January 3, 2017
It occurred to me partway through December that this had been the first holiday season in nine years years during which I hadn’t had a baby, or a two-year-old, or been pregnant, and/or very very sick. And so that was how it all got done. How we made a list at the beginning of the month packed with all the Christmassy things we wanted to get up to—museums, galleries, shopping malls, and Christmas markets—and managed to check off every single item, as well as get the presents bought and wrapped, and all the Christmas cards posted in plenty of time. This December, I was a wonder woman, and we did so very much in the weeks leading up to the big day that I was unsure how exactly we were going to spend our Christmas holiday, but then fate decided to step in and solve that problem itself. Harriet threw up at 4am on Christmas morning, thereby kicking off a string of days in which one person or another or everyone was under the weather, and so we didn’t leave the house for days. I’m not even complaining. First, because I managed to escape the sick, and second because no one was ever that sick. (The standard for “that sick” was set two years ago when I gave us all food poisoning with a dodgy risotto. Still traumatized. Everything that’s less sick just arrives as something of a relief.) And so the story of our Christmas break is mainly one about the couch, and the children watching hours of the latest incarnation of How to Train Your Dragon on Netflix while I lounged about in track pants and read one fat biography after another. It’s about days blending together and too much broken sleep, which meant that all this downtime didn’t quite add up to “relaxing.” But there was a certain charm to it—it felt awfully refreshing to have no place to go. Sometimes the universe knows what you need more than you do. Though of course I would say that being the one member of our family who didn’t spend any time this holiday on intimate terms with the puke bucket.
December 31, 2016
I eschewed principles in general about twenty years ago—this after a painful attempt to compile in my journal a list entitled “What I Think About Things.” I recall that “abortion” was an item, and that while I’d never have one myself, I wanted other women to have the freedom to choose. Each item in the list was written in marker, alternating colours. I was trying to stand for something, because I’d read that if you don’t you’ll fall for anything. (I think I read that in someone’s high school yearbook grad comment.) Eventually, I gave up, because life itself is fluid, evolving, confusing and weird. And I think that this giving up was a vital part of my process of growing up, as much as the time I realized that if I was sure I was right about something and the person I was arguing with was just as sure of their own rightness, then what even was the point of being right? Did it mean nothing? Put that in your journal with a swoopy script and sparkly ink.
I consider all this now coming out of a year that’s been defined by polarities in broad communities and narrower ones. A year in which I’ve discovered that the kind of people who write racist comments responding to newspaper articles about First Nations people, just say, are actually people who exist in the world and are surprisingly fuelled by self-righteousness. So too are people who hate feminists and blame women for their sons’ unemployment. And those for whom “Blue Lives Matter” is a legitimate hashtag. It’s been a year in which believing women has been raised being the opposite of justice, and a movement against cultural appropriation seen as cultural oppression. “Yes, and,” I want to respond though. “Yes, but…” I want to answer. So what are we do to?
I’ve spent the week offline and reading biographies—Jane Jacobs, Claude Monet and Shirley Jackson. More about all of these in a post-to-come, but what I’ve taken away from all of these is the vastness of context, and how none of what we’re going through right now is remotely new. (Georges Clemenceau getting death threats in 1916 from right-wing religious zealots—do you too take heart from the fact that this sort of this is not a recent phenomenon? People have always been this stupid.) And what I’ve taken as well is the importance of keeping calm and having a long-view. Of doing what you can, but also acknowledging that getting hysterical is not going to serve anyone. These books and some time to think have led me to what, I think, will be my mantra for the year ahead.
Which is: LISTEN. BE BETTER. And that’s all. Be better than them, than that. Than you. Be better than the way it’s easiest for you to be, I mean. And understand that your willingness to listen is more important than anything you might have to say, or think—this is especially important if you are a white person considering issues of culture and race, for example. Which is not to say that one should not stand for something—I for one will be participating in the Toronto satellite of the Women’s March on Washington on January 21. It’s just that as I stand, my mantra will be the foundation of my action, rather than fervent self-righteousness or religious fervour, just say. I will acknowledge complexity, incongruity, tension, disagreement—all those things that make the world interesting, if, alas, it makes it tricky to hold in your hand.
December 23, 2016
Yesterday I was cutting out sugar cookies with Iris and the above image appeared on the table before more, so absolutely perfect. So much light. Very often, the world is more wondrous than we give it credit for. And in order to take note of just how wondrous, I’m going offline for a week starting tonight. I look forward to reading real books, talking with actual people, and lighting up the darkness with illuminations metaphorical and otherwise. Wishing you a restful, fulfilling holiday season, and thank you for reading.
PS But before you go? Check out my thoughts on CanLit in 2016/2017 in this cool little article.
December 21, 2016
One day this fall, I opened up a Little Free Library in my neighbourhood only to find it empty save for a bitterly scrawled missive: “The point is to leave some books too, people.” It was very sad, and corresponded with stories I’d heard about ownership of Little Free Libraries not being quite as rewarding as one might assume. A situation rife with narrative, I thought, so I decided to write a little story exploring this idea, and the story is my gift to you.
