Holding Still For As Long As Possible

Holding Still For As Long As Possible by Zoe Whittall

RATING: ★★1/2 (2.5/5)

 

I remember that very specific queer scene of the early 2000s: those queer girls who read Bitch magazine, became obsessed with knitting and all things vintage, listened to indie bands, converted to veganism– the mixed offshoots of ’90s hippie and punk revival. Admittedly, my memories are from an adolescent perspective, gazing up toward the women I dreamed of becoming. Unlike these characters, however, I grew up, I became what I’d like to label a ‘self-aware’ person. Unfortunately, HSFALAP (I cannot bring myself to write out the entire title) only manages to straddle the divide of self awareness and self-indulgence, much like an adolescent. At one point a central character, Amy, opines that the majority of her conversations with a female friend and coworker have devolved into ‘Sex and the City’ type anxieties over her relationship; to a lesser degree, this is how I felt about the book’s narrative. In her sincere, and perhaps only all-too-accurate attempt at depicting queer life in early 2000s urban Canada—a ‘slice of life’ piece—author Zoe Whittall strives for a tone of ironic criticism but ultimately only achieves a brand of nostalgic hypocrisy.

HSFALAP centers around the members of what will become a clichéd queer love triangle; each character is given a series of first-person chapters, with each ‘book’ or part begun with a third person vignette featuring incidental characters. The three central characters are relatively strong and have unique voices for the most part, at times wavering in distinction. Billy, a fallen/shooting star of teen folk/pop fame in North America, is possibly the most well-developed character, though her panic disorder & OCD, however accurately portrayed, sometimes overwhelm the importance of her other traits. Another side to the triangle, Amy, is uninvolving, almost to the point of being a trope: she comes from an upper-middle-class family and is the black-sheep artist of the conservative career-professionals, is conventionally beautiful, and her multiple shallow behaviors (materialism and oblivion to her own privilege among them) are proved scarcely redeemable by any of her behavior. Josh is frustratingly the most interesting but less defined of the central characters. It is affirming to see a trans* character whose trans* identity is not the sole focus of their storyline, and Josh has the potential to be a satisfyingly emotionally and intellectually complex character, but in the end he is left disappointingly undeveloped; Whittall again seems to waver in her stylistic choices, at first placing emphasis on Josh only to replace him with the anxiety-riddled Billy whose mental ‘disorders’, though accurately and compassionately described, are resolved in a sickeningly neat and lazy manner, suggesting that they only ever there to add tension to the plot before being discarded as a ‘quirk’. The resolution, though perhaps not medically impossible, does the strength of the character, and the hopes and sufferings of all those actually suffering with panic disorders and OCD a disservice.

Whittall begins HSFALAP with two epigraphs: one examining the human vacillation from feelings of insignificance to self-importance, especially within the context of crisis (taken from composer Allen Shawn’s excellent memoir, Wish I Could Be There: notes from a phobic life), and the other a quote from David Sedaris (as told on This American Life) concerning the societal reaction to the national trauma of 9/11 and the ensuing confusing emotions and emotional manipulations by the media. 

These quotations promise a narrative that concentrates not only on the microcosm of daily social interactions and anxieties, but a broader, more existential, look at human experience within the context of early 2000s North America. Promotional material promises that HSFALAP will tell the story of  “What [it’s] like to grow into adulthood with the war on terror as your defining political memory, with SARS and Hurricane Katrina as your backdrop” but in actuality these political and natural disasters do little to “define” the characters, figuring only as footnotes in the novel’s movement. Though Whittall makes brief stabs at reflections on family, economic struggle, and queer identity the story of HSFALAP generally skims atop the surface. The door to characters’ underlying pasts and traumas is never fully opened, nor are we really engaging with the socio-political present. In some novels this type of psychological and narrative withholding works, but in this case it only proves to hollow out possible complexity and hints at the author’s inability to define characters beyond their tropes, as exampled in the case of Josh, whose abusive father and rough family life serves little actual narrative function and comes to no climax. Instead, Whittall goes along the generic route, focusing on the tears and binge drinking and sex, the story becoming less and less engaging under the weight of the romantic drama. Youthful vices which could be observed from a more critical or analytical stance are dulled into the boring partying of twenty-somethings, written as if it is a given and not helped by incessant, unexplained pop-culture references which have no way to stand the test of time for future readers (for a contemporary author that successfully utilizes pop-culture references, wit, and diverse characters, I recommend Rainbow Rowell). All emphasis is placed on the present inner dialogue and motivation, very little on past events or the influences of the outside world at large— proving the characters to be, perhaps unfairly, represented as extremely self-involved. Compounding this shallowness and the empty promises of publisher’s promotions, Whittall barely brushes the surface with her descriptions of the changing demographics of the urban Toronto area. It clear that her stance on the area’s gentrification is a critical one, but still her cast of characters is overwhelmingly white and solidly middle class. All of the central characters are white, and none of the minor characters remain un-described. As many writers fail to realize, simply leaving characters’ ethnic or other minority ambiguous is not really a form of representation as, unfortunately, most reader (oftentimes even PoC) assume characters to be white if not explicitly identified otherwise. I believe the one time someone’s race was explicitly mentioned in HSFALAP was to qualify a nefarious stranger as white…as if it might be assumed that they were a PoC otherwise.

