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Pickle Me This

March 8, 2018

The Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas

Book Cover Red ClocksThe week before we went away when I was sick in bed, I was reading Leni Zumas’s The Red Clocks, which I purchased after reading the review in The New York Times. I wasn’t reading it with an eye toward review, and I honestly wasn’t sure how I felt about it as I made my way through the novel—it’s a strange narrative, constructed of five different women’s voices that would have been “woven together” in another book, but this isn’t what’s happening here, and it wasn’t until close to the end of the novel that I really understood how the pieces were fitting. I really liked it, this novel about a dystopian America situated a week from now in which abortion is once again illegal.

“She was just quietly teaching history when it happened. Woke up one morning to a president-elect she hadn’t voted for. This man thought women who miscarried should pay for funerals for the fetal tissue and thought a lab technician who accidentally dropped an embryo during in vitro transfer was guilty of manslaughter. She had heard there was glee on the lawns of her father’s Orlando retirement village. Marching in the streets of Portland. In Newville: brackish calm.”

It’s fitting, really, that I was unable to see how the voices in the novel were fitting together, because I don’t think they were supposed to fit together. Zumas does interesting things with the idea of women being in competition and opposition with/to each other, and how difficult it is to support other women who make different kinds of choices. Mostly because, I think, we’re often told that there is not enough to go around and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the point of the The Red Clocks is that ultimately, our fates are all connected whether we like it or not, and that as a woman there is very little that can happen to women that in the end has nothing do with you. Zumas makes this all the more meaningful by connecting fertility and infertility to the abortion question, which I’ve realized it really should be, all being about questions of choice. In the book, a high school teacher has to figure out whether or not to help her student obtain an illegal abortion, all the while she is undergoing to fertility treatments (but not IVF, which has been outlawed) and being made ineligible to adopt at the government brings in rules stipulating that all adopted children have two parents (because what are all these laws about but keeping women from controlling their bodies and shaping their lives after all…).

There’s a whole lot more to it than that, fascinatingly, and it’s all very stranger and weirder than you might expect, but also not at the same time. I liked this book a lot.

February 22, 2018

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, by Kim Fu

I’ve read twelve books this month (so far!), barrelling through each one with gusto. They have been so good and I haven’t encountered a bookish dud in weeks and weeks—which meant that Naben Ruthnum’s recent tweet really resonated with me: ‘You haven’t “lost the ability to read,” you are just being lazy. Fuck the neuroscience, leave your phone in the other room and have some discipline.” YES. Or else you’re reading all the wrong books? Maybe I should be selecting your books for you, books that will recovery your ability to read—and top of the list is Kim Fu’s second novel, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore. It’s a novel shaped like no other novel I’ve read before, original, heartbreaking, subtle and resonant. Packing a whole lot of story into a couple of hundred pages, I have no doubt that this will be one of the best books I read this year.

Imagine a novel about summer camp, about a kayaking trip gone terribly wrong, a novel that holds within it the span of a life like The Stone Diaries did, except there are five lives. Nita, Andee, Dina, Isabel and Siobhan. Ten-years-old, the dynamics between them are complicated, alliances and enemies emerging in the relationships between any relationship proper. And then the first chapter ends, and the reader finds herself sweeping through the next three decades of Nita’s life, what happened (or, as the book is constructed, is still going to happen) at camp just one detail among many that informs the person who Nita becomes. Or is it so incidental? Which is the question about which Fu’s narrative hangs.

Every other chapter outlines chronology of the camping trip, interspersed with the story of who each girl becomes—puberty, high school, friendships, sex, independence, marriage, motherhood—years and decades going by at a clip but Fu pinpoints her details so well that these chapters are each like a novel in themselves. (Some of the girls’ lives are more elusive than others; we see wha happens to Andee, the “scholarship camper” through the prism of her sister’s experiences.) And then once we get to end of the novel and know what happened to the girls on their trip, those children, those hapless (maybe?) re-enactors of Lord of the Flies, each woman’s story is cast in a different kind of light. And just a note that what actually transpires on the trip is kind of banal in its disturbingness—or is it? Is it more disturbing that this story is banal? All of which is to say that those with an aversion to stories about children in peril need not avoid reading this book. Nick Cutter’s The Troop this is not, and they don’t encounter any witches in gingerbread houses. That they don’t need to is a testament to Fu’s craft though, as she is making a lot here out of very little. Or making a little out of a lot, and this is the question the novel hangs on in the most fascinating way.

