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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers

Solstice 2021 Reads - for the long long nights

Updated: Jan 29, 2022

Ian Williams, Disorientation

Jonathan Franzen, Crossroads

Ian McEwan, Nutshell

Jesse Wente, Unreconciled: Family, Truth and Indigenous Resistance

You may recognize Jesse Wente as the longtime cultural critic and movie reviewer on CBC’s Metro Morning. He has also worked with the Toronto International Film Festival, been appointed chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, and was named the first ever executive director of the Indigenous Screen Office. These are all impressive accomplishments; however, my most striking memory of Wente is his 2017 conversation with Matt Galloway about a Hal Niedzviecki’s op-ed published in Write magazine. This issue was meant to highlight Canadian Indigenous writers, and indeed contained many great ones. Unbelievably, it also contained Niedzviecki’s editorial, which suggests that writers of fiction are always making stuff up, and worrying about whether they have accurately captured characters belonging to cultures other than their own is a waste of time. Writing outside of one’s (white) culture should be encouraged rather than avoided. In fact, there should be a prize awarded for it: The Appropriation Prize!

In his conversation with Galloway, Wente's response to the original piece of writing, and then to the embarrassing number of other white people working in publishing and writing who spoke up in support of it, is a master class in wisdom and restraint. He speaks of the power of stories and the responsibility of their tellers to be respectful, his voice breaking over the crass ignorance of wealthy white media figures posting on Twitter that they will pledge money to support an actual Appropriation Prize. It’s an extraordinary and powerful moment, one I have never forgotten witnessing. I knew that the premise of the editorial was offensive, and that anyone using it to defend free speech was likely a white guy feeling defensive about giving up his privilege, but what I had not dwelled on was the genuine and lasting pain such casual and flippant actions caused Indigenous communities. Not only could Wente’s voice not be denied, but he reminded the world of whose voices most needed to be centred in this ‘controversy.’

Reading Unreconciled is an equally powerful experience. By weaving together personal memoir, family history, and contemporary events, Wente’s narrative, like all great memoirs, is both personal and universal. From a very young age he was both a lover of movies and an observer of his own outsiderness in white Canadian culture. His maternal grandmother, Norma, attended Residential School in Spanish, Ontario, and her experience there reverberates through Wente’s family story. Like all students of residential schools, she was taught to feel ashamed of her identity, and this shame was, by design, passed on to her children and grandchildren. Wente’s story is a reclamation of his Anishnaabe identity, in honour of Norma and for the legacy of his own children.

Wente’s love of movies was inspired when he saw Star Wars at the age of three, later describing the movie as “a gateway for me to a whole world of wonder and amazement in storytelling.” His emphasis on storytelling as a tool for asserting identity is the focus of the many anecdotes related in this book. Particularly satisfying is his exploration of the movie Avatar, a film premised on the building of a colonial society complete with Indigenous victimhood and white saviourism. Wente understands that his experience viewing Avatar as an Anishnaabe critic will absolutely be different from the experience of his white colleagues. In writing this particular review, his personal and professional identities merged. His review tears down the movie’s colonial framework, exposing its inherent racism. Further, he shares this anecdote to show that centuries of assimilative practises and racist policies have not succeeded in silencing Indigenous truths. More importantly, white Canada, with its insistence on the importance of reconciliation, will have to do better to show there is integrity in our talk.

You should for sure read this book. And then right away, you should read this next one:

Ian Williams, Disorientation

Ian Williams is often the only one of his kind in a crowd. The only Black person in his Vancouver neighbourhood. The only Black person in his high school English class. The only Black person on the city bus, in the parking garage or at the grocery store. He is persistently and conspicuously the Only. All the time.

It is disorienting. Take for example, his tale of moving from Vancouver to Toronto. He arrives weeks before his possessions, and the moving company he’s hired is slow to respond to queries about where all of his stuff is. He spends weeks waiting in an empty apartment. “Are they bad movers or racists?” is the question he asks, knowing it could be either or both. During this time he conducts an online interview with Margaret Atwood, through which she expresses concern over his situation. She offers to help by bringing over some food or calling the moving company herself. Does she assume she has more power because she’s wealthy? Or is it because she’s white? Or is she just being nice? Should he be offended or grateful? Politely Canadian, Williams declines both offers and lets the scenario stand for what it is: an unsettling reminder of how his Blackness defines his position in Canadian society, through every interaction he has with other people, every single day.

Williams provides a concrete, no less disorienting example of racism in relating his friend Pierre’s experience of being pulled over by the police for speeding.The first question Pierre is asked by the officer, who keeps his hand on his holstered gun through the entire interaction, is, “Is this your car?” The officer interrogates Pierre, not allowing him to speak up to explain that he was passing another car, which is why he was speeding, or to point out the many cars barreling past them going much faster than he was. The officer asks Pierre where he was going, where he worked, where he studied, what his immigration status is. “I had already given him my licence and insurance,” Pierre explains, “Could I have those if I was here illegally?” The traffic stop becomes outrageously high stakes, escalating to Pierre’s car being impounded, despite his compliance with every one of the police officer’s requests. These are what everyday interactions look like for Black people, Williams reminds us.

