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Pickle Me This

November 2, 2017

Rereading Autumn in autumn.

I returned to Ali Smith’s Autumn because when I read it in April I was as baffled by it as I was entranced. And I returned to it also because it was actually autumn, October: “October’s a blink of an eye. The apples weighing down the tree a minute ago are gone and the tree’s leaves are yellow and thinning. A frost has snapped millions of trees all over the country into brightness. The ones that aren’t evergreen are a combination of beautiful and tawdry, red orange gold the leaves, then brown, then down./ The days are unexpected mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of condensation on the web strings hung between things./ On the warm days it feels wrong, so many leaves falling./ But the nights are cool to cold.” And now it is November, which is the very point.

I finished rereading Autumn and was no less baffled than I was the first time, which normally would frustrate me, but there are so many things in this novel that function as footholds, even when reading makes me totally lost. The characters of Elisabeth and Daniel, the satire of post office bureaucracy, the beautiful writing, the contemporary nature of the setting, its immediacy. (“It is like democracy is a bottle someone can threaten to smash and do a bit of damage with.”) I got such comfort from that when I read this in the spring, the world being too much with us—and yet somehow it was helpful, a comfort, to find it in a book. Upon rereading I underlined the part (though I underlined many parts) when Elisabeth is reading A Tale of Two Cities and sees her own reality reflected in literature: …it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… And Smith writes, “The words had acted like a charm. They released it all in seconds. They’d made everything happening stand just far enough away.” [Emphasis mine.]

The main character in the novel (apart from the man who is a tree, obviously…) is a lecturer in art history, and art features prominently in the story, particularly the art of Pauline Boty, who was a founder of the British pop-art movement and its only female painter. Both worked in collage and I got the sense that Smith’s novel is kind of a literary homage to her style, figures and ideas from current events cut out of newspapers and magazine and glued onto a surrealist background. The kind of art I’d take my kids to see exhibited, even though we don’t fully understand the project, because so much in the images are recognizable, remarkable, and interesting in their new contexts.

This time when I read I took note of all the instances of “leaf,” and “leaves,” and trees and scrolls. On the remarkable ways that book speak to the world around us (like when Elisabeth is reading Brave New World in the post office and comes across an allusion to Shakespeare, looking up at the very moment to see an advertisement for a Shakespeare commemorative coin on display), what the novel says about neighbours and neighbourliness in the age of Brexit, about what is story and what is fiction and what is real, about drawing lines and blurring lines, divisions and connections. And speaking of lines, my very favourite one in the entire book continues to be, “Whoever makes up the story makes up the world,” which is an idea that continues to fascinate me. When Elisabeth is asked a question, “Why should we imagine that gender matters here?”

Also, “Time travel is real… We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute.”

And so, here we are.

October 31, 2017

Jesus on the Dashboard, by Lisa Murphy-Lamb

When I was in Edmonton in September and Stonehouse Publishing won the Emerging Publisher of the Year Award at the Alberta Book Publishing Awards, I had some familiarity with the press—mostly because the day before the bookseller at Audreys had taken care to bring me all their books as examples of a small press making beautiful books and doing it well. The only reason I didn’t end up buying one of their books was because they were historical fiction, which isn’t always a genre I go for, but when I learned that one of their latest releases is set in the 1980s, which is one of my favourite periods in all of historia, I was immediately keen. Even more so when I saw the cover, and read the synopsis; Lisa Murphy-Lamb’s Jesus on the Dashboard, I decided, was right up my street.

The novel is about Gemma, seventeen-years-old, whose mother’s departure years before has been somewhat traumatizing, part of the reason why Gemma is remote from her peers and her father, refuses to be touched, has food issues, and why her deepest bond is with her therapist. Which makes it all the more surprising when Gemma’s estranged mother’s cousin Rachel (who one shared a house with Gemma’s parents) turns up with her eldest daughter with a curious invitation for Gemma—and Gemma even accepts it. It seems that Rachel has changed her wild ways and become a born-again Christian, as has Rachel’s mother Angie, and they both attend the same church in Springbank, Alberta. And now Angie has gone and adopted a Korean orphan in an effort to find her way back to motherhood, and Rachel wants Gemma to be part of that journey—would Gemma like to come and spend the summer with her family?

Of course she goes, because the premise of seeing her mother again is irresistible, but it’s not that straightforward, because Angie knows nothing about Rachel’s plan, but Rachel has been praying, and Rachel has faith. And in the meantime, Gemma finds herself part of a busy raucous household nothing like the one she shares with her father, and she has to navigate the complicated social terrain of her cousin Penelope who tells her, “I may be churchy, but I’m no virgin.” Consistency is overrated, which is probably a good lesson for anybody to learn early, and I loved Murphy-Lamb’s depiction of Penelope and her friends who embrace their faith and the world and all that contradiction…which is what saves Gemma in the end when the show-down with her mother finally happens, and she realizes she’s stronger than she ever knew.

Murphy-Lamb writes great prose with humour, and crafts her characters with a loving sympathy that will totally win your heart. “I’m glad I went,” Gemma tells her therapist at the end of it all. “If I hadn’t gone, I would have spent the summer surrounded by double garages, aerated lawns, stuccoed houses, and my own self-loathing.” A line that tells you something about the singularity of her narrative voice, the way that Murphy-Lamb strikes the right balances between precocious and naive, impossibly young and wise-beyond-her-years, and something too about the joy of having access to her stream of consciousness. At some points I found the narrative hard to follow and the book could have benefited from a tighter edit, but neither of these points overrode my appreciation for the novel, whose ending is just fantastic.

