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November 14, 2019

Briny Books is Back!

So excited to finally be able to spread the news that Briny Books is back with three gorgeous autumn selections. The first one is Nancy-Jo Cullen’s The Western Alienation Merit Badge, which I had the pleasure of praising already last spring. Next up is All That Belongs, by Dora Dueck, whose work I’ve read online and in literary journals for some time, and I finally read her story collection What You Get at Home last winter and loved it. And then her latest novel blew me away. It’s a gorgeous story about family, memory, history and how we carry these things into the future. And finally, The Lost Sister, by Andrea Gunraj, a story of solidarity and resilience about a girl growing up in Toronto whose sister is murdered and who finds strength and solace through a friendship with a woman who’d survived Nova Scotia’s Home for Coloured Children (and this part of the book was inspired by the author’s friendship with an actual survivor). I’m so proud to be championing all these books, and especially excited to remind you that SHIPPING IS FREE (for a limited time) so do some shopping, and some holiday shopping, and be the bookshop customer you wish to see in the world.

November 13, 2019

Agnes, Murderess, by Sarah Leavitt

“When Did Everybody Become a Witch” was the title of an article a friend sent me a few weeks ago, a friend from my coven, no less, and I was still thinking about the article on Halloween night (of course) when I settled down to read Agnes, Murderess. The second book by Sarah Leavitt, whose first was the acclaimed graphic memoir Tangles: A Story About Alzheimers, My Mother and Me, this one tells the story of Agnes McVee, a legendary 19th century serial killer who ran a roadhouse in 108 Mile House, BC. A woman of whose actual existence there is no evidence, except for a self-published pamphlet by an amateur historian from 1973.

“I have thus felt free to reimagine Agnes’s story from her childhood to her death,” Leavitt writes in her book’s afterward, and the whole book becomes an exploration of storytelling and myth making. It begins on an island in the Scottish Hebrides, where young Agnes lives with her grandmother, who really does seem to be a witch, and her mother, who was stolen away from a genteel life in London by a seafaring man who brought her to his home and then disappeared forever. For reasons that might be familiar if you’ve ever read stories about witches, Agnes and her grandmother are not too popular with the local townsfolk, though she finds an affinity with a young man from the village, and together (desperate times call for desperate measures) Agnes and Seamus find a way for her to escape her grandmother’s yoke and head off to London together. But it turns out that her grandmother wasn’t Agnes’s whole problem after all, or maybe she was because Agnes senses the woman’s presence still haunting her, stirring her, pulling away from the kind of life she is striving for. A life which she glimpses further through a friendship with an upper-class woman who gives her books to read and the companionship she’s looking for—and then a humiliating betrayal changes everything, cementing Agnes’s trajectory toward a life in Canada and, yes, punctuated by acts of murder.

It’s a complicated story, with everything queered—not least of which is the line between truth and fiction. Is Agnes a villain? And if she is, what does it mean that she might have our sympathy? Are we, too, bewitched? And what does it mean that these stories of transgressive women at our particular moment in time? Most interestingly, Leavitt leaves these questions unresolved. As her drawings are simply sketched, so too is the story, providing plenty of room in which the reader can sit uneasily.

November 11, 2019

Gleanings


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November 6, 2019

Awards Season Recommendations

I had a very croaky voice, but still go to talk about books on the radio today, spotlighting some of my favourites that have been celebrated during literary awards season. I hope readers continue to read widely (and often), and don’t necessarily let awards and awards lists dictate their entire reading lives, but awards and their shortlists in particular can also offer some incredible reading suggestions. Listen here to hear my picks—I come in at 30.00.

November 5, 2019

The Dutch House

I knew I was in trouble the night I was reading in the tub, and then called for my husband to bring in a box of baking soda and a cloth so I could scrub the grout between the wall tiles. My grout is dodgy at the best of times, but it really does take a special level of “not into a book” to drive me to clean my bathroom instead. Which was not the case with Ann Patchett’s latest novel The Dutch House, which I finished reading last night in a two hour whirlwind. Patchett’s books are a bit hit-and-miss with me—truth be told, I didn’t love Commonwealth. I liked it. It didn’t drive me to scrub the tiles, I mean, but it didn’t live up to my high expectations. Oh, but The Dutch House swept me away, and the twists and turns were never what I’d expected them to be. I have no idea how you’d dream up a narrative like this, the form and shape of it, I mean. I’ve been thinking about the specificity of the narrative of Ian Williams’ Reproduction, and this book is similar, the curious shape of family and of life and how few books actually manage to properly express that.

