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Pickle Me This

March 1, 2017

May Cause Love, by Kassi Underwood

I never had what Kassi Underwood terms as a “post-abortion meltdown”, which is the sentence I initially planned to open this review with, but then upon pondering I started to recall things I’d long ago forgotten. Such as that in the months after my abortion, I started working with a colleague whose girlfriend was pregnant, accidentally, and they were making a go of it together, and everything about their arrangement made me feel incredibly lonely. I would become unnecessarily preoccupied with the details of their lives. I feared that if I’d perhaps squandered my one chance to have a family. I remember a conversation with my best friend about reconciling feminist principles with my sadness about my situation, and then I remember waking up on the first day of what would have been the last month of my pregnancy and crying hysterically without even knowing why, as though my body knew before my mind did that something had been lost. But I also know that I felt much better after that. And later that year I would get the woman symbol tattooed upon my ankle, as a way to remember without having to actually remember, and it must have worked because all this seems far away and vastly unimportant now. When I look at the tattoo on my ankle, I don’t even remember that my abortion was a reason for it. “My abortion is the foundation of feminism,” is the thing I always say now, and it’s all conflated. My feminism is also a foundation of me. So you see, it’s with me always, even these if days I barely recognize it.

(The interesting thing about the preceding paragraph is that not once do I affirm that in spite of my sadness, my abortion was still the right decision. When I wrote the paragraph, it never occurred to me to do so. And now after, I’ve gone back and tried to insert the sentence, but there is nowhere it fits properly. I’d only be writing it anyway to give assurance to you, my reader, but so now I’m going to do a radical thing and not even bother with that. Inspired by Kassi Underwood’s example, I am going to present my abortion as a thing that happened in my life that is ordinary enough and extraordinary enough to exist outside—and between, above and beyond—the simplified bounds of morality.)

So no, I didn’t have a “post-abortion meltdown” per-se, but then I don’t have Kassi Underwood’s remarkable flair for the dramatic. As a writer, a narrator, and a literary character, she comes across as a person who does nothing halfway, which might explain how she ended up with an alcohol addiction, but then it also explains how she turned her post-abortion story into a spiritual journey, what I’ve been calling the Eat Pray Love of abortion memoirs, the recently-released May Cause Love.

It was a book that made me really uncomfortable in places, which is saying something, because I talk about abortion all the time. But I’ve never talked about how the way that Underwood does, confronting uncomfortable truths about the experience, daring to consider its spiritual aspects. And so this was a book that expanded my mind. She begins her story in childhood, growing up in Kentucky with strong ideas about family and motherhood and the kind of woman she wants to be. It all goes a bit wrong (the love of her life is serving overseas, she’s in her first year at college and gets knocked up by a junkie) and she gets pregnant. The decision to have an abortion isn’t an agonizing one (and I am willing to entertain the notion that it only ever really is on television) but then it’s getting over it that’s the hard part. Acknowledging her sadness at not feeling ready to have her baby at that time, and then having to deal with the same guy having a baby with someone else just a couple of years later—her realization that she could have made a different choice. Getting over her abortion is also complicated though because it’s the urge to make good of her second chance that got her sober, that drove Underwood to make something of herself—who would she be without that drive? The questions she has and the ideas she grapples with aren’t the ones you ever read about in news coverage so fixed on the polarity of the abortion debate, but they’re so much more interesting, and kind, and useful.

The memoir chronicles her experiences learning about the spirituality of abortions, including taking part in a Japanese ritual for mourning abortions, to a Catholic post-abortion retreat (which is kind of horrifying, but Underwood’s lack of judgement is admirable [ps I now have this fantasy of telling pro-lifers that I’m not judging them, the same way they like to tell me that, and just seeing what they make of that]), a witchy Jewish circle of wild women helping her release her burden, meeting with an abortion grief specialist, and taking a five-day vow of silence in an isolated cabin in Vermont. She yearns to make peace with her decision, to find her way forward in her life, and to reconcile the seemingly contradictory experiences of her abortion—that the experience of pregnancy meant something to her, that her baby was a baby, that if she hadn’t had an abortion her ex-‘s daughter wouldn’t be alive today, and that somehow her abortion had been an act of love.

May Cause Love is a strange book, not just in terms of subject matter, but in structure and tone. As a narrator, Underwood is tricky, breezy, rendered unsteady sometimes in present tense instead of steeped in context and explanation. She’s also completely audacious, in the most incredible way—imagine not only not apologizing for owning your own soul, but demanding to be transported to a higher plane. It was so refreshing and illuminating to read about abortion in these terms, and while the storyline about the boy she spends years hung up was much less compelling to me than everything else, sometimes that’s the way that life goes. And life itself is full of surprises, just like this remarkable book.

