Hypergraffiti

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Mother, May I?

Photo by Nicholas Githiri from Pexels

Kids probably have more interesting pastimes nowadays, what with video games and everything, but does anyone Of A Certain Age, like me, remember playing “Mother, May I?”

One kid would be “Mother” and stand facing a row of other kids some distance away. “Mother” would say something like “Take three giant steps,” or “Take two baby steps,” etc. And the other kids would take their biggest or smallest steps but — and this was the catch — before taking a step everyone would have to say “Mother, may I?” After getting the “Yes, you may” you could proceed, with the goal being to be the first to cross the line in front of Mother. However, if you took a step forward on command without asking for the all-important permission, the kid playing “Mother” would screech in the tones of a vindictive banshee: “GO RIGHT BACK YOU FORGOT TO SAY MAY I!!!!” And you’d go right back to the starting line, even if you were only one baby step away from the finish.

What a weird form of entertainment. It’s a darned good thing they invented video games.

It was devastating, having to go back to right where you started when you’d made so much progress. When the end was in sight, your feet were close to the finish line. All because of one little careless slip — all that progress erased.

I’ve been thinking about that game a lot lately, that crushing feeling of being sent back to the start.

It’s easy for most of us to remember 11 months ago. Mid-March, 2020. For me, March 20, 2020 was the day Emma came home from college, her school having closed more than a month early. Jason and I had just been moved to working from home. A global pandemic was unfolding and in less than a week we’d gone from “Oh, that won’t really affect us here, will it?” to a province-wide shutdown of pretty much everything. Orders to stay home, avoid close contact even with loved ones outside our houses, go out as little as possible. Not that there were many places to go.

Well, you remember. You were there. We all were.

Over the next 11 months, those of us living here in Newfoundland had an experience shared by people in only a few other places in North America (and of course several places outside it). We went through lockdown. The initial outbreak was brought under control. Case numbers dwindled, then stopped altogether. Lockdown restrictions eased. We congratulated ourselves. We’d done it right, we’d “flattened the curve.”

We looked at people in other places, with their fluctuating or still-rising case counts and death toll, their cycles of restrictions, re-openings, and more restrictions — and we felt sorry for them. We had a nearly-normal summer and fall. Sure, we didn’t get to have the Regatta or the Folk Festival or a lot of other big sporting and cultural events — but we spent time with friends and family, ate in restaurants, enjoyed staycations, shopped and worked almost like normal, except for masks and distancing. We tracked the daily case counts, but live news briefings slipped from daily to three times a week to once a week, and the only cases we heard about were travel related, isolated, quickly contained.

We’d done it right. We had (most of us — enough of us, anyway) followed the rules. Taken each step forward, from Alert Level 5 to 4 to 3 to 2, restrictions rolling back at each step, always asking “Mother, May I?” and getting the go-ahead before moving another step back to that blessed, uncomplicated state that we remembered as “Normal.” The answer was always “Yes, you may.”

By December, when the first vaccines started rolling out, that finish line was in sight. Yes, the vaccines were slower coming than we’d hoped, but we got all the way to Christmas and two weeks past it without any major outbreaks. Case counts stayed low, and it seemed possible we’d get past the one-year mark and into spring without a second wave of COVID. And by the time summer 2021 came around, enough people might have been vaccinated that we could breathe a sigh of relief and feel we were pretty much out of danger. We would step across that finish line successfully, winners of the game.

That, of course, is not what happened.

February 20, 2021 finds me where last March 20, 2020 did (though without the pleasure of my daughter being home; she’s back in university in Nova Scotia, which, currently, is still stepping forward in an orderly fashion without any new outbreaks). I’m sitting with my laptop in my recliner by the window, watching the quiet street outside, with no plans for the evening beyond TV and board games at home. We had tickets for a concert tonight, purchased two weeks ago in a more optimistic time, but it’s been cancelled. As has almost everything else. Back in lockdown again.

There was something about hearing Dr. Janice Fitzgerald’s words last Friday night — Feb. 12, 2021 — at the emergency evening press conference when she announced that our current outbreak was caused by the B117 variant — that almost broke me. It was when she said, “We are back in Alert Level 5,” and I swear I heard a little quaver in her voice, that voice we’ve all relied on for eleven months to deliver the news in a steady, trustworthy tone.

Artist: Jenna-Wade Drake

Back. In Alert Level 5. Back to the tightest possible restrictions, full lockdown, no hugs with extended family, no small get-togethers with half a dozen friends. No teaching in-person for me, even with the rituals of wiping down tables and the sheets of plexiglass Jason had carefully installed in my classroom just a few weeks earlier. No more gathering in church, even with masks on for singing as we’d done since September. No more stopping into Chapters for a book or Starbucks for a coffee – stores open for essential shopping only.

Go right back, you forgot to say May I.

We’re doing the right thing, of course — if there’s an outbreak of the newer, highly contagious variant in a population where few people are vaccinated and there’ve hardly been any COVID cases for months, a tight lockdown is exactly the way to get it under control. And we never did get any guarantees that we were living in a magical wonderland where viruses couldn’t penetrate. We were always at risk: luck, compliance, and geographical isolation were just on our side for several months until, suddenly, they weren’t.

For me, at least, what’s been hard about second lockdown so far is that “Mother, May I?” feeling. We were so close to coming out the other side of this — that’s how it felt anyway. I find it much easier to cope with things, even difficult things, if I feel like I’m making progress. Like every step, however difficult, is a step in the right direction, towards the goal. If I can see the finish line and each moment brings me closer to it.

I think most of us are like that. We want to believe in life as an orderly progression towards a goal. Yes, there’ll be tough times, but we’re getting there. In our careers. In childraising. In spiritual life. In overcoming addictions. In battling physical or mental illness. The steps along the way may be hard, but we can bear it as long as they’re moving us close to a goal.

So often, though, life is like that childhood game. We move forward — sometimes with giant steps, sometimes with baby steps — closer to that goal. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, the unexpected setback. The layoff. The relapse. The variant outbreak. The thing we thought we were safe from, knocking us squarely back to start. Go right back; you forgot to say may I.

