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November 11, 2020

Poppies

As most people don’t care about in the slightest, for good reason, I have complicated feelings about Remembrance Day. Sometimes I feel like the messaging and symbolism are manipulative, an idea whose simplicity belies it’s true complexity. My grandfathers were proud of their service in WW2, but it was also them who taught me (in addition to “Don’t tattoo anchors on your forearm”) that what a waste is war. The trauma for the people who fight our wars and their families is often insurmountable, and these people do not receive sufficient support. War is bad for everyone, and while I understand that it can’t be obliterated altogether, I am sure there would be less of it if we didn’t have a massive industry that relies on its existence. The most amazing way I can think of to honour those we’ve lost in wars is to stop sending more people to be traumatized or die, instead of glorifying the waste of human life as sacrifice. One other way is to resist fascism in all its forms—my grandfathers (Canadian Navy), maternal grandmother (WW2 nurse), and paternal grandmother (held down the home front while her husband was away for years) were my OG anti-fascists and may their righteousness be our guiding light.

November 10, 2020

Gleanings

Do you like reading good things online and want to make sure you don’t miss a “Gleanings” post? Then sign up to receive “Gleanings” delivered to your inbox each week(ish). And if you’ve read something excellent that you think we ought to check out, share the link in a comment below.

November 6, 2020

Has Women’s Fiction Helped to Save Us?

Almost four years ago exactly, against the background of a horrifying US election outcome and a world I didn’t recognize, I wrote a blog post entitled “How Women’s Fiction Can Save Us All.”

Which was more than a little bit self-serving, of course, considering my debut novel, Mitzi Bytes, was coming out the following spring.

So it was kind of like your mechanic telling you how replacing your muffler kills fascists, or the real estate agent explaining how buying a town-home is the only sure route out of an authoritarian disaster. My post was totally ridiculous, over-earnest and embarrassing, but those were heady times and also—and here’s the pivotal thing—I wasn’t wrong.

And just how wrong I wasn’t occurred to me this morning as I scrolled through bestselling author Emily Giffin’s Instagram stories, which have been my go-to through this strange uncertain week while American votes are counted. All week long, Giffin has been unwavering in her confidence that America—and her home state of Georgia in particular—would deliver the Biden/Harris ticket a victory.

For months, Giffin’s feed has been decidedly political, anti-Trump sentiments, pro-LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter. Amidst snapshots of Charles and Diana, and Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, of course—Giffin’s Insta is a world onto itself. But no matter the followers who threatened to unfollow and or to boycott her novels, Giffin has been insisting on making it political most of the time.

(It only underlines my thesis too that Stacey Abrams— whose fight against voter suppression since losing her Governor race in 2018 deserves huge credit for turning Georgia blue—includes “romance novelist” among her many other accomplishments.)

And Giffin has been taking her politics offline as well. Her 2018 novel All We Ever Wanted was a powerful exploration of toxic masculinity and the ways in which privileged white women are culpable in perpetuating it.

It joined other novels like Jodi Picoult’s A Spark of Light, also published in 2018, delving into the personal stories behind the polarized issue of abortion. 2018 was also the year Tayari Jones published An American Marriage, which would go on to win the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction, painting plain the reality of being a Black man (and a Black wife) in America.

And these books were not anomalies. Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie was billed as a Black Bridget Jones when it came out in 2019, but where Bridget was sliding down fireman’s poles (and more power to her!) Queenie was writing about US police shootings. Chick-lit queen Jennifer Weiner’s 2019 novel Mrs. Everything takes on more than a half-century of American misogyny and missed opportunities for women to succeed.

Celeste Ng’s smash hit 2017 novel Little Fires Everywhere is a devastating indictment of race, class and privilege and the outsized role they play in a very unequal America.

And Meg Wolitzer’s Female Persuasion, and Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid, Miracle Creek, by Angie Kim, and so many more.

In Canada, novelists Marissa Stapley and Karma Brown have penned fierce and furious feminist bestsellers with The Last Resort and Recipe for a Perfect Wife.

In further signs of progress since my post four years ago, the commercial fiction landscape in Canada has evolved beyond being a boring monolith of white writers, with the success of books like Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last and Farah Heron’s The Chai Factor, both of which manage to tackle racism and anti-Muslim hate in the context of love stories (no mean feat!). And even better, underlining that “diverse stories” (I hate that phrase) aren’t just a flash in the pan—both of these authors have new novels coming out next year.

And more commercial novels by Canadian authors of colour? Check out Jane Igharo, Roselle Lim, Jennifer Hillier, crime novelist Ausma Zehanat Khan, and YA novelist SK Ali, among others. The very existence of books centring the experiences of characters of colour is a political act, and many of these authors don’t shy away from more overt politics either, as they write plots that are also romantic, compelling, and great.

(Um, and yes, I have a new book out again, a novel about power and politics and the myths we create about ordinary men and leadership, and what we do about men who might not be monsters but whose behaviour is not okay.)