We’re pleased to welcome you to Idlewood Avenue’s Little Free Library ™, a bastion of democratised learning where our property meets the sidewalk. We’ve been amassing volumes that we’re looking forward to sharing with you here in this box which we’ve painted to resemble a Carnegie library. And we welcome your volumes of all kinds—no literary snobbery permitted!
All books are friends here.
Barbara and Stephen Adolphus-Chang
We appreciate your enthusiasm during our first week and it was exciting to have the library cleaned out three days in a row. A couple of reminders: we’ve had a lot of takers but please try to leave books too. And if anybody knows who is responsible for the penis drawings administered with Sharpies, we’d like to hear about it.
Although a little bird has suggested that the culprits were from the student rental house—can anyone corroborate?
Barb and Steve A-C
A note that this notice board is for Little Free Library ™ related news only—posters for Doggie Do-Walk Dog Walker Services have been removed. Also, while your contributions are appreciated, we would ask neighbours to refrain from donating their VHS collections.
Books only, please!
Barb and Steve
Someone has been leaving small lavender-scented bags of dog waste inside our library. Coincidentally, this began when the Doggie Do-Walk Dog-Walker posters were removed from our board, though we are not pointing fingers. Or paws. But this is certainly not neighbourly behaviour.
Barb and Steve
We are writing to thank you for a rewarding first month of Little Free Library ™ stewardship, and also to object to allegations that we “traffic in smut.” If you find Judith Krantz’s intimate depictions too titillating, that is down to you.
Further, passing a copy of Scruples to your eight-year-old daughter was a decision you embarked upon of your own volition, so do know we are judging you right back!
B & S
The penis problem continues, now in multi-coloured hues. We’ll be repainting, but if it happens again, the phalluses will stand and the tone of the neighbourhood will suffer. A reminder to tenants in the student rental house that this is not funny, and if you ever grow up, perhaps one day you might understand that.
Barbara and Stephen
Apologies for slandering the residents of the student rental house. We met with them last Tuesday and found them to be upstanding community members, as invested as we are in keeping Idlewood Avenue penis-free. Together, we are coordinating a graffiti removal campaign involving pressure hoses. Stay tuned for details. We’re grateful also for the students’ book donations. Once we weeded out the second-hand chemistry texts, some interesting titles emerged.
Too bad about the highlighted paragraphs and vulgar marginalia (some of which included penis doodles that looked a little familiar. Hmmm….).
But yours in benefits of the doubt!
Babs and Stee
THE SHIT LEAVING CONTINUES. What is wrong with people? You paint a box to look like a Carnegie Library out of the goodness of your heart, and then people fill it with excrement? HOW DO YOU SLEEP AT NIGHT? And then the VHS tapes keep on coming. This is all very hard.
I never envisioned Little Free Library ™ ownership as a soul-destroying exercise.
Rest assured that while Barbara is taking her temporary leave from Little Free Library ™ stewardship in the name of self-care, the library will continue to operate as usual. Stipulations re dog waste and VHS tapes still stand.
Also, to the man who removed all the books and sold them at the shitty used bookshop at the end of the road, we know who you are.
Thanks to those a behind recent generous donation of poetry—we’ve got enough slim volumes there to stock our Little Free Library ™ for weeks. I urge readers to pick some of these up as they’re rich with wonders and also we have a lot of them. Further, please make use of our newly installed garbage bin for any fast food packaging. There has been some confusion about whether or not our Little Free Library is a waste receptacle.
To be clear: it is not.
PS: Barb is recovering well. Thanks for asking.
I’m thrilled to welcome Daryl Parsley-Hemingway to our Little Free Library ™ team to help me out as Barb continues to convalesce. Daryl is a university student, English major and a distant relative of Mariel Hemingway, who is a noted author of two memoirs, so Daryl has literary pedigree. He has great ideas about how to curate our collection and will be working to enhance our online presence.
Looking forward to seeing you on the information highway!
We’re writing to address last night’s upsetting incident when our entire Little Free Library ™ collection was tossed out into the rain and at least $30 worth of used paperbacks were destroyed. We are grateful to neighbours who’ve come through with emergency donations at short notice. Looking at the library this morning, you’d never suspect anything had happened, but the incident still must be acknowledged. And yes, Larry, we know you did it and we still refuse to stock your self-published memoir.
Sticking to our guns in defense of traditional publishing platforms,
Steve and Daryl
Just a reminder that if you’re taking books, take care to leave a few too. Think of our Little Free Library ™ as a kind of conversation—you don’t want to just be a listener! And to that end, Daryl has set up Idlewood Avenue Little Free Library ™ web presences on various social mediums.
We heartily urge you to “check us out” there and find out new ways to be involved.
Steve and Daryl
No doubt you’ve been made aware of a “competitor” setting up across the street. We’ve been receiving a lot of love from neighbours who view this Wee Take-a-Book Box as a threat to our own project. But we want everyone to know that this relationship need not be adversarial. Idlewood Avenue has room enough for two libraries, though we wish also to remark that the Wee Take-A-Book Box neither bears the official Little Free Library ™ trademark, nor does its stewards adhere to our literary standards. However, patrons are free to decide for themselves what kind of miniature libraries they wish to see in the world.