February 26, 2017

Son of a Trickster, by Eden Robinson

I went to see Eden Robinson at the Toronto Reference Library at the beginning of the month where she was in conversation with Miriam Toews. It was a perfect pairing, these two understated, seriously brilliant and totally hilarious writers together, and many of their sentences would trail off into hysterical laughter. The effect of all this being that when I finally picked up Son of a Trickster, its voice in my head was Toews’ cool easy cadence. This is not a complaint. Like Toews does, Robinson’s work is an uncanny breezily brutal, absurd humour juxtaposed with weighted tragedy, and there doesn’t actually appear to be anything of a juxtaposition at all.

I loved Son of a Trickster, the first novel in ten years by Haisla/Heiltsuk Robinson. (“Her two previous novels…were written before she discovered she was gluten-intolerant and tend to be quite grim,” so goes her cheeky author bio.) At her TPL event, Robinson explained that this is a novel born of the 2008 financial meltdown, a problem that didn’t affect Canada so extensively, except for in small pockets we don’t hear about a lot, such as Robinson’s hometown of Kitimat, BC, where 535 workers lost their jobs when the pulp and paper mill closed in 2010. It’s in the aftermath of this that we find her main character Jared, sixteen-years-old and doing his best to keep things afloat. He makes money baking pot cookies and selling them to his classmates, but then he turns that money over to his father’s landlord so he won’t be made homeless as he struggles with addiction. Which Jared’s mother can know nothing about, because she’s terrifying (when she discovered a former boyfriend beating up Jared, she attacked the guy with a nail gun, fastening him to the floor) and if she finds out Jared is supporting the father who abandoned them, he might have (justifiable) reason to fear for his life.

The novel begins when Jared was small, when his parents were still together and in love, and it would be his father’s job loss at which point the whole arrangement falls apart. Although all was not always idyllic—his maternal grandmother had never liked Jared, as we learn in the novel’s first sentence. “‘Trickster,'” she tells him. “‘You still smell like lightning.'” As Toews herself pointed out at the event with Robinson, the title of the novel suggests it’s not exactly a spoiler to say that Jared’s grandmother might be onto something. And this book, the first of a trilogy (yay!), is the story of Jared’s journey to realizing exactly what that is. As he continues to hold his family afloat, suddenly the things he’s known to be true are revealed as fictions, and stories themselves take on a disturbing realism. About two thirds of the way through Son of a Trickster, a reader will feel herself stuck inside a Stephen King novel, which I mean in the very best way possible.

I loved it. The dialogue was so sharp and real, easing back and forth like a squash game at which everyone’s stoned, but never ever missing its mark. The characters are heartbreakingly realized, with soft spots and sharp edges, fuck-ups, and triumphs. I’d read reviews that the plot was uneven, but I didn’t experience it that way. While the book didn’t exactly fly by, I didn’t want it to. When I got to the end, I wanted there to be more, and thankfully there is more.

Next book, please.

February 13, 2017

Lillian Boxfish Take a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney

The book everybody’s talking about this season, in my circles at least, is Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney, which I first saw described as Mad Men meets Mrs. Dalloway, or, in other words, as a love letter written directly to my heart. Mad Men because Lillian Boxfish worked in advertising, albeit thirty years before Peggy and Joan, writing copy for R.H. Macy, and she achieved some fame as the highest paid ad woman in America, as well as for her books of Dorothy Parker-esque light verse which sold well in their time. And Mrs. Dalloway because of how the novel is framed in a similar fashion, around a single evening, the last night of 1984 as Lillian Boxfish—old as the century [or actually a year older than that, if you want to get really specific, although she doesn’t]—walks around the New York City she’s seen change around her over the decades. Places on her walk prompting flashbacks to the fascinating story of her career, her marriage, her fame, and various downfalls. In some ways, this is a very easy book, definitely a breezy book, but that to use that point as a dismissal would be to ignore the richness of its language. This is the first book I’ve read in a while which had me pulling the dictionary off the shelf to look up new words, and that makes perfect sense, not just in that Rooney herself is a poet whose attention to language is unsurprising, but so too is her character, Lillian Boxfish (inspired by real-life figure Margaret Fishback). Which reminds me of what Joan Didion wrote about her time working at Vogue where, she writes:

“…I learned a kind of ease with words…a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page. In a caption of, say, eight lines, each line to run no more or less than twenty-seven characters, not only every word but every letter counted.”

Looking back at her life, Rooney has Lillian Boxfish contemplating the way the public’s relationship to words have changed, the way that the ads she wrote in the 1930s assumed a level of cleverness and awareness of language that contemporary advertising no longer seems to aspire to. Where she finds that same sense of fun and play with language, she remarks, is in the rap music she hears on the streets of New York, a city that’s so much grittier and dangerous than the city she arrived at in her youth. And yet all of it still draws her in, the sounds, the sights, the people all stirring her curiosity. She strikes up conversations and always asks a person’s name, and they get talking, and the moral of every single one of their stories is that people are people, regardless of time or place. Lillian Boxfish sees the humanity, the beauty, in all of it. And so we get to too.

