints, or points of consideration. These are essays that resist certainty, neat conclusions, simple morals. Instead: there is multiplicity, complication, tension, and this is what makes the book so fascinating. “Sontag, in Snapshots” begins with self image and photography; and then photography and colonialism; Black Lives Matter and video recordings of police brutality; on photography and agency, and also community; cultural stigma of “selfies” and misogyny, and imperial beauty standards; and photography as “a family building exercise;” then landscape photography in Banff vs. the Kinder Morgan pipeline and how some mountains are more worthy than others; and torture a Abu Ghraib; revenge porn; and what it means to have one’s pain witnessed, corroborated. It’s an essay that ends with questions instead of answers, ever expansive, “Why do we need our lives to be witnessed? Why do we need to share our experiences, to have this connection to others? Why do we need to control others so badly and so completely that we will even try to control their image? Is it because we’re trying to make ourselves more real? Is it because that power—as expansive or minuscule as it may be—fills a void?”

As Olding writes, “the essay unsettles our accustomed ideas and takes us places we hadn’t expected to go.”

While Elliott’s essays—which portray her experiences growing up in poverty, as an Indigenous woman, as the child of a mother with mental illness, a teenage mother herself, a survivor sexual assault—recall (in the best way) the groundbreaking work of Roxane Gay in her collection Hunger—a collection that also lays bare the experience of trauma—they are also different in tone. While rawness is a feature of Gay’s essays in her collection, Elliott’s are more processed, polished, synthesized in a way I hadn’t entirely been expecting from someone who (admittedly, in addition to winning magazine awards, being awarded the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Prize, being nominated for the Journey Prize, and appearing in Best American Stories, so we should have seen it coming) has made a name for herself with incisive Twitter threads and having none of your racist bullshit on that particular social media platform.

But with her first book—which is eminently readable, absorbing and hard to put down—Elliott solidifies her reputation as a profound thinker and prose stylist, in addition to being a Twitter powerhouse. Perhaps the tweets are where her rawness is, but readers of her essays will find a voice more cool and discerning, and oh-so-fucking smart. Good luck trying to mess with “Not Your Noble Savage,” a consideration of literary colonialism that is coming at you with receipts (as they say on the Twitter), with Margaret Atwood in an essay claiming that Pauline Johnson (as an Indigenous writer) is not “the real thing,” but Thomas King (“the son of a Cherokee father and a Swiss, German and Greek, ie white, mother”) gets to be. “[L]et’s consider Canada’s history of dictating Native identity,” proposes Elliott, and then this leads to considerations of how Indigenous writers’ work is “policed” by critics, and the charade of reconciliation, and “the fairy tale that keeps Canada’s conscience clear.”

Recalling Olding’s, “We start out learning about embroidery stitches and pages later find ourselves knee-deep in somebody’s grave.”

Oh, the places where these essays take us. She writes about learning the verdict in the Gerald Stanley case, on trial for the killing of Colten Boushie, while visiting the space centre in Vancouver while on vacation with her family, “dark matter” as a metaphor for racism—”it forms the skeleton of our world, yet remains ultimately invisible, undetectable.” I haven’t had lice since February (knock on wood) so was able to read her essay “Scratch” without too much creepy-crawly imaginings. She writes about mental illness, and the Mohawk phrase which describes it, which is where Elliott’s collection gets its name. About being Indigenous while looking white, and her ambivalence about her child receiving the same inheritance; on cultural appropriation and what it meant when she read Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love, the first time she’d read the work of another Indigenous woman—she writes, “Every sentence felt like a fingertip strumming a neglected chord in my life, creating the most gorgeous music I’d ever heard.”

