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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.

September 21, 2017

The Mother, by Yvvette Edwards

Last week I read The Mother, by Yvvette Edwards, a really beautiful and harrowing story of a mother attending the trial of the boy whose been accused of murdering her teenage son. Written in the first person in a voice that is raw and sometimes faltering, it’s not an easy read emotionally, but the novel is also fast paced and gripping. It evokes interesting question about motherhood, race, class and the ways in which we all assume our families, our children, can be inoculated against the social problems outside our warm and and cozy homes. The ways in which we assume too that we can exist apart from the world and its violence, and that there are issues we can say with certainty, “That is not my problem.”

It’s a deeply thoughtful and warmly provocative novel, Edwards’ second after A Cupboard Full of Clothes, which was long listed for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize. I learned of this title after reading Donna Bailey Nurse’s interview with Edwards, which you can read here—and I am so glad I did.

From Donna Bailey Nurse: “I admire Edwards’s authentic portrayal of Caribbean men and women. She is particularly adept at capturing the lithe movements of a certain kind of West Indian male. I was not surprised to learn that Toni Morrison is her “star” author or that she counts Beloved among her most cherished novels. As in Beloved, Edwards works with the opposing forces of murder and motherhood. And like Morrison, the psychological action of her fiction unfolds largely within the realm of black people. In The Mother Edwards describes the harsh circumstances and complex dynamics of an embattled community. At the same time she conveys the sense of a black British family rooted firmly in love.”

September 19, 2017

We All Love the Beautiful Girls, by Joanne Proulx

A thing I think is funny is a description in Joanne Proulx’s biography accompanying her recently released second novel, We All Love the Beautiful Girls. Among much acclaim for her previous novel is the detail that it won “Canada’s Sunburst Award for Fantastic Fiction,” which would be a cool award to be win, I imagine. To be officially fantastic. Although the tag for the Sunburst Award is “for excellence in the Canadian literature of the fantastic.” Which is to say genre, sci-fi and fantasy. Which is to say that Proulx, whose previous book was the YA title Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet, as an author requires tricks to be packaged, wrapped up tidily in a neat little box for her mainstream novel about the perils of modern family life.

And this is makes We All Love the Beautiful Girls so interesting, I think. Fantastic, even, in the non-supernatural sense of the word. It makes the novel not wrapped up or tidy or boxy in the slightest, instead furious with momentum, bursting open, exploding at seams.

I read the second half of this novel in a few hours one Saturday night, because it was a story that just kept going and going. Although I wasn’t sure at the very beginning, when all the action gets out of the way in a chapter or two: Michael and Mia discover they’ve been bilked out of their life-savings by a business partner/friend, and then their son, Finn, passes out in the snow at a party, nearly dying, with injuries he’ll carry with him for the rest of his life. All of this within the first 50 pages of a book over 300 pages long—what else can happen? Oh, only everything, and it’s how Proulx frames this narrative that is so fascinating, not on the drama itself but on unintended consequences, the shocking, tragic and terrifying ways that one thing can lead to another.

This is a novel with sharp edges and tight corners, and it’s a novel not afraid to make its reader uncomfortable. Told from Michael and Mia’s points of view in third-person and Finn’s in first person, the narrative is fragmented, patchwork, and then all the pieces become drawn together in the most disturbing fashion. And then it dawns on the reader as it dawns on the characters, that all these things are connected—objectification of and/or violence against women in particular, and how each and every character is implicated, and we see that that two characters peripheral to the story—Jess, a former babysitter now college student who sneaks in Finn’s window to sleep with him; Frankie, Finn’s contemporary whose feelings for him aren’t returned—and Mia herself are not so far apart after all in their experiences of womanhood and what is required for survival.

Some of the very worst things are what turn out to be universal.

September 12, 2017

What is Going to Happen Next, by Karen Hofmann

A group of siblings running wild in rural British Columbia, under the dubious care of their hippie dad while their mother has been hospitalized for psychiatric problems. We first glimpse them through the point-of-view of twelve-year-old Cleo who sees herself as the family lynchpin, caring for her younger brothers along with her older sister, Mandalay. Just barely holding it together, and then their father dies. The police are at the door. Cleo is trying to pass herself off a a responsible agent, so earnestly that the reader can almost forget that she is only a child. But she is indeed only a child, and her baby brother will be adopted, Cleo and her brothers placed in foster care, Mandalay in a group home. Each of the siblings set in very different orbits…and the novel actually begins twenty years on from all that.