February 5, 2018

Things To Do When It’s Raining, by Marissa Stapley

I didn’t know Marissa Stapley when I read her debut novel Mating For Love four years ago, and loved its bookishness, intelligence, and what a pleasure it was to read it. In the years since I’ve come to admire her criticism, her championing of commercial fiction and its writers, and her feminist take on the CanLit community. And I’ve also come to benefit from her community directly, with her support of my own book when it came out last year, and with her friendship. Which means that I’ve been especially looking forward to her second book, Things to Do When It’s Raining, and I’m thrilled that it’s finally here. I read an advanced copy back in January, and I devoured it in a day.

It begins with Mae Summers, whose fiancé has just disappeared along with all of the money people had invested in their business, and who turns out not to be who he said he was. Her life in pieces, Mae decides to go home again, back to the inn in the 1000 Islands where she was raised by her grandparents after her mother’s tragic death. But all is not well at home either—a secret hidden in Mae’s grandparents’ past has returned to the surface and disturbed their relationship, plus Mae’s old flame and first love is back in town, right at the moment when she’s most raw and shaken.

Obviously, with a set-up this riddled with landmines, this is going to be a book with twists and turns, plus an impromptu journey to Niagara Falls. The plot had me fixed, but I was especially in love with Marissa’s prose, her words and sentences, not to mention the amount of wisdom contained within. About life, and about love—this is a story that’s so rich. The advanced copy I read in January didn’t come with the reader’s guide contained in the final book, in which Marissa explains that the story was inspired by one in her own family history, but when I read this it illuminated the story for me, its meaningfulness and resonance. Although part of it too was that it’s also written by a wonderful writer. And I particularly loved the book’s structure, the chapters moving between different characters’ points of view, but each one preceded by an item from the list that gives the novel its title. “Things to do when it’s raining,” written by Mae’s late mother in her youth, so that her voice infuses the novel like the presence of a ghost, so that we know full well what the other characters are missing. And the subtle ways these items tie into each chapter: “Build something. There are tools and scrap wood in the shed. And yes, bandages and ice in the kitchen, in case you accidentally hammer your finger.”

I received a finished copy of Things to Do When It’s Raining, but I’m fully intending to buy one too, which means I’ve an extra now for giveaway. Leave a comment on this post and let me know your favourite thing to do when it’s raining, and I will randomly choose a winner. Canadians only please, for postal reasons. And happy book birthday, Marissa!

UPDATE: Thanks for the comments, everyone! The winner has been chosen via Random Number Generator (i.e. very scientific…)

January 30, 2018

Boat People, by Sharon Bala

The debut novel by Sharon Bala (who was acclaimed for her short fiction with the award of The Journey Prize last year) is The Boat People, an ambitious, engrossing and absolutely important book that I keep hearing about everywhere—Bala was on The Sunday Edition; reviewed in The Globe & Mail—and for good reason. It’s a book that might be called timely, except that stories like this—of people fleeing war and persecution, chancing everything on survival in a new land, being viewed with suspicion upon arrival, the threat of outsiders and others being manipulated for government propaganda—are as old as stories about people venturing across seas at great peril in search of a better life are. Which is to say: as old as stories themselves. And peoples, and seas.

Inspired by the 2010 story of a ship of Tamil asylum-seekers arriving in British Columbia, Bala’s story begins with Mahindan, a Tamil mechanic who has lost everything except his young son and has bet everything he has on the chances of finding a new start in Canada. The novel begins with the ship’s interception as it reaches Canada, and follows Mahindan through the process of being imprisoned and separated from his son as months go by and his fate is left in limbo—will he get to stay in Canada, or will be he deported to Sri Lanka where nothing good awaits him. Alternate chapters also take us back through his history, showing us how he went from a happily married man with family, friends and a rich life, awaiting the birth of his first child, to someone with (almost—save for his son) nothing left to lose—the gradual reveal of Mahindan’s backstory makes for compelling, powerful reading.

But Mahindan is not the story’s centre, or not its only one; that this is a story with multiple centres and voices and points of view is an important aspect of its construction. Because there’s never just one centre of a story, and all the best narratives refuse to be contained, overflowing to be resonant in all kinds of surprising ways and flowing into other stories. Like the story of Priya, a second-generation Tamil-Canadian who would just like to finish her placement in corporate law so she can become accredited and begin work in mergers and acquisitions, thank you very much. But the fact of her ethnicity means she’s roped into a position with another lawyer in the company who’s working in refugee law and who overestimates her knowledge in terms of Tamil language and culture to assist him as he supports the Tamil asylum seekers with their refugee claims. Like Mahindan, Priya is somewhere she doesn’t belong, and for a while she resists being involved with the asylum seekers and the war her parents had been so intent on leaving behind them when they arrived in Canada. But eventually, she becomes invested, and the ramifications of this are felt deep within her family.

