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July 19, 2019

Your Life is Mine, by Nathan Ripley

In two days, I tore through Your Life is Mine, Nathan Ripley’s second novel, (his debut was Find You in the Dark), a book that got richer and deeper as its complex plot progressed. And isn’t that rare? A thriller whose meaning intensifies as the reader gets closer to the resolution?

I loved it.

The protagonist is Blanche Potter, a documentary filmmaker who’s just beginning to enjoy some success with a true crime feature, but she just can’t escape the notorious true crime in her own history, no matter than it was years before and she’s changed her name, and no one (except her best friend Jaya) knows who Blanche really is. That she’s actually the daughter of cult leader Chuck Varner who died after a killing spree that Blanche was witness to as a young child. And Blanche would not be surprised if her father still has followers out in the world intent on carrying on his violent mission, because she knows from experience—she herself spent much of her life under by his spell.

Which is why the news of her mother’s murder delivers Blanche some relief at first—one less tie to Chuck Varner, because Blanche’s mother had never shed her devotion to the man or his message, and getting over having two such messed up parents has been the goal of Blanche’s adult life. She even appears to be succeeding at it…except the news of her mother’s death has been delivered via an aspiring writer who knows too much and wants Blanche to share her story. And he also reports that Blanche’s mother’s murder was a random act, but Blanche knows there’s never been anything random about her tortured family life.

And so she returns to the scene of the crime, which is also the scene of her childhood, to find out who really killed her mother, and if the killer is likely to strike again. But is the whole thing a trap? It’s hard to tell who can be trusted, least of all Blanche herself who has buried years of trauma which is now returning to the surface, threatening to upset the careful arrangement of her present, and she could even end up dead.

The narrative moves between Blanche’s perspective, excerpts from a true crime book about her father’s legacy, and other secondary characters whose roles in the story take a while to become clear. There’s also a dodgy police officer, the sketchy guy who runs the trailer park where Blanche’s mother lived, and the aspiring writer—what are their connections to Chuck Varner? Is Blanche just being paranoid? And what is the most terrible part of her story, the part she has not yet told to anyone?

The novel begins with a broad canvas, but the story gets narrower and narrower as it gets closer to the climax, and doesn’t rely on all the usual tropes for this to work. One of my favourite characters in the book was the utterly effective police officer who comes equipped with a dose of humility, and actually listens to the protagonist—have we ever seen him in fiction before? And underlying the impressively crafted plots are all kinds of ideas about race and class, and gun control, cultism, misogyny and more. The story never stops being interesting, even as the pages are flying along.

July 18, 2019

A House Like A Lotus, by Madeleine L’Engle

Now here’s a shining lesson on why you should probably write down your thoughts about things and not rely on your brain to remember, because I read the next book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Polly O’Keefe series the week before our vacation, and now I can no longer recall my salient thoughts about the novel, which has since been returned to the library. Though I cannot wholly blame this predicament on my poor brain, because part of the problem is that this novel is blending together with the Austin series into a kind of primordial L’Engle soup. Precocious heroine who is misunderstood and feels she fails to measure up in comparison to her siblings (and, in this case, her impressive cousin Kate); air travel to a foreign destination (Greece!); and she even runs to Zachary Grey (ugh) though it is to Polly’s credit that she’s far less taken with him than Vicky Austin had been.

Partly because Polly has other things on her mind—she is flying to Greece because of an opportunity arrived at by arrangement of her mentor, an older woman who has betrayed Polly in a serious way. What exactly Max has done to Polly is not made entirely clear in the text (Mari Ness, whose reviews of these books I’ve so appreciated as I’ve read them myself, suggests that Max, a lesbian, has made sexual advances to Polly, but I thought the situation was more than Max was ragingly drunk and turned into a bit of a monster, which was really upsetting for Polly to see—she’s only sixteen—because Max was someone she really admired and respected) and the novel moves between Polly’s present situation en-route to and in Greece, and then to her reflections on her relationship with Max, the way it unfolded and fell apart.

Zachary Grey was useful in this book for once (although it true Zachary Grey style, he takes Polly on a reckless adventure and then nearly kills her due to his selfishness and impetuosity) because Polly realizes the way in which she permits this (supposedly) charismatic and exciting young man in her life to be complicated and problematic, but does not offer the same latitude in her considerations of Max and others.

