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February 26, 2021

Wintering, by Katherine May

It’s funny you know, for some reason I was expecting a more literal guide to surviving winter with Katherine May’s Wintering, but she writes about having to wait years for snow to fall where she lives in the south of England. In order to get a handle on winter’s reality, she has to go on field trips. For her, wintering is a metaphor, an idea—one year, her husband becomes very ill, her own health is suffering, her son stops attending school due to anxiety. She and her family are forced to rest and retreat for a while, to observe a different kind of season, but one she feels she has a muscle for after a breakdown she’d experienced as a teenager. Sometimes the best thing is just to submit and acknowledge the season you are in, which is part of a cycle.

Wintering is a fascinating book about reconnecting with cycles, seasons, the rhythms of the natural world. Although it does feel curious to read this book here in Canada, written by a person from a country where people don’t tend to have parkas or even winter boots. May’s winter as metaphor doesn’t always translate here, where the season can go on so long, everything still and frozen, where we’re still digging out long after the vernal equinox. It’s hard to buy that this is a season as rich with life as all the others are. But I suppose that makes the book for me all the more purposeful.

May’s writing is bright and engaging. I kept reading bits aloud to whoever had the good fortune to be in my presence. It made me consider becoming a modern-day Druid, to be honest, and I loved the parts about winter swimming, though I could never dare such a thing.

If you read and enjoyed Wintering, I recommend you read Maria Mutch’s beautiful memoir Know the Night (I reviewed it for the National Post and am still really proud of what I wrote) nominated for a Governor General’s Award in 2014. Definitely the two works are gorgeously complementary.

February 16, 2021

The Midnight Bargain, by C.L. Polk

I’m not especially fond of the Canada Reads debates. I find them frustrating and annoying, to be honest, though this is mostly because of my own sensibilities than anything else. I don’t really like yelling at the radio. Last year, Jael Richardson did a daily recap of the debates on Instagram Live and I preferred following the series this way to the show itself. What I do love, however, is a Canada Reads lineup like what they’ve come up with this year, a list of books that are off the beaten track, that I might not have picked up otherwise, and that don’t immediately seem to have much in common, which means the connections between them are fascinating (and this is why I am not especially fond of the Canada Reads debates—I love the idea of how the books are enriched by their relationships to each other rather than having to pit them as competitors).

It helps that I’ve already read three of the titles on the list—Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots; Butter Honey Pig Bread, by Francesca Ekwuyasi; and Two Trees Make a Forest, by Jessica J. Lee—and that I really loved them. And that I probably wouldn’t have read the final two titles otherwise, but not it seems kind of lazy not to read them all. Even if C.L. Polk’s The Midnight Bargain seems so far from up my alley that it’s in a different universe altogether. “It’s fantasy meets a regency romance,” I told my husband. He said, “But you don’t really like either of those things.”

“Ahh,” I answered him. “The power of hybridity.”

If not for Canada Reads, I wouldn’t have read The Midnight Bargain, set in an otherworld that feels a but like 19th-century England, but with magic, and if colonialism had never happened. I will admit that the world-building felt arduous to me at times, which is often my problem with fantasy—so much to keep track of and understand, when I’d prefer to get lost in the plot. But it started to pay off when it meant that the plot would have kinds outcomes that I’d never encountered in a novel before, where characters motivations turned out to be so much more complex and fascinating than they could have been in a world that was familiar.

Beatrice is a sorceress and about to embark on her first bargaining season, where she will be paired off with a husband, especially important since her father’s business stumbles have landed their family in enormous debt. But here’s where it gets complicated—once paired off, Beatrice will be required to wear a collar to suppress her magic powers, supposedly because the risk of being pregnant and inhabited by spirits is just too great, and so women are not permitted to practice magic until their childbearing years are over. But really this is just an excuse to keep women from realizing their own power, which suits the patriarchy just fine. But Beatrice has a plan—she’s been practising magic in secret and is so close to becoming a full-fledged Magus. If she can complete her self-taught course before her bargaining season, can she convince her father to let her stay single and join him in running their family business, saving her family from financial ruin and keeping her freedom at once?

But when Beatrice meets Ianthe Lavan, things get more complicated. Turns out he’s everything she’s dreamed of and so wealthy that her family’s fortunes would be saved by their union–but is she willing to give up the most essential part of herself to fulfill societal expectations?

Is such a thing worth the promise of love?

Totally not my kind of thing at all, but that’s what I liked best about it. The Midnight Bargain was rich, absorbing and wonderful, totally transporting.

January 7, 2021

What I Read On My Christmas Vacation

It’s my favourite thing! Time to read! This December, I took a nearly two-week-holiday from the internet AND from the new releases that occupy most of my reading life to indulge in the titles that have been gathering dust on my shelves for one reason or another, books that are a bit dated, which seem like work, for which there does not seem to be any great occasion to finally pick up and read, and yet I keep them around, waiting for the moment. And that moment is now!