Like Priya, the story’s third central character has also worked to put the past behind her, a third generation Japanese Canadian called Grace whose hard work in the civil service has been rewarded with a role adjudicating refugee claimants. She begins her new position not long after the Tamils arrive, and political tensions are high, and ever being manipulated by Grace’s former boss and mentor, the Federal Minister for Public Safety whose interests lie in keeping the threat of terrorism high. Meanwhile, Grace’s mother is ailing from Alzheimers and the past and the presents are intermingling in her head, stirring stories of the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War Two, stories that Grace’s family had been careful never to dwell on. Stories of othering, persecution, public safety threats, racism, and so much terrible history that’s so analogous to what’s going on in the present day.

Bala’s prose is beautiful, the narrative so careful woven, and the shape of the novel itself so terrifically undefined in a way that allows the story to go beyond its limits, to pose questions that don’t necessarily have answers, to unsettle its readers in the most powerful way. There is a didacticism at work, but with a depth and complexity that saves the novel from its few too-earnest moments. Further, a little earnestness is nothing to scoff at, and maybe the author of a book this interesting, original and well-written has earned those moments. Especially since this is such an essential book for Canadians to be reading right now.

January 29, 2018

Encyclopedia of An Ordinary Life

I got Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life out of the library on Friday and devoured it in two days while annoying everybody in my presence because I’d insist on reading passages aloud while they were trying to play Pokemon or read a different book or conduct a conversation. I loved this book so much, for all kinds of reasons, which weren’t necessarily the reasons its author intended the book to be loved when she published it for the first time in 2004. Except for this one: that she’d intended the book as a document of ordinary life at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and at this it succeeds so wildly, but so much so because life in 2004 seems very far away from 2018, where I read this book now. Answering machines, compact discs, and faxes. There is an image of a Yahoo email message, and I’d forgotten what those looked like—the font, the logo, the peculiar line breaks. The internet exists, but you’re not carrying it in your pocket, your purse. It’s still rife with possibilities for human connection, old friends getting in touch, hearing from strangers. The internet in 2004 was bringing us closer together instead of driving us further apart.

This book had absolutely nothing in common with Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code, which I finished reading a week ago, except that both had me thinking about the internet’s early days and all that possibility for connection. Rosenthal’s book reminded me of how exciting it was to be on the internet in 2004, the access to offered to worlds I didn’t know existed. The first job I had with an internet connection was at the Financial Post during the summer of 2001, which was the same summer I discovered that there was this fantastic literary culture happening in the world right now—that was the summer I bought White Teeth and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. 2004 was when I was living in Japan and avidly reading Maud Newton and other book bloggers, and while actually becoming a book blogger still seemed like it was beyond me, living in a world where I had this window onto people doing and thinking and being literary culture was really astounding and transformative to me.

And Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s book gave me that same frisson of inspiration—these glimpses of fascinating people doing cool things. Or even mundane things, which this book is more about, the very point of it. The mundanity of the 2004 internet is also something I missed, as opposed to the YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED NEXT… clickbait. Smart people being boring, was the theme of the internet in 2004, or at least the corners of it I frequented. And it’s how I fell in love with blogging, really. The way that smart people being boring illuminated the secret wondrous corners of everyday existence, its various miracles the dancing dust motes (were dust motes actually things that people noticed who weren’t characters in novels).

She also writes a lot about death, which would not be so noticeable were she now, in 2018, not actually dead. It makes this ordinary book much more poignant, extraordinary, necessary, a gift. (See my 2015 post about blogs as “survival gear for our stories.”)

“I shopped for groceries. I stubbed my toe. I danced at a party in college and my dress spun around. I hugged my mother and my father and hoped they would never die. I pulled change from my pocket. I wrote my name with my finger on the cold fogged-up window. I used a dictionary. I had babies. I smelled someone barbecuing down the street. I cried to exhaustion. I got the hiccups. I grew breasts. I counted the tiles in my shower. I hoped something would happen. I had my blood pressure taken. I wrapped my leg around my husband’s leg in bed. I was rude when I shouldn’t have been. I watched the cellist’s bow go up and down, and adored the music he made. I picked at a scab. I wished I was older. I wished I was younger. I loved my children. I loved mayonnaise. I sucked my thumb. I chewed on a blade of grass.

