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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers

February 2022

Catherine Hernandez, Scarborough

Karen M. McManus, One of Us is Lying

Chanel Miller, Know My Name

Jordan Tannahill, The Listeners

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven, Last Night in Montreal

Catherine Hernandez, Scarborough

I will do my best to tell you about this book, which is incredible and devastating all at once. It’s received some recent admiration due to being a current Canada Reads choice and having been adapted for a film that also sounds amazing and has just been released.

The story is narrated by several children: Bing, a sweet Filipino boy; Sylvie, an Indigenous girl living with her mom in a shelter; and Laura, who lives with her racist, underemployed and alcoholic father. Each child’s story swirls around those of the others while also being intertwined with Ms. Hina, a newly hired community worker in charge of their school’s literacy enrichment program.

Because she’s a fellow teacher, Ms. Hina is especially charming to me. She is a tireless advocate for all of her students, inviting Laura’s dad to participate in their activities despite his clear apprehension about the fact that she is Muslim. She recognizes that Bing is gifted, and helps Bing’s mother navigate the administrative tasks needed to have him officially identified as such. She recognizes that Sylvie’s younger brother may have a disability, and works with the family to ensure he receives medical support. Interspersed through the narrative are emails from Ms. Hina’s supervisor offering nothing but passive-aggressively delivered bad advice: do not spend your whole budget providing breakfast, do not become too emotionally attached to the children; please use your free time to poster the neighbourhood and promote the program. Anyone who has worked for a small minded micro-manager will recognize the passive aggressive tone of these emails, and root for Ms. Hina as she firmly and respectfully pushes back by prioritizing her students and their families’ needs.

It is not easy to read about these quietly impoverished lives. Adults who should know better contribute to the neglect and marginalization of children who have no ability to speak for themselves. There is no way to read about Laura, Sylvie and Bing without seeing children we have all met who are like them.

Hernandez’s great strength lies in her ability to capture the voices of her young characters authentically. Bing’s longing to befriend a popular boy in his class, and Laura’s instinctive withdrawal into herself as protection against her father’s anger, are rendered with a sensitivity and realness that is, in my reading experience, rare. Their marginalization is but one aspect of who they are, but Hernandez does not shy away from reminding privileged readers about how intensely their disadvantages affect their day-to-day actions. It’s an extremely powerful book that I cannot recommend highly enough.

Margareta Magnusson, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

If you have met me, then you know this book is right up my alley. Nothing gives me more joy than a thorough decluttering. Do I also love Marie Kondo? Definitely! Do I believe that your possessions are weighing you down and getting in the way of your best life? Yassss kween!

In this book, Magnusson, who is “between eighty and one hundred years-old” addresses what the Swedish call “death cleaning.” Basically, re-homing most of your possessions so loved ones don’t have to sift through them after you’re gone. She acknowledges that it is not a speedy process. Also, while it does have immediate benefits for us as individuals, the true payoff is the gift we leave our loved ones by simplifying the management of our possessions after we die. I wouldn’t say there are any surprises in the process, and it is not all that different from the Marie Kondo method. Instead of asking whether a particular object sparks joy, Magnusson asks, “Will anyone be happier if I save this?”

This is not a long or challenging book, and its readability is enhanced by the many personal anecdotes Magnusson shares throughout. Read it before tackling that basement clean-out and I promise you will feel invigorated and powerful as you part with all your (cough cough) dead weight.

Karen M. McManus, One of Us is Lying

This is one of those books that I have watched students borrow from the library over and over. Say what you will about YA fiction, but any book with that many readers is doing something right.

One of Us is Lying opens in the detention room of a California high school where a group of five students - Bronwyn, Simon, Cooper, Nate and Addy - have been assigned because cell phones were found in their bags, in contravention of the school’s no phone policy. (So quaint! A school with a no phone policy) The students all know one another, but aren’t exactly friends. Intriguingly, all claim they have never before seen the phones found in their backpacks.

Simon, who runs the school’s gossip app called “About That” is in the middle of lecturing everyone else about how they are all stereotypes of high schoolers (imagine The Breakfast Club) when he pauses to take a drink of water. Immediately after drinking, he suffers a fatal allergic reaction to traces of peanut that appear to have been intentionally placed in the cup he used. The rest of the story revolves around the mystery of who is responsible for Simon’s death. Simon’s role as resident publisher of gossip means he has a lot of enemies, and we discover that he knew deeply held secrets about each of the other four students in detention that afternoon. It’s all blackmail material for sure. In the eyes of the police, they are all suspects, and despite their differences, the four find themselves working together to try to discover who was really responsible for Simon’s death.

