How a Woman Becomes a Lake – Celona

Ah! and when the hour-glass has run out, the hour-glass of temporality, when the worldly tumult is silenced and the restless or unavailing urgency comes to an end, when all about you is still as it is in eternity…

Soren Kirkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

Photo Credit: Penguin Random House Canada

Jia Tolentino recently described, in a 2018 New Yorker essay, a peculiar form of longing, a longing deeply pertinent to our times. Recalling recent political decisions in the United States and other depressing news items, she writes, “It’s been a long time since I’ve felt lake-like–cool and still.” The desire to feel not only a stillness, often associated with trendy mindfulness techniques, but also a sense of detachment, a separation from one’s own nature and the accompanying social conditions, carries with it a particularly cynical undertone.

Invoking a myth popularized in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Tolentino reflects on the emotional state of the pursued woman, the dominated woman. How peaceful, then (and this is where the cynicism shows through), to be like Arethusa. To be still, to turn into a cool spring, to rest. Of course, as Tolentino reminds us, Arethusa’s pursuer ultimately transforms himself into a river, penetrating Arethusa, despite her shapeshifting.

This essay, from which Marjorie Celona derived the title of her forthcoming novel, carries with it a subtle but important significance.

In the novel, Vera, the character missing under suspicious circumstances, is exceedingly productive, with “powersuits,” a luxury car, an enviable and predictable daily routine. Her job as a film professor at a local university is, on the surface, a marker of success and status. At one point, she narrates a standard meeting with “a flushed-faced eighteen-year-old” in her office: “So often she wanted to take her students by the shoulders and shout: Do you have any idea how hard I worked to get where I am?” she recalls, emphasizing that she “dulled the feeling” with her perfectly choreographed life.

Vera has a sign in her office saying, “Work harder than everyone else, but never feel like you’re working.” And isn’t this the epitome of a 21st-century woman’s predicament? Work harder, but also be the perfect wife, mother, friend. It’s a trap, in a sense, and Vera has succumbed. Wouldn’t it be a relief, then, to simply become “still”.

The shocking undertone of this novel is the bubbling up of violence, the allusions to suicide, the abuse of the most vulnerable among us. An underlying question of this novel seems to be, what happens to the vulnerable when they are suddenly in a position to inflict violence?

The readabilty and captivating qualities of this novel come from its frame as a crime novel feel. While the publisher has chosen not to categorized it as such (rather, a “literary novel with the pull and pace of a thriller“), Celona’s text has qualities of the very best crime fiction. First, a preoccupation with landscape and with the idea of place pushes the novel to demonstrate how tragedy is informed and ultimately overwhelmed by the surrounding landscape. Secondly, a focus on the deeply human flaws of the characters emphasizes the particular moral considerations and confusions of the individual investigating the crime at hand.

How a Woman Becomes a Lake benefits from both of these qualities, but Celona goes much further to show how these characteristics can be paired seamlessly and productively with an emphasis on literary excellence.

Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

How a Woman Becomes a Lake by Marjorie Celona

Fiction – Penguin Random House Canada

Publication date: 3 March 2020

Devotion – Stevens

With Devotion, Madeline Stevens joins the ranks of millennial women whose recent novels describe their heroines living in toxic states of body and mind in New York City (think My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Severance, Normal People, etc.). Most of these novels comment successfully on notions of privilege and success, which these women crave.

Why do we like reading about the millennial woman who has questionable actions and morals, questionable self care, questionable relationships, and questionable attitudes towards privilege and self? Why are these novels so popular in this particular moment? Perhaps they are realistic in their portrayals for the most part, which, if not a depressing fact is certainly a telling one.

These novelists in any case should be applauded for their honesty and wit, for their unapologetic ability to describe the body hair, the embarrassing sexual experiences, the misuse/abuse of substances, and desires that often come with being a 21st-century woman.

Stevens develops this popular new story line into an initially plausible account of a young woman finding a job as a nanny for a wealthy family. She’s literally eating nothing at the point she accepts the job, so she is in really no position to reflect on whether or not she truly wants the job, whether she can even be a good caregiver to a toddler (she fakes her resume to get her foot in the door).