February 5, 2017

Birds Art Life, by Kyo Maclear

“…what he really taught me was that the best teachers are not up on a guru throne, doling out shiny answers. They are there in the much beside you: stepping forward, falling down, muddling through, deepening and enlivening the questions.” —Kyo Maclear

In her book, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, my friend May Friedman refers to the value of “critical uncertainty in practice,” as opposed to “the generalizing trap of expert discourse.” Indeed the best blogs, and life itself, are all about “stepping forward, falling down, muddling through, deepening and enlivening the questions.” And while Kyo Maclear’s new memoir, Birds Art Life, is no blog—its prose is polished perfect; by design, the book is an object most exquisite—it has a bloggish spirit, with its wide vistas, room to wander, and the miraculous and serendipitous way that one thing seems to lead to another.

It’s not a book about birding, or even discovering birding—it’s a book that’s far more vicarious, and stranger than that. Here is a book about a year Maclear spent hanging out with a birder, figuring out what makes him tick. Developing a passion for birds in the process, but that’s not the point of this memoir. Yes, there are birds, but it’s also about family, and history, about caregiving, marriage, waiting, reading. About darkness, and prisons, and action in dangerous times. It’s about cities and nature, about the hearts of things and also their edges.

“Life and death. Survival and extinction. The common and the rare. The robust and the disappearing. I had come to see that birding was about holding opposites in tension. It elicited a twoness of feeling—both reassuring and dispiriting—especially in a city where so little landscape had survived modernity’s onslaught. In that twoness was a mongrel space between hope and despair.” —Kyo Maclear

I’ve loved Kyo Maclean’s work since reading her first novel, The Letter Opener, in 2008. In 2012, she released her second novel Stray Love along with the picture book, Virginia Wolf, and created a list at 49thShelf of Picture Books for Grown-Ups, and what I love about Birds Art Life is that she’s now herself created such a thing. First, because the book is illustrated with photographs of birds by her birding friend, Jack Breakfast, and also with Maclear’s own line-drawings, which add whimsical charm to the pages in a the fashion of Maira Kalman. And second, because of how the stories in this memoir contain echoes of her picture books, works that are so rich in thoughtfulness and wisdom—and now grown-up readers get to read it all too.

But it’s a particular kind of wisdom. I feel as thought Maclear herself would feel uneasy with being declared as wise, but it’s the kind of wisdom she’s talking about in the excerpt I quoted at the beginning of this post. The kind of wisdom that comes from falling down, from enlivening questions, rather than supposing there are even answers.

The year Maclear captures in her memoir is a dark one, although it comes with requisite moments of light. But she’s been caring for her father during a period of illness; she’s still negotiating her relationship with her mother; she worries about her younger son and identifies with his anxiety; close to the end of the year, two close friends of their family are imprisoned in Egypt and news of their fate is held in fear and uncertainty. And as I read this book yesterday, I was thinking that this is precisely the very book I need to be reading right now, not to escape from the things outside my door that make me afraid these but instead to “enliven the questions.” A book that—like so much that I’m reading these days, like so many books that are saving my life—helps me negotiate that space between hope and despair.

Leaning towards the hope, even.

January 30, 2017

Among the Ruins, by Ausma Zehanat Khan

What an absolutely crazy, awful and perfect week to be reading Ausma Zehanat Khan’s third novel in her series about Detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty, Among the Ruins, which is published on February 14. Khan’s first book, The Unquiet Dead, won an Arthur Ellis Award, and I read her second novel last summer. In her latest, Khattak is on leave from his job with Canada’s Community Policing Department and has stolen away to Iran on his Pakistani visa, an escape from his troubles at home and a chance to reconnect with his cultural heritage. He has visions of taking in gorgeous sites and and eating delicious food, but any expectations of a holiday are disappeared when he realizes he’s being followed. Turns out a Canadian-Iranian filmmaker, Zahra Sobhani, has been murdered at a notorious prison and Khattak is quietly urged by the Canadian government, on behalf of a shadowy middlewoman, to find out what happened to her. Zahra Sobhani’s work had focussed on Iran’s Green Movement, which contested the results of the 2009 elections after a surge of populism and demands for democratic reform. The regime came down hard on these dissidents, but Zahra Sobhani would have thought her Canadian citizenship might have protected her—so why didn’t it? Khattak considers this question and becomes involved with a group of young people who’d been involved in the Green Movement, this line of narrative providing a powerful perspective on what it’s like to fight for freedom under an oppressive regime. Meanwhile, Khattak’s also receiving mysterious letters from someone who seems to be a political prisoner, and there are aspects of Zahra Sobhani’s death that refuse to make sense. Back home in Toronto, his partner Rachel Getty is perusing her own investigation involving crown jewels and an archivist at the Royal Ontario Museum, stolen jewels and a smuggling operation on the Caspian Sea.

