Ian McEwan and false rape accusations in fiction

December 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

I read The Children Act a few weeks ago, and ever since (particularly given all the horrendous news recently) I’ve been bothered by the fact that there were two separate instances of men being falsely accused of rape. Two! As if writing a whole book (Atonement) about the subject wasn’t enough. It’s fiction, obviously, but why this insistence on such a rare occurrence? I confess, in the current climate I can only find it depressing.



Best books of 2014

December 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve seen a fair few of these lists already, but I find the exercise interesting for myself, purely because I love lists, spreadsheets and all kinds of record-keeping geekery. I have no difficulty recalling that Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods was far and away my top pick from 2012, but 2013 is vaguer. Looking back through my notebook of books I read, the books I remember with most fondness are Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas (translated by Brian Zumhagen), Zadie Smith’s NW, Nicholas Royle’s First Novel, Ian Williams’s Not Anyone’s Anything, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, Chimamandah Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah, Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, Sam Byers’ Idiopathy, Sophie Létourneau’s Chanson Française, France Daigle’s For Sure (translated by Robert Majzels) and Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative. Checking against my actual post, I’ve included Royle and Létourneau here but not at the time, and I included S.D. Chrostowska’s Permission. Interesting that the same books still stand out.


This year things have seemed flatter. I haven’t read as much, for one thing, as real life has been inconveniently overwhelming, and I’ve often been disappointed by books I was looking forward to. I did love:


  • A Map of Tulsa by Benamin Lytal (another great success for And Other Stories)
  • Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
  • Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes, translated by Jamie Bulloch
  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
  • Tongues of Flame by Tim Parks
  • Les États-Unis du vent by Daniel Canty
  • The Freedom in American Songs by Kathleen Winter
  • Between Gods by Alison Pick (the only non-fiction on the list)
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner
  • A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (not because it was innovative, because it wasn’t particularly, but because I loved its rhythms, reminiscent of Anakana Schofield’s Malarky)
  • The Last Days of My Mother by Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson (I didn’t *love* this at the time but it has stuck with me).


Eleven books, five women, five men and one I’m going to Google … okay, six men. One short story collection, one memoir, two translations, only one person (as far as I know) who isn’t white. This list is all the books I wrote down as favourites from the year before I counted. It doesn’t feel as strong to me as last year’s list, though, so I think it’s time to return to book choice as dictated by most burning desire to read rather than library due date or other obligation. Here’s to 2015 as a year of amazing books. I’m getting in an early start with Ivan Vladislavicć’s The Restless Supermarket (mind-boggingly different from Double Negative) and Frédéric Beigbeder’s Oona et Salinger.

In Search of the End of the World

December 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

My translation of excerpts from Michel Noël’s novel À la recherche du bout du monde is up at the new Words Without Borders. The novel won last year’s TD children’s literature prize. It was a great experience translating the excerpts and working extremely closely with some wonderful editors.


Saboteur of Futures

September 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

My translation of Jonathan Goyette’s short story “Saboteur of Futures” is up at http://ambos.ca/saboteur/. It’s a great story, and was fun to translate.




The M Word, ed. Kerry Clare, and Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill

July 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Possibly the most surprising thing a woman with no children can learn from a woman with children is that the ambivalence never leaves. The childless (or child-free) woman must therefore re-evaluate her conception of her own position as nuanced and that of the mother (or child-encumbered woman) as necessarily simplistic. From purely anecdotal evidence it seems to me that far from disappearing on the birth of a baby, ambivalence might well be the defining feature of parenthood, and of motherhood in particular (fathers in general still having fewer compartments of their life that are affected by the fact of having children).

Children or art? It seems like a tough choice. Having it all is reserved for people who have “real” jobs, not the kind of vocation in which paying for daycare to allow the writing of an as yet financially uncompensated book can seem like expensive vanity. Many of the essays in The M Word, a collection by established and emerging writers edited by Kerry Clare, address the intersection of motherhood and writing, which might also be described as the intersection of motherhood and selfhood.

m word

Several essays deal with this forked road, “children” signposted one way and “writing career” signposted the other. I would have liked—no, I would like very much in a further volume of this extremely interesting book—to see whether this ambivalence and hesitation is widespread across society. What about women who start their own businesses in non-creative industries: selling clothes, party-planning, inventing useful products that fill needs, and are patronisingly labelled mompreneurs? Is it a question of time-management/time-insufficiency as a freelancer or self-employed person? Or do doctors and lawyers (or should we call them momdocs or momyers?) feel the same professional panic too, whether related or not to mat leave–induced career-flatlining? What about teachers, secretaries, shop owners, farmers, civil servants, hairdressers? Is the shock of motherhood a double blow to a writer because her career/vocation is so entangled with the self in a way that doesn’t happen if you have a job you go to at set hours? Does religion make a difference—if you have always believed your role as a woman is to nurture children, is the transition easier? And indeed the experience of men: do they notice or experience such a binary split between parents and non-parents?