Cleo is a middle-class mother of two small children, overwhelmed by the excruciating demands of early motherhood and hungry for intellectual stimulation. Hofmann so exactly captures the claustrophobic impossibility of life with small children, and all the details that can trip one up—navigating strollers through rough terrain, the preparation and work required for a trip on the bus. The loneliness too, and this is only added to as the unnavigability of the world with small children keeps Cleo close to home. That she has no example in her own past of functional family life leaves Cleo even more stranded than the average mother of young children. Her husband is not without sympathy, but he’s frustrated, and not receptive to what his wife is going through.

Meanwhile, Cleo’s sister Mandalay is living a different kind of life in the downtown core of Vancouver, far away from the suburbs. We find her at at a particularly high point—the cafe she has been co-managing has just found acclaim by being written up in a magazine. Mandalay loves her job, her co-worker, that she is responsible for arranging art in the place and becoming known for her skills in curation. Sure, her apartment is tiny and expensive, and her work means she is busy all the time, but Mandalay finds herself fulfilled for the first time in her life, after years spent hitching onto the rides of the men she’s been in relationships with. Which, inconveniently, is the moment that Duane turns up, a man who suits her in so many ways but is unwilling to provide proper emotional ties. But does she want these? Does she need these? What kind of relationship does Mandalay think she deserves?

And then finally, there is their younger brother Cliff, hapless, utterly lacking guile. He’s not stupid though, Cliff, and he knows the problem is mainly other people. So he knows, for instance, not to let people know about his new TV, when he finally saves up from his landscaping job for the one he’s been looking for. He knows that when other people find out he’s got something, they’re only ever going to want to take it, so he keeps to himself. He works hard and has made a comfortable life for himself, and all he wants is to stay out of trouble…but trouble seems to find him. And Hofmann’s depiction of Cliff is one of the most wonderful parts of this book, how fully realized he is, without the cliches often fastened to literary characters lacking in IQ. How canny he actually has to be to get along in the world, and all the tricks and devices he’s figured out that nobody would ever give him credit for. He’s a terrific character.

The novel opens with the three siblings’ different narrative threads, each of which are far apart due to family history and how disparate their circumstances are in terms of life and also of postal codes. The three of them are in touch, but mainly see each other at holidays, can go weeks without a phone call. But when their long lost baby brother finally tracks them down, and then Cliff has an accident that requires him to recover in the relative quiet of Cleo’s suburban house, the siblings begin to come together again. And questions are raised not only about the practical matters of how characters who’ve come from different places can be a family, regardless of their mutual place of origin. But also about the role their past traumas play in the present day, and what those traumas are, exactly. It turns out the history each of them has taken for granted turns out to be more complicated than any of them have imagined. And what does that mean for the future?

I really liked Karen Hofmann’s first novel, After Alice, and was so pleased that What is Going to Happen Next lived up to my expectations—and then some. It’s a novel that’s as original as it is ambitious, and it works, resulting in an all-engrossing visceral reading experience, and I’m recommending it to everyone.

September 5, 2017

Guidebook to Relative Strangers, by Camille T. Dungy

I can’t remember the last time a book had so strong a hold on me as Camille T. Dungy’s Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys Into Race, Motherhood and History. A book whose force is evident from its opening page, a note of introduction. “When the nation that became the United States was beginning, women writers and black writers needed the endorsement of other people in order to prove their legitimacy,” Dungy writes in her very first sentence. Later in the paragraph: “The essays in the book you are reading are steeped in such history.” Dungy wants to resist this notion that she requires anyone but herself to demonstrate the merit of her work, and yet… She then she goes on to write five pages of the most beautifully written acknowledgements I’ve ever encountered in a book. A remarkable start, and an introduction indeed to Dungy’s expansiveness, generosity, thoughtfulness and ability to understand that two opposing ideas can be true at once.

