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January 5, 2021

Our Darkest Night, by Jennifer Robson

In her first four novels, Jennifer Robson proven herself as a master of popular historical fiction, her books about strong independent women’s self-discovery against a backdrop of World Wars 1 and 2, weaving fascinating historical detail (Robson holds a doctorate in British economic and social history from Saint Antony’s College, University of Oxford) with scintillating narrative. Her books are huge bestsellers, and many writers, having achieved that kind of success, might determine that they’d found their formula and should probably stick to it, but not Robson, whose smash hit fifth novel The Gown did something a little different, set in 1947 as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, bringing to light stories of craftspeople who’d worked the embroidery on the wedding dress and posing vital questions about the devaluing of craft and art in general that tends to be created and appreciated by women.

And now, two years on, Robson—who: full disclosure, is a friend of mine!—has continued to demand more of herself as a writer and also of her readers, releasing Our Darkest Night, which I read on New Year’s Day and think is her finest novel yet. Set in World War Two Italy as Nina, a secular Jew, leaves her home in Venice to hide in the countryside, disguised as a the wife of Nico, a Catholic farmer, as Italy’s fascist government continues to escalate deadly laws targeting the country’s Jewish population—her father has already lost his medical practice, she is not permitted to study, local Jewish associations are being called on supply officials with lists of people they’re connected with.

And so Nina agrees to go, desperately missing home and her family, and Robson does a wonderful job of creating a beautiful dynamic between them of respect and friendship…that has the potential to blossom into something more. The goodness of both these characters and the relationship between them creating a necessary balance to the backdrop of their story, the cruel and brutal reality of racism, persecution, and genocide. Robson doing nothing to blur the sharp edges of the truth of these matters, their violence and devastation. This is not an easy read, but to make it so would be to dishonour the stories of the real people who lived through and were victims of the Holocaust. And how does a writer whose novels feature plucky heroines and smoochy covers manage to do justice to the weight of the history she is telling? But Robson does, deftly, gorgeously.

Nina isn’t plucky—she’s a survivor. And I was trying to think of what the distinction might be exactly, which perhaps is that she comes to the story without naivete and with such a profound sense of who she is and where she comes from—there is a gravitas to her boldness that makes her absolutely unpluckable. She’s a remarkable fictional creation, and Our Darkest Night is a masterpiece.

December 11, 2020

Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste is one of the smartest, most illuminating and important books I’ve read this year—or ever. A rich, engaging and fascinating text that draws a connection between India’s caste system, the Nazis’ plans for Germany’s Jews, and America’s racial hierarchy—matter-of-factly, she shows that India and America’s hierarchies are parallel, and also how the Nazis drew on America’s example for their own purposes, though there were certain examples where the Nazis wouldn’t go that far (one instance: the one-drop rule.) And just think of it—when the Nazis think you’ve gone too far.

Americans are not widely known for using examples of other cultures to better understand or even benefit themselves—see: the reasons people come up with as to how measures to fight Covid all over the world couldn’t work in a place like Nebraska; or how while public healthcare functions just fine in Canada, in Florida it would be impossible (I SPEND TOO MUCH TIME READING SOCIAL MEDIA COMMENTS)—and so what Wilkerson is doing here is really radical and profound.

Caste, Wilkerson writes, is like grammar. Not explicitly taught, but absorbed, until it becomes part of the atmosphere, or perhaps foundation is a better metaphor, because everything else is built upon it, and she shares her observations for being able to tell what caste Indians are from by watching their interactions, the natural superiority one might assume to another, even somebody with very good intentions.

I found this book useful in a way that not all books on race and anti-racism have been to me. For the way it illuminating the questions I’ve been having for the last five years (why does the white working class keep voting against their interest? Because perpetuating the hierarchy is in their interest, even if they have to suffer for it.)