And along with the loss, along with the vision of all the ground we have still to cover, there’s that angry whine of unfairness: But I was so close! We were nearly there!! I took all the right steps in the right direction!! Why do we have to go all the way baaaaack?? It’s not faaaiiirrr!!

That’s the voice I’ve been hearing in my head a lot over the past week. Knowing that this is how things work, not just in pandemics but in life, helps a little.

But only a little.

I still want that finish line.


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Five Is a Good Round Number

As 2020 draws to a close, I’m doing a bit of what we all do at the end of a year: look back, evaluate what we did, thought, and experienced, pick out some of the high points, make best-of-the-year lists. I’ve already posted a Best Books of the Year list, as I always do, but I’m also thinking about other media. I’m thinking about things — the products of other people’s brilliance and creativity — that were important to me during this uniquely challenging year.

I’m going to share five non-books that had an impact on me in 2020 here (really only four, but I snuck in a bonus, and also, two of them will be books eventually). It’s not so much that I think you will necessarily all rush out and find these things — in one cases, you might not even be able to — although I do recommend all of them highly (with certain caveats). Mostly, it’s helpful for me to think through these things, and maybe it’ll lead you to reflect on some of your own favourites — on music and movies and comedy and podcasts and websites and whatever — that have helped get you through 2020.

For a lot of people, the ideal 2020 entertainment has been light, fun, and escapist, and I’ve certainly enjoyed my share of those things too. But the things that have had the biggest impact on me and lingered longest have been — I think the word for all of them is bittersweet. There’s humour and some joy in all of them, but there’s a lot of darkness too, and this year I’ve appreciated artists in a lot of different genres who weren’t afraid to dive into the darkness.

1. Television: Bojack Horseman 

This is the one that I’m sneaking in as a bit of a cheat, because I cannot remember if I binge-watched all six seasons of this series at the end of 2019 or the beginning of 2020. It was pre-COVID, I know that much; it belongs to the Before Times, and it might even have been too bleak to watch in the Lockdown Times. But I had watched it, anyway, in the few months before 2020 turned dark and weird, and it was good to have this dark, weird thing already in my consciousness. My adult children, especially my son, had been telling me for a few years that I should watch it, to which I always said, “I don’t like cartoons for adults,” which has been reliably true ever since The Simpsons hit the airwaves in the 80s.

But eventually I watched one episode of Bojack, because I trust my kids’ taste and I love Will Arnett’s voice, and that was it. I was hooked. Weeks later I was teaching my English students about classical tragedy and the concept of “catharsis,” and how when watching a tragedy you’re supposed to be consumed with emotions of pity and fear for the character and then feel drained of those emotions when it’s over. I paused in my explanation and said, “Actually, I’ve seen all of Shakespeare’s tragedies on stage and on film, but the only time in recent years I can remember actually having that experience with any drama I watched was the last season of Bojack Horseman.” Eight or ten students looked at my blankly while one said, “Yes!” with a look on her face like she’d been punched in the chest. Catharsis.

The humour in this series is so funny — exactly my kind of humour, often based around puns and wordplay (honestly, watch the first 30 seconds of this compilation below, and if it’s funny to you, you’re going to laugh at this show — if it’s not, don’t bother).

Because the humour is so silly, and the darkness is so dark, that they contrast brilliantly with each other. The series takes a main character who’s hard to empathize with — a self-absorbed, self-pitying, alcoholic ex-sitcom star who somehow gets away with a lot because he’s a wealthy, straight, white-coded male (I say white-coded because, I mean, he’s actually a brown horse, but it’s pretty clear that whatever Bojack is in the world of the show equates to a middle-aged white man in our world). And the show makes you empathize with this character while somehow, at the same time, refusing to ever give Bojack the passes that the world gives him. He does terrible things and we feel sorry for him even as we recognize the hurtful impact of his actions on others — and the show always lets us feel those impacts, always recognizes that the people Bojack hurts are just as valuable as he is, their feelings as worthy of consideration.

The other thing that makes this show amazing is how well it writes the women characters. For a show centred around a male figure, there are a lot of women characters — Diane, Princess Caroline, Sarah Lynn, Beatrice, Hollyhock, Charlotte, Penny, Gina — and every one of them is distinct, a fully rounded individual who is affected by Bojack’s presence in her life but not defined by it. It’s kind of amazing that an animated show with a mix of human and anthropomorphic animal characters has some of the best representation of women in contemporary TV, but there you go.

Bojack Horseman went to a lot of dark places in six seasons — never darker than in its penultimate episode, and it was brave enough to let readers decide whether the final episode offered any kind of redemption or not. Like any form of entertainment it’s not for everyone, but for me, it was the perfect way to start a year that turned out to have plenty of bittersweetness.

2. Podcast: The Anthropocene Reviewed

A lot of the things on this list aren’t going to be a surprise. For example, if you know me, you know that I’ve long been a fan of John Green, both his novels and the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel he shares with his brother Hank. But perhaps my favourite John Green product is this podcast he’s been running for the last few years. The conceit is: John takes an object, an idea, a whatever, and “reviews” it, rating it on a five-star scale. The review idea is basically a vehicle for these short, spoken essays about life — sometimes funny, sometimes sad (warning: do not listen to the one on “Googling strangers” if you’re in a place where a tear in your eye would be a bad idea); never saccharine; always insightful. Green weaves in concepts as diverse as the history of the Piggly Wiggle grocery chain in the US, his personal experiences as a young hospital chaplain many years ago, and everything in between. The podcasts were released once a month, and always had an of-the-moment feel, even though months of research and writing went into them.

In late May of this year, the new Anthropocene Reviewed dropped onto my podcast app on a warm, sunny day. I put on my headphones and took the dog for a walk while I listened. It was one of the first truly warm days after what had been, in every sense, a long hard winter here in St. John’s. We’d recently had restrictions eased so that we could gather with small groups of family outside our household; we’d been able to have my dad and our son Chris over to the house again, and Newfoundland’s first COVID outbreak was tapering off, so things felt hopeful but still precarious.

