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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers

Dec. 2023 Reads and Assorted Further Reading

Patrick de Witt, The Librarianist

Until now, I hadn’t met a Patrick deWitt novel I didn't love, but this might be the one. He's generally a great storyteller and thoughtful creator of believable characters, and I stand by The Sisters Brothers (2011) as an evergreen recommendation to people looking for a good book.

This one, though. Not amazing.

First, I'm trying to get over the writer/editor’s oversight of mistaking "infer" for "imply" really early on in the story. To wit:

"Linus looked up innocently. 'How was I supposed to know not to say anything?'

'It was inferred.'

'You inferred nothing.'

'Decorum infers it.'"

Dude. WTF. I actually gave this whole exchange serious thought - trying to make the word "infer" work because surely such an obvious error wouldn't miss the eye of a professional editor, let alone writer. But you can't make it work. The words needed in each of those three statements are implied, implied, imply.

So I got a little wrapped up in this basic error and found it affected my ability to enjoy the story. 

Second, this is a story narrated by Bob Comet, a 71 year-old sad sack white guy whose life (despite being a librarian, the most exciting job ever winky face) is a marathon of boredom and passivity. Yeah. Never heard that one before.

Third, the supporting characters in the book are all so colourful, so much more exciting than Bob, that they read as caricatures of people, and distractingly so. The Shakespeare-esque cleverness of dialogue and wordplay in deWitt's earlier works just doesn't do it for me here.

Consider 11 year-old Bob, who runs away from home by sneaking onto a train. He's wise enough to know that just sitting down in a seat will not keep him hidden from ticket collectors, so instead he hides away in the corner of a sleeping compartment. He travels some distance before being joined in carriage by two older women named Ida and June who are itinerant "entertainers" well beyond their best years. Bob is a curiosity to them, and without asking permission, he follows the women to their destination, a ramshackle seaside hotel, also well past its best years. There he stays for a full 72 hours, meeting up with the hotel regulars, learning to play a drumroll for June and Ida's imminent performance, and wrangling their tiny dogs, Buddy and Pal. It all just…smacks of effort, man. The event that ultimately ends Bob's idyll away from home is the end of the second world war, which leads to a giant parade and the presence of a police officer who recognizes Bob from a missing persons report. Like June and Ida, the police officer is unrealistically wise and measured, keen to offer thoughtful guidance. The story doesn't share Bob's homecoming, and it's clearly incidental to the real point of that whole section of the book, which was to showcase the quirkiness of what was not even a very formative event in Bob's history. 

The story could have had depth, for sure. But honestly, it doesn't. It's a string of clichés (both plot and character) punctuated by a general lack of personal growth and reflection on the part of its main character. My advice? Read any other Patrick deWitt novel. It'll treat you better than this one does.

The first third or so of We Were Dreamers is not about Simu at all, but his parents, whose story is quite remarkable.

Liu's parents were both beneficiaries of an extremely competitive program sponsored by the Chinese government to provide post-secondary education not available to every citizen. They worked their butts off to become engineers, in the face of extreme poverty and distance from their families. They met and married, and Simu was born while their careers were still taking off. His parents' dream was to move the family to North America, where they understood the potential for success and achievement was limitless. But to make it happen, they had to leave the young Simu behind while slowly building their careers. Until the age of 5, Simu was raised by his grandparents while his father worked at Queen's University in Kingston, and his mother in distant Beijing. Liu speaks frankly about his confusion and trauma when, without warning, he is uprooted from his only home and moved to Kingston, Ontario.

There are many, many years of struggle, and Simu's desire to understand his new culture and become a regular Canadian kid routinely butts up against his parents' single-minded commitment to working hard to build a prosperous life. Their expectation is that Simu will become a math and science prodigy, like they were, and have a smoother and more immediately-prosperous life.

This expectation continuously torments Simu, who follows the path his parents desire for him after graduating from high school. He attends Western University and barely completes a degree in Business Administration. Having coasted through high school on charm and residual study skills from his youth, he arrives at Western ready to party it up and keep coasting. But, as it turns out, he's a garbage student headed for a career in accounting that he totally doesn't want. It's fascinating to read his descriptions of almost failing as an undergraduate; he really didn't think he'd have to work that hard to be successful. Also, until his post-graduation internship with Deloitte, he believes it'll be possible to continue working in a career he hates to legitimize his parents' investment in his future.

As is so often true when we try to avoid incontrovertible truths about ourselves, Simu's reckoning eventually finds him: he is fired from his job for (among many negligent behaviours) missing days of work to take on underpaid acting assignments.

Liu never suggests that the road from unhappy entry level accountant to Marvel superhero is an easy or quick one. He has to reconcile his desire for a happy and fulfilled life with his parents' well-earned expectation that he will be more comfortable and prosperous than they were because of their personal sacrifices. The emotional baggage of his early life causes many rifts with his parents, and for a long time he is dishonest with them about how invested he really is in acting.

The struggle to grow up and away from parental expectations is pretty typical; Liu's ability to explore the difficulty he faced in doing this is a beautifully told and painfully familiar story.