 

October 26, 2017

Dozens of Umbrellas

“In the meantime, I found work in a dollhouse shop. We sold tiny things to put in them, from lamps to Robert Louis Stevenson books with real microscopic words in them. Peter got a job in a graveyard, installing tombstones, digging graves, helping with Catholic burial processes, and cleaning up messes. He would find diaphragms, empty bottles of spirits, squirrel kinds left over from hawks’ meals, and dozens of umbrellas. He brought the umbrellas home, until our apartment started to look like a cave of sleeping bats. I had an umbrella sale one Saturday when he was at work:

ALL UMBRELLAS TWO DOLLARS AS IS

It was an overcast day so I did well for myself. ”

—From “The Mouse Queen,” by Camilla Grudova, in The Doll’s Alphabet

October 25, 2017

F-Bomb: Dispatches From the War on Feminism, by Lauren McKeon

There were women who actively campaigned against universal suffrage. When I learned about this a while ago, the revelation stunned me—but also was something of a comfort. That this kind of lunacy was not without precedent, I mean. That women (and people in general) have always been self-defeating and so obstinate. It’s almost admirable. Almost. But not really, because it’s also dangerous and stupid and it terrifies me. Last fall I spent an inordinate amount of time arguing with strangers on twitter about feminism, in one circumstance about why MPs shouldn’t have to put up with being called “ugly cunt” and threatened with rape or death, for example. Suggesting that this was a gender problem, mostly because this sort of thing didn’t happen to MPs who weren’t women, but plenty of women disagreed with me. Online abuse, they informed me, is simply part of life, and to suggest that women weren’t tough enough to take it, to roll with the punches, was a blatant example of sexism. And it was roundabout this point that my brain twisted into a pretzel shape, and then my head completely exploded.

And so while the general content of Lauren McKeon’s new book, F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War of Feminism, would not come as news to me, the book itself actually proved to be a comfort. Showing me that I hadn’t gone completely insane, for example, as my conversations on Twitter were really causing me to think I had, and that anti-feminism is indeed an actual phenomenon. Which, when unarticulated, seems encroaching and awful, when suddenly everyone who’s wrong gets to be right (and very loud). But McKeon situates the phenomenon in its own context and the context of our current political nonsensicalness, and her analysis actual made me feel better. As in, here is a thing and it’s insane but it’s also graspable, and the only thing any thinking person can do is try to understand it and to learn.

“[E]early feminists…largely protested abortion, at least in public. Still, as much as we owe a debt to these women, I’m not about to grab a petticoat and try to be them. I might picture myself standing on their shoulders, but its not in a straight and unwavering line. Rather, it’s an inverted pyramid that allows for pluralities and expansion, a rejection of this idea that it’s good to go backward.” 

“An inverted pyramid that allows for pluralities and expansion” is a fair articulation of McKeon’s feminism in general, and I love that. I appreciate too the way that she necessarily complicates the idea of first/second/third/fourth wave feminisms too: “As much as older feminists can seem surprised and baffled by younger feminists, the lines aren’t strictly generational; they’re ideological.” Calling upon a discussion of generational divides by Bitch co-founder Lisa Jervis, McKeon writes: “Categorizing feminism into waves flattens the differences in feminist ideologies within the same generation and discounts the similarities between different ones, all in one fell swoop… When we buy into the wave theory, we forget common goals, like the fight for abortion rights, equal pay, and ending violence against women.”

But while McKeon suggests that feminism can indeed thrive on difference, she affirms that we’re nowhere near there yet. White women, she writes, still have ways to go in confronting their privilege, in complicating their own understandings of feminism, and moving over (or even sitting down) to make room for other voices. “If feminism wants to survive and grow, not shrink, it’s vital that it learn how to communicate within itself.”

Because here’s what feminism is up against, as McKeon delineates in the rest of the book: there is the usual chorus of “I’m not a feminist, but…” people, who are only too happy to benefit from the movement, while contributing nothing to it. Men’s rights organizations are on the rise, and women are jumping on board their bandwagon. McKeon delves into the Men’s Rights movements, while never losing her feminist footing (“The men’s rights movement is fond of saying its members don’t hate women. What a load of BS… That’s akin to saying an abusive husband likes his wife. Whatever, buddy; that’s not the point.”) McKeon finds roots of the movement in 19th century magazine editorials, and in the 1989 Montreal Massacre too, whose perpetrator hated feminists. What’s new, however, is the movement’s modern rebranding toward a superficial notion of equality, claiming a universality due to the women who are happy to be its public face.

McKeon speaks to some of these women, who are unabashed in their contradictions (and, usually, in also their ignorance too). A Thunder Bay housewife who writes about how women shouldn’t have the right to vote (who concedes that her brash online persona is mostly bluster and clickbait—and this is a problem, the damage done by so-called provocateurs who are literally profiting on online outrage). A writer of erotica whose website was trolled by anti-feminists…who led her to their website, and won her over, and now pulls in thousands of dollars per speaking engagement. These women’s con-jobs, McKeon writes, are remarkable: “convincing women to shun victimhood without actually doing anything to make us not victims… They’re like the Houdinis of discrimination and hate, conjuring up amazing illusions. Underneath it all, though, the message is essentially: let’s keep things unequal for women, so everybody wins!”