It’s a free country.
Steve and Daryl
Forgive our sparseness, but we’ve been cleaned out nearly every day, which would be good news, except that all our titles are turning up in the Wee Take-a-Book Box, identical volumes right down to the same dedications. (“Dearest Audrey, Here’s something fun to tide you over until the pleurisy clears up. Love, Edna.”) To consider this a coincidence would be absurd, but even so, police were called and we were banned from the property and then later that night when the Wee Take-a-Book Box’s glass door was smashed, we got blamed for that too—even though Stephen had gone to bed early and Daryl was working on a group project. In all the hubbub it’s been forgotten that we are in fact the wronged party.
We appreciate your support at this difficult time.
Steve and Daryl
Thanks to everyone who was there for us last week. We are particularly grateful for those who dropped off books to replace all those that were stolen. FYI: Daryl is very busy with his group project so if things seem slow on the web this week, that’s why.
And a kind reminder too that we are (still!) not a waste receptacle.
Stephen and Daryl
It’s a beautiful day and we’ve got a stellar selection for you all, including some rare first editions, kitschy 1980s microwave oven cookbooks, and three copies of last year’s disappointing national book award winner, which sold a lot of copies but proved unreadable. Potential collector items, all of them.
I write you with the devastating news that the group project in which my co-librarian Daryl Parsley-Hemingway has been engaged is actually an affair with my wife Barbara. It turns out that Barbara is farther along in her recovery than I understood, and has decided to permanently absent herself both from stewardship of our Little Free Library ™ and also of our marriage.
For obvious reasons, I have asked that Daryl no longer be affiliated with the library, and I will also be taking a temporary hiatus. I hope to return when I am stronger.
For Sale: One Little Free Library ™ box along with official charter status to the Little Free Library ™ organization. $50 or best offer. Must pick up.
December 21, 2016
One thing I love about winter is the way the sun pours into my kitchen, that gorgeous light from the south, illuminated my teacups and photos and all my afternoons. I’d never noticed that light until I joined Instagram last year, and didn’t completely appreciate it either until spring arrived and the light in the kitchen got dim again. Who ever knew that winter could be so bright? But it can be, and my Instagram shows that, simple quotidian goodness that isn’t properly reflected here on my blog anymore. My blog is becoming less a place for every-day than it once was, the dailiness that once plotted its narrative showing up on Instagram instead. And if you’re not following my Instagram account, you might not realize what a parade of good days there have been these last few months, goodness that was indeed marred by the election results in November and the political shift, which certainly added a different level of resonance to many of the days. (We went to see The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and I kept thinking of all those people who don’t know “the deeper magic,” and not even in a Christian allegory sense.)
So what has been happening? What stories would I have poured out here in previous years, in posts titled “Good Weekend”? I don’t think I wrote about my trip to Blue Heron Books in October, or the way the autumn leaves were like a fireworks display that exploded brilliance well into November.
I didn’t write about our weekend jaunts out to different parts of the city, living sans nap and stroller and partaking in urban explorations. About Halloween with our friends and neighbours, the streets crawling with people and such a spirit of openness and community. How Harriet’s Hermione Grainger costume was incroyable. About our trip to see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at the Stratford Festival, which was courtesy of the kindness of a friend and is the beginning of an annual tradition. About holiday parties, Harriet’s performance in the Primary Choir concert, and about all the glass that smashed when our Christmas tree fell down.
Last year I was very ill for most of December, which made me grateful for every bit of wellness this year. We’ve filled our weekends with excellent Christmas things—a trip to the Gardiner Museum for the 12 Trees of Christmas Display, a visit to the Toronto Reference Library to see their Fairy Tales exhibit, afternoon tea at the Art Gallery, and a shopping mall Christmas Day (made all the more enjoyable by the fact that we didn’t need to buy anything while we were there). It’s not even Christmas and we’ve already walked home from school in an actual blizzard, visited the Christmas windows at The Bay on Queen Street, and partook in a Christmas carolling party with our dear friends and was so good for the soul. That there’s been snow on the ground for two weeks has certainly made it seem a lot like Christmas. Our presents have been wrapped for ages. The tree is up (and still standing) and the darkness is marvellously lit.
On a personal level, we’ve had a very good year. The people who live in my house continue to be my favourite people in the universe, and I can’t quite believe my good fortune in being able to hang out with them every day. My days are busy and there is too much trekking to and from various schools to deliver and fetch wee scholars, but so it goes, and both girls are happy at school and I’ve got time to work and write and swim. Life is complicated and there are always worries, and my children have their struggles just like yours do, but these things make us all more resilient. But for the most part, we’re just extraordinarily lucky and rich in all the very best things and we know it.
I count my blessings every day.