As in most of these novels, the selfishness and self-absorption of the protagonist is just a side note, and the plots of these recent stories differ radically. Devotion reflects the life of the nanny and relationship towards the employer. Exposing the relationship between the ultra privileged and the… ? Well, what do you call it? The lesser privileged?

Stevens, in her novel, seems to imply that Ella is underprivileged in many ways, that her life could have been more successful, had she had the opportunities granted to her employer in early life. In reality, she is from a (mostly white) average rural town in the Pacific Northwest, unremarkable for significant crime or poverty, and despite some unfortunate conflict between her parents and eventual abandonment by her mother, she has a caring father and a home to which to return, should she choose. (Her childhood friends have all moved to other small rural towns, she tells us, happily married with children, living simple lives). We can see that starving in New York City, sleeping with a stranger for food, is truly not her only option.

At one point, upon seeing her employer return from yet another doctor’s appointment, Ella reports that she grew up “in a family without health insurance,” so she received medical attention, “only if I was very sick.” This is certainly not the most comfortable experience, but it is more than many can say about their upbringing. Does her health suffer to this day because of her lack of frivolous medical visits? Not that we can tell. Further, would she really have become a successful (and also wealthy and beautiful) writer should she have gone to a nicer school, or summered in the Hamptons, had a nanny, or had a doting family physician. Likely not.

As a result, the initially promising moments where Stevens reflects on privilege are ultimately cliche and have no real significance behind them. A surreal visit to the Hamptons at the climax seals the fate of this promising theme in her novel.

The novelist in this genre has the chance to present either a provoking discussion about the subjectivity of privileged experience, or exemplify how a particular generation, including, possibly, the author herself, has entirely lost sight of what it means to be underprivileged.

Stevens’s descriptions of how Ella becomes consumed by her employers’ family are engrossing and emotionally captivating. At one point, losing track of the child, she catches herself thinking (“where’s my baby where’s my baby where’s my baby”). The lines and personal boundaries between the employer and the employed become increasingly blurred. Ella does not actually care about her small charge, however. She is more interested in inserting herself into the lives of this family. She will happily become dangerously intoxicated at night, even when it is clear that she is the primary caregiver for the evening.

Reviews of the novel so far have tended to focus on the book’s “thriller” aspects, one going so far as to claim that descriptions of the salacious events (affairs, theft, etc.) elevate “the mundane days of a nanny.” Really, the strength of this book is located precisely in those mundane days. Had Stevens forgone the temptation of domestic thriller in favor of her remarkably skillful descriptions of the nanny life (based on her own experiences), this novel would have benefited greatly.

What are her motivations in her obsession with this family? Any young woman who has left her dilapidated apartment in the morning, making the trek to a nice townhouse or mansion in the city, using her assigned key to open the door into a world of wealth and beauty and apparent freedom, can tell you the unconscious wave of desire that takes over. For stability, for wealth, to be the mother who hires a nanny only to focus on herself for the whole day.

In this way, the mostly-privileged white female in her 20s working as domestic help is a particularly ripe microcosm on which to focus when considering the millennial American woman.

Devotion by Madeline Stevens

Fiction – Harper Collins Publishers – 2019

Trail of Crumbs – Lawrence

Years ago, as a newly minted teacher, I was tasked with preparing a reading list for an after-school novel reading class comprised of seventh and eighth grade boys. While discussing the draft of my list with a friend (an author of young adult novels), I expressed my concern that the boys in the class wouldn’t identify with the female protagonist of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. My friend reminded me that, as females, we have spent years of our education reading books featuring male characters and male protagonists. It is absurd, she argued, to consider a different standard for a class of boys. What harm could it do them to see a situation from a female perspective–especially one of sexual violence and bullying, as presented in Speak. I immediately agreed, and I think of this moment often, as both a teacher and a reader.

Trail of Crumbs, which I’ve come to think of as an updated version of Speak, gives the protagonist significantly more agency and power over her relationship to the trauma she has experienced. It is not a story about how the truth is pulled out of her. Rather, Greta continuously speaks up for herself, and it is up to those around her to listen to her and believe her. The focal point is not whether she’ll speak up for herself, but whether she will be heard.