It’s a mystery whose plot(s) take the shape of something created by a spirograph, which makes it all a little bit difficult to follow at times. This along with devastating sections of the narrative from a character being tortured and raped in prison mean that this isn’t a mystery you’d ever call “cosy,” but then I don’t know that a work of detective fiction has ever been more urgent and relevant than this one. Khan is a gorgeous writer, her sentences shining, and she so vividly evokes an Iran of striking contradictions, of beauty and ugliness, of progress and backwardness, of people who are repressed but who also own themselves in the most courageous, remarkable ways. With a PhD in International Human Rights Law, Khan writes from a remarkable foundation and knowledge of the implications of the stories she tells, and this underlines these stories with so much power.

Most powerful of all though: for readers to enter the mind of a Muslim-Canadian character. Not such a leap, really, but it certainly informed my perspective as I heard the news last night of a shooting at a mosque in Quebec City. Thinking of Esa Khattak: “He’d been cautious since he’d chosen the police as a career. Careful and measured consideration was the only way he knew how to answer the assumption of Muslim rage… Whether he enjoyed living his life on these terms when he could have been at ease, expressing the different sides of himself, the things that have enriched him, enriched, he believed, the fabric of his nation, was a separate question.”

January 16, 2017

Take Us To Your Chief, by Drew Hayden Taylor

I absolutely loved Take Us To Your Chief, by Drew Hayden Taylor, which was just as fun as its cover promised, and meaningful in a way I should have expected. Because while there is indeed something incongruous about First Nations’ science fiction, it’s only because I’ve never read any, not because it doesn’t make total sense. Is there a cultural group more familiar with notions of alien contact and invasion, for example, as in “A Culturally Inappropriate Armageddon,” in which broadcasters at a community radio station inadvertently summon attention from extraterrestrial beings? In “I Am…Am I,” scientists manage to create artificial intelligence, and the being (who is fed encyclopedias of knowledge) is drawn to notions of First Nations culture for its notions that all things, in fact, have souls, because the alternative is too hard to bear. In “Lost in Space,” an astronaut contemplates being Native in orbit: “What happens when you aren’t able to run your fingers through the sand along the river? Or walk barefoot in the grass? Or feel the summer breeze blowing through your hair?”

In “Dreams of Doom,” an Ojibway journalist learns that dream catchers are a government conspiracy, actually devices to spy on and control First Nations people and keep them in line: “You will notice that since Oka and Ipperwash, other than a few flare-ups here and there, things have been relatively quiet.” In “Mr Gizmo,” a suicidal teenage point is given a wake-up call by a toy robot, in keeping with his culture’s understanding that all things are imbued with a soul (including, awkwardly, your toilet). The narrator of “Petropaths” is a man whose troubled grandson learns to travel through time via ancient codes in petroglyphs. In “Superdisappointed,” the shockingly common conditions of housings on a First Nations reserve (houses with mould, substandard drinking water) causes a chemical effect that renders one man an actual superhero. And finally, in the title story, three reticent Objbway men are taken as ambassadors from Earth when aliens arrive on the planet.

I’ve cited nearly every story in the collection here because they were all of them hits, no misses. I read this book exclaiming at how fun it was, and appreciating the way in which Taylor plays with sci-fi tropes, and that each story pursues such a different line. And yet this collection is not merely an exercise in whimsy either—Taylor’s stories are fervent arguments as to the continuing tragedy of colonialism, which seems to be a solid through-line from the past and right into the future. Familiar ideas then, to those who’ve been paying attention, but the point is that too few are paying attention and maybe more might be with this fresh and utterly engaging context.

January 8, 2017

How I Spent my Christmas Vacation

It was three Christmases ago that I spent my holiday immersed in Hermione Lee’s brilliant biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, one of those perfect reading experiences you never quite get over. In homage to that, I had a vision of devoting my holiday this year to biographies too, because biographies require wide windows of time and focus and I can’t always accommodate such things in my ordinary life. But on holiday, I can, so I was all set to read Robert Kanigel’s biography of Jane Jacobs, Eyes on the Street, which I bought back in October, and also Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson biography, A Rather Haunted Life, which I’d had an inkling would be under the Christmas tree. Ross King’s Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet, and the Painting of the Water Lilies, had not been part of the plan, but then we went to see the Mystical Landscapes exhibit at the AGO on Christmas Eve, and I have to tell you that I only had the vaguest sense of Monet and his water lilies beforehand, but the whole exhibit was a little bit life-changing. And Ross King’s biography has the most gorgeous design ever, the title fonts inside were gorgeous, and Chapter One was called “The Tiger and Hedgehog”. So I kind of had to, right?

