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Pickle Me This

July 22, 2020

Summer Reads on the Radio

What a pleasure to talk about books (and swimming, and books ABOUT swimming!) on CBC Ontario Morning today! If you missed it live, listen again on the podcast—I come in at 28.30.

July 10, 2020

The Hollow Land, by Jane Gardam

Last weekend, I had no idea what to read next, which never happens, because I always have this book or that to read for review, or whatnot. I have a pile of new releases that I am definitely excited about, but these were being saved for my holiday. So what? I picked a few books off my shelf and started them, but none of them took, and then I started reading The Hollow Land, by Jane Gardam, a book that’s been sitting on my TBR stack for a while, which I wasn’t even that excited about because sometimes Jane Gardam is hard work (kind of abstract; wholly worth the effort, but can be daunting; maybe it’s just me?).

The Hollow Land was winner of the Whitbread Book Award when first published in 1982, though the fact that it was a collection of linked stories about two young boys didn’t really grab me in theory. I started reading, however, and was hooked—finding the perfect read when you’ve been floundering is a little bit like that sweet relief of being well after an illness. “This book!” I kept exclaiming. So funny, so biting, so delightful. About a rural family in Cumbria whose grandfather’s farmhouse is let to a family from London who come for vacations, leading to all kinds of cultural intersections and misunderstandings. (It is not entirely unlike Schitt’s Creek, to be honest, especially in that polite fun is poked at everybody, and everybody gets to be human.)

Indeed, a collection of linked stories, but more effective than just a gimmick, and they come together to make the book more than the sum of its parts. We return to Bell and Harry as they grow older, as Harry and his family become familiar with the community, and we meet its eccentric characters. It’s pitch perfect, clever and fun, deft and subtle characterization. Kind of like Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches if they were 300% times better…

And then in the last story, the whole book shifts into a dystopia, taking place in a 1999 after the end of oil…but not so much as changed for Bell and Harry in Cumbria—they’ve gone back to plowing the fields with horses, that’s all. An interesting thing too to consider the end of oil in a land whose hollowness comes from the fact it was long ago mined for coal. A dystopian future set in a rural idyll where nothing ever changes, where timelessness is its essence. It’s such a strange and unexpected diversion, but makes perfect sense at the same time.

Just as reading the book did for me.

July 3, 2020

The Moment of Tenderness, by Madeleine L’Engle

It’s a gamble, a collection of previously unpublished short stories discovered after an author’s death, particularly if, as with The Moment of Tenderness, by Madeleine L’Engle, most of these works were written during her wilderness years, after she’d achieved only modest commercial success with her novels and hadn’t yet published A Wrinkle in Time. Even worse, I read her first novel The Small Rain last year, and I thought it was pretty awful.

So what was I getting into with this new book, in hardcover no less, bewitched by the gorgeous cover design, and its prominent display in a local bookshop window?

Mercifully, it all turned out fine. And that nearly all these stories are worlds away from A Wrinkle in Time actually suits me, as I’m much more a fan of L’Engle’s realism anyway. Many of these stories autobiographical and laid out as a coming-of-age, with child protagonists at the beginning, growing older as the stories progress. Many of these feature a character called Madeleine, even married to a man called Hugh Franklin, as L’Engle was, though Madeleine L’Engle’s husband was on All My Children, and the Hugh Franklin in the book runs a general store. (And as always, it is this way that L’Engle blurs fiction and reality that I find as fascinating as any questions posed by sci-fi or fantasy.)

The middle stories were my favourite, New England fiction that channelled Shirley Jackson, who was L’Engle’s near contemporary. One of the stories even features witches. Others recall the works of John Cheever, stories of suburban dissatisfaction. And there’s even a turn to the Southern Gothic–L’Engle had a transient childhood, but roots in the south.

I loved reading this book, though I am not sure it’s necessarily going to appeal to anybody who ever had a thing for Meg Murry. For L’Engle completists however, and also short story fans, there is so much to delight in.