Though Michael Christie’s Greenwood is not quite that kind of book. I bought this one last summer after three excellent booksellers (Kathryn from Lighthouse Books, Allison from Beggar’s Banquet and Shelley from Blue Heron) had cited it as a favourite, but it’s kind of long, and it’s written by a guy, and I was just not that interested, even after Stuart himself had read it, and he made me promise I would read it too (because I have this obnoxious habit of not reading the books he’s read, figuring that he’s read it for both of us). And so it was the first book I picked up on the break, and was it ever wonderful. Stuart describes it as “like Cloud Atlas, but less annoying,” and I just found it enveloping, and rich with hope, and such a marvelously bookish book. Three of out of three superstar booksellers AND Stuart can’t be wrong.

I started reading Greenwood as I picked up Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which I feel like I’m the last person on earth to finally read, and I’ve opted to read it bit by bit instead of all at once, which has the interesting effect of the book being in conversation with whatever else I’m reading, especially Greenwood. Anyway, I am about halfway through now—this is not a book to be rushed—and enjoying it very much.

Something to be read at a faster pace, however, is Agatha Christie’s (no relation to Michael, as far as I know) Crooked House, which I bought secondhand because our family had been reading Marthe Jocelyn’s middle-grade Aggie Morton series, based on Christie’s early life and her works. (Read Jocelyn’s “6 Reasons to Hook Your Kid on Mysteries”) and the fact that I’d never read an Agatha Christie book was certainly an impediment to me fully appreciating what the Aggie Morton series was up to. And I really enjoyed it! Light and fun. I am going to pass it onto my 11 year old to read next.

William Trevor’s Death in Summer was my next read, which also kicked off my focus on Ireland (though the book itself is not explicitly set there, but it’s where the author comes from). I read my first William Trevor novel the summer before last, the super weird Miss Gomez and the Brethren, which I’d discovered in a provincial park camp store and bought for a dollar. William Trevor’s novels (so far…) are so absurd and a bit psychologically grotesque, unflinching in regards to class tensions, and I love them. In this one, a woman dies suddenly, and the question arises of who should care for her 4-month-old baby, which seems more pressing than grief since the woman’s husband is incapable of feeling and never really loved her anyway, and then one of the candidates for live-in caregiver (definitely inappropriate) becomes obsessed with the father, and starts haunting their property, culminating in the baby’s snatching. ACK!

Something lighter, I supposed, after murder and summer death, so I picked up The Mysterious Disappearence of Leon (I Mean Noel), by Ellen Raskin, whose The Westing Game has been a favourite of mine for years. She was also an illustrator and wrote many picture books (and designed the cover for the first edition of A Wrinkle in Time!) and her illustrations appear in this book, which, like all of her other novels that I’ve read, sadly are not as good as the The Westing Game, which was just as silly but had a certain heft. Not so this one, but it was funny, enjoyable, and a quick read.

And then I read Rebecca Solnit’s A Book of Migrations, about her travels in Ireland. I bought this book in 2014 when my local bookshop was going out of business so everything was on sale and I was obsessed with Solnit after reading The Faraway Nearby, but I didn’t feel any real connection to the subject (in spite of my strange Irish name), so never read it, but I should never have underestimated the capacity of Solnit’s writing to be interesting, I loved this book, which was an exploration of Irish history, geography, British colonial, home and rootlessness, and more.

I got three Sue Miller books for Christmas after becoming obsessed with her Monogamy this fall, and The Distinguished Guest lived up to my hopes that her other books would be as good. (I have since also read The Good Mother. OMG, Sue Miller is amazing!!) It’s hard to say what Miller’s novels are about, exactly, to take such a reductive approach, when they’re such a slice of rich, full loves. In The Distinguished Guest, an elderly woman ailing from Parkinson’s who found late-in-life fame as a memoirist—writing about her marriage which dissolved as she and her ex-husband, a minister, disagreed about how their church would support the civil rights movemen, with her husband supporting radical activism, as Lily took a more measured, middle class approach—comes to stay with her architect husband and his wife, the son finding decades’ old resentments rising to the surface. There are no peripheral characters in this novel, each and every one flawed and complicated, and real.

And then, inspired by the Solnit book, I picked up The Dancers Dancing, by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, which has been sitting in my shelf even longer. I don’t know I waited! Set in 1972 as a group of students from Derry and Dublin spend a month in rural Donegal, ostensibly to learn Irish, the book was such a delight. The novel was a finalist for the Orange Prize in 1999, and it’s richly innovative in terms of point of view, the most amazing omniscience. If you like Derry Girls, you will love this book, which is not like Derry Girls that much, but it scratches the itch, you know?

My final Irish selection was Elizabeth Bowen’s first novel The Hotel, which was funny and delightful in places (the part where the clergyman dares to use the bathroom that had been exclusive to Mrs. Pinkerton (including the loofahs!) but in the end I was glad to be done with it, because it was one of those twentieth century novels in which characters talk around around the thing which cannot be articulated, and I eventually cease to care. Still, I like Elizabeth Bowen very much.

And then! I returned to Natalia Ginzburg, whose work was part of my holiday break last year. I bought The City and the House after reading Melanie’s review, and really really enjoyed it. About a group of friends whose connection falls apart after one of immigrates to America, and the house where they’d all spent time is sold, the book is epistolary and the letters were a bit awkward initially (lots of exposition, unnaturally so) but then started to flow so marvellously. I particularly loved that these friends were at mid-life, because I don’t think we read a lot of stories like that. Yes, this is definitely not an uplifting read (everything that could go wrong tends to) but I really loved it.

