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February 10, 2015

Ru by Kim Thúy

ruMy favourite thing about Canada Reads has been the reading, the strange context that arises from particular and unlikely groupings of different books, how books become oddly illuminated by these connections. For example, it would never have occurred to me to read Ru by Kim Thúy in light of The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. It hadn’t really occurred to me to read Ru at all, actually. I figured everyone had already read it for me. And I had been expecting something familiar—an immigrant’s tale like I’d encountered before, a literary tradition beginning with Frances Brooke in the 18th century, right on to Susannah Moodie, and Jane Urquhart with Away, and so on and so on.

But Kim Thúy’s novel turned out to have a lot more in common with Thomas King’s book than a two hundred year old settler tale. First, Thúy similarly jettisons chronology, her narrative weaving in and out of time, the past forever present. And as King uses his own experience and story-telling voice (lyricism) to inform his factual non-fiction, Thúy uses the same tools for her autobiographical novel. The boundaries of genre are blurred, as boundaries continue to be blurred through the entirety of Ru, the uselessness of borders being one of the book’s central themes.

A slim and quiet book, Ru is powerful as a disturber of binaries. Between North and South Vietnam, French and English Canada, between then and now, here and there, day and night. An Tinh, the narrator, immigrates to Quebec in the 1970s, escaping Vietnam via a Malaysian refugee camp. But she returns to her home country years later, lives and works there. The narrative moves between her time in Hanoi as an adult, her childhood in Saigon, her years growing up in Quebec, her present existence working and living in Montreal, a mother two to sons (one of whom is autistic, which becomes an interesting branch of this novel which is so much about motherhood and daughterhood, not to mention mother tongues and mother countries).

The trajectory of An Tinh’s tale is a hopeful one: from peril to safety, from poverty to prosperity, from war to peace, from dream to reality. Though it’s more complicated than that: there is trauma and loss, and An Tinh addresses a fellow immigrant from Vietnam,  “our own ambivalence, our hybrid state: half this, half that, nothing at all and everything at once.” But still, it’s the everything that the reader takes away from the novel. It is a story of fullness.

And yet. To read about the uselessness and blurring of borders in the context of The Inconvenient Indian is a peculiar exercise. I can’t help but think about the forced assimilation, a national policy for centuries. That perhaps the template of Ru, while analogous to First Nations experiences in some ways (trauma, an ever-present past), is far too simplistic to apply to King’s history. We’ve done enough breaking barriers and blurring borders over the years, and perhaps a far better approach now might be to begin to respect them.

February 8, 2015

Cover Before Striking by Priscila Uppal

cover-before-strikingMy husband still talks about it, a book of short stories he read in 2008. It was Bang, Crunch by Neil Smith. “That fucking story about a glove.” He has no truck with it. I try to explain, to defend the narrative voice. “But it’s a story from the perspective of a glove.” And I suspect there is a sizeable percentage of the population for whom this point remains inarguable.

Which is relevant to Priscila Uppal’s short story collection, Cover Before Striking, because of the story from the perspective of, well, a pair of feet. Which is to say that this is not a book for everyone, a cozy book like a duvet to curl up in. But then Priscila Uppal has never made a point of making her readers cozy—her Projection: Encounters With My Runaway Mother is one of the sharpest, most devastating, uncomfortable memoirs I’ve ever read. (It’s also brilliant—I contacted her not long after reading it and invited her to contribute to The M Word and [full disclosure!] she did.)

In addition to her memoir, Uppal is widely celebrated for her work as a poet (and a sports poet in particular), an editor, and a novelist. Cover Before Striking is her first collection of short fiction, stories written over the course of her career and now published together. This makes for a disparate and somewhat unsettling collection whose unifying thread is that its author pushes the limits of the short story as she does other forms (and in moving between forms). Uppal is not a master of the short story, but instead she seeks to disturb it, resulting in a book that’s unfailingly interesting, but definitely not recommended for anyone who didn’t like the story about the glove.

A preoccupation throughout the book is all things domestic, expectations of this setting and set-up thoroughly subverted. The first story, “Recipes for Dirty Laundry,” is ostensibly about stain removal, the nature of the stains revealing sordid truths about women’s experiences: rape, sadness, caregiving, heartache. “The Boy Next Door” has a cozy title, but its reality is revealed in the story’s first few sentences: “If I told you my mother ran away with the boy next door, I wouldn’t be lying. Except that he was a man, not a boy. And a priest, not my father.” In “Wind Chimes,” a man deals with the legacy of his late mother, her collection of wind chimes, each one corresponding to someone who’d died.

