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Pickle Me This

January 31, 2020

Perfect Pockets

I had the coziest reading week last week, with a backlog of books I wanted to review, and therefore I had to slow down with my reading, to spend some quality time with just one book while my reviewing got caught up. And the book I chose was The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai, which I had been on the verge of purchasing over and over again since it came out in 2018. I’d read her previous novel years ago, and found it middling, which made me wary of picking up this one, but there was nothing middling about its acclaim so I finally broke and bought it when I was at Hunter Street Books in Peterborough the other week, when I’d entered the store at five minutes before closing. And then I sat down to read it a few days later, and I’m so glad I read it the way I did, slow and easy, instead of in a hurry. It’s a giant, sprawling, ambitious story that’s maybe a bit too ambitious—as was her last book. But this one used that largeness and packed it with substance, with stuff, and even though I found some of the art stuff and connections to Paris in the 1920s a *bit* of stretch, still it stretched without breaking, and the connection worked. And her portrayal of the AIDs crisis in the 1980s was literally stunning, so devastating—and she wrote about it so beautifully. (See Makkai’s essay, “Writing Across Difference”, about how she—a straight woman—wrote successfully from the perspective of a gay man.) It was such a pleasure to not have to read the novel with a critical eye, but just to get lost in it—and I did. One of those reading experiences I will not soon forget, such a perfect pocket in time.

January 29, 2020

The Towers of Babylon, by Michelle Kaeser

I am just old enough to be wary of a novel whose plot is described as “track[ing] a group of hapless Millennials trying to find meaning in a world that consistently rejects them,” but am I ever glad I overcame such aversions to read Michelle Kaeser’s debut novel, The Towers of Babylon, whose characters are as complicated and wonderful as its exquisitely Toronto setting.

The novel—split into four sections—begins with Joly, whose advanced degrees in creative writing have left her interviewing for the same barista job she had in high school. She’s living with her brother in East End Toronto, writing stories that delight her but whose publications don’t even pay peanuts, and then she finds out that she’s pregnant, which was always going to be complicated, but in particular because her partner is Ben, once a philosophy student, always a social-anarchist, but now he’s got a job at the local bagel place and the house he shares with a group of roommates is about to be condemned. When she tells him she’s knocked up, he’s already drunk on his home brew, but isn’t too drunk to realize that a baby isn’t possible. And Joly doesn’t even really want a baby either, but she longs for a life where it might even be a question. “Now that she’s stormed through the door of thirty, the abortion instinct doesn’t ring out quite as loudly as it once did.”

The reader meets Joly’s best friend Lou in the novel’s first section, when Lou counsels Joly through the shock of her positive pregnancy test. On the surface, Lou seems to have it all together. She has a successful career (albeit a ridiculous one, as is obligatory in our time—she markets to marketers, selling space on billboard) and is married, living in her childhood home in the suburbs, which she purchased from her father. But all is not right, because she insists the house be preserved in time, from the era decades ago just before her mother died of cancer. And all is not serene in Lou’s marriage, as the reader will discover, and her career is at a breaking point. She’s got a better CV, but her situation is not all that improved over Joly’s.

And then Ben, Joly’s boyfriend, who should be the most charmless literary character I’ve read in ages (he calls Joly “doll” and when Joly tells him about her pregnancy, he asks her, “Can you even carry my mighty seed? Look at you. Look at me. Your runty frame would split right open!”) but there’s something endearing in his approach, and in his clumsy love and affection for Joly, and for his idealism and insistence upon it, as he lectures the Priest at his Anglican church on how to deliver her sermons, or causes trouble at the bagel place by agitating for workers’ rights and trying to start a union.

Religion plays a important part in the novel, as the title would suggest, and the Toronto skyline (the CN Tower in particular) underline the symbolism of this society in decline that Kaeser is writing about. And while sometimes the Tower of Babylon references read a bit too heavy-handed, the novel’s consideration of religion is nuanced and interesting, invoking more questions than answers about why these characters are turning to age-old superstition to put meaning into their lives. The novel is ambivalent about the role of religion in the modern world, presenting Ben and Lou as people who find meaning in faith, and then Joly’s brother Yannick, who completes the quartet and who is furious that his wife is insisting on their daughter’s baptism. For Yannick, religion doesn’t fill the void, but it doesn’t mean the void isn’t there as he gambles away his future on an all-consuming career in private equity and a passionless marriage. He doesn’t know how to solve the puzzle any more that anyone else in the novel does.