November 4, 2019

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 3, 2019

Neither Useful, Nor Interesting

Oh, yet another blog post that begins with me talking about something I heard when I was listening to a podcast. The Mom Rage Podcast, no less—am I predictable yet? This one was about vaccines (it was so good!), featuring a conversation with medical anthropologist Samantha Gottlieb about the HPV vaccine and “vaccine-hesitant communities.” She spoke about how many people are put off by doctors’ refusal to entertain questions about vaccines at all, which only serves to underline skepticism. When the facts are that vaccines can cause risks, that vaccine injuries and reactions do happen. They happen on a disproportionately tiny scale, with risks minute. It’s more dangerous to get in the car and drive down the road, and we all do that all the time, but still. Doctors don’t want to admit it. It complicates the narrative, and complicating the narrative of vaccination is perilous, literally life and death.

Of course, I like complicated narratives. To complicate the narrative is to get as close as we can to something called truth. I don’t want to live in an echo chamber, a bubble. I relish conversations with my economist friend about the virtues of capitalism; I appreciate the activists who’ve open my eyes to the violent reality of racism; my morning routine is basically putting on shoes, but I’ve got big respect for people for whom make-up is a form of personal expression. On Twitter, I used to actually follow the person whose booking at the Toronto Public Library has created such controversy over the last few weeks, because her take on sex-work complicated what so many of the other feminists in my feed were talking about, and I found that complicatedness useful and interesting… until it wasn’t. I unfollowed this person when she started writing online attacks on the grieving father of a dead teenaged girl. When I realized this “journalist” (whose platform is her own website, which she likes to call “Canada’s leading feminist website” [according to whom?]) relishes attention more than any kind of truth, and had figured out that courting controversy was the fastest way to get there (and solicit donations). When I realized she was more invested in dogma and ideology than the feminists whose thinking (and actual lived experiences) she purports to oppose and complicate. This person is neither useful, nor interesting. She is sensationalist, and purely disingenuous. She is the anti-vaxxer of gender politics. She is not “just asking questions.”

I think there is room for questions and nuance in conversations about gender. Unlike the speaker who was provided space at the Toronto Library, I think that none of this is simple. I wish that the City Librarian had listened to so many smart and respected voices calling on her to cancel the speaker’s booking—the milquetoast mayor called her on it, for heaven’s sake. And no, these people weren’t “bullying the library.” You can’t bully a library. This is nonsense. But I also know that people too are complicated like their issues are, and there are many of them (myself among them) who don’t like being told what to do, to have demands made of them, who double down instead of considering the opposite. We put a lot of truck in unapologeticness in feminism, for better and for worse. I don’t think that we should be boycotting the library, because for so many people, especially marginalized ones, the library is their most accessible cultural institution. Because the library belongs to all of us. Because the people who have the least are the people that lose the most, and I don’t really know what the end-game is of a library boycott, especially now that the event is done and dusted. Though I commend all the people who’ve taken a stance and I do think it’s been hugely worthwhile—the turnout to the protest on Tuesday evening was an incredibly show of solidarity, and the issue has led to all kinds of conversations, which are necessary as we ask questions in generous and thoughtful ways, and figure things out as a society—a process that is far more useful and interesting than anything the speaker might have said on any platform. (This is the work, people. We’re doing it. Even if, or maybe especially if, you’ll only doing it all in your head.)

I do know what it’s like to have my body be the site of a debate. I’ve stood on the sidewalk holding a sign listening to men argue over the semantics of abortion, as to the precise point where the procedure should or should not be permitted, and I can tell you that it’s dehumanizing, insulting, ridiculous, and neither useful nor interesting. And so I have an understanding of where trans people are coming from when they refuse to entertain questions, conversations or debate about their bodies and their identities. When the field of debate is your lived reality, listening to people arguing in abstract terms and citing outlying circumstances as emblematic of the issue at hand—for anti-choicers, it’s all about the case of a particular doctor and abortion provider who was convicted of murdering infants, same as how the anti-trans crew is always going on about aestheticians and waxing, as though these are the actual goal posts and such things are happening every day—is exasperating, traumatic, and a gigantic waste of everyone’s time.

I think there is room for questions and nuance in conversations about gender, because we live in a world where there are no absolutes, but I am sure that insisting on those conversations at this precise moment is not the most pressing thing we’ve got on the go. That democracy and freedom hang in the balance, as so many others might put it in their letters to the editor. I think back to the vaccine analogy, and the distrust and violent suspicion at the heart of the anti-vaccine movement, which is not so far apart from that of anti-trans activists, really. In both cases, there is an over-estimation of vulnerability, and a convenient disregard for those who are actually vulnerable after all.

