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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers

March 2022 Reads

Emily Fridlund, The History of Wolves

Phillip Roth, American Pastoral

Marissa Stapley, Lucky

Octavia Butler, Kindred

S. Bear Bergman, Special Topics In Being Human

Katriona Chapman, Follow Me In

Brene Brown, Atlas of the Heart

Emily Fridlund, The History of Wolves

This is such an unusual book! The protagonist, named Madeline but called “Linda, or Commie, or Freak” at school, is fourteen and lives on a farm that used to be a commune. At some point when she was younger the commune disbanded and only Linda’s parents stayed on the property. At school, but also in the world, she is an outsider, judged because of her parents’ actions, and mistrusted because of her difference.

At first, the story seems like it’s going to be about Linda’s interaction with her new history teacher, Mr. Grierson. He shows her kindness and encouragement, which enamours her, and causes her to become kind of obsessed with him. Grierson, though, has his eye on a different classmate, and it is ultimately revealed that he’s engaged in a sexual relationship with that student. Weirdly, Linda is not only unsurprised to learn this, but, having intuited Grierson’s ability to ignore professional boundaries, has challenged herself to seduce him, thinking his earlier kindness represents a sexual interest in her.

Linda’s preoccupation with Mr. Grierson occurs early on in the story. Strangely, it does not have a lasting effect on Linda’s life. Indeed, she carries on, barely altered.

Later on, a young family moves into the house across the lake from Linda’s place. She meets four-year-old Paul and his mother Patra (short for Cleopatra) while out on a walk. Patra and Paul seem lonely in the absence of Paul’s father Leo who is away at a teaching job in town. Shortly after their first meeting, Patra hires Linda to babysit Paul, and the three become close.

Linda is socially inept, and does not seem to be aware that her behaviour sometimes imposes on Patra and Paul’s life. She stays at their place for long stretches of time, enjoying the kind of warm and affectionate family life which she hasn’t experienced since the commune disbanded. Leo’s return for the summer disrupts the coziness of the house, and we aren’t sure if we should be suspicious of Leo because he says and does strange things, or if Linda’s perception of him as strange is a result of resenting his presence. It’s both, as it turns out.

Fridkund’s storytelling is excellent, and at the core of all the book’s weirdness is a genuine mystery, slowly revealed and equally slowly solved. Linda’s character doesn’t really change or grow, which we know because at times she narrates from the present, as an adult reflecting on these events from her youth. The adult Linda is still odd and unsatisfied with her life. It’s a fascinating tale, with a protagonist you probably won’t like, but who also won’t be easy to forget.

Phillip Roth, American Pastoral

OMG, Phillip Roth. World’s whitest white dude.

I’ve been feeling like I should read some Phillip Roth ever since Hannah from the TV show Girls chose one of his books to teach her Gr. 8 class. Apparently people love him? Personally, I take more of the view of this Atlantic writer, who observed in his 1997 review that “American Pastoral is a relentlessly mental book.” And by “mental” I mean ridiculous.

Can Philip Roth write? Oh yeah he can. Like David Foster Wallace he can explode a single second of action into multiple pages of description and reflection. Unlike DFW, though, he’s not funny at all when he does this. And the cumulative effect of 800 pages of intensely pointless speculation is, well, not great.

But let’s start at the beginning. American Pastoral was published in 1997, which is too late for the kind of sexist depictions of women it contains. Its narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, is barely present, except to introduce the story’s real star: Seymour Levov, also known as “the Swede,” admired high school athlete and older brother of Zuckerman’s school friend Jerry. “The Swede” is Jewish, but has earned his nickname by hardly looking like a Jew at all. They all went to school together in the 1940s, where the Swede stood out as resident golden boy. Attending his forty-fifth high school reunion, Zuckerman learns that the Swede passed away recently of prostate cancer and this somehow inspires Zuckerman to manufacture the Swede’s entire life story, including bizarrely specific details about his wife’s beauty pageant experience and his ultimate estrangement from his daughter. The manufactured story (I mean, all stories are manufactured, but that’s not a philosophical motif entertained here) is the content of the book.

So detailed is the telling that you kind of lose sight of the fact that the whole story happens in Zuckerman’s imagination. And gosh, poor Swede! Just a single generation out from his parents’ immigration and hard won success in building a glove factory in Newark, and their immigrant success story loses all its shine in the face of his despair. From outside he is still a golden boy, but he holds on the burden of their expectations for him like Atlas holds up the world. The expectations define him and torture him all at once.