It was also illuminating to read a bit more about Meg Murry O’Keefe, firmly ensconced in her domestic role, who explains at one point that she has arranged her life as such because she felt neglected as a child by her own mother’s career focus and wanted her children to have a different experience. (And now I’m imagining a terrific story underlying this, though I expect it was not L’Engle’s intent, but imagine if you’d had the adventures Meg Murry had in the Wrinkle in Time series? How would you raise your children understanding that the universe is so expansive, strange and dangerous, and that one of your precious babies might tesser into another dimension at any time??? Could that turn you unto something of a helicopter mom? [Although Polly’s parents certainly do permit free rein, as demonstrated by the adventures Polly has got up to so far in the series…] Also, once you’ve been to the limits of space and time, might you consider a career on earth overrated? Would Meg Murry not find all these considerations, actually, a little boring?)

Anyway, I liked this book, though it did not rock my socks and I kind of skimmed the parts once Polly arrives at the retreat where she’s been assigned to make beds for days and days. One more Polly book before me—An Acceptable Time, which I had as a child but never finished—so this whole thing is kind of full circle.

July 16, 2019

Summer Reads

Last week was splendid, all the time in the world for swimming, reading, fun with friends, and board games, and chips and butter tarts. We couldn’t have asked for better weather or company, and it was wonderful to return to this lovely lakeside spot that we’ve been enjoying for the past four years and to be reunited with some of our favourite people. Of course, what most distinguishes a perfect holiday for me is that I got all the books read.

My first book was Woman No. 17, by Edan Lepucki, co-host of the Mom Rage Podcast, which I’ve become obsessed with in the last few months. And it was really good, so different, California-lit that put me in mind of Joan Didion or Rachel Kushner. Fucked-up women and what it means to be an artist, and examining motherhood from a fascinating angle—I was really interested in reading how the novel fed into Lepucki’s other projects (both the podcast and also Mothers Before). It was moody and atmospheric, and incredibly interesting. I loved it.

Next up was Miracle Creek, by Angie Kim, a courtroom drama by a lawyer-turned-novelist. An oxygen chamber—designed to treat such things as autism symptoms and infertility—explodes, and two people are dead, and everybody has a secret to hide. Did the mother of a young boy with autism kill her son intentionally? The machine’s owner, a recent immigrant from Korea, is not telling the whole truth either, and the novel is pretty riveting as all the pieces come together. Another book, like Lepucki’s, about motherhood and its demands on those whose children have special needs. Plot-wise, the book is excellent, although I yearned for a bit more subtlety (the last chapter is way too explainy) but I like my summer reading with a hook, so this was fine.

*

I read about How Could She, by Lauren Mechling, in Vanity Fair, which has far too little books coverage in it lately for my liking, and here was a book about female friendship that was partly set in Toronto, so I was most intrigued. It’s about a woman in her late 30s who wants to kickstart her life by moving to Manhattan, where two good friends—one an artist it-girl and the other a new mother—are well established in their lives. On the surface, the book seems light and frothy and somewhat untidy as a narrative, plus there were too many details about Toronto that were all wrong (such as, tragically, we don’t have a Shake Shack), but the whole thing came together really satisfyingly for me, and Mechling really finely articulated the weird and prickly nuance of friendship and its dynamics.

*

I’ve been meaning to read Pachinko for ages, and I’m perhaps the last human being on earth to get around to it. I’ve never heard anything but massive praise for this novel, a sweeping historical narrative about Koreans in Japan. And perhaps I’d been putting it off and putting it off because “sweeping historical narratives” are just not my thing, but I am glad I finally read this one, a five hundred page novel I read in a day. It was compelling in itself, but extra for me because I used to live in Japan and know that the historic prejudice against Koreans is not only historic. And it was fascinating to have a window about Japanese history that I haven’t seen before. It was an emotional and really interesting read.

*

The opposite of a sweeping historical narrative is Liane Moriarty’s The Last Anniversary, which was a little bit stupid, but it was her second novel and I bought it for $8 at the drug store, so what was I expecting? It was terrific fun—family secrets, maybe murder, so much humour, and a map at the beginning!—and came together in such a smart way that foreshadows Moriarty’s eventual strength as a novelist. I also just really love mass market paperbacks and that you can buy novels at the drug store.

*

Not stupid at all was Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, a novel whose hype was so amped that I almost resented buying the book, as though I didn’t have a choice in the matter. I’d read Conversations With Friends and liked it well enough, but had been led to expect way more from it than it actually delivered (and I thought it was kind of annoying). I bought Normal People after hearing Sally Rooney on the radio, and in hardcover even, but it was worth every penny. About a mismatched relationship between an outcast girl from a wealthy family and the popular boy whose mother is their cleaner, and what they find in each other and what they take from each other, and the dynamic is never static. Nothing is in this coming-of-age tale of love and friendship, a sad and beautiful heartbreaking story that was both familiar and strange at once. It was everything they said it would be.