Of course, there are conversations that need to be had, questions that need to be answered, but not like this, not by this person. As with the vaccine conversation, the harms—here, it’s increased violence against and vilification of an already vulnerable population—really do outweigh the benefit, which is mainly the privileged and smug self-assurance of living in a society where any idiot gets to spout her rubbish in a public building. And if such self-assurance is our guiding principle, instead of listening to, learning from, and taking care of each other, then what does it say about us?

October 31, 2019

How to Organize a Literary Event in 48 Hours

More than a month ago, I emailed my friend Nathalie and asked her if she’d attend the Toronto Public Library event with Christy Ann Conlin, Megan Gail Coles and Elisabeth de Mariaffi, and she replied with an enthusiastic YES, as you would, with a lineup like that. But then the event was cancelled after the Toronto Library was called on to cancel its provision of space to a speaker whose hate-speech about trans people is just one of the many awful things about her, and they refused. And so many authors and artists have cancelled their Toronto Library event in solidarity with the trans community, which is important and the right thing to do—but it also means that Christy Ann Conlin was coming to Toronto all the way from Nova Scotia for her very first reading in the city, and she had no event booked. So what to do?

I hadn’t properly understood the situation until Monday, or else I would have stepped up sooner, but once I’d figured it out, it wasn’t long before I had my inspiration. Right in the middle of dinner, in fact. “What would you think” I asked my husband, “about us having twenty people over for a literary event in our living room?” And my husband was so excited about me having a wild inspiration for which he would not be obligated to build a website that he agreed without hesitation. And so I sent an email to Christy Ann in Nova Scotia, and once she said she was in, there was just one more email to set the wheels in motion.

I had to email Nathalie and ask if she would be up for some custom mixology—and she agreed. Thank heavens, because everybody knows you can’t have a party without an official cocktail… (Nathalie invented three different cocktails, all with Nova Scotia spirits: “Minas Basin,” “It All Went Pear-Shaped,” and “Juniper and Apple Shrub.”)

And next, we needed people to fill my living room in 48 hours notice, but they came, a wonderful collection of generous, book loving people who were happy to welcome Christy Ann to Toronto. They filled my home with the most wonderful bookish spirit (and all got to take home custom Watermark soap from Hen of the Woods—what a treat!).

It was wonderful! Friends and neighbours came, a literary community of amazing readers and writers, including Christy Ann fans who I got to meet for the first time, plus a very exciting guest—Amy Spurway, of Crow fame, who was in town for the author’s festival. We ate food, sipped delicious drinks, made great conversation, listened to Christy Ann read from Watermark, and I got to ask her questions about her career and her book, and she was just so kind, and gracious and terrific. Throughly entertaining and delightful, and we were all so lucky to be part of it together, but me most of all, because I got to experience it without leaving the house.

October 30, 2019

It’s Not About the Vision Board

Be your own vision board…

I want to go back to Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, the parts about scams and delusions. That we exist in a moment where people are trying to sell us their 5 simple steps to becoming millionaires, or having body confidence, or achieving career success. That the only difference between you and that superstar you emulate is something corny like, “She dared to dream, and then she did it.” I have to confess to a mighty aversion to vision boards, especially since the images are usually cut out from magazine advertisements. Do I really want my vision to be borrowed from an ad for Hyundai? What are the limits to empowerment by hashtag?

And yet. A thing I’ve learned in the last few years, during this year in particular, is that we have more power than we realize. The point, of course, is just to use it, and certainly confidence is a factor. I turned 40 this year and what this new decade has delivered me is the confidence to realize I really do have something—skills, knowledge, experience and insight—to bring to the table. After a decade and more of not taking myself too seriously (because people who do can be insufferable) I’ve learned the value of doing so—while not being insufferable, I hope.

But it’s not about the vision board. It’s not even about “daring to dream big.” Instead, it’s about looking at the world head on and figuring out what needs doing. Asking “What if?” and daring to follow through. It’s about the doing, not the dreaming.

I note this example all the time, but it’s emblematic of many other things I’ve achieved on a larger scale: when my neighbours had a baby, I brought them a loaf of banana bread. And in doing so, I made our street, this world, a place where things like that can happen. A small thing, but I don’t discount the value of small things. I think they’re everything.

Anyone who attends a protest makes a world where people care about things. Anyone who reaches out to someone in need makes a world where people care about people. 

The foundation is an understanding that you matter, and therefore the things you do will matter. And then you’ve got to do the things, which is where, of course, the work comes in.

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October 28, 2019

Gleanings

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