It all turned out so wonderful, each life story captivating and connected in curious ways. Even more oddly, I’d gone offline for the week after Christmas (hence all the time for reading) and we were doing the Globe and Mail holiday crossword at the same time, and I kept coming across answers in the book I was reading—Hammurabi’s Code was something Jane Jacobs studied in her continuing ed courses, and then I got a synonym for “crafty” from translation somewhere in the Monet book, and also knew that Rodin was the sculptor from another clue. As always, the way that books speak to each other is always strange. What to say then about these three? That they’re all about three brilliant people who weren’t conventionally attractive, and it’s funny how the latter point is spoken in such lovable terms with Monet but with the women it’s an altogether different matter. Each character lives through a world war, Monet quite directly with World War One in France (and it’s fabulous to read about his insistence in his painting being included as “war work,” not just for reasons of nationalism, but also because it would ensure he received extra rations of petrol and cigarettes), and both Jane Jacobs and Shirley Jackson (via her husband) would come under suspicion  of the McCarthyites. Jane Jacobs was shaped by coming of age during the Great Depression and Jackson by marrying a Jewish man with a terrifying awareness of the genocide being wreaked upon European Jews at the very same time, an awareness that would continue to haunt her.

I’ve spent most of my life with a blithe sense of living outside of history—I was ten in 1989 and everything after that was supposed to be easy, and not even 2001 and everything after would deter that sense until very recently. And what I really appreciated from these three biographies was what it showed about ordinary lives through vast historical backdrops, mainly that it goes on, and also that society’s pendulum swings. World War One, and Monet is painting and art still matters (and even matters more) and Jane Jacobs in the 1960s, which was not quite the utopia I’d figured it as, all Summer of Love and civil rights. No, I hadn’t been thinking about the fight before it was won, that before the win it was all fighting. And like right now, it was a time of a divided America, a country at war, racial tensions, riots in the streets, so much injustice. Ours is not a brand new story, is what I am saying, and these three books offer remarkable context to the world we’re living in at this very moment.

This from Jane Jacobs: “I resented that I had to stop and devote myself to fighting what was basically an absurdity that had been foisted upon me and my neighbours.”

Another point that links these figures is that all lived vital, creative lives while firmly ensconced in a domestic scene, surrounded by children—although Monet, of course, is the only one whose stepchild basically devoted herself to subservience in order to facilitate his creative life well into old age; Jane Jacobs’ grown son, on the other hand, would decide to start a business importing bicycles from China but the bikes arrived disassembled and his parents were recruited to assemble 30 of them from directions written in Chinese. Not that his mother wasn’t happy to do so, but still. It’s funny to read about Robert Kanigel’s (whose previous biographical subjects have all been male) fascination with Jacobs being a wife and mother—that she did all she did, and made dinner too—not that her status as mother wouldn’t be used to dismiss her work, the ideas of a woman who was just a mother, oh no! Which reminds me of Shirley Jackson filling out a form at the hospital before she gave birth to her third child, when she wrote “writer” under “occupation” and the nurse changed it to “housewife.” But yes, for Jackson and Jacobs both, their domestic lives fuelled their creative work.

Interestingly, both Jacobs and Jackson lived in Greenwich Village too and frequented Washington Square Park, but a decade apart. I don’t think they ever hung out. And never with Monet—at least not until this blog post, of course.

January 5, 2017

Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy

For me, the experience of reading Deborah Levy is a disorienting one, nothing immediately obscure and yet nothing is familiar either. Or maybe it’s that everything familiar is made a bit foreign under her curious lens. I have a copy of her non-fiction book Things I Don’t Want to Know, and while I’ve read it at least three times and even like it, I’ve never finished it. And I wonder if some of my difficulty comes down to her being South African—I had a similar problem with Katherine Mansfield; do writers writing in English from the Southern Hemisphere always read a little upside downly? Even though Levy is South African by way of England and for many decades, and certainly has an English sensibility too. I read her acclaimed novel Swimming Home in 2012, and don’t remember anything about it —possibly because I was eight weeks pregnant when I read it, an experience which never does much for me as a reader. Although my review reveals that I felt the same about it as I do about her latest book, Hot Milk: “At its murky depths…the trick isn’t to underline just what is significant in the text, but instead to understand that everything is.” Except that I went on to say that Swimming Home wasn’t immediately satisfying, but oh, Hot Milk was. Oh so much. An entirely excellent way to start off my 2017 reading year.

I wasn’t really sure though until about two thirds of the way in that with this book I was on solid literary ground. Where was the method, I wondered, in so much weirdness? Under-socialized daughter who happens to be a trained anthropologist (non-practising) arrives in Spain with her hypochondriac mother who claims to suffer from paralysis in her legs, at least sometimes. Daughter Sofia takes her mother to bizarre clinic with eccentric doctor, and embarks upon affairs with both the man who works in the injury hut on the beach (tending to her jellyfish stings, jellyfish in local parlance referred to as “medusas”) and an uber-cool German seamstress who embroiders a word onto a silk shirt and gives it to Sofia who thinks the word is “beloved.” The notion of being beloved empowers Sofia to be emboldened—and she flees to Greece to see her estranged father who lives there with his wife (an EU economist who is a disciple of austerity, who is just a few years older than Sofia) and their very young child. And it is here where she has an epiphany:

“‘My father only does things that are to his advantage,”‘ Sofia tells her father’s wife.

