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January 8, 2019

Little Yellow House, by Carissa Halton

Last summer after a terrible thing happened in my city, I wrote a post about how “My favourite thing about living in a city is being able to disabuse myself of the notion that the place where I live is not a place where ‘something like this can happen.’ To live in a city is to live in a  place where anything can happen, which is actually the case with living anywhere, but in a city we know it by heart.” Which is the kind of awareness and understanding Carissa Halton celebrates in her book, Little Yellow House: Finding Community in a Changing Neighbourhood, a collection of candid essays about being part of Edmonton’s Alberta Avenue neighbourhood, an inner-city community where all kind of things happen, some awful and others beautiful.

It is important to be clear about what her book is not: an anthropological analysis of life among the lower classes, Halton and her family taking advantage of lower real estate prices, all the while taking notes on the neighbours. Because while Halton does write about the tension inherent in her story, the “irony and responsibility” (“In the worst-case scenario, my family becomes a threat. By fixing up our home and our yard, by our activism, we run the risk of increasing property values on our street, which could lead to major affordability issues in decades to come.”) she does not see herself as removed from the world she’s describing.

She begins the book by writing about moving with her husband to what had been described to her as “the shitty part of town.” The neighbourhood was closer to their jobs, would provide them a better understanding of the people they worked with running social programs, and her grandparents had grown up there. And yes, they could afford a house. “You’ll move when you have kids,” they were told, but then they had three, and they didn’t move when the children went to school either, or when the children grew, and the house seemed smaller. “And while we wished there were fewer empty storefronts along the main avenue and fewer johns trolling to buy sex, the elm trees on the boulevard shaded the streets that led to the homes of our extended family,” and there were cafes and bakeries, playgrounds, and a library. “In short,” Halton writes, “we discovered shitty is how you see it.”

She writes about, perhaps unwisely, confronting a man dumping massive quantities of broken tiles in her alley whilst being very pregnant. “Drug Houses Make Bad Neighbours” is the terrifying story of their friends who moved into the neighbourhood in 1994 and dealt with neighbours in a dodgy rental who’d threaten the when they called police, and police who’d offer advice such as, “Ma’am, you should like a very reasonable person. Can I advise you to just move?” With a journalist’s eye, she tells the life story of a man who’d end up dying of blunt force trauma not far from where she lives who was once a little boy who wanted to be an astronaut. In “Hell is Other People,” she writes about how good fences make good neighbours, and how her band of children are sometimes her neighbour’s own hell.

Her essays are about neighbour kids, the friends she found on mat leave and how they spent their days, about a friend of a friend who took in a neighbour when he was forced out of his rooming house, where he’d been sheltering feral cats. About NIMBYs, and the joys of treasure-hunting at the thrift shop, lice and bedbugs, working at a soup kitchen, about a police officer mistaking her for a sex worker while she’s waiting at the bus stop for her kids to arrive home from school. About community initiatives to deal with the sex trade on the streets where her children play, and another essay that tells the stories of women who’ve worked on those streets. About trees and birds and greenery. About going stir-crazy as a stay-at-home mom, and finding enterprising ways to make their smaller home work as their family grows.

Great cities and neighbourhoods are containers for stories, just like this book is, and every one of these is delightfully readable and well-written right down to the sentence level. And Halton is not afraid of tension, of ambiguity and uncertainty, something living in the city teaches you, and so each of these stories is suspended in a careful place, not neatly packaged or simply concluded. Which gives their culmination the effect of a walk through a city street, of glimpses, moments, and changing scenes—a most satisfying and delightful excursion.