I read Penelope Fitzgerald’s story collection The Means of Escape after that. And isn’t it funny how sometimes a book arrives at the very wrong time? I picked up the book a few years ago, and found the first story difficult and impermeable, but I think I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind, because all this time later, the story went down a charm, and I enjoyed the collection very much, and the wide range of Penelope Fitzgerald’s approaches to fiction. How can all that come from one mind?

The Fire Next Time was James Baldwin was after that, and I’ve never read James Baldwin before. But he’s the kind of writer whose words are so part of the atmosphere we breathe that so much of the book, right down to exact phrases, were familiar to me. And what can a person really say about James Baldwin, in all his brilliance, eloquence, generosity and righteous anger? The book is wonderful, and (sigh) as timely as ever.

And then I read The New House, by Lettice Cooper, a Persephone Books edition that I bought somewhere used. Published in 1936, it’s basically about everything I’ve spent the last year wondering about, about power, society, and how things ought to work. Cooper was a socialist and her point of view comes across in the novel, but is also interrogated—what happens when a woman refuses to be selfish, for instance? Are there instances in which looking out for one’s self is necessary? It was kind of an alternative twist on Howards End, a grand home being sold as modern estates are popping up across the countryside, and there is a generational divide, a sense that something is being lost, except that “something” involves terrace slums with eight people sharing a bedroom with an outside toilet, while the middle classes fret about being down to two servants. It’s a book that is a bit too informed by ideas, but also Cooper is uncertain enough about those ideas (and still curious) about them that the effect is not off-putting. And she also does a marvelous job at making the most unsympathetic characters human and real and relatable. I absolutely loved it.,

December 2, 2020

Butter Honey Pig Bread, by Francesca Ekwuyasi

One more title that I am glad I got to before the year was out was the debut novel by Francesca Ekwuyasi, Butter Honey Pig Bread, which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It was fantastic, a debut that was so polished and assured, hugely ambitious in its reach and just as successful in execution…and by page 19 it was clear I’d be baking the cake Taiye makes to celebrate the occasion of her twin sister’s homecoming, salted caramel chocolate. Which was baked before the day was out.

It’s a hugely evocative novel, gorgeous and sensual, rich with foods and cooking, and also with sex. Although it begins with something more unearthly, the birth of Kambirinachi, a Nigerian woman presented as an Ogbanje, “a spirit that plagues a family with grief by dying repeatedly in childhood and being reborn.” Except that Kambirinachi cheats the system and clings to her life, but she will pay a price for this. Which is how she explains tragedies that befall her when she loses her parents, and her husband dies, and then something terrible and traumatic is suffered by her twin daughters that tears the rest of their family apart.

The three strands of this novel belong to Kambirinachi and her daughters, Taiye and Kehinde, who grow up estranged from each other and head out into the world apart. Taiye goes to London, and then studies cooking in France, and eventually arrives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before returning home to care for her ailing mother. Meanwhile, Kehinde is left behind when her sister moved to London, and makes her own way to study in Montreal and build a life there.

At the beginning of the novel, Kehinde is arriving home to Lagos with her new husband, meeting her mother and sister again for the first time in years. We learn her story in the first person, seeking to make sense of her traumatic past and move forward in her life. Similarly, Taiye’s tells a story that blends the present day experience with what she’s been through in her life, and finally their mother’s story is told chronologically, adding necessary context to the twins’ experience—for the twins themselves and the reader alike.

The progress of the novel is these three strands becoming re-woven together, braided tighter and tighter throughout the narrative. It’s a novel that in many ways reminded me of Saleema Nawaz’s Bone and Bread, for themes of family estrangement, loss and mystery, and also food, and I would definitely recommend it for anyone who enjoyed that book.

I also appreciated its treatment of Black communities among the diaspora, Nigerian Taiye in Halifax visiting the Africville museum commemorating that city’s historic Black community, and the other Africans she meets in London. And that a novel creates such a powerful sense of place in so many different places—Lagos, London, Montreal, Halifax—is also a remarkable achievement.

Butter Honey Pig Break is a standout debut, and as much as it will make you hungry, it will also more than satisfy.

May 21, 2020

The Wild Heavens, by Sarah Louise Butler

I was describing Sarah Louise Butler’s debut novel The Wild Heavens last week as, “Like Contact, but about sasquatches.” A novel set in the BC interior that begins with tracks in the snow, tracks that—in the book’s exquisitely written introduction—persuade a man to reroute his life, from the seminary to pursue a career in science, to explore the mysteries suggested by these outsized man-shaped footprints. Faith vs. science, but the dichotomy turned inside out, and what of mythology? The fact of proof. Maybe it was never really such a dichotomy after all.