On that day’s podcast, John Green reviewed the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a song I’d never given a minute’s thought to except to think of it as an overblown bombastic song from some old musical. As I walked with Gal down Monchy Street, Little Street and over Hoyles Avenue to the park, listening to the story of this song and what it meant to different people, what it meant in the context of what we were currently all living through, I started to cry. Just straight-up bawl, tears pouring down my face. People sitting out on their front steps enjoying the sun probably thought, “What is wrong with that woman? Is she OK? Is the dog OK??” But it was, again, catharsis in the purest sense, all the fear and sadness and tension of the past months pouring out of me. In the park, I took off my sandals and walked barefoot in the grass. Then I went home and listened to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and watched this video …

 

…and then this video, which was mentioned in the podcast, as well as this one, which I don’t think was mentioned in the podcast but was massively popular about the same time …

And then I cried some more.

In September I downloaded the new episode of the podcast to learn it was, unexpectedly, the last — at least for awhile — as John Green announced he was pausing the podcast to work on crafting the essays into a book which will be out in spring 2021. So there’s that to look forward to, but for me, the podcast was the perfect way to experience these essays, straight into my ears, straight to my heart. You can listen to them here, if you want. Of all my recommendations in this post, this podcast is probably the least “niche,” the most widely accessible to a lot of different kinds of people, and I keep wanting to urge more people to listen to it.

3. Music: Songs for Pierre Chuvin

People who are casually aware of indie band the Mountain Goats may have heard that they released a new album this year. It was called Getting Into Knives, it’s quite good; it’s gotten some lovely reviews. But if you’re very very not casually into the Mountain Goats, if you are in fact obsessively into the Mountain Goats like I am, then you know that back in spring 2020, in the midst of lockdown, singer/songwriter John Darnielle, the beating heart of the band, began releasing a few songs, one at a time, recorded the way he used to do it 20+ years ago — solo, with a guitar and a cassette tape deck. When there were 10 of them, Darnielle released them online and on limited-edition cassette under the title Songs for Pierre Chuvin.

Pierre Chuvin is a French historian whose book Darnielle was reading when he started writing these songs: A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, which Google Books summarizes as “a history of the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire as told from the perspective of the defeated.” The fact that he’s reading a serious history book about the decline and persecution of Greco-Roman pagan mystery cults in late antiquity, and decides to write a song a day inspired by that history, probably tells you everything you need to know about John Darnielle both as a person and a songwriter. 

For a lot of Darnielle’s fans, living through our own lockdowns, there was something about the quiet intimacy of these songs that tapped into exactly what we were feeling at the moment. Darnielle repurposes the triumphant refrain of his most mainstream-popular song, 2006’s “This Year”I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me — which a lot of us were already singing in 2020, into a quiet grasping at hope in “Exegetic Chains” on this album:

Say your prayers to whoever you call out to in the night
Make it through this year if it kills you outright.

With lyrics like those, and 

The burden of exile gets easy to bear
Sometimes forget there’s cities down there

(“The Wooded Hills Along the Black Sea”)

it’s easy to listen to these lyrics inspired by the 5th century CE and feel that this is a “lockdown album” particularly appropriate to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. And some of the winter/spring pandemic lockdown experience clearly did creep into Darnielle’s writing. However, to me the album feels relevant to 2020 in another way. John Darnielle’s liberal, unorthodox, but deeply held Christian beliefs are evident in social media posts like this:

Why then, you might ask, did he write a whole album of songs in which Christians are the bad guys, where our sympathies are entirely with the “pagan crew” (as the song “Aulon Raid” puts it)?

Actually, I think tweets like the one above provide a key not just to Darnielle’s faith, but to why the pagans are the heroes of Songs for Pierre Chuvin. This is an album about underdogs defying a power structure that wants to crush them, and although Jesus’s teachings were all about standing up for the underdog, too often — in the 5th century and the 21st — institutional Christianity has not only not been on the side of the oppressed, it has actively been the oppressor.

Some of the best moments in Songs for Pierre Chuvin come when the pagans turn the words of Jesus back in the faces of their Christian overlords, just as John Darnielle is fond of doing on Twitter. You see it most clearly in the song Last Gasp at Calama:

With the measure that you used so shall it be measured to you…
So you say, and it’s true ….

Let he who’s without sin throw the first one like you said 
Let anyone else throw the second, as long as it connects with your head.

From the quiet assurance of “the Panasonic hum” (“Exegetic Chains” again) to the triumphant shout that “We will deal with you, me and my pagan crew!” (“Aulon Raid”), Songs for Pierre Chuvin is an album for people living through dark times, people holding onto their faith even when those in power seem to pervert the very idea of faith, people saying their prayers to whoever they call out to in the night, and just hoping to make it through this year. For me it, was the perfect album, the album that defined 2020 more than any other music. Music, like all other art forms, is highly subjective, and you might not like Songs for Pierre Chuvin, or the Mountain Goats at all. But you might. Give it a listen.

4. Serialized Story: Tales from Lindford

Again, no surprise here if you follow my book reviews and know of my love for English writer Catherine Fox’s Lindchester Chronicles trilogy — I’ve been raving about these novels, set against the background of an English cathedral town with its clergy and laity, for the last few years. When the trilogy concluded with Realms of Glory, Fox went on to other writing projects and said she had no plans to return to the world of Lindchester and the vivid cast of characters she had created there.

But early in 2020 — maybe about the time we all began to realize this would not be an ordinary year — Fox announced on Twitter her intention to return to the town of Lindford, where several characters from the original trilogy lived, and post weekly stories on her blog of how the residents of Lindford were coping with 2020. The original three books were all published this way before coming out in book form; I didn’t get into the series until the first two were out, but I experience Realms of Glory in the serial-story online format so reminiscent of the way 19th century readers enjoyed their novels (Fox consciously models her Lindchester stories as a very modern take on Trollope’s Barchester novels, so the 19th-century serialized novel is a very appropriate form here). Fox blogged that book throughout 2016, so that readers got to experience the Brexit referendum, the US election, and every big-name celebrity death of that year along with the characters.