She goes on to critique opt-out culture and the domestication of pre-feminist gender roles, which feeds right into men’s rights rhetoric and fuels the faux-polarization of stay at home moms and working ones, which obscures realities including class. These nostalgics also forget that 1950s housewives were miserable, purged from postwar jobs and stuck in the suburbs on tranquilizers, and blamed for everything that was wrong with their children. It was not a great time, folks. And those who think it was have misunderstood the intentions of second-wave feminists—McKeon points out that Betty Friedan “wanted better treatment for housewives, not to abolish the role.” The myth of “having it all” was invented not by feminists, but by journalists, who’ve been trying to sell magazines (and pitting women against each other) with it for decades.

It is the context of a conscious effort to keep women out of the workforce that McKeon writes about “Gamergate,” the online movement targeted at abusing women who wanted to have a voice in the video game industry—and precedent for the dumpster fire that was the 2016 US Presidential Election. But it also stands for the way that women are driven out of lots of industries, McKeon posits, often for being pregnant, or having sick children to care for. Or simply because they can’t afford the costs of childcare. And anti-feminists dispute all of this, of course. The wage gap is a lie, they’ll tell you. McKeon writes, “By capitalizing on women’s anxieties about doing/having/being it all, and simultaneously crafting these neat little pretzel knots of logic, anti-feminists have helped strengthen the silence.”

And speaking of silence, she writes about women denying rape culture and the violence of sexual assault—including the groups of mothers whose sons have been accused of rape and have started a group in support of boys in their sons’ situations, actively trying to convince women that the things that happened to them weren’t even rape after all. (“‘You can make a good faith mistake about whether you were raped,'” Stotland assured me, presumably benevolent, like a fairy godmother of victim blaming.”)

She writes about the rebranding of anti-abortion activists as pro-women as well, and the ways in which their movement is gaining ground, with access to abortion becoming more and more difficult across the United States (and in some parts of Canada, it’s never been great anyway). Is “pro-life feminism” even a thing? McKeon quotes an activist, “The future is pro-life female… We’re not trying to control women or take over their bodies—that’s not it at all… We believe you should have control over your body from the moment it first exists.” McKeon writes that pro-life feminism lacks an agenda beyond being anti-abortion, and that its rhetoric is unlikely to take hold in the feminist movement proper… “But can I see it working alongside the anti-feminist and post-feminist movements to crush modern intersectional feminisms and the reproductive and sexual rights around which they mobilize? Well, yeah, sure, I can see that.”

The book ends on a hopeful note, you will be happy to know. McKeon’s second-last chapter is about young empowered feminists who waging brave and awesome campaigns, both online and in the world. She goes back to high school, where her own feminism was born in a gender studies class, and is inspired and moved by the conversations she sees happening there. The idea that young women don’t care about feminism is a myth up there with “having it all.”

And then she concludes her book with her trip to the Women’s March in Washington on January 21 2017, a monumental event whose media coverage fuelled discord and served the anti-feminist agenda exactly…except the Women’s March was a triumph. The Women’s March was amazing.

“Was the Women’s March on Washington a crucial time for women to join together, or was it an opportunity to confront its historically privileged and narrowly rigid roots?” McKeon asks. The answer is simple. The answer is easy (but it also isn’t). The answer is affirmatively positive: McKeon answers, “Yes. And yes.” And the rest of her book is the reason why she and her reader are so emphatic that this must be the case.

October 17, 2017

A far cry from Mr. Stillingfleet’s stuff

I’ve never been to the Victoria College Book Sale on opening day before, because it’s always on a Thursday and you have to pay $5 to get in, but I hadn’t planned my life well during the weekend the sale was happening last month, and my only chance to go at all would be during the ninety minutes between when the sale kicked off at 2pm and when I had to pick my children up from school at 3:30. So I cobbled together the admission fee, literally out of dimes and nickels from a jar in my kitchen, which made for very heavy pockets, but I got there, and learned of just one distinction between the Victoria College Book Sale on its first day and all the days thereafter: there are Barbara Pym books for sale.

It’s difficult to find used copies of Barbara Pym novels. Her readership was never huge enough, at least not in Canada, as compared to writers like Margaret Drabble, Hilary Mantel and Penelope Lively, whose novels are mainstays at secondhand bookstores (which is the way that I fell in love with all of these writers, and others). I like to think, however, that it’s not just that Pym’s readers are few and far between, but that they’re also quite devoted. The secondhand copies of Barbara Pym novels that I do have came from a house contents sale in my neighbourhood after the death of its elderly owner (which in itself is kind of Pymmish), and that’s the only way I’ll ever be getting rid of Barbara Pym books, by which I mean: over my head body. (I imagine they’re easier to find in secondhand bookshops in England; also, many of her works have brought back into print by Virago Modern Classics with fun cartoonish covers in the last ten years and I’m sure those copies are turning up in charity shops).