December 19, 2016
One day in October 2014, a man with a gun entered Canada’s parliament buildings shortly after murdering a Canadian soldier standing guard at the national war memorial. The man with the gun had a history of drug addiction, mental illness, and also pledged allegiance to a terrorist “state.” Thankfully, he was taken down before he hurt anybody else, and afterward there were the usual discussions about religious extremism and one religion in particular. A year later, Canada’s Conservative Party was counting on leveraging fear from this incident and others to win another election. They had been slow in accepting refugees from war-torn Syria anyway (and had taken away healthcare from refugees altogether, in a move that defied both logic and human decency), which made it seem personal to Canadians when the body of a small Syrian chid washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and was photographed in a devastating, iconic image.
Determined to stay their course all the same and make it clear how they really felt about multiculturalism in general and Islam in particular—or rather to play to the very worst parts of people’s fears, frailties and debased humanity in order to win votes—the Conservatives gambled on a novel concept, a Barbaric Practices Hotline, wherein Canadians could report their neighbours…for suspected cases of genital mutilation, apparently?? (Who ya gonna call?) An idea that was so preposterous that I still can’t believe it really happened, let alone that the public faces of this idea are continuing to walk around in public (encouraging citizens to “lock up” democratically-elected leaders, no less [but just the female ones. Not that gender has anything to do with it.]).
It was utterly bananas. It was…like waking up one morning and discovering that some clown called Donald is President of the United States. And then against all predictions, against the odds, Canadians in huge numbers shot down that shitblimp and the Conservatives were out. Because for a few weeks there, we didn’t recognize the country we lived in. Because it was difficult to imagine the lows these people would stoop to in order to get power (and you have to wonder if it would be worth it. That you’d have to break something so irrecoverably in order to make it yours. What would it be like to triumph in that fight? Where would lie the satisfaction?). The Liberal Party’s victory on October 19, 2015, I thought—nearly a year after that deranged man had broken into Parliament with a gun (and I’m not going to say he “stormed it,” because he was literally one guy with a gun, and that’s not a storm. That’s something weird falling out of the sky)—was not necessarily for the Liberals themselves, but it was against the awfulness that election had brought us. It was Canadians standing up and declaring that this is not who we are. It was all of us being determined to be something better than what the Conservatives had offered, which was a vision of our very worst selves.
These visions are important, as Rebecca Solnit writes in her 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. These visions of who we are, and what we can do, and what we will do. The prevailing view, she writes, of a community in a moment of disaster being that people will panic—riots in the streets, mass slaughter, every man for himself. A vision built on fear, the same way the Canadian Conservative Party erected their 2015 election platform on fear. But what if, Solnit proposes, these perceptions of human nature are wrong? Going back over historical disasters from the last 100 or so years—the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Halifax Explosion in 1918, the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, and the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina in 2005—to find a different kind of narrative. A narrative that is actually prevalent and proven in the “disaster studies” field, which is that in moments of crisis, people come together, support each other, and that new communities and ways of being can actually emerge.
Where there is panic, Solnit writes, is in the realm of the elite and bureaucratic. Rigid systems fail, precarious structures crumble, powerful people freak out about the prospect of the populous realizing they’ve got true agency—and it’s here where the chaos comes in. Armed forces were sent into San Francisco in 1906, just as they were in New Orleans in 2005 along with private security firms, and these forces caused huge problems, viewing community members as an enemy, and being completely out of touch with social dynamics. The trouble comes from improperly equipped firefighters charging into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, all the while people in the buildings were facilitating their own evacuation (against official orders, even—many had been told to go back to their desks and wait), carrying disabled colleagues down 69 flights of stairs, proceeding in an orderly fashion, saving so many lives.
In her book, Solnit writes to open our eyes to other possibilities of human nature. That perhaps we can be our best selves, that maybe our best selves are even who we really are. It’s a heartening read at this moment in time when the western world seems intent on its own disaster course, and when populists are preying on our very worst tendencies. At a moment when the fall of the Canadian Conservatives in 2015, along with their racist, divisive platform, seems like an anomalous blip, right-leaning, xenophobic politics creeping into the mainstream—or one might even say “storming.” When the very people who touted the Barbaric Practices Hotline are not lying low in abject shame, as one might expect, but are gunning for leadership of the Canadian Conservative Party, the saddest, most dispiriting, race-t0-the-bottom-ish contest I’ve seen since, well, Ted Cruz was knocked off his weirdo throne or that smarmy fucker Nigel Farage quit the UKIP in triumph.
It’s easy to play these kinds of politics. I mean, not from a moral point of view (how do these people sleep at night?), but it really doesn’t take a lot of effort to put a bunch of people together and encourage them to be angry and full of hate. Because, as Solnit writes in her book, our most basic tendencies are perhaps a yearning to belong to something and to each other. We want a sense of purpose, a reason. I was one of thousands and thousands of people around the world who, on September 11 2001, lined up for ages—for nothing, it would turn out, but still—at a blood donor clinic. We wanted to do something. It’s the reason so many Canadians have donated time and money for the past year to support the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who began to arrive in Canada shortly after the Liberals took office—my friends and neighbours have been a part of these efforts, my mom has, Canadians in towns small and large, in communities already multicultural or otherwise. It’s the reason why, when I came across a small car accident the other week, before emergency services had arrived, passerbys were supporting the cars’ occupants, employees from the coffee shop on the corner had brought out chairs and food and water, and I stood there entirely superfluous and wanting to be a part of it, a bit sad to realize I didn’t have to be—my neighbours and fellow citizens had it covered.