June 26, 2020

Five Little Indians, by Michelle Good

‘Lucy leaned back in her chair, hands folded in her lap. “They call us survivors.” “Yeah.” “I don’t think I survived. Do you?”‘

Cree writer Michelle Good’s debut novel, Five Little Indians—winner of the HarperCollins UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, Good earning her MFA at UBC while also practising as a lawyer—is the story of five Indigenous young people who were taken from their families as children and grew up at a remote church-run residential school where they were subject to abuse and deprivation, and then cast back out into the world with nothing as they came of age—with no skills, no community or ancestral ties. Nothing but trauma, and then what happens next? And the novel is the answer to that question.

Set in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside during the 1960s and decades that follow, Five Little Indians weaves together the stories of Kenny (once notorious for his escapes from the school, a pattern that continues), Maisie (a mother figure for the others, but unable to comfort herself), Lucy (who finds meaning in motherhood), Clara (who finds herself in the American Indian Movement and connecting with the teachings of an elder), and Howie (who struggles to stay out of jail).

The first 100 pages are hard-going, not just because of the trauma they convey, but because the reader is still getting a sense of novel’s structure and the characters themselves too seem to be finding themselves, their feet, and are not as developed as they’ll be in the rest of the book. I will admit that I was wary during these pages that this would be a novel that worked for me, but I am so glad I kept going. Because when Clara’s character takes her turn telling the story, all at once the novel is injected with a furious momentum and energy, the writing in these chapters so artful and confident, and it charges the remainder of the book with narrative magic. And we see that these characters find ways to support each other, to save themselves, to keep going and try to survive and thrive. And sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they don’t.

The point of a book with five protagonists is that there is never just one story, or maybe that one story turns into a different story for every kind of person. This novel also complicates the idea of survival, which is more meaningful in theory than practice, a process that never ends, and which can be impossible. Many of us readers like tidy endings, a story of healing, resolution, but for those who carry the traumatic legacy of residential schools, there is often no such thing. Because how does one reconcile the irreconcilable?

But the end of the book, these characters were firmly lodged in my head, their voices, their connections, their pain and their joys. Powerful and deeply felt, Five Little Indians is both a good read and a literary achievement.

June 17, 2020

The Last Goldfish and In the Shade

“Good reviews…prompt me to borrow a recently-published book on grief from the library. I read the acknowledgements, glance at the author’s photo, and skim the table of contents. Partner, child, parent. Not a word about friends, which causes me to toss it onto the pile of books on my night table.” —Marg Heidebrecht, In the Shade

Thankfully, there is no reason related to my own life for me to pick up two books on friendship and grief, except that they’ve both come out this spring, and also friendship has been on my mind of late. Back in March, it was telephone calls to my closest friends that brought me solace in moments of stress, and my two best friends from high school in particular, friendships whose foundations were born on the telephone, long and pointless conversation, spiral cords wrapped around our fingers, until our parents would finally get on the line, and yell at us to get off.

It’s these connections that Anita Lahey conjures in her new memoir, The Last Goldfish, a monument to friendship and to her friend Louisa who died of cancer when they were 22. A friendship that begin in Grade 9 French class, and persisted through high school in the early 1990s, one’s teen years enriched with so much possibility because of friends, the doors they open for us. For Lahey, Louisa was it, a sparkly personality, with divorced parents who didn’t go to church. But soon their families were each other’s, and they would both go off to university together in Toronto, living together in a co-op dorm at Ryerson, studying journalism. Dealing with other roommates, boyfriends, school and family drama, and also Louisa’s health problems, which would stay in the background for many years, numerous lumps removed from different parts of her body from childhood. Until finally she is diagnosed with cancer, and Lahey continues to be part of her friend’s life, keeping her company during hospital stays and treatments, the hospitals just a stone’s throw away from where they lived and worked, and life goes on. Louisa works at the Eaton’s Centre, Anita at a bookshop across the street, and she gorgeously captures the spirit of the time, of youth and possibility, of life in the city.