While The Towers of Babylon doesn’t offer solutions, however, what it does properly is entertain with robust and rollicking prose (the novel’s editor is the amazing Rosemary Nixon, and it shows), and offer a disquieting but still splendid illustration of life at a specific and anxiety-ridden moment in time. That its characters manage to be as lovable as they are flawed is a significant literary achievement, I think, and so is the fact that while the story is hard-hitting and unflinching, it also reads up a pleasure.

January 27, 2020

Big: Stories About Life in Plus-Sized Bodies, by Christina Myers

The problem, when we talk about fatness—and body image, and body positivity, and health, and self-acceptance, and fatphobia and discrimination, and diet culture, the experience of feeling fat, and the experience of being fat, and so much more—is that we’re talking about a hundred different things and experiences, and that even though one thing often seems like it’s the flip-side of another—fat and skinny, for example—reality itself is more textured and complicated, and intersects with all kinds of ideas about race, and class, and gender.

Textured and complicated, however, are the perfect conditions for an interesting anthology, and this is why Big: Stories About Life in Plus-Sized Bodies, edited by Christina Myers, is such a rich and rewarding read. Sometimes anthologies themselves can be too heavy (not a pun, really, and I mean in terms of tone and length) but this one is designed to be inherently readable—and speaking of design, I love the cover.

Most contributors are women, though non-binary and genderqueer writers are also are present, and writer Tracy Manrell (who identifies as non-binary transmasculine) writes fascinatingly of the differences between being fat in a male and a female body.

Many writers consider relationships to weight that stretch back to childhood, and chart the long journey to learning to love their bodies. Others write about discrimination receiving health care, or about parenthood and pregnancy, or the simple challenge of finding clothes to fit.

Award winning humour writer Cassie Stocks writes about her love of fashion and deciding to sew her own clothes. Sonja Boon inventories the black articles of clothing in her closet. Jo Jefferson tells their story through swimsuits. Lynne Jones writes about abusive relationships. Jessie Blair struggles with gastric surgery. Amanda Scriver shares her journey toward radical self-love. Emily Allan writes “Ten Things I Love About Being Fat.” Other favourites are Heather M Jones “My Superpower is Invisibility,” Christina Myers’ “Fat Girl’s Guide to Eating and Drinking,” Andrea Hansell on battling with Spanx, Tara Mandarano on health struggles and her weight, and Susan Alexander on getting over decades of binge eating.

Big is definite worth picking up because it succeeds at its editor’s goal of being a book that “makes you ask questions: about the way you think and talk about your own body and other people’s bodies, about the world we live in and its lessons and obsessions, and about the words we use and how they shape us.”

January 23, 2020

Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid

And my catch-up of reviews of popular American books that everyone else read months ago concludes with Kiley Reid’s debut novel, which only came out a couple of weeks ago, so I’m back on top of things. A novel that caught my attention with a stunning cover, so many readers raving about it on Instagram, and that title, Such a Fun Age, which is a phrase I find so cloying—but also such a perfect ironic statement upon the moment in which we live.

So here’s the story: after a late night emergency, Alix Chamberlain calls her babysitter to take her three-year-old daughter, Briar, out of the house for a while. The babysitter is Emira, who’s Black, a 25-year-old college grad who feels stuck in a rut while all her friends’ careers are beginning to ascend. But she loves Briar, and knows she’s good at caring for her, and feels protective of the child too, because she can sense how Briar’s quirks make her mother uncomfortable, the way they mess with Alix’s efforts toward a picture perfect veneer. With Emira, though, Briar can be her strange old self, and the pair are dancing in the aisle of the upscale supermarket in the Chamberlain’s neighbourhood, Emira with her friend and dressed for the night out that Alix’s urgent call had just summoned her from, and a shopper (that lady?) decides that something doesn’t look right with this situation. Calling on the store security guard, who tell Emira she’s not allowed to leave the store with the child, and the whole thing is caught on video by another shopper in the store.

If this were an issue-driven novel (“a book about race in America”) this episode would be the point on which everything turns, but instead it’s just the beginning. And Emira herself is not terribly rattled by what happened in the store that night, because she’s got other things on her plate, and the reality of being Black in America is hardly novel to her anyway after 25 years of it. But Alix, Emira’s boss, is obsessed with the incident, and comes to feel the same about Emira herself, determined to help her, to save her, thinking she knows her well (she checks the texts on Emira’s phone after all), the babysitter’s well-being becoming a project that fills her spare time, which has been considerably more ample since Alix she’d failing to write the book she signed a contract for. (Alix has cobbled together a curious kind of career, the kind of career only a white woman could have, in which she writes letters to companies and asks for things, and they send them to her, and then she reviews them on her blog. She gets speaking opportunities and talks about feminism and agency, and is hoping for an in with Hillary Clinton’s campaign as a kind of legitimizing force, because Alix’s isn’t dumb, and knows her brand is 90% shadow and illusion.)

