I’ve been keeping busy here out in the prairies. Work and children and the ever-evolving news cycle, which is so horrific at this point that I’m not even going to make vague references to prove the fact that I am a qualifiably Engaged Person, and you’ll just have to trust me that I’m reading the news and yes it’s destroying my soul in the appropriate proportion.

But I’ve also been reading. More than usual because, well, what can you do?

And I’m missing the library. Let’s clarify something: “browsing” the “shelves” of your library app is not the same thing as browsing real library shelves. And while I am fairly open minded about what constitutes “literature” or even “books” I will never think of an app as having the ability to mimic that magical feeling of coming across a binding that jumps out at you IRL.

I’m not sure we’ve proven the existence of actual human pheromones, but book pheromones I’m totally on board with.

So the “shelves” of the “library” (ie: Libby) is where I spend a lot of my mind-numbing phone time lately, and it has not been a wholly satisfying experience.

I’ve come across some interesting reads, and a lot of “oh, wait, haven’t I heard about her somewhere?” finds, but I have yet to form that kind of love-at-first-pageturn connection that comes with the real library.

Case in point: The Themes Files (Sleeping Gods, Waking Gods, Only Human) by Quebec writer Sylvain Neuvel. These books all centre around a massive robot, which turns out to have been left on Earth, in pieces spread throughout the planet, by an alien species over three thousand years ago. The story follows the characters who assemble her–Themis is a massive lady robot with major potential as a weapon of mass destruction–and learn how she works. However–as one might expect–this discovery sets off a fateful chain of events that leads to, essentially, the end of the world as we know it.

Yes, it was an odd series to read, during “the times”…

The fact that I found a) the storyline and concept both to be strong, b) the project to be fairly well researched as a whole, and c) some of the philosophical questions posed to be compelling, yet d) did not like these books very much, is perhaps an issue of format, more than anything. I wish I had listened to the audio versions, instead of reading the ebooks, because nearly the entirety of all three novels are written as dialogue, with a few journal entries and news articles spread throughout. They would be fabulous as radio plays, and actually reminded me a lot of my beloved Dr. Who radio dramas.

They’re going to make amazing action movies. Maybe by a smaller independent studio who can figure out a way to keep the artistic integrity, and ditch a few of the big alien robot battles in favour of some of the more intimate spaces–labs, bedrooms, robot interiors.

Francine Prose, Mister Monkey;
HarperCollins, 2016

My Francine Prose kick continues with Mister Monkey, which was fantastic. In this quirky novel, told through multiple perspectives, Mister Monkey is the titular character of a children’s book-turned-off-off-off-off-Broadway musical. Each chapter of the book follows someone who is somehow connected to the production–either its actors, director, or audience members. If I had to sum up one general theme of the book, it is the wide gap between who you think people are and who they really are.

NO! scratch that. It’s kind of that, but it’s more that people are exactly the way you think they are, but that they have some very compelling reasons for being this way. And also that they themselves never quite understand how others see them.
So actually–as with A Changed Man–the main theme is really the disconnect between oneself and the world.

Margot, for example, who begins the book, is an aging actress who is feeling really glum about how she went from being an award-winning young actress playing some of

Chekhov’s greatest characters to being a farcically attired attorney for a primate. She has no idea that she is actually kind of beautiful. But she does know that many other people don’t like her. The disconnect is that she thinks they don’t like her for the same reasons she doesn’t like herself, when in fact, they have entirely different reasons, that have more to do with their own insecurities.

Anyway, it’s also an absolutely hilarious book, and never not for one moment boring. The love and care that Prose has for her characters is astounding. She’s the kind of author that you can tell is not just a “keen observer of the human condition” but a fully fledged and passionate participant in humanity.

Which, if I’m being honest, is a refreshing change from all the detachment that is so common in this generation of literary writers. Compare this to, say, a Sally Rooney, (which is my closest-to-hand comparison, since I just read a couple of hers) whose detachment and almost clinical observation of her characters is so striking. It’s the intellectualization of humans vs. the deep understanding that can come with great intellect.

Magic for Liars, Sarah Gailey; MacMillan, 2019

I also listened to Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey, which was super entertaining. Ivy Gamble is contracted to solve a murder that occurred on the campus of the magic school where her sister Tabitha is a well-respected instructor. This assignment brings out all the unresolved tensions of their relationship that mainly revolve around the fact that Tabitha is magic, while Ivy is “normal” and that their mother died when they were teenagers and Ivy bore the brunt of that loss within the family.

The audiobook presented me with the opposite of my Themis Files problem, in that I should have read this as a book. An actual book with pages and such. Despite the narrator being perfectly well cast, my ears could not get on board with the Bogey-influenced Private Investigator voice. The whole “a dame walked into my office as I was guzzling down the last dregs of the bottle” tone worked super well at the beginning of the story, and I was really into the portrayal of a woman PI, which in some ways embraces and in some ways subverts the established “private dick” tropes. But once Ivy reached the grounds of the elite magical high school, and then starts up a relationship with one of the other teachers, it didn’t really fit her anymore.