“She stares at me as if I am crazy. And then she laughs. ‘Why would he do things that are not to his advantage?'” 

This being a novel by Deborah Levy, what happens next isn’t entirely straightforward, but the entire narrative with all its different components (“When I started to write Hot Milk,” she says, “I asked myself: what are the dominant stories in 2014? And I thought they were debt, austerity, big pharma, migration, sexual identity and illness.”) But the brilliant thing is how they all come together, like stars in a galaxy, the image the introduces the novel, although the galaxy is on Sophia’s screensaver instead of in the sky—and also fractured into pieces because she’s dropped her laptop on a concrete floor and shattered the screen. Woven throughout the prose are lyrics from “Space Oddity” and David Bowie and his music (and his image) turn up through the book. And then the scene in which Sophia finds her mother’s footprint in the sand, as monumental as those discovered by another anthropologist, Mary Leakey in 1976—what they reveal about where we come from, who we are—is beautiful and awful

This is a novel about mothers and daughters like you’ve never read before, about selfishness and selflessness, about sea and sky, about all those things that are connected. Or not: “The tendrils of the jellyfish in limbo, like something cut loose, a placenta, a parachute, a refugee severed from its place of origin.”

Or someone sitting in a tin can, just say. Far above the world.

December 19, 2016

A Paradise Built in Hell, by Rebecca Solnit

One day in October 2014, a man with a gun entered Canada’s parliament buildings shortly after murdering a Canadian soldier standing guard at the national war memorial. The man with the gun had a history of drug addiction, mental illness, and also pledged allegiance to a terrorist “state.” Thankfully, he was taken down before he hurt anybody else, and afterward there were the usual discussions about religious extremism and one religion in particular. A year later, Canada’s Conservative Party was counting on leveraging fear from this incident and others to win another election. They had been slow in accepting refugees from war-torn Syria anyway (and had taken away healthcare from refugees altogether, in a move that defied both logic and human decency), which made it seem personal to Canadians when the body of a small Syrian chid washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and was photographed in a devastating, iconic image.

Determined to stay their course all the same and make it clear how they really felt about multiculturalism in general and Islam in particular—or rather to play to the very worst parts of people’s fears, frailties and debased humanity in order to win votes—the Conservatives gambled on a novel concept, a Barbaric Practices Hotline, wherein Canadians could report their neighbours…for suspected cases of genital mutilation, apparently?? (Who ya gonna call?) An idea that was so preposterous that I still can’t believe it really happened, let alone that the public faces of this idea are continuing to walk around in public (encouraging citizens to “lock up” democratically-elected leaders, no less [but just the female ones. Not that gender has anything to do with it.]).

It was utterly bananas. It was…like waking up one morning and discovering that some clown called Donald is President of the United States. And then against all predictions, against the odds, Canadians in huge numbers shot down that shitblimp and the Conservatives were out. Because for a few weeks there, we didn’t recognize the country we lived in. Because it was difficult to imagine the lows these people would stoop to in order to get power (and you have to wonder if it would be worth it. That you’d have to break something so irrecoverably in order to make it yours. What would it be like to triumph in that fight? Where would lie the satisfaction?). The Liberal Party’s victory on October 19, 2015, I thought—nearly a year after that deranged man had broken into Parliament with a gun (and I’m not going to say he “stormed it,” because he was literally one guy with a gun, and that’s not a storm. That’s something weird falling out of the sky)—was not necessarily for the Liberals themselves, but it was against the awfulness that election had brought us. It was Canadians standing up and declaring that this is not who we are. It was all of us being determined to be something better than what the Conservatives had offered, which was a vision of our very worst selves.

These visions are important, as Rebecca Solnit writes in her 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. These visions of who we are, and what we can do, and what we will do. The prevailing view, she writes, of a community in a moment of disaster being that people will panic—riots in the streets, mass slaughter, every man for himself. A vision built on fear, the same way the Canadian Conservative Party erected their 2015 election platform on fear. But what if, Solnit proposes, these perceptions of human nature are wrong? Going back over historical disasters from the last 100 or so years—the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Halifax Explosion in 1918, the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, and the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina in 2005—to find a different kind of narrative. A narrative that is actually prevalent and proven in the “disaster studies” field, which is that in moments of crisis, people come together, support each other, and that new communities and ways of being can actually emerge.

Where there is panic, Solnit writes, is in the realm of the elite and bureaucratic. Rigid systems fail, precarious structures crumble, powerful people freak out about the prospect of the populous realizing they’ve got true agency—and it’s here where the chaos comes in. Armed forces were sent into San Francisco in 1906, just as they were in New Orleans in 2005 along with private security firms, and these forces caused huge problems, viewing community members as an enemy, and being completely out of touch with social dynamics. The trouble comes from improperly equipped firefighters charging into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, all the while people in the buildings were facilitating their own evacuation (against official orders, even—many had been told to go back to their desks and wait), carrying disabled colleagues down 69 flights of stairs, proceeding in an orderly fashion, saving so many lives.