There were also people walking by snapping photos on their phones. This was morbid and weird and kind of terrible, but there are always going to be people like this, people who are self-serving, messing stuff up, playing the system. Caitlin Moran writes about this in her new book, about how there are always going to be people who play the system, that this is who people are just as much as the helpers, but this is no reason to tear down institutions altogether. If we wrecked all the systems that people had cheated, where would that leave the parliament of any country in the world, or the Catholic Church for that matter? See also Solnit on “looting” (when black people do it) and “requisitioning of goods” (when white people do it) and the efforts that were devoted to protect things and property in New Orleans in 2005, sacrificing actual people’s lives. All of which is to say that these things are complicated, and nuanced, and it’s much easier to stand before a group of people and smirk and wave as they start chanting LOCK HER UP.
It’s all the same impulse though, the same yearning for connection and meaning. And I take heart in this. The impulse is there, and what if we can “leverage” that, then we can all be better. And how to make that happen? Solnit writes about increasing community connections, investing in social capital, enabling community infrastructure that permits people to share spaces and things, to congregate, to create a vital public life. It’s about giving people opportunities work together, to know each other, and to be empowered to create their own solutions to local problems. Governments can take heed of this, I think, and invest in these kinds of initiatives to bring people together instead of divide them. And on the individual level, all of us can be empowered already with an understanding of the roles we can play—it’s making eye contact and smiling at people in the street, saying hello your neighbour, leaving a holiday gift for your letter carrier, making friends at the park, using the library, supporting community-minded businesses in your neighbourhood. By being the change you wish to see in the world.
December 15, 2016
We’re winding down to the holidays (although, unfathomably, they don’t start until the end of next week when school’s out). Instead of Picture Book Friday, I want to point you toward my Instagram account where I’m sharing a title from our Christmas Book Box every day. We’re also reading the short novel A Christmas Card now, which our friend Sarah read last year (as we were reading The London Snow, by the same author, Paul Theroux). Today we walked home from school in a glorious blizzard, and hot chocolate with marshmallows are getting to be a habit.
December 13, 2016
As a parent, having uncomfortable conversations with my daughter is one of my favourite things. The other day after listening to the news on the radio, she asked me, “What’s sexual assault?” And I was so grateful to be able to answer that. To be able to give her the context for these awful, disturbing ideas, rather than her getting her context from elsewhere, from less reliable sources. From the cruel world even, when she’s utterly unprepared for it. It’s the same reason I read her the Grimms with the violent endings, the nasty stepmother destined to dance eternally in shoes made of burning iron. Even though these deliverances of justice aren’t in keeping with reality, I think the fact that the world can be brutal and hard. I don’t want these things to ever come as a surprise to her. I willingly brought my daughter into the world, and along with that, I see myself as required to take responsibility for all of it, the good and the bad.
They aren’t opposing, also, the good and the bad. This is what I want to teach my daughter about the world, about its complexity “A single thing can have two realities,” is a line I wrote in my essay, “Doubleness Clarifies,” about motherhood and abortion. It’s always been a lesson I wanted her to learn. “And so one day I will tell her about what happened to me a long time ago,” I wrote about my daughter and my abortion, in this essay I wrote when my daughter was three. I was always grateful for that essay, because it meant I’d never be able to not tell her what happened to me. It would force me to take responsibility too for this part of my own story.
Last week I shared the above photo of protesters from the 1970 Abortion Caravan in Ottawa on Instagram. I spend a lot of time on Twitter raging about abortion access and perception, while my Instagram feed is all teacups in soft sunshine. I wanted to be more well-rounded in my Insta-life, so I shared the image. And later that night, Harriet was scrolling through my feed and saw the photo. “Who are they?” she asked, and so I told her about abortion.
I told her about the brave women (and men) who fought hard so that she and I could have control over our reproductive lives. I told her about how people are trying themselves in knots trying to restrict women from aborting lentil-sized fetuses. “But it’s not their lentil,” she said. “I KNOW!” I answered. And I told that when she was a lentil, she was everything. We read her stories even though she didn’t even have ears. But she was everything because we loved her already and we wanted her. In physical terms, she was almost nothing. Pregnancy is perilous at 6 weeks.
I told her about my friends who’ve had abortions later on, when everything is so much harder. About how these were heartbreaking choices, the losses of children who were desperately wanted. About how nobody has an abortion for fun. It’s always a careful choice, and sometimes not an easy one. And it’s hard to understand because one person’s lentil is someone else’s baby. But Harriet is seven and already she understands that a single thing can have two realities.
I haven’t told her yet that I had an abortion. She didn’t ask. These conversations have to be organic, I think. But I’m sure I’ll tell her soon, and when I do I’ll tell her this: “If not for my abortion, I wouldn’t have YOU, and I’m grateful everyday.”