Guidebook is a collection of essays, but like the best of such things is a journey itself, a whole worth more than its parts which fit so well that they don’t even seem like parts. It begins with an event from Dungy’s not so long-ago past, except that it was a thousand years ago because it was before she became a mother. She was at a writers’ retreat and trying not to become involved in a conversation about how she hadn’t seen the film, The Hours, because she didn’t care about The Hours. In this moment, as is often the case on this retreat, Dungy is the only black person at the table, and is therefore called upon to represent blackness and otherness to the white writers in her company. Which makes her tired—she’s just returned from time in Ghana and the essay contrasts these two experiences and she writes, “Perhaps it would be a more stable world if everyone could experience both the sensation of oneness and otherness a few times in life.” Back at the table, Dungy is assured that her companion doesn’t see her “as a black woman. You’re just who you are.” Which brings the author around to the powerful paragraph that led me to pick up this book in the first place, and certainly the paragraph delivers on everything this paragraph promises:

I am certainly who I am (an ornery individual at the moment) though I take umbrage at the idea of limiting my scope with a word like just when it is used to suggest that I am a simple person. If I may borrow a phrase from the great poet of our early democracy, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Just in this context erases various complexities and dimensions of my being. There is a danger in refusing to, or tacitly agreeing not to, recognize my black womanness. Black womanness is part of what makes me the unique individual that I am. To claim you do not recognize  that aspect of my personhood and insist, instead, 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.

Dungy is a professor, award-winning poet and editor, and devouring her non-fiction (I read this book in a day) put me in mind of Rebecca Solnit and Joan Didion (for style reasons and also San Francisco and California) and Anne Enright’s Making Babies with the perfect exuberance with which she writes about motherhood, and Leslie Jamison for the ways she writes about her body and her experiences with MS. Most of all, however, Dungy writes about language, which itself reveals so many secrets and much complexity. The essay “Bounds” is an incredible consideration of that words many meanings and what their connections tell us about human experience, about Dungy’s daughter’s language acquisition, about what divides us and what connects us, and how so often these two things are one and the same. I ordered this book not long after the terrifying events in Charlottesville, VA, in August, and it’s something to consider the images from the white supremacist rally against Dungy’s short essay about her time living in Virginia where her white friends delighted in bonfires, and she, because of the area’s legacy of racial violence, could only feel fear at the idea and reality of these kinds of events.

Dungy writes about her experiences travelling in America before her daughter turned two, when she was still nursing and could fly on her mother’s lap for free, and about the places they went and how Dungy would be both connected to and divided from the people she encountered, and how her daughter helped to mitigate the distance between Dungy and others. This is a book about the labours of motherhood and academia, and writing, and the ridiculous ways we negotiate these in the 21st century. It’s a book about cities and nature, and the words we use to describe these places, the names we call ourselves and others, and the places motherhood takes us where we never planned on going—I love a line in the essay “Inherent Risk, Or What I Know About Investment” that goes, “I passed the sign for the landmark every time I took the Fruitvale Avenue exist off I-580 on my way home, but I had no idea what it referred to until one day, when Callie still cried constantly unless she was moving, I strapped her into the stroller and walked until I found the place, which is how I started to know some of the things I’ve written here.”

The essay “Bodies of Evidence,” about birdwatching with her two friends who are two of the five black birders in America, so the joke goes; about her daughter’s infatuation with The Little Mermaid; about her own family’s legacy of racial violence; about Dungy spending her adult life trying to delay the onset of the diabetes that plagues her family, only to be diagnosed with MS; “When I am writing, it is always about history. What else could I be writing about? History is the synthesis of our lives;” about being the only person in her second-grade class who voted from Jimmy Carter in a 1980 mock-election; about a visit to a memorial of a lynching that took place in Duluth, Minnesota; about survival, be it through MS or poison oak—or a police officer pulling you over on a dark highway, if one happens to be black; about an article in the New Yorker about inequality, about an eclipse, about shadow. This is one essay. “Sometimes it is easy to draw meaning from the arbitrary order of things.” But of course there is nothing arbitrary about any of this—these essays are masterful. Buy this book now.

August 27, 2017

All Time Record

I made a very uncharacteristic vow a few months ago to only bring a couple of books on vacation, and not be so maniacally compelled to be always reading. Because I remember feeling pressure to read on previous vacations, which is stupid for a vacation and also made me anti-social…and then I ended up bringing seven books on vacation, plus a few extras, for Stuart to read and for just-in-case scenarios. But I decided I didn’t have to finish them all during our week at the lake. What better way to retain that holiday feeling than to let the holiday reading continue over into the week we’re back home, I thought. There was no pressure. I was going away with a towering stack, but I didn’t have to read all of them.

But then I did! Without being anti-social, even, because I also swam in the lake, played UNO and charades and Old Maid and Zingo. But on top of this, I lingered in bed in the mornings, read by flashlight at night after everyone was asleep, and got lots of reading in while the children were out chasing frogs, treasure hunting, or partaking in nighttime movies every evening at 7pm in the rec hall. There was time enough for all the reading, but also for all the other things. The days were so perfectly elastic, the way summer days are meant to be.