The man in the introduction is Aiden Fitzpatrick, through the centre of the story is his granddaughter Sandy who comes to live with him after her mother dies, being raised in their isolated cabin in the wilderness where he continues to search for proof of the creature, one who is never directly named in the book, but they call him “Charlie.” Charlie becoming a projection of each characters’ own fascinations, questions and preoccupations. Sandy grows up in the company of a young boy whose mother has found safety on the remote property, hiding from her son’s abusive father. And in some ways, it’s an idyllic way to live, surrounded by love and so much natural beauty, but there are also questions that have no answers, unspoken longings and so much grief.

The novel takes place over the course of a single day as Sandy—now a widow, a mother in her fifties—sets out to finally discover the truth about the creature after discovering its tracks in the snow after so many years. Interspersed between her risky quest to find it are her recollections of her childhood, growing up with her grandfather, falling in love, becoming a wife and mother, enduring loss and heartache, and the draw of the landscape, that creature who’s ever-elusive. And as ever, it’s less about the finding than the searching, about the wonder instead of answers, about the stories we tell about the mysteries both of ourselves and of the world.

May 20, 2020

Finding Our Way

I noticed a chart on social media last week, a list that ranked one’s level of caution and care in terms of exposure to Covid-19, and a few of my friends seemed to find a great deal of appeal in this chart. The idea being that you could determine how you ranked and then find friends with similar rankings to associate with as we slowly expand our social bubbles after two months of quarantine, which makes sense, because you probably don’t want the person you hang out with when all this is over to be Buddy who was over at the Michigan legislature protesting with his machine gun the other week. Not just because Buddy is an asshole, but also because he’s been congregating in large groups without a mask on and likely doesn’t wash his hands.

Of course, there was a level of smugness to it too— I mean, no one who scored “VERY OPEN LEVEL 5” was sharing this chart on Facebook. And I mean no judgment with that either, because I can be as smug as they come, and if you’ve been depriving yourself of human company and good groceries for coming on 70 days now, you have every reason to feel superior to that woman down the street whose kids never stopped having playdates and whose boyfriend sleeps over every Saturday.

But still, it didn’t sit well with me, that list. It was the narrowness, I think—and I would consider possibly because I can’t declare myself a “VERY STRICT 0.” I have not worn masks while walking outdoors, I go shopping more than once a week, I’ve likely been within six feet of somebody while passing on the sidewalk. Although the shops I’ve visited have been small and not crowded, better than grocery stores. But also I live in a unit with shared space with other households. Which doesn’t require riding an elevator and my door knobs are my own, but I am also really not attentive enough at disinfecting doorknobs. Though since people have stopped coming over, I’ve decided not to get worked up over this. But what I mean by all this is what I mean most of the time when writing a blog post, which is that it’s complicated.

Has the pandemic made everyone more annoying, or has it made me irritable, or both, is another complicated question, and the answer is probably yes. (And don’t think I don’t acknowledge that I fall under the category of “everyone” who is more annoying too.)

But I really have struggled these last few months with people’s demands for certainty and clarity in a situation that no one really understands. The week before this all shook down, way back in March we cancelled our trip to England because it was becoming clear that travelling right now would be a really bad idea. Prior to this, I’d been watching government travel advisories and assuming these were gospel, and then had a revelation, which was that just because the government said we could go didn’t necessarily mean that they thought we should. That we live in a country where citizens are free to make their own choices for the most part, and don’t need to be told what to do. I found everyone that first week even extra annoying, because everyone on social media had an opinion about banning flights from certain places, shutting down the borders, etc—when it was clear to me that all this was going to happen, but the government was rolling out measures slowly because they have to. And yet I understand where the complaining people were coming from because there still were people departing on vacation in mid-March, when it was demonstrably clear that this was a terrible idea. But tragically, really (and even literally, sometimes), sometimes freedom of choice means that people are going to make appalling ones.

Or at least ones that are different than yours, ones that you just can’t understand—why that man isn’t wearing a mask, and why that woman brought her toddler to the grocery store, the person standing on the street corner audibly hacking up a lung. For me, much more innocuously, the big one is people who wash their fruits and vegetables in soapy water. I don’t get it—and also, it makes me terribly anxious because I’m just not doing that, and these people doing something different makes me afraid I’ve made bad choices, instead of underlining my virtue and my safety—which is what we all want anyway.

Also: okay. You’re washing your bananas. Great. But why do you have to document it on Instagram?

But my husband has a good point (he is one of the few individuals alive who has NOT been made more annoying by the pandemic) which was that washing fruits and vegetables, and Instagramming them, no less, made those people feel good.

“You know how you liked ordering from the bookstore?” he asked, because this was the week I’d ordered more than fifteen books to be delivered from stores across the city, and he really was bringing this home with an analogy that was so on my level. “Because it made you feel happy, and normal, and like you had some element of control over the world?”

We’re all trying to hard to find our way through this unknown situation. And the people who don’t seem to be trying are trying for the rest of us, and those who are struggling mirror all the ways that I am, and those who seem to know everything only underline just how much I don’t, and I suppose it doesn’t help that my relations with nearly everybody these days are enacted on social media where we are all performing, and sorting our feelings, and showing our best selves and/or our worst ones, and how are the rest of us supposed to tell which is which?