The epigraphs’ suggestions of a deeper theme fade into a narrative largely consumed with the complicated and dramatic swamp of romantic intrigues reminiscent of ‘The L Word’. If you are an author and decide to preface your work with an epigraph you better be damned sure that your work actually sticks to the suggested theme and isn’t shown up by those other author’s remarks. I suggest that if you are actually interested in the themes conveyed in this epigraph you’d be better off just reading Allen Shawn’s book or listening to that episode of This American Life.

For a novel touting so many promises, this reader was ultimately let down. Plowing through this novel—in this case, yes, plowing as in actual work not pleasure—was made compulsive by a hope that these promises might, somewhere in the next page or chapter, be fulfilled, compounded by the vivid anxiety of Billy. The structure, voicing, and thematic un/success of Whittall’s work could have been aided by a firm editor or, even better, some more time at the worktable. With the apparent lack of a critical eye, the story unfortunately comes off as an insular look at a very specific demographic within the queer community of 2000s urban Canada, told with an amateurish attempt at surrealist intellectualism. The pretensions of deep examination give way to pure illustration of jealousy, immaturity, self-indulgence, unhealthy emotional compartmentalization, and co-dependence which have no real consequences in the end, despite an attempt at a climax. Maybe a half-heartedly satisfying romance for your summer stitch ’n’ bitch group, but lacks the expressive prose and deft handling of characterization and theme that makes a great novel truly stick in your mind.

Swing Time

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

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★★★★1/2 (4.5/5)

I loved the pacing and structure of this narrative. Smith writes similarly to how memory functions– tangential, non-linear, laced with the unreliable narration of childhood impressions of history and present that inevitably shape characters’ futures. The varying expressions (and documentations) of dance in the novel– from the narrator’s memories of Fred Astaire films, to a fictional white pop star dancing in a West African village, or her childhood friend’s failed dance career– are used as vehicles to examine complex issues of cultural appropriation, skewed histories, and craft as identity. Generally, you could say this is a book about identity–specifically female identity–, and how the myriad influences of life (family, racial constructs, gender, education, colonialism, trauma, wealth, religion, fame, and craft) nudge one’s own and other’s perceptions of self. Smith takes on many many complex themes, all the while maintaining lovely prose, an excellent ear for dialogue & individual speech patterns, a compassionately critical eye, and disarming wit.

I was also obsessed with Fred Astaire films as a child, though not quiiiite to the extent of the characters in Smith’s novel, but I never took a dance class (due largely to crippling childhood shyness) and know little about dance technique. To read Smith’s careful, and often biting, technical and historical analysis of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers was highly enjoyable and, at times, eye-opening for me. I found myself, again slightly like the narrator (though, importantly, from a white perspective), looking back and re-examining my childhood impressions of those old Hollywood films. For some reason, my elementary school library’s movie collection consisted largely of Shirley Temple classics on VHS, so she and her strange Hollywood realm became coveted by my film-starved self (TV was strictly rationed in our house). There is one scene in The Littlest Rebel which has clung like a burr for man years: Temple, playing the daughter of a southern plantation owner in during the Civil War, puts on blackface and hides in the closet with her slave (and a cash of food) in an attempt to hide from pillaging Union soldiers. She gets discovered due to her dress catching in the door. The soldiers break down the door, then one “smashes his bottle on her table,” and demands that she “pull off his boots” threatening to “tan her hide” if she doesn’t. This ends abruptly when he discovers that she’s actually white. Temple’s kerchief is tugged off to reveal her gold ringlets and her tears wash away the blackface.