For obviously reasons, 2020 was a timely year to pick up this project again, as characters we came to know and love in the trilogy (as well as some new ones) go through lockdowns, rage against government incompetence, worry yet again about Brexit and the US election, plan outdoor socially-distanced visits with friends, and (since many of them are clergy and most of the rest are churchgoers) reflect on what “church” means in a time when the church doors are closed. A middle-aged priest and his aging mother shelter in place together as the mother’s dementia means that her son has to explain over and over why they can’t go places or have people in. A gay couple decide to start a family in an unconventional way. A homeless man finds an unexpected refuge. An eleven-year-old girl decides to keep a journal while tracking the phases of the moon throughout the year. Tiny slices of life in 2020 COVID Britain, both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

I’m not sure I would recommend this series of stories — either as they currently exist online, with (as of this writing) two episodes to go before the story is complete, or when it comes out in book form later in the spring — to someone who hasn’t read the original trilogy. Tales from Lindford probably can stand alone, but it’s hard for me, as someone so immersed in the first trilogy, to step back enough to see if people who don’t already know and love these characters could jump in to their 2020 stories. When a character moves in with her estranged husband and their children to help nurse him through a painfully long, slow recovery from COVID, it’s certainly poignant, but it’s a lot more poignant if you’re followed the whole story of this couple’s marriage and separation through three previous books, and know what it cost for them to get to this point.

Serialized stories are not at all the same experience as sitting down and reading a full novel cover to cover, but they have a charm all their own, especially when they are set in real time and the author is crafting each episode to take into account events that have just happened in the real world a couple of weeks ago. New episodes would get posted every Sunday, and most Sunday evenings I would go to bed and read the new chapter before falling asleep, often turning off the iPad with tears in my eyes. If there was ever a year to travel through a serial story week by week with beloved, vivid, deeply realized characters like the folks of Lindford and Lindchester are for me — 2020 was the year to do that, and I am just so grateful that Catherine Fox decided to take on this project.

5. Comedy: Cold Lasagna Hate Myself 1999

One of the last major media experiences I had in 2020 was sitting down with the three people in the world who most closely share my sense of humour – my husband, son, and daughter (and also daughter’s boyfriend, who has a good sense of humour as well, but it was not marinated in the same household for 20 years like ours was) to watch a limited-release streamed performance by one of our mutual favourite comedians, James Acaster.

I’m not sure whether I’ve ever seen a stand-up performance, with the exception of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, that played as audaciously with the boundaries of what you expect in a comedy routine as Cold Lasagna Hate Myself 1999 does. If you’re not familiar with James Acaster, he’s a young British comedian whose comedy is probably best known from four Netflix specials that appear on the streaming service under the title “Repertoire,” with a tagline describing them as “Absurd. Offbeat. Witty.” His humour, typically, has been all those things, usually involving long, detailed, improbable stories mixing his real life with fantasy so audaciously and weirdly that you’re never sure what to believe, but you know it’s hilarious. His comedy has also, thus far, been pretty reliably “clean” comedy, devoid of much swearing or any explicit sexual content.

Cold Lasagna begins with Acaster striding out on stage and delivering a profanity-laden intro, announcing that he’s tired of his “clean” comedy image and wants to drive away any fans who followed him because of that, particularly old people and Christians (or “chrizzos” as he puts it). You’d think at this point this particular old chrizzo might have tuned out, but while Acaster definitely is going in a new direction with his stand-up, that profane opening monologue is not everything it appears to be. (Some helpful context here involves knowing that Acaster grew up in a devoutly Christian household and that while he lost his faith as a young adult, he is still very close to his family, including his parents who are, presumably, a couple of old chrizzos like us).

The shock value of the opening monologue is not an indication that the show to follow is going to be full of swearing and explicit content — there is some swearing, but there’s actually far less of that kind of content than in most stand-up. Rather, the opening monologue serves a warning that the audience should expect to be uncomfortable at times: not because of the swear words, but because Acaster is entirely ready to take us to uncomfortable places.

Some of the discomfort is directed outward, like his views on Brexit, and on “edgy” comedians who are offensive in the name of “not being politically correct” (he’s fine with naming names, as you see in the clip below):

But, like many comedians, Acaster is the butt of his own best jokes. And he’s more willing than most comedians are to pursue the self-deprecating humour into the darkest corners of his own life. The revelation that an ex-girlfriend left him for the famous person most likely to make him racked with insecurity is played for every laugh it deserves — and it deserves a lot. But the recounting of his infamous appearance on the celebrity edition of Great British Bakeoff spirals into a long, hilarious, and deeply disturbing story that includes a call to a crisis line. Acaster has been open in other places, most notably in his book Perfect Sound Whatever and the media tour that accompanied it, about his mental health struggles, but Cold Lasagna is the first time he’s incorporated talk about suicidal ideation into a stand-up comedy routine.

Is it still comedy when you’re talking about your mental breakdown? Well, everyone in our living room was laughing hard enough to almost fall out of our chairs at various points in the show. But there were also moments when we were all quiet, almost holding our breath. It’s not always an easy or comfortable show, and I can see how it wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. If you like your comedy difficult, and dark, with a heaping side of raw honesty (and yes, some swearing), then I can’t even tell you to watch it and see if you also found it strangely moving and thought-provoking, because the livestream was a limited performance and, at least for now, there’s no (legal) way to watch it again.

Perhaps this show will have a wider release someday, and when that happens, some people will laugh, some people will be offended, some people will hate it. And some people, like me, may feel that it’s just the right bittersweet flavour to end a complicated, difficult, thought-provoking year. God bless everyone who makes difficult, bittersweet entertainment that makes us think as much as it entertains us — and God bless young James Acaster, says this old chrizzo.

 


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Trudy’s Best Books of 2020

This year, I read somewhere between 90-95 books, which is lower than previous years — and lower still when you realize that a sizeable chunk (maybe close to 20?) or those 90+ were rereads of old favourites. There were weeks during the height of the COVID lockdown here in March/April when I couldn’t wrap my brain around any new reading and just reread books I already knew and loved and felt safe with. Despite that, I did manage to read some stunning new books this year.

I found it super hard to narrow down even just my fiction reads to a Top Ten list this year — I went through my reviews for the year and made a note of all those that were “five star reviews” in my mind (not that I give stars, but you know what I mean). That left me with a Top 16, which would be fine except … I just like round numbers, multiples of five, Top Ten lists generally.

The ten novels I finally narrowed it down to as absolute favourites are listed below with links to my reviews. They’re listed in the order that I read them during the year, not in a ranking from 1-10 – that would be impossible!