This is the kind of book whose reading only deepened the furrows on my brow, because I spent the whole time reading and wondering, “What the fuck?” Did you know that lynchings were once commemorating with wildly popular postcards? And when the postal service finally got wise and banned these, people just stuck the images in envelopes. People who threw glass into pools to keep Black people from swimming in them, and the district that just did without public schools altogether instead of segregating. Bull Connor paying a Black man to shake hands with the mayoral candidate he did not support, and a photographer to capture the moment, because it was unacceptable for a white man to shake hands with a Black man. And the legacy of Robert E. Lee, for whom schools across the nations are named, who got to become a university president after the Civil War (Wilkerson compares this to how Nazi Generals were NOT remembered after World War Two) and Wilkerson recounts a story of his torture of three of the people he enslaved: “Had these and even more gruesome atrocities occurred in another country, at another time, to another set of people other than the lowest caste, they would have been considered crimes against humanity… But the slaveholders…were not only not punished but were celebrated as pillars of society.”

And that this is the culture we are steeped in. (I am not American, but we are still steeped in American culture AND the history of my nation is not so vastly different even if we weren’t). It just seems like such a powerful way to explain the situation, and also to explain why racism is so hard to tackle, which is that racism is underlined by a caste system upon which not only institutions are built but which also informs our sense of self. Racism is just a symptom of a deeper and more insidious problem, which Wilkerson illuminates through a blend of anthropology, history, cultural studies, memoir, and reporting. A framework that has so long been invisible, but once you see it there, you realize it’s everywhere. You realize why the backlash to America’s first Black President, say, has been so awful and vicious, because of how so many are willing to gamble everything to keep that hierarchy intact.

Identifying a problem is the first step toward finding a solution, no matter how difficult finding that solution might be, and to that end, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wilkerson has done something so powerful with this, her second book after the acclaimed The Warmth of Other Suns. This is a book that continues to shift our understanding of race and white supremacy in a moment where we’ve never needed it more.

December 7, 2020

Radical Acts of Love, by Janie Brown

A rule of thumb that’s never steered me wrong is that if a book ever includes “Isabel Huggan at the Humber School for Writers” in its acknowledgements, I should just read it because it’s going to be good.

And since Isabel Huggan herself actually placed the book Radical Acts of Love (which falls into the aforementioned category) into my hands (not LITERALLY, because she gave it first to our friend Beth Kaplan, who then delivered it to my mailbox), my expectations were high for it.

But also perhaps this is the kind of book that you might not pick up UNLESS someone delivered it right to your mailbox, and even once someone does, you wait three months to pick it up, because who REALLY wants to read a series of oncology nurse and counsellor Janie Brown’s vignettes about her encounters with people at the end of their lives.

But oh, you SHOULD. Brown writes about how most people are able to live most of their lives without witnessing a death, and that this kind of distance and our society’s avoidance of thinking/talking about death makes us so ill-prepared for such a necessary part of life.

Death doesn’t have to be scary, Brown writes, or feared—though it can be messy and complicated (most often for loved ones left behind). RADICAL ACTS OF LOVE is a familarization with the process of death, a homecoming of sorts, and it’s warm, rich and even entertaining, remarkable in its scope.

At the darkest time of year, during a year in which so many have lost loved ones, a book like this seems particularly comforting, actually. That the dying of the light need not be raged raged against, but instead embraced as another of the seasons, an open heartedness that can deliver real peace, as Janie Brown’s stories show.

December 2, 2020

Butter Honey Pig Bread, by Francesca Ekwuyasi

One more title that I am glad I got to before the year was out was the debut novel by Francesca Ekwuyasi, Butter Honey Pig Bread, which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It was fantastic, a debut that was so polished and assured, hugely ambitious in its reach and just as successful in execution…and by page 19 it was clear I’d be baking the cake Taiye makes to celebrate the occasion of her twin sister’s homecoming, salted caramel chocolate. Which was baked before the day was out.

It’s a hugely evocative novel, gorgeous and sensual, rich with foods and cooking, and also with sex. Although it begins with something more unearthly, the birth of Kambirinachi, a Nigerian woman presented as an Ogbanje, “a spirit that plagues a family with grief by dying repeatedly in childhood and being reborn.” Except that Kambirinachi cheats the system and clings to her life, but she will pay a price for this. Which is how she explains tragedies that befall her when she loses her parents, and her husband dies, and then something terrible and traumatic is suffered by her twin daughters that tears the rest of their family apart.