Anyway, finding Barbara Pym novels at the Vic Book Sale was exciting enough, but even more remarkable was finding one I hadn’t read yet. I thought I’d read them all, including a collection of her letters and another of unpublished short fiction, and the first book she ever wrote, Crampton Hodnet, which wasn’t published until after her death. I thought I’d spanned the entirety of the Pymosphere, and was content to spend the rest of my life then just rereading her, at least once a summer and maybe even more so, but then there was An Academic Question. I’d missed it altogether. Also published after her death, written during her wilderness years in the early 1970s (before she was “rediscovered” and brought back into print, winning the Booker Prize in 1977 and publishing two more books before her death in 1980).

I started reading An Academic Question on Friday night because I’d been reading A Few Green Leaves (the official newsletter of the Barbara Pym Society) in the bathroom (as you do) and then checked my email to find a reminder that I hadn’t yet renewed my Pym Society membership for 2017. I did so, and took note of the universe conspiring to send me in a Barbara Pym direction, and I’ve already got a backlog of books I have to write about anyway so this would be an excellent opportunity to read for fun and not have to write about it at all.

Take note: I am writing about it. Barbara Pym never fails to incite…

The novel starts off a little roughly. In her note on the text, Hazel Holt writes that it’s cobbled together from two drafts, one in first person and the other in third. Before the book’s spell had taken hold, I kept getting caught on clunky prose and repeated words..but then at some point these problems ceased or else I stopped noticing them. As per Holt’s note, Pym wrote to Philip Larkin of the novel in June 1971: “It was supposed to be a sort of Margaret Drabble effort but of course it hasn’t turned out like that at all.” Which interested me—I remember reading about Pym’s relationship to Drabble’s work in the years when Pym herself wasn’t being published, deemed irrelevant while Drabble herself was very fashionable, her antithesis.

You can see what Pym was up to here—this is a story of a young faculty wife whose sister has had an abortion and lives in London with a man who designs the sets for the news program her husband’s colleagues appear on, all the while the students at the university are going through a period of unrest. In a superficial way, this is Drabble’s milieu—but Pym can’t help but spin it in her own way. It’s the interiority of her protagonist, her doubts and questions, her sense of humour. Caroline is undeniably Pymmish in her preoccupations, spending most of her time with her gay best friend Coco who dotes on his high maintenance mother. While Drabble’s characters are all on the verge of slitting their wrists in a bathtub, Caroline is unfailingly stoic, even at a remove:

‘What was the point of it all?’ Kitty had asked me plaintively, and I felt that for her the evening had been a disappointment, as indeed so many evenings must be now. And what had been the point, really? A few gentle cultured people trying to stand up against the tide of mediocrity that was threatening to swamp them? I who had hardly known anything different could sympathize with their views but for myself I didn’t really listen to the radio; I went about my household tasks, such as they were, absorbed by my own broody thoughts.

And while this is one of Pym’s rare novels that doesn’t contain a single curate, let alone a mention of The Church Times, has only handful of references to jumble sales and the characters drink coffee instead of tea (I KNOW!), the humour is still wryly, undeniably Pymmish. The following passage would never be found in a Margaret Drabble novel:

We sat drinking cups of instant coffee and smoking, commiserating with each other. An unfaithful husband and a dead hedgehog—sorrows not to be compared, you might say, on a different plane altogether. Yet there was hope that Alan would turn to me again  while the hedgehog could never come back.

The book wouldn’t work, Pym felt, according to Holt, for its cosiness, and it was remarkable how often the word “cosy” appears in the text (alone with the word “detached”). Which got me thinking about the literary implications of cosiness, as opposed to grittiness, I suppose. Thinking of cosy made me think of rooms, of comfortable sofas, piles of books on the table, interesting items on the mantel—all of which are things that furnish Pym’s books, including this one. Cosy isn’t fashionable, it’s true, what what it is  instead is timeless, which might be why we’re reading Pym today while Margaret Drabble’s early novels seem so dated and are out print.

Pym’s Caroline is detached from her life as faculty wife—her husband has proved to be less interesting that she thought he might be, he’s been unfaithful, and she finds herself at a loss as to how support him in his work as one expects she should. She finds motherhood a bit boring and her daughter is cared for by the Swedish au pair anyway. Apart from her friendship with Coco, Caroline doesn’t have anyone to have real conversations with, and when she does talk to Coco, he has no qualms about finding her provincial life kind of tiresome. She spends some time reading to Mr. Stillingfleet, a retired professor at an old people’s home, revealing to her husband that the professor keeps a box of academic papers by his bedside…which ignites her husband’s interest in visiting the frail old man, so he can scoop material from the box and pull an academic coup over his superior. And then Caroline is left with the ethical question of what to do with the stolen paper afterwards, and just where her loyalties lie, and what compromises indeed she is willing to make in the name of her husband’s success…

“‘Hospital romances,’ I said to Dolly that evening when she called around to see us. ‘That’s what I’m reading now. It’s a far cry from Mr. Stillingfleet’s stuff.”

‘Maybe, but it is all life,’ said Dolly in her firmest tone, ‘and no aspect of life is to be despised.”