At least that’s the summary I read of it recently. How I remember it is much more reflexive of how a child’s limited understanding of context can force them to adapt unfamiliar narratives into new stories, stories which conform to the logic of their own inner and perceived worlds. My memory of this scene is foremost clouded with a heavy feeling of discomfort–not for the clearly racist content, it should be noted, but at my lack of understanding. I don’t think it’s uncommon for children to be confused by displays of clear prejudice, and then frustrated or even frightened by this confusion. My actual memory of this scene is: Shirley Temple has to hide from some perverse bad guys, so she and her friend (? the ambiguity of the relationship, as it was portrayed, is evident in my recollection) hide under the stairs…in a coal cellar…where Temple gets her face/purposefully covers her face with coal dust. Then the dust gets washed off. This memory is vague and somehow forced, especially as I also remember asking my mother, who only let me watch these film begrudgingly to begin with, why Shirley Temple did that to her face, or Why is her face like that? I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember the pervading feeling of discomfort. Was the TV turned off after that, or do I only want it to have been? I still am not clear on why it seemed like a good idea to Temple’s character to try to pass herself off as a slave. Was it because she thought she’d be ignored that way? Because Northern soldiers only assaulted white women in this fictional world? Even the racist logic was off. So I made it into some sort of accidental disguise, voided the little white girl of all responsibility.

And this is the kind of morality warp that Smith is getting at, however ploddingly, in Swing Time. How are the first impressions of things equally reflected of ourselves, as much as the thing being observed, and how do our minds choose to retain, and possibly reshape, those memories?The obsession with recrafting the past, of awkwardly attempting to remedy misperceptions and un-deserved hero-worship, is emxemplified in the narrator’s discovery of Jeni Legon, one of the first well-known black, lady tap-dancers.  The use of the first person I is only personal at the surface level for this novel– rather than personal detail, there is reflection, a constant hovering between the past and the present perceptions of broad themes such as motherhood or race taking precedence over any specific trajectory of personal life.

Brighton Rock

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

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RATING: ★★★★★ (5/5)

Graham Greene has solidly established himself as one of my favourite writers. His stories are masterful observations of the inescapable ambiguity of life and the ways in which humanity tries to fight against or through these unavoidable grey areas. Greene’s writing style itself is a deceptive ambiguity– coming across simple or straightforward at first, only to wind into beautifully unique turns of phrase and metaphor. In this novel, Greene chooses to swan-dive into the murky subjects of religion, love, and crime, themes returned to in much of his writing. Besides the wonderfully twisting ‘thriller’/’crime-drama’ plot (with a buxom middle-aged, working class sensualist woman cast as determined private eye), is Greene’s attention to a well-placed detail, bringing at once a truthful humor and deliciously melancholic realism to his story (the seventeen-year-old gangster’s room is perpetually covered in pastry crumbs, the priest in the confessional has an audible cold, a pub owner who is excellent at ironing is revealed to be blind in the last act). In this dedication to realism, Greene shapes characters that are uncompromisingly flawed, as well as familiar. Greene lays out characters’ morally questionable actions with such careful psychological insight that they are made understandable, pushing to the verge of empathy, though Greene never falls into the common trap of revealing a non-objective bias; in this way, the reader is made to constantly come to their own conclusions and analyze their reactions, resulting in a read that is gratifyingly complex and stimulating.

Though Greene categorized Brighton Rock as one of his “entertainments’ (ironically, Greene divided his work into two genres: “entertainments”, what he deemed lesser mystery or crime thrillers supposedly aimed at popular audiences only; and “novels” or more traditionally ‘literary’ work), it’s no simple pulp read. Greene chooses to swan-dive into the murky subjects of religion, love, and crime, themes returned to in much of his writing. Besides the wonderfully twisting ‘thriller’/’crime-drama’ plot (with a buxom middle-aged, working class sensualist woman cast as determined private eye), is Greene’s attention to a well-placed detail, bringing at once a truthful humor and deliciously melancholic realism to his story (the seventeen-year-old gangster’s room is perpetually covered in pastry crumbs, the priest in the confessional has an audible cold, a pub owner who is excellent at ironing is revealed to be blind in the last act). In this dedication to realism, Greene shapes characters that are uncompromisingly flawed, as well as familiar. Greene lays out characters’ morally questionable actions with such careful psychological insight that they are made understandable, pushing to the verge of empathy, though Greene never falls into the common trap of revealing a non-objective bias; in this way, the reader is made to constantly come to their own conclusions and analyze their reactions, resulting in a read that is gratifyingly complex and stimulating.