The feet story, “Sleepwalking,” should not be thrown out with the glove—it’s a neat premise, well-executed (with soul, as well as sole), about a pair of feet fed up with their lack of attention who seek revenge by leading the body to which they’re attached on a series of dangerous nocturnal adventures. In a similarly plotted story, “Blind Spot,” a wife stalks her cheating husband all over town. The title story is from the perspective of a pyromaniac.

My favourite story of the collection was “Mycosis”, an unconventional story of women’s life-giving force, in which a young woman discovers fungus growing in her bathroom, and its cultivation becomes a preoccupation that takes over her entire apartment and her whole life. A simple flower garden turns predatory in “The Lilies.” Sex gets aesthetic (and inter-planetary) in  “The Still Body is the Perfect Body.” In “At Your Service,” a woman narrates her sister-in-law her own funeral, and “Vertigo” is the story of a champion diver whose mother’s death leaves her unable to leap, for which reason she becomes subject to rigorous scientific examination.

These are stories rife with sharp edges, strange perspectives, and danger lurking in familiar places. Usually weird, and never boring, the fruits of Uppal’s talent remain remarkable regardless of their form.

February 8, 2015

More of The M Word in the world

babiesI’m very pleased that Michele Landsberg’s essay from The M Word on grandmothering is excerpted on the February issue of Readers’ Digest, on sale now. The illustrations are lovely. And you can read it here online:

”No, I can only think that love is its own reward. To own the privilege of having these young creatures in my life, to accompany them as they make staggering daily discoveries, to have an excuse to share the childish happiness of Halloween or autumn leaf piles or a sandy beach. Each of them doubles and triples the amount of life in my life.”

February 4, 2015

Keeping the Peace by Colette Maitland

keeping-the-peaceI was having trouble paying attention to Colette Maitland’s short story collection, Keeping the Peace, as I was waiting for Harriet finish her dance class the other day. A couple behind me were having a discussion about her ailing mother, now in the hospital, her father with dementia and unable to process what was happening, and how she keeps having to drive back and forth to their town to help take care of things. I’d stopped reading the book, but it didn’t feel as though I had, and I realized then that the appeal of Maitland’s stories are the access they offer to life’s most private corners, that to read them is to be eavesdropping just like I was.

Like the cover design suggests: these are ordinary people, and there’s just something about the light, and the angle is just a little off-centre.

The collection begins with “Shoot the Dog,” about a woman whose financial manager husband has fleeced the whole town and taken off with her Volvo, who finds solace in the company of a lonely neighbour. The story ends in an act of violence and a moment of uncertainly coloured by that violence—it is a striking and powerful note to start on. Death and violence remain in the background of many of the stories that follow, the domestic scene certainly no idyll. In terms of theme as well as place, the best of these stories reminded me of those in Bronwen Wallace’s People You’d Trust Your Life To, which I’d recently reread. Although Maitland is more effective at capturing characters at a remove from the world, alienated from those around them. Moments of intimacy were not as convincing and there was a hollowness to some of the dialogue.

Part of the problem, I think, though, is any collection with 19 stories in it is going to lag a bit in places. This collection trimmed down would have been stronger, with more moments of bite and punch like the first story sets us up to expect. Even still though, Maitland has presented her readers with a whole world to get lost in. The collection was recently shortlisted for the ReLit Award, and it’s deserving of such celebration.

February 2, 2015

Snow Day Reading Marathon

snowdayToday we awoke to a world transformed by snow storm, so we skipped school again and stayed home, ate french toast for breakfast, and staged a Snow Day Reading Marathon. It was pretty wonderful. And tomorrow real life will resume with absolutely no regrets, because we’re all starting to drive each other crazy.

February 1, 2015

Wonder About Parents

readingThe weekend was unexpectedly quiet, all plans cancelled, and unexpectedly long. Thursday night delivered a stomach ailment that felled all of us, and meant we spent Friday lying down and eating popsicles while a brutal winter wind raged outside, and we didn’t really miss it. The children slept for hours after lunch that day, which meant I got to spend the afternoon reading in the tub—such an indulgence. On Friday night, we watched episode 3 of Broadchurch Season 2—we’re wholly riveted, even when it gets ridiculous—before finally getting a good night’s sleep after missing Thursday’s entirely. Saturday was a lot more lying down, and then we watched Gone Girl. This morning we were ambitious enough to go skating, which was wonderful, but it’s all still touch and go—we’re still only 20 hours since the last time anyone threw up. But other than the sickness and far too much laundry and really only eating bread and butter and saltines, it’s been kind of a nice weekend. There is nothing like being ill to make one appreciate feeling better, and nothing like being ill with 2 small sick children to make one appreciate a spouse who is a partner in every sense of the word—for better or for worse.