We’re doing it though. By trusting the science, and using our imaginations, we are, no matter how restless and impatient we feel. And that’s the amazing thing, even though nobody really knows what’s what, and it’s never been more apparent what has always been true, which is that we’re all trying to find our way in the dark. But we’re finding it. Day by day.

April 2, 2020

No More Nice Girls, by Lauren McKeon, and Lean Out, by Tara Henley

Although almost everything I was reading a month ago seems kind of irrelevant now, Lauren McKeon’s No More Nice Girls feels like it could be an exception. This underlined by the number of Canadian politicians and public health officials who are women and spearheading efforts to fight and control what’s going on right now, women we are turning to for answers and reassurance, one of whom, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, shows up early in McKeon’s book as as “a new kind of power that’s completely, deliberately at odds with a very old, very masculine one.”

In her book, McKeon imagines what might be possible with a different kind of power, and writes about ways that people are imagining such things already, with all-women co-working spaces, the #MeToo movement, “identity politics of lonely, angry men” as a backlash to women’s power. She writes about how conventional power doesn’t tend to work for women when they achieve it, corporate achievement as an example, where the women at the top still have to contend with the same challenges that all women do—sexism, harassment, discrimination, violence, a gender pay gap. The ways in which women have to be “better than perfect” to be accepted, while any guy in a poor fitting suit seems to fit the bill. And the limits of #GirlBoss kind of power, which is the kind of individualized, status-quo sustaining power that the patriarchy likes.

It’s difficult to synopsize McKeon’s book, whose range is so wide. She writes about race and representation; economics and federal budgets; gender and the media; how technology affects our lives and what it means that so much of technology is created by men; feminist cities; online trolling (McKeon is author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, which I read and loved in 2017); and about numerous and inspiring ways that women all over the world are raising the bar and changing the narrative on traditional notions of what a life of a woman ought to look like. It’s an incisive and inspiring read.

*

I read No More Nice Girls in “the before times” and then was unable to read anything properly for a couple of weeks, as the world before my eyes was changed into a surreal and disturbing reality. And the book that finally brought me back to reading was Tara Henley’s Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life. (Full disclosure: Henley wrote a kind and generous review of my novel back in 2017. We also share an editor. Neither of these factors are why I’m so obsessed with her book, but are definitely worth noting.)

Reader, this book was a balm, as it was always meant to be—but it meant so much more than it would have even a month ago. Suffering from physical symptoms of anxiety in 2016 after a decade of living in the big city and working in journalism, Henley reached a breaking point and realized that things would have to change—but also that she was limited as to what change was possible to her as an individual, this becoming even more apparent after she moves back to her hometown Vancouver and is confronted with the city’s unaffordability. Does modern life truly have to be like this, Henley wonders? A less solipsistic Eat, Pray, Love is how I am thinking about this book.

Lean Out is rich with reporting, but underlined by Henley’s own story and family history. (It’s also gorgeously written and inspired by the works of Madeleine L’Engle, which meant a lot to me after My Year of Vicky Austin.) She writes about alternatives to the way we do work, connect with nature, eat food, make and spend money, live online, combat loneliness, find community, and make our homes. Arriving at not definitive answers, but instead broadening the range of what is possible for a more fruitful way of living both as individuals and as a society. And, as with McKeon’s book, it all comes down to inequality in the end—data shows that unequal societies, Henley writes, make life demonstrably worse for everybody, even those who are at the “top.”

Which is something all of us should keep in mind as we think about what kind of world we want to live in “when all this is over.” I am so grateful to these authors who are already doing the work of imagining new and better ways of being.

*Both these books are included on a Books With Vision list I created at 49thShelf. And an amazing Q&A with Henley will be up on 49thShelf in about a week. Stay tuned. And buy her book in the meantime—you will be glad you did.

January 23, 2020

Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid

And my catch-up of reviews of popular American books that everyone else read months ago concludes with Kiley Reid’s debut novel, which only came out a couple of weeks ago, so I’m back on top of things. A novel that caught my attention with a stunning cover, so many readers raving about it on Instagram, and that title, Such a Fun Age, which is a phrase I find so cloying—but also such a perfect ironic statement upon the moment in which we live.

So here’s the story: after a late night emergency, Alix Chamberlain calls her babysitter to take her three-year-old daughter, Briar, out of the house for a while. The babysitter is Emira, who’s Black, a 25-year-old college grad who feels stuck in a rut while all her friends’ careers are beginning to ascend. But she loves Briar, and knows she’s good at caring for her, and feels protective of the child too, because she can sense how Briar’s quirks make her mother uncomfortable, the way they mess with Alix’s efforts toward a picture perfect veneer. With Emira, though, Briar can be her strange old self, and the pair are dancing in the aisle of the upscale supermarket in the Chamberlain’s neighbourhood, Emira with her friend and dressed for the night out that Alix’s urgent call had just summoned her from, and a shopper (that lady?) decides that something doesn’t look right with this situation. Calling on the store security guard, who tell Emira she’s not allowed to leave the store with the child, and the whole thing is caught on video by another shopper in the store.