Lisa J. Lawrence, a teacher as well as a writer, captures these tense high school moments accurately and beautifully. There is so much nuance and thoughtful dialogue surrounding the discussions of assault and consent. Sometimes, Greta’s thoughts and interactions with her peers read as though they were lifted directly from articles from the frontlines of #MeToo. Lawrence never lets her novel become merely an educational pamphlet, however. The strength of this work is that the conversations seem natural between these teens. These are conversations that young people should be having and likely do have.

While Greta deals with fallout from the unbelievable cruelty of her peers and abandonment by her father, she seeks support and guidance from a troupe of eccentric but benevolent male characters: her emotionally haywire brother, Ash; their reclusive guardian, Elgin; and their goofy neighbor, Nate. These men support but do not shelter Greta. It is Greta’s actions and Greta’s decisions that allow her to confront those who need to be confronted.

Most importantly, Lawrence has put a disclaimer at the end of her novel: She writes that the choice Greta makes to confront her assailant is not the choice everyone should make. Every case of assault is different, and no one should feel pressured to follow any particular process. Yet again, Lawrence is extremely nuanced and sensitive in her approach to these complex and current issues.

School librarians should welcome this new addition to Canadian young adult literature, and teachers of middle and high school students should absolutely consider including Trail of Crumbs in their lesson plans.

Thank you to Orca Book Publishers and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Trail of Crumbs by Lisa J. Lawrence

Young adult literature – Orca Book Publishers – Publication date 26 March 2019

Reading This Week

“Search for the New Land” by Morgan Parker, in the Feb 21 issue of The New York Review of Books – This poem moved me so much that I went to a bookstore within the hour and bought Parker’s poetry collection, “There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce.”

Discovering Words by Neepin Auger – This is a wonderful picture book for very young children (approx. 0-2). There is one illustration per page, and each illustration is described in English, French, and Cree. This is a must-have book for children living in Canada.

Trail of Crumbs by Lisa J. Lawrence

Continuing my read of Vice, Crime, and Poverty by Dominique Kalifa – This book prompted me to read the entire Wikipedia article on the Black Death. Yikes.

Reviews from this week:

Anna at the Art Museum by Hazel Hutchins

Diana Dances by Luciano Lozano 

The Learning Curve by Mandy Berman

Anna at the Art Museum – Hutchins.Herbert

Art museums are not built for children. Though many museums now have programming intended for young audiences, a museum experience still may be overwhelming for a child.

Anna, in Anna at the Art Museum, is doing her very best to have a positive experience with her mother, but she seems to be breaking rules without even knowing, and a grumpy guard points out her mistakes at every turn.

At the end of the day, Anna’s perspective has shifted, thanks to some guidance from the same grumpy guard.

As Anna moves through the museum, the images in the surrounding paintings appear to interact with the onlookers, providing thoughtful commentary on art, and giving children a delightful opportunity to spot similarities between the art and the museum patrons.

The images in this title include artwork from around the world and from a variety of time periods, which could be a valuable and accessible introduction to art for young children.

Thank you to Annick Press and NetGalley for providing a copy of this title.

Anna at the Art Museum – Written by Hazel Hutchins, Illustrated by Gail Herbert

Children’s Literature – Annick Press – Publication Date: 11 September 2018

Diana Dances – Lozano

Most educators know a child (or teen), who cannot sit still in a desk and refuses to conform to the standardization of public education. Diana is the embodiment of this student.

Unfortunately, the adults surrounding Diana immediately assume there must be something wrong with her.

A benevolent psychologist intervenes just in time, however, and Diana’s body and soul are rescued.

The illustrations in this title are reminiscent of Hilary Knight and her beloved Eloise, but Diana certainly is her own special character.

There is limited text on each page, which perfectly suits this story. Some pages have no text at all, allowing the reader to interpret for themselves.

Readers of all ages have the opportunity to see their personalities reflected in Diana.