January 3, 2019

The Gown, by Jennifer Robson

Jennifer Robson is my friend, in addition to being a superstar bestselling novelist, and while her latest book, The Gown, is the first novel I’ve read in 2019, I didn’t set out with plans to write about it. I was reading it for fun, you see, and I’m still not properly off-vacation anyway, so I thought that this book, which tells the story of two women who worked on the embroidery on Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown for her 1947 wedding to Prince Philip, would be a mostly just an enjoyable endeavour. And it was, beginning with the two narrative threads set in 1947 London (from the perspectives of a working class English woman living on her own and another who has just emigrated from France with a reference letter from Christian Dior, hoping to leave wartime trauma behind her), and another in Toronto in 2016 (a journalist is laid off from her job at a magazine and decides to pursue the mystery of a piece of embroidery found among her late grandmother’s possessions). The threads themselves perfectly nice and even lovely, and I was thinking, “I like this book. Good for Jen Robson…” And then about 100 pages in, suddenly I was unable to think about anything but the story and I only wanted to read it, and it was more like, Good for Jen Robson for being a novel-writing genius. It’s not the threads themselves, but what she does with them, how they’re woven together to create a plot that’s deeply compelling, a setting that’s oh-so evocative. A story about ladies and tea and sewing that it also a novel about class divides, date rape, the Holocaust, systemic barriers for working class women, female friendship, the utter deprivation that was England under austerity in 1947, and yes, about the royal wedding.

But it was her ideas about art that really made me want to write about The Gown, about what’s allowed to be Art and what isn’t. Unsurprisingly, she had me at the part where Ann puts down her mending and picks up a teacup painted with countryside scenes. “So I took them down to the antiques shop on Ripple Road, and the fellow there looked at the pieces and said they were Royal Worcester… He told me they were painted by a man named Harry Stinton. He said Harry Stinton was one of the best artists of the last hundred years. And you can’t tell me the paintings on this cup and saucer aren’t art, because they are.” She’s explaining this to her friend and housemate Miriam, who is beginning a project in which the story of family—murdered at Auschwitz—is memorialized on a series of embroidery panels. Miriam is an artist, Ann is insisting, even if she isn’t “carving marble sculptures or painting oil portraits of politicians.” And there is artistry too in the embroidery that went into a wedding dress for a princess, work for which the women who did it received no acknowledgement. And so the entire novel is a way to have their story told. As Robson explained in Entertainment Weekly, “If there’s one overriding reason that I write, it’s to give voices to women who lived in the past.”

It all had me thinking about what kind of writing, what kind of books, are allowed to be Art, are allowed to be Literature. How we are forever forced to endure manifestos by male critics about how literature is not enough of a national expression, or else an aesthetic pursuit, or even the one about it’s being destroyed by writers’ social connections and an abandonment of individuality (by which he means: Down with women and friendship!). How in order to be Art, a book must be appreciated at the sentence level, and any appeal above that is frivolity. I would not consider approaching any of these critics for their opinions on work rendered on fine bone china.

And I’ve always been confused about what their objectives are, what it would mean if their visions came to be pass and we all decided that indeed, a book should only ever be just one single thing. It occurs to me that this is like declaring that artistic expression must only be conveyed by oil paints and canvas, which means no more sculpture, textiles, alley murals, comic strips, photography, and patterns on teacups. Imagine no more embroidery, or beading, or lace, or quilts, or patterns in the carpets—and of course, there is a gendered element to all of this. What a somber expedition every trip to the gallery would be.

I loved The Gown for its characters, plot and setting, and fascinating historical detail—Robson has a doctorate in British economic and social history from Oxford University. But I especially loved it for shining a light on the craft, talent and vision—genius—necessary for the creation of art that is beautiful, useful, and even commercial. These are works that, instead of being rarefied, are part and parcel of everyday life, which are all the more reason to celebrate them and declare how much they matter.

December 19, 2018

The flower can always be changing, by Shawna Lemay

“All summer long, flowers. And all winter long the path through the garden is inward. A time to learn to be awake to the flowers within. What is there to fear? I’ve come to understand the souls is a flower with which to bless the world.” —”All Summer Long Flowers”

The flowers were indeed always changing, but the book was the same, this book that came into my life in April, The Flower Can Always Be Changing, by Shawna Lemay, the week before the crocuses bloomed. and it has sat by my bedside ever since. I’ve read it twice, a little at a time, as befits a collection of brief essays. It’s not a diary exactly, but it reads like one, the essays guided by the seasons. The collection’s title inspired by Woolf’s own diary, a line she wrote as she was writing, The Waves: “A lamp and a flower pot in the centre. The flower can always be changing.” 

The meaning a bit obscure to me—but when is Woolf ever not? Thinking about the way that a flower is always different as it blooms and then decays, and then turns into a different flower altogether. Lemay writes about “grocery store flowers,” although I prefer the convenience store variety, how the tulip becomes an iris becomes a gerbera becomes and dahlia, and so on. 