If this were an issue-driven novel (“a book about race in America”) this episode would be the point on which everything turns, but instead it’s just the beginning. And Emira herself is not terribly rattled by what happened in the store that night, because she’s got other things on her plate, and the reality of being Black in America is hardly novel to her anyway after 25 years of it. But Alix, Emira’s boss, is obsessed with the incident, and comes to feel the same about Emira herself, determined to help her, to save her, thinking she knows her well (she checks the texts on Emira’s phone after all), the babysitter’s well-being becoming a project that fills her spare time, which has been considerably more ample since Alix she’d failing to write the book she signed a contract for. (Alix has cobbled together a curious kind of career, the kind of career only a white woman could have, in which she writes letters to companies and asks for things, and they send them to her, and then she reviews them on her blog. She gets speaking opportunities and talks about feminism and agency, and is hoping for an in with Hillary Clinton’s campaign as a kind of legitimizing force, because Alix’s isn’t dumb, and knows her brand is 90% shadow and illusion.)

Such a Fun Age was reviewed in the New York Times the other week, and the review was less than flattering, calling the book “soapy,” as though that were a bad thing. By soapy, the reviewer really means readable, and it is. And it’s true that there’s a plot twist in the form of a connection between Alix and Emira that’s just a little too tidy. But what the reviewer missed is how a novel that’s so eminently readable can also be so well crafted (bumpy plot aside). The dialogue in this book is incredible, and the group scenes (a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner in particular) are so excellently orchestrated that would-be novelists could use this novel as a handbook. It’s a soapy-ish novel that manages to surpass its subject matter, to be about so much more than what it’s purported to be about. A pleasure to read and so smart at once, and utterly, bewitchingly, unsettling.

June 18, 2019

A Conversation with Kate Keenan

I met Kate Keenan about two years ago when our children were enrolled in the same swimming class and she made an immediate impression on me as she spent the class entertaining her other child with hand-clapping games—”See See My Playmate” was a favourite. We finally started talking, which was great because I had decided I wanted to be her friend, and then I ended up giving her a copy of my book after a conversation about books and reading, and then the next week she brought me her CD (“I’m in a band,” said this super-cool mom—who, it turned out, had an intergalactic alter-ego—like this was no big thang).

Swimming remains an important part of our relationship.

So what I’m basically saying is that I’ve been a huge Kate Keenan fan since “See See My Playmate,” and since then I’ve enjoyed watching her as part of the Space Chums (including in their show at the Toronto Fringe Festival last year).

Her play, The Really Real Adventures of Scott Free and Will Do (which she co-wrote with Lesley Halferty)is playing at Solar Stage at Wychwood Barns until the end of June. We saw it on June 9, and loved it—and it made me realize that there was lots about her career in theatre, writing and motherhood that I wanted to ask her.

*****

Kerry: Can you tell me the story of The Really Real Adventures of Scott Free and Will Do—when did you (co) write it and where was it performed? 

Kate: To tell you the story, I could start all the way back in high school at Etobicoke School of the Arts where I was lucky enough to be cast in “Les Goons” a Commedia dell’arte troupe run by our teacher John Glossop in the Lagoon Theatre on Centre Island. Best summer job ever. When Mr. Glossop stopped running “Les Goons” I was in grade 10 and some friends and I started our own children’s theatre company, “Island Treasures” in the same theatre. It was like a dream clubhouse/lemonade stand! And a real crash course in running a business…

It was like a dream clubhouse/lemonade stand! And a real crash course in running a business…

Anyway, after theatre school, I quickly got sick of having to wait to be cast in other people’s shows.  So, knowing the theatre on the island was sitting empty, I started a company, “Shrimp Magnet Theatre Co.”  with a bunch of friends from George Brown. We couldn’t afford the rights to any published plays, so we wrote our own—and I quickly became more passionate about writing than acting, which is saying quite a lot…

 We would do the shows 6 days a week, 4 times a day (6 times a day at the beginning, until we came to our senses). We’d have rotating casts, but I usually worked about 5 days a week (along with running the operation with my best friend and co-author Lesley Halferty). You know that old thing where if you caught your kid smoking a cigarette, you locked them in the closet with a carton and wouldn’t let them out till they smoked them all? Okay, I guess that was actually a 1950’s thing and no one I ever knew was actually subjected to that but we all heard the stories… Anyway, it felt like that doing those shows. If a line was clunky, or a bit wasn’t working, you’d have to do it over and over again, watching audiences lose attention in the same spot, show after show. At the end of the summer, we were gasping to re-write!

“If a line was clunky, or a bit wasn’t working, you’d have to do it over and over again, watching audiences lose attention in the same spot, show after show.

And we did. We usually did shows at least two years in a row—and I think it made us really, really good at knowing what worked and what didn’t and how to be unsentimental about stuff. 

Oh dear, I’ve just noticed that didn’t really answer your question! So! Down to the nitty gritty! We created Scott Free and Will Do the summer of 2003, I think! I was 26. (and now I’m 42. WTF?!?) We performed it on Centre Island that year, then we did Toronto Fringe. Then Canmore Kid’s Festival, then Winnipeg Fringe. (And in between we cobbled together a tour in my parents’ minivan—4 actors, one Stage Manager, an entire set and all our luggage for over a month! We traveled to Sault Ste. Marie (where we stayed with my friend Trish’s family and partied under the Royal Order of the Moose),  Atikoken, where we stayed in an old elementary school and played an epic game of hide and go seek all night, then in Geraldton, where we billeted with amazing people and a pet turtle, and also Thunder Bay, with lovely Rita and amazing Hoito pancakes.