The three strands of this novel belong to Kambirinachi and her daughters, Taiye and Kehinde, who grow up estranged from each other and head out into the world apart. Taiye goes to London, and then studies cooking in France, and eventually arrives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before returning home to care for her ailing mother. Meanwhile, Kehinde is left behind when her sister moved to London, and makes her own way to study in Montreal and build a life there.

At the beginning of the novel, Kehinde is arriving home to Lagos with her new husband, meeting her mother and sister again for the first time in years. We learn her story in the first person, seeking to make sense of her traumatic past and move forward in her life. Similarly, Taiye’s tells a story that blends the present day experience with what she’s been through in her life, and finally their mother’s story is told chronologically, adding necessary context to the twins’ experience—for the twins themselves and the reader alike.

The progress of the novel is these three strands becoming re-woven together, braided tighter and tighter throughout the narrative. It’s a novel that in many ways reminded me of Saleema Nawaz’s Bone and Bread, for themes of family estrangement, loss and mystery, and also food, and I would definitely recommend it for anyone who enjoyed that book.

I also appreciated its treatment of Black communities among the diaspora, Nigerian Taiye in Halifax visiting the Africville museum commemorating that city’s historic Black community, and the other Africans she meets in London. And that a novel creates such a powerful sense of place in so many different places—Lagos, London, Montreal, Halifax—is also a remarkable achievement.

Butter Honey Pig Break is a standout debut, and as much as it will make you hungry, it will also more than satisfy.

November 19, 2020

Two Trees Make a Forest, by Jessica J. Lee

Yesterday, just the day after I’d finished reading it, Jessica J. Lee’s second memoir, Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of My Family’s Past Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts, was awarded the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize. Lee is also author of Turning: A Year in the Water, a book that literally changed my life (after reading about her breaking ice with a hammer to swim in the dead of winter, how can I ever not just plunge into summer water ever again? There are no more excuses…) and which is distinguished by being one of the few books I’ve ever gotten rid of to regret. I have lots of books and live in an apartment, so I pass along most of my books once I’ve finished with them, but it turned out that I wasn’t finished with Turning after all. One of these days I’ll be replacing my copy, but in the meantime, there is Two Trees… which I’m never giving up. I learned my lesson the first time.

Lee’s work is an entrancing blend of nature writing and memoir, her stories grafted onto the landscape in a way that illuminates everything. And she’s got an eye for metaphor, or maybe it’s obvious. The book begins with the idea of “island,” which in English is defined by its relationship to water, but in Chinese (a civilization grown inland from the sea) the character for island includes a bird sitting on a mountain. Taiwan, from which her mother came (her parents fleeing there from mainland China after World War Two, an island that had always seemed particularly remote and distant to Lee, who felt more connected to her father’s culture in the United Kingdom, and was unsure of her own relationship to Taiwan and its culture.

The book braids together the story of Lee’s grandparents, which she discovers from a letter written by her grandfather and recordings she’d made of her grandmother before she died, along with a travelogue of Lee’s own discovery of Taiwan during trips during her 20s and 30s (including one with her mother, and another longer stay to improve her Mandarin), and the natural landscape of Taiwan, with mountains, and forests, rivers and coast. The land is fraught, prone to earthquakes and landslides, exacerbated by deforestation in Taiwan during its period of martial law until the 1990s. (In those years, Lee writes, conservation was suspect. Binoculars could be a tool of espionage…)

I know always nothing nothing about Taiwan, and its complicated history. I knew a bit about the Sino-Japanese War of 1937, which prompted a ceasefire in China’s civil war between the Communists and Nationalists and pushed mass populations westward and the Japanese invaded, because I’d read Janie Chang’s The Library of Legends in the spring. I’d been accustomed lately to thinking of Taiwan as “the good guys,” and had no idea about its oppressive history throughout the second half of the 20th century, its own kind fraughtness in addition to the earthquakes and landslides.

Lee’s eye for detail, her beautiful prose, and broad depth of knowledge (underlined by her remarkable curiosity) about the natural world make Two Trees Make a Forest a remarkable read. Her ability to see and weave patterns from disparate materials make the story surprising and engaging, and results in a book with considerable depth, a book fascinating in its specificity but also rich with general knowledge.