There are many twists and turns in this story, and at times I doubted that the various digressions were going to resolve themselves without veering into the land of cliché. The strength of the storytelling lies in its characters, and I appreciated that our protagonists were able to reflect on and grow from the unexpected revelation of their deeply held secrets. Sure, the gossip app pries against willing belief (has anyone actually seen such a thing outside of Gossip Girl?) and it’s unusual for teenagers to do the job of police work better than the police. But, overall, the narrative holds together, and you’d have to have a cold, cold heart not to be rooting for each of the jock, the brain, the princess and the bad boy by the end of the story. Your fifteen year old friends will understand.

Chanel Miller, Know My Name

You may not know Chanel Miller, but you probably read her victim impact statement, which went viral in 2016 after she read it at convicted rapist Brock Turner’s sentencing.

Through the trial and for long afterward, Miller was known only as “Emily Doe,” an “unconscious woman” Turner assaulted behind a dumpster at a Stanford university frat party. The pseudonym is meant to protect her, but its byproduct is that it also erases who she is. In telling her story, Miller not only (re)asserts her identity but reclaims a narrative that had cast her as an anonymous victim.

Forgive the digression, but it feels important to share that I’ve spent a lot of my life being angry about how victims of sexual assault are treated by the law. What other crime asks victims to recount their own behaviour as a way of determining the cause of the crime? Carjacking? Nope. Attempted murder? Nope. Mugging, shoplifting, aggravated assault? Nope, nope, nope. Throughout her trial, Miller is required to repeatedly describe a) how many drinks she had the night of the assault, b) how many times in her life she’d had so much to drink that she blacked out, c) whether she had a boyfriend, d) how committed she was to her boyfriend, and e) of course, what she wearing that night. The character of her rapist, who, it must be said, was also drunk, is not questioned in the same way. Instead, his potential as an Olympic swimmer is shared, along with testimony from former teachers and ex-girlfriends and family members about what a good guy he always seemed to be. The injustice of this is so commonplace that the world takes it for granted, which is the cause of my eternal rage.

MIller acknowledges what some might call the “luck” of her situation, that two (male) grad students happened to be cycling by while her assault was happening. They stopped and intervened, chasing Turner away and calling the police. The existence of these (male) witnesses provides credibility to her testimony, but still does not prevent Turner’s defence attorney from suggesting that Miller consented to what is characterized as a romantic interlude with a stranger on the ground behind a dumpster.

So much of what happens in the trial seems to be a result of accidental or random events. When Miller wakes up in hospital the morning after the assault, no one explains to her what happened or why she is there. Instead, she is presented with consent forms for a rape kit. There is no legal counsel available to explain what she is consenting to, or to guide her through the process of pressing charges. No doctor explains that she is in shock, and that she will likely experience post traumatic stress when she leaves the hospital. Her primary concern is to ensure her sister is okay when they are finally reunited, and to keep the assault a secret from her parents. Much later, a parole officer who is working to determine a reasonable sentence for her assaulter, calls to get her input. Again, no legal counsel is offered to her before this conversation, and her conflation of the words “jail” and “prison” suggest to the parole officer that she does not wish for Turner to have a prison sentence, rather she wants him to be rehabilitated. Hard not to point out how extremely incidental Miller is to the process of applying justice in this trial.

Miller is an incredibly capable writer, and her recounting of these events, plus her ability to contextualize them into a bigger picture of the world’s misogyny, make this a very important book. If you doubt the commitment of institutions to believing that women are the cause of their own assaults, I invite you to consider how Stanford University first absolved itself of responsibility for the assault, then offered compensation, but only on their own terms. I offer you what Turner’s father said of his (convicted rapist) son’s sentence: it was a steep price to pay “for a little bit of action.” I offer you Miller’s own victim statement, which clearly delineates the many ways our justice system is designed to re-victimize survivors of assault, and to discourage them from seeking justice.

Please read this book.

Lindy West, The Witches Are Coming

I did not read Lindy West’s series of essays after Know My Name, but I should have. It is, as Caitlin Moran might say, “strident” in its feminism, extremely biting in judgment and laugh out loud hilarious. West, known for her previous work Shrill, and the excellent television series based on that book, has a low tolerance for bullshit and I admire that about her very much.

In her opening essay, West writes about an encounter with a generic bro she calls “LarryBarry” at a bar. LarryBarry is bitter about how difficult it is to approach women in bars or while dancing, because they aren’t so interested in being approached while enjoying themselves in those places. Imagine! Their sensitivity has really been harshing his buzz, so much so that he doesn’t even try to enter the dance floor anymore, preferring to nurse his beer like a sad sack and complain about women to strangers. West observes, “It seems that a lot of men are confusing being asked not to violate other people’s sexual boundaries with being forbidden to participate in basic human activities such as dancing, dating, chatting, walking around, going to work and telling jokes.”

While at times she veers into the realm of indulgence (no one needs a feminist analysis of the movies Clue and Reality Bites) and while it is definitely true that she does not always connect the dots between general sexism and the effect of patriarchy on folks of colour, West is always funny and always sharp. Her exploration of the Seattle area Buy and Sell Facebook page, for example, with its grassroots approach to reparations, is well worth your time. The world is a ridiculous place, she reminds us; we should laugh at it. Or perhaps, like witches, cackle even as it burns.