October 16, 2017

My Conversations With Canadians, by Lee Maracle

Have you ever listened to Lee Maracle speak? I hadn’t, except for a spot on the radio last year where she totally stole the show. Which meant that I kind of knew what I’d be getting into when I went to her presentation at The Word on the Street last month, and she delivered completely. Terrifyingly smart, warm, informed, funny, biting, and not here for any of your shit, was the impression I got from Lee Maracle. I bought her book immediately after the session, the new essay collection My Conversations With Canadians, the latest in BookThug’s Essais non-fiction series. It’s a book born of Maracle’s experiences over the years addressing audience questions at book events, the book’s most central one being from the old man who gets up and asks her, “What are you going to do with us white guys—drive us into the sea?” Never mind Maracle’s formidable response to him, which you’re going to have to read the book to figure out, but I’m still hung up on the man himself, what he stands for. How do you get to be the person with nerve enough to stand up and demand anything of Lee Maracle, is what I’m wondering about, not least because, well, it means that you get to talk instead of Lee Maracle. I don’t have a problem with self-esteem, but I’ve never thought highly enough of myself for that.

Of course, the question I am asking is rhetorical; how do you get to be that guy? And the answer is white supremacy and patriarchy. Which doesn’t absolve me, of course. Which doesn’t place me outside of that audience of Canadians that Maracle is addressing in these essays. Some of which made me uncomfortable, actually—my experience of the world has left me with no understanding of the power of song, for example, which Maracle writes about in her first essay: “we can sing you up to wellness or sing you down to illness, even death. It is the power of our songs. We could even raise our poles with song.” I delineate this to show that even though much of Maracle writes about does not make me uncomfortable—centralizing indigenous experience, issues of cultural appropriation and stealing stories; the necessity of elevating oratory; fiction as a powerful truth—that I understand the experience of someone who might approach the book and its ideas with some hesitancy. Someone who doesn’t know quite yet that the point is to be unsettled after all.

“It is not enough to acknowledge something—you must commit to its continued growth and transformation,” Maracle writes in her essay, “What Do I Call You?” Which is to say that learning and growing is the very point, that being progressive is a process and one you’re never finished with if you’re doing it properly. Which is why welcoming this experience of being unsettled is the very point, along with sitting the fuck down and listening.

I loved this book. I love the way that Maracle peppers her work with allusions to so many incredible Indigenous writers in Canada who are changing the world, sentence by sentence, how My Conversations With Canadians is also the most terrific bibliography. I love how she writes about Indigenous identity, and how Canadian identity is never questioned, or at least not in a non-superficial way. “I am not quite sure how the identity of Indigenous people became fallible and questionable to Canadians, while their own identity is not, but I can say this much: I do not recall ever having doubts about my identity, The point they are making is that my identity is violable—it can be violated.” (Which reminds me of Camille T. Dungy’s comments about her identity as a Black woman: ‘that you see me as a “regular” person suggests that in order to see me as regular some parts of my identity must be nullified. Namely, the parts that aren’t like you.’)

Maracle writes about intersectionality, about feminism, she dismantles the myth of Canadian niceness, and the myth of objectivity too, and then writes about the true myths that are “the path to truth and knowledge”—something science, she writes, is only just beginning to understand. About giving up “the knower’s chair,” which assumes that we as Canadians as the teachers, and Indigenous people our students (i.e. sit down, bellowing old man!). Gender binary and making a link between the idea of binary and that which binds us, an etymological link that had never occurred to me before. A whole chapter is devoted to cultural appropriation, and knowledge and stories as an inheritance which has been stolen from Indigenous children. (Here I’ll repeat something I’ve written before, that until I read Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, I really thought that the theft we talk about in terms of what was taking from Indigenous people was mostly metaphorical. I had no idea…)

She writes, “Rather than looking at where we are in a hierarchical order of things, we should look at our responsibility toward the lives we are dependent upon. In any relationship, we have responsibilities, obligations, and disciplined interaction. We cannot simple do “whatever we want” in the name of freedom.” I also loved this in a following paragraph, “All engagement is a moment of sharing, every morsel of food a moment of sharing from earth to us and back.” In that same essay, “Humility is crucial to recognizing and examining our failures, our mistakes, our contribution to broken relations…” And then she goes on with this brilliance, “Do not mistake my kindness for acceptance of the absence of the right of access to my land or my love for it. Further, do not mistake my kindness for a relinquishment of who I am and who I will always want to be.”

“Settlers ought to look at their history, then look in the mirror. After annihilating our populations, and much of the animal life on this continent and in the oceans, and after spoiling the air, and the waters, who would want to be you?”

Are you unsettled yet?

As I read this book, I kept thinking of the bellowing man asking questions, and that guy had become a stand-in for the kind of Canadian journalist who has made an industry out of writing about Indigenous issues, not so subtly underlining his racism with every click on his keyboard. About how all this focus on colonialism and intergenerational trauma, and de-centreing whiteness, and giving credence to Indigenous forms of knowledge has, well, threatened to destabilize our white supremacist patriarchal society, and for obvious reasons this really bothers this guy. Because of how he refuses not to see himself as central, as neutral, as non-complicit in any of the systems that perpetuate the tragedy of Indigenous people and their communities.

What would happen if he read this book, I wondered. Like actually read, instead of making inflammatory notes in the margins and planning his rebuttals. What if the bellowing old man actual shut up, sat down and listened?

In the words of poet Muriel Rukeyser: perhaps the world would split open.