Such a Fun Age was reviewed in the New York Times the other week, and the review was less than flattering, calling the book “soapy,” as though that were a bad thing. By soapy, the reviewer really means readable, and it is. And it’s true that there’s a plot twist in the form of a connection between Alix and Emira that’s just a little too tidy. But what the reviewer missed is how a novel that’s so eminently readable can also be so well crafted (bumpy plot aside). The dialogue in this book is incredible, and the group scenes (a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner in particular) are so excellently orchestrated that would-be novelists could use this novel as a handbook. It’s a soapy-ish novel that manages to surpass its subject matter, to be about so much more than what it’s purported to be about. A pleasure to read and so smart at once, and utterly, bewitchingly, unsettling.

January 22, 2020

The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner

My week of catch-up reviews of popular American novels everybody else read ages ago—I NEVER promised to be a blogger with her finger on the pulse—continues with Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, a novel I had zero interest in until I heard him on the since dearly departed podcast, The Cut on Tuesday—with his mother, no less. His mother who is Harriet Lerner, author of the iconic 1980s self-help book, The Dance of Anger, and we learn that she is fictionalized in her son’s new book, with her own point of view, even. And that The Topeka School is connected to Ben Lerner’s two previous novels about Adam Gordon, who is a literary representation of Lerner himself, and this new novel takes him back to his roots, to 1997, as 18-year-old Adam makes his way through his final year of high school, aspires to the highest echelons of school debate championship, having grown up in the state that gave the world Bob Dole who’d gone up against the beleaguered Bill Clinton in 1996 and lost. This is not a straightforward narrative, moving back and forth in time and between perspectives—Adam’s, his father’s, his mother’s, and a troubled classmate whom Adam had grown up with but who socially and intellectually falls behind, a ticking time bomb. The novel a study of male rage and anger, drawing connections between debate and rap stylings, and also to the national discourse, whose divisiveness begins heating up at this point until it boils over into the mess we have today.

January 21, 2020

Fleishman Is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

I was going to say that I don’t know how I missed out on the Fleishman Is In Trouble hype, except it occurs to me that I totally do. I didn’t know anything about its author, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, first of all, a seasoned magazine writer, so her name wouldn’t have led me to pick the book up (especially since her name is Taffy, which is the funniest name since Flossie). And besides, she’d written a novel about a man in the spiral of a midlife crisis and the only thing I’d care about less than that is the story of a young man coming of age (ugh), so I just didn’t bother.

But then people kept posting about the novel on Instagram, and all the posts had comments from other people who’d read the book and loved it, so I was curious. So curious that I eventually put the book on hold at the library, except that I was more than 500th on the holds list… Which came up in conversation when my daughter was sitting on my lap one Sunday morning and we were reading over the 2019 New York Times top 100 list together—she likes to practice her reading. My husband overheard me commenting about my interest in the book, and the library hold situation, and had a brilliant idea—so I got the book for Christmas.

And by Boxing Day, I’d read the whole thing.

The novel is like a roller coaster, powered by fury, and the reader is flying by the seat of their pants from the first few pages. Fleishman of the title is Toby Fleishman, a successful doctor whose success will never compare to his high-flying talent agent wife’s—they’re getting divorced anyway. And New York, in the decade and a half since Toby was last single, has become a city packed with women who are seemingly desperate to have sex with him, which is certainly novel. It’s almost enough to make him get over his long time body image issues and insecurity due to his (lack of) height—but not quite.

But when Toby’s ex-wife, Rachel, drops off his kids one night and disappears, it puts a cramp in his style, not to mention makes arranging childcare difficult at a pivotal moment at work—Toby is up for a promotion. And this is just one more crime to add to the list of unforgivable things that Rachel has done over the course of their life together. Rachel, it seems, is a heinous bitch.