I’ve not even touched on her essay about Toronto’s Bloor and Lansdowne neighbourhood, about gentrification; the one about nutrition, poverty and its colonial legacy; about her marriage (“Antiracism is a process. Decolonial love is a process. Our love is a process…”) About attempting to understand and love her complicated and troubled mother. Her essay, “Extraction Mentalities,” which is a “participatory essay,” something I’ve never encountered before, with literal space on the page for the reader to engage with her questions. And throughout the entire book, really, Elliott has created space to engage with her questions, the entire project infused with this characteristic generosity. To be at once fierce and powerful, but also vulnerable and tender—what a gift that is to her reader. And what a gift this whole book is, strumming a neglected chord that the world needs to hear right now.

April 2, 2019

A Deadly Divide, by Ausma Zehanat Khan

It was uncanny to be reading Ausma Zehanat Khan’s latest mystery A Deadly Divide, a novel about a (fictional) mass shooting at a mosque in Quebec. For obvious reasons, of course, after the terrorist attack in Christchurch, but also because of the voices that are a part of Khan’s narrative in this novel, her fifth one about Detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty, who work as part of a “Community Policing” team investigating crimes involving immigrant communities. (In her previous novel, A Dangerous Crossing, the detectives end up on a Greek island investigating a case involving trafficking Syrian migrants; the first book in the series, The Unquiet Dead, was about the 1995 Srebrenica massacre; Khan holds a Ph.D. in international human rights law).

“I wrote this book because I have long studied the incipient and incremental nature of hate and the fatal places hate often takes us,” Khan explains in her Author’s Note. “I wrote it to illuminate the connections between rhetoric, polemics, and action. To suggest that the nature of our speech should be as thoughtful, as peaceable, and as well-informed as our actions.” The novel includes online conversations between users on a white supremacy chatroom, conversations which one might call “vividly imagined” on Khan’s part in how entirely lacking they are in imagination—or empathy, or understanding. The lines being blurred between fiction and reality as I was reading this book, as I was reading comments from the Yellow Vest Movement’s Facebook pages. The dangerous rhetoric out there, and it’s terrifying, Khan connecting the dots between the things people post and write, all the supposedly harmless provocateurs—her novel features a radio DJ who relishes pushing boundaries and buttons—, the oh-so principled free speechers for whom the right to say anything at all trumps the right for other people to be unthreatened in the places where they live.

Esa and Rachel arrive in Gatineau in the aftermath of the mosque shooting, where a Priest who was found holding a gun at the scene has been released, and a Black paramedic who was praying at the mosque and went back inside after the shooting to help his friends has been arrested. Meanwhile Esa and Rachel an old friend, a student at the local university and a civil rights activist whose work has been catching the attention of a white supremacy organization on campus. And the activist’s ties to the leader of that organization are complicated, and so are Esa and Rachel’s relationship with the head of the police team they’re working with in Quebec. Who is to be trusted? Khan doing her best job yet in the series, I think, of plotting out twists and turns and always keeping her reader guessing—so that this book, which is a social treatise, turns out to also be a riveting detective novel at the very same time.

March 27, 2019

A To the Lighthouse Memoir

“…one of the wonders of Woolf’s novel is its seemingly endless capacity to meet you whenever you happen to be, as if, while you were off getting married and divorced, it had been quietly shifting its shape on the bookshelf” —Katharine Smyth

Lost somewhere in the flotsam and jetsam of Instagram is the post (from who? and when?) that prompted me to put Katharine Smyth’s memoir All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf on hold at the library. It might have been the cover that did it, a wonderful retro Hogarthian design, or maybe just the premise itself, a memoir via To the Lighthouse (and you either go in for such things or maybe you don’t—for the record, I was the target audience for Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch Memoirs framed by reading experiences are so up my middlebrow street). To the Lighthouse is a book I’ve returned to again and again since I first read it in a university class 20 years ago—I was rereading it the summer I wrote my first novel, which is part of the reason why my protagonist ends up reading it for her book club. And the other part of the reason why To the Lighthouse turned up in my book is because of the uncanny way that it (like much of Woolf’s oeuvre) ends up seemingly connected to all things, wrapping its way around our own lives like tentacles. It is a book that one only appreciates more upon acquiring some life experience, and then some, a kaleidoscopic novel that contains multitudes: from Katharine Smyth, “To the Lighthouse tells the story of everything.”