The Swede’s central conflict involves his daughter Meredith, a 1960s teenager who rejects the capitalist vision her father has spent his life sustaining. Even though they were very close when Merry (as she is known) was a child, she ultimately ends up estranged from her parents, squatting in abandoned New York City factories with a crew of counterculture hippies and renegades. The Swede’s life is destroyed when Merry, under the influence of her new friends, plants a bomb in her town’s post office, killing a beloved local physician. The Swede cannot understand why a daughter of his, so privileged and so loved, would resort to such violent actions. Merry goes into hiding and the Swede does not see her again until many years later.

As much as the Swede claims to be confused over Merry’s actions, to me it is clear that he has never tried to understand her. Additionally, there’s a super creepy scene where a pre-teen Merry cozies up to her dad in the front seat of their car, driving home from a swim. She asks him to ‘kiss her like he does Mother’ (ew) and he not only rejects her, but makes fun of her stutter while doing so. Throughout the interaction he is reflecting on how her body has recently changed, observing her breasts and legs (double ew). Let’s take a moment here to remember that Zuckerman is the teller of this story and has decided that this particular event is part of the Swede’s history. It gave me pause, honestly, to consider why he might include this detail. Does he think it’s a common experience between daughters and fathers? Because it’s not. Was he intending to show that the Swede’s unconditional love of his daughter should be called into question, not because of the pedophilic overtones of what the Swede is thinking, but because he makes fun of her stutter? It’s kind of messed up, is all I can say.

It’s clear to me, even if not to the Swede himself, or to Zuckerman, who’s making all this up, that the Swede will never see past his own perspective. As a result, Merry is not well understood by him, and this is part of why she rebels against them and against the civility they claim to believe in.

If you like your female characters to be two-dimensional then this is the book for you! If you like your white guys to be long suffering losers who still somehow have loads of cash and many friends then yeah, this is the story you want. Personally, I’m going to pass on this Pulitzer Prize winner, and all his other books, and go read some stuff about folks who aren’t assholes.

Marissa Stapley, Lucky

This book, which I borrowed from the pile of books left behind by other travelers at our Dominican Republic resort, is, in the truest sense, a beach read. Mostly because I read it at the beach, but also because it’s an enjoyable, easy read. Lucky is a competently written tale of dishonesty and redemption with enough cliff hangers and hope sprinkled throughout to keep you reading.

The titular Lucky is abandoned as an infant on the steps of a convent. Before the nuns can take her into their care, she is ‘rescued’ by a man who claims to be her father, and who raises her while living a life of crime. Not formally schooled, she is trained in the art of petty crime. When the story opens, the grown up Lucky has just successfully pulled off a million dollar heist with her boyfriend Cary. Unfortunately (and also predictably, on account of how you can never trust a grifter) Cary takes the money they were going to retire on and leaves Lucky alone in a Las Vegas hotel room, forced to elude the police and get back on her feet alone.

Adding to the general messiness of Lucky’s journey out of trouble is the fact that she possesses a lottery ticket. Purchased on a whim the ticket is a winner worth 17 million dollars. Except, bummer! She can’t cash it without revealing her identity.

Lucky is full of excitement, and if you were so inclined you could dwell for a little while on the irony of her name. Or you could wonder about whether a grifter can ever truly be reformed. Or, if you’re me, you wonder where the heck people get all their fake IDs.

Honestly, though, don’t overthink it. This is a book for getting sucked into while you lie in the sun with a beer in your hand. It’ll make a good movie.

Octavia Butler, Kindred

I am not what you would call a fan of speculative fiction or sci fi, but I loved this book. Set in 1976, its protagonist is a Black woman named Dana, a writer who has just moved in with her white boyfriend Kevin. As they are unpacking, Dana suddenly becomes dizzy, and unable to focus on her surroundings. When she regains consciousness, she is on the banks of a river near a plantation in pre-Civil War Maryland. A red-haired boy is drowning, and Dana wades into the river to save him. As she resuscitates him, the boy’s mother attacks her and accuses her of killing her son Rufus. The father, also nearby, aims his gun at her, and then she slowly fades out of consciousness again, awaking back in her apartment in the present day. Back at home, she discovers that she is a distant relative of Rufus’s.

This relationship and the initial time travel event establish Dana’s ongoing connection to Rufus. Each time his life is in danger, she is transported from her contemporary California home to his family’s plantation, where she intervenes in whatever is happening to save his life. You may well ask: how often can a rich white kid’s life actually be in danger, even in 1815? Good call, but Rufus is exactly the kind of short sighted reckless human who is very frequently in mortal danger.

Being Black, Dana is always in danger on the plantation. Thinking on her feet, she explains that she is a free woman, which is why she is dressed so oddly and has arrived alone. Because she never knows how long she’ll stay in Rufus’s timeline, Dana must integrate into plantation life, always conscious that without Rufus’s advocacy for her she would be a slave like all the other Black folks on the farm.