Sounds straightforward enough, right? And this novel starts off in the tradition of legendary male authors whose smutty books about fragile egos, hissy fits, and emotionally tumultuous love affairs about got to be literature because their narrators had penises. But then something strange happens, which is the appearance of a first person narrator who has been telling the story of Toby Fleishman all along. Like a reporter, even, which is not so surprising when it emerges that the narrator is the most unobstrusive Libby, a friend who’d met Fleishman twenty years before on their year abroad in Israel. And now, after many years and post-break-up, Fleishman has reached out to his old pals to help absorb the shock of his new life. Libby is, in fact, a reporter who finally quit work after the birth of her second child and has settled down for stay-at-home momhood in the supports, a situation which she is, shall we say, conflicted about. But where exactly is Libby coming from?

And this, sneakily and strangely, becomes the central question of the novel, which also eventually comes to fill in the mystery of where Rachel has been in her weeks-long absence, after Libby runs into her in a bagel place looking strangely dishevelled. A novel whose furious narrator writes about the invisibility of women, and how nobody ever listens to women’s stories anyway, unless there’s a man at their centre.

Which is shocking and profound, and the reader is implicated in this in the most terrific way, and the resolution to all this is never going to be tidy. It’s not simply a matter of Rachel’s story setting the record straight, or Libby even being capable of being objective about the situations she’s been presented with, because she has her own agenda. The peculiarity of this novel, an odd three-headed beast, being that it’s not one person who is the victim here, or even everyone. Or maybe it’s that it’s everybody and no one, and that life is too complicated for such obvious designations, and journalism often doesn’t seem up to the task of addressing these matters these days, but maybe here is where fiction comes in.

January 8, 2020

A Delicious, Meandering Journey

‘Interestingly, I find myself leaping/flipping/scrolling past the “best of” lists and instead gravitating more and more to the reflections about reading as exploration, revelation, often deliciously meandering journey, shared experience, opportunity to bust out of staid categories and forge new ones … and more.’ —Vicki Ziegler

Sometimes I think I spend my whole year reading just go get to this point, when the best-of lists are compiled, required reads for book club or review assignments are completed, when the literary year is done and dusted…but there’s still at least a week of time for reading left.

Which is when I turn off my WiFi, take an internet break, out-of-office reply—”I’ll get back to you in the new year.” And I sit down to read.

I read differently in the holidays, when the working is all done. Instead of new releases (because I don’t want to miss a thing), I turn to yellowed paperbacks purchased at book sales, back-list titles by authors I love, strange books plucked from Little Free Libraries, and rescued from the streets. Books that are easy not to make a priority in my literary year, but on holiday, they take precedent—and my reading life is so much more interesting for it.

They weren’t all winners—after having now read two books by Ottessa Moshfegh, I think I can finally conclude that her work is just not to my taste, for example. But altogether, these books were part of why my holiday was so lovely—and I loved too their connections, how they spoke to one another, as though book after book was just one book, and the story flowed and almost made sense.

Of course, it wasn’t all obscure. Ben Lerner’s new novel, The Topeka School, is one of the top rated books of 2019, and I bought it after hearing Lerner and his mother Harriet Lerner (author of iconic book The Dance of Anger) on a podcast. Hot tip: if you want to me to buy a book by a man, make him fictionalize his feminist mother in that book and even give her a point of view. I’d already tried to read The Topeka School twice, but had been diverted, not because anything was wrong with it, but other books kept showing up before I got to page 12. Finally got past page 12 (third time’s charm) and really liked this one, and had my mind-scrambled by its meta-ness. It was such a curious and interesting book, which captures a cultural moment (1997) that was pivotal in my own experience (I turned 18 that year, and the memories are very vivid) and connects that moment in several ways to our present.

I also read Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, another top book of 2019, and am so glad I did—plus it reminded me of Jesmyn Ward’s 2018 Sing Unburied Sing, I loved the depiction of 1970s’ New York, and oh, the twist. The book is brutal, but there is more to the novel than just that.

The third 2019 book I read was Fleishman is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, which I got for Christmas. I never get books for Christmas, because I’m very much a self-directed book buyer—but my husband heard me talking about how I was more than 500th on a wait-list for this book at the library, and bought it for me. And I loved it so much. Probably deserves a post of its own, but yes, it had everything and was so devourable—by Boxing Day, I’d got to the end.

Had very much a New York streak going on, especially between the Brooklyn of Lerner’s book and Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary, and Fleishman and My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

And then I left town to finally finish Elizabeth McCracken’s Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry, her first book re-released along with her latest, the novel Bowlaway (a novel that was delicious and meandering itself, and also one of my favourite books of the year). The mingling humour and sadness—she’s such an incredible writer.