The whole thing made me think of the story “Wonder About Parents” from Alexander MacLeod’s collection, Light Lifting. It’s the story about lice, perhaps my favourite in the collection, the one I bring up whenever I’m recalling just how extraordinary that book is. That one scene with the father changing his sick baby’s diaper in the truck stop men’s room, the shit covered baby clothes he tosses into the garbage, and how his wife makes him go back in there and fish it out again. Because she likes that outfit, and it was a gift from her mother. That’s a moment so emblematic of the people parenthood turns us into, the absurdity of these situations. Those nights, those crises. We never think about them when we sign up for any of it.

light-liftingWe could never have imagined. I was thinking about this on Thursday night as I lay in bed sleeping in five minute bursts, interrupted by Harriet throwing up downstairs, Stuart on the floor beside her bed, a pile of soiled sheets and blankets growing up in the corner. I could not sleep because I was hearing strange voices singing, every muscle in my body ached, because I kept having to get up and puke in a bucket, and because I was listening desperately for the sound of Harriet sleeping finally, but she wasn’t. (Her door downstairs just opened now, and its squeak has me wracked with anxiety.) Finally at 3am, I went down because I was finished being sick, and Stuart came up to get some sleep. I was awake until 5am beside Harriet but listening for Iris, who woke up then as usual, and then she was sick. And a new pile of soiled sheets was started in our room. By morning (or at least the part of it when the sun was up), we were all sleeping on top of beach towels, those of us who were sleeping at all.

And it occurred to me at several moments throughout that night, that long long night during which the every passing hour brought a little relief because we were that much closer to morning, when I was holding on and holding my bucket as my child cried, thinking, “it really doesn’t get much worse than this.” It occurred to me it had been remarkable luck and not foresight that 12 years ago I’d met a boy on a  dance floor who would become a man who’d take such care of our ailing daughter in the middle of the night, who’d spend the following day doing our laundry as I lay listless on the couch, even though he wasn’t feeling so hot himself. How do you ever, ever know? And what fortune that the whole thing worked out anyway. “You can’t tell anything in the beginning… Could go any number of ways.”

know-the-night“The present tense. Everything happens here,” writes MacLeod in “Wonder About Parents,” and this is what makes the whole thing so mysterious, I think. How did we get from there to here? How did we become this people awash in a sea of vomit, these children wretchedly ill in a way I had no idea people could be ill (and now we even know it’s totally normal. We go through it a couple of times a year now)? If someone had told me about it, I would have speculated the whole thing was unsurvivable. One of oh so many things you think you could never get through, until you do. I am thinking of Maria Mutch’s Know the Night too, and how I never knew just how many minutes there were between midnight and morning until my children born, an unfathomable number. (In Mutch’s book, referring to her partner, she writes of “that ingredient vital for love, which can best be described, I think, as conspiracy,” which I think is part of what I’m getting at here.)

Everything was always the present tense, which makes it that much harder to understand how it turned into the past. Like the night, it always seemed to be an eternity until it wasn’t anymore. MacLeod writes, “The place where you wait for the next day to come.”

“We get to choose each other, but kids have no say about the nature of their own lives… What are we to these people? Genetics. A story they make up about themselves.” –from “Wonder About Parents”

“Wonder About Parents” is a story whose workings are fascinating, and I would like to write about it in a more in-depth way when I’m not recovering from illness and the loss of 1.5 nights of sleep. Though I also suspect it’s a story whose wonders are mostly firmly grasped from my current state of mind, if not wholly articulated. The story begins with a couple picking nits from another’s heads, their household under siege. “It’s the third week”.  There is so much laundry. “Can’t go on forever./ No.”