This is a book for anyone who ever wondered where they belong, who feels detached from stories of family, who revels in natural spaces and the stories they tell, and the incredible illuminations these spaces can grant us as we yearn for connection in the world.

November 12, 2020

Monogamy, by Sue Miller

Sue Miller is one of those ubiquitous American older woman writers I know nothing specific about, occupying the same part of my brain that Anita Shreve does, very 1990s’ Oprah’s Book Club. I read and reviewed her The Senator’s Wife in 2008, early on my book blogging career, although I don’t remember anything about the book or my review, but looking back, I’m proud of the young reviewer who provided the following insight: “Revelation more often does come in a glance, in a breeze, the turn of a head and the expression on one’s face. The sort of thing you can hardly put your finger on, and certainly cannot explain.”

I became interested in her latest novel Monogamy after reading Richard Russo’s review in The New York Times, and I bought the book with my ticket to the Book Drunkard Festival (tonight!). Reading the novel over the last couple of days, and it was one of those books I was disappointed to get to the end of. It was wonderful. Why have I not been reading everything Sue Miller has ever written in the years since The Senator’s Wife? (And why was I waiting for permission from Richard Russo to find her work interesting?)

The novel presents as realism, so real that certain moments are excruciating in that way (it seems) that only real life can be. Misunderstandings, and miscommunications, secrets brought to the surface, words that should never have been said but can’t be taken back. And heartbreak, and heartache, the devastation of grief, the unease of a life’s foundation beginning to crumble.

The ways in which characters are never truly known to each, or—even worse—the inexpressible things we know about the people we love and wish we didn’t.

But in a way, the novel is not realism at all, at least not in a literary sense. Beginning, middle and end. Climax and denouement. Central protagonist and secondary characters. A narrative line you could draw on the page.

When if you started to draw the narrative of Monogamy, the lines would turn to swirls intersecting with swirls, an abstract creation, a web. Strange and dazzling.

At the centre of the web, purportedly, is Graham, a man of large character and appetites, a character whose absence we understand after his sudden death because we’ve been following his point of view intermittently through the first third of book. But the centre shifts as the story proceeds, from character to character—Graham’s first wife, his son and his wife, and Graham’s daughter with his second wife, Annie, and it is is Annie to whom this story mostly belongs. But not entirely—from the other characters, we learn perspectives (including perspectives about Annie herself) that Annie has no idea about. And perhaps it’s the reader who is the centre of the novel after all.

They are recognizable, so many of these moments. “The sort of thing you can hardly put your finger on, and certainly cannot explain.” This is a novel about marriage, and family, and gender, and art-making, and generation gaps, and mother-rage, and friendship, and aging, and widowhood, and independence. About loyalty and betrayal, and love and forgiveness…but never is the story one-dimensional enough to be about just one of these. A many sided object catching the light in different places every time, strange and dazzling, like I said. Like life itself is.

Which is just an illusion, of course. Miller writes about Graham once explaining that the appeal of fiction is that it suggests our lives have shape after all, sequence and consequence, and that there is meaning in the randomness, the unfathomableness. And that this book manages to critique art as life, and then be art as life at once, and my mind is spinning, and what a testament to the novel is that.

November 5, 2020

Fake It So Real, by Susan Sanford Blades

One day I’m going to write a list of all my CanLit aversions (among them, the notion of “CanLit” at all), and near the top of the rankings will be Alice Munro as a lazy and meaningless cultural shorthand. Sometimes, though, the comparison fits, and Susan Sanford Blades’ debut, Fake It So Real, is a case where the comparison might be apt.

First, because the book is a novel/story collection hybrid ala Lives of Girls and Women, moving between first and third-person narration. The city of Victoria setting too, and the book’s complicated and messy depiction of motherhood and womanhood, women who chafe at the limits of “wife” and transgress them. Alice Munro, but make it punk? Beginning in the 1980s, as Gwen gets together with a charismatic musician and has kids before he blows out of their life altogether. She struggles to keep it together and mainly doesn’t, unable to quit drinking and wracked with social anxiety. This is not a story of happily ever after, but instead one of hardscrabble and losing, fucking up over and over again. Which doesn’t make for the most compelling argument to read this book, I realize, but it’s also just really really good, crafted with care and precision.

