Tag Archives: Canada Reads

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night: Metaphorical Cats


Some people really like Heather O’Neill (e.g. apparently all of Canadian media and award committees). I am not one of those readers. Lullabies for Little Criminals predates the blog, but I remember thinking it was a bit overwrought. Enter The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, O’Neill’s second novel and a repeat effort to make me feel something profound by way of Serious last sentences for every chapter. These sentences have a kind of formula: Feeling/Abstract Noun + unusual metaphor + adjective + reference to a cat. I think these sentences feel pretty good about themselves. Continue reading


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Bone and Bread: Eating Disorders & Making Use of Life in Fiction

*caveat – I do quite a bit of thinking out loud in this post and don’t arrive anywhere elegant*

Out for dinner recently the table got to discussing the merits of fiction and nonfiction. I was (surprise) defending fiction for its imaginative invitation to empathy; my companion argued all fiction was telling the same story and that nonfiction did far better to educate. Our two friends weighed in on both sides.  We started talking about Annabel by Kathleen Winter and the misrepresentation of intersexed people and their experiences. I suggested, naively, ‘but surely the character is meant to be a metaphor,’ to which my companion noted that surely individual lives ought not be used for literary purpose. The conversation moved elsewhere. I haven’t stopped thinking about the question.

It’s certainly a question I’ve considered in memoir and biography: what are the ethics of using  the living in stories and in fiction? Of course in the case of Annabel, or the broader question we were discussing, it’s not a particular or ‘true’ individual being used for literary purpose, so much as an identity being used. In the case of Saleema Nawaz’s Bone and Bread it’s not an identity, but an illness: anorexia.

The novel follows two orphaned sisters Sadhana and Beena as they grow up in Montreal. Sadhana’s experience with an eating disorder shapes the sisters’ relationship as much as their loss of parents. Except the part I’m trying to figure out is the eating disorder functions both as a plot and character device, but also with thematic intent: what are we starving ourselves of when we live alone? (how) does art demand the diminishment of the self? how do we respond to circumstances beyond our control? The illness is misrepresented, even as it ‘gets right’ some aspects of the disease. But does it matter what it gets right (or not) about the real life illness? It’s not meant to be an educational, nonfiction exploration of the experience of an eating disorder; it’s meant to be an exploration of sibling love, control, secrecy and the limits of care. And it uses an eating disorder as a means to explore those questions. Perhaps the better question isn’t whether such representation and use should be allowed, but questions about how effectively and to what end.

As someone who experienced an eating disorder do I get to weigh in (ha) on these questions differently? (probably not) We should question how identities and experiences are being represented in fiction. These are not neutral activities; these representations shape how we understand and interact with others and our world. Where I think I come down is that the responsibility isn’t on the novel to get it right, so much as it is on us as readers to get the reading right. We need to read attuned to the fabrication, manipulation and use that character, plot and setting are being put. We need to be prompted to read a description of an eating disordered behaviour and ask ourselves (or others! or research!) whether such a behaviour might be ‘true,’ and if so, what does that mean to us? and if not, what does that mean to us (and the novel)?

There are many, many terrible novels that are terrible because they get so much of representing life, people and their experiences so incredibly wrongBone and Bread is not one of these novels. (I suppose I should actually comment on this book!). [The novel has strong and evocative description, a Can Lit insistence on its importance and Literary Merit (and this insistence has paid off: it is a contender for Canada Reads 2016!), a compelling family-drama plot. Its characters are a bit shallow and surprising in their actions. The Can Lit insistence is grating for the first forty page until you accept what’s happening to you and move on. Or perhaps the author relaxes and eases up on the similes (questions for another day).]

So yeah. I haven’t cracked this one. The novel I’ve figured out. Not so much these questions of the liberty afforded in fiction, the responsibility of readers and the literary consequences of misusing that freedom to invent, misrepresent or attempt to capture accurately. Good thing I have a book club tomorrow with my former students to figure this one out. Or you could tell me. Let me know your thoughts (as always).


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All My Puny Sorrows: What Do We Mean When We Say “A National Conversation” (About Assisted Suicide and Mental Illness)?