Oh, this book did make me realize a super cool trick that writers do when they’re following a detective who is solving a case, but they also need said detective–supposedly, a brilliant mind with keen powers of observation–to NOT know something. And it is this: they establish very specific character-driven blind spots so that we, the readers, can know things that the detective cannot. This happens a lot in Sherlock Holmes, and obviously it’s up to Watson to have that second pair of eyes. But in this book, the way it played out was that Ivy kept missing fairly basic things, that the reader would probably be able to figure out, and then later would facepalm and think, “Ohhh, that’s because my issues with my sister and our dead mother. Riiiiiiiiiiiight. Stuuupid.”

Ok, as a little bonus, I gotta include the video of this CRAZYPANTS art installation / stop motion animation that I ran across while researching something totally different. This film is apparently a tale of male friendship, told over many years (I am fascinated by male friendship–how do you dudes even function?) and is so strange and eery. So, voilà, with no comment at all, because I have not processed it or thought about it in the least, Graeme Patterson’s SECRET CITADEL:

But if you, reader, have any thoughts, PLEASE SHARE. Would love to discuss. What’s going on here?

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What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Conversation with Friends, Sally Rooney; Penguin Random House, 2018

Conversations with Friends

This is one of those books that make me doubt my own taste, but in a good way? Maybe? It was so hype-y and I’m always so eye-roll-y about hype-y books. And I read the description and thought “I wouldn’t like this book.” And I read reviews and thought “Neh. Not for me.” And then I checked out the e-book one night on a whim–because it appeared toward the top of the “now available” list and two pages in I thought “It’s okay” and then fifty pages later, when I still hadn’t gone to sleep, I thought “Huh. Weird. I guess I really like this book.”
I’m not sure what it is about the book that works. Technically it should be boring. If you’ve ever sat in a coffeeshop and listened to other people–who aren’t you–chat with each other, you know that the very concept of conversations with friends (who aren’t you), is boring. Add to this the fact that there’s nothing in this book that is anywhere outside the realm of fairly normal human experience. Confusion about who you love, confusion about morality, lots of talking about politics, fights with friends, tension with parents . . . It’s all very quotidien. But I guess that what makes it work is the extremely well-constructed characterization.

So here’s the love, like, meh-factor breakdown:
I loved Bobbi and Frances–their friendship is complicated and golden and if you heard them chatting in a coffeeshop, you would listen, even though they were talking about people and ideas you didn’t know.
I liked the story of the affair–the tension–conversational and physical–was well-described; I find most sex in books boring, and this was one of the few that really portrayed the way in which sex is a kind of conversation, without verging into either unnecessary eroticism or pointedly boring flesh-shuffling.
I was very “meh” about the portrayal of Women Over Thirty. It wasn’t offensive exactly but I think it’s sort of … lame to paint them into a corner of catty, insecure caricatures, without self-consciously confronting the fact that the main characters who were interacting with them–as well as the author who was writing them–are very much in their twenties.
Young women writers, DO BETTER. There’s a lot more to us than being bitter about the “old age” of the mid-thirties.

Continue reading “What I’ve Been Reading Lately”

Review: Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Conjure Women, Afia Atakora; Random House, March 2020

Afia Atakora’s debut novel, set in the rural South, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, is a complex exploration of the deeply held tensions and continual trials that infuse a small, isolated community of former slaves.

The story centres around Rue, who has inherited the position of midwife and healer from her mother, Miss May Belle. Practicing the kind of “practical magic” that keeps everyone healthy and sustains amicable relationships between members of the community, she is a solitary, stoic figure who quietly and unceremoniously binds this small group of families together.

After the death of their master, these formerly enslaved members of the plantation have continued to run things as as they’ve always been. But two events threaten to tear apart their relatively peaceful lifestyle.

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Review: Lakewood by Megan Giddings

Lakewood, Megan Giddings, Amistad, March 2020
Lakewood by Megan Giddings, Amistad: March 2020

When Lena Johnson is invited to participate in a research study that will pay all her bills and provide for a future that is beyond comfortable, it is an impossible offer to pass up. A college student whose grandmother passed away leaving a pile of medical bills, and whose mother, Deziree, suffers from a mysterious health condition that requires expensive care, Lena jumps at the chance to help contribute to the family’s survival.

But she quickly discovers that the experiments conducted at the research facility, located in a small midwestern town called Lakewood, are of a deeply strange and violent nature. Furthermore, all participants in the study are people of colour, whereas the researchers and observers are white.