December 11, 2016
As always, I’ve failed in both my efforts to read everything I wanted to read in 2016 and also to keep my top ten to a number below twenty. Still, I think I’ve failed quite successfully here, and I’m really happy with how the year has read up. Thanks to the authors and readers who inspire me and make my reading life so much.
“I loved its humour, its prose, its quietness and detail. I loved its subtle subversions—second abortions and pregnant women with a drink. I loved the difference between the two characters’ voices, how richly the two were delineated, and that the title is tongue-in-cheek—in a Mad Men fashion, Alam’s novel takes the idea of “types” of women and a binary approach to womanhood and complicates the idea entirely to show that women can be whole, flawed, inexplicable and fully realized people whose lives and experiences are worth writing about, thinking about. Which really shouldn’t be such a revelation, and this is still a completely excellent book for those of us who already know.”
“Bennett nicely situates the personal against the political, Nadia’s experience with anti-abortion politicking by church members (although not so avidly—these are reasonable people) and also about how one’s convictions become flexible when an unwanted pregnancy is a fact instead of an idea. She shows how a woman can choose an abortion and know it’s the right choice, but still mourn what she’s lost and wonder at the could-have-beens. That an abortion, like a lot of things that happen to people over the course of their lives, is a complicated, multi-faceted thing.”
“I kept laughing out loud, which is a mark of literary achievement. Though I also cringed—as one who has never mastered air-kisses, I recoiled at Coleman’s recounting of her first bisous and how she actually made cheek contact. She writes about being asked to play her violin in a hair salon, but how her own unruly do caused a great upset when she arrived. Or the man she met who wanted to perform songs he’d written, which turned out to be “sex songs” with lyrics like, “The horny bull wants a bouncy ride.” And she meets a lot of men, Coleman, and in the beginning, being lonely, takes them up on their invitations, until she realizes that she’s setting herself up for a lot of awkward interactions. She longs for the company of women friends as well, but these kind of relationships are harder to find. Not to mention that at the beginning of her time in Paris, Coleman hardly speaks French.”
“It’s a novel about the 1960s, about idealism and reality, about the narrow confines of a wife’s identity and that of a mother. Familiar themes, all of these if you’ve read books like Margaret Laurence’s The Fire Dwellersor watched Mad Men, but themes made fresh with the nuances of the novel’s point of view, the carefulness with which these ideas are examined. In Becoming Lin, the prose is mostly inconspicuous, but what grips the reader is the evolution of Lin’s consciousness, and the complexity that arises from the absence of polarities—unusual for a history of a decade so constructed of extremes.”
“I spent Thanksgiving weekend—as summer turned into fall, the leaves turned into reds and oranges, as everything started to wither and die—reading Gemma Files’ Experimental Film, which was so fitting for the season. I absolutely loved it, and was not the only one to do so—the novel won the Shirley Jackson Award in the summer and the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic in September. It’s a book about horror movies, and the history of Canadian cinema, and motherhood, and parenting a child with autism, and there are ghosts and it gets creepy, and it gave me bad dreams—which I mean as a testament to the book’s power.”
I’d preordered The Trespasser, French’s first book since 2014, and it seems fitting that my year of Tana French should have a new release by her within it. (I was in Barbados when I learned this new book was forthcoming. Imagine my joy: that there would be another Tana French when the books in the Waitrose bag were done!). And it was everything I’d hoped it would be—a return to tradition of the first four books, a narrator on the edge who doesn’t know how close she is, a strange and tricky murder whose solution is not immediately in sight. I love her plots, her characters, her humour, and that I learn insults like “wankstain” (which shows up in two books). I love her complicated women and men, and their aloneness, and the awkward ways her characters connect with each other. I love her prose, her twists, and her portrayal of Ireland post-boom. Can you tell that I love everything?
“These fragments are preoccupied with the poster for a Keanu Reeves flop; the tiresome anecdotes we tell our friends about our babies presuming they’ll be interested (and once those friends have babies, they even actually are); a mention of the woman who drowned her five children; a horrible woman whom Galchen regularly encounters in her building’s elevator who has strong feelings she must articulate about her baby’s size; on head shapes, their remarkability and otherwise; about troubling proclivities toward orange; one piece beginning, “Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions.”; about Frankenstein, Godzilla, Rumpelstiltskin, Lucille Ball, and The Tale of Genji (but not all in the same essay); about screen time, and what writers had children and who didn’t, and why writers’ children keep writing about closed office doors (and Galchen wonders why these doors are more troubling than the doors at Daddy’s work, downtown in a high rise building); about babies in art; and her complicated feelings about women’s writing and “women’s writing,” which she fascinatingly teases out.”
“Joan Haggerty is an extraordinary writer, her prose Woolfian in its stream of consciousness, its immediacy. This is a saga sweeping four decades written in the present tense. And it’s true that when we talk about summer books, we sometimes mean that they’re a bit light in substance, but this is a different kind of summer book. It’s not difficult, and it’s got its own kind of lightness (strung together by summers as it is), but it’s not a “beach read.” Which isn’t to say it would be wonderful to read it at a beach, but still, it’s not the kind of novel that would blow away in the breeze.”