Screen-Shot-2012-10-15-at-13.38.53You’ve heard it before. The refrain that “it’s time to have a national conversation about _______.” The call from pundits, activists and politicians to engage the nation in a discussion about race, or poverty, or legalizing marijuana, or smoking, or texting-while-driving. Or assisted suicide. What is less often said is what we mean when we say “a national conversation.”

Imagine it. Imagine the nation (once you’ve sorted out what you mean by that) engaged in a conversation. How would it happen? Where would it happen? Who would be invited to bring their voice and their perspective? How would it shift beyond you presenting your point of view, me presenting mine a little bit louder, you returning with yours, louder still? How, in an era of social media feeds filled with identical opinions to our own, would we ever escape our own existing political and social persuasions? With the decline (disappearance?) of shared, public social spaces that invite the free interaction of people of different social, political and economic backgrounds, how do we have a national conversation beyond the echo chamber of ourselves?

Oh I know you’ve already sorted it out. You’ve realized this is a book blog and I’m an earnest (if irritatingly one-tuned) champion for the power of novels to make our individual and collective lives better. Yep. I think one of the few ways we have a national conversation about a particular subject is to read about it in a shared literature. And then talk about it with friends, at book clubs, in libraries and with strangers.

Picture me: I’ve just finished Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows. It’s a book about sisters, art, love, mental illness and assisted suicide. Our protagonist, Yolandi, summarizes the central problem of the novel:”She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.” In effect her sister, Elf, wants to die, and Yolandi wants to stop her from dying (or to make her want to live) (and these two things are different). Until Yolandi isn’t sure if she wants to stop her, or to make her. Maybe she wants to honour Elf’s deep, desperate, sincere and considered desire to end her life.

So I’ve just finished the book and I’m feeling very much like this is a book I need to talk about. And I’m in a bakery in little town and the woman behind the counter notices I’m carrying a book. She asks me about it, and I tell her “meh, it’s just okay, but I just finished an incredible book, All My Puny Sorrows, about [see the summary above]”. And we spend ten minutes (not that long really, but long enough – try it) talking about the central problem of the novel. She presents her view – one shaped by a Christian faith, her own experience with anxiety and a concern about abuse. I present mine – deep confusion, worry that ‘allowing’ assisted suicide for mental illness entrenches ideas of mental illness as an irrecoverable state, a committed belief in the importance of respecting individual’s choices (and, indeed, contributing to contexts where individuals might make their own choices). We talk and we listen and neither of us leave the conversation any more sure about anything.

I admit this experience is rare. Short of teaching novels (ah! another way we have a national conversation: the classroom!), I don’t often go around talking to other people about the books I’m reading (okay, you’re right, this blog definitely counts as me talking to other people about the books I’m reading). But I can’t put it any other way: All My Puny Sorrows demands discussion.

It is not an easy book. Other reviews have pointed out moments of humour, but I admit I missed these – or perhaps I just didn’t recognize them as moments of levity – caught up as I was in the… impossible (perplexing seems too small a word) experience of Elf, Yolandi and their family. I suppose the closest approximate to its humour would be the viral comedy set by Tig Notaro that layers tragedy upon tragedy until the sheer weight of the suffering can only be hilarious because otherwise would be to succumb.

Of course I’m reducing the book by saying it’s about assisted suicide and mental illness. It’s about a whole lot more. Questions of familial loyalty (what would you be willing to give for your family member?), the relationship between art/genius and suffering (that old trope), the ‘treatment’ (both in the clinical sense and the representational) of mental illness. The affiliative (friends, brothers-in-law and lovers) and filiative (sisters, mothers, father) relationships that not only shape our identity, but gather up the pieces of it in both hands and sort of cluster-squeeze us back together when we crumble apart.

One of the other questions that threads the novel is to what extent we inherit our suffering. The novel does not dispute the inheritance of mental illness, but it asks a different kind of question about inheritance of suffering. Instead of associating suffering in a one-to-one relationship with mental illness, the novel asks whether the psychological and physical pain of mental illness might be one kind of suffering that is passed on through genes, while another sort of suffering – that of loneliness, or alienation, or loss – might be another kind of suffering we – inadvertently – give to our children. The suffering in this novel is, then, both related to mental illness and much larger than mental illness. It is much larger than Elf, and lived by the other characters. It acknowledges and creates space for Yolandi’s suffering, her mother’s, Elf’s husband, and ours as readers.