I wonder if anyone who loves To the Lighthouse could write a memoir using the book as a framework—but they would probably not do nearly as good a job of it as Katharine Smyth has. Smyth, who studied at Oxford and took classes with Hermione Lee, who knows of what she writes, and whose prose does not read skimpily alongside Woolf’s own. Smyth is a writer with tremendous descriptive powers, a reveller of words and language—she sent me to the dictionary to look up “tenebrous.” And her own story is not a To the Lighthouse redux, but rather she tells the story of her father’s death—and also the story of her parents’ marriage, of her childhood, of her father’s alcoholism and years with cancer, of their waterfront home in Rhode Island—and it maps onto Woolf’s narrative enough to provide glimpses of illumination, just as Woolf’s own biography—her family’s home at St. Ives, the death of her mother, the devastation wrought by the Great War—illuminates her novel.

If it’s true that we tell stories in order to live, I think that we read them for the same reasons, to discover context, evidence, and meaning. After the death of her father, Smyth goes back to Woolf to better understand what happened to her family, to examine their complicated relationship, to bridge a gap between her memories of him and her life without him (ie [Time passes]). Hers would be an interesting story anyway, and she’s a wonderful writer, but it’s all the richer when regarded through Woolf’s literary lens and so is her reader’s connection to it.

March 25, 2019

A Book That Changed My Mind.

I am open to having my ideas challenged, which I think is also my silver-linings-seeking-self trying to cast in a positive light the fact that the universe has spent the last three years trouncing on my ideals and suppositions to the point where I not infrequently wake up on the night having heart palpitations and despair of humanity in a way I never did before (Luke Perry aside). I may have been wrong, but at least I’m learning, is what I mean, and I try to keep my mind and heart wide open and not succumb to fear, which only makes people stupid, by which I mean ignorant. Because even if I’m wrong, I want to be right (moral, just, thoughtful, etc.) but it’s still not very often that a book will come along and change my mind.

Although I don’t mean 180 degrees—but then this kind of binary this-or-that thinking is what got us into so much trouble in the first place. No, I mean “change my mind” as in a shift, a spark, a new kind of understanding. I’d never read a book by Naomi Klein before No is Not Enough: Resisting the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, which was published in 2017 and I’ve basically been urging everybody I know to read it ever since I read it a couple of weeks ago (and then my best friend got confused and thought I was talking about Naomi Wolf and was worried I’d gone in for chemtrail conspiracies. I was happy to correct her—there’s nary a chemtrail in this entire volume).

I picked the book up because Megan Gail Coles (whose Small Game Hunting.. is such a brave and stellar novel) included it on her recommended reading list “Writing Through Risk,” books that “challenge literary expectations and community norms while demanding artistic honesty and human compassion.” In the book, Klein makes the assertion that the current US President and his chaotic administration are not as aberration, but instead “a logical extension of the worst, most dangerous trends of the past half-century.” Her thesis connects themes that have comprised her literary oeuvre—the hollowness of branding, economic inequality, and “shock doctrines”—to show how we got here from there, and also where we’re going.

And while I still don’t buy the argument that Tr*mp and Hillary Clinton are basically the same—as many people made during the 2016 election—I finally understand how he represents the very worst of the system that she is very much a part of and has profited from. I still think gender plays a larger role here than Klein discusses, especially when it comes to Bernie Sanders, who I think would have seemed less charismatic and impressive were he running against another man. Hating Hillary made it especially easy to love Bernie, I mean. And I mean too that Clinton’s attempts to work within the system would be held against her, even though the fact that she got as far as she did within that system as a woman is incredible and there were compromises she had to make in order to do so (and also comprises that men in her position [such as Secretary-of-State] make all the time and never are these figures so vilified).