When Louisa’s condition worsens, she decides to leave school, and ultimately moves to Vancouver to live with her boyfriend, and Lahey consoles herself that it’s like practice, that she’ll be losing her friend before she actually loses her. Lahey herself on the cusp of her whole life, as her friend is on the verge of losing hers, and she explores this strange conjunction 25 years later, how impossible it was to understand it then or even now.

The connection is different in Marg Heidebrecht’s collection of essays, In the Shade: Friendship, Loss and the Bruce Trail. Heidebrecht and Pam have known each other for years, part of the same community, circles of children. But now the children are grown, and the women are contemplating new horizons. Pam, upon retirement, declares her intention to hike the Bruce Trail, 885 kilometres stretching across southern Ontario, and Heidebrecht decides to join her, the two friends venturing out together and reaching their goal in pieces, over the course of four years. Shortly after their accomplishment, Pam is diagnosed with cancer, and Heidebrecht’s book is a memorial to their friendship, to the power and fortitude of women at midlife, and to the wonders of nature and rewards of walking and hiking. The essays are rich and funny, language sparkling, and the storytelling marvelous, packed with practical advice (stow your water bottles in each other’s backpack side-pockets=GENIUS), amusing anecdotes, and tales of the mistakes and misadventures essential to any journey being memorable.

I loved both these books, which are books about grief, but which are uplifting for the way they capture what is lost, just why the weight of grief is so enormous. Celebrations of women’s friendship, both of them, the kinds of stories that aren’t enough told.

June 11, 2020

The Heart Beats in Secret, by Katie Munnik

There is a convention to covers of books by women, and the cover for Cardiff-based Canadian Katie Munnik’s debut novel The Heart Beats in Secret fits that bill. A woman shot from behind, a dress to suggest the domestic, the house in the distance—and even the title with its secret. A reader might think that they’ve read this book before…but stay with me. What if I told you that Munnik considers among the essential literary companions in her creation of this book not only Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery, but Basho’s haiku? Or that the house in the distance on the cover is haunted by a wild goose?

Not literally haunted, of course, because the goose is living, and Pidge, who has inherited the house on the east coast of Scotland after her grandmother’s death, discovers it in the kitchen. Which makes it difficult for her to perform the task at hand, namely to get the house cleaned out and ready to sell before she heads back to her home in Canada. But then the goose is not the sole distraction—there is a relationship back in Ottawa that Pidge seems ambivalent about, plus the potential for secrets to be discovered amongst her grandmother’s things, for questions to be finally answered.

The narrative moves between Pidge in 2006; her grandmother Jane in 1940 who has just wed a husband who has gone to war, new to a village where she knows no one; and Jane’s daughter, Pidge’s mother, a nurse who immigrates to Montreal during the later 1960s and becomes part of a community supporting midwifery in the Quebec wilderness, arriving at motherhood also along the way. Each of them women venturing into the unknown, connected to each other, but also on her own, a pioneer. Their narratives far from nesting dolls, fitting into one another tidily, but something very different. As Munnik writes in her Launchpad post on 49thShelf, “Because my story plays with the shifting sands of family memory, I discovered I could play with non-chronological detailing, letting the characters and reader learn about events or motivations in different orders…In that way, writing a novel could be like writing a poem.”

This story is slow and quiet, an altogether pleasant read, but this also makes the novel’s interestingness easy to undermine. The strange ways that the three narratives fit together, the inherent mystery in the text, that the answers never turned out to be what I thought they were going to be. For a story so entrenched in the domestic, it’s really not conventional in the slightest. And the storyline of Jane during WW2 was especially resonant to me as I read it during our own anxious times:

“It feels close to the end now, but the end of my tether or the end of the world, I can’t know.”