*

I read Normal People in a morning on our last day, when it was cool and grey and all I wanted to do was wear sweaters and read on the porch, but then the sun came out and we went back to the beach, and I got to dig in to This is My Life, from Meg Wolitzer’s back catalogue, which I bought at Books Are Magic in Brooklyn in May. And it was a really wonderful book. Flawed as a novel, as Wolitzer admits in her preface to this 2013 edition, but there were paragraphs in it that made me gasp with recognition, so perfectly articulated. It’s interesting to see what Wolitzer was up to so close to the beginning of her career, and I really loved this one. Definitely worth a read (and it was made into a movie in 1992, Nora Ephron’s directorial debut, although it looks like the movie version of the story was very different).

July 15, 2019

Gleanings: Special Summer Edition

July 3, 2019

Molly of the Mall, by Heidi L.M. Jacobs

I am positively besotted by Heidi L.M. Jacobs’ debut novel, Molly of the Mall, which I kind of suspect was written just for me, a 1990s coming-of-age tale of a young woman who aspires to be an authoress and works at a mall. But not just any mall—the West Edmonton Mall, with its peacocks and water park, as far from Jane Austen as a mall can possibly be. A novel that is a teeny bit Bridget Jones’ Diary, if Bridget happened to work at a shoe store, and a whole lot of a Caitlin Moran-esque tale of how to build a girl, except instead of coming from a working class family in Wolverhampton, Molly’s the youngest daughter of a pair of academics, which can similarly render a person a misfit.

I loved this novel.

It takes place over the course of a year as Molly spends a summer working Le Petit Chou Shoe Shop (big on up-selling polish and sprays) and then going back to school for the third year of her English studies, feeling out of her depth in academia, aspiring to write a Jane Austenesque novel set on the Canadian prairies, and (naturally) wondering about love. There are several contenders for her male romantic lead, including a childhood friend who’s in her English class, her sister’s old boyfriend, and a mysterious man at the mall who she meets in the Penguin Classics section of the bookstore.

This is not a novel that anybody would ever call taut—but let’s not hold that against it. Instead of taut, this novel is a trove of delights, including a Jane Austen-inspired mix tape (side 2 is Mr. Darcy’s, and includes Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry”); fragments of Molly’s ridiculous school assignments; passionate thoughts on Oasis and the Gallagher brothers (and an amazing passage on the first time she hears “Wonder Wall”; a fabulous plot thread on Molly’s determination to reclaim the works of James McIntyre, Canada’s cheese poet; and the part when her manager discovers she’s plotting her novel on a boring shift at the shoe store, instead of building polish displays, and she concocts a falsehood about writing a fan letter to Roy Orbison (“After an awkward silence, Tim looked at me and said, ‘You know he’s dead, right?’ I looked at the floor and nodded. I whispered, ‘It’s still too soon. I don’t want to talk about it.”)

If none of this sounds remotely appealing, then I am not even going to try to convince you. Molly of the Mall may not be for everyone. But if you came of age in the 1990s, worked in a shopping mall, longed for a literary life, ever felt a bit weird about your dad’s devotion to Robbie Burns, dreamed of a romance that was swoon-worthy, felt confused in university English classes, and let 19th century novels play perhaps too great a role in informing your perspective on…everything—then you will not be sorry. It’s also a really beautiful love letter to Edmonton.

Read this book.

July 3, 2019

Summer Reads on the Radio

I was on CBC Ontario Morning today talking summer book picks. You can listen again on the podcast—I come in at 42.30.

June 26, 2019

Big Sky and The Last Resort

To start with, the Jackson Brodie novels were not my favourite Kate Atkinson, but of course I’d read anything by Kate Atkinson. And while indeed these books were my gateway to detective fiction—it seems unbelievable now that I ever needed one—I always preferred my Kate Atkinson more literary. Reading Behind the Scenes at the Museum was one of the most important literary experiences of my life.

But I also know that for many readers, the Jackson Brodie novels were a gateway to Kate Atkinson altogether, before Life After Life and God in Ruins, which were each a brand new level of success in an already remarkable career. And so there has been considerable excitement around Big Sky, Atkinson’s first Jackson Brodie novel in years. But I was not expecting to fall as hard for this novel as I did.

And I did, oh did I ever, carrying hardback book in my bag with glee and pulling it out at every opportunity. The kind of book that makes you only want to be reading, conjuring an incredibly intricate fictional world that’s just meta enough that you know it’s Kate Atkinson, and with real world ties that make Big Sky a novel that’s important as well as delicious.