I was here, you see. I was.”

January 23, 2018

Winter, by Ali Smith

I walked through a blizzard to buy Winter a week and a half ago, the new release by Ali Smith that I’ve been looking forward to since rereading Autumn in the autumn. A novel that helped me so much through the political turbulence that was 2017, contemporary events as rendered by literature so that they were just enough at a distance–it was clarifying, and gave me hope. And so it was strange to pick up Winter, the second book in Smith’s seasons sequence, and see that everything wasn’t okay after all. That one book is not going to cure us of what ails us, and the trouble continues through winter, a season during which nature settles down to sleep:

“God was dead: to begin with. / And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead. Poetry, the novel, painting, they were all dead, and art was dead. Theatre and cinema were both dead. Literature was dead. The book was dead. Modernism, postmodernism, realism, and surrealism were all dead…”

The novel opens the day before Christmas, with Sophia Cleves who is haunted by a disembodied head. Interestingly, this being an Ali Smith book where surrealism is so often present, it doesn’t occur to me until later when we see Sophia through the eyes of other characters, that there is anything unusual about a woman being haunted by a disembodied head. Autumn had the weirdness of people turning into trees, and the head spectre is the strangeness of Winter, and usually these are points that would make me want to give up, but so much else makes me go on. Autumn opens with the absurdity of a character’s engagement with a bureaucrat at the passport office, and Winter does a similar trick with Sophia Cleves’ visit to the bank before they close at noon on Christmas Eve—the insanity and banality of these kind of engagements with the state and/or corporation, the robotic interaction between a human being and a person who’s just doing their job—presumably a human being as well.

Sophia Cleves is not the centre of Winter (the dead of?), which is instead her son Arthur, Art. Who writes a blog called Art in Nature, about stepping in puddles and bird sightings. Art who I was all prepared to sympathize with, all set for him to be my hero—and then we realize that as a hero he’s terribly flawed. His furious girlfriend berating him for his lack of engagement with the world around him, for believing he’s doing his part through his blog posts (which are totally made up; Art never leaves the city), and not seeing what’s going on around them. He tells her, “We’re all right… Stop worrying. We’ve enough money, we’ve both got good assured jobs. We’re okay.”

“Forty years of political selfishness…” she continues. Political divides, the rise of fascism, plastic bags, etc. And he dismisses her, all of it. It’s the way it always been, he tells here. These things are cyclic. Whatever, whatever. We’ll be all right. It’s all fine.

I am Art. This revelation occurred to me around page 58. This, and the fact that I’m a climate change denier, which is a revelation I had on Friday when I got in an argument with my dad about why we see robins around in the winter. “It’s totally normal,” I say, because I read it somewhere once. “Climate change,” says my dad. “It’s getting warmer, it’s scary.” And I become a bit hysterical. I don’t want to be scared. I know climate change is real, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do about it in my tiny little life, and so to preserve my sanity I cling to signs that everything is normal. For example, about how when I bought this book, I walked through a snowstorm. A blizzard. In the winter. Things are fine.

The story takes place over Christmas at Sophia’s, when Art comes to stay with his girlfriend, who is not his girlfriend (who has just broken up with him due to his political selfishness) but instead a random woman he meets on the street, an immigrant from Croatia via Toronto with a penchant for Shakespeare who is struggling to get by. When they arrive, it becomes clear that Sophia is not okay, and so they call her estranged sister Iris to come and help, Iris the old hippie, who’d protested against nuclear weapons at Greenham Common, Iris who is the living embodiment of another way to face the world, a way that’s different from Sophia and Arthur’s denial—of seeing, of engaging, and doing her part to change the world. Insisting that, via Greenham Common, she really did.

But it’s not as simple as that, of one way being the good way to live, and the other being bad. There is a moment when Iris and Sophia say to each other, “I hate you.” “I hate you.” And then embrace, and lay down together in bed, and there it is, what has to happen. It isn’t easy. It isn’t neat. But somehow these characters, “see its the same play they’re all in, the same world, that they’re all part of the same story.”

That last line a reference to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (which I’ve never read or seen!), the play that makes Arthur’s not-girlfriend come to England, in fact. “A play about a kingdom subsumed in chaos, lies, powermongering, division and a great deal of poisoning and self-poisoning”…. “I read it and I thought, if this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is in the end where the balance comes back and all the lies are revealed and all the losses are compensated, and that’s the place on earth he comes from, that’s the place that made him, then that’s the place where I’m going.”