Some incredibly talented people have been in the cast, including Keith Barker, who now is A.D. of Native Earth and Rebecca Benson, a prof at Carleton University. In particular, we can never forget C.J. Schneider,  George Brown Theatre colleague who was a natural clown and a force of nature and comedy. A bunch of nonsensical/brilliant lines in the show are his (mostly and luckily because we could not control him) including “Boingy booing chop chop” and “its crazier than eating a dill pickle popsicle on a Wednesday that’s also a Tuesday!” C.J. died way too young of cancer in 2010. We  miss him so much it hurts. Also the brilliant Matt Olmstead and Mark Purvis.

A scene from Scott Free and Will Do…

Kerry: What was it to bring the show to life again? What surprised you about this experience? 

Kate: We brought the show to life at Solar Stage twice before when they lived in North York. This time around we had added two new actors (the moms). There were many layers of mind-blowing weirdness for me. First of all, it’s SUPER weird to revisit a show I worked on in my late twenties, with actors in their late twenties when I am now in my EARLY FORTIES! It was like a strange time warp!

I still felt EXACTLY THE SAME, but to the actors I was an elderly MOTHER OF TWO! I kept having to remind myself that I was not the same! To their credit the actors treated me as a total equal, and I really did feel younger while we were rehearsing. I was even joking more like I did in my twenties—it was really strange! And the second thing that blew my mind were the new jokes we found. I mean, I can’t imagine how many times I’ve done this show and STILL, this time, super obvious jokes would pop out that I guess had been staring us in the face for years! That made it so fabulous to rehearse again—finding new moments that ever-so-slightly improved the play. My mom and I have a joke that we can’t just enjoy a joke, we have to constantly be improving upon it. Turns out this is an obsession, and hopefully a career for me! 

It’s SUPER weird to revisit a show I worked on in my late twenties, with actors in their late twenties when I am now in my EARLY FORTIES! It was like a trippy time melt!

We have done the show for so many audiences but I will always be blown away that we always get new, mind-blowing responses from the crowd. It was such a refreshing thing, right out of theatre school, to be performing a play so many times that you had to work to keep your energy up, as opposed to your nerves down. One thing that always kept me alive and engaged was the excitement of what the audience would bring to the show. And they are still bringing brand new things! For (a slightly unsettling but still interesting) example, just recently when the actors asked the audience, “How do you know you’re real?” A child replied, “because we could die.” Not the usual kids theatre fare, but pretty amazing…

Kerry: You were writing for children before you had kids of your own. Has becoming a parent changed the way you relate to children? Are there things you know better now? (Or vice versa?) 

Kate: How has becoming a parent affected how I write for children? Well, I think it’s allowed me to cheat. Honestly, before I had kids, I felt I remembered what it was like to be a kid myself. I feel further away from that now—can I blame the sleepless nights with my babies? I dunno, but I do feel grateful that parenthood has allowed be to experience childhood all over again with a new perspective. Funny, our show has two moms and two kids in it. If anything, I think I now approach the mom characters less as caricatures and more as real humans! The kids have stayed real…

“If anything, I think I now approach the mom characters less as caricatures and more as real humans! The kids have stayed real…

Space Chums at Toronto Fringe, 2018

Kerry: What do you love about writing for children? 

Kate: My love of writing for kids is twofold. Firstly, I’m super insecure, so writing for kids gives me a flimsy excuse not to “take myself too seriously.” It gives me the permission to be free and not judge what I’m writing. But actually that’s bogus, because I believe that writing for kids is as difficult and sacred as writing for adults—my ego just needs a weird cop-out.

Secondly, I love the honesty of kids. I love that when I’m performing for them, I know when they’re bored. There’s no fakery, so the feedback is super accurate and helpful. Being able to trick my ego and being given such robust feedback has helped my writing immensely!

More from Scott Free and Will Do…

Kerry: What other creative projects are you up to these days?

Kate: Right now I’m writing a bit for children’s television, still with my bestie and co-author of Scott Free & Will Do, Lesley Halferty—shows that have yet to air, but I will keep you posted! I’m also 1/3rd of an outer-space rock band for kids called Space Chums with Ian and Lindsay Goodtimes! This is where I get my acting and singing  itch scratched and my general goofing around with kids itch as well!

And my other passion project is a podcast for kids where I write stories on demand from “story seeds” kids give me. I’ve only just started out, but so far I have a story for my eldest daughter Elwyn, called “The Lights in the Forest” and one for my youngest daughter Lucy called “The Ballad of the Barn Owl” My plan is to record them and eventually publish them.

Go see Scott Free and Will Do at Solar Stage!

May 30, 2019

The Severed Wasp, and New York City

Peace sculpture at Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It was installed after the novel was written, and would probably feature better in ML’s fantasy-inspired works. But seemed fitting.