In her book, Solnit writes to open our eyes to other possibilities of human nature. That perhaps we can be our best selves, that maybe our best selves are even who we really are. It’s a heartening read at this moment in time when the western world seems intent on its own disaster course, and when populists are preying on our very worst tendencies. At a moment when the fall of the Canadian Conservatives in 2015, along with their racist, divisive platform, seems like an anomalous blip, right-leaning, xenophobic politics creeping into the mainstream—or one might even say “storming.” When the very people who touted the Barbaric Practices Hotline are not lying low in abject shame, as one might expect, but are gunning for leadership of the Canadian Conservative Party, the saddest, most dispiriting, race-t0-the-bottom-ish contest I’ve seen since, well, Ted Cruz was knocked off his weirdo throne or that smarmy fucker Nigel Farage quit the UKIP in triumph.

It’s easy to play these kinds of politics. I mean, not from a moral point of view (how do these people sleep at night?), but it really doesn’t take a lot of effort to put a bunch of people together and encourage them to be angry and full of hate. Because, as Solnit writes in her book, our most basic tendencies are perhaps a yearning to belong to something and to each other. We want a sense of purpose, a reason. I was one of thousands and thousands of people around the world who, on September 11 2001, lined up for ages—for nothing, it would turn out, but still—at a blood donor clinic. We wanted to do something. It’s the reason so many Canadians have donated time and money for the past year to support the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who began to arrive in Canada shortly after the Liberals took office—my friends and neighbours have been a part of these efforts, my mom has, Canadians in towns small and large, in communities already multicultural or otherwise. It’s the reason why, when I came across a small car accident the other week, before emergency services had arrived, passerbys were supporting the cars’ occupants, employees from the coffee shop on the corner had brought out chairs and food and water, and I stood there entirely superfluous and wanting to be a part of it, a bit sad to realize I didn’t have to be—my neighbours and fellow citizens had it covered.

There were also people walking by snapping photos on their phones. This was morbid and weird and kind of terrible, but there are always going to be people like this, people who are self-serving, messing stuff up, playing the system. Caitlin Moran writes about this in her new book, about how there are always going to be people who play the system, that this is who people are just as much as the helpers, but this is no reason to tear down institutions altogether. If we wrecked all the systems that people had cheated, where would that leave the parliament of any country in the world, or the Catholic Church for that matter? See also Solnit on “looting” (when black people do it) and “requisitioning of goods” (when white people do it) and the efforts that were devoted to protect things and property in New Orleans in 2005, sacrificing actual people’s lives. All of which is to say that these things are complicated, and nuanced, and it’s much easier to stand before a group of people and smirk and wave as they start chanting LOCK HER UP.

It’s all the same impulse though, the same yearning for connection and meaning. And I take heart in this. The impulse is there, and what if we can “leverage” that, then we can all be better. And how to make that happen? Solnit writes about increasing community connections, investing in social capital, enabling community infrastructure that permits people to share spaces and things, to congregate, to create a vital public life. It’s about giving people opportunities work together, to know each other, and to be empowered to create their own solutions to local problems. Governments can take heed of this, I think, and invest in these kinds of initiatives to bring people together instead of divide them. And on the individual level, all of us can be empowered already with an understanding of the roles we can play—it’s making eye contact and smiling at people in the street, saying hello your neighbour, leaving a holiday gift for your letter carrier, making friends at the park, using the library, supporting community-minded businesses in your neighbourhood. By being the change you wish to see in the world.

December 4, 2016

I regret the cake

img_20161107_131601They say that over the course of a lifetime you never regret the cakes you baked, but instead the cakes you didn’t bake, although in one specific case I will make an exception—except I am also sorry for the butterfly cake I brought to a party in 2000 that was mostly paste, and the cake I over-mixed for my friend’s engagement in 2008 that had the consistency of cheese. But not this sorry.

I regret the cake, the Hillary Clinton victory cake I baked on November 7.

“If all else fails, there will be cake,” I blogged blithely, but it turned out that the cake didn’t taste very good. When I’m really upset, I don’t have an appetite for anything, and so that sad cake hung around our kitchen getting stale and eventually I threw it in the garbage. The day after the election, I had a task that involved cutting out thirty small squares of paper and using a hole punch, and it was about all I was up to. I sat there at my kitchen table cutting and punching, and weeping as I listened to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s concession speech on the radio. I probably ate some cake, but I didn’t taste it. There was no consolation.

