Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Little Paris Bookshop: a review

Nina George's writing is a master class of the true meaning of sensuality. On each page you might smell a riverbank, taste the sea in a pot of mussels, hear the cry of cicadas, feel a cat purr against your belly, or watch the hair rise on a lover's arm. 

Having devoured Little French Bistro, I tried my best to savour The Little Paris Bookshop. I failed. Once again George swept me into a French adventure, this time leaving Paris via riverways and canals to Provence. Bookshop is the bigger selling of George's books, and perhaps if I'd read it first I would understand why. I do recognize, however, that my lack of engagement with the main character Perdu comes from my own particular circumstances and is probably unfair both to him and the author. Unfortunately, to explain that statement would require a spoiler, so you'll just have to ask me about it in private. 

The theme of healing, through relationships and literature, from the inevitable bruises of life is one with which I have deep experience and deep appreciation. The bookshop in the title is called The Literary Apothecary, and Perdu sees himself as a druggist prescribing the right book for the right reader at the right time. The knowledge of both people and of books that such a job would require is remarkable - perhaps only achievable in fiction, but still highly compelling. It made me understand a little better the drive to read that I've experienced in recent months. It's not a new drive, but it has definitely grown like an unsated hunger. I get hangry for books, but the right books. And Nina George's books satisfy. How she manages to combine light and depth amazes me. Most writers make you choose between being talked down to and having your spirit assaulted. Like Anne Patchett, Nine George does neither. 

High praise and gratitude aside, Nina George's world is shockingly lacking in diversity or awareness. No people of colour, only the most tertiary of lesbianism. There are no gay men in the arts in France? No trans people in Brittany or Provence? None of France's millions of immigrants have anything to say or do (besides producing cooking smells behind closed doors) or ever enters a popular bookshop? Seems implausible. Celebrating "Christopher Columbus discovering the Americas" was jarring, anachronistic, inaccurate and out of touch. 

Still, this book was pleasing and insightful and lovely. I look forward to whatever else Nina George writes, and hope her next story includes a more representative cast of characters. 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Little French Bistro: a review

Aaaaaaaah. Is there any more satisfying feeling than choosing a random book off a bargain pile and finding it the perfect read? That was exactly how Nina George's Little French Bistro felt. Charming. Encouraging. Refreshing.

It started out a little rocky for me - a suicide attempt. This is not a spoiler, it is on the book blurb and is the very first scene. In my world it's not the perfect way to open an novel, but the story really picks up from there. The theme of finding your true self at any age followed so nicely with having recently read Untamed, but George's writing (and, to be fair, the novel form) appeal to me SO MUCH MORE.

With moments in Paris, Bistro takes place largely in Brittany, a region of France I never read about without wanting immediately to book a one-way ticket. I want the wild sea. I want the wild woods, I want the wild people harkening back to their Celtic roots. Oh sure, that may all be fictionalized exaggeration, but it is exaggeration that appeals to me. The food*, the settings, the stories, the wine - it all just works.

This is a novel you read in two sittings, not because it is light and airy, but because it is deep and moving and keeps pulling you forward. The central love stories in Bistro happen between people in their middle years with baggage and scars and insecurities and sagging breasts. I love these people. Oh sure, there's a young couple, but their story isn't central, which is a nice change. Sadly, the  one spot of diversity (I'm not going to be more specific because that is a spoiler) is downplayed rather than celebrated, and I thought that was a missed opportunity. 

I loved this book. I will re-read this book, which I honestly don't do much with novels. I think everyone should read this book. I also think I should learn to speak French and Breton and move to Brittany and work in a bistro. That is all.

* At the end of both this and The Little Paris Bookshop (review soon coming) George shares several regional recipes. Sure, gluten means some of them - like the fabulous sounding Breton pancakes - aren't for me, but it shows how essential food is to George's stories. Maybe have a snack before you read one of George's books as they will make you hungry. 

Friday, July 31, 2020

Untamed: a review

One of the downsides of an advanced education in critical thinking is that it can be easy to emphasize the "critical" and overlook the "thinking." When I first became aware of Glennon Doyle, it was because she has left her husband for a woman, which was somehow newsworthy in the circle of writers I follow, and because the woman she now shares her life with is Abby Wambach, bad ass US soccer phenom.

My issue was not at all with Doyle's choice, but with the decade of history she had as a Christian mommy blogger, bragging about her amazing marriage and how she single-handedly saved it despite her husband's serial cheating. In fact, she was on a book tour cashing in on her magical role as a "Love Warrior" when she met Abby. Now she makes money off that marriage instead.

I never actually read her blog. I never learned anything about her beyond my assumptions. It was easy, since Christian mommy bloggers aren't really my thing I had no interest in reading her writing. I jumped to a whole lot of conclusions, assumptions and judgements based on maybe five Instagram posts and a gossip blog post or two. Mucho critical. Almost no thinking. 