Top Ten Fiction:

  1. Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid
  2. The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel
  3. The Book of Longingsby Sue Monk Kidd
  4. The Empire of Goldby S.A. Chakraborty
  5. Some People’s Childrenby Bridget Canning
  6. Hamnet and Judithby Maggie O’Farrell
  7. Piranesiby Susanna Clark
  8. Jackby Marilynne Robinson
  9. Watching You Without Meby Lynn Coady
  10. Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi

As I said, very tough choices. Some great books got left off the list, but you can look back through all my reviews for the year to see all the ones I raved about.

I wanted to do non-fiction as a separate list this year, because although I didn’t read as much of it (and thus have only a Top Five not a Top Ten), there were some real stand-outs on that list too.

Top Five Non-Fiction:

  1. What the Oceans Remember, by Sonja Boon
  2. How to Be an Antiracistby Ibram X. Kendi
  3. The Skin We’re Inby Desmond Cole
  4. Pale Riderby Laura Spinney
  5. Nativeby Kaitlyn Curtice

 


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The Endangered Species

 

I checked Twitter this morning to find out that some white, male, British* writer who won the Booker Prize in 2005 has decided to use his one wild and precious life to complain that he wouldn’t be able to win it today, as a straight white male, because of a “‘woke’ movement” that he “despises.”

*Note: I found out in the comments that he’s actually Irish, so I’m correcting this but leaving my original error in so you can see my flawed human nature.

Lots of people wiser and better than I have already pointed out the absurdity of this claim. But whenever I hear people make claims about awards and who gets them, I am annoyed enough to dig into the numbers. And in this case, those numbers highlight very clearly what Mr. Banville is really saying.

Since Banville won the Booker in 2005, the Booker Prize has been awarded 15 times to 15 people (twice to the same writer, Hilary Mantel, and once to two writers, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo). Eight of those winners were men, while seven were women, which seems like a pretty fair gender split. But wait! Of the eight male winners, three were non-white! Look out; that leaves only five white male winners in the last fifteen years.

In fact, a white male won just this year, 2020, which should put to bed any suggestion that white men are unfairly disadvantaged — except that Douglas Stuart, the 2020 winner, is gay. Which is obviously why Banville has to add “straight” to his own identifier, so as to define his category in the Hardship Sweepstakes as narrowly as possible.

Put like that, the ridiculousness of his claim becomes a little more apparent. It’s not that men are excluded (8/15 winners are male), or that white people are excluded (10/15 winners), or that straight people are excluded (I’m not going to take the time to look through 15 people’s bios to find out who they’re sleeping with but I confidently say a majority of those 15 winners are flagrantly heterosexual, openly flaunting their relationships with people of the opposite sex).

Banville’s fine whine is perhaps occasioned especially by the fact that the shortlists of the last two years’ Booker Prizes do not contain any books by straight, white men. They contain books by men, books by white writers, books by straight writers aplenty — but none that fit into the narrow niche Banville has carved out to define himself. Prior to 2018, straight white men appear on pretty much every year’s shortlist, and the last time one of that embattled minority won the award was as recently as 2017, when George Saunders (deservedly; I loved the book) won for Lincoln in the Bardo.

Of course the shortlists look a little different from how they looked when the prize was new in the 1970s, when almost all the nominees were white (though still fairly evenly divided between men and women; men, however, tended win more often in those early years). The most controversial Booker decision in recent years was not the inclusion of more non-white writers, or more women, or more LGBTQ writers, but the inclusion of Americans in 2014, which still raises some hackles (two Americans have actually won since 2014, both men, but presumably only one of those, Saunders, would count in Banville’s Hardship Sweepstakes since the other is Black).

The odds of any book I’ve written being shortlisted for a Booker Prize are approximately none at all, ever, but if I wanted to feel hard done by I could point out that in that same 15-year period we’re looking at, only one Canadian has ever won the prize, and she had to share it with (gasp!) a Black British woman! And did you know that no woman from Newfoundland over the age of 50 who owns a rescue dog has ever won the Booker Prize??!?! The universe is stacked against me!

The fact is that for a very long time, women and people of colour and LGBTQ people and disabled people and any other marginalized group have been told, “It’s not that you’re being discriminated against. We just happened to hire/give the prize to/promote the straight, able-bodied white male because his credentials are better. His research was more original. He wrote a better book. There’s no discrimination here; the system is entirely merit-based.”

Now, when the kinds of people who publish books, and the kinds of people who give out big literary awards, are making a conscious effort to include, promote, and listen to more diverse voices — guess what? White people are still doing fine. Men are doing great. Straight people are crushing it! But if you want to narrowly define yourself by a specific Venn diagram of identifiers — the straight, white, male — then you might start to feel a little … marginalized.

Of all the wise sayings that float around the internet looking for attribution, one of the truest, to me, is the (probably) anonymous statement that “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” The fact is that people in Mr. Banville’s narrow, self-defined Venn diagram of identity — male, white, heterosexual — have been handed participation trophies just for showing up for several hundred years now. Many of them have believed the lie that these prizes were based on their own inherent merit, not on a system that silenced other voices and privileged those of straight white males.

A lot of straight white men have grown up as a protected class, assuming that the jobs and the prizes were theirs by right. A lifetime of benefiting from that system without interrogating it could, indeed, lead one to think that that formerly protected class, minus just a few of its traditional protections, has now become an endangered species.

But don’t worry, Mr. Banville. It’s really all based on merit. Look at George Saunders – a credit to his race and sex! Someday maybe you’ll write a book as good as Lincoln in the Bardo, and win the Booker Prize. Again.


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I’m Breaking Up With You, America

Dear United States of America,

We’ve had a good run. Our relationship goes back to my mother, who was born on your soil in the beautiful borough of Brooklyn, New York, and proudly held onto her American citizenship all her life despite having moved to Newfoundland at the ripe old age of 20 months and remaining there (apart from a brief six-month stay back in Brooklyn as a young adult) till she died.

Then I hung out with you for three years in my own young adulthood, in the great state of Michigan (in the part of it that some people called “Michiana,” where the big treat was to go to Chicago for a day trip). They were three great years and I enjoyed every minute. And you remain home to many of my dearest friends and family members.