The fiction is part entomological investigation of the mighty louse. “The history of the world indexed to the life of an insect.” The parasitic relationship between louse and human is vaguely connected to the parent/child relationship, something persistent in the sheer determination of louse to be, related to that of the human, of the human’s drive to reproduce. The force of life also bringing with it death—typhus is transmitted by lice, MacLeod’s narrator tells us, and killed 30 million people after WW1. And then a scene with the family lining up to be inoculated for swine flu, all that hysteria, fights in the line-ups that started at 4 in the morning. What we do for our children, the ridiculous scenarios. How fragile is our safety, but still we all go forth.

And then before the children, achronological, but all still present tense, and fertility struggles. You never do imagine the care with which you might end up examining your vaginal mucous, all for the eventual outcome of sailing on a  sea of vomit, tucked into bed beside your finally-sleeping child wishing that you hadn’t bought her a $45 foam mattress (though the vomit would ruin it anyway, so perhaps it was all for the best).

“Desired outcomes. What we want is when we want it. No way to connect where we are and where we were. This is the opposite of everything we’ve ever done before.”

There are the worst nights, hospital visits with babies a bundle in your arms. A reference to the DDT that solved typhus, but dug its way deep into the food chain before anybody noticed. Causing infertility, cancer, miscarriages. “But life adapt. They go on. Become resistant. Completely unaffected by DDT now. Not like us. Trace amounts of it in every person’s blood.”

The baby has kidney disease, “a congenital abnormality.” We’ve seen this girl already in the shower receiving her lice treatment: “A scar on our daughter’s stomach from before.” So we know which way this story will go. But MacLeod leaves us here, in the hospital, the couple only four months into parenthood, and already they’ve entered its darkest places. And how they lean on each other, how they need one another. They are everyone they’ve ever been, squeezed together in an uncomfortable vinyl chair. Wedded to all of human history.

“Darkness in the room. Our baby makes no sound. Only the bulb from the machine now. Inscrutable purple light flashing on the ceiling. Like a discotheque, maybe, or the reflection of an ancient fire in a cave.”

January 28, 2015

The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

inconvenient-indian“You see my problem. The history I offered to forget, the past I offered to burn, turns out to be our present. It may well be our future.” –Thomas King

Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America is a curious contender for the Canada Reads debates, which this year is mixing fiction and non-fiction for the first time. Its scope is outsized compared to the other books. It comes with a moral imperative so great that a reader might be shamed to offer up a different book instead, a book championed for, say, its aesthetic concerns. It’s a book that might be difficult to discuss in its own right, outside of its subject matter.

But let’s for just a moment do such a thing.

For in all my years of reading, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a more curious “curious account” of anything. A history whose narrator shrugs away any claims of authority, chronology abandoned, national borders ignored, a narrative tone that’s sarcastic and a bit snarly. Plus haunted by the spirit of King’s wife, Helen, much esteemed, offering her own feedback from somewhere in the background: give examples, don’t generalize, and other editorial suggestions. What is the historian who offers up lines like, “I don’t know. I wasn’t there”? King’s supposed insouciance, his humour, his edge—with wry understatement—all rhetorical devices. There is a begrudgingness here, King offering up a book his readers have done nothing to deserve except be ignorant. This history is painful and terrible, and to tell it all chronologically, straightforwardly would be to be writing the same thing over and over again. The way he’s done it, at least, King gets to have a little bit of fun.

“I never knew,” I said to my husband, when I finished reading this book on Sunday afternoon, “what they meant when they said that we stole their land.” I’d assumed it was in a general sense—Europeans arriving on these shores and planting a flag, the First Nations people displaced with that one gesture. What I never knew, and only learned from reading The Inconvenient Indian, is the way in which First Nations land has been stolen over and over again. First Nations people moved and moved again, and displaced and relocated. This in itself traumatic—I’d known about the Cherokee Trail of Tears from reading King’s novel Truth and Bright Water—but then there was more, one example being the General Allotment Act of 1887, which broke up Indian reservations into individual pieces. Though to divide that land evenly between its inhabitants would make for too much land per person, the government decided, so they came up with an arbitrary amount, split that, and the rest became surplus land—theirs. Or the golf club in Vancouver whose land came from the Musqueam Nation, via agents in Ottawa—the Musqueam never even saw the agreement—with a long-term lease far below value. Later, the government signed a deal with developer to turn 40 acres of Musqueam land into a subdivision, also at rock-bottom prices fixed without increases for decades. When the Musqueam were eventually able to raise the rents to market rate, the homeowners refused to pay and took the case to court.