And then Woolf’s Night and Day, which I bought in the summer after I saw an ad on Instagram for a 1970s version of the novel whose cover I fell for. It’s always funny to be reading early Woolf, back when her narrative style was so conventional. The characters were a bit wooden, and the story more about ideas than its people actually being realized, but it was still really enjoyable, and Woolf after all.

And speaking of conventional, Penelope Fitzgerald is conventional never, but The Beginning of Spring (which I finished reading on the morning of New Year’s Eve) is perhaps the most straightforward of her novels that I have read. (As I’ve written before, learning to appreciate Penelope Fitzgerald is a project of mine.) I like to read a bit of Penelope Fitzgerald during the holidays out of nostalgia for the year I read her biography by Hermione Lee, which was one of the best reading extravaganzas I have ever had. Anyway, The Beginning of Spring is set in Moscow in 1913, and this reviewer calls it Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. I really loved it.

Before the year was out, I had also finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, a book she wrote in Italian about the experience of learning and then to committing to reading and writing in Italian. (Which would lead me to Natalia Ginzburg—but first!!)

First, I ended 2019 and started 2020 with At the Pond, a collection of essays (a gift from my friend Nathalie) about swimming at London’s Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, contributors including two of my favourite swimlit stars (Leanne Shapton and Jessica J. Lee) AND my very favourite everything, Margaret Drabble. Nice to be returned to the London of Night and Day, although Katharine Hilbery never went swimming.

(On New Year’s Eve, Stuart and I both had Taylor Swift’s “London Boy” in our head, which is a terrible song, the situation exacerbated by the London locations of our respective reads [Stuart is LOVING Girl Woman Other, which, incidentally, was the second book I broke up with Ben Lerner for] and every time anyone in my book mentioned Highgate, I’d start singing, “…And I love his best mate. All the rumours are true…”)

Two things I loved about At the Pond: cultural diversity of the authors made it such a more interesting collection than it might have been. And the essay by nonbinary writer So Mayer on their complicated relationship with the space “for women only”—which has long welcomed transwomen among them without fuss, save for the activists who showed up at a recent community meeting in furor about this.

Then I read The Secret Sisterhood, about women’s literary friendships, which I bought in March on a weekend in Niagara on the Lake with my two best friends of more than a quarter century. The Jane Austen chapter was a bit slight, but I enjoyed the book and nice to bring things around with the final section on Woolf and Katherine Mansfield—especially since it focussed at lot on Night and Day (which Mansfield wrote a scathing review of, which made their friendship at bit…awkward).

And finally, All Our Yesterdays, by Natalia Ginzburg, the kind of book that it might be possible to put off reading forever, because it’s old with an unappealing cover, and pages and pages of dense text. I’d bought it at a colleage book sale last year after reading Gizburg’s essay collection Little Virtues, but novel sat unread on my shelf. And then I gave it away to my local Little Free Library, which I regretted after running into an Italian-Canadian friend at the library who was returning a pile of Ginzburg’s novels in their original language. She extolled the authors virtues, so when I happened to walk by the Little Free Library and saw All Our Yesterdays up for grabs, I stole it back. Finally cracking it open now because Jhumpa Lahiri had also written about Ginzburg, and it seemed like a sign.

I loved this book. Sweeping, strange, curious and compelling, it’s the story of two families in Northern Italy and how they change as WW2 arrives and continues. The narrative is very matter-of-fact and understated, creating a sense of inevitability (it actually reminded me a but of Girl Woman Other, how a single story can contain so much and so broadly). The banality of living under Fascism, and then occupied Italy after the Germans arrive, and the casual brutality of war.

Now I really want to track down a copy of Ginzburg’s Family Sayings, which won the Strega Prize and which seems to be cited as her best work. (PS Just found out it’s in print with the title Family Lexicon. YAY!!)

December 9, 2019

Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo

Photo of a cup of tea (in a fancy cup with saucer) on a table beside GIRL WOMAN OTHER by Bernardine Evaristo.

It’s so good. It’s that simple. Girl, Woman, Other is the first book by Black woman to ever win the Booker Prize (a long time coming, right?) and so you should read it, but you’ll also want to . You will start reading and not want to put this book down, and in the meantime you’ll be raving about it to strangers on the streetcar. That is, if your experience is anything like mine.