Some of the writers in this collection have more reason than others to feel stationed far outside maternity’s central zone, as Kerry Clare’s introduction puts it: women who become stepmothers without having had children of their own; women who either by design or circumstance raise and bear children alone; women who either by design or circumstance have no children; women raising children with a female partner. Then there are the women who have had abortions, or had their babies adopted, or had their children (yes, plural) die. These open-hearted essays are all fascinating and absorbing, and sometimes heartbreaking. Ultimately these writers are speaking, as they take care to point out, for no one but themselves, and they do it tremendously well.

The main message I took away from The M Word is that being a mother can be desperately awful and pretty wonderful. Also that not being a mother can be desperately awful and pretty wonderful. The ratio of awfulness to wonderfulness is often but not always related to the strength of your original desire to reproduce or to remain childless, and to whether your ultimate fate aligns with this. Motherhood–many different, dark, unspoken aspects of it–is no fairytale even when it does have a happy ending. Ambivalence climbs the intertwined helical strands of maternal feeling and artistic ambition like a voracious vine, clinging, powerful. Being a mother heightens emotional extremes (despair to joy and back again dozens of times a day) while muting actual life extremes (possibility of adventure, spontaneity, freedom from responsibility).


Having read all these essays, it was fascinating to turn immediately to Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation. Described as a portrait of a marriage by some blurbs, it seemed, given my recent immersion in stories of parenthood, more a portrait of how having a child changes everything: minds, relationships, careers, people.

I’m not going to write about the book here, but there were so many brilliant quotes that I want to share just a couple, because Offill manages to convey the most painful of truths in the most exquisite ways.

‘A boy who is pure of heart comes over for dinner. One of the women who is dabbling with being young again brings him. He holds himself stiffly and permits himself only the smallest of smiles at our jokes. He is ten years younger than we are, alert to any sign of compromise or dead-ending within us. “You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones,” someone says after the boy who is pure of heart leaves.’

‘My Very Educated Mother Just Serves Us Noodles. This is the mnemonic they give [my daughter] to remember the names of the planets.’

‘How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.’

Dept of Speculation is a wonderful novel about getting older and losing that brief and mostly illusory freedom that children believe all adults enjoy. I’ve seen several bloggers suggest it for the Booker longlist; I do hope it will be there.

Wigrum by Daniel Canty

July 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

My review of Oana Avasilichioaei’s smooth translation of the excellent Wigrum by Quebec writer and all-round arts explorer Daniel Canty appears in the newest edition of CNQ.

Also featured are Kerry Clare on Miriam Toews and a very interesting analysis of the Giller Prize by Alex Good. Buy yourself a print copy and admire the glossy Seth cover.


Looking back and ahead

January 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

In 2012 I had one clear favourite out of all the books I’d read: Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods. This year I had no single best book. Here are my top ten books from 2013, plus a bonus one, in no particular order.

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (which I reviewed for the Globe and Mail)
  • The Canvas by Benjamin Stein, translated from the German by Brian Zumhagen
  • Idiopathy by Sam Byers
  • For Sure by France Daigle, translated from the French by Robert Majzels (which I reviewed in last week’s TLS [paywall])
  • The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan (which I reviewed for the National Post)
  • First Novel by Nicholas Royle
  • Not Anyone’s Anything  by Ian Williams
  • Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavic
  • Permission by SD Chrostowska

And now some recommendations for 2014. Two of my friends are bringing out books: Jonathan Bennett’s excellent The Colonial Hotel and Michelle Berry’s Interference, which I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading. I’m also looking forward to Carrie Snyder’s Girl Runner, Eliza Robertson’s Wallflowers and Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. On the translation front I recommend Quebec author Raymond Bock’s Atavismes (translated by Pablo Strauss), from which two very good stories were excerpted in the Review of Contemporary Fiction last year and Julia Deck’s Viviane: A Novel, which I suspect Kerry Clare (whose forthcoming non-fiction anthology The M Word looks absolutely fascinating) would like.


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