I knew about Indian Residential Schools, a terrible tragedy whose effects are trickling down through generations. But I never knew that one in two children in residential schools lost their lives there. King asks, “What would have happened if the residential schools had been public schools instead? Schools in Toronto, San Francisco, Vancouver, New York? What would have happened if the children who were dying were White? What would have happened if one of them had been your child?/ Sure It’s a rhetorical question.” King also asserts that “tragedy” is the wrong term with which to describe the residential schools. “It suggests that the consequences of residential schools were unintended and undesired, a difficult argument to make since…the schools were national policy.”

The underlying argument in The Inconvenient Indian—when casinos and garbage dumps become rare economic opportunities for First Nation communities; when land and rivers on reserves is ravaged by industrial waste from corporate neighbours; when it’s argued that the Indian land wasn’t being “used” anyway; when Native people are seen as unable to manage themselves without government handouts, all the while “Air Canada, AIG, Bombardier, Halliburton, General Motors, and the good folks at Alberta’s Tar Sands Project manage on their own without relying on government handouts”—is that capitalism is the problem. King writes, “there is little chance that North America will develop a functional land ethic until it finds a way to overcome its irrational addiction to profit.”

And there is so much more—on racism, historical perceptions, First Nations men murdered by police, First Nations women murdered by… well, who knows who, because no one can be bothered to investigate, the history of the AIM and activism throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and Oka and Ipperwash, the dots connected, pieces fitting, a shocking context, the same patterns, disregard and abuse repeated over and over, a hundred years ago, a decade ago. Which is why history is a slippery thing here, and why some critics would prefer the past be forgotten altogether—it’s simpler. King writes, “Using this approach as a template, one could write a book about the United States dropping two atomic bombs on Japan without having to mention World War II.”

I was thinking about this as I read the newspaper on Saturday, an editorial about the death of a Native child after her parents had halted her chemotherapy. “So far, no one has stepped forward to appeal the decision [to halt the treatment], probably because of an oversensitivity to the native rights issues that the judge allowed to cloud what should been a simple decision to protect the life of a child.”

An oversensitivity to native rights issues.

Has there ever been such a thing?

Which is not to say that the death of the child is not tragic, that she should not have been protected, that there are any easy answers in this situations, that there are any easy answers at all. But it is a failure to acknowledge complexities that has always been the problem, a tendency to fit people into boxes, for the human part of the matter (humanness, with all its foibles) to be disregarded. For someone, like say Christie Blatchford writing about Caledonia, or whoever wrote that editorial, to think that some matters are simple, that the weight of history might be sloughed off altogether. Hence the reason King subverts history, authority, chronology in his book—this is a story that has to be told another way.

The Inconvenient Indian has been sitting on my shelf for three years. I bought it for my husband who is an immigrant and wanted context to what he was hearing about First Nations issues in the news. He read it but I hadn’t. I’d been meaning to get around to it, and am pleased that Canada Reads has provided me with the incentive to finally do so. (Though I do wish a book by First Nations woman writer had been on the list this year—I learned by a campaign in November that in its history, Canada Reads had never featured such a book. I’m going to make an effort to seek out books by First Nations women for myself this year.)

I do wonder if the other books selected for Canada Reads are going to be unfairly pitted against this one, if there will be an unequal distribution of importance—it seems obviously slated to win. Who’d argue that? But someone will, and I wonder too if that will seem to trivialize The Inconvenient Indian when that happens. It seems like potentially an awkward exercise. But if the point is that the book gets read, then I think it’s a good thing. For me it’s always been the reading more than the debate that’s been the chief appeal of Canada Reads anyway.

January 27, 2015

A Remarkable Cat

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne day in 2008, not long after we’d moved into our apartment, my friend Rebecca came over, and a small grey and white cat walked in right behind her. “Do you know that cat?” Rebecca asked, not sure. It was her first visit to our new place. The cat seemed friendly enough, and remarkably at home. I checked her collar and saw that her address was next door, the other side of our semi-detached house, the home of our landlords. “That’s your cat?” I asked them the next time I saw them. “She likes to come visit,” they told us. “I hope you don’t mind.”