I felt this way when I fell in love with Leona Theis’s If Sylvie Had Nine Lives in September, a book whose effort never shows, whose seams and joints are invisible. It just works, and as a reader, it’s such a pleasure to submit to a book that’s so well constructed. To let it take you where it goes, and this one goes through the decades as Gwen’s daughters, Sara and Meg, make their own way into the world, try to account for their parents’ failures, attempt to make their own families in different ways, inevitably failing to live up to ideals, as one might expect, but I appreciate the way that Blades interrogates motherhood while not evoking the usual cliches. Her characters’ experiences are singular and interesting, and rich and fraught with complication.

Fake It So Real manages to be not a glorification of counterculture or a condemnation of it either. This is not a book that comes with an agenda, except to tell a story of love and family that is achingly real.

November 2, 2020

Santa Monica, by Cassidy Lucas

Oh, what would you give for a thriller that isn’t stupid?

Do you know what I mean? To be able to get lost in a book that is fluffy and silly, but doesn’t jump the shark to become completely preposterous. A book that is delectable as a hot fudge sundae, but whose characters are well drawn and real, with plausible dialogue, and who make sense as human beings? For a plot that is genuinely gripping and surprises you completely at least twice? Where “enjoyable” is not synonymous with “bad?”

I was expecting to have fun reading Santa Monica, by Cassidy Lucas, but that the book was so excellently crafted turned out to be the most amazing surprise. Beginning with the end, the much revered fitness coach found dead in his studio, and whodunnit? Cassidy Lucas (the pen name for writers Julia Fierro and Caeli Wolfson Widger) going back to the start to show how everyone has a motive: the woman he was sleeping with, her husband, the woman who was helping him steal from the fitness studio, and her husband, and his sister, and any of the nubile women of Santa Monica with whom Zack had been sleeping. Plus there’s a transplanted Brooklynite who is having trouble fitting in with her new California lifestyle, the perfect mom whose family is looming on the edge of terrifying debt, the housekeeper hoping to evade ICE authorities and raise her son in America, and more.

I loved it. Such a pleasure, and not a guilty one at all.

October 26, 2020

Blue Monday

There’s reading and there’s reading, you know? The latter an intense and visceral experience, and I don’t know if it’s about the book or the moment, or an amazing alchemy involving both. I know you can’t plan it, and simply have to wait for the moment to arrive, often when you really need it (like when I reread Kate Atkinson last spring and it brought me back to life…)

I took part in the Turning the Page on Cancer readathon yesterday and read for 8 hours straight, which is pretty much my ideal way to spend a day even when it’s not for charity. Putting together a stack of books for the event late last week—books on my to-be-read shelf, books that weren’t too long so I could feel I was making progress. They all turned out to be blue, which is the opposite of the Breast Cancer pink palette, but I always like to do books my own way. (PS We raised more than $30,000!!!)

I didn’t read Louise Penny’s latest, All the Devils Are Here, as part of the readathon, but it was almost like I did because a) the book was also blue and b) I had to speed through it Friday and Saturday so it would be finished in time for me to begin the official stack on Sunday. And I enjoyed the novel so very much. I always love me an Inspector Gamache novel, but this one seemed particularly compelling, I think because of its close focus on a single plot plot-line. I was absolutely wrapped up in the plot, gasped aloud several times (and yes, all gasps are aloud, but you know what I mean…) and found the climax rich and satisfying. It takes us away from Three Pines, to Paris, where Gamache and Reine-Marie have gone to await the birth of their new grandchild. And when Gamache’s godfather is struck down in a hit-and-run that seems calculated, the whole family becomes embroiled in a crime with potential for massive devastation—but is there anybody they can trust?