Art is how we get there, is Smith’s thesis in this novel. Through Shakespeare, yes, but also by seeing what happens when we put real things in fiction—things like Brexit, and the Grenfell Tower fire. What happens to books when we put the world in it is a question that’s addressed in the most wonderful way, Arthur’s not-girlfriend (whose name is Lux) telling the story of an old copy of Shakespeare kept in a library with the imprint of what was once a flower pressed between the pages. “The mark left of the page by what was once the bud of a rose.” She’d called it, “the most beautiful thing I have ever seen… it was a real thing, a thing from the real world.”

Which was exactly what had made Autumn so powerful to me, and otherworldly too in the ways in which it did engage with the world. It was why reading it again in October was such a big deal, to be present in the novel’s moment. It was why it was especially meaningful to keep reading and discover that the Shakespeare play Lux refers to is housed at the Fisher Library here in Toronto, right at the end of my street. Uncanny, isn’t it? The line between life and fiction blurred in the most fascinating fashion.

My favourite thing about Winter was everything, but I especially loved its connections to Autumn, which are lovely, subtle, and so unbelievably perfect. Except I read somewhere that Spring’s not out until 2020, and how am I supposed to wait that long?

January 15, 2018

“The umbrella exists in a state of flux…”

“Nowadays, in a time when most umbrellas aren’t worth the stealing and are tossed aside like sweet wrappers when they fail, umbrella theft and ‘frightful moralities’ have been largely replaced by general indifference. Like pens, plectrums [guitar pick: who knew?], and Tupperware containers, the umbrella often seems an entity that is not owned but exists in a state of flux, travelling from person to person, taken up and left behind according to various states (or absences) of mind. Think of umbrellas doing endless loops on the Circle line, the inevitable bundles in the corner of lost property offices, the umbrellas in the staff room that nobody seems to own, or forgetting which they do own, they are afraid to take one away lest it actually belong to someone else. I would suggest that modern-day umbrella ownership has less to do with a specific object than the category as a whole: one possesses an umbrella, not their umbrella.” -Marion Rankine, Brolliology: A History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature.

January 10, 2018

“Be as large as you’d like to be.”

I was all set to write a blog post about how I hurt my elbow on the Christmas holidays because I fell off the couch when I was bound and gagged (this actually happened) but you’re going to have to wait until next week now for that story because I’ve got something on my mind. I was thinking about the fallout from what’s happening regarding Concordia University’s English Department (short version: a man articulated something women have been talking about for years regarding predatory males on the faculty, and then yesterday it was the six o’ clock news), all these conversations about men in positions of power—and then it occurred to me, “What is this ‘power’ we’re talking about?” The power of a part-time job teaching creative writing? The power of a handful of slim books of poetry whose sales total into the hundreds? The power of editing a literary magazine that nobody ever reads unless they’d like to be published by them (which would then permit said reader/writer the power of a publication credit)? If this is what passes for “power,” then we’re sadly impotent, the lot of us.

Of course, there is power. As a reader and a writer and someone who published a small press book and continues to be grateful to publish in literary journals, I know that there is indeed power in words, poems and stories; that lit mags can be magic; that small independent presses can move mountains; and a slim book that sells a few hundred copies might matter so much. I do not seek to undermine these institutions, systems and networks. I feel fortunate to have benefitted from them, but I also know that their power is in the works themselves, and that it’s a small and subtle thing, a power that can’t be quantified. This real power is also not a thing that can be lorded over others.

But I’m getting away from the point here, which is the ridiculous  fact that a slovenly man with a part-time job and magazine imagines himself as having power. That we’re meant to  looking up to a guy who churns out books that nobody reads and who is trapped in perpetual adolescence. That eventually that guy is in his fifties, and he’s entertaining the notion that a brilliant young woman might want to have sex with him—where, I would like to know, does a person get a sense of entitlement like that? Because, quite frankly, I would like to go there and get some too.