But it’s the system, see, as Klein is hammering away at here, that is the problem. Hillary Clinton represents the futility of trying to change the system from within, a system that is rigged, flawed, gamed, and against the interests of most of us. If anything is ever going to be different—and it has to, because the earth is in peril—it’s the system that’s going to have to change.

Which is, of course, not the end of the story, but just the beginning, because how do we get there from here is the question now, but these shifts, I think, are the beginning of that. Asking questions about things we always took for granted, looking twice at parts of the status quo that make no sense at all (such as, who put Bill Gates and Bono in charge of everything?). This is such a smart, illuminating and worthwhile read, and ultimately even a hopeful one—although that might just be my silver-lining fixation showing again. And yes, you should totally read it.

March 21, 2019

Crow, by Amy Spurway

It sounds like a book you might have read before—Stacey “Crow” Fortune leaves her flashy Toronto marketing job behind when she’s diagnosed with untreatable brain tumours and flies home to Cape Breton to face her fate, returning to the chaos of her mother’s trailer and grappling with the struggles of the community she thought she’d left behind. There is death, impoverishment, addiction, and long-buried family secrets—same old sad-sack CanLit, right? But wait. Because Crow, Amy Spurway’s debut novel, is a comedy, both larger than and bursting with life. Instead of a “bucket list”, Crow has a “fuck it list,” items she just can’t with anymore, which includes suffering fools or putting up with anybody’s bullshit. She’s calling it as she sees it, even if she isn’t always seeing it right, and she’s my favourite unabashed, fierce and brilliant heroine who has both a way with language and some neurological issues since Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia in the Netflix series Russian Doll.

Part of the joys of Russian Doll was its ensemble cast, and so too it is with Crow. Crow comes home to her two best friends, Allie and Char (who has also just returned home with her baby whose father is a Congolese diamond smuggler, and who is also deaf in one ear and says most words the way she’d always heard them: “F’eyed known there was a bomb fire, ida brung some bleeding’ marchmallows.” Plus there’s Crow’s mother, Effie, a long suffering housekeeper at the Greeting Gale Inn; Effie’s gossiping sister, Peggy; her old flame and pot dealer Willy the Gimp; plus Becky Chickenshit, Shirl Short, Bonnie Bigmouth, Duke the Puke, and the Spensers, Crow’s dead father’s family who ran the mines that kept the locals in employ (and sometimes killed them) for generations.

It’s a meandering plot, but then what journey towards death isn’t? And there were moments where I wondered if Spurway was really going to be able to pull this off, a comedy novel about serious business with a cast of hilarious misfits that could come close to bordering on caricature. The most incredible material but it requires authorial deftness to do it right—but Amy Spurway is the real thing. Her glorious sentences are something to behold in, from the very first few: “I come from a long line of lunatics and criminals. Crazies on one side of the family tree, crooks on the other, although the odd crazy has a touch of crook, and vice versa. I am the weary, bitter fruit—or perhaps the last nut—of this rotten old hybrid, with its twisted roots sunk deep in dysfunctional soil.”

The adjective “brave” gets thrown around all too often in regards to literature, but I’m going to pitch it here, because it’s right for a variety of reasons. First of all, a book about death—and mental illness, and disability, and abortion, and spousal abuse, and class, and poverty—and the narrative takes no shortcuts or shies away from the hard stuff. I kept waiting for the part where it veered off course or fell into the saccharine, but that point never happened. Crow delighted me and amazed me the further I read, with its freshness, its daring, its refusal to conform (and the projectile vomiting). The bulbs that Crow finds in her mother’s trailer, and what comes up in the spring—it’s all just perfect (but no spoilers). And oh my gosh, the ending—it was literally stunning. The narrative entire is a veritable tightrope walk, a feat that’s performed with style and verve, and it’s absolutely dazzling.