“On the surface, Lola Lafon’s novel The Little Communist Who Never Smiled (translated from French by Nick Caistor) is a fictionalization of the life of Nadia Comaneci, but that (of course) is just a cover. What the book is really about is messaged in between the lines (or, quite literally, between the words). The Little Communist… is a book about the Cold War, the politicization of sport and womanhood, about deciphering codes and, fundamentally, this is a novel about punctuation.”
“It’s always a good sign when the blank pages inside a book become riddled with notes and diagrams, as has been the case with my copy of the Governor-General’s Award/ Giller-nominated The Party Wall, by Catherine Laroux, prize-winner in its original French, translated into English by Lazer Lederhendler (Nikolski!). Not because the stories themselves in the novel are so difficult to figure out—in fact, they read beautifully with luminous prose (“Fall is approaching and the warmth of the South throbs on the horizon like a sack of gold at the foot of a rainbow”)—but because the challenge and the pleasure is discovering how all of it fits together. While the shape of most narratives is a horizontal line (with the inevitable bump for a climax), the shape of The Party Wall is multi-dimensional, arrows pointed in all four directions and connections that hold the whole thing fast.”
“Surprisingly, Birdie is not a heavy book, even with all the violence and tragedy. It’s as funny as it is sad, and more than that, it’s vibrant—powered by the voice of a woman who seemingly lies unconscious, which is kind of ironic, but there’s a lot going on inside Birdie’s mind, even as she’s got one half-opened eye on The Frugal Gourmet. As a character she’s rich and realized, and Lindberg never makes her a victim of her circumstances, her agency retained even in her lowest moments. Her very act of retreating into her mind, while passive from the outside, is a powerful gesture, and necessary for healing, for the possibility of a future.”
“It’s heavy, but it’s not. I read this book all day on Sunday, a few hours in the afternoon in my hammock. I devoured it, and loved the shape of the project—that this is a novel gesturing outwards, pointing to the world, using the world and its threads to build something new, offering structure, frameworks, where we hadn’t seen such a thing before. Daring to state that girlhood is significant, even if it’s a stage, and even if it’s a stage. I loved the poetry of Murphy’s prose, the power of her language. The power of the book full stop—it’s both the story of my life and also unlike anything I’ve ever read before.”
“Frankie Styne is a new edition of Page’s novel, first published in 1993, and it put me in mind of my favourite Hilary Mantel novels, her first two, Every Day is Mothers Day and Vacant Possession, dark comedies about the dark edges of humanity and their successful attempts to outmaneuver meddling social workers. Page’s social worker is Annie Purvis, who we know first from the point of view of her client, Liz Meredith, who’s just been moved into a terrace house with her baby. Liz has spent her time most recently living on a railcar after becoming estranged from her family, but since her baby’s birth (compounded by the fact that he has developmental abnormalities) she’s become tangled up in “the system”. Although she diverts all attempts to get her installed with a phone (living as she does by her grandmother’s advice to “Always avoid ties that bind”), she could do with a television, but in the meantime, she contents herself by listening to conversations between the troubled couple next door and imagining a different kind of reality existing on a planet far away, that life itself is merely the plot of a cheap pulp novel she’s somehow been stuck in.”
“Clear the decks if you’re thinking about picking up this book, because you’re not going to be able to put it back down again. Don’t start reading it at night though or it’s going to be hard to fall asleep. I was intrigued by this psychological thriller, the debut novel by Iain Reid who’s previously been known for two award-winning heartwarming memoirs. Could he really pull off such a literary change of pace? But he does, and it’s breathtakingly good. Best of all, no one is going to compare this book to Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, but it’s something altogether different. It also manages to be completely creepy but actually free of gore and violence, which is an incredible literary feat. And finally, that a book can be so enthralling and disorienting at once is just incredible.”
“There are writers who sit down and painstakingly plan their books before they start writing, a mess of post-it notes and index cards, and one gets the feeling that Maria Semple is not one of them. The plots of her books resemble those dotted lines on maps in Saturday morning cartoons in which small children navigate space with curious and often dangerous diversions. Which is kind of a funny way to plot a book, but think of the joy you once got in running your finger along that line, and also of the momentum inherent in this kind of narrative, the briskness with which the reader is brought along for the ride. It also turns out that plot isn’t really the point is, but voice is, and Eleanor Flood’s is the kind of voice that’s hard to get out of your head.”
“For me, Smith has always been a masterful novelist whose works just kind of peter out before the end, and my explanation for that is that her stories are so excellent that the endings are always going to be a let-down and/or do we really expect her to come up with a novel like that and properly end it too? But in her fourth book, it seems she’s finally got the conclusion that comes with a gut punch, the last fifty pages or so finally bringing the pieces together, the patterns emerging. The conclusion of Swing Time is wonderful, devastating, and ambiguous in the most engaging fashion. Yes, the book is a bit bloated in the middle, but reading any of Smith’s prose is a pleasure. And all of it matters—you just don’t know how until the end.”