On Sunday I read an advanced copy (out in March) of Elizabeth Renzetti’s brilliant, generous, biting and moving collection of essays , Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls. I loved it. I wanted to read passages to my daughters, buy a copy for my mother, and plan to implore everyone I know to pick up a copy. Several essays had me in tears by the end, others made me want to grab a placard and march down the street, my shrill voice exclaiming, Feminist, feminist, feminist, feminist, feminist is for me! It’s a beautiful book rich with lessons learned from a few decades on the feminist frontline. And the theme that emerged as I read the essays was of not-enoughness—not enough women on the US Supreme Court, not enough women MPs in Canada’s House of Commons. (Related: why does nobody ever ask how many is enough men? Oh, wait! Me all the time. But never mind. Maybe a man will write a blog post about it and then we can hear about it tomorrow on the news.)

And of course, the book is very much about the way that women are made to feel as though they themselves are never enough—not smart enough, pretty enough, assertive enough, friendly enough, small enough, imposing enough, busty enough, thin enough, conforming enough, or original enough. As a woman, there are infinite ways to be faulty. Which is why it’s particularly powerful when Renzetti writes in her final piece, “Size Matters: A Commencement Address”: “Be large. Be as large as you’d like to be. Take up room that is yours. Spread into every crack and corner and wide plain of this magnificent world. Sit with your legs apart on the subway until a man is forced, politely, to ask you to slide over so he can have a seat. Get the dressing on the salad. Get two dressings. Order the ribs on a first date.”

(And then she goes on to write, “Throw away your scale. Stop weighing yourself. Is there ever a reason to know your precise weight? Are you mailing yourself to China? Are you a bag of cocaine?” Oh my gosh, this book…)

There are so many lessons that I’m taking away with this tragedy/debacle at Concordia/the world in general, but here’s the one I am focussing on today: if a slovenly largely unsuccessful middle aged writer can imagine himself a powerful sexual Lothario then it is possible I might actually be enough after all. Even more than. If a fucking imbecile can be President of the United States, there is really not limit for the rest of us sentient beings. If some guy who edits a literary journal is a powerful figure, then I am fucking King Kong with Godzilla riding on my shoulders, and so are you. And from now on we should be that large, and own the power we’re entitled to.

January 8, 2018

What I read on my holidays…

I think it happened the year I spent Christmas reading Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, when the holidays began to seem to me like a fine vessel for reading biographies. With the time and space necessary to become absorbed by books so book and consuming, 500 or so pages most of them, which isn’t a number of pages that one can read in dribs and drabs. I’ve also developed a habit of going offline for a week or so at Christmas, which helps to get books like this done. Last year my Christmas biography project involved books about Claude Monet, Jane Jacobs, and Shirley Jackson, which was wonderful. So I was been looking forward to the holidays this year, stockpiling life stories, and it was a lot of pages, a lot of living, but I read four biographies in the end, biographies of four women who seem disparate at first glance, and there was such pleasure in drawing their stories together and understanding the ways in which their lives and experiences intersect.

The book I read first was Sandra Djwa’s beautiful award-winning biography of P.K. Page, whose work I’m not very familiar with (although I met her once, in grad school. I can scarcely believe this actually happened. What did I say to her? Hopefully nothing…). Journey With No Maps is the book’s title, which would also be a fitting description for all women whose lives I read about during my holiday, and it was a gorgeously written evocative read. It follows Page through her life and experiences as a writer, a painter, and a diplomatic wife in Australia, Brazil and Mexico. What impressed me most with Page was the way in which she was just incredibly good at everything she set her mind to—she never really had an apprenticeship. Which is not to say that she didn’t grow and develop as an artist, but she was always P.K. Page. She seems to have always been excellent.

I wasn’t sure what the through lines would be from Page’s life to that of Svetlana Alliluyeva in Stalin’s Daughter, except that Rosemary Sullivan, who wrote the book, appears as a character in Journey With No Maps, which is very cool to consider. Svetlana’s story shows an extreme version of a pattern set out in Page’s biography, that of a woman being defined by her relationships to men. I suppose Svetlana’s is also a story of being in a family with a diplomat—she is paraded out during her father’s dinner with Churchill in 1942—even if the diplomat in question is Stalin. And there is unrequited love in both books—before her marriage, Page was deeply involved in a relationship with a married man that she never entirely got over; Svetlana, sadly, falls passionately in love with one man after another. We learn about Khrushchev’s Thaw, which brought with it political instability—Soviet tanks would crush a Hungarian uprising in 1956, at the same time that P.K. Page’s diplomat husband Arthur Irwin was working with Lester B. Pearson to ease tensions during the Suez Crisis. In 1967, Svetlana would defect to America. Also, Frank Lloyd Wright’s third wife is a bad bad woman, in that she brought Svetlana into an architectural cult and stole all her money. Seriously. The book was such a page-turner, Sullivan is such a wonderful biographer, and Svetlana Alliluyeva was a fascinating woman with literary talent and a fierce intelligence that was so often undermined. I found it interesting to learn how much she resisted all notions of socialism and communism after her experiences of totalitarianism, refusing to enrol her American daughter in public school because she found it anathema that the state should have a role to play in education, or anything. Sometimes its easy to dismiss what happened in the USSR as history, and to be confused by why so many people find state involvement in people’s lives potentially dangerous—Sullivan’s book did well to remind me that there’s some context to that.