“And then there’s the bigger, more grandiose questions about will happen when I’m gone,” Crow considers. “Where am I going? Anywhere? Nowhere? Somewhere? Somewhere good? Will there be tea and squares and laughing and crying and swearing there, because if there isn’t, well then I don’t want to go.” And you really can’t blame her. After 300 pages in this incredible novel, I wasn’t ready to be finished either.

March 19, 2019

Notes Towards Recovery, by Louise Ells

There is a sense of the foreboding in the first story of Louise Ells’ debut collection Notes Towards Recovery, a story called “Erratics.” “I wonder what’s left,” the narrator wonders, considering the place in Ontario’s Muskoka region where her family had spent their summers during her childhood. “Later, I’d read about the Lindbergh case in one of the Reader’s Digests that lined the bookshelves of every privy on the Lake,” she explains, and she fears for her younger brother from the time he is a baby, as he grows up five years younger than she is, and the story keeps returning to the big rock the children jump from into the lake. Is someone going to get hurt? But what happens turns out to be something the narrator never even thinks to anticipate, and this is a point underlying the stories in this collection, how different fate is from the stories we’re told about who we’re supposed to be, and how far what really happened is from the memories we carry.

Before I read these stories, I was first intrigued by Louise Ells’ biography—working as a chef, a roofer, co-pilot on a submarine, and she would eventually write her doctoral dissertation on the works of Alice Munro. And Munro’s influence shows in these stories, which are very much Ontario stories, most of them set outside of Ottawa in Renfrew County. They are concerned with memory, with history, and are wary of nostalgia. Even in those golden long-ago summers, husbands were cheating, mental illness was ignored, pregnant girls were sent to an aunts, and same-sex relationships were considered deviant. And the protagonists of Ells’ stories are left to grapple with those history, which they struggle to let go of, even with the trauma. Trying to make their way forward into the future: the story “Mirrored” begins: “I thought I’d manage without a map.” Spoiler: It’s not so simple.

I liked these stories a lot, although the collection itself might have benefited from some pruning—the stories near the beginning of the book were stronger than those towards the end, although it might also have been that there are twenty-one stories in the collection with recurring themes and ideas, and they’d lost their freshness as I got to the final third and started to blend together. Or possibly this is a story collection that’s not best read straight through, one story after another. But that is how I read it, not least because most of these stories themselves were strong and compelling. Notes Towards Recovery is a remarkable debut.

March 14, 2019

Heavy Flow, by Amanda Laird

I may read a lot, but it’s never a challenge to name one single title in answer to the proverbial demand, “Name a book that changed your life.” Always, it’s Taking Charge of Your Fertility, by Toni Weschler, which I read ten years ago, shortly before becoming pregnant with my first child. And while I’d had a fairly good idea of how to get pregnant before reading the book, and had even been pregnant once before but completely by accident, there was so much more I didn’t know than what I did about the things my body had been doing for years, things I’d never paid any mind to. I learned things about vaginal mucus that blew my mind, and I’ve never looked back. But I’ve also not thought about it all much deeply a whole lot since, especially since I finished having children. My menstrual cycle, I’ve been thinking, is now pretty much redundant—but then it turns out that fertility is only the tip of the menstrual iceberg. (And there’s an image to keep in mind.)

And then along comes Amanda Laird to inform me of what I’ve been missing, first with her Heavy Flow period podcast (which I’ve become devoted to) and now her new book, Heavy Flow: Breaking the Curse of Menstruation. A book that shatters the myth that fertility is what the menstrual cycle is all about. Laird comes as menstruation from the perspective of a holistic nutritionist (albeit one who was making period-positive zines two decades ago and dabbled as an amateur gynaecologist aka the friend you come to with all your weird period questions), and situates the menstrual cycle in the broader perspective of general health. Because your menstrual cycle (which is about more than just those five to seven days in which you’re bleeding) also impacts bone density, breast health, heart health, and your nervous system. Because your menstrual cycle can be a key indicator of other health problems if symptoms go awry—and if symptoms are always awry (for example, painful periods, which too many doctors dismiss as “normal) it often does mean that something is wrong. Although it’s hard to address those concerns, because of menstrual taboos—even in this period positive age in which access to menstrual products is beginning to be a major topic of political discussion, too many people are still expected to put up with and shut about period pain, and remain in the dark about how and why their bodies do what they do.