Thank you to Annick Press and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Diana Dances – Luciano Lozano

Children’s Fiction – Annick Press – Publication Date: 12 March 2019

The Learning Curve – Berman

The Learning Curve, the forthcoming second novel by Mandy Berman, might as well have the subtitle, “a modern parable for the privileged woman,” such is the impression the reader has after finishing this ambitious and, ultimately, frustrating novel.

Among the dizzying amount of information covered in the plot, Berman’s characters navigate personal traumas, sexual politics, frat houses, European countries, visiting professorships, motherhood, alcohol abuse, crushes, failing marriages, failing research projects, failing relationships (romantic and otherwise), etc., etc.

In fact, Berman’s novel covers so many topics that it feels like walking into the brain of an author working on five different novels at once. One need only to read Berman’s acknowledgments to see the surprisingly multifarious research that went into writing The Learning Curve.

In some ways, the parable-feel of the novel is appropriate. During a college seminar called “Sex, Sentiment, and Sympathy,” Fiona and Liv, the two student characters, learn about 18th-century stories that cautioned their readers about the consequences faced by women who dared step outside social norms. Fiona reflects later that these cautionary tales apply to our current treatment of women (Monica Lewinsky is her example). Indeed, the connections between these 18th-century “coquettes,” and the characters themselves are engaging, and one wishes Berman would have spent more time on these developments, rather than swiftly moving on to new territory.

Strikingly similar to this novel is The Red Word, by Canadian author Sarah Henstra (winner of the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award). The two novels both place the female student in dialogue with seemingly incongruous campus circumstances: advanced literary seminar vs. raucous frat party, feminist declarations vs. questionable sexual encounters with sketchy dudes, hagiographies of beloved female professors vs. obsessions with “bad” boys. Henstra’s novel is triumphant in portraying contradictory scenarios and deftly abandoning the reader to weigh the ethics of the characters and their decisions. Berman’s novel, on the other hand, pushes the reader to inauthentic conclusions (i.e. “lessons learned”), using characters who are too busy filling their assigned roles to really resonate.

The stimulating discussions of Berman’s characters and their self-reflective thoughts are lost in an excessive amount of exposition: two sisters share a glass of wine while having a personal conversation. Is it really necessary to justify why one of the women is drinking? (She’s in her third trimester, so it’s safe, Berman tells us.)

Readers looking for a drama-filled campus story will find pleasure but will get lost in the many digressions Berman takes. Those looking for more social commentary and fully articulated characters will be disappointed.

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

The Learning Curve – Mandy Berman

Fiction – Random House – Publication Date: 28 May 2019

Permission – Vogel

A recent episode of Radiolab discussed the connections between the notion of consent and the systems in place to protect participants in the BDSM community. It was clear that, in many cases, proponents of BDSM often have rigid guidelines to ensure consent is established prior to any activity between two people.

It was also unfortunately clear, from firsthand accounts described in the podcast, that these systems can sometimes malfunction. As Saskia Vogel states in her debut novel, Permission,

We might play at power, exploring roles not yet available to us outside these four walls, but for the space to be sacral, it had to be held sacred by us all.

This perceptive reflection from the narrator of the novel has far-reaching implications, certainly beyond the walls of BDSM and even beyond sex itself.

In many ways, it seems as though the understanding and awareness of fantasy and desire on one hand and reconciling our sexuality with the reality of our lives on the other can lead to a more effective system of advocating – and therefore consenting – for ourselves.

Vogel has explained that she turned to literature after her time working as a reporter for a porn industry magazine, suggesting, however, that she continues to explore many of the same questions about discovery, awareness, and acceptance in her current work.

In a lecture about the porn festival, Viva Erotica, Vogel recalls trying to find a way to get audiences to “look at porn as part of, and not separate from, popular culture and the art of cinema.” This project is apparent in Permission. The prose of this novel asks and then demonstrates how the elements of erotica and literary fiction can merge, overlap, intertwine. In many ways, the composition of this novel mirrors life itself.