Next up was Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Vita Sackville-West who, as with P.K. Page, I have heard about and read about more often than I have actually read her work. Oh my gosh, this book! I just kept reading allowed my favourite sentences. 1956 factors here as well: “Shortly before they left on a fortnight in France in October—the Suez crisis was raging in England—Vita was stung on the neck by a wasp while giving tea to Megan Lloyd George in the garden.” The whole book is rich with such strange and perfect details, partly because Glendinning is a first class biographer (though Sullivan and Djwa are just as good) but also because she left so much material, her letters and diaries. On page 128 Katherine Mansfield dies, which is 1922—and Mansfield had been a huge influence on P.K. Page in her formative years, and Page carried on a critical dialogue with Mansfield as she read the author’s work. Page was also devastated by Mansfield’s death, though it had taken place more than a decade before Page would learn of it, but she’d been reading Mansfield’s stories in 1930s imagining the author as a kind of contemporary, that she was somewhere out there in the world. Anyway, as per Vita, when Mansfield died, she left a space in the life of Virginia Woolf, a space that would be filled by Vita herself, and Woolf was another great influence on PK Page.

Like Page, Vita was a diplomatic wife, albeit a pretty unorthodox one. “Vita’s prejudices against the diplomatic life were confirmed, though she paid calls, attended and gave luncheons and dinners, as she had in Constantinople; she even gave away the hockey prizes. ‘I don’t like diplomacy, though I do like Persia,’ she told her father.” Later in her life, she was comfortable playing virtually no role in her husband’s diplomatic and political life at all—often to his displeasure. But Vita, like Page and Svetlana, made her own map, for what a daughter, a wife, a woman should be. She rankled at the limits permitted by society to her gender, and was ever resentful that because she was a girl she was not able to inherit her father’s estate and family home by which was tremendously attached and inspired. Though she did manage to buy a castle and live in a tower, so it worked out better for her than it might have for a lot of women. I was fascinated by the process of Vita moving from bohemian renegade to upper class conservative later in her life, as well as her nationalism in spite of her lack of appetite for her husband’s work. It’s such a surprising, but natural trajectory. Like Svetlana, Vita had many many love affairs, but she was the one who left lovers enthralled (and broke their hearts, though they would be forever devoted). Oh, and later in her life, Vita and her husband took to cruises, and when she’d visit Brazil she would find it quite differently than P.K. Page did (who found her experiences there transformative): “I think it is a beastly country and I never want to see it again.”

And then finally, another life without maps, that of artist Joyce Wieland, in Iris Nowell’s 2001 biography, Joyce Wieland: A Life in Art. Where there was no mention of the Suez Crisis at all, but Wieland, like Page, would also develop an affinity with Katherine Mansfield. No word on Mansfield and Svetlana—except no!! The evil Olgivanna Lloyd Wright who’d brought Svetlana into a cult and stole her money was the nurse who cared for Mansfield on her death bed, what????? Olgivanna and Mansfield were both pupils of George Gurdjieff, whose work would be meaningful to Wieland throughout her life. (And P.K. Page would become influenced by Gurdjieff through her connection with Leonora Carrington in Mexico. I don’t think Vita Sackville-West had much to do with Gurdjieff at all. I don’t know that she was so concerned with self-development. She had the confidence not to be…)

Anyway, I saw the Wieland exhibit at the McMichael Gallery in October and really wanted to learn more about her. Of the four women whose books I read, Wieland is the only one who attended a high school I can see from  my bedroom (which is a mark of distinction for any life…) Her early life recalls Vita’s mother’s, in its illegitimacy and scandal (her father had left behind a wife and family in his native England) but much more destitute. She would be an orphan by age nine, and spend the rest of her childhood in the care of her older sister and family friends, but it was the Great Depression and not a great time for anybody to be taking in extra children. I loved reading about her experiences growing up in Toronto from the 1930s to the 1950s, the artistic scene in particular. I loved learning about Wieland’s interest in fashion design, and how that informed her art—and how her talent was nurtured during her years at Central Technical School under the tutelage of painter Doris McCarthy.