(I especially love Laird’s pragmatic view on health, and politics, and everything. In everything she does, she resists binaries, and complicates matters in really intelligent ways, which is altogether rare and refreshing.)

Heavy Flow has been a revelation to me, just as Taking Charge of Your Fertility was a decade ago. I’ve learned why my menstrual cycle is still worth paying attention to (and from the podcast, I’ve been more enlightened about peri-menopause and menopause than many other menstruators get to be), how to advocate for myself to medical professionals, and how things like nutrition and lifestyle can impact hormonal health. I also learned how the fallopian tube got its name—which was the first point in reading this book at which I exclaimed. “Oh my god!” in consternation with the patriarchy but it was not the last.

March 13, 2019

A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle

“Why all of this, my Lord and my God? Either bring the world to an end or remedy these evils! No heart can support this any longer.” Vicky Austin is reading to her beloved Grandfather, who is dying of leukaemia, and is startled when he bursts out with this utterance. And he explains, “Teresa of Avila said that, in the sixteenth century. It should comfort me that there have always been outrages to the Divine Majesty. But it doesn’t.” He points to the headline in a nearby newspaper: “The headline was a plane crash, a big one, with everybody killed.” What is particularly outrageous about the story is that after the people were killed, others had ransacked the wreckage and the bodies for money and valuables—but this is not my point here. Instead I want to talk about the uncanny way that Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin books have been speaking to the moment I’ve been reading them, even decades after they were written.

Because a big plane crash that killed everybody on board was also top of the news yesterday, 18 Canadians among those who perished on the Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed on Sunday. And Vicky Austin talks to her grandfather about how she’s been avoiding the news that summer—it’s been a heady time with her grandfather’s illness and the death of a family friend. And Vicky considers, “But not reading the paper only kept me from not knowing things; it didn’t keep them from happening.”

Grandfather, anticipating Twitter in 1980 (when the book was published), says to Vicky, “Maybe instant information isn’t good for us. We can’t absorb it.” Oh, Grandfather. You have no idea.

These books relationship to time continues to fascinate me, seemingly linear and more straightforward than the Wrinkle In Time series. And yet there is more going on than is immediately apparent—first of all, Vicky Austin’s father and another character in this book have all been involved with the research of Dr. Calvin O’Keefe, who is Meg’s companion (and eventually husband) in the Wrinkle series. Which is to say that they inhabit the same universe. But time also unfolds at a different pace than the Wrinkle books do. This book is also written more than a decade after The Young Unicorns, and yet set just a handful of months later. And finally, there is the incredible sense I have that I’m meant to be reading this books right here in 2019, and the reading experiences I’m having are so visceral. I made a chicken dish the other night that was the same dinner I made when I was reading The Young Unicorns, and I was full of Young Unicorns nostalgia. I’d only read it two weeks before, but still. I’ve found all these books so utterly absorbing.

This one is set the summer following the big road trip in The Moon By Night, after the year in New York that was depicted in Unicorns. The Austins have returned to Grandfather’s island to be with him at the end of his life, but focus is shifted when the family’s good friend dies of a heart attack during a sea rescue. The sea rescue turns out to be for Zachary Gray, who was attempting suicide after the death of his mother (who was cryogenically frozen!). And yes, Zach’s back, and as obnoxious as ever, but Vicky is a year older and able to call out his bullshit in a way she wasn’t strong enough to do before. Meanwhile, she’s found out that she has dolphin ESP and is participating in experiments with Adam Eddington at the marine biology station—not that he ever offers to compensate her for her labour, of course, though the station is a pretty bare bones operation.