I first met Shawna Lemay though her blog, although it was a different blog than the blog she has now, a blog called Calm Things. Which was connected to her book of the same title, essays about living with an artist, with art, about still lives. As with Woolf, always a bit obscure. The meaning can always be changing. 

And blogs have informed Lemay’s work so much, this book included, a chronicle of dailiness, of routine, of interruptions to that routine. A record of noticings, of shifts in how the light falls. “Align yourself to the poetry of the everyday.” 

Lemay’s blog two blogs ago was called “Capacious Hold-All” (which was a reference to how Woolf had described her diary; Lemay is also author of the purse-inspired novel Rumi and Red Handbag), and The Flower is similarly structured. Essays like posts, titles such as, “A Few Things About Working in a Library.” Others like axioms, jokes, one-liners, answers to questions, lists. She writes about experiencing Bell’s Palsy, about reading and writing, about being a writer, about what people expect of you when you’re a writer, versus who you really are. She shares lines from poetry and fiction. “Keep Your Solitude” begins, “At the end of Mrs. Dalloway, the discussion between Sally and Peter is about how it’s possible to know people.” “Civilized” starts with, “They had yet to unfriend each other on Facebook.” And indeed, these essays weave between preoccupations online and off it. For Lemay, the internet fuels her creativity, and is as much a part of her practice as the flowers. 

I’ve been wanting to write about this book, because it’s strange and beautiful, and I’ve carried it with me all these months, since the flowers started blooming. But it’s been hard to do so, because as the book is slow and thoughtful, so has been my engagement with it. Even now that I’ve finished reading it a second time, I’m not about to put it up on my shelf, to put it away yet. I’m going to keep it by my bedside instead, for dipping in and out, because every time I open it, I seem to find something perfect and new. 

Book Cover, The Flower Can Always Be Changing, by Shawna Lemay

“I want to say that what makes me beautiful is I know how to endure the deep winter and how when the snow falls it changes my soul. I want to say winter strengthens me but I know the grocery store flowers are the only reason I make it through.” —”Transcendance”  

December 5, 2018

New Books on the Radio

I just can’t stop with the 2018 new releases, but one after another continues to wow me, so I’m very pleased by the opportunity to talk about five more of them this morning on my CBC Ontario Morning books column. You can listen again here—I come on at 41.30.

December 3, 2018

Dear Evelyn, by Kathy Page

Dear Evelyn, by Kathy Page, is a novel so good that last night I was full of nostalgia because it had been a whole week since I was reading it. And I was reading a very good novel last night too, but still, I was sorry to have been a whole seven days away from the remarkable experience of having been absorbed in Page’s award-winning book, which I read in two two-hour sittings. It’s the story of a marriage, the story loosely inspired by letters between Page’s own parents, some of which actually appear in the novel, making authorship an interesting collaborative endeavour. Beginning with the birth of Harry Miles, who grows up between the wars in London, the reader aware of the inevitability of his trajectory toward battle himself. But first, Harry meets Evelyn on the steps of the Battersea Library, and they fall in love with the same urgency as the world’s preparation for war, another kind of unreality. They spent most of the first years of their marriage apart, as Harry takes part in training and departs for war in North Africa. Seemingly-pivotal scenes—their wedding, Evelyn’s first pregnancy, the birth of their daughter—take place outside the narrative while Page focusses on the quotidian instead, the ordinary dailiness that Harry so longs for when he is away at war and longing for his wife.

And long for her he does, resisting temptation from other women when he’s far from home, and when he returns and settles into civilian life, the attraction between them is still strong. It’s not that this is a love poorly thought out, marry in haste, etc, but rather that life is long and love is complicated. And what is so astounding about the novel is how Page manages to show that complicatedness without compromising either of her characters. She shows how love and marriage can turn into something else as husband and wife continue to become more and more themselves as they age. It’s not that Evelyn changes—it’s that she never does. That strong personality that Harry continues to admire in his wife for so many years becomes a force that eventually pushes him out of his home, and the force is devastating—and yet he still continues to love her. And Evelyn herself, who is indeed herself but to a fault, and how her character traits borne out of struggle and deprivation during her childhood eventually leave her utterly alone. No wrenches need be thrown into this plot line, is what I mean. Or maybe what I mean is that that’s just what life is, a wrench. And characters themselves are just along for the ride, for better or for worse.