In the chapter entitled, “Disorientation,” Williams orients one passage perpendicular to the main text, and another completely upside-down. These sections require the reader to physically turn the book in order to understand. It’s an effective reminder that even in ordinary situations, the ones white people take for granted, Williams is never quite at ease. His chapter called “Ten Bullets on Whiteness” clearly articulates all the ways that whiteness preserves its own power, through its own preoccupation with race and “otherness”.

Again and again Williams reminds white readers that his very existence is defined by structures beyond his control. It is haunting. It cannot be ignored. You should absolutely read this book.

Jonathan Franzen, Crossroads

I’ve been a Franzen fan from the very beginning. Say what you will about white guys and their bullshit (trust me, I have) but here is a writer who knows his characters and can unspool their ridiculous and banal lives with a shocking and compelling intimacy. It’s a deeply uncomfortable yet altogether engaging experience.

Set in 1971 and 1972, Crossroads is concerned with a single family, the Hildebrandts. The Hildebrandts work hard to construct an ethical framework for their chaotic lives. Russ, the patriarch, is a pastor in love with his own transgressions. He simmers with self loathing while exuding self righteousness. The Crossroads of the title is the name of his church’s youth group, weirdly popular even with stoners and musicians. Russ, the former leader of the group, still agonizes over having been accused of an inappropriate exchange with Crossroads member Sally Perkins, which led to his abrupt expulsion as leader of the group. Was it inappropriate? Oh yes, for sure. But in Russ’s mind, Sally set him up. Still, he recognizes his own humiliation and strives to reassert his status as resident cool minister, but remains forever stymied by the younger, hipper new leader of the group, youth pastor Rick Ambrose. Like all great anti-heroes (and, not coincidentally, like all characters in this book) Russ believes his biggest obstacles are created outside of himself - by Ambrose, for being so chill, by his wife Marion, for becoming overweight and uptight, by the young women in Crossroads who see through his veneer of kind benevolence and call out the detestable, dangerous insecurity roiling beneath it.

The book alternates focus between Russ, Marion and three of their four children, Clem, Becky and Perry. Nine year old Judson escapes scrutiny, both as narrator and family member, and serves as foil to each of his siblings’ extreme selfishness. Perry, for example, thinks of himself as a very intelligent contrarian. He also believes he is the only member of the family who truly understands Judson. Still, this is not enough for him to actually put Judson’s needs before his own. Perry is both an addict and a fledgling drug dealer. Perry’s brain does indeed work quickly, but more in the sense of someone who is manic than someone who is a genius. Like his father, he is crippled by self doubt, but masks it with smarmy self confidence that convinces no one. Perry’s journey, from basic teenaged obliviousness to fullblown insanity, is a path so desperately inevitable that only he is surprised by the depths to which he falls. His shamelessness is a pit, sucking into it his already tenuous connection to reality.

Marion’s cross to bear is a secret she’s held for thirty years. At the age of twenty, Marion had an affair with a married man, and became pregnant. With nowhere to turn for help, Marion relied on a distant friend, who connected her with a former landlord who connected her with a doctor willing to perform an abortion. The landlord sexually exploits Marion in exchange for “helping” her. Unsurprisingly, Marion’s trauma leads to a nervous breakdown and subsequent hospitalization, the details of which she has shared with no one, not even Russ. In her son Perry, Marion recognizes the manic behaviour of her youth and worries that he has inherited her mental illness. She secretly seeks help from a matronly therapist, and in a particularly fraught session unravels the whole story, obsessively fixating on the feelings of guilt and shame she has carried these many years. Once the story is out, Marion is not so much “better off” as she is more free. It’s a marvel for us readers to witness, but her family has no idea what is going on with her. Least of all Russ, who not only takes Marion for granted, but has assumed his desire for widowed parishioner Frances Cottrel is on the down low, only to be called out with resigned acuity by this plain and honest speaking version of his wife. Marion’s frankness is, of course, too much for him to bear, and he veers away from her directly into the path of his own destruction.

Becky and Clem, the two oldest children, share a (weird, almost incestuously) close bond until Clem leaves home to attend college. Now it’s almost Christmas, and he is preparing to return for the holidays. In four months of absence he has fallen in love, but, more notably, has had sex for the first time. This commitment to someone else is intolerable for Becky. She feels betrayed and abandoned by Clem, while he is unmoored by the depth of his feelings for his first lover. While both Becky and Clem appear at first to be the siblings with the most promising futures, they crash and burn like their fellow Hildebrandts. Incomprehensibly, Clem decides he must prove his dedication to the anti-war cause his girlfriend honours by volunteering to fight in Vietnam, even though, as a college student, he has received a draft exemption. Becky’s future is bright: she has inherited thirteen thousand dollars from her beloved Aunt Shirley, enough to secure four years of Ivy league college attendance. She is popular and well-loved. But, when Becky falls for a slightly older musician, a “bell-bottomed dreamboat” named Tanner Evans, he unsuspectingly, alters the course of her life. Becky’s “goodness” is genuine. She understands the difference between right and wrong. But it is not a substitute for wisdom, and ultimately her emotional inexperience combined with her family’s demand for growing portions of the inheritance create an objectively disappointing outcome for her.