Which brings me to gender and the Austins, which has shifted a bit since 1968 when the previous novel was published. I’m not saying that Mother wears pants now (because as we learned in The Moon By Night, Daddy doesn’t like women in pants). But none of her children call her “nothing” in this book for her absence of a profession, and she even contemplates doing something with her life when the time comes that the children are grown and gone. She also mentions “inverse sexism” twice, which is kind of terrible. Advising her daughter Suzy that it would only be “inverse sexism” that cheated her out of her understanding her deserved place in the definition of “mankind,” and also calling it when it’s implied that her choice to leave her musical career for marriage was somehow unprogressive. But that sexism is mentioned at all is a kind of progress, I suppose. Vicky is also much less passive in her relations with the young men who are courting her (three of them!). It’s really clear though in reading these books that Madeleine L’Engle was a decidedly unfeminist writer, never mind Meg Murry’s fierce intelligence and strength of will (and remember that Meg in subsequent books becomes just “Mrs. O’Keefe,” wife of the brilliant biologist).

(It is worth noting that Suzy Austin remains unconvinced about her mother’s explanation for “mankind.” I like that L’Engle leaves the space, the possibility, the question there.)

I would like to know more about L’Engle in relation to feminism, and I wondered if she considered it a dogma worth resisting. All the books in the series so far have been about resisting dogma in the context of religion, even as the books themselves are so religious and concerned with issues of morality and mortality. The underlying message in each book seems to be about the danger of thinking we understand everything, about God and the universe in particular. (A thing Meg Murry’s mother once told her is, “But you see, Meg, just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean the explanation doesn’t exist.”) Vicky recalls her grandfather telling her, “As St. Augustine says: If you think you understand it, it isn’t God.” Not knowing seems to be fundamental to understanding, which to a religious person is the definition of faith, but this idea is applicable for those of us who don’t have a religion too (or those of us who are trying to figure out feminism). Just as darkness goes with light, life with death, all of it bound together, this miraculous world and universe.

March 6, 2019

Autopsy of a Boring Wife and The Matchmaker’s List

It’s been over two years since Marissa Stapley and I sat down to talk about the state of Canadian commercial fiction, and while I’m not sure the genre has yet received the respect that is its due, I’m glad to see there have been changes on some fronts. When I asked Stapley what could be done to promote diversity in commercial fiction and challenge its glaring whiteness, she dared to be optimistic, saying, “There’s room for all the stories. The tent is getting bigger and bigger. It’s exciting.” And here in 2019 there is demonstrable evidence that this is true, not least of all commercial and critical success by writers such as S.K. Ali (who writes YA) and Uzma Jalaluddin, whose Ayesha at Last had its film rights scooped up last year. Finally, commercial fiction lovers are getting the chance to read great books from a diverse range of perspectives—including two titles I’ve loved lately.

Autopsy of a Boring Wife, translated from French by Arielle Aaronson, is by award-winning Quebec writer Marie-Renee Lavoie, the story of a woman whose husband has left her for another (younger) woman, because she’s boring, Diane supposes. Because she can’t even dance: “I was born boring. The gene in question slipped into the double helix of my DNA during conception.” But Diane, of course, is anything but boring, and the narrative follows her through the painful aftermath of her husband’s confession, their separation, and her attempts to reorient herself in this brand new life, which she takes on with aplomb via a sledgehammer to severals walls in her home and antique furniture. She follows her best friend Claudine’s mad schemes to get on the rebound, makes confessions to her therapist, attempts to make a move on a coworker and ends up with losing her boots (this is not a euphemism), gets delicious revenge on her husband’s girlfriend, hides in the pantry while the realtor shows her house, and does her best not to take it all out of her children. And Diane’s incredible love for her adult children is what grounds her, and what grounds this novel that’s full of quirks and zaniness, as Diane talks about how parenthood is a combination of visceral fear and a kind of gratitude.