Dear Evelyn has a wonderful, effortless sweep, moving its characters from their hearty youth on to their nineties, including just the right details to show how the world is changing around them. Here, the novel benefits from Page’s experience as a short story writer, which is reflected in the novel’s episodic structure, the ease with which it moves from scene-to-scene and accumulates story without becoming bogged down. Short story writers are expert at efficiently fitting big ideas into small packages, which is how—in just 300 pages—Page is able to contain a century; two wars; two fully realized, flawed and complicated people; a rich and tumultuous marriage; so much love; and the pride, rage and resentment that keeps so much from ever being properly expressed.

November 28, 2018

A Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult

“Oh my gosh, does Jodi Picoult ever know how to write a novel,” I said to my husband the other night on the tail end of having read her latest in a single day. But of course she does, having written twenty-three of them, and has a reputation for bestsellerdom as well as a penchant for melodrama. I’d started one of her novels years ago—I think it was Nineteen Minutes, about a school shooting, and decided it wasn’t for me, and I actually hadn’t given Jodi Picoult a lot of consideration since…until A Spark of Light, set against a hostage taking at a Mississippi abortion clinic. And we all know there is nothing I’m more interested in than a good pop-culture abortion narrative, so I put this book on hold at the library, and it turns out that now I know what everybody else knows, which is Jodi Picoult is really extraordinary.

Obviously, her narrative being constructed around a hostage stand0ff, Picoult’s melodramatic bent continues, and I was wary of her reputation “for writing about both sides of polarizing issues.” Frankly, we’ve got far too much of “both sides-dom” going on in our discourse at the moment, which results in justifications for fascists being given wide-platforms, sympathy for white nationalists, and slow, terrifying and far from grass-roots growth of the anti-abortion movement in Canada. Now is hardly the time to stand on the middle, to sit on the fence, etc, instead at this dangerous political moment it’s more important to take a stand than ever, to draw a line.

The thing is, of course, that abortion isn’t actually polarizing after all, and the only people who might suppose it is are the people who’ve only ever considered abortion in the abstract or as a thought-exercise. But for those of us with lived experience of abortion and those who perform abortions as part of their medical practice, abortion is very much a space in between, where women who have abortions tend to be mothers already, where almost all abortions after 12 weeks are for very much wanted pregnancies whose severe and unviable fetal abnormalities, where women who miscarry and have abortions are sometimes the same women, where women who have abortions go on to have the families they wanted when they’re ready for it—and where “pro-life” women can find themselves on the other side of the debate when they’re faced with complicated or unwanted pregnancies. As Picoult writes in her novel’s Author’s Note: “Laws are black and white, The lives of women are a thousand shades of grey.”

And she shows so many of those shades in A Spark of Light, which begins with a paragraph on how Mississippi abortion clinics had had so many restrictions placed upon them (“the halls had to be wide enough to accommodate two passing gurneys; any clinic where that wasn’t the case had to shut down or spend thousands of dollars on reconstruction…”) so that those remained were rare as unicorns. On the periphery of the novel is a young girl who was unable to obtain an abortion due to age restrictions and other legal hoops to jump through so  that she ended up administering a pill ordered from the internet, and when she’s brought to the hospital after bleeding profusely, police are called and she’s arrested for murder. The pregnant women in the clinic when the gunman breaks in are from all kinds of different backgrounds and in various situations, and some of them aren’t pregnant, because abortion is only one kind of health care administered by women’s health clinics. And what I loved most about the novel is that even the characters who aren’t pregnant or haven’t had abortions have had their lives touched issues of reproductive justice—sometimes without even knowing it, which is often the case in a society where things like rape, women’s sexuality and abortion are taboo.