Sometimes, one’s inflexibilities rub up against each other in complicated ways, for example: yes, one wants to read Madeleine L’Engle’s lesser known novels in chronological order (ie two more Polly O’Keefe books to go before I read The Small Rain/A Severed Wasp) but also: I really want to read A Severed Wasp during the weekend we’re in New York, because of its setting (which is the same setting for The Young Unicorns, a novel I adored). So what to do? Well. because I am all cool and laidback, I just skipped ahead to be the other books, NBD. Ha ha.

So first to The Small Rain, which was Madeleine L’Engle’s first novel, published in 1945, 37 years and 29 books before its sequel, almost 20 years before L’Engle made her great success with A Wrinkle in Time. And…it was not good. There were interesting tastes of what would come to be L’Engle’s literary preoccupations—it begins with a young girl being cared for by a friend of the family, because her musician parents are unable to be there for her, which reminded me of Maggy in Meet the Austins. There is romance, there is melodrama, there are weird dynamics between teenage girls and grown men, there is a sea voyage. There are weird problems with plot and pacing, and I didn’t really like the book–it read like something terribly old fashioned written by someone who was terribly young and trying to be terribly edgy, and the effect was kind of terrible. I am glad I read it, but I desperately hoped that A Severed Wasp would be very different, but then I supposed it would be, written 37 years and 29 books later. Possibly, L’Engle has learned something about writing novels in the meantime.

A book cover with the cathedral in front of the actual cathedral!

A Severed Wasp—published in 1982, and blurbed by no less than Norman Lear!—finds Katherine Forrester in her seventies now, instead of a teenage ingenue. Now widowed and retired after a hugely successful career as a pianist, she has returned to the scene of the previous novel, to New York where she came of age and suffered her first heartbreaks, and she runs into her old friend from Greenwich Village, Felix, who was once a violin-playing beatnik, but now he’s a bishop, which is the way things go in Madeleine L’Engle novels, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on New York’s Upper West Side.

Which is a cathedral I first encountered through L’Engle’s The Young Unicorns (1968), the one book in the Austin series that did not feature Vicky at its centre and which was odd, plot-driven, and very compelling. Dave Davidson, who was a teenage boy in the first book, appears again in this one, now grown and Dean of the cathedral, and married to ACTUAL Suzy Austin, who has realized her dream of becoming a doctor, and is also now a mother of four. Interesting because Suzy had been the one who’d always challenged her own mother’s anti-feminism, and I’d wondered about L’Engle’s emphasis on women who had abandoned dreams of career for families, as though the two were impossible to balance. But here was Suzy, doing it all, which Katherine thinks about a lot, because she is conscious of having failed her own children as she’d travelled and toured for much of her daughter’s childhood, and her daughter now remained quite distant from her—in terms of geography and emotion.

But then we will learn that Katherine’s relationship with her daughter is complicated not just for this reason, but also because the daughter was conceived not with Katherine’s husband who’d been castrated at Auschwitz, but by her Nazi prison guard, with whom she’d had a brief affair right after the war. I know, right? The Katherine of The Small Rain has not lost her taste for melodrama, but the stakes have been raised much higher, plus Katherine is receiving obscene phone calls, Felix is also receiving threats to reveal his homosexual affairs, her pregnant downstairs neighbour’s husband has having an affair with a man, the Bishop’s wife is a former pop-singer whose past involvement with drugs continues to haunt her, the streets of New York are dangerous and riddled with crime, and Suzy Austin’s youngest daughter had lost her leg not long ago after being hit by a car in what may or may not have been an accident.

Suzy turned, pausing to explain. “My offspring love pizza and the best pizza in New York is made just across the street at the V&T—one of our local restaurants.”

Too much, all of it. Also, too many racist stereotypes—the worst. But the plot did unfold in a most compelling way, and actually being in New York as I was reading made the whole thing much more meaningful to me. (I don’t think many people make A Severed Wasp pilgrimages. There wasn’t even a copy of the book in the Toronto Library system. I had to order a secondhand copy. My instagram hashtag was the only one!) We went to the Cathedral on Friday evening (“The very size of the Cathedral was a surprise…” the book begins. It was!) and got there too late to be able to visit or even explore the grounds, but I just wanted to see it anyway. (Would have been interested to see the plaque that is apparently there once the Cathedral was made a literary landmark because of L’Engle in 2012—she was a writer in residence and librarian there for decades.) We did get to the see the albino peacock in the garden, although the peacocks in the novel seemed to have been conventionally coloured.

We had dinner across the road from the cathedral, and then it was very exciting to be reading the next day and realize that the very place we’d eaten at—the V&T—was described by Suzy Austin was “the best pizza in New York.” It really was! And then the next day we visited other parts of the city, and though I never got to Tenth Street, where Katherine lives in Greenwich Village, we were just close enough that I felt her presence and the streets she’s describing. And the book was in my bag the entire weekend, to be taken out and read on long subway journeys—not that Katherine ever took the subway. I don’t think she even knows it exists.

“Odd, how complex and intertwined life is. Every time I think I’m settling for chance and randomness, then pattern enmeshes me in its strands.”

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