And yet, despite my ignorance and bias, I bought Doyle's latest book, Untamed, on a whim recently. Liz Gilbert likes and loves her, it was well displayed, and I liked the cover. It doesn't take much to make me buy a book these days. Honestly, so much of my response to this book is not about the book nut about me that it should probably be two posts - a review, and a response. But ... here we are. 

This book is like a human: deeply flawed yet capable of brilliance that streaks through the sky. The problem with reading books by people who began their writing careers as bloggers is that their books read like blogs: consistent in voice, but a jumble of times, places, anecdotes and characters. Often the books are comprised of blog posts, with not quite enough editing to pull them together. This book is not a story - it is an uncoordinated collage laced with morals and aphorisms. It's a very choppy one at that: short sentences. Short paragraphs. Short chapters.

Reading this immediately after finishing Between the World and Me was like going from War and Peace to Dick and Jane. There's nothing wrong with Dick and Jane,  but ... we are all adults here. Thirty pages in I thought "I get it" - the bit on the flyleaf that caught my attention is really what there was for me to get. But I'm no quitter, and I was wrong.

As I read I was curious about my steady stream of judgement popping up in the middle of learning. Part of it is jealousy - I've never turned my writing into anything meaningful, while Doyle built an empire on (unconscious?) inauthenticity, and then pivoted to authenticity and expanded her empire.

Part of the judgement is also not understanding: I have definitely lived a lie, at times, but it was recently pointed out to me that I have always had a strong sense of "no, not this" and been willing to let go and move on. I felt like she was exaggerating. I can't reconcile being so utterly conditioned by cultural expectations that you turn to eating disorders, addiction, and a loveless, frigid marriage rather than be yourself. It just doesn't compute for me. I consider myself a relatively empathetic person, but I can't understand that. I can only chalk it up to

  1. It's an American thing, and
  2. I was never going to be petite enough or pretty enough or quiet enough or slow-witted enough to make people comfortable, so I gave up trying pretty early on. 
Also, I don't remember my parents ever telling me to be more ladylike or that Girls do/are X and Boys do/are Y. My sisters and I played sports, or we didn't. We created music and art and clothing, or we didn't. We read and wrote and gardened and performed, or we didn't. We rode horses and swam in lakes and rivers and played with our dog and hung out in treehouses. Or we didn't. We can all swing a hammer and drive a manual and gut a fish and dance in heels. I don't know this small, prescribed world Doyle blames for her struggles.

Yes, I felt and still feel the unyielding pressure of not being skinny/sexy/pretty enough. Yes, I feel sufficated by my need to be impressive but never EVER confident or proud. Yes, society constantly reminds me that I am both too much and not enough. But somehow, I missed the memo on being a little lady, on smiling - but not too big or too easily- and sitting on the sidelines while the boys have all the fun. 

The jealousy also comes from never experiencing the love Doyle describes between her and Abby. Or I thought I had, but now that it's long-gone I have to assume it wasn't that. When Glennon met Abby, she "became." I am 52, and I am still optimistic about becoming. It turns out that becoming is a perpetual project, that sometimes happens in bursts - going weak in the knees on a drizzly street corner, or breathing deeply the humid air outside Norman Manley International Airport. I'm still looking for the secret to keep becoming without needing the impetus a man or an adventure. 

I suppose my smaller dose of conformity is also why I don't identify much with Doyle's parenting chapters. I did my best; sometimes my best was awesome and sometimes it was truly shitty, but everyday it was that day's best. I gave up on perfect really early, I never did try to match the soccer moms. I couldn't stand the PTA. I just ... couldn't. 

I struggle with the whiteness and the richness and the multiple other privileges Doyle has but doesn't acknowledge, and at the same time I take a lot from her stories. The kind of fairy tale love Doyle describes is also a privilege, one that women who grow up being told we are too big (in all directions), or that "someday someone will see how beautiful you are on the inside" don't expect. We aren't conditioned to see it, so we miss it if it does happen. 

The chapter on unlearning racism and whiteness 100% correlates to the process I'm currently in, except, of course, that no one is inviting me to put on seminars for thousands of people. And frankly, I don't think white women should be making money teaching anti-racism when skilled, qualified, and knowledgeable Black women are available. But, I still appreciated knowing I'm not alone in my anti-racism learning.

Doyle's writing is light and easy. The sparks of learning are powerful - they drew tears and relief from me. On balance, I do recommend this book for women. The nuggets of truth in it are valuable enough to make excavating them worthwhile, and it's a quick, encouraging read. Just manage your expectations. Maybe I'll re-read it now that some of my harsher judgements have been silenced.

Damn this is one long rambly post. 