The novel is written in the first person, mostly dialogue and little exposition, and the reader has to read between the lines to get a real understanding of the extent of Diane’s pain and suffering, sledgehammer aside. (She’s pretty blasé about the sledgehammer. Her neighbours are certainly concerned.) Autopsy of a Boring Wife is slapstick, funny and absurd, but underlined with a tenderness and poignance that will have you rooting for happily ever after after that.

Happily ever after is also the object of Sonya Lalli’s first novel, The Matchmaker’s List, although Raina and her grandmother have different ideas about what that entails. She’s just about to turn 30, which is the age she’d promised Nani (years ago, when 30 seemed an eternity away) that she’d be married, and though she’s still pining for a man who broke her heart and more devoted to her job in downtown Toronto as an investment banker than to finding a new relationship, she agrees to go on dates with a list of eligible men that Nani has selected for her. Which sounds like set-up enough for mix-ups and mishaps, because some of the men are ridiculous, and Raina never holds back on letting them know what she thinks of them, but Lalli throws another wrench in the works when Raina’s Nani incorrectly infers that Raina is gay, which rocks their Hindu-Canadian community and creates even more trouble for Raina. It’s possible the novel is a bit too packed—Raina’s old boyfriend shows up in town; her best friend is getting married and Raina has feelings for a groomsman; Raina’s wayward mother (who had Raina as a teenager, which makes Nani all the more determined to marry her granddaughter off properly) drifts in and out of Raina’s life; and a family friend who actually is gay struggles with whether or not to let his parents in on his secret. But Lalli’s writing is smart and funny, and her characters are refreshingly flawed and multi-faceted, which made reading this novel about family and friendship absolutely a delight.

February 28, 2019

The Homecoming, by Andrew Pyper

What I’ve always loved best about Andrew Pyper’s novels isn’t necessarily their plots, the super suspense, or the scary scenes that have literally kept me up at night. Although all these things are what make his books compelling, of course, and why I’ve been a fan of his work ever since I read The Killing Circle more than ten years ago. But for me the biggest attraction of an Andrew Pyper novel are the human connections, the relationships that make the stakes of the suspense plot so much higher—the father/son relationship in The Killing Circle, the brother and sister in The Damned, and another set of siblings in his latest book, The Homecoming.

Which is a weird book, and it’s obvious from the novel’s opening that something is a little askew. The Quinlan family isn’t quite normal, even beyond the ways in which they know they’re not normal—their father has just died, a figure who was always distant and often absent, and who has invited all of them together to receive their inheritance whose terms require that they spend 30 days at a remote lodge deep in a forest in the Pacific Northwest. And they agree to it, Aaron, a doctor; his sister Franny, a recovering addict grieving the death of her young child; their mother; and their fourteen year old sister Bridge, the person to whom Aaron is closer than anyone else in the world. They agree to it in hopes that the experience will give them answers to the questions they’ve had for years about the man their father/husband was, because what could be worse than so much not knowing?

Turns out: a lot. Other surprise guests arrive at the lodge, it becomes clear they’re all even more isolated than they thought, the woods are haunted, there’s an abandoned Christian summer camp with Satanic graffiti, and someone’s skulking about with a hatchet. Beyond the confines of the forest is a world that might be described as dystopian were it not for its resemblance to the present day, with militarized power, civil strife, and racial divides, all of which makes the action happening at the lodge seem that much more pressing, dire and claustrophobic.

I have to confess to having read a lot of books lately in which a character realizes that “Everything he knows about his life is wrong!” but this one pretty much takes the cake. Indeed there’s a twist, and it’s a wild one, but not a cheap one, and it works, and not least of all because Pyper has creative a huge emotional investment in the relationship between Aaron and his sister Bridge. Their connection makes the twists matter so much more, and underlines the poignance of the novel’s ending. The Homecoming didn’t frighten me as much as it thrilled me and moved me, which is a pretty remarkable combination. I liked this book a lot.

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