Once again, Wieland would be defined in relation to a man in her life, the artist Michael Snow—she’d spend a lot of time dismissed as ‘the wife of…”. Interesting to learn that she conceptualized his geese sculptures at the Eatons Centre in Toronto. Interesting too to learn that her art on the Toronto Transit System—which I tweeted about not long ago when we went to see her caribou, lamenting that we don’t have the vision anymore to make public art like that—was hugely controversial when it was installed; seems there never was a golden age of art appreciation. Or that the craftwork in much of her textile art was done by other people who employed, including her talented older system Joan—and she always took care that they got credit. Oh, and the sexism, as per P.K. Page. Unlike the three other women I read about, Wieland did not resist the label of feminist and that was refreshing (especially since all the women in my book stack so exemplified it). Like Page did, Wieland also worked very hard on behalf of Canadian artists and creators and tried to make a space where Canadian works could be celebrated as distinct from their American counterparts. Each of the women I read about on my holidays engaged with nationalism in singular and interesting ways—I’m thinking too of the way that Wieland would come to reevaluate her reverence for Pierre Trudeau, that it was never really reason over passion over all.

But then what kind of life would it be if it ever was? None of these books, nor these lives, would ever have reached the heights they did.

December 6, 2017

My Life With Bob, by Pamela Paul

It’s here! I’m on vacation, in my reading life at least. Which is the way it happens every year sometime in the first half of December when I realize that I’m done. And that for the rest of the month I’ll be reading books just for fun, because I want to, unabashedly and uncritically and for the love of it (including four big books I’ve been saving for the holidays when I take time off-line, biographies of Vita Sackville-West, Svetlana Stalin, P.K. Page, and Joyce Wieland). I’ll be reading books just like I read Pamela Paul’s book, My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, voraciously and with delight. I loved My Life With Bob, which I bought Friday, started reading Sunday evening, and finished last night whilst sitting on my kitchen table waiting for the pasta to boil.

It’s the kind of book that makes you want to write a book just like it, an autobiography through reading. I would write about reading Tom’s Midnight Garden when my first baby was born, and the night after the second when I sat up breastfeeding and reading Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Reading Joan Didion for the first time on a tram in Hiroshima, which was around the time I started reading Margaret Drabble, the secondhand bookstore in Kobe that’s responsible for my connection with some of the writers I love best. Reading Astonishing Splashes of Colour, by Clare Morrall when I had pneumonia, and Fear of Flying on a plane to London, and The Robber Bride when I was far too young to properly understand anything it could tell me. I really could write an entire book like this—except it probably wouldn’t be as good as Pamela Paul’s.

“Bob” is Paul’s “Book of Books,” a list she’s been maintaining for decades of all the books she’s read. A list without annotations, but who needs annotations, because when she sees the titles they call forth an array of memories and stories. Forcing herself to read the entire Norton Anthology in college, the books through which she learned about New York before she lived there, reading Kafka on an ill-fated high school exchange to France, and her own Catch-22—”the unquenchable yearning to own books—to own books and suck the marrow out of them and then to feel sated rather than hungrier still.” These essays are not necessarily about the books in question, but about what it means to be a book person, to identify as a reader and have literature underline one’s lived experience.

The essays are so incredibly good. They are subtle and unnerving and do precisely what essays are supposed to do, which is to catch their reader off-guard and take her somewhere she wasn’t expecting. As life itself tends to do, and we follow Paul through college, and then post-college travel to Thailand, through the precarity of her early career, and such a stunning sad essay about her short-lived first marriage. Which leads to self-help, of course, and of the time Paul took a writing course with Lucy Grealy (right??) and how she gradually became a writer, as well as a reader. (And oh, do not forget the essay about her relationship with a man who liked the “Flashman” series. Needless to say, it didn’t work out, all this in an essay on the impossibility of getting along with someone whose books you do not like.) And then the essays on reading with her children, and the one on her father’s death and Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose books, which don’t have so much to do with one another except that books are not so simple and so his death and the books become intertwined.

“Ultimately, the line between writer and reader blurs. Where, after all, does the story one person puts down on the page end and the person who reads those pages and makes them her own begin? To whom do books belong? The books we read and the books we write are ours and not ours. They’re also theirs.”

And as I begin my reading holidays, I’m quite ecstatic that this one is mine.

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