If I had to do it again though, I’d probably still make the cake. Partly because I’m bloody-minded. And partly too because I refuse to budge from my vision of what the world could be and what it should be. I’d rather be wrong than be wrong, if you know what I’m saying. Although I did feel guilty after the fact—I know I inspired other people to embark upon similar baking projects, and there we all were sad in our kitchens on that terrible Wednesday morning. There was so much cake, physical evidence of disappointment, and all of it was my fault.

But I’ll take the fall. I was wrong, and I’ve been wrong before, but as I said above, at least I wasn’t wrong in fundamental ways. I’ve tried very hard to resist a dynamic of winner/loser from this election, not because I don’t like losing, but instead because I don’t mind if I do lose. It doesn’t matter. You might call me a crybaby, but I’ll just look at you confused, wondering why you’re delivering such a puerile insult, and I really don’t care what you think either way. (I’m not going to run out into the street and start firing off my stockpiled ammunition either, and there is really something to that.)

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master…” It’s true. I’ve lost before, over and over again, and what I learned from these experiences is that mastering losing can mean that you can do absolutely anything. I have no fear of failure because I’ve failed over and over again, and everything turned out…fine. Often the very worst thing that can happen isn’t. There are certain things that if I lost them, my life would be fractured irrevocably, but these things are mostly people and I don’t know that anyone can master that kind of loss, although I even know some strong, incredible friends who appear to have done so, who carry on under the weight of interminable grief. So there is loss and there is loss, I mean.

moranifestoThe results of the election have been devastating, but I’ve resisted the idea that my/us having lost is part of the equation. No, it’s something more than that, which is what is actually lost on the simple-minded people who are gloating. Those gloating people aren’t why I was crying, but instead I was crying for everyone, for a vision of the world that’s not that I thought it was, what I hoped fervently it could be. I was wrong, and a whole lot of people proved me wrong, but I can handle that. And if necessary, I’ll be wrong over and over again. Until I’m right, because that’s how history swings.

It’s been a brutal month. On Thursday I finally got my ass back in gear, and started replying to hundreds of emails with apologies for being unable to anything much for this past month except stare at my computer screen in abject horror. I fell down terrible twitter rabbit holes that made me despair about everything, and to wonder about the bubble that I live in, confused and messed up by “voices obsessed with rhetorical fallacies and pedantic debating practices.” When reality starts to seem like a giant conspiracy theory in itself, it becomes hard to know what’s what, and where you stand on things when ground is ever-shifting.

What’s brought be back to earth? Books, of course. I started reading Caitlin Moran’s Moranifesto last week, and it set me straight about feminism, and class, and why I don’t want a revolution (“Personally, I’m not up for that. The kind of people who are up for mutinies and riots tend to be young men… I, however, am a forty-year-old woman with very inferior running abilities and two children… I’ve read enough history books to be resoundingly unseen on extreme politics of with the left or the right…They tend to work out badly for women and children. They tend to work out badly for everyone.) While there has been an effort to package this book as more than a collection of her columns, with a thesis and everything, it doesn’t quite work, but it doesn’t have to. Moran is terrific. “Why We Cheered in the Street When Margaret Thatcher Died.” “This is a World Formed by Abortion—It Always Has Been, And It Always Will Be.” “We Are All Migrants.” The world has gone so willy-nilly in the last year that some pieces in this collection are dated in a way that hurts my heart, but the fundamentals still stand. Last Tuesday evening I sat alone reading this book in a public place and I kept laughing aloud in a way that disturbed passersby, and that was a good thing. It was like a terribly funny person finally talking some sense back into me.

judgingAnd along those lines, I picked up Luvvie Ajayi’s essay collection next, I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual. A book whose first section left me unmoved, but I think it was tactical, some light and easy judgement toward people who don’t wash their bras regularly or who court unemployed boys with gambling addictions who call you to pick them up at the casino because it’s raining and their only form of transport is their bicycle. Breaking the reader in for the heavy stuff—”Racism is for Assholes,” “Rape Culture is Real and it Sucks.” Powerful, amazing sensible stuff that I so desperately need to hear right now when everything seems so upside down. A Black woman writing about feminism, a Christian woman critiquing how religion is messing so much up these days, a smart woman unwilling to withhold her judgement, so she gives it and it’s glorious and we’re better for it. Consistency is overrated. The point is to be good, to ourselves and to each other. I’m about two thirds into this book, and I’m loving it, reminding me that this upside-down world is the same as it ever was, and that striving for better is the least and the most we can do.

“But the ultimate pragmatism is to quietly note that idealism has won, time after time, in the last hundred years. Idealism has the upper hand. Idealism has some hot statistics. Idealism invented and fuelled the civil rights movement, votes for women, changes in rape laws, Equal Marriage, the Internet, IVF, organ transplants, the end of  apartheid, independence in India, the Hadron Collider, Hairspray the musical, and my recent, brilliant loft conversion. Every reality we have now started with a seed-corn of idealism and impossibility—visions have to coalesce somewhere.” —Caitlin Moran

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