This week I listened to the CBC Pop Culture podcast Pop Chat, which considered the pop culture response to US politics over the last four years, determining that the output (mainly bad Saturday Night Live sketches) had been fairly disappointing, films like Get Out and Parasite aside. (They didn’t even mention Demi Lovato’s “Commander in Chief” though! I love that song!)

The consensus being that a US president who sucks all the air out of the atmosphere as the 45th did (DID. I’m doing past tense. I’m going there. It’s been too long. I AM READY), who is so over-the-top and in defiance of credulity and reality, whose entire construct of the world seems to be a fiction—well, what are artists meant to do with that?

But the women who write commercial fiction have done a lot, responding to the moment and truly rising to the occasion.

These books—part of a genre that so rarely gets the respect it deserves—are one terrific legacy of this terrible, awful time. When people look back at these works published during the second half of the last decade—at the questions these authors have been grappling with, the issues confronted head-on, the taboos finally broken, voices being heard, stories that are finally being told—I hope it’s going to seem obvious that the patriarchy was on its final legs, quaking in its ugly boots.

And good riddance.

November 5, 2020

Fake It So Real, by Susan Sanford Blades

One day I’m going to write a list of all my CanLit aversions (among them, the notion of “CanLit” at all), and near the top of the rankings will be Alice Munro as a lazy and meaningless cultural shorthand. Sometimes, though, the comparison fits, and Susan Sanford Blades’ debut, Fake It So Real, is a case where the comparison might be apt.

First, because the book is a novel/story collection hybrid ala Lives of Girls and Women, moving between first and third-person narration. The city of Victoria setting too, and the book’s complicated and messy depiction of motherhood and womanhood, women who chafe at the limits of “wife” and transgress them. Alice Munro, but make it punk? Beginning in the 1980s, as Gwen gets together with a charismatic musician and has kids before he blows out of their life altogether. She struggles to keep it together and mainly doesn’t, unable to quit drinking and wracked with social anxiety. This is not a story of happily ever after, but instead one of hardscrabble and losing, fucking up over and over again. Which doesn’t make for the most compelling argument to read this book, I realize, but it’s also just really really good, crafted with care and precision.

I felt this way when I fell in love with Leona Theis’s If Sylvie Had Nine Lives in September, a book whose effort never shows, whose seams and joints are invisible. It just works, and as a reader, it’s such a pleasure to submit to a book that’s so well constructed. To let it take you where it goes, and this one goes through the decades as Gwen’s daughters, Sara and Meg, make their own way into the world, try to account for their parents’ failures, attempt to make their own families in different ways, inevitably failing to live up to ideals, as one might expect, but I appreciate the way that Blades interrogates motherhood while not evoking the usual cliches. Her characters’ experiences are singular and interesting, and rich and fraught with complication.

Fake It So Real manages to be not a glorification of counterculture or a condemnation of it either. This is not a book that comes with an agenda, except to tell a story of love and family that is achingly real.

November 5, 2020

If You Have US Election Anxiety…

If you have US Election Anxiety, I really recommend you revisit my recent post “You Get to Frame Your Own Picture,” and then start listening to the You’re Wrong About podcast. Unlike most people, I am having a GREAT week. Partly because I went to bed Tuesday night convinced of defeat, and woke up to that peculiar emotion called optimism that I’ve not experienced in years. Like, the climate might have a fighting chance? It’s an incredible thing, but in the meantime when there’s nothing to see or know yet, I recommended refreshing your browser instead to the absorbing stories of Chandra Levy and Gary Condit, Dan Quayle v. Murphy Brown, or the Preppy Murder, just in case you needed reminding that America has always been more than a bit ridiculous but also really hard to look away from

November 3, 2020

This Is Not a Victory Cake

If you go back in my archives, you’ll find my posts from four years ago about, first, the victory cake I baked, and then, afterwards, how much I regretted that cake. It did not taste good. I learned a lot from that unfortunate cake, and I’ve continued to learn in the months and years since. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how important it is to learn you can lose, that justice is not inevitable. The arc is longer than we thought. In early 2017, I was reading a biography of Jane Jacobs, and someone commented that Jacobs was so remarkable because she’s one of the few people who ever managed to win, and I’d never thought of that before. That goodness doesn’t always triumph, that it usually doesn’t—which is so counter to everything I ever understood growing up against the crumble of the cold war, the end of history and all. But nothing really is ever so definitive, and I think about this as I contemplate going forward and how to frame ideas, and about how going all or nothing is possibly to set oneself up for defeat. How it is necessary too to understand that winning/losing is not the binary you might think it is. Nothing is simple, nothing at all.

Except: don’t bake a cake before you’ve won. And I haven’t. I’ve made a cake though, and that’s because I have a friend stopping by to visit this afternoon, and it’s called hospitality. And also because we’re heading into that time of year where the sky gets dark fast and Smitten Kitchen’s grapefruit cake adds some necessary brightness, sunshine. You can make your own sunshine, no matter what else is going on, I suppose, is what I’m saying with this cake. Not blind optimism this time, fingers crossed, but light in the darkness instead.