There was no rhyme nor reason to my stack of holiday books, except for the first, which was The Burning Girl, by Claire Messud, because I had to get it read for work reasons. But it turned out to be perfect, because it was such a summer book, steeped in atmosphere and there was a quarry and everything. Such a strange, skewed book too though, like everything Messud writes. It’s a look back on a friendship between two girls which breaks off at the point in which girlhood breaks off into womanhood, and the whole story delivered with this spectacular dose of nostalgia—except the main events of the narrative are just two years before and the narrator is still a teenager. I wasn’t expecting that, and it was kind of disorienting, this idea of the 1990s being something that happened “before I was born.” I’m used to young protagonists being set in the past. It was interesting. And she was such an interesting protagonist too, elusive and tricky in the way of Messud’s from The Women Upstairs. (Remember the furor from that book, about women and likability, and then Jennifer Weiner got involved?) This book is more subtle though, so much so that it needs an additional read to puzzle out its construction. The “Bev Burnes” character continues to haunt me, with her ample backside. And yes, the quarry. It would turn out that nearly all my holiday books would take place around bodies of water. Isn’t it funny the way that a syllabus assumes itself?

From this point on my reading also became a fun celebration of all the bookshops I’ve been visiting this spring and summer. I picked up Turning, by Jessica J. Lee at Curiosity House Books when we were in Creemore in June, a book I was partial to for #SwimLit reasons and also because of Lindsay’s review at her swimming hole blog. Once again, a book focussed on a body of water, or in this case many of them—although this time I’d seen it coming. The memoir is Lee’s story of her lifelong complicated relationship with swimming and water, and also with notions of identity and home, and about how she got over a bout of heartache and depression by spending a year swimming in lakes near her home in Berlin. A year indeed, which means Lee swims in all kinds of weather, in the deepest winter with a hammer to break the ice, and in the winter she never swims for too long. Although apparently the more you winter swim, your body grows accustomed to lower temperatures—though I’m going to just take her word for it. (I must say that Lee inspired me to jump into the lake wholeheartedly every day and not be a slow entering ninny. If she can swim in December, I can just in during August.) I liked the book a lot, and found it strange and disorienting in a fascinating way, the way a foreign city first appears, kind of. It was unusual to be reading about Germany and Berlin because all my frames of reference for swimming are so Canadian and English—it occurs to me that I know nothing about German geography at all, and little more about its literature. There is so much still to be immersed it, but Lee’s memoir was a memorable dip.

Next I read Do Not Become Alarmed, by Maile Maloy (also from Curiosity House Books in Creemore), whom I’d never read before, but I purchased the novel after reading Ann Patchett’s endorsement. In her back-of-the-book blurb, Patchett writes that this is the kind of novel you will barrel through and then should go back and re-read to realize how technically brilliant it is. Not quite sure I’ll be doing the latter, but this is a 300+page book that I read in less than a day. Also about a body of water, this one being an alligator-infested river in Panama in which a group of American children are floating in inner-tubes when they drift away from their errant parents. The American children are on a cruise with their families and they’ve just embarked from an excursion, and it’s all gone a bit wrong, and it’s only going to get worse. The story is indeed fast-paced and enthralling, and there were a few moments where the prose and what was happening took my breath away. This is a book about privilege, naivety, stupidity, and the ways in which Americans (and their ilk—hi! [waves]) are able to go about their lives protected from the risks and dangers that are commonplace in so many other countries.

Next up was Weaving Water, by Annamarie Beckel, which was a book I’d been interested in for Annie Dillard Tinker Creek reasons, and then picked up to read after I met Annamarie at the Lakefield Literary Festival. In this book, the body of water in question is a pond in Newfoundland—and the novel points out that “ponds” in Newfoundland can often be the size of large lakes. On the banks of the pond is an old cabin that belonged to Beth Meyer’s husband’s great-aunt, who left it to them after she died. An ecologist by training and on the cusp of a new stage in life now that her daughter has gone away to school, Beth moves out to the remote cabin to do research on river otters, looking for answers to save an earth in peril. She meets her eccentric neighbour with an unshakable belief in ghosts and magic, and her neighbour’s nephew who Beth is drawn to in spite of herself. It turns out the answers Beth is looking for are not just about river otters after all, but the creatures remain at the centre of the novel and Beckel’s wonder at their habits and mysteries are absolutely palpable.