Lately though, I think our relationship has become a little dysfunctional. And maybe it’s not you; it’s me.

Well, no. It’s at least partly you. But as in any relationship, the only part I can control is the part to do with me.

I’ve always had a passing interest in your politics, as any smart Canadian does — reference the old Pierre Trudeau quote about being in bed with an elephant. (I’m not sure if you know it. Or if you know who Pierre Trudeau was. You’ve never been as invested in this relationship as I have and I sometimes feel you don’t even know much about me, or my country).

During those three years I spent living with you, you had an election. It was 1984 and the incumbent, Ronald Reagan, was running against Walter Mondale, who had been VP to that good man Jimmy Carter. I didn’t know or care much about Mondale but I liked that he had broken precedent by nominating a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, as his VP candidate (1984! Glass ceilings shattering everywhere!!!). On election night I sat in a sad room on campus with the college “Young Democrats” club — most of whom were, like myself, actually Canadians — watching Mondale lose.

Over the years, I’ve kept up with your politics — I remember the nail-biter election of 2000, and attending a small 2003 protest (small in my Canadian city, huge worldwide) against Bush’s war in Iraq. But I was interested the way you’re interested if your neighbour is getting new siding on his house. “Oh, that looks nice,” you might say to yourself, or, “Eww, how can they live with that colour?” But even if I’m the one who has to look at it, it’s not my house and not my choice. So I’ve been able to remain somewhat detached, even as we continued our pleasant but distant relationship.

Then 2016 happened, and you went and had that election.

You know the one. The one with the smart, capable, experienced woman who’d been working for this job her whole life, versus the ridiculous, ignorant, racist reality show has-been? The one where I stayed up late because I wanted to see with my own eyes the moment when the US elected its first woman leader (a trick my own country still hasn’t managed)?

Yeah. That’s the point at which I think our relationship got a little unhealthy.

Since 2016, I’ve been interested, as most of the world has, in what’s been happening in Donald Trump’s USA. I’ve been concerned about it they way I’ve been concerned about, say, Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit-referendum UK, or for that matter Bolsinaro’s Brazil or any one of the several other countries that have taken a hard turn towards right-wing nationalist populism served with heaping sides of isolationism and xenophobia. Like anyone who believes the only possible future for this planet lies in us all working together, I’m alarmed when countries — especially those filled with people I care about — seem to be moving towards more barriers, less co-operation; more hate, less acceptance. And as one of the 30 million mice in bed with this elephant, I have, of course, worried about the spillover of Trumpism into Canada. It’s only natural to have been interested in, and worried about, your politics over the last 4 years.

I will admit, though, that it’s gone a bit beyond natural interest.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that over the past four years I’ve been following the politics of your country more closely than I have my own (except during our actual elections, when I have managed to pay attention). I listen to American political podcasts. I have read hundreds of articles about American politics in the last four years. I follow American politicians and activists on Twitter. I have even read more books about the American political landscape than I have about our own.

It’s beyond a healthy interest: it’s an obsession. One that’s only gotten worse in the weeks and then days leading up to — and after — the US election on November 3.

In the last five days I have spent more time staring at the map at the top of this post (or an earlier, more upsetting iteration of it) than I have at the faces of my own husband and daughter WHO LIVE IN THE HOUSE WITH ME.

Why this obsession? First, start with the sensible reasons above — the interest of a small-L liberal in a dangerous conservative movement in a neighbouring country — and move to the one that’s equally true but less sensible.

The second reason: It’s a compelling narrative. Politics are often muddy and full of compromise, but the Trump story was appealing because it presented a clear bad guy, something we don’t always get in these kinds of stories — a villain with no redeeming personal qualities to offset his repellent political views, who combined stunning ignorance about his job with breathtaking levels of rudeness and pettiness. On the other side, whole hosts of activists and allies and white-hat politicians were fighting for The Good Guys. Even during the complicated days of the Democratic primary, it was easy to look at all these people (well, maybe not Mike Bloomberg, but the rest of them) and cast any of them as The Good Guy, or the Good Gal, who would ride into town to save the day.

Trump supporters, of course, derived the same kind of pleasure from a simple good vs evil narrative, but with the roles reversed.

Finally, I guess, the third and most shameful reason is that, like any addiction, an addiction to US politics feeds on itself. The more time you spend thinking about it, engaging with it, sharing snarky Twitter memes about it, the more you’re drawn into it. And you keep going back for more.

But politics isn’t a game or a prime-time drama. It’s a messy business of figuring out, through the ballot box and also through the day-to-day work of activism and advocacy, how to create a society that offers the best life for the most people. That’s work we all have to engage in, but we can only engage in it in the place where we live. Other people’s politics can only ever be a spectator sport, a drama that gives us the thrill of cheering for the good guys and booing the bad guys, without engaging in the hard work of making our own communities better.

I try to do politics in my own country, both as a voter and a person active in my community, but I feel like some of the energy I could have been putting into making my city and province and country a better place has gone, in these last four years, into a vicarious fascination with another country’s politics. 

So I made myself a promise: however the American election worked out, once a winner was declared, I would detach from it. Follow it with as much interest as I would the politics of any other country I cared about, but stop obsessing about it. Unfollow some folks on Twitter. Prioritize reading about issues in Canada rather than in the US. Unsubscribe from a bunch of podcasts (honestly, breaking up with the Pod Save America guys is going to be hardest part because I love those Obama bros — their relationships, their snark, the whole package. I’d listen if Jon, Jon, Tommy and Dan just did a podcast about, I don’t know, watching TV or something). 

“Once a winner was declared” took a little longer than I expected, but last night I watched Vice President Elect Kamala Harris and President Elect Joe Biden speak to their supporters, accompanied by a killer soundtrack and a fireworks display that a Canadian politician would blush to even think about, much less ever have dedicated to them. It was a beautiful, inspiring moment full of hope, optimism, and the sense that our American friends had shown themselves capable of choosing a better leader — even if not by the resounding landslide I’d hoped for.