Evaristo has explained the style of the novel as “fusion fiction”: “that’s what it felt like, with the absence of full stops, the long sentences. The form is very free-flowing and it allowed me to be inside the characters’ heads and go all over the place – the past, the present.” Ostensibly about a single evening in London as a play by a Black lesbian playwright opens at the National Theatre, the novel spans the twentieth century, moves between communities in Britain, Africa and the Americas, and tells the story of twelve central characters from birth to death in a few cases, and in others to the present day. It’s a novel “about Black womanhood,” but what falls under that umbrella is wide-ranging, kaleidoscopic, diverse and disagreeing in the most fascinating way. This is a novel that’s rich with twists and connections, and surprises.

The characters include Amma, the aforementioned playwright, who recalls her radical days in contrast to now being considered establishment (or as much as a Black woman could ever be); her daughter who must find new ways to rebel against her counterculture parents; and her longtime friend and former collaborative partner, who fell in love and moved to a feminist commune in America where she becomes trapped in an abusive relationship.

The connections are not always clear at first—Carole, a superstar in the world of finance, is attending Amma’s play, but she’s part of the tapestry in other ways as well, and so is her mother, Bummi, who steers the following section, telling the story from her youth in Nigeria, her immigration to England, the death of her husband, and her determination to build a business and succeed—as well as her disappointment at how her own daughter’s success has put distance between them. And then we meet LaTisha, once upon a time Carole’s classmate, but her life took on a different kind of trajectory.

Amma’s childhood friend, Shirley, who teaches unruly youths at a London school, who started out teaching with big dreams and great ideals, which become ground into nothing after working through the Thatcherification and bureaucratization of teaching and society in general in the 1980s. And Shirley’s mother, Winsome, whose own story comes with a surprising twist, and Penelope, Shirley’s colleague, who’s got one of her own.

And then a non-binary social media influencer, Morgan, and their great-grandmother, Hattie, who lives on the family farm near Newcastle, and her own mother, Grace, which takes us to long before and far away from the opening night of Amma’s play, but everything is connected, in satisfying and illuminating ways.

That a single novel can hold so much is extraordinary —and that it can do it while being stylistically innovative and so joyful to behold is even more so. Girl, Woman, Other is magnificent, and honestly, it’s the only Booker winner you need.

December 3, 2019

Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann

“Well, there’s a book I’m never going to read,” was my first thought upon hearing about Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, the 1000 page book consisting of (mainly) a single sentence, shortlisted for the Man Booker and winner of the Goldsmiths’s Prize. Because you know how there are people who carry about tote-bags that say, “I like big books and I cannot lie?” I am not one of those people. I don’t like big books, not at all, not because of the heft necessarily (check out my own tote-bag, where I’m often carrying no less than three hardcovers at a time. I can lug book weight), but because for me so much of the pleasure of reading is thinking about what I’m going to be reading next, and the same book for weeks at a time slows me down, makes me feel like I’m standing still. Long books don’t fit easily into the pattern of my life. It’s also a huge demand to make of a reader as well, 1000 whole pages, and I’m usually irritated by anybody who’d dare to ask it.

You can keep Your Struggle, buddy. I’ve got enough of my own.

The shift began from Twitter commentary, however . (Yes, it turns out Twitter has a purpose after all.) Steven Beattie tweeted that it read up quick, and by the time Biblioasis Publisher Dan Wells had sent me an email promising that this would be a novel right up my street, I’d already started reading it.

With Ducks, Newburyport, I did what I always do with huge and overwhelming challenges, which is that I broke it down into manageable pieces. Though I have heard others making a solid commitment to the novel, going in for the long haul, and they report enormous pay-offs, because it’s an amazing novel, and what a thing to give it one’s entire focus. But that’s not the reality of my reading life right now, where focus gets spread thin, and there are so many other books I have to read in the meantime, so instead of going all in for Ducks, I committed to reading 5 or 10 pages every night, and I liked that it was the kind of book that was easy to dive in and out of again. If I’m going to read 1000 pages, this is way I would like it to happen. It’s give and take.

And so it took me three months to read it, as opposed to binge-reading, and this has had a curious effect on my life. As though Ducks, Newburyport was like a plant with amorphous tendrils, and as I read, they crept their way into every facet of my life, until I was no longer sure where I ended, and Ducks, Newburyport began.

“That’s a lot like Ducks, Newburyport,” began to be the thing I said at parties, or on Twitter, no matter the topic, really, because everything is a bit like Ducks, Newburyport. Or perhaps what I mean is that Ducks, Newburyport is like life itself, which is the point of the exercise. Somebody talking about how they can never remember the word for nasturtiums, and maybe the unnamed narrator of Ducks, Newburyport had been talking about hydrangeas, but such distinctions mattered as much as the distinction between fiction and life. Everything was blurry.