She travels between her own time and Rufus’s over several episodes, once taking Kevin with her when he grabs her as she is transitioning through time. Kevin, who is white, is shocked by what he sees in Maryland, but, crucially, cannot experience the danger at the same level as Dana. Nor does he completely understand her enduring outrage, believing that since she isn’t herself a slave, she should be coping better. Kevin’s struggle to understand Dana’s fear and anger is powerfully rendered. He is exactly the kind of white saviour we see in present day conversations about race - the sensitive smart guy who wants to help but at the same time simply doesn’t get what Black folks are all worked up about. Things are better now than they used to be - isn’t that enough? Because she loves him, Dana takes time to explain what she’s feeling to Kevin, but she is also frustrated and dismayed by his lack of understanding that the only thing stopping Rufus’s family from selling her into slavery is the fact that she consistently stops him from dying.

At one point in the story, Dana and Kevin are stranded in the past for five years. When they are finally reunited in their present, Kevin struggles to readjust to his former life. It’s perhaps not that he prefers the past, but he certainly has become accustomed to the status his whiteness affords him in 1815. Dana, terrified that at any moment she could be called back to Rufus’s side, struggles to reckon with Kevin’s feelings. Rightly, she perceives them as a betrayal of her.

First published in 1979, Kindred’s language is a bit dated, but its themes are remarkably contemporary. Butler creates not just an engaging and well written story, but an authentically nuanced and unflinching indictment of white supremacy and its enduring effects. It is a great book.

This is a super sweet graphic novel about how to be a civil human in this complicated world. Bergman writes beautifully about how to be genuinely kind to others, how to honour their identities and their pronouns, how to take criticism and how to apologize respectfully when you have made a mistake. The section on how to try new things even when they are hard is especially effective. In it, Bergman swaps drawing duties with the illustrator, Saul Freedman-Lawson, who takes a turn at writing the text. Bear’s drawings are not good, but they show us something really important: it’s possible to do things we didn’t think we were capable of, and to do them competently enough to get by.

And if those aren’t words to live by, I don’t know what are.

My sweetie found this book to be cloying and pedantic, so if you are a particular kind of cynic, it might not be for you. Consider yourselves warned.

Katriona Chapman, Follow Me In

Another graphic novel, this one is a memoir. In it Chapman that details her time spent travelling through Mexico with her boyfriend Richard in the mid-aughts.

The story unfolds slowly, starting with a meeting that Kat and Richard have years after the trip. We don’t know it at the beginning of the book, but while they were together, and throughout their travels, Richard was an alcoholic. They are meeting because Kat wants to ensure he is okay with her telling the story and including his experience with alcoholism in it.

The appeal of the story is its comprehensiveness. First, it is a guide to Mexico’s many historical and architectural wonders. Kat and Richard commit to many months of travel, which means they are able to genuinely immerse themselves in the country’s various cultures. Second, Kat does not reveal Richard’s alcoholism, nor its effect on her, all at once. Rather, these details unfold slowly. Most of the time, it’s easy to forget that Richard has a drinking problem, since he is very rarely shown to be drinking or drunk. The emerging effect of this is reflective, I think of Kat’s initial coping mechanism throughout her time with Richard. To ignore the problem is a way of pretending that it doesn’t exist, and to keep it separate from her day to day life and happiness. Such an approach can never be sustainable, of course, and Kat’s framing of the story with her contemporary self reminds us that she and Richard have both moved on from who they were during this trip.

It’s a gorgeous and powerful journey. I really really recommend it.

Brene Brown, Atlas of the Heart

I have a real love for Brene Brown and her ability to show how and why all our feelings are important and must be acknowledged. She’s successfully combined quantitative, academic research with conversational real talk in all of her books, and this one is no different, even though it looks and feels like a coffee table book.

In fact, one of my kiddo’s friends was visiting and picked this book up from our coffee table, excited to have a look. After opening it, she said, disappointed, “Oh. It’s not actually an atlas.” So let’s get that out of the way.

It’s not actually an atlas.

It’s a comprehensive encyclopedia of feelings, categorized by the times when we have them (“Places We Go When Things Aren’t As They Seem” is the name of the chapter that deals with the emotions we experience as a result of surprises). It all sounds extremely corny and maybe unnecessary, but I am here to tell you it’s suuuper good. In each section I was able to recognize my own emotional responses, name them clearly, and think about whether they were or were not helpful to me in those moments. Is it important to be able to do this? Brene Brown thinks so, and I do too. If we can name and understand our emotions, we can know ourselves in a way that improves our ability to function in this unpredictable world, filled as it is with unpredictable people and situations.

What Brown presents here is a guide that helps us to understand our emotions and why we have them. Friends, this knowledge is power. Go get it.

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