Now, for you, America, begins the messy hard work of cleaning up after the party is over. Leftists getting angry at Biden’s centrist cabinet picks and trying to push him in the direction they want him to go (push hard, friends!!). Conservatives moaning about impending socialism as the Biden government fiendishly plots to make it possible for people to go to the hospital without checking their bank account. The Supreme Court striking down Biden’s best legislation. Mitch McConnell’s Republican-majority Senate refusing to sign a bill to offer relief to people who’ve lost their jobs in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Donald Trump barricading himself in the White House and having to be evicted.

But these are your problems, not mine. I won’t be watching (OK, I might click on some footage if Trump really does have to be hauled out by the Secret Service, but otherwise, no). You’ve got your own fights to fight, and we’ve got ours. Canadians have gotten off easy for four years on the world stage simply by having a leader whose most outstanding qualities were 1) being physically attractive, and 2) not being Donald Trump (see #1). But that’s not enough. It’s not enough for the poor in Canada. It’s not enough for Indigenous people. It’s not enough for Black people, or disabled people, or LGBT people in Canada, all of whom have important battles to fight and for whom, for the most part, this government has not done enough. It’s not enough for 10,510 Canadians (as of today) who’ve died since March of this year when they didn’t have to, nearly 80% of whom were seniors in long-term care homes, the elders we should have protected and cherished instead of leaving them exposed to a deadly virus.

I want to get more educated about these fights and get my hands dirtier in helping to fight them. Is that a mixed metaphor, or do your hands actually get dirty in fights? I don’t know. I just know I can’t do this while being constantly distracted by the south-of-the-border Political Drama of the Week.

I love you, America, and in some part of my heart I always will. But for now, it’s best that we go our separate ways.


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All My Decapitated Heroes

In the spring of 1979, when I was thirteen years old, I fell in love with two men.

It was an impossible romance from the start. Not only were they both inaccessible to me, but they were each other’s sworn enemies, standing for starkly different values — one doomed to die at the other’s hand. I couldn’t have either of them, and I certainly couldn’t have both.

Plus, they were older than I was. Like, a lot older. Like, dead-many-decades older.

I blame the CBC — for my ill-fated love affairs, not to mention my lifelong fascination with history. In the spring of 1979 they aired the TV movie Riel, about Louis Riel, the Red River and Northwest Rebellions, and his subsequent execution. I was glued to the screen (ok, I was a weird teenager), passionately on the side of and in love with Riel, but also deeply fascinated with the movie’s villain, our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.

They were both towering figures. There were, of course, inaccuracies in the movie, as in any adaptation of history, but it hewed close enough to the actual events and people to send me to books to find out the rest of the story. As for the movie itself, I cried when Riel went to his death. He was played by French-Canadian actor Raymond Cloutier and Macdonald by — I didn’t even realize this till I looked it up — Christopher Plummer.

I spent most of the next summer and my Grade Nine year that followed reading everything I could get my hands on about Canadian history, Riel, the rebellions, Macdonald and the other early prime ministers. There was no doubt in my mind that Riel, Dumont and the other Metis were absolutely in the right, that Macdonald’s ruthless determination to push through a railway and forge a (white, majority-English) nation on top of Indigenous traditional lands was unjust. But, from the safe distance of history, I could admire the powerful personalities of both men, could see Riel’s cause as right but ultimately doomed, could appreciate what Macdonald’s ruthlessness had won for us (us, settlers): a country.

It seemed possible, as a lover of history, a white, settler-descended Canadian, to have both — admiration for Riel’s ill-fated rebellion, and appreciation of Macdonald’s nation-building, even though the two could not coexist. Like most people (most white, European-descended people?) who love history, I have held that love of contradictory characters from history, counting myself as an admirer of both Riel and Macdonald, of Churchill and Gandhi.

With the exception of the true “bad guys” of history — your Hitlers and Stalins — surely, we tell ourselves, these men of the past were all complex characters, weren’t they? We imagine those who held power and those who suffered under them as equally men of their times, to be admired for their accomplishments and forgiven for their excesses.

It’s all well and good, isn’t it, till someone tears down a statue of one of your heroes, and, in the process, his head falls off.

This post is not about debating the rights and wrongs of statue removal. This is not about “erasing history”; the purpose of statues is not to teach us history, and people without statues are not erased.

On the whole, I’m in favour of taking down the statues of people I see as unambiguous bad guys — those Confederate generals in the US South, Edward Colston in Bristol, Stalin, Saddam Hussein. I’m on record (on Twitter, at least) as saying I don’t see the point of Gaspar Corte-Real towering over the St. John’s skyline.

But I have clung to my love for statues of John A. Macdonald, as of the man himself. I like Churchill statues too — the great striding figure covered in bird-crap outside the old Halifax library is a favourite of mine. I have liked, in my history-buff lifetime, a lot of old, dead white guys who said terrible things about black and brown people, and who did terrible things to them, too. I have a history crush on Sir John A., even though he had my other history crush, Louis Riel, hanged. Macdonald was the architect of a nation, and also the architect of the devastation of several First Nations.

I know all this. I know, now, the things he did to and said about Indigenous people in this country he hoped to unite and rule. I know that he never imagined a country in which those First Nations and Metis people could be anything like equal to white, English or French-speaking Canadians of European descent. He didn’t even imagine a country in which First Nations and Metis could go on being themselves, speaking their own languages and practicing their own religion and culture. I have no difficulty understanding why an Indigenous activist might describe a statue of Macdonald as “an open wound.”

And yet. It was a shock, to see the images. To see headless Sir John A., toppled and decapitated by protesters earlier this week.

I used to say that the correct response to every statue of Sir John A. Macdonald would be to erect a statue of Louis Riel immediately opposite him: confronting, challenging, staring him down. There’s something in that idea I still like — like the Fearless Girl facing down the Wall Street bull, I admire public art that challenges other public art, makes us see the original pieces in a different light.

But matching Macdonald and Riel statues would also be soothing to my settler soul, in some way — it would put them, as the TV movie did, safely behind historical glass together, on an equal footing where I could find things to admire about both of them. Standing between these imagined two statues, I would not be forced to take sides. I could go on loving them both.