Jordan Tannahill, The Listeners

When you visit the HarperCollins promotional page for this book, take a moment to notice the names of the writers who offer testimonials of praise for it: Emma Donoghue, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Ian Williams, Heather O’Neill. You don’t have to take my word for how good this book is; many Canadian literary superstars can vouch for it too.

Set in a generic American suburb, The Listeners focuses on the story of Claire Devon, a high school English teacher who wakes up one day aware of a persistent humming sound that no one else can hear. Her family assures her it must be nothing; how could it even exist if they don’t hear it? Everyone assumes it will pass.

The hum is a real phenomenon - you can check out people’s accounts of hearing it here - which makes this story even spookier. Side effects of hearing the hum include migraines and insomnia, but the most distressing impact on Claire’s life is the fact that no one believes her experience is real. When she discovers that Ryan, one of her students, also hears the hum, they quickly bond, validating each others’ experience and spending more time together than is professionally advisable. Processing the hum becomes Claire’s primary focus at the expense of her job and her family, and here the reader is challenged to decide on whether the hum is real or a metaphor. It could represent so many real life events, addiction, a mid-life crisis, depression, these are all things that separate us from our loved ones and cause us to make foolish decisions. Claire finds a community of people who also hear the hum, and their secretive weekly meetings become a lifeline for her, while at the same time further isolating her from her friends and family. It is no exaggeration to say the hum takes over her life.

It is easy to see why Claire’s husband and daughter are exasperated by her behaviour, especially her clearly inappropriate closeness with her student Ryan. They want to help her, but they don’t understand why she can’t simply live her life the way she used to, before the hum.

There is nothing more existentially challenging than the life event that takes you away from who you thought you were. In connecting Claire’s break from reality to a sort of real but very difficult to believe phenomenon, Tannahill creates an invitation to readers to reflect on what it is that defines them. How easy it is for one tiny element of your existence to take over the whole thing, altering everything you do and everything you are. Claire is not exactly Gregor Samsa, waking up to find herself transformed into a giant cockroach, but the effect of the hum on her identity is no less devastating. It’s a fascinating premise, artfully articulated in this book.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven, Last Night in Montreal

I was inspired to reread Station Eleven after watching the series based on it. Though the series is very different from the book, still it captures the story’s essence in such a rare and authentic way that I had to revisit the book to be reminded of that magic. It’s a masterpiece that weaves together deeply memorable characters with a fictional graphic text (called “Station Eleven”) that unites them and their experiences. It’s fucking great. Read it.

Last Night in Montreal is one of Mandel’s earlier works and while it is also very good, it lacks the polish of Station Eleven, (2014) or The Glass Hotel (2020). This is not so much a critique as a reminder that, as my wise friend Martin says, “everyone has their Pablo Honey.”

At the centre of the book is Lilia who, as a child, was abducted by her father in the middle of the night and who spent the next ten years on the lam with him, traveling throughout the U.S., never staying in any place long enough to be recognized and detained by authorities. As an adult, Lilia is haunted by the fact that she has no memories of her life before the abduction. Her father was kind to her, and it is suggested that the kidnapping was actually a rescue from an abusive situation. When we meet Lilia, she is an adult about to leave her boyfriend Eli, not because she’s unhappy with him; she simply cannot remain in one place for any length of time.

For years after the abduction, Lilia’s mother employed Christopher, a private investigator, to help track her down, and this man becomes obsessed with finding Lilia. He sacrifices his family relationships, weirdly abandoning his own daughter Michaela, (who is the same age as Lilia) in order to search for the missing girl.

Here’s where I wanted a more developed story. Like many a Murakami protagonist, Christopher’s ability to set aside Michaela’’s needs in favour of his work is not well explained. He’s not dumb, yet remains unable to reflect on how his actions are impacting his family. His wife, always distant, ultimately leaves him for someone else, and their daughter is essentially left to raise herself. Christopher and his wife met in their youth as circus performers (cue Papa was a Rodeo) and inexplicably forbade Michaela from working as a performer. This further drives her away from them, into a life on the fringes where she must hide her talent for tightrope walking. So few details are provided to explain their motives that the characters’ actions remain, well, unbelievable.

Eli is similarly compelled to search for her when she leaves him. He empties his bank account to travel from Brooklyn to Montreal, acting on a mysterious clue sent to him by Michaela. Like Christopher, he is obsessed with finding where Lilia is and understanding why she left. Michaela, for her part, has grown up in Lilia’s shadow and is driven by anger and bitterness to expose her.

Like Station Eleven, this story is told in several timelines, and many different locations. It makes use of a variety of compelling and unique narrators to unravel its central mystery. And while Last Night in Montreal may lack the polish of her later publications, Mandel’s talent for building a layered narrative is clearly at work. It is well worth checking out.

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