Thursday, July 16, 2020

A Newfoundlander in Canada: a review

In 2007 I had the great good fortune to spend a week at Hollyhock Farm learning about creativity from an absolute master: Nick Bantock. A few days into the workshop Nick was looking over my creations - which, like his fantastic Griffin and Sabine trilogy combined multimedia collage and writing.  After a moment, Nick said something like, you make pretty pictures and you have a way with words, but if you really want to capture people's attention you'll need to find the darkness of life and let it out in your work.

There is a reason those wise words came back to me while reading Alan Doyle's second book, A Newfoundlander in Canada: Always Going Somewhere Always Coming Home. Alan is one of my favourite songwriters and musicians. I have followed him since the early days with Great Big Sea, having first heard of them at UNBC in Prince George in 1995 (Alan's version of that story made it into the BC chapter of this book, where he reveals that playing that show in front of a heavily alpha-male crowd waiting for a grunge band was the moment he knew they could play anywhere. Good old PG). I enjoy his solo music as much as I did the music he made with "the boys."

And, I enjoyed this book - overall. It's fun to read about the early days of GBS, how they grew as men and as a band, and Alan's impressions of Canada. Before heading to Halifax on their first maritime tour, Alan had never been off of Newfoundland. His reflections across the provinces - each one given its own chapter with other stories interspersed - are charming and full of innocence. And that, in a nutshell, is my complaint. The stories are too charming and too innocent. It's overloaded with sweetness, not unlike the irresistible case of Cadbury Easter Creme Eggs the band were given in Toronto. We know it wasn't all sweetness and light, yet this book never lets you see the struggle.

I have a second complaint, one that reveals the depth of my loyalty to BC. Doyle assigns each province a familial relationship to Newfoundland, and I have to say some of them are BS. In particular, that Ontario is the talented oldest sibling that we all rag on but secretly admire. BARF. Ontario is neither the oldest province nor secretly admired, at least not by Western Canadians. Sure, they have a big population, but being the centre of capitalism is not worthy of being admired, but I digress, and my pale pink socialism.is showing. And, Doyle calling BC the distant cousin you hardly know and find a little odd is hard to reconcile. As the only maritime province on the Pacific coast, I would have thought there's a lot we share with Newfoundland. Only, of course, I've never been to Newfoundland, so how would I know? 

Doyle does have a way with words. I don't know that I've ever read a more apt description of the Winnipeg cold, and I've only been there in October. (Sadly, I lent the book out without writing down the quote, so you'll just have to read the book). His story-telling, if a little simple, is entertaining. At the very least, he's inoffensive, and I suppose that's something. 

A Newfoundlander in Canada is Short. Fast. Fun. Canadian. If you're looking for a quick summer read that makes you feel good about this summer's lack of international travel, you'll probably like this book. If you're looking for deep insight and books that change how you see yourself in the world, maybe read  Between the World and Me instead. 

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Between the World and Me: a review

I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me. I think I will need to read it three more times through to understand all that is in it. The cruelty and love and history and hatred and injustice and victories - small, fragile, even temporary as they sometimes are - pile on top of each other in this small book with the might of 500 years.

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Between the World and Me is a history lesson. It is an autobiography. And it is a love letter between a father and his 15-year old son, one that acknowledges how much of their relationship has been determined by the fear with which a Black person in America lives every day, and the force of that fear in seeking to protect their children. Fear is the third party in this book - fear, and an impressive bravery to continue. Coates writes with power, intellect, and honesty that, as I said, requires re-reading. You must work your way up to absorbing these truths. They are not self-evident, and yet when you read them, they are as undeniable and obvious as the ground beneath your feet: 
  • Race does not exist - it is not a scientific or biological reality. Again. 


  • That is not to say differences don't exist, or that cultures don't exist. It is to say that genetic difference does not make us separate races. 
  • Race was invented to justify racism. 
  • In order for one human to own another human, they must first create some inviolable difference that makes the owned human not human at all. That invention was race based on skin colour, it could just have easily been eye colour or height or arm span. Literal ownership has changed, but the results still echo.
  • I am not white by biology but by training. My delicate sensibilities. My freedom to look away from what upsets me. My desire to be rescued. My opinions and outspoken-ness. These are markers of whiteness more than my lightly-melanated skin. 
Author and Son.
As Canadians we so often want to distance ourselves from the reality of America - of it being built and sustained on the blood and bodies of stolen people. But we are, at the very least, complicit in the continuation of that domination. We trumpet the Underground Railroad as proof of our goodness, ignoring that many of those who found their way to Canada returned to the US seeing no more opportunity here than there. We feign colour-blindness, further denying a reality we don't want to acknowledge and erasing others for their difference. We pretend that Black Canadians aren't policed as heavily as Black Americans. We pretend that race is real and justice is abstract. 

Toni Morrison said this book should be required reading. It should, for most of us, also be required re-reading. Few people who call themselves white will really be able to take in what Coates says on first read. 
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