A toppled statue doesn’t allow that comfortable distance, that false equivalence. A headless Macdonald lying in a Montreal street challenges that safe historical gaze, which is almost always a white, settler, European, majority gaze. Macdonald’s decapitated head tells me that while men like him are in the past, they are not safely there: the damage they did lives on, to be attacked and confronted.

Macdonald’s severed head gazes up at me from the street, from photographs of the street, haunting me. Mocking my perception that history can ever be safe, on a pedestal or behind a screen. Challenging my teenage settler belief that I can have both Sir John A. and Louis Riel.

History is never safely in the past, and we are never mere spectators. History is around us, in the streets, confronting and naming injustice. History stares at me from the street with unseeing eyes, forcing me to choose between my early loves. To take a side.


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Lighting Candles in Corners: Some Thoughts on Charity

Above is a not-very-great picture of me doing the thing that has, hands-down, given me the most personal satisfaction and enjoyment during the long weeks of pandemic lockdown: preparing food hampers for home delivery out of our (otherwise unused) church basement.

For five years we’ve been running a hot meal program every second Sunday, but in early March it quickly became apparent that having a random group of people come in, sit down together, and eat food prepared and served by a variety of volunteers was not going to work for the foreseeable future. We shut down the meal program and looked for other ways to be useful in the community.

With one of the largest food banks in town temporarily closed due to COVID-19 precautions and other programs operating with limited staff and hours, we felt the best service we could offer was a grocery delivery program for those who not only found it hard to afford food, but hard to get out and either shop or line up at food banks, especially in a pandemic.

Since late April we’ve been delivering groceries to about 20 households — mostly seniors, disabled people, or single-parent families with young children — every week. For the summer months, with demand slacking off a little, we’ve just switched to doing it twice a month. A good crew of volunteers, and some funding from our church’s national relief organization and other groups, has made this possible. Organizing the program has taken a lot of my time over the last few months; it’s been a welcome distraction and a way to feel useful in a difficult time.

And yet, I feel uneasy about statements like that last one. Because on one level, it sounds like I’m saying, “Helping others through a hard time has helped me get through that hard time, also.” Which is great.

But if you dig a couple of layers deeper, you get to, “Other people’s suffering [in this case, their inability to buy food for themselves] has provided me with an opportunity to feel good and valuable.” And that’s … pretty ugly.

For those of us who enjoy doing “works of charity,” whether in our paid job or our volunteer work (I do both, as I work for a charitable-focused nonprofit), there can be an uncomfortable kind of equation happening here, where someone else’s misfortune equals my opportunity to shine as a “helper.”

I mean, if you’re going to make yourself feel good from the misfortune of others, it’s definitely better to achieve that by helping those others, rather than by causing their misfortune, which obviously some folks do. I’d always choose to be one of the helpers; most of us would. But being a giver of charity raises awkward questions about the reasons for that charity.

What would make the situation in my city better, so that hot meal programs and food banks weren’t required? Well, universal basic income would be a big one. Under a system with adequate UBI, would there still be people who would have difficulty purchasing and preparing food? Sure, but we could imagine a lot more societal supports being put in place to give people greater independence in meeting their food needs, so that the number of people who would have to rely on any kind of “charity” to put food on their tables would be far, far, far lower than it is now.

Which would be great. Only … what would us do-gooders do, if we had no soup kitchens to run, no food banks to organize?

In my day job, I teach at an adult-education centre, mainly serving young adults who did not complete their high school programs, often due to mental illness, physical illness, family dysfunction, or other issues. What would it look like to not need services our centre provides? Well, the school system would have to become much more flexible, much better at adapting to a variety of needs and learning styles.

And if they did? I’ve heard co-workers talk about plans for better student retention in the public school system and jokingly say, “Well, they’d better not get too good at retention or we’ll be out of a job.” And while it’s very important for me to stress that the co-workers who made those comments were absolutely making a joke and are in favour of more kids staying in school — there’s a kernel of truth there, for all of us in the “helping professions,” isn’t there?

If the public school system was creative and flexible enough that everyone could successful achieve a diploma, we wouldn’t need adult education teachers. If everyone had the money and skills to buy and prepare their own food, we wouldn’t need the volunteers who run soup kitchens and food banks. Are there times when we fall so in love with the act of helping, the image of ourselves as helpers, that we become shortsighted – we are OK with keeping people in a position of dependence, of need, because we want to feel needed?

In one sense, of course, this is a purely academic argument. No matter how much fairer our economy gets, how good our social services are, we don’t live in the Garden of Eden. There will always be enough people in need of help — some kind of help — to keep us chronic helpers busy, getting our fix of do-goodism. If everyone had enough money to buy food, I could probably have organized a personal shopping and delivery service anyway for the people who couldn’t get to stores. If public schools retained everybody and every kid graduated, I wouldn’t have a job in adult-ed anymore, but those public schools would need a lot more teachers skilled in dealing with, for example, high-anxiety students, so my skills could still be put to use somewhere. There will never be a shortage of people to help.

But there’s another way in which the desire to be a helper, to provide “charity,” can be a trap in and of itself — if we divorce charity from justice. If I’m happy to volunteer at the soup kitchen or the food bank without asking “Why are people hungry?”, campaigning for a higher minimum wage and UBI, supporting political candidates who will work towards those goals — then I don’t really want people’s lives to be better; I just want the thrill of being a helper.

If I am happy to teach people who’ve dropped out of school without asking, “Why are people dropping out, and what can I do to support those who are working to prevent that, to make school fairer and more accessible for everyone?” — then I’m not really working for a better education system; I’m just enjoying my own smug sense of “goodness” for being a teacher who helps “those in need.”

Maybe charity shouldn’t be necessary, but it is. And it’s important, and lots of us love doing it. But we can never see it as just an end in itself. While we’re delivering the food hampers or dishing up the soup or opening the doors of the shelter, we also have to be working towards the bigger picture: a world in which food banks and soup kitchens and homeless shelters are not necessary. A more just world.

It’s great to light a candle in the darkness, to brighten the corner where you are. I hope to always do that.

But if the reason our corners are dark is because lights are burning out all over the house, then maybe we could also screw in a few new bulbs here and there? Or, at the very least, hold the ladder for someone else to do so? Maybe if we all do that, there won’t be so many dark corners in need of candles, and we can all see our way to a better world.