I know what you're thinking: Guuurl, exactly how deep is your love for Degrassi? Because yes, this is the second Degrassi alumni-written memoir I've read within a year, and maybe that's a bit weird.

I'm standing by my choice though. Granofsky's story is incredibly captivating, and actually ends pretty much as her Degrassi career is taking off, making it really only Degrassi-adjacent. Not that I need to make excuses...

Born in Ohio to 22-year old Jean Walker and 19-year old Stanley Granofsky, Anais was raised in essential poverty, having no idea that her paternal grandparents were one of the wealthiest Jewish families in Toronto.

Granofsky's lineage on both sides is fascinating. Her mom, the thirteenth of fifteen children, grew up in a two bedroom rural farm house. Having been told at a young age that she could never have children, Jean was surprised to learn, as a young college student, that she was pregnant. Her new boyfriend Stanley was none too thrilled to learn of Jean's surprise pregnancy, and encouraged her not to have the baby. She ignored him and persuaded him to commit to raising their child. Only when Stanley reluctantly brought the 8-months-pregnant Jean to Toronto to meet his parents did she realize that he came from an extraordinarily wealthy family. Said family though, was not super keen to learn that they were about to become grandparents to a mixed raced baby whose mother they'd only just met / learned the existence of.

Stanley was estranged from his parents and refused to ask them for financial assistance, assuring Jean that they'll find a way to support themselves. The couple moves in with Jean's family (yep, into the two-bedroom house) where Anais spends her early days.

Unsurprisingly, Stanley and Jean struggle mightily. Their relationship falters as Stanley, who had committed to life as a Sannyasin and had travelled to India while Jean was pregnant, decides the family should move to a California commune. Practically speaking, Stanley is a terrible father - often leaving Jean and Anais in pursuit of his Sannyasin mentor and never providing the financial support needed to raise a child. For many years Anais and Jean are alone, trying to make ends meet.

Despite her fractured relationship with Stanley, Anais's grandmother Shirley makes an effort to stay in touch. Once Jean and Anais have moved backed to Toronto and are living meagerly in a Parkdale boardinghouse, Shirley reaches out to invite Anais for a weekend at her Bridle Path mansion. This begins a routine of Anais living two lives - the weekday grind of her mother's poverty contrasting with weekends spent by the pool in Shirley's backyard. She even has a separate, Bridle Path wardrobe, intuiting that to bring the expensive clothes purchased by Shirley back to the Parkdale apartment would be an affront to her hardworking mother.

Anais is code-switching long before the term is commonplace, and this ability to blend into drastically different environments is part of what makes her finally find comfort in herself as an actor. By the time she's in her late-teens, Anais is supporting herself and her mother through her acting career, and defining the kind of life she'd like to live on her own terms.

It's a tremendous story written with a kind of clarity and weight that stayed with me long after I finished. Some of Granofsky's best childhood memories are formed at her YMCA daycare and summer camps - a good reminder of how important third-party professional child care is. Particularly memorable is a summer she spent at the Adventure Playground, "a massive building area for kids filled with a collection of lumber, tools, wooden blocks, truck tires and paint. The city also collected and delivered piles of wood that were scattered around the field. Hundreds of tools were stored in buckets...adults were expressly not allowed." This must have been the early 80s, which sounds late for such a feral and dangerous playground to exist, but there you go. Anais and her daycare friends fucking ruled that playground, building their own towers and creating structures that could shelter them from their chaotic lives.

I can't really recommend this book enough, but if you're still not sure, check out this excerpt of the book, published in Toronto Life in 2018.

Pamela Lee, Love, Pamela

Okay. This title was being offered at a deep discount by Kobo, and I impulsively added it in one of those late-night fill-your-cart situations. I'd read some recommendations and thought, surely there's an intriguing story in here?

Don't do it pals. The most interesting part of the book is how randomly Pamela became famous in the days before the internet: Her image was captured on a Jumbotron at a big sporting event and a bunch of people thought she was beautiful and contacted her to be a model. Within months, she was offered a job at the Playboy mansion, which she accepted. And the rest is history.

A lot of the book is poetry that I first skipped over, because I hate it when poetry is mingled into a narrative. Then I realised that the poems are there to move the narrative and I reluctantly read some. Lee had a rough childhood, with no small amount of physical and sexual trauma, and this is where her story is most compelling. But she spends very little time dwelling on these difficulties, for better or for worse. She is definitely a good mom to her two boys, ensuring they get the parental presence and stability her own childhood lacked. But towards the end of the book, when she's describing living large in Paris with her boutique dogs, I found myself remembering Keith Richards' memoir. It's a life story that similarly starts out riveting and devolves into unabashed love for his pet dog and an unironic and joyful description of making sausages with his extended family. No poetry in it, though, so it might have the edge.

Here are some books I might write about later? But even if I never do, you should for sure check them out.

Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead

Christina Sharpe, Ordinary Notes

Sayaka Murata, Life Ceremony

Alejandro Zambra, Chilean Poet

R.F. Kuang, Yellowface

Clare Dederer, Monsters

Thanks for being here and cheers to a whole new year of reading!

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