It’s not accurate to say that this book is a single sentence, clauses conjoined by commas and the phrase “the fact that” to form the stream of consciousness of an Ohio woman baking pies and cookies in her kitchen, because to say this would be to forget about the parts of the novel that are written from the perspective of a cougar. Or a mountain lion, “the lioness.” What kind of novel is this anyway?

It’s the kind of novel that’s concerned with ordinary things, the mundane, the domestic. Except what does it mean that among these things ordinary and domestic are mass shootings and domestic homicides, a lunatic president and the rise of ethno-nationalism? These things melding in with the other, as our unnamed narrator caramelizes apples for tartes tatin, and fails to avoid painfully stepping on her son’s plastic toys, and worries about her distant teenage daughter, and thinks about the amazing fact of her love for her husband, never mind the sorry state of her libido, especially since her recovery from cancer not so long ago, rotting window frames and the guilt she feels for her failure to be a proper parent to her four children at the time, and she’s still not over the death of her own mother, and how their whole family fell apart during the years her mother was ill, and now her husband works so hard, is often travelling, and she adds to their income with her home baking business, because they’re broke after all her healthcare bills, supplying local shops and restaurants, her labour too blurs boundaries, both paid and domestic. And undervalued all of it.

Oh oh my gosh, the popular culture, classic films, and Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman (and how he was mean to her during Kramer Vs Kramer, when she’s a better actor than she’ll ever be), and the passages about Julie & Julia (“only we hate the Julie bits…”) and so much ruminating about Little House on the Prairie (as you do…), and bridge building (her husband, Leo, is an engineer), and musical theatre, and Harrison Ford and Witness, and the bee at Bread Loaf. Always, the bee at Bread Loaf, and we never actually learn anything about the fact of the bee at Bread Loaf, but other parts of the story we begin to be able to put together, puzzling out, like who is Abby, and her first marriage to Frank, and what happened to her mother, and the fact of the ducks at all. And Newburyport.

And oh, the angst of baking, her worries about sending these goods out into the world never sure that they’ve turned out successfully, because the proof is in the eating, and you can’t control it all. She’s got a freezer packed with failed experiments in lemon drizzle cake, not bad enough to be abject disasters, but not good enough to sell, and she feels guilty subjecting her children to it. Children are never enthusiastic about lemon drizzle cake anyway, the lack of frosting. Who’s actually enthusiastic about lemon drizzle cake anyway? Lemon drizzle cake existential angst, I mean. I’ve never felt so seen before. The kind of stuff that keeps me up at night.

There’s a chicken coop, and pets, and time passes, weeks and months, and in the breaks, the lioness wanders with her cubs, on overpasses and through thickets, across backyards and down into ravines, and she would like to keep her distance from humans, but she cant help it, and she becomes separated from the cubs, who are taken away in a truck to the Columbus Zoo.

Ohio is a funny place, not so different from the stories about the Florida men, really. Insane abortion laws and women kept captive in basements, and fact and fiction blurs too as our narrator recounts the stories she’s heard, news headlines. Some of them true, but it starts to feel like all of them are factual, because everything else in the novel is so familiar after all, that it becomes uncanny how much of it is not uncanny, when possibly it should be. What does it say about the world we live in (and all of us, in general) if it isn’t?

To celebrate my completion of this novel, I made my own tarte tatin. It was not a great success, which I already kind of knew it wouldn’t be, having read the book and learned that caramelization is not easy,

Against this backdrop of her stream-of-consciousness, a lot actually happens, although you could almost miss it, because the tone of the narrative never changes whether she’s concerned about puff pastry or is actually imperilled. She gets stranded in a snowstorm while out delivering pies, and takes her family to a mall whose parking lots entrance is washed away in a flash flood (which is the kind of thing that happens now, in Ohio and elsewhere), and then her daughter goes missing, seemingly every mother’s worst nightmare, save for another one which she comes face-to-face with by the novel’s end. But no spoilers…

Is there such thing as a pre-apocalyptic novel, was a thing I wondered as I read this book, an ordinary story with such ominousness at its margins, and creeping ever-closer, which is pretty close to how it feels sometimes to live in the world right now.