Reflecting on one’s own sexuality and sexual history in the wake of #MeToo can often be deeply connected to all of the complexities of one’s life and identity. Using the character of Echo, Vogel has the perfect opportunity to explore these connections.

In the novel, Echo is navigating three aspects of her life: a recent family tragedy, complex memories from her adolescence connected to her sexual identity, and the conflicted past and precarious present she has with the entertainment industry. As she confronts each of these facets, she is drawn into the world of her family’s neighbor, Orly, who helps Echo discover herself and reflect on her experiences.

In writing this novel, Vogel has drawn comparisons to Joan Didion. While a comparison to Didion’s writing may be a bit overblown, there is definitely some truth to a thematic link between the two. Like Didion, Vogel locates danger and tragedy in the Californian landscape. There are movie stars and glamorous lifestyles, but there are also jagged cliffs, the impending doom of the San Andreas fault, and disappearances in the Los Angeles canyons. Echo is “forever waiting for tragedy.”

When discussing landscape, the idea of distance is never far off. In Los Angeles, distance is everything. For Echo, the distance between her parents’ home in the canyons and her downtown apartment is vast, though only a car ride away. Even the short distance between neighbors’ homes is prohibitive. It is possible to never meet the person living right next to you.

In Permission, Echo learns that in order to understand herself and cultivate intimacy, she must be willing to eradicate the distance between two bodies, to truly “merge,” as she recalls at one point. In a strikingly surreal sex scene, the physical borders of the body are ripped away; two bodies completely engulf each other.

For a novel that is this brief, there are some odd preoccupations: In one case, Echo repeatedly thinks about the pre-made deli counter food that she eats directly from the containers in her mother’s fridge. Various pre-made salads are given more attention than necessary. The narrator regularly reflects on her mother’s German identity, frequently mentioning her pronunciation of words and desire to move back to “the continent”. While these traits of her mother could provide some valuable insight into the depths of this character, they are not delved into deeply enough for them to be clearly relevant to the story.

In some areas, descriptions venture towards eye-roll territory: “My sheets did not yet smell like sorrow,” or “Alongside my orgasm, sorrow and fear coursed through me.” In general, however, Vogel’s ability to think about the erotic as a legitimate literary technique is encouraging and commendable.

This novel will make a huge impact on the way we consider genre in literature, and it will certainly provide a significant contribution to discussions of sexual identity, desire, acceptance, and consent.

Thank you to Coach House Books and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Permission – Saskia Vogel

Coach House Books – Literary Fiction – Release Date: 9 April, 2019

My Cat Looks Like My Dad – Lam

This children’s book is going to charm and surprise both children and adults!

The text and the illustrations are hilarious, while the message of the book has far-reaching implications for discussions of family and love.

The dad, a Napoleon Dynamite lookalike, in addition to his striking similarity to the cat’s appearance, is also shown partaking in many of the same activities as the cat, from drinking milk to taking naps.

The first read of this book is enlightening in terms of its content, but it truly deserves many successive reads, simply to revel in the detail of the illustrations and the variety of mediums Lam has used in crafting these amusing and colorful scenes.

Anticipate some thoughtful discussions after finishing this book with children.

Thank you to Owlkids Books and NetGalley for the advance readers copy of this title.

My Cat Looks Like My Dad – Written and illustrated by Thao Lam

Owlkids Books – Children’s Fiction – Release date: 15 April 2019

Sprout, Seed, Sprout! – Dunklee.Sookocheff

Sprout, Seed, Sprout! will completely fill you with delight. Fitting somewhere between a how-to guide for sprouting a seed, and a precious reflection on patience and perseverance, this book is perfect for growing minds.

Dunklee’s simple and decisive language is ideal for very young children, while older readers can notice fun details, such as the progression in age of both the protagonist and his plant!

Sookocheff’s illustrations are likewise straightforward, and the use of soft colors and easily-recognizable imagery is appealing to all readers.

Thank you to Owlkids Books and NetGalley for the advance readers copy of this title.

Sprout, Seed, Sprout! –Written by Annika Dunklee, Illustrated by Carey Sookocheff

Owlkids Books – Children’s Fiction – Release date: 15 March 2019