October 10, 2017

Dazzle Patterns, by Alison Watt

When I’m reading historical fiction, it always takes me a bit of time to get settled in the story, to find my bearings in terms of place and time. It’s like travelling to any land that’s a bit foreign, I suppose, where the customs and language aren’t quite what you’re familiar with. And so I knew to be patient when I started reading Dazzle Patterns, the debut novel by Alison Watt, whose previous works include poetry and award-winning non-fiction. Which wasn’t hard because the premise was compelling: a young woman is working in the local glassworks in Halifax in 1917 as a flaw-checker, dreaming of passage to Europe where her fiancé has been fighting. Parts of the story is also from his point of view, Leo, traumatized after surviving the Battle of Passchendaele, though he doesn’t write that home in his letters. And the other protagonist is Fred Baker, an artisan who works with Clare at the glassworks. He’s the one who delivers to her the hospital on that December day when two ships collide in Halifax Harbour, leading to the explosion that levels huge swathes of the city, leaving so many Haligonians dead or injured. Fred spends the next few days working without ceasing in the overcrowded makeshift morgue, but this doesn’t keep him from falling under suspicion by his colleagues and official authorities—though he’s long been a Canadian citizen, Fred was born in Germany, and there are many people in Halifax who aren’t convinced that the explosion was an accident.

Clare begins to recover from her injuries as Halifax itself slowly rebuilds after the tragedy, and she’s pulled between her parents’ wishes to shelter her and her yearning for independence. When Leo is reported missing, Clare realizes that she’s lost her getaway plan, as well as her fiancé, and contemplates the limits of the future before her. To stay busy as her recovery continues, she begins taking painting lessons at the School of Art, where Fred is also a student. And the connection before them does not occur in cliched ways one might expect, because this is too interesting a story for that, besides there are complications—Clare still loves Leo, and her landlady’s daughter has fallen in love with Fred.

These central strands to the story become woven in a wonderful fashion. The novel’s title comes from the patterns painted onto ships to break up their silhouettes and make the vessels more protected from German U-Boats, which is just one very practical role that artists played in supporting the war effort. Watt portrays other roles as well, artists documenting the war by painting battlefields and the ships in Halifax Harbour, real-life Canadian artists appearing as characters in the book alongside Fred and Clare. The intricacy of glasswork in particular is an important element of the story, glass’s amazing technological capabilities but also its fragility. This is a novel about art, and vision, about seeing, and looking carefully at things—and about what happens when other people fail to do so. The Halifax Explosion and World War One are the book’s backdrop, but not its reason for being—and these historical events aren’t manipulated either to become metaphors to serve the author’s purposes. War and destruction are brutal and violent with long-term ramifications that take years to come to the surface. There is nothing heroic about any of it, except for the people who show up to help others.

And so there would eventually come a point when Dazzle Patterns won me over entirely, as you’ve probably noticed, when its people and the streets they walk on became as vivid as the room I’m sitting in now. I loved this book, the art of its tapestry, all of it leading toward an ending that was absolutely perfect.

October 5, 2017

What Happened, by Hillary Clinton

Maybe Hillary Clinton is like cilantro, and you’ve just got a taste for it or you don’t. But I do, and it’s longstanding, which I know because in 1998 I sent Hillary Clinton an email voicing my support in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and I recall respecting her decision to not give up on her marriage. Which was kind of a weird thing for an 18-year-old to be concerned with, and not very feminist really, or maybe it is. I didn’t identify as a feminist when I was 18 anyway, and I spent the 1990s’ as a middle aged woman in a teenager’s body, plus there just wasn’t a lot going on on the internet at this point and so sending emails to the White House was how one passed the time.

Hillary Clinton’s 2003 autobiography Living History was the very first book I ever wrote a review of online, during a brief period in 2004 when I had a book blog with a friend and imagined that I too could be a book blogger like Maud Newton but then it all seemed too ambitious and the book blog fizzled out. (And yes, boys and girls, I, like Hillary Clinton, am living proof that we can achieve our dreams. At least if the limits of our dreams are book blogging, I mean.) We lived in Japan at the time and I remember buying the book in the bookshop in our town that was located on top of the train station, just one of a handful of books in the entire store that was in English and therefore I had the literary skills to pick it up and read it. Books were rare then, which is funny because now I basically live in a castle constructed of them. All of that was a long time ago.

But I remember my main frustration with that book, which was Clinton’s refusal to admit her exceptionalness. Her remarkable life, she wrote, was a product of her time, of having been born in a moment where there would be opportunities for Americans, and American women in particular, as there had never been before. Her story, as she told it, was a part of a larger story, which is all fine and well, I guess, but it didn’t explain why everybody then had not become Hillary Rodham Clinton then. I mean, yes, the entire graduating class at Wellesley in 1967 was undoubtedly impressive, but she had been chosen to give their commencement address. Hers was a singular story too, and I wanted more of that.

Which is what you get in her brand new bestselling memoir, What Happened. A book in which Clinton talks about her reasons for pursuing the presidency a second time and dares to state this: “The most compelling argument is the hardest to say out loud: I was convinced that both Bill and Barack were right when they said I would be a better President than anyone out there.” If you have any idea how difficult it is to articulate something like this about oneself, you are probably a woman too.