The novel was gripping, and here is where I saw Jodi Picoult’s plotting prowess in action—the twists kept coming right to the end. And the novel is set in reverse chronological order, even, which makes the twists at the end all the most astounding from a craft standpoint, and none of them were cheap either—I really appreciated that. The characters were rich and fully developed, and this is where the novel was wonderfully challenging to me, in how Picoult humanizes a character who’s actually a pro-life protestor gone undercover to record illegal practices inside the clinic (she doesn’t find any, btw) when the gunman arrives. It turns out not to be about “both sides,” but instead understanding one’s humanity and motivations, in making characters real and multi-faceted, and learning where someone is coming from. Which doesn’t mean they’re right, and Jodi Picoult shows that they’re definitely not (fact: the best way to limit abortion is to have liberal abortion laws, access to birth control and sexual education. fact: making abortion illegal drives abortion underground and puts women at risk. fact: there has been abortion everywhere and always. fact: opposition to abortion is fundamentally an opposition to women’s sexuality). It remains ever important for us to listen to and learn from each other.

This is the kind of novel that can change the world, because if it challenged my ideas about abortion, it will also challenge the mindset of someone whose ideas are different, to consider other points of view. To bridge a divide that grows ever wider as we all sit convinced of our righteousness, without considering that someone on the other side feels just as righteous as we do. (Picoult doesn’t include male pro-life activists in the novel, who are the more typical demographic actually. I suspect that she knows that their motivations and backstories are less interesting than their women counterparts, that they have less to teach us in this situation.) It’s also just a thoroughly terrific read with great characters and plotting, and facts and current events while not being too heavy on the research, and really good writing, apart from one unfortunate paragraph where a father makes a twist on that “one’s child being your heart outside your body” idea to talk about a child being like a soap bubble you carry on your palm while you run through an obstacle course, or something like that. But let us forgive the novel that has just one terrible simile, especially if it does all the other incredible things. After twenty-three novels, Jodi Picoult knows what she’s doing.

November 27, 2018

My 2018 Best Books That Weren’t Published In 2018 List

I have but one complaint about literary 2018, which is that I didn’t read enough books that weren’t new releases, but then when I think about all the new releases I never even got to, I’m not sure what else I should have done. I did my best, but still, it’s those back catalogue books that keep one’s reading life truly interesting, I think. I will attempt more of this in 2019, and in the meantime, here are some very good books I read in 2018 that were published in previous years.


Joyce Wieland: A Life In Art, by Iris Nowell

One of the biographies I read over the holidays, this was a fascinating look at the life of one of Canada’s most innovative and important artists.


Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

Behind on the times here.  I finally read Men We Reaped last year, which meant I had to read everything else by Ward. Salvage the Bones is masterful and devastating, essential reading for our times (and I also loved Sing Unburied Sing).


Life in Code, by Ellen Ullman

As I’ve found through reading and writing about blogging, women’s voices and experiences are so often missing from stories about the history of computers and technology. A coder since the 1970s, and also a fiction writer, Ullman has a singular voice and a unique perspective. I gave this book to my husband for Christmas but ended up enjoying the book as much as he did.


Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

I can’t remember why I ended up taking a whole bunch of books by Amy Krouse Rosenthal out of the library in January/February, but I did and they were delightful, and this one reminded me of the mundanity of the early internet in the most extraordinary way.


The Ballad of Peckham Rye, by Muriel Spark

I bought this book when we were on holiday in England during a snowstorm in March in a spiffy new edition, and it served to remind me that Muriel Spark is utterly strange and unfathomable, and brilliant.


The Handyman, by Penelope Mortimer

Of all the Penelopes, Mortimer is my favourite, although I read her best-known and reissued The Pumpkin Eaters and failed to love it, but her others have delighted me, reading as fresh, contemporary, subversive and unafraid of darkness.


Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue

Everyone screeching about illegal immigration should read this book about the limits and challenges of people who are hoping to find their way to the American dream by any means necessary, the desperation of their plight. This was a novel that was rich with twists and surprises.


A View Of the Harbour, by Elizabeth Taylor

I read this during the last weekend in June when it was so hot I almost died, and it had been been sitting on my shelf for years, and I’m so glad I finally got to it. It was so Woolfian, almost uncannily like an inversion of To the Lighthouse.


What Alice Forgot, by Lianne Moriarty

Moriarty is a genius. I love her, and everything she does, and just because I exclusively read her books on vacation should not mean she does not get full points for character development and intricate plotting.


Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

I must confess that I liked Little Fires Everywhere better than Everything I Never Told You, mostly because a book that things people never tell each other sets itself up to be full of weird unbridgeable gaps and it brought up too many questions for me as a reader. But it was still really, really good.


Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively

I reread Moon Tiger this summer after falling in love with it more than a decade ago. It was a contender for a best-of-the-Booker winner that went on earlier this year, and in this feature for the Guardian reading group, it’s discussed that the book was dismissed as “the housewives’ choice” when it won the Booker Prize in 1987. Lively is my other favourite Penelope, and it was a pleasure to be reminded of how huge and wonderful this novel is.


Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney

There was such hype for this novel that I must confess I was a bit disappointed when it didn’t blow my mind, but then blowing minds was never going to be what this book is about. Instead it’s subtle and quiet and most remarkable for the things the narrator is never able to articulate. I read it last week so I’m still thinking it over. Her new book is out here in the spring and even more hyped (nominated for the Man Booker Prize) so we will see what happens next…


November 27, 2018

Motherish, by Laura Rock Gaughan

True confession: I find debut short story collections to be a bit hit and miss, more miss than hit, actually, but Laura Rock Gaughan’s Motherish turns out to be one hit after another. The entire book cohering around ideas of being a mother and having a mother, and smart enough to know that within this “niche” are a million degrees of experience. Every story is distinct, sparkling in its own particular way. It begins with “Good-Enough Mothers,” about a woman whose wife travels for work while she stays at home with their children and ponders the neighbourhood, including the family across the road who run a tow-truck company, and the woman next door who lives with her ailing adult daughter, and the strange and disturbing ways that these households’ connect with each other. Notions of bad mothers and good mothers intermingle here, and everything is relational. This story’s tone is ominous, dark-undercurrents. In motherhood always, there will be peril, and you’ll have to read to find out where.

“Maquila Bird” takes place in Mexico where a woman who works in a garment factory sewing jackets aims to escape her employers’ mandatory pregnancy test and hold onto her job just a little bit longer. In “Transit,” a pregnant woman who is uncertain of the terrain that lies before partakes in an eventful streetcar journey. “Let Heaven Rejoice” is the story of an oblivious church organist and the thoughts of those around her while the music plays, including her husband and children. “At the Track” takes place during the summer of 1975 (“The summer of 1975, my grandfather’s friends wore leisure suits in turquoise and moss and mulberry with patterned shirts left open a few buttons to reveal an overgrowth of chest hair…”) when a young girl is left in the car of her not-always-responsible grandparents while her single mother works nightshifts. In “The Winnings,” a woman’s fiancé wins the lottery and she starts to reconsider their future together. “Me and Robin” is narrated by a young girl who cares for her effeminate younger brother, although her feelings toward him are ambivalent.

“Masters Swim” is a strange but compelling story about swimming, and sisterhood. In “The New Kitten,” a woman’s job as a bank teller gives her a unique perspective on her husband’s infidelities as she tracks his accounts. “Leaping Clear” is about a woman nearing the end of her life who is visited by the ghost of the man who’d got her “in trouble” years before, and reveals the real story of what happened to him after he skipped town (and what happened to her when she said yes to another man who wanted to marry her anyway). “Woman Cubed” about a contortionist and her overbearing partner. “Mother Makeover” about reality TV show when mother drama gets ramped up to max. And finally, “A Flock of Chickens,” which I loved, about a teacher who gets into an ill-advised relationship with a colleague and ends up in a chicken coop, as you do.

Which is all the stories in the book, actually, which means not a dud among them, and I enjoyed reading this collection so much, its tautness, its polish, and wise perspective on characters’ lives. Stories that are never samey, but instead such a pleasure to behold, one after anther.

November 26, 2018

Good and Mad, by Rebecca Traister

“The ability to narratively flip the dynamics of aggression and abuse—to view the less powerful as a menace to the aggressors—has been key to how white patriarchal structures have persisted. It’s how police can systematically killed black people but when black people protest those killings with Black Lives Matter marches, those protestors can be called “terrorists” on the news, or a “hate group,” by the Republican pundit Meghan McCain. It’s why, when Baltimore resident Freddie Grey was hauled into a van by police in Baltimore in 2015 and taken on a rough ride that resulted in his death, multiple news reports asserted that the “violence started” when protestors threw rocks in protest of his killing, and now when he was murdered.