In this book, Jackson Brodie stumbles backward into a human trafficking ring that had its origins in pedophile rings made up on 1970s’ high profile entertainers, which is not the stuff of fiction, if you’ve been reading the UK press in the last five years. The links between then and now are part of what the story is out to discover, and Atkinson does fascinating things with plot and time to tie the pieces together, and she is a writer so firmly in command of her story and all its threads, almost as though the threads were reins creating the novel’s momentum, making the story go go go.

Underlining everything in this book—the humour, the pleasure, the characters, Jackson’s ex-wife’s voice that’s now stuck in his head—there is rage, rage at the use and abuse and exploitation of vulnerable girls and women by hideous men, and this is a fiercely and furiously feminist novel that’s intent on justice, which isn’t always on the side of law, because the law has protected too many of these hideous men for too long, and Jackson Brodie is having none of it.

—Although it’s not actually Jackson who breaks the case, as he continues stumbling backward—as is often the case, it’s the women who get things done, not to mention a washed-up drag queen, an emotionally intelligent teen-age boy, and the lyrics to “Let It Go.”

“Let it Go” does not factor in The Last Resort, the latest (and bestselling!) novel by my friend Marissa Stapley, but it’s a novel that fits neatly with Big Sky, which I realized this morning as I was reading the latter at its climax. Both novels are about girls and women who’ve been abused and manipulated by hideous men who know just how to wield their power, until things finally reach a breaking point. The Last Resort is set at a luxury resort in Mexico run by a pair of married celebrity marriage counsellors whose own repressed secrets are beginning to rise to the surface, just as a deadly storm is rolling in, and one thought crystallizes like an icy blast: “They’re never going back (to the patriarchy), the past is in the past.”

Burn it down, blow it up, push the bastard off a cliff./ The women are furious, and they’re not taking any more shit.

Okay, I made that part up, with a little inspiration from Elsa, but I reread The Last Resort last week and found it even more compelling than I did upon my first read, appreciating Stapley’s (I refer to all women authors by their surnames in reviews as a feminist statement, even when those authors are my friends) willingness to complicate, to ask questions about women’s complicity in the abuse of other women, to have her readers sit uncomfortably in that space, and to implicate patriarchal institutions—the church, marriage—in such an unabashedly feminist manner.

Packaging all that up inside a plot that zips along and makes for such a gripping read—what more from a book could you ask for?

June 25, 2019

Jump In

The city swimming pools are open, and school is almost out, and I ALMOST went swimming in the lake on Sunday, and I turned 40, and celebrated my 14th wedding anniversary, and both my children had birthdays too, and Briny Books sold so many books that we ran out of money for postage, and my blogging course is nearly ready for launching, which is very exciting, and I am trying not to bemoan the end of May and June, which are my very favourite times, but there is still summer ahead, never mind all the work (ACK!) I have to do between now and then. Deep breaths. It’s going to be fine.

June 22, 2019

Reflecting on 40

Not since the dawn of the millennium have I felt such pressure to mark the turning over of a year—and let me tell you, I don’t thrive under such pressure. I ended up spending the evening of December 31, 1999 eating chips in my parents basement, which was better than the world’s infrastructure crumbling as the clock ticked over, of course, but it was really only memorable because it was not a good time. (There might not even have been chips, but I just added that part for extra detail.)

So this was reason I wanted to keep things low-key for my 40th birthday this week, indulging in the everyday pleasures that I am fortunate make up the bulk of my life. The everydayness is the point…but then did I want to see my friends, but our apartment is too small for a party (it wasn’t once upon a time, but once many of our friends had children and then those children grew, the situation became untenable), and I can’t afford to book a venue, and I don’t want to spend the energy to make a big production, but…and here I was on the same tangent that led to me greeting the new millennium from a basement, so best to ease back if I don’t want that to happen again.

I am not good at milestone birthdays. My 30th birthday was only better than my 20th birthday, because my 20th was the birthday where I drank too much and ended up falling in a puddle of my own pee. (At least it wasn’t someone else’s.) When I turned 30, I was hardly standing upright either because I had a three-week-old baby and life was really hard, and that was also the day that my computer crashed, losing everything I’d worked on in my twenties. (Hindsight: this was NOT a tragedy.)

Kerry and Harriet in Younger Days

So I am hoping we can set the bar at this: my 40th birthday will be more pleasant than my 30th, whose highlight was that my newborn baby slept for twenty minutes will we ate our dinner and I was able to sit in a chair unencumbered and enjoy half a glass of beer.