It becomes a question then of when we – you and me as individuals – find our suffering (whatever its cause) to be so great that we do not want to live with it any longer. The novel asks us to stop and fully consider: What do we owe one another in these moments – these enduring moments that become a lifetime?

Miriam Toews has brought a compelling voice to the national conversation about assisted suicide. As we head into a federal election, we’re presented with another occasion to engage in national conversations. We can use elections as an opportunity to ask ourselves and our neighbours about what we want for and from our national government, and what we are willing to do and give to make this happen. You could do worse than to read All My Puny Sorrows and then talk to someone else about it. We might just end up having a national conversation.


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Annabel: Bridging Difference



The question in Kathleen Winter’s debut novel, Annabel, is not what is the novel about, but who. I don’t mean that because the protagonist Wayne is born intersexed and so the novel explores his dual identity as both Wayne and Annabel: both-and. No, I mean the question who is this novel about because while the text is ostensibly occupied with exploring Wayne/Annabel’s sense of identity, it is even more preoccupied with how his father Treadway, her mothers (both biological and metaphorical) Jacinta and Thomasina, and his friend, Wally navigate their identities in relation to one another.

In other words, the novel asks readers to think about how they, too, are formed and reformed in relation to others and how our ideas about who and how other people should be shapes our behaviour and sense of self. That is to say, how I understand myself will always be an understanding (pre)deteremined by who you are and how you (re)present yourself. The novel makes sure readers understand that this complicated way of being – in relation to others and in negotiation with the self – comes with material and psychological challenges and consequences. To be, to understand yourself, as flux and shaped by others and your surroundings, is painful and messy; it is also, in this book at least, the only honest way to live, the only way to live at all.

Beyond relations-between-people, the novel explores how self is shaped by place, history, occupation, heritage. By broadening the scope of focus from Wayne/Annabel’s discovery-of-self to encompass (in a much richer way) the negotiated identities of Jacinta, Wally, Thomasina and Treadway, the novel shows how it is not simply those with overtly or demonstrably complex identities who must work at identity, but rather is is all of us who must negotiate and navigate who we are, how we are received and shaped by the world, and how we want to be both seen and identified.

The novel achieves this broadened understanding  through shifting narrative point of view, but also through the deliberate choices and plot sequences of each of these characters that allow the reader to wonder who the novel is really about (and I suspect it’s meant to be about each of us as readers).

While I was clearly taken with the characters and thematic questions, the writing is a demonstration – for anyone taking their first creative writing class – of the proverbial “show, don’t tell” (don’t tell me someone is angry, show it to me by describing the way they make tea). Usually you want authors to do this sort of showing – you want character to be unfolded in action and scene, not in overt description. That said, this novel tipped just a little too far (for me anyway) in the “showing” in that it read – on occasion – like the first year creative writing exercise. A bit too showy. Which isn’t to say the writing is lacking – no, there are some poignant, beautiful descriptions. The showing of character through action really does make for rich scenes. All this to say it’s good writing, but good writing trying very hard to be great writing (without letting you think that it’s trying to be great writing) (perhaps this is commentary on Can Lit? Or first novels?).

The “bridge” metaphor that weaves through the text asks readers to think about the ways we each cross (mix, overlap, traverse and confuse) and join ourselves to ourselves, to one another and to our place/space. The novel operates as its bridge metaphor demands: it offers a bridge to think about and question our sense of self, our relationship to history and place, and our commitments to understanding and shaping one another.

Annabel was up for Canada Reads this year, and lost out to Joseph Boyden’s The OrendaI don’t know how I feel about national reading campaigns generally – I think there are probably some books that most people should read (what are these books? question for another post) and that the criteria for this proclamation of “you should read this!” should include whether the book tells us something about how to be… better to one another, how to contribute to our communities and how to understand ourselves and others. Annabel does these things very, very well. So while I don’t carry the same force as Jian Ghomeshi (alas) I do urge you to read Annabel and to think about who the novel is about (and to recognize, perhaps, that it’s also about you).


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