The violence done by the more powerful entity—the police and the state—to the less powerful entity is often so normalized, so banal, so expected as to not even be discernible, not even visible. But angry resistance to that violence, coming from the less powerful and directed at more powerful, is automatically understood as disruptive, dangerous, electric. The upset of power dynamics creates chaos…

These structural assumptions are why calls for civility almost always redound positively to the oppressors, because incivility against the oppressed is not only so normalized, it is also so comforting that it can barely be detected as oppression; while even the most trivial challenge from the less powerful sets off alarms.”

—Rebecca Traister, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger

November 22, 2018

Margaret Laurence and Jack McClelland: Letters

It’s not typically a ringing endorsement when I tell you in November about the book that I’ve been reading since June, but this is no ordinary book. Margaret Laurence & Jack McClelland: Letters, edited by Laura K. Davis and Linda M. Morra has been one of the highlights of my literary 2018, a mainstay on my bedside which I’d pick up and read a couple of pages from every night. It begins with a letter from Canadian Publisher J.G. McClelland who sends a letter to a “Mrs. Laurence” in 1959 upon learning from a mutual friend that she’d recently completed a novel whose description sounded like something he’d be interested in. “I would be delighted if you would let us have the opportunity to consider the manuscript,” he writes.

Three weeks later, Margaret Laurence sends her reply. along with her manuscript for This Side Jordan, and so a literary partnership was born, between one of Canada’s greatest writers and McClelland, of McClelland and Stewart, the iconic Canadian publisher. And what a thing to watch, to read—the camaraderie developing between them,  Laurence finding her voice as a writer, McClelland’s nurturing of and respect for her talent, which continues through the book entire. By November 1960, they’ve dropped formalities and are “Jack” and “Margaret,” and they spar, and they gossip, and they worry for each other, and support each other, and their letters tell a great of the story of Canadian literature and publishing in the second half of the 20th century (which seems just as perilous and depressing as it is in the 21st, fuelled by passion and no cash. “The market for fiction is so bad,” McClelland writes Laurence in 1964).

She writes to him in 1965, “I have finally managed to get a novel finished, but do not know yet if it’s any good or not.” That novel was A Jest of God, which McClelland finally reads and responds to by telling her, “The thing that continues to amaze me about your writing, Margaret, is that you improve with everything you write.” I adored so many parts of this book in the specific, like when Laurence coerces McClelland into creating an LP to release alongside The Diviners, which was so not his jam and much more trouble than it was probably worth. Or when McClelland is speaking to a group of English teachers and railing against Alistair MacLean (“one of the worst writers in the world”—what a distinction!) and the teaching of his works in Canadian high school classes, and then one of the teachers responds with “here you have been complaining about the censorship of The Diviners and, at the same time, you are attempting to censor Alistair MacLean.” McClelland closes the anecdote with this: “It’s a crazy fucking world.”

I also really loved the story of Margaret Laurence’s trip to the Writers Development Trust fundraising dinner in 1982, mostly because I often find being an author in public is often an exercise in various humiliations (see my friend Rebecca Rosenblum’s recent post “Indignities”). There were various complications at this particular dinner, particularly involving Margaret Laurence having to wait for a long time in a stifling corridor with nowhere to sit down or get a drink, and then when she finally enters the event and arrives at her table, she discovers that her table is…empty. The businessman who bought her table is late, and then when he finally shows up, he spends 20 minutes talking to Pierre Berton, and he also neglected to invite anyone else to sit at their table. It’s agonizing, and hilarious, and so many of us have been there.

By 1986, however, the dust has settled enough that McClelland dares to invite Laurence to another fundraising dinner for the Writers Development Trust, but this time the party is in her honour, and he’ll even host it in Peterborough so she won’t have to travel, and she’s even in agreement. But in September of that year, he receives the news that Laurence has terminal cancer, and he writes to her immediately: “Funnily enough what catches me at this particular moment is that I wish to God I could write. I would like to write you such a superb letter that it would enchant your and enrich you and support you through whatever the months ahead have to impose on you. I just don’t have that gift [or] skill—the one in the world that I admire more than any other.”

Laurence would die the following January, and I must say I have some vague idea of how hard that must have hit McClelland, how much he must have missed her, because I could have read this book forever. And possibly I will.

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