It was a commitment, this book, even if the smaller pieces I broke it into, and the other night as I finished it, I could not quite fathom what it would be like to not have this book sitting on my bedside. Three months is a long time, a quarter of a year, and as I read this novel, weeks went by, the season changed, we celebrated holidays and birthdays, had a federal election, I baked tens of dozens of muffins, and now the book itself feels indelibly connected with all of it.

This novel’s outsizedness, its audacity, is a statement on the curious proportions of life itself. What gets to be an epic? The fact that (as she’d put it) I might have spent more time ruminating on a disappointing drizzle cake than yesterday’s mass shooting; climate change and (not or) a teenage daughter’s petulance; saving the world and raising one’s children; a single person against the enormity of the human population—it’s all enough to make you go cross-eyed, to be honest. How do you understand it all, attempt to contain it all?

With this novel, however, Ellmann gets come close. A book that seems like a feat of endurance, at first, but turns out to be so much more than that.

November 28, 2019

Five Wives, by Joan Thomas

There’s a possibility I might have let the year pass me by without picking up Joan Thomas’s latest, Five Wives, winner of the 2019 Governor General’s Award for Fiction. And what a disaster that would have been, my reading year without one of the best books of the year included. But disaster was averted because I finally picked up the novel last week, and it was one of those experiences like I mentioned while I was writing about The Dutch House. As in, I was instantly enveloped and not remotley moved to clean my bathroom . (Full disclosure: this novel was actually one of those books I read in the bath until the water got so cold…)

Based on the true story of a group of American evangelical missionaries murdered in the Ecuador jungle in 1956 after making contact with an isolated Indigenous group, Thomas blurs fact and fiction fascinatingly in Five Wives—as she did with her earlier novel, Curiosity, which imaged the life of nineteenth century fossil hunter Mary Anne Anning. Billed as “in the tradition of The Poisonwood Bible,” I actually found the novel more in conversation with Miriam Toews’ Women Talking (with shades of Irma Voth!) in its consideration of the role of women in religious communities, in religion in general, and also with the fraught question of female solidarity. Because as with the women of Women Talking, and women anywhere, actually, and with people in general, the women of Five Wives do not speak with a single voice and view their shared story through very different lenses.

Although when the novel begins, theirs is a collective voice, “the wives,” in the immediate aftermath of the deaths of their husbands. The narrator does not distinguish these women, who themselves are “putting the story together”of what had befallen the men. A story that would become legend in evangelical circles, a story Thomas herself grew up hearing told, as she explains in her interview at 49thShelf. But in her novel, she complicates this mythology and explores the way in which story and narrative is constructed from the raw material of facts.

The novel’s present day story line concerns a young woman called Abby, whose mother and father had each lost their own fathers in the massacre, and had grown up steeped in the story, as her father, David, a pastor, also had. This part of the novel begins at the funeral of Abby’s maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Elliot (a real life figure whose own writings have been instrumental in spreading the story of what happened in the Ecuadorian jungle, and how the Waorani people eventually did convert to Christianity, thereby ensuring that this story of martyrdom ended in triumph and glory). And now Abby has lost her faith, much to the chagrin of her father, and we see the tension between them as she tries to find her own way, which challenges David’s own faith, in many things, including the truth of what he knows about what happened to his father and the story his family continues to tell about it to the world.

More central to the plot are the stories of the wives themselves, however, and their own struggles and challenges, those things they are sure of and that which they doubt. Abby’s grandmother, Betty, for whom missionary work was a vocation, and then Olive, who has followed her husband to Ecuador (and we meet her in the years before her marriage, when she’s attending university and developing independence from her religious family), and Marj, David’s mother, who ran the guesthouse where so many of the missionaries stayed, and her relationship with her sister-in-law, Rachel, the one woman in the group who is nobody’s wife. (“Goodness is more complicated that Marj ever imagined.”

And then Cornell Capa, the photographer from Life Magazine, who took the photographs that showed what happened in the jungle to the world—also a real-life character to whom Thomas grants a fictional inner life. And in the contemporary timeline, a film is being made about the massacre, and so there are lots of opportunities for Thomas to play with and complicate the idea of truth and myth and how stories get told.

The novel is a puzzle, pieces fitting together in surprising ways. The women’s own stories are not told chronologically, and overlap in some aspects and there are gaps in others, and not all the women are as central to the story. There is cultural appeal in this novel about mid-20th century womanhood and wifehood, which Thomas complicates interestingly, in addition to the layer of faith, religion and colonialism which complicates everything even more.

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