November 3, 2020

Gleanings

Do you like reading good things online and want to make sure you don’t miss a “Gleanings” post? Then sign up to receive “Gleanings” delivered to your inbox each week(ish). And if you’ve read something excellent that you think we ought to check out, share the link in a comment below.

November 2, 2020

Santa Monica, by Cassidy Lucas

Oh, what would you give for a thriller that isn’t stupid?

Do you know what I mean? To be able to get lost in a book that is fluffy and silly, but doesn’t jump the shark to become completely preposterous. A book that is delectable as a hot fudge sundae, but whose characters are well drawn and real, with plausible dialogue, and who make sense as human beings? For a plot that is genuinely gripping and surprises you completely at least twice? Where “enjoyable” is not synonymous with “bad?”

I was expecting to have fun reading Santa Monica, by Cassidy Lucas, but that the book was so excellently crafted turned out to be the most amazing surprise. Beginning with the end, the much revered fitness coach found dead in his studio, and whodunnit? Cassidy Lucas (the pen name for writers Julia Fierro and Caeli Wolfson Widger) going back to the start to show how everyone has a motive: the woman he was sleeping with, her husband, the woman who was helping him steal from the fitness studio, and her husband, and his sister, and any of the nubile women of Santa Monica with whom Zack had been sleeping. Plus there’s a transplanted Brooklynite who is having trouble fitting in with her new California lifestyle, the perfect mom whose family is looming on the edge of terrifying debt, the housekeeper hoping to evade ICE authorities and raise her son in America, and more.

I loved it. Such a pleasure, and not a guilty one at all.

October 30, 2020

Cheers

Thank you for a wonderful launch week!

October 28, 2020

True Covid Confessions: I don’t miss literary events. All I ever wanted to do was stay home and READ.

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As a literary enthusiast, a reader and a writer, it feels like blasphemy to declare it, but I don’t miss literary events. Not a bit.

I don’t miss yelling over the roar of a crowd to make awkward small talk, sitting through readings that last far too long, listening to that one guy whose outsized ego means he clearly holds his co-panelists in contempt, or being introduced to a writer for at least the third time (we even shared a panel once) who still claims not to know me.

I don’t miss paying way too much money for a drink I don’t really feel like drinking, or half as much (which is still a lot) for a glass of tepid orange juice.

And the audience Q&As. I don’t miss them at all. The woman who actually has a comment instead of a question, and the other one who wants advice on how to get published, and I’m still traumatized by the event back in 2006 when a man got up to ask Zadie Smith if she supposed she would have had as much success had she not been so physically attractive.

Or even worse, the events that only a handful of people have bothered to show up to, so that I am mortified on behalf of the author, the establishment, and humanity in general, and then I somehow feel contractually obliged to become that woman yammering on in the Q&A, since the alternative is crickets.

And while I do appreciate the opportunity to buy books at literary events, particularly when it enables me to support one of my favourite local independent booksellers, it is often the case that I have purchased the book on sale already, having pre-ordered it or ventured out to buy it on the publication day. So that I’m buying a copy of a book I own already, which is hardly a tragedy (I love deciding on the perfect reader to pass my spare copy on to) but it’s not exactly economically sensible.

I miss the cheese though—such irresistible cubes. The pieces I cut at home never achieve the same symmetry. And I miss seeing friends, and celebrating writers I love. I’m still buzzing from a 2018 conversation with Esi Edugyan and Meg Wolitzer at the Toronto Festival of Authors, scrawling Wolitzer’s brilliant words in my notebook: “The world will whittle your daughter down, but a mother never should, and my mother never did, and that is feminism in action.” I miss the inspiration of watching panels as fabulously curated as those at an event like The Festival of Literary Diversity, which is where I became acquainted with amazing writers like Cherie Dimaline, Carrianne Leung, and Amber Dawn for the very first time.

As a writer, I have gained a particular understanding of just why literary events matter so much, and I’ve been grateful to them creating opportunities for me to connect with readers and to enact the privilege of being an author in public—basically what dreams are made of.

But even my most hotly anticipated literary events, those opportunities to share a room with authors whose books and ideas are integral to my very being—these, I have secretly resented for the way they keep me from my number one pursuit, which is reading. If it was socially acceptable for me to hide in the corner with your novel at your book launch, I would do it, but the lighting never suffices, and enough people think I’m kind of rude already.

I have secretly resented them for the way they keep me from my number one pursuit, which is reading.

And so for me, there has been something of a relief in the cessation of the literary social calendar. Skipping the Zoom launches, and curling up with a book instead, and I’ve been doing so much reading. I’ve been doing my part by buying books too, and then some. The most joyful moments during the dark days of these pandemic times has been finding deliveries on my porch from local bookshops, who’ve worked so hard to keep their businesses going and keep us all in books while in lockdown.

Books and the reading proving to be the most delightful diversion and escape as well, the opposite of twitter doom scrolling. I’ve enjoyed finding online community too in a network of readers, which is rich and rewarding, even if lacking in cheese.


My new novel Waiting for a Star to Fall is out this week and you don’t even have to leave the house to celebrate!


In 2010, I wrote this somewhat related piece, “Enough shameful author appearances for one lifetime”

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