In this deeply troubling novel, the treatment of marginalized peoples throughout American history is continually evoked, in particular, emphasizing the ways that black bodies have served, intangibly, as the site of exoticization and othering, and concretely, as subjects of violence.

The Great Lakes Shipping Company, the organization which operates the experiments, bestows a fake life upon Lena, to provide a front on those rare occasions that she is permitted to speak with her loved ones. Each day she receives a brief explanation of how she spent her time. In this fake life she learns Microsoft Excel, receives leadership training, and becomes involved in small office spats (who stole whose yogurt, and the like), while in her real everyday experiences, as a research subject, she undergoes various forms of torture, psychological and physical, while being forced to take round after round of mysterious pills. The most disquieting fact of all remains that no one who participates in these studies–not only its subjects but also a significant portion of those performing them–has any idea what the expected outcomes are, or what benefits they hope to provide.

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Some Notes on The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris

This year Santa sent a beautiful book to our family,* and I had to stop and write a few words about it because it has become a favorite evening ritual, and reading it aloud to our sons has made me stop and think about things like why we read aloud and how verbalizing certain things helps call them into being. Also other things like how woefully detached we are from the natural world and how we really need to just go ahead and buy that farmland already…

The Lost Words is a project that started as an indignant outcry. In 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary culled certain nature-related words from its selection, while those from…oh, let’s say…current media-driven culture were newly included. Acorn was rejected, celebrity added; weasel got the boot but vandalism found a place. While we all have hot takes of varying intensity, related to the yearly choice of words by the OED, there is something particularly offensive about this process of elimination occurring within the context of a dictionary for young people. First off, because we were probably less likely to hear about it (because really, who knows what’s going on the world of childhood education). And secondly, because the symbolic gesture of removing certain pieces of the imaginary from young people, those who need it most, and giving them instead a glut of words to describe a modern world in peril is just too much.

Children are themselves but they are also a metaphor for the depths of our collective imaginative potential. To see the world through the eyes of a child and all that . . . It is probably an unfair ask** of them, to be responsible for something of such magnitude. And yet here we are. So, to remove words from the dictionary widely used in their educational environments is to remove in some way the hope for our own imaginative potential as a society. It is to limit ourselves and our experience.

And so, from this vaguely dystopian tragedy of a story comes The Lost Words, with the conceit that it is not a children’s book or a book of poetry per se, but rather a “spell book” for calling the natural world back into being.

Continue reading “Some Notes on The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris”

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Hello there! Hope you are all enjoying a warm and wonderful holiday time, sharing good food and good stories with dear ones, baiting Santa Claus with sugar cookies, and maybe cracking the spine of that novel that’s been sitting on your shelf for the last six months…

As for my household, we are delightfully non-mobile this year, and looking forward to a quiet Christmas with no work, lots of time with the kids (our favourite holiday tradition is to remove all limits on sweets and screen time and let everyone pile into blanket-covered mush heaps on the couch for days on end, it is AMAZING), and hopefully some sledding. If we play our cards right, there may even be some time for reading books that don’t have pictures!

If you’re looking for some recommendations, for now or for the new year, here is a little glimpse onto my bookshelf.

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Reading Notes: Why Love Hurts by Eva Illouz

I’ve been slowly progressing through this remarkable book over the last couple of years. As an academic work that spans several fields–sociology, economic theory, culture studies, and literary theory (with a smattering of psychoanalysis)–it is fairly dense. So I’ve been picking it up here and there, reading a chapter and then letting it sit for a while. But, despite our casual-seeming relationship, it has certainly been my most recommended book throughout the last couple of years.

Why Love Hurts, Eva Illouz; Polity, 2012

I myself am currently living a happily-ever-after type situation, so why would I be reading a book about why love hurts? Well, the first response is that love, while being the subject of this book, is also the incredibly powerful lens through which the author examines social and economic functions. Honestly, I understand more about the free-market economy after having read about how we mate within it. The second response is that most of my friends who are not happily partnered are extremely unhappily participating in various mating rituals that they hate. And they hate them because they are degrading, debasing, unsatisfactory, capitalistic practices that are largely geared toward devaluing women. And that’s a tragedy. And I wanted to know about how that worked, since I also at one time had to go through these bizarre machinations and am left with scars and hauntings of great scope and variety. And the third response is simply that I’m kind of obsessed with love. Always have been, always will be. It comes from reading too much adult fiction in my preteen years but the damage is done and here I am.

So, the book is nominally about love, but it really touches on a range of topics, all related to how humans currently relate to each other in the context of romantic relations.

It is highly pessimistic in tone, as you might expect. Part of Illouz’s “Well, golly, and here we are, stuck in this mire and there’s no going back” attitude may be due to the fact that she is reacting, in large part, to the role of self-help culture and behavioural psychology in getting us into this mire in the first place.