—On a related note: I recently came across the 2010 film adaptation which received rave reviews but I don’t think I could bring myself to watch it based on the poor casting: the casting director/ director seem to have aged most of the character up about fifteen to twenty years. I was especially irked by the decision to cast Helen Mirren as Rose– Mirren is far too bony and sharp for a character that is supposed to ooze a sort of Demeter-maternal-sensuality (the illustrated depiction on the above book jacket is a great example of what I did picture) . I would have loved to see someone like Claire Rushbrook (you may recognise her as the timid-yet-plucky Pat Simms in Home Fires or, more recently, Pauline Einstein in Genius.). The role of Pinkie’s girlfriend was also given to Andrea Riseborough who is about the opposite of a frail, delicate, plain 16 year old…I will give them credit for Sam Riley in the role of Pinkie though, as he does have disturbingly dead and resentful eyes! I may someday get around to watching the original 1947 adaptation, featuring a baby David Attenborough as Pinkie.—

Bone Gap

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

RATING:★★★1/2 (3.5/5)

An interesting blend of modern midwestern farm life with mythology, folk and fairy tales. It had all the elements there to be a book I could love–hints of magic, some nice bits of feminist psychology, science, honey bees– but it fell short. This is a book I would still recommend to others and is definitely well-crafted, but I would have liked it more if there was greater character development. The several main characters were interesting, but those areas of interest were constricted to one or two aspects (I get that ‘Finn is spacey’, but what does he want to study in college? Petey is a ‘homely tomboy’, but what does she talk to her best friend about other than looks?, Not to mention Miguel! Why does Miguel not get his own chapter?). Without giving too much away, I was also disappointed in some of the scenes in ‘alternate’ worlds; the premises were unique but sometimes the execution or descriptions sounded like a B horror movie (I do NOT include the corn in this, I loved the corn). Those are my peeves. I am being hard on it. Overall, a solid book with some unique and memorable characters and ideas (I am being purposefully vague to avoid spoilers). I look forward to more of her work.

Longbourn

Longbourn by Jo Baker

RATING: ★★★★★ (4/5 stars)

Spin-offs of Pride and Prejudice, sprinkled with anachronistic zombies or robots or aliens, seem to flood the shelves these days. Occasionally I indulge in one of the TV adaptations of these cash-cows, but I’ve never considered reading the original material. I looked at Longbourn skeptically, fearing it might be another one of those churned out dramas, distilling all the spectacle and romance of the original with little of the substance. Happily, this was not the case at all!
Longbourn burns brightly as its own, singular piece of literature. Jo Baker takes on the task of disillusioning readers, taking each beloved P & P character and gently pointing out their faults (other than the comical ones developed by Austen), their ignorances due to their class and breeding, their willingness to view the world in a certain light, while providing interesting and complex backstory as to how these characteristics developed.
Through a third-person subjective narrative, Jo Baker examines the emotions and motivations of the servantry at Longbourn and the other great houses in sensitive detail. I was continually impressed by her ability to give characters a scope of thought familiar to our 21-st century expectations–ponderings about the future, about the worth of our day-to-day work, about the purpose or necessity of love, about the very reality of a larger world–without seeming unrealistic. Today there are conventional ideas of what nineteenth century England looked like, many of which are glossy, homogenized, and simply inaccurate–partially due to the popularization of certain comic romances of the day that offer only an upper-middle class perspectives. Jo Baker widens this world beautifully; we are introduced to characters who are aware of, and think deeply about, the realities of war and poverty, slavery and the functions of trade and commerce, sex and childbirth and the sometimes frightening consequences, among myriad other things. Sarah, the housemaid, and Mrs. Hill, the cook, have knowledge, have heard stories and know the geography of the world outside the village; they pragmatically know they cannot see all of it or visit it, but they still think about it. Baker rejects the idea that, just because people of working classes are ensconced in the labor of the everyday (she does not shy away from descriptions of blood, shit, and piss) they can make no room for intelligent thought.
Baker’s prose as she describes these stark daily realities and characters’ memories and examinations of the past is beautiful. I’m a sucker for lush descriptions of landscape and natural detail, and Longbourn is rife with winding sentences illustrating the call of a curlew or the scent of blackberries. My one peeve was her overuse of the word ‘waft’ (everyone is wafting their hands to signify something).
If you are interested in the regency era, the realistic consequences of the Napoleonic wars, and don’t mind a bit of angsty romance and meandering prose, this is a truly wonderful read.