In this book, Clinton has learned the invaluable lessons that failure has to teach us (and she learned it twice), plus she is angry, and she’s taking shit from no one. She’s no longer giving history all the benefit for her own success and for that of others. Of the women’s movement, she writes, “And it was and is the story of my life—mine and millions of other women’s. We share it. We wrote it together. We’re still writing it. And even though this sounds like bragging and bragging isn’t something women are supposed to do, I haven’t just been a participant in this revolution. I helped to lead it.”

She writes about her working going undercover in the American south during the early 1970s to find schools were segregation practices were still the norm (and there were plenty of them); of her work as a lawyer for women and families; of her successful attempts to found the Children’s Health Insurance Plans during her husband’s presidency, which provided healthcare for millions of American children and which the US government let lapse this week. A lot of this book is heartbreaking, as Clinton reflects on her plans for her Presidency and reflects on the winning candidate’s first actions in office. She reflects on her mistakes throughout her public life, on the many times she’s changed her mind, on her regrets, the evolution of her ideas. In fact, she reflects on all of these more than any man ever would, in that way that women are made to think they must do and the public only doubles down on this inclination. The double standard is incredible, and I never properly understood how systemic and institutionalized (and psychologized) it was until the American election of 2016. In some ways, learning the truth of the matter is incredible. In other ways, not so much.

And yet, this is also an inspiring memoir. It moved me to tears more than a few times. There was a moment reading this book where I felt something unlike anything I’d felt in years, which is envy for American people, for American women in particular (I know!) who had that singular experience of seeing a woman’s name on the ballot in their election for head of state and even got to place an x beside it. (Full disclosure: in our last Federal election, however, I had the amazing privilege of choosing between two exceptionally qualified and inspiring women candidates. That was also an incredible thing.)

Hillary Clinton’s mother, Dorothy Howell Rodham, was born June 4, 1919, “the exact same day that Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, finally granting women the right to vote.” So yes, sometimes the backdrops against which lives are shaped are incontrovertible and the connections can be uncanny. But that is only the half of it. The other have is the story of a person who is an actual human, which is say that she is an imperfect candidate. A phrase I’m still kind of obsessed with—because who isn’t? Certainly not Clinton’s running mate in 2016. But I was aware of her imperfections during the election, as no doubt we all were as a result of the biased media coverage Clinton refuses to condone in What Happened. And I remember tempering my enthusiasm for her, not wanting to speak up in support of Clinton, because to so would be invite a storm of vitriol from those concerned with her “Wall Street ties” and war crimes, those for whom she was not a taste that could even be acquired, those people who hated for all the ways in which it’s so much easier to hate a woman than a man, in all their pantsuited specificity.

But no more. Because I learned something from the 2016 American election, which is the danger of staying quiet, of being polite, of trying to please everyone. If I could take anything away from this political morass we’ve found ourselves in, it’s the courage to be half as brave as Hillary Rodham Clinton.

October 3, 2017

Snacks: A Canadian Food History, by Janis Thiessen

As soon as I heard about Janis Thiessen’s book, Snacks: A Canadian Food History, I knew I’d want to read it, for so many reasons, not least of all because I’d necessarily have to purchase snacks in order to authentically Instagram my reading experience. Props, I mean. Plus, basically I’ll do almost anything to justify a bag of potato chips. I knew the book would inevitably lead to the purchase of cheezies: “It’s for work,” I’d tell the sales clerk, making sure to save my receipt. “The things I do to support Canadian and books and literature”, I’d self-congratulate, all the while licking orange cheese dust off my fingers. And all of this pretty much perfectly transpired, with the added bonus of the book being fascinating.

Now, if you cannot fathom how a book about the history of snack food might be fascinating, then I’m not going to try to win you over, but if Snacks already sounds intriguing to you, you won’t be sorry. Thiessen begins her book by placing snack food in the context of contemporary food culture, which stresses health and wellness, all things “natural” over processed, and sees fit to gloss over class, gender and labour issues in the ways we value and talk about food. She writes about the role of snacks in her childhood, which made me think a lot about the potato chips that were a fixture of my life when I was growing up—and how my Dad’s glove compartment was always packed with Bazooka bubble gum. She gives an inventory of her own family’s pantry, and challenges the vilification of snack foods in several interesting ways.

I wanted to buy a bag of Old Dutch potato chips to accompany my Hawkins Cheezies, but tracking down a bag here in Ontario would prove surprisingly difficult. Or not so surprising, I would learn, as I started reading about the Potato Chips Wars of the early 1990s (which were really a thing!) in which Old Dutch tried to expand into Eastern markets and Hostess Frito-Lay would go into Toronto stores and buy all their Old Dutch stock, promising discounts on their products if they didn’t sell Old Dutch again. My husband finally tracked down a bag at a convenience store on Bloor near Bathurst. Previously, he’d seen a box of 50 mini chip bags on sale for Halloween, and I admonished him for not buying the box—it was portion controlled, I pointed out. We could have kept the box around and had chips for weeks and weeks, except that we then devoured the one bag of chips he did buy so thoroughly that I realized no chips were safe in our midst. It was honestly fascinating to learn more about the history of the potato chip though, its industrial and agricultural histories, about the consolidation of potato chip companies in Canada, that Old Dutch, that Canadian mainstay, isn’t even actually Canadian….