So much of the story’s action centres around Crossroads. Perry’s initial refusal to participate in what he perceives to be hippie bullshit changes as soon as he discovers that joining Crossroads is one way to convince his sister that he’s a good person. Note his desire is not to be a good person; he already thinks he is one. His concern is to persuade others. This cognitive dissonance defines his story, and, to her credit, Becky remains unconvinced.

Ultimately, the Hildebrandts all find themselves at a crossroads, and each fails to make the smart, practical, or compassionate choice. This in itself is not rare, in stories and in life. What makes Franzen’s storytelling so magical though, is the effort that each character undertakes to justify their behaviours. The thoroughness with which they examine their motives for flaws, constructing counter arguments to any imaginable critique of their behaviour.

Crossroads offers not just a compelling and artful tale of family dysfunction, but a hilarious and tragic reminder of our own hubris, waiting there at the crossroads with an offer that is likely too good to be true, no matter what we tell ourselves.

Ian McEwan, Nutshell

Of all the classics out there, Hamlet might be the one I’ve read the absolute most. It’s not even a point of pride so much as evidence of the kind of weird expertise you can gain without necessarily trying; in this case, teaching Hamlet to Grade 12 English classes two to four times a year for nigh on twenty five years. All of which is to say, you’d think at this point in my life I would not be interested in more Hamlet.

But, you know, life will surprise you.

Ian McEwan’s Nutshell is narrated by a foetal Hamlet from his mother Trudy’s womb, at (I’m guessing) roughly 35 weeks gestation. He is snuggled in tightly (or, put another way, “bound in a nutshell”), observing his mother and her lover Claude’s plan to murder Hamlet’s father, John Cairncross. The story is contemporary, so no one is a queen or king, but the emotions are very deeply rooted in Shakespeare’s original text. It is at once profound and hilarious, absurdly wise, and very, very readable.

Though not yet born, Hamlet already possesses the ruminant melancholy that will afflict him as an adult. He is sharply conscious of being overlooked in Trudy’s and Claude’s planning, which often takes place in bed, before, after and during sex. Being so close to the action (sorry! It’s gross but true) puts Hamlet in a position to witness and judge their plot to murder his biological father.

All of the adults in this telling of the story are selfish assholes, and in this way it is like the original. Trudy lounges about her squalid mansion listlessly, drinking wine and listening to podcasts while sunning herself on the balcony. She is wildly attracted to Claude, but doesn’t seem to respect him all that much. Claude is a schmoozy schemer, thoroughly committed to a murder plan that Trudy seems merely to be going along with. At no point do they discuss the existence of a baby in their future. Cairncross, a poet, arrives partway through the book to claim ownership of the mansion (but not his son) and to request a divorce. This act causes Claude and Trudy to kick their plan into high gear. The murder must take place the next morning and it must seem like an accident, Claude insists, and they go about gathering poison and a decoy cup from John’s favourite smoothie place. Then, they must concoct a tale that will make the poisoned drink impossible for John to refuse. This scene echoes Act 2 scene 2 of Hamlet, where Claudius invites Hamlet several times to drink from a poisoned goblet to celebrate his skill in the duel with Laertes. “I dare not,” Hamlet replies, “by and by.” Gertrude, suddenly proud of her neglected son, takes the goblet and drinks the wine herself, sealing her own fate and exposing Claudius’s treachery. Spoiler: None of it looks like an accident.

There are many scenes of drinking in this book, and puritanical objections to the consumption of alcohol by pregnant women aside, in his boozy cocoon Hamlet grows to understand and empathize with his mother. He perceives her horror over the growing realization that she has tethered herself to two different men, both of whom will disappoint her. For himself, Hamlet recognizes that living outside of her womb will bring him no freedom or agency. He is doomed.

Nevertheless, he maintains a wry and philosophical observational mein, one that we recognize as characteristically accurate, even Hamlet-y. See, for example, his reflection on Trudy making a cup of coffee:

“There’s pathos in this familiar routine, in the sounds of homely objects touching surfaces. And in the little sigh she makes when she turns or slightly bends our unwieldy form. It’s already clear to me how much of life is forgotten even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long neglected miracle of existence…she won’t remember the way she set down the spoon and the sound it made on slate, the frock she wore today, the touch of her sandal’s thong between her toes, the summer’s warmth, the white noise of the city beyond the house walls, a short burst of birdsong by a closed window. All gone already.”

Our time is short, the unborn Hamlet observes, and yet, our moments of genuine living are forgotten even as they are happening. “What is this quintessence of dust?” he asks no one, unheard. There is no response.

The cleverness of the story and its adherence to Shakespeare’s characters and themes, create in Nutshell a gorgeous reading experience. It is spectacular.

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