 

How to Build a Girl

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

RATING: ★★1/2 (2.5/5 stars)

I love Caitlin Moran’s humor, her gift for striking metaphors and similes with their frequent sprinkling of pop-culture references, but I’m not sure if book-length work is her strong-suit. I read most of her autobiography, ‘How to Be a Woman’ earlier this year and had to put it down for the frequent hypocrisy littering her feminist points (going out of her way to mention the importance of trans visibility but then blithely centering many of her jokes and rants around trans-exclusionary generalizations of how all women go through having periods/uteruses, for one example). She tries, and I appreciate this, but she hasn’t quite absorbed all of what it means to really be inclusive or intersectional.
Having so recently read her autobiography, this work of ‘fiction’ felt highly repetitive. Had I not gotten it from the library as an audiobook, and had Louise Brealey’s reading of it not been so wonderfully acted, I likely would not have finished it. Though I’m sure much of the detail in the story is largely fictionalized, all of the major story arc mirrors Caitlin Moran’s own adolescence: fat poor girl on Wolverhampton estate in the ’90s wants to sex up her life, leaves school to work for music mag, has shitty relationship, eventually leaves home to live in London. Her liberal working class family of autodidacts, her penchant for eating cheese, even her odd pet dog were all obviously lifted from her own biography. And I enjoyed her biography, I enjoyed all of these details, but it wasn’t exactly original material; it felt like Moran was plagiarizing herself. Also, there is the conflicting voice of the narrator– is this a story being told, like to a diary, by a teenage girl, or is this a story being told by an adult reflecting back. A good editor should have put their foot down. And there were the long, slightly didactic, philosophical essays stuck in at the end of every other chapter attempting to gloss over the crudeness of her actions by flowing out a philosophical reflection; these were often quite beautiful but, as others have noted, could have been placed better, as they come off very incongruous.
I want Caitlin Moran to write a story that proves she can really use that clearly active imagination of hers. By all means, still write about a poor fat girl growing up in Wolverhampton, draw on your own experience, as writers do, but mix it up a little. Maybe write about a girl who has conservative parents that support Thatcher, or a girl who is gay, or even just has a cat instead of a dog, or actually talks about the friends she has, or is not quite as obsessed with sex, but wants to be, or…any slight variation. Otherwise, maybe just write some more witty essays, those are always good. Back to the drawing board and get a new editor.

 

The Hired Girl

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schiltz

RATING: ★★★★ (4/5 stars)

I found the voice of the titular ‘Hired Girl’ strikingly familiar. Although Joan, the hired girl, is writing in the year 1911, her daily quandaries and feelings are processed and expressed in ways that consistently reminded me of my own diary entries at age fourteen, down to the sometimes cringe-worthy naiveté! Unlike some other works aimed towards YA audiences or grappling with the psyche of an adolescent, Schiltz’s book manages to present these moments of over-exuberance, hubris, or self-consciousness in a believable balance. Joan is decidedly likeable, her flaws often stemming from the greatest points of her personality: her curiosity, imagination, passion, and determination.

The detail in Joan’s descriptive diary entries also makes for an enjoyable read. There was never a point where I longed to skim through a passage in order to move to the next major plot point. Joan’s use of language is at once humorous and beautiful, fitting for a young girl who is relying largely on Wilkie Collins, Charlotte the novels of Brontë, and Sir Walter Scott for her education; her turns of phrase, awe, and imagination often reminded me of a toned-down version of Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables). Both Joan’s life of drudgery on a rural Pennsylvanian farm and her stint as a hired girl in a wealthy Baltimore home are colourfully brought to life through the characters she interacts with, descriptions of her daily tasks, and the various forms of art she observes. Though romance does come into the story at some point, the majority of character interaction focuses on the intricacies of inter-generational relationships amidst siblings, parents, ageing authority figures, teachers, etc. and Joan’s search for genuine love and tenderness.

A review of this book would not be complete without mention of the subject of religion. What could have been another treacly ‘coming of age’ is given an added dimension with Joan’s spiritual and intellectual journey. Joan’s cultural shock of travelling from rural farm to bustling city is compounded when she accidentally becomes the hired help/’shabbos goy’ in a Jewish family’s household. Joan’s attempt to reconcile her strong Catholic faith with her intellect and her own journey as she learns about what it means to be Jewish in Edwardian America is a pleasure to read.

The character of Joan Skraggs, aka Janet Lovelace, is a delightful addition to strong, well-rounded female heroines. Her love of literature, intellectual curiosity, sensitivity, passion, intransigent opinions are sure to find many kindred spirits.