It took me a while to know that Emily Fridlund’s A History of Wolves (which I bought at Lighthouse Books in Brighton the weekend we were camping) would really work. There’s something off-putting about it, and it takes time to realize that that off-puttingness is part of its very design. Ostensibly, it fits right in with all the other books, with the body of water even—the lake the narrator lives on with her parents at their abandoned commune, isolated in the woods of northern Minnesota. But then a couple moves into a new cabin across the lake, and she can watches them through their windows, and begins to care for their young son. And she’s drawn to the family in a way that’s connected with a former teacher who was eventually charged with possession of child p*rnography, and a classmate who’d been connected to him. How do all the pieces fit together? To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure and it’s the kind of book I should return to and I’m even compelled to, but am not sure I will. Because of the off-puttingness, a narrator who never really connects to anyone. Again, which is the point, and there’s a killer last line that underlines this point. I ended up really appreciating this book, though I can’t say I liked it. But in the end, it was a perfect fit with all the rest, the splash of the paddle from Linda’s canoe as she makes her way across the lake.

I wasn’t sure how Scarborough, by Catherine Hernandez (which I bought on our trip to Mabel’s Fables a few weeks back), would fit in with all the rest, a book that is so urban. But then it turned out to have its own body of water, the Rouge River, and the book opens with a heron at the river’s mouth, and it moves through the seasons in the same way Lee’s Turning did. I loved this novel, which had been recommended by loads of people and which I read in less than a day. At the centre of the story is a drop-in centre at a Scarborough elementary school where families turn up for company, support…and breakfast. We see the program coordinator’s communications with her supervisor and the way that bureaucratic requirements (and racism) keep the program from properly serving the people it’s meant to. There are failings and there is tragedy, but there is also resilience and connection. Scarborough has just been nominated for a Toronto Book Award and I’m thrilled about that.

Next up was Lianne Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty, which I bought at Beggar’s Banquet Books in Gananoque when I was there in early May. I loved her Big Little Lies back in March, and remember hearing about this one when it came out last year but then didn’t read it after coming across a dismissive review—I think there was a big reveal that was meant to be anti-climatic in the end. But I’m so glad I finally picked it up. Moriarty is brilliant, and will never get the literary credit she deserves for sexist reasons. Indeed, this is a novel that revolves around a mystery—something happened at a bbq and the novel moves between the perspectives of different characters reflecting on the events leading up to it. At the centre of the book is two friends, Clementine and Erica, friends since childhood with a complicated dynamic. And Moriarty gets it so perfectly, the way that a friendship can come with ambivalence and animosity, and she ties it to the women’s marriages and their relationships to their mothers. The reviewer is correct that the big reveal is less than we’ve been lead to believe it’s going to be—but it doesn’t matter because the point of the book turns out to be so much bigger than what happened one night. And that’s what’s so fantastic about it, the hugeness of this novel’s scope—this event of one night ends up connecting to stories that are decades old and to characters far-flung and nearby. It reminded me of The Slap, by Christian Tsiolkas, but without the violence and misogyny. Moriarty manages to show every single character at their worst, but redeem them too in a way that’s entirely believable. And now I want to read every single thing she’s ever written. (PS: this was the one that didn’t quite click with all the others, but then there ended up being a body of water after all, which was a very tacky backyard fountain that meets with a sorry end.)

And next up to another woman writer who doesn’t get the credit for being as brilliant as she is, and that’s Laura Lippman—although she gets some credit. I’ve loved her work for years now, and was happy to read Wilde Lake, which I bought at Happenstance Books when I was there for the Lakefield Literary Festival. Stuart had already read it and couldn’t wait for me to finally get to it so we could talk about it. Loosely an homage to To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s about a newly elected State Attorney in Howard County, Maryland, who’s following in her revered father’s footsteps. When Lu’s first big murder case surprisingly hearkens back to events during the summer of 1980 during which her big-shot brother was involved in an altercation where somebody turned up dead, all kinds of long-forgotten secrets are brought up to the surface. This is a novel about rape culture, and the ways in which changes in the law have influenced how rapes are prosecuted, and it’s about fallibility, family secrets, and lost ideals, and I thought about it for days and days afterwards. It’s full of twists and surprises, and the most evocatively depicted small town, built around a lake, of course. It’s really an extraordinarily good novel.