I had been nervous to read Rumaan Alam’s new novel Leave the World Behind because I’d heard reports it was bleak and disturbing, but also that it was phenomenal and it’s nominated for a National Book Award. So what to do? Because I’m not exactly emotionally strong as steel these days, more like wobbly as Jello, and I wasn’t sure I had the stomach. BUT if I read it in a couple of hours in one sitting, in the morning…it wouldn’t be so bad, I decided. This story of an ordinary time that turns into an apocalypse, when a white family is staying at remote holiday home and then an older Black couple turn up, the home’s owners, saying something unspecific but devastating as taken place in the the city, and they have nowhere else to, and things just get weirder and weirder, and it was so good. Resonant in this plague year (the mother’s plea, “I just want everything to be okay!) and the writing and imagery so striking (the flamingos!) even if I do feel he gets women and sex wrong (in this book, a woman can’t find her child, and likens this to being as strange as not being able to find her earlobes or her clitoris, but man, I bet there are a lot of women who can’t find their clitoris, it just was very off.) Am I glad I read this book? Yes, it was so interesting and rich and propulsive. Do I kind of wish I’d never read it though? Yes, because I’ve been disturbed by its darkness and slightly frightened ever since I finished it, but what a testament to the book’s power, right? This one is definitely a mindfuck.

But Agatha, by Anne Catherine Bomann, is not, thank goodness. A charming tale, one that could have been twee, but wasn’t. It actually spoke to the very different Leave the World Behind in a variety of ways, actually, about the danger/desire to live apart from humanity, about existential longing, about trauma and despair. Also set in Paris, which took me back to Louise Penny the day before! This one is a slim volume and I read it in an hour, but I loved it, translated from the Danish by Caroline Waight and published in Canada by BookHug, About a therapist whose detachment from his patients and the world around him becomes blurry when a new patient arrives and his stalwart secretary leaves to care for her dying husband. It also contains a recipe for apple cake, so this one was always up my street anyway, but I adored it.

I also loved David Berry’s On Nostalgia, which I bought after his 49thShelf launchpad post, and while it’s also a slim volume, it’s packed and heavy and I am pleased that it was part of the whirlwind of my day, adding a bit of literary heft, and it tapped into similar existential questions I’d encountered in the previous two books. Why do we spend so much time looking back? Why do we disdain this impulse? How do politicians manipulate it? How is Back to the Future actually an anti-nostalgic exercise? How does the dynamicism of social media affect our engagement with it, and that we have no memories of sites like Facebook or Instagram which is changing our user experiences of them constantly? It was so interesting, and the prose was engaging and funny. I am very glad I read it.

And then finally Bluebird, Bluebird, by Attica Locke, whose first two novels I loved, and I picked this one up at Lighthouse Books in the summer. (Literally. And then had to buy because Covid.) I’m not so far into it now, but am riveted, about a Black Texas Ranger who’s caught between a rock and a hard place, a familiar situation I would imagine for Black police officers everywhere. He’s also a law school drop-out and pulled between the desire to challenge the law and to serve it—in which corner does justice lie?

On the eve of my own book release, with so much else going on in the world and my nerves all frayed, butterflies exploding in my stomach, etc, it was such a privilege and a pleasure to escape into reading this weekend, not to leave the world behind at all (SPOILER: IT IS TO MUCH WITH US!) but to give me new ways to think about it, and celebrate the magic that reading can do.

October 22, 2020

Perfect October Reads

The Searcher, by Tana French

What a gift is any new book by Tana French, and The Searcher is no exception. Set in rural Ireland where a retired Chicago cop has come to make a new life after escaping his old one for reasons he really doesn’t want to get into…but then a kid shows up urging him to pursue a local mystery.

This is a quiet, thoughtful kind of thriller, not heavy on plot at all, but propelled by the most terrific tension. I loved her previous novel, The Witch Elm, but it was kind of baggy. The Searcher is a more satisfying read, rich and soulful, and really hard to put down, and enlivened with a moral ambiguity that’s unfailingly interesting.

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

And believe the hype about the bestselling Mexican Gothic. Spooky haunted house book in the 19th century English tradition, terrifying and absolutely delicious, and with a great critique of colonialism and racism. Moreno-Garcia’s Noemí Taboada is the heroine of your wildest dreams, cigarette-smoking, convertible-driving, as clever as she is gutsy, and determined to save her cousin Catalina who’s been having terrifying visions since arriving at her new husband’s strange family home, built on top of a fateful silver mine—but the strange and deadly force at work in the house is determined to stop either of them from leaving. You’ll be having disturbing dreams until you’ve made it through this one, so you should probably just clear your calendar.

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