To lend too much of a positive perspective to the situation would be to undercut her argument that a good old-fashioned positive attitude–self-love, self-care, YOLO, you do you–cannot fix social systems designed to torture the humans living within them. So look, it’s glass half empty kind of book. But then I’m a glass half empty kind of gal.

Why Love Hurts is composed of five main chapters, which can also stand alone to a greater or lesser extent, but which all come back to the question of why, in modernity, romantic love has come to be associated with certain specific forms of emotional suffering.

Continue reading “Reading Notes: Why Love Hurts by Eva Illouz”

Edward Clug’s Carmina Burana

Hi, how are you, I recently discovered that dance criticism has been dead since 2015 and I’m real sad about it.

Carmina Burana, Choreography: Edward Clug; Music: Carl Orff; Production: Grands Ballets de Montreal (October 2019)

How did I discover this very under-the-radar tragedy? I went to see Edward Clug’s Carmina Burana the other night–produced by Montreal’s Grands Ballets, along with another Clug piece, Stabat Mater on the program–and when I tried to read about the choreography later, the internet left me very uncharacteristically at a loss.

The first short review I found claimed that “music is the star” of the performances. Which I’m sure made any number of the incredibly talented dancers in the company, not to mention the choreographer, feel super warm and fuzzy inside… (To be fair, yes, the music is amazing, and yes, the Grands Ballets orchestra definitely upped their game and yes the solos were beautiful… Still…)
The second review focused on the fact that the choreographer’s main job lay in pulling this star-quality music away from the audience’s common associations with it (ie: big budget action films).
At which point I decided to go poking around in the French journals to see what they thought.
The Journal de Montréal review contained an interesting reflection on the significance of the massive ring, which formed the majority of the set design, along with lighting. In the choreography, dancers were both pulled to and repulsed by it, which makes sense, given that the circle itself represents the wheel of fortune (O Fortuna, velut luna, etc.). And really, what is one’s fate if not at times times attractive and at other times repulsive?
And Le Devoir focused on the sheer number of dancers on the stage, and the effect created by their simultaneous movement: “L’impact vient de la démultiplication, de l’effet produit par le grand nombre de danseurs. La beauté naît de voir un geste sur des dizaines de corps répétés et de la plus-value d’énergie que cette accumulation produit. C’est le levier chorégraphique principal qu’utilise le chorégraphe.”
Now, what’s special about the Devoir’s review is that it is pretty resoundingly negative. And that’s fine. And it was a well-written review with a distinct point of view that points out some of the stylistic (Carmina) and sociopolitical (Stabat) problems of the program. But what’s frustrating about this review is that it makes some great points, but it does not quite do the work of taking the ballet on its own terms, in order to judge whether it lives up to its own project. Yes, for example, some of the “humouristic” movements fell flat. I agree. But why did they fall flat? And why was there physical humour in a piece about the suffering of the Virgin Mary (Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater) at all?

Please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t think these pieces represent journalistic “fail” by any means, (maybe the first one). And we all know, from Rory Gilmore, how tough it is to review ballet. What I think has happened is that no one (or no one paid to write in a daily) really knows what’s going on in ballet/dance anymore. Which is to say, I’m not sure that anyone has any language for tying movements of the human body to meaning.

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Review: Away! Away! by Jana Beňová

Away! Away! Jana Beňová; Two Dollar Radio, 2018 (photo credit: Two Dollar Radio)

I had the great pleasure of reviewing Jana Beňová’s award-winning novella Seeing People Off a couple of years ago, over at Necessary Fiction. It is an excellent, genre-defying, language-experimenting work with a compelling woman at its centre. So I was very excited to pick up Away! Away! Which is similarly genre-defying, language-experimenting, and also driven by a woman character sorting through a love-life-liberty mire in a thirties-ish kind of way.

As you might have gathered from the title, the book is about forms of escape, both large and small. If you enjoyed Seeing People Off, as I did, this book will be pleasantly familiar. But it also shows a stronger emphasis on the prose-poetry form, and pushes the boundaries of what this form can do, narrative-wise. All of which is to say that, comparatively, this book is more abstract in terms of what (“actually”) happens, but perhaps even more precise in describing the impressions and feelings that accompany what happens.

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Update: Reading/Life

Hi there!

A quick update on what’s been going on around here…

I wrote my last post on March 31, 2018, which in dog years is basically a lifetime ago, and in human years is also a pretty long time. While I kept reading (oh, I read so many things) I was also caught up in a very busy chapter of my own life. Which left not a whole lot of time to report back on my findings in the literary field.

Well, my kids are now sleep-through-the-night years old, and I have settled in at the (new) job (I started a year ago), and it seemed like a great time to get back to writing about books which, let’s face it, is the only thing I would do with my time if my time were entirely my own. (Reader, it is not.)

Some info about where life has taken me since spring 2018:

Continue reading “Update: Reading/Life”