And then it was Friday and we were heading home the next day and the other book we’d bought was Bear Town, but Stuart was in the middle of it. And so I went to check out the library at the resort we were staying at, and was pleased to discover The Murder Stone, by Louise Penny (which was the UK title, published in Canada as A Rule Against Murder), which I haven’t read yet. (I came to Penny’s Three Pines series late with A Trick of the Light.) It was absolutely perfect to read because it was set at a place much like the place where were staying (albeit much much more fancy!) and as I was reading the part in the book where there was a huge storm with thunder and lightning, we were having the exact same weather and the lightning kept illuminating our little cabin just like daylight, and it was all a little too close to home.

 

August 3, 2017

The Summer Book

I finished The Summer Book this other night, an anthology of non-fiction from BC writers that has proven such a delight and travelled me all the way from June to the end of July. The collection opens with Theresa Kishkan’s stunning essay, “Love Song,” which you can read here, an essay that articulates the magic of summer and all its strange tricks of time and light. I also loved pieces by Eve Joseph (“My memories of summer have as much to do with longing as they do with summer itself….”), Fiona Tinwei Lam on her childhood home and her family’s backyard pool, and other stories of summer love, summer cusps (see Sarah de Leeuw on the summer that began the end of childhood) and summer heartache. Luanne Armstrong’s Summer Break which so perfectly articulates the awful fleetingness of summertime: “I am caught between the beach and the future, between time and no time…” She writes about “how to cope or understand or even live with the world in such a state of frightening fragmentation where there is both the paradisial beach and the black muck of ‘news.'” And goes on, “Fortunately for me, the mountains and lake don’t care… Every day, I walk on the mountains, down to the beach, up through the trees, watching, noticing.” It’s summertime, and the living is complicated. But a book like this gives its reader a similar effect.

August 2, 2017

Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, by Norma Dunning

When I read the article, “What inspired her was getting mad,” about the story behind Norma Dunning’s debut collection, Annie Mukluk and Other Stories, I was not surprised. Acts of justice and revenge factor throughout the book, propelling the stories so terrifically. Dunning wrote her stories in response to ethnographic representations of Inuit people that neglected to show them as actual people, and the result is a book that’s really extraordinary. Because her people are so real, people who laugh, and joke, and drink, and have sex (and they have a lot of sex). Her characters love each other fiercely, family ties are nurtured in spite of obstacles (including residential schools and their legacy) and they all have a great deal of fun playing with the ignorance of the qallunaaq (Anglo-Canadian) and their perceptions of the north.

In “The Road Show Eskimo,” an elderly Inuit woman who found fame as the apparent author of a book about her experiences in the South—except the book was a fraud and it had been written by her white ex-husband—makes money from this endeavour and she even relishes the role she has to play to conform to peoples’ expectations. But on the particular day depicted in this story, the woman is going to take back her identity and use the power she’s been holding all along.

Such power also factors in the story “Husky,” about a HBC Agent who brings his three Inuit wives to Winnipeg where they are all made victims of violent racism—until they aren’t anymore, and the women take matters into their hands in the most fantastic feat of justice.

I loved “Elipsee,” about a man who’s taking his beloved wife out on the land one more time—she’s dying of cancer and this is the one thing left to try, and it actually works, in a beautiful, sad and perfect way, as the couple reconnects with their own history and that of their ancestors. In “Kakoot,” an Inuit man at the end of his life tries to leave this world for the next, which is complicated when you life in an old age home in the south and the spirit of your land and people are hard to come by.

And “Annie Muktuk” is the gorgeous story of two friends, one of whom has fallen in love with the titular character, described as follows:

“What I couldn’t get into Moses Henry’s head was that she just wasn’t Annie Mukluk. She was bipolar. She liked the Arctic and the Antarctic. She played with penguins and the polar bears. Annie Mukluk liked to fuck and she did it with everyone in Igloolik and everywhere else she went. She’d fuck your father, your sister, all your brothers and finish off with your mother. She swung both ways and sideways.”

(This paragraph joins the one about Slutty Marie from Megan Gail Coles’ Eating Habits… as perhaps two of my favourite paragraphs about women with voracious sexual appetites in all of Canadian literature.)

Anyway, the two friends, Moses Henry and Johnny Cochrane are each puzzling out the ways forward in their lives, in a fantastic, ferocious and bawdy novella about love, and brotherhood and friendship. I loved it. In “My Sisters and I,” three amazing women survive their experiences at residential school with their wits and strength, and the punch in the nose at the end of the story is the spectacular and perfectly delivered act of violence. This is justice, which is nice to encounter somewhere, even fictionally, because there’s certainly not much of it in reality. But these kinds of representations of Inuit women are just the beginning…

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