IMG_3494We didn’t. I was thrilled to have a part-time cat. I had no wish to have a pet at all, but a part-time cat filled the little void in my heart, plus I didn’t have a baby then, but I wanted one. Georgina slept on my chest while I read. She used to come over when I came home for lunch, and sit in squares of sun on the floor and watch me eat. She napped on our bed. She hung out on our porch. At one point, she came down with a bizarre injury in which she had a hole in her side and had to have an operation. No one knew how it happened—perhaps a fight with another local cat? She did have a wild life, and a mysterious one. (There was a legend about the time our former downstairs neighbours were caring for her and she appeared on the roof of a house across the street, and refused to come down.) When she came home after her injury, we sent her a package of cat treats in the mail and signed the card, “Get well soon. From the cats of Brunswick Avenue.” I think we had a lot of time on our hands. The children next door were young then, and found this most intriguing. Apparently, when they’d brought the package in, Georgina heard the treats rattling in the package, and came bounding down from the third floor.

georginaGeorgina used to sleep in Harriet’s crib before she was born, and I have this photo of her asleep on Harriet’s change table on top of the sleeper she was due to wear home from the hospital upon her eventual arrival. After the baby was born, we saw Georgina less, partly because Harriet absolutely loved her and manhandled her and would end up with scratches on her face. But she was still our part-time cat, which meant our girl never noticed she didn’t have a pet at all, and that we never had to pay the vet bills as Georgina’s health problems began to mount. Two years ago, we went over to say good-bye to Georgina, whose kidneys and heart were failing. Though that she didn’t die until this afternoon says something about this most amazing cat who thoroughly used up every one of her nine lives. It was always a pleasure to hear her scratching at the door, and we’re all really going to miss her.

What I am going to miss the most though is how she used to sit outside on our garden wall, and how when the windows were open in the summer, we’d hear the people outside going by stop to talk to her. Unaware that we could hear their cat murmurings, as they rubbed behind her ears, and spoke in a goo goo voice. And then someone else would come along. “What a sweet cat,” the second person would say, and then the pair would get to talking, conversations drifting upstairs to us. Strangers meeting in the street, people reaching out their fellow human beings, someone leaning down to pat a cat on the wall: all of these signs that there is goodness at the heart of the world.

I’m going to miss that.

I don’t think you can say this about every cat, but Georgina made the city a better place.

January 27, 2015

Serendipity, Family Literacy and Animal Masquerade

animal-masqueradesI don’t know that a family can enforce literacy as much as create the space to let a love of reading just happen. Serendipity plays such a role in it all, as it does whenever anybody discovers a great book. I was thinking about this tonight as I was reading to Harriet from the big pile of books we signed out of the library this afternoon. I was reading Animal Masquerade by Marianne Dubuc, which has been lauded by the likes of Leonard Marcus AND Julie Booker. I’d never read it before, and was enjoying it, and so was Harriet, the animals in disguise quite funny and a twist every now and again but never quite where you’d expect it. And then Iris wandered in, and climbed up beside us, and Stuart followed soon after, intrigued by the sound of this strange book in which a starfish dresses up as a panther. And two thirds of the way in, we were all in love with the story, finding it wonderful and hilarious, all of us perhaps for very different reasons, but regardless, it worked. It’s hard to find a book that hooks 4 people whose ages range from 1 to 35, but this one did, and it was a wonderful moment. The perfect way to mark Family Literacy Day, and I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried.

January 27, 2015

Loving the Difficult

loving-the-difficult“In a time of cutbacks to services for women and children, for the arts, the difficulties faced by young mothers today who also want to write are enormous. But they do have, as generations before them didn’t, literary mothers who have been mothers themselves and given us a literature richer for that experience. They have transcended or changed the meaning of “women’s literature.” Canada’s voice in world literature is, as often as not, a women’s voice, a mother’s voice, now being joined by the voices of women around the world.” –Jane Rule, “Our Mothers,” from Loving the Difficult, which I finished reading last night while overlooking the swimming pool observing my daughter’s bizarre inability to float.

I liked this book a lot, although overlap between essays was a bit repetitive, and some were far more insightful than others. I was intrigued by details of Rule’s childhood in California, details that reminded me of Joan Didion’s biography and autobiographical essays—they are near contemporaries. Their writing styles are not the same, but they seem to have a similar eye on the world. I’d be interested to read Rule’s posthumous autobiography, Taking My Life, to see how it might connect with Didion’s Where I Was From. I also liked the book as a piece of swim-lit—Rule was a lifeguard throughout her life, and one of her final essays on her pool (yes!) is one of the very best in the book. Other good pieces were on grief, losing her partner of many decades, on gay marriage (“You be normal, or else…”), on writing, on writing and money, a piece on parallels between being a lesbian and being left-handed, and so many passages that begged to be underlined.

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