“At nearly 400 pages, the novel is long, but swiftly paced and never dull. The bleakness of its considerations are broken up with incredible humour, from the cacophony of the voices in its background to the sheer audacity of Harriet herself, her nerve, all the things she is willing to do and say. There is a humour too in the contrast between the child’s point of view and the world around her, and—in the case of Harriet’s friend, Darcy, in particular—the person she is trying to to be. The sheer naïveté of these would-be old souls. Darcy likes to go on about, “that Caitlin whore,” a friend from her old neighbourhood, and we learn about what Caitlin did to her at Guides: “I was a Sprite and she was a Pixie. That ho bag made like all the cool girls were Pixies….Then the skank fucked up my puppetry badge.””
“The family tree at the beginning of the book is useful, but the reader soon becomes acquainted with the women of this family, so it won’t be referred to throughout. Momentum is strictly forward as the pieces begin to come together, Vermette deftly moving in and out of time to create a three-dimensional feel to the narrative—we come to feel we know this story from all sides. Four generations of a family, and how tragedy trickles down with all the goodness, the former not negating the latter though. As Vermette has made clear, this is a novel about women and about survival, a story that complements but also takes issue with stories and statistics about First Nations and Metis women as victims before they’re even people proper. But her characters are people here, people with flaws and foibles, strengths and weaknesses, and it’s the strength that endures: “‘It’s okay, my girl. It’s okay.’ Her answer to everything.”’
In her book, We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ’90s and Changed Canadian Music, Andrea Warner articulates that whole scene, and the remarkable fact that four Canadian women were leading the charge of women in song: Celine Dion, Sarah McLachlan, Shania Twain, and Alanis Morissette. These four women too are (along with Diana Krall) are the only Canadians on Canada’s best-selling artists lists, coming in above the Beatles. And even more remarkably, they all made their mark during a five year period in the mid-1990s. What was going on exactly, Warner wonders? How did they do it?
From Shrill: ““Everything happened in those five years after my abortion. I became myself. Not by chance, or because an abortion is some kind of mysterious, empowering feminist bloode-magick rite of passage (as many, many—too many for a movement ostensibly comprising grown-ups—anti-choices have accused me of being), but simply because it was time. A whole bunch of changes—set into motion years, even decades, back—all came together at once, like the tumblers in a lock clicking into place: my body, my work, my voice, my confidence, my power, my determination to demand a life as potent, vibrant, public, and complex as any man’s. My abortion wasn’t intrinsically significant, but it was my first big grown-up decision—the first time I asserted unequivocally, “I know the life that I want and this isn’t it”; the moment I stopped being a passenger in my own body and grabbed the rudder.”
While the entire book is fantastic, Whittall gets full points for her spectacular ending, however, which turns the story inside out and disturbingly rips us away from the singular perspectives of characters to reflect the wider culture of rape and sexual violence against whose context the entire novel has been taking place. Which is to say that this is not just a story about a family. And then the final sentence, which will haunt you long after you’ve finally finished reading, quiet, subtle, devastating and terrible, just like the injustice that is Justice, which isn’t anything like justice at all.
Notes is a way of starting. Trying. Essai. If a manifesto is a red rag, then a note is a building block, a puzzle piece. The reader responds not by charging, but by saying, Yes and, or Yes but. She doesn’t respond by tearing the whole thing down.
I love the way the narrative thread of Wunker’s book makes its way with seeming effortlessness. There is nothing laboured about how a discussion of rape culture leads to the Jian Ghomeshi trial leads to women coming together leads to a chapter on friendship. (Which references The Babysitters Club. Yes, and!!) Why are so few of our formative texts about female friendship? “What is it about female friendship that inspires such insipid descriptors?” What are relationships between women often so fraught?
“Is it too hard to write your own narrative and witness another’s, simultaneously?”
“I loved Alice Zorn’s Five Roses, a novel that’s a love letter to Montreal, its neighbourhoods, and to the magic and serendipity of city life that is inevitably born from the fact of so many characters living in close proximity. It’s a bit of a mess, it is, city life, what with different cultures, and types of people, and old traditions and new traditions, and money and poverty, home and commercial enterprise, and history and the moment, which is now, and impossible to capture anyway…because the only thing that ever stands still in the city is the force of change. Zorn’s novel, however, manages to convey all this and not be a mess, disparate narratives woven together in a way that sparks magic but is left just untidy enough to still ring true.”
December 8, 2016
I never plan my holiday reading breaks—they just sort of happen. One minute I’m reading the new Zadie Smith, with Eimear McBride, Deborah Levy, Paul Beatty on deck, and next thing I know I’m reading Linwood Barclay. (I’ve never read Linwood Barclay before—he comes much recommended and I’m loving this book so much.) So suddenly all the big books and ARCs are put aside, and I’m reading murder mysteries, juicy novels, and all the books on my shelf that I’ve been meaning to get around to for ages but haven’t because they’re not particularly timely and little of consequence. Which makes me not the best book blogger, because I’m going to make a 2016 Best Of and I’ve not really properly read 2016 yet. But a holiday reading break also makes me happy and sane as a reader and a person, and is the nicest way to wind down into the holiday season. I will be reporting in from my holiday reads, and do look forward to resuming Big Books again in the new year.