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 resembles qualities of the very best of Scandinavian crime novels.

The traits that set Scandinavian crime fiction apart from that of other regions are twofold: 1) a preoccupation with landscape and with the idea of place, how tragedy is informed and ultimately overwhelmed by the surrounding landscape, and 2) a focus on the deeply human flaws of the characters, particularly the 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

Spring Children’s Books

It is definitely not spring yet here in central Ontario, but on our recent trip out west it was full-blown flower-blooming, sunburning, green-grass spring. Since I read mostly children’s books while visiting this warm planet, I think it’s appropriate to include them all in the following spring children’s book list. Enjoy!

Love You Head to Toe – Barron

Ashley Barron’s Love you Head to Toe, written in the second person, addresses a “Baby” (indeed many different babies, as the dynamic and colorful illustrations reveal), who are going about their daily baby activities. On each page, the narrator compares the baby to a particular animal. This title is perfect for toddlers and babies who are in a mimicking stage, and will prompt some fun games in animal sounds and actions.

Publication date: 15 March, 2019

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

My Island – Demasse-Pottier and Ratanavanh

In My Island, the illustrations of Seng Soun Ratanavanh definitely take center stage. Oversize animals abound, and the surreal, imaginative creations could stand alone. Demasse-Pottier’s text is thoughtful, but one expects more profundity to accompany such illustrations. Children will enjoy the daydream-like quality of this title, and spend time considering some of the unanswered questions prompted by the fanciful characters.

Publication date: 2 April, 2019

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

Otto and Pio – Dubuc

Like Marianne Dubuc’s other books, Otto and Pio is translated from French (originally published in 2016 as Je Ne Suis Pas Ta Maman). Otto and Pio takes place in a very Dubuc-style setting, a squirrel’s apartment in “a very old tree, bigger than all the others”. The plot feels very familiar, but surprises and specifics in the text make this story singular (like when Otto the squirrel, burdened and agitated by the presence of the otherworldly Pio, finally resorts to “Do you want a hazelnut before bed?”). As usual, Dubuc’s illustrations stand out as both remarkably unique in their hilarious detail and expository in their own right.

Publication date: 19 March, 2019

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

Wish – Saunders

Chris Saunder’s Wish is rich with lessons on sharing, selflessness, planning, and decision-making, among others. Rabbit, the main character, has a big decision to make, and proceeds to consult each one of his friends before ultimately choosing. The book’s illustrations are stunning (one spread shows Rabbit soaring above mountains draped in clouds in a hot air balloon), and they are the strength of this title. Occasionally, the rhyming feels awkward when read aloud (“Rabbit had never caught a wish before/he could not decide what to wish for”), but the message of this book stands out and will appeal to many ages.

Publication date: 12 March, 2019

Thank you to Quarto Publishing Group and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

You are Never Alone – Kelsey and Kim

In a world where children are shuttled from home to daycare to school to indoor play areas, the scientific and social aims of this title (described by the author in her afterword) are inspirational and enormously helpful: She wanted to “look every kid in the eye” and tell them that they were surrounded by the gifts of nature and, therefore, could never be truly alone. Soyeon Kim’s illustrations are artistically significant and noteworthy in the variety of media used and their beautiful, whimsical quality. That said, while they do accompany the text in the most basic of ways, they often stand entirely independent and at times seem irrelevant. A scientifically-inclined title does not need illustrations of textbook precision, but one thinks that children would find it more educational to be presented with a less abstract representation of the book’s message.

Publication date: 15 April, 2019

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

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

Operatic – Maclear.Eggenschwiler

The definition of bullying in many school boards follows this sort of formula: In order to qualify as bullying, there must be some sort of power dynamic – or “imbalance” – at play, and the bully is the one holding that power over the head of the bullied.

But, as many teachers and young adults can ask, what if the bullying is more of an overall feeling, a general tendency to universally dismiss or scoff at the bullied individual? How do you send the entire school to the office?

Operatic, a gorgeous and thoughtful new graphic novel from Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, explores the aftermath of this bullying, documenting the absence of the universally shunned. Meanwhile, the novel thoughtfully portrays the musical epiphany and blossoming self-awareness of the protagonist, eighth-grade Charlie, in a refreshingly authentic way.

From the start of this brief graphic novel, it is clear that the illustrations are the real strength of the piece. Later in the novel, two frames follow Charlie and the beautiful, quiet, beekeeping Emile as they walk through the city, their surroundings transforming into visual representations of city sound: music, vibration, horns, passing cars. These sounds grow into what appears to be a garden, forming and following them as they move together.

The characters are complex. There is Mr. Kerner (Mr K), for example, the inspirational teacher archetype who, while pushing the students to think beyond their immediate experiences and providing them with creative learning opportunities, is also woefully unprepared for the classroom bullying that ensues. His comments of “quit it” and “go to the office” clearly do nothing to prevent the tender, whimsical, and surprisingly bold Luka from disappearing from school. Mr K. assigns an inspirational music project, he plays songs he wrote in his youth (*cringe*), but Luka’s desk remains unoccupied. The days go on, the class becomes empowered by tales of Patti Smith, but Luka is still missing.

Sometimes, the trend-based dialogue (“OMG post it!”; “You slay”) is too specific for a graphic novel that hopes to reach a wide variety of young readers, but the instances are infrequent and not excessively distracting.

Another small disappointment was the lack of detail involved in narrating Charlie’s discovery of Maria Callas. Much of this short graphic novel delves into a Wikipedia-esque summary of the life of Callas, while what the young adult reader likely wants is to experience Callas through the eyes of Charlie. The illustrations come to the rescue here, as Eggenschwiler cleverly portrays Charlie and Callas as mirror images of each other at points throughout the novel. Charlie and Callas looking out the same window, Charlie playing Callas’s character on stage, etc.

Opera and middle school may seem worlds apart. As Operatic demonstrates, however, the melodrama, passion, and universality of both connect these two in deep ways.

Middle school libraries should display this book in plain sight.

Operatic – Written by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler

Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press

Young adult graphic novel – Release date: April 2, 2019

Thank you to Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press and NetGalley for the advanced reader copy of this graphic novel.