June 1, 2020

From My Mother’s Back, by Njoki Wane

Want to support a Black Canadian writer releasing a book this spring? Pick up Njoki Wane’s rich and generous memoir From My Mother’s Back, a story that weaves her childhood in rural Kenya with her current experiences as a professor at the University of Toronto, showing the long journey she took to meet her goals, but also how these two parts of her life are deeply connected, and informed by her strong bond with her siblings, her parents, especially her mother, and her ancestors.

Wane writes about the view from her mother’s back as her mother showed her the world, about losing her name and connection to her culture as she attended Catholic boarding school, her passion for learning and teaching, and what it means to be Black in Canada (“It’s like there’s a story written on my skin that I’m not allowed to read.”)

There is wisdom here, as Wane writes of overcoming hardship and also of her struggles. “These are the moments that shape us; these are the memories that carve our future from the woodwork of possibility. Struggle and challenge, appreciation and gratitude narrow our focus define our values and provide us with stillness necessary for grounding.”

It’s a wonderful, inspiring and hopeful read.

May 21, 2020

The Wild Heavens, by Sarah Louise Butler

I was describing Sarah Louise Butler’s debut novel The Wild Heavens last week as, “Like Contact, but about sasquatches.” A novel set in the BC interior that begins with tracks in the snow, tracks that—in the book’s exquisitely written introduction—persuade a man to reroute his life, from the seminary to pursue a career in science, to explore the mysteries suggested by these outsized man-shaped footprints. Faith vs. science, but the dichotomy turned inside out, and what of mythology? The fact of proof. Maybe it was never really such a dichotomy after all.

The man in the introduction is Aiden Fitzpatrick, through the centre of the story is his granddaughter Sandy who comes to live with him after her mother dies, being raised in their isolated cabin in the wilderness where he continues to search for proof of the creature, one who is never directly named in the book, but they call him “Charlie.” Charlie becoming a projection of each characters’ own fascinations, questions and preoccupations. Sandy grows up in the company of a young boy whose mother has found safety on the remote property, hiding from her son’s abusive father. And in some ways, it’s an idyllic way to live, surrounded by love and so much natural beauty, but there are also questions that have no answers, unspoken longings and so much grief.

The novel takes place over the course of a single day as Sandy—now a widow, a mother in her fifties—sets out to finally discover the truth about the creature after discovering its tracks in the snow after so many years. Interspersed between her risky quest to find it are her recollections of her childhood, growing up with her grandfather, falling in love, becoming a wife and mother, enduring loss and heartache, and the draw of the landscape, that creature who’s ever-elusive. And as ever, it’s less about the finding than the searching, about the wonder instead of answers, about the stories we tell about the mysteries both of ourselves and of the world.

May 7, 2020

Writers & Lovers, by Lily King

I was a bit wary of Writers & Lovers, by Lily King. I’d read her previous book, Euphoria, and I remember finding it a bit wanting (I am in the minority in this assessment), but then Maria Semple recommended this new novel on Instagram, and Maria Semple is a person I trust. I started reading it though, and thought: this is a novel that I’ve read before. The young woman who can’t get her life together, hold her liquor and whole makes terrible choices (see The Dud Avocado, Bridget Jones Diary) meets Lucky Jim, but for girls (and it’s different for girls) meets the MFA novel (any work of fiction that references Breadloaf, except for Ducks, Newburyport). “I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say,” our narrator is told on the second page, by the man who owns the property where Casey rents a potting shed that stinks of mould. She bakes cookies in a toaster oven, and almost everyone she ever knew who was a writer has gotten married and/or gone to law school. Casey is 31.

But I haven’t actually read this book before, unless you count Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse where Lily Briscoe realizes her vision. Is Casey a fool or not to believe that she can make it as a writer, that the struggle is worth it, six whole years on a novel that maybe nobody will ever read? She makes money waiting tables at a restaurant in Harvard Square, she’s up to her eyeballs in debt and regret and heartache, and desperately mourning the death of her mother. An older writer (a widow with two young children) invites her into his orbit, clearly with domestic intentions, and maybe this is the answer to all her problems, but there is also the other guy, the one with whom the spark is undeniable—but right before their first date, he took off across the country on his motorcycle.