Neither is Hawkins Cheezies, I was shocked to learned, or at least it didn’t start out that way. Hawkins began as a big American snack food company that fell apart due to scandals connected to divorces and Mafia ties, and what was left of the company was a plant making cheeses in Tweed, Ontario, whose business has remained unchanged for more than half a century. There is a mythology around these products, a national mythology too, and Thiessen probes these to interesting ends. Her research consists of oral stories by plant employees, getting at the labour side of snacks in a way that most food discourses neglect to. Readers learn about the experience of working at or managing Old Dutch and Hawkins plants, and other food companies, as well as candy, chocolate and biscuit factories. (Interesting fact: huge risk of fire and explosion in candy factories. Who knew?) Other companies Thiessen writes about include Paulins, Moirs (whose 1980s’ commercial for Pot of Gold I remember well…) and Ganong, Robertson’s Candy, Cavalier Candies, Purity Factories, and Scott-Bathgate.

The book’s last chapter is about a game show produced regionally across the Canadian Prairies in the 1960s called Kids Bids, wherein children were encouraged to save wrappers from Old Dutch potato chips and then bring in their collections to the show to bid on coveted items—top prize was a bicycle. Exploitive and unhealthy, perhaps, but Thiessen shows how the show gave children agency and opportunities…and basically eliminated litter from chip bags. Oh, those were the days…

September 25, 2017

Once More With Feeling, by Méira Cook

“This novel was not what I was expecting,” I wrote in my review of Méira Cook’s debut novel, The House on Sugarbush Road, in 2013, and it makes me laugh to see that now, because it’s exactly what I was going to say about her latest novel, Once More With FeelingPossibly the only thing a reader can do with a Méira Cook novel is have no expectations at all. Because if you do, she’ll only grab you by them, and then swing you around and around her shoulder like a cowboy with a lasso. Or at least this was my experience of Once More With Feeling, which I’d been led to believe via the cover copy would be sweet and heartwarming, doddering professor Max Binder delivering an ill-advised gift to his wife on her birthday, the wife he’s still besotted with. I’d been setting myself up for a sweet comedy, a little bit homey and twee. But then the car drove off the road… Metaphorically and otherwise, and here we were barrelling down the off-roads, narratively speaking.

Once More With Feeling is not an easy book. (I think I said this about The House on Sugarbush Road as well.) It won’t be to everyone’s taste and there are things about it that are troubling, and I would have appreciated the end coming just a bit sooner than it did. I started reading this book on a plane, and to be completely honest there were a couple of points early on where I might have put the book down, had I not been thousands of feet in the air without another book to read. Not a singing endorsement, I know, but bear with me. I kept going, and it was not long after that it became clear to be that there was actually no better book for a four hour flight, or no situation better than a flight to enjoy a book like this. To give it the sustained attention it requires, and to have my reading time so richly filled with so many voices and stories. It’s hard to appreciate a feast in tiny bites, is what I mean, and so it was nice to just keep my seatbelt on and read voraciously.

Once More With Feeling is a novel about a city, Winnipeg in four seasons, although Winnipeg isn’t named. It’s specified though, and it reminded me of my favourite Winnipeg novel, Carol Shields’ The Republic of Love, in how the city is evoked, the sweep of its year. The two books are complementary, though Once More With Feeling is darker, with an edge. And every chapter is from a different perspective, connections between some of the characters tangential, and we get to see some of them from their internal monologues and also from far away. There is startling ambition as to the range of characters how share the story’s helm, a relay passed from one to another. Literature Professor Max Binder, then his wife’s editor at the local newspaper (whose contents we glimpse via letters from outraged readers). The newspaper’s spinster bookkeeper (who has a secret life of her own, surely) volunteers at a local mission that serves food to the homeless, and so the next chapter is from the perspective of another volunteer, whose mother is the Binder’s cleaner and whose sister is just one of many women who’ve gone missing on the city’s streets. And onward, through Max Binder’s children, and their schoolmates.

My favourite chapter was “Inspirational Living Centre,” from the perspective of a wayward high school student whose class gets paired up with Holocaust survivors. And while the bubbly popular girls in the class embrace this experience (“On the way back from the Inspirational Living Centre some of the girls said theirs were “cute” and Courtney Segal even said hers was “adorable.”) But the narrator is matched with a curmudgeonly asshole who refuses to be inspirational, and even ticks off Courtney Segal on the bus ride home—”Why can’t you keep your Holocaust survivor from bothering ours?” she demands.

Teenagers at the mall, a camp director in September, a chorus of Jewish mothers reflecting on Bar and Bat Mitzvahs past in a chapter that reminded me of Grace Paley (in which time made a monkey of us all). A chapter from the perspective of Lazer Binder’s English teacher’s ex-hushand, the Binders’ next door neighbour, two elderly sisters, and then back to Maggie after a year of grief and rage and the arrival of the missing piece of the puzzle of what ultimately happened to Max. And what is the plot? Which is the same question as what propels the story? Well, the sweep of days and months and change of the seasons, of course, the furious momentum of life itself, in a city in particular where nothing sits still for a moment.

Although with a Méira Cook novel (and this is her third) the language is as important as the plot is, and the vocabulary of this one is rich and dextrous. Cook is an extraordinary writer, an award-winning poet, as adept at plotting words as story—her sentences are truly magnificent.

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