Never mind that I no longer enjoy beer at all (alcohol affects my sleep, which has become my biggest vice as I move into this new decade, and then it’s hard to get up first thing in the morning for my daily swim, which is my SECOND biggest vice as I move into this new decade. It is a really good thing that I never hoped to die before I got old because it’s too late for that…).

I am so happy to be 40…or just two days short of it, as I write this. I’ve seen enough of my contemporaries die of cancer in the last ten years that my perspective on aging now is that it’s nothing short of a gift, and I feel so lucky to receive it. And grateful for my thirties too for what they delivered me, how far I’ve come since then, all the amazing things I’ve been able to make and see and do and meet, not least among them books, friends, adventures, challenges, and so many extraordinarily beautiful days. (Like Albert from Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, I continue to collect good days like other people collect coin or postcards. Unlike Albert, I did not die in WW1.)

That exhausted new mother sitting in a chair with half a glass of beer would have had her mind blown by the way it’s all unfolded. I feel so incredibly lucky.

I am reading Judith Viorst’s poetry collection How I Did I Get to be 40 and Other Atrocities, which is fun and also fitting because it was ten years ago that I was reading her It’s Hard to Be Hip Over 30 (and how—oh, and her most recent collection about nearing 90 [!] came out not too long ago...) And while I am loving the book (especially the design, since my library copy is decidedly vintage now), for me it has turned out not to be the poetic word on my new decade, because I recently read Marita Dachsel’s collection There Are Not Enough Sad Songs.

From her poem, “the forties”:

We are fabulous. We are stronger than we’ve ever been,/ because we know ourselves, and we love ourselves. Our bodies are finally our own…

(Get a glimpse of the whole thing here.)

June 20, 2019

It’s Pretty Easy, Being Green

The following is a list of changes our family has made to our purchase habits and lifestyle over the past couple of years in order to live a greener life. I write them down here to inspire other people to follow suit, and hope you will leave a note with any other green habits of your own that I might be able to put into practice.

  • Soapberries instead of laundry soap, available for sale at Bulk Barn. (I also air dry most of my laundry to conserve energy.) For stains, I have a bar of old-fashioned laundry soap (also from Bulk Barn) and it’s really effective.
  • Using baking soda for washing dishes (we don’t have a dishwasher). We still buy dish-soap but it’s used for approximately 1/4 of dishwashings, and a single bottle lasts for ages.
  • Buying bar soap (which we always did anyway because liquid hand-soap is for millionaires!)
  • Buying glass jars instead of plastic food containers, when possible—we get Pinebridge Yogurt now and it’s also delicious. Buying cream cheese in the cardboard packet instead of plastic container, etc. Would love to find a non-plastic way to buy cottage cheese though!
  • Buying ice cream in biodegradable containers (and bonus: Chapmans and Kawartha Dairy are sold in these and are both pretty local!)
  • We bring water bottles everywhere instead of buying juice or water in plastic bottles
  • Reusable cups for hot beverages! We bought Keep Cups a few years ago, and bring them everywhere we go. When I lost my lid, I was able to order a replacement.
  • I don’t use the plastic produce bags from the grocery store, and have reusable mesh bags instead. When I don’t remember to bring them, I just let my sweet potatoes roll around naked.
  • We stopped buying paper towels and napkins, and instead bought up a boat load of secondhand reusable cloth napkins. We also have cloth diapers left over from long long ago that double as paper towels, except that they may outlive us all.
  • Bringing our own food containers for take-out. We thought they’d think we were weird, but if they did they didn’t mention it…
  • Reusing bread bags and other such things for freezing food and for lining our kitchen compost bin
  • We banned plastic wrap! I thought I would miss it as I used it for zesting lemons and it was really useful in this way, but zesting is all right without it, and there are plenty of less plastic ways to cover food for storage.
  • I replaced our shower curtain with a polyester machine-washable one and didn’t buy a liner. The shower curtain still keeps water from going all over the floor, and dries quickly.

What to work on? I tried bar shampoo, but it did my hair no favours, and so I went back to bottled—I only wash my hair twice a week anyway—but would like to find a non-plastic solution. Deodorant and dental products remain a huge source of plastics waste in our house. And several kinds of fruit and veg arrive in those non-recyclable black plastic containers, or the plastic tubs that mushrooms come in and we need less of that. Finally, I would love to do more shopping at one of those no-packaging stores (shampoo! Vegetable oil!) but we don’t have one nearby.

Further Problems: The burden of solutions to environmental problems cannot fall on individuals alone. In addition to cutting down on waste, we also need to be electing politicians who are willing to tackle this issue and stop putting corporate interests first—and then holding our leaders to account.

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