I am unaccustomed to reading about a woman who is flawed and who takes her art seriously, and I am unaccustomed to art that treats such a woman seriously, instead of as the butt of a joke. The book begins in familiar territory but then takes its reader to unexpected places, to previously unexplored terrain. How do you know you’re going to make it, until you make it, and it reminded me of reading Ann Patchett’s memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, the two of them starting out in their careers, writing to save their own lives. And there’s a lightness to the tone that is possibly deceptive, that any story that’s such a delight to behold must necessarily be less than profound. That any woman who fails to be a perfect candidate must necessarily fail to triumph.

I loved this book, set in 1997, back you had to look up literary agents in guides at the library, and spend your last dollars mailing out your manuscript to the lot of them. A book that, as I said, begins in familiar territory, the usual tropes—the douchebag writer guy who’ll break your heart, the writer waiting tables, the possibly creepy mentor, the writer friend with whom one is in unspoken competition. But this portrait of the artist as a no-longer-young woman does something different and novel with all of these pieces, which is why the story so comes alive on the page.

May 5, 2020

A Match Made for Murder, by Iona Whishaw

If you’ve ever wondered just how much they have to pay me to love the Lane Winslow mystery series as much as I do…the answer is nothing. And never has there been a series quite so easy to love, a series of books that has done wonders for my reputation as a person with good literary instincts, because everyone I recommend the series to loves them too, and that I get to receive a tiny bit of credit for that is marvellous luck. To have any kind of proximity to Lane Winslow is really a wondrous thing.

It never disappoints, this series, whose seventh installment is A Match Made For Murder, and Iona Whishaw has taken her heroine and her new husband on honeymoon to Tucson, Arizona. But first I’ll catch you up a bit, if you’re new to King’s Cove, the small village outside of Nelson, BC, where Lane Winslow—young, brilliant, beautiful, looking for a quiet life after spending WW2 spying for the British—retires in search of a quieter life, but she’s just got this knack for stumbling over bodies. Which brings her close to the handsome Inspector Darling—although in the first book, he’s arresting her on suspicion of murder. All that’s sorted out now, however, and the wedding has finally happened. On her honeymoon, at least, will Lane finally get the rest and relaxation she’s been seeking for the past two years?

But just while Lane is settled onto a lounge chair by the pool, reading a book (Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers, naturally!), a shot rings out, and it won’t be the last one fired before the book is over. It turns out that Lane and Darling are surrounded by couples with complicated arrangements, mob connections, and possibly murderous intentions. Meanwhile, back in King’s Cove, Ames is left to unravel a curious case involving a dead man whose reputation for interfering with teenage girls goes back at least a decade, and when the woman he fancies turns out to have a connection to him, he struggles to retain his impartiality.

As always with Whishaw’s books, the novel is a delight, charming and funny, cozy and enveloping—by page 7, there are already scones. It’s also a wonderful literary homage to the classics of detective fiction, and I love that Nelson, BC, comes with its very own Baker Street. But coziness is not even the half of it—the series takes on race and racism (in this latest book, Nelson has its first Black police officer and Ames comes to understand that he gets to be regarded as an individual, while his colleague is forever representing an entire race), and misogyny, rape and spousal abuse all factor in this story, which is strongly concerned with the enormous power that men had at the time (and still have now) to control the women in their lives, and also with their sense of entitlement to that control. It’s an idea that is present in both Lane and Darling’s minds as they contemplate how their relationship might be different now that they are married—but then neither of them has ever had much taste for convention.

Lane Winslow, of course, will be keeping her name.


I will be co-hosting Iona Whishaw’s virtual book lunch tomorrow night (Wednesday May 6, 7:00 Eastern). I hope you can join us!

And here is Iona Whishaw reading from her new novel as part of 49thShelfLAUNCHPAD.

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