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A Conversation with Author Billie Livingston

Photo of Billie Livingston by Braden Haggerty
As I mentioned in my previous post, here is my interview...er conversation with Billie Livingston. To read my review of her book please click here.


HL: In my opinion, The Crooked Heart of Mercy is your most accomplished novel to date. First of all, I was pleased to see that you didn’t move away from the working class: Ben is a limousine driver and Maggie is a homecare worker for seniors. Tragedy has befallen the couple before the story opens, and in societal terms, it’s one of the worst—the death of a child. The circumstances of the death, the bottle of wine shared by the couple might not raise any eyebrows, but the prescription drug used for a recreational purpose would definitely set the fingers awaggin’. You never shy away from the dark side, and I like that you are always willing to look below the surface. But why did you chose such dark tragedy to be so central to the plot of the story?


BL: Yes, I've definitely heard the swish-swish of fingers wagging. Remarks like: These are despicable people. They deserve their misery. To begin with, the majority of the people have, at one time or another, ingested something "to take the edge off." The Rolling Stones sang about Mother's little helpers because it was and remains so very common. I think people tend to distance themselves from those who make tragic mistakes in order to provide a kind of mental insurance that this outcome could never happen in their own lives. Most people tend to imagine themselves as "good" while only others are "despicable."

The inspiration for this child's death was an event from my own family's history. Before I was born, my father and his first wife had a little boy who, at the age of two, climbed up on the window sill and fell two stories. He died. From what I've heard, his mother had had a couple glasses of wine. I really liked my father's first wife. She was fierce and funny, but I don't think she ever forgave herself. What if she hadn't had any wine? What if she was merely exhausted and closed her eyes for a moment?

In the story, Ben and Maggie are both feeling brow-beaten and exhausted by life.
Like so many of us, they are living hand to mouth and unable to get ahead. They took one of those "little helpers," wishing for a reprieve. They didn't get wildly intoxicated, but still, one wonders after the fact — what if I hadn't had that glass of wine? What if I weren't on these anti-depressants that make me drowsy, what if, what if, what if. The keys to survival for all of us are love, hope and forgiveness. For Ben and Maggie, that one decision is the biggest obstacle to finding these keys.


HL: So much of our construct of grieving is middle class. We see grievance counsellors and maybe take time off work. But these are luxuries that the majority of people don't have, as you’ve pointed out. However, tough Ben who is never without a witty or sarcastic repartee is absolutely shattered by the death of his son and the loss of Maggie. As callous as this may sound, Ben’s experience in the hospital is both heartbreaking and hilarious. For one, he’s not the type of man who, even with a head injury, would ever speak to a psychiatrist or go to group therapy sessions. Ben is in a fugue state and sometimes the reader doesn’t know if he’s talking to himself or if he is talking to those around him. It was brilliantly done. How did you come to the decision of having brain-injured Ben narrate his side of the story? And how did you research what his stay in the hospital might be like?


BL: I wanted Ben to be fierce and funny — and lost, so I'm delighted that he came across that way. Yes, I think we get used to the average middle-class person having a therapist when they're depressed. They go on anti-depressants and do talk therapy. But what about a guy who doesn't have the money, time, or the inclination to pour his guts out to a stranger?

The inspiration for Ben's head injury came from a story in the news about a 17-year-old kid in Florida who shot himself in the head, trying to wake up after he ate too many psychedelic mushrooms.  Fortunately he lived and was able to get to a hospital. But as you can imagine, the doctors thought he had tried to commit suicide and he spent the next while convincing them that he hadn't. I wondered how a person would navigate that situation if he had been in a very dark place prior to this event.

Then I had a conversation with a wildlife veterinarian who told me about vet pharmaceuticals that people have been known to take either recreationally or in hopes of getting themselves out of a bout of insomnia. (I've had terrible insomnia in the past so I'm familiar with the desperation and feeling of madness that comes when you haven't slept in days.) One drug she told me about was Telazol, which can put a person to sleep but also put him into a dissociative state. Taking something like this, when one is already feeling half-nuts from sleep deprivation seemed to have Ben written all over it.

Ben's a good man, he takes his responsibilities seriously. But what happens when an already overwhelmed person is pushed to the brink? Ben has so much shame and grief and anger, he doesn't want to be Ben. So, in a way, he embraces that dissociative state. It's a place to disappear. I found the Ben-voice I started to hear in my head very compelling.

As for research, I've had a couple of family members end up in psych wards and I've seen first hand that strange dissociative state that can happen. I've visited psychiatric facilities and psych wards in general hospitals. And when my husband, Tim, was in the seminary, he did some chaplain work in a psychiatric ward on the American Eastern seaboard. He answered my questions and showed me the notes and transcriptions he wrote -- all names removed, of course.


HL: Maggie works with a senior who asks Maggie to accompany her to the First United Church of Spiritualism, where the person leading the congregation speaks to spirits on the other side. Although Maggie is a lapsed Catholic, she still desperately wants to hear or see a sign from her young son Frankie. Ultimately, The Crooked Heart of Mercy is about where you turn when you’ve suffered an unspeakable tragedy and find yourself completely alone. This story is about faith. What is it that interests you about faith?

BL: I guess I've always been curious about faith. I've been to dozens of different houses of worship — everything from synagogues to churches to a Raëlian meeting. I love the very human desire to experience the divine, to find meaning in a way that goes beyond the flesh of this world. Maggie is a lapsed Catholic and yet, the yearning for spirit, for healing, is deep in her bones. Whether it's superstition or something more profound, she's afraid and she has a craving for some kind of magic. This seems pretty normal to me. Even the staunchest atheist — atheists talk more about God than your average priest!

About 400 years ago, Blaise Pascal wrote about the God-shaped hole and maybe there's something to that. Whether a person calls it The Universe, or My Higher Power, or The Great Spirit — these expressions all point to the same hunger for the divine.
I gave a reading in San Francisco recently and there was a homeless man in the audience. He talked about his experience with death and spirit. He believed he'd seen the dead. A few seats over from him, an old woman leaned on her cane and stared out the window. She suddenly turned to him and said, “This vision you had, you said you’re open to it. I haven’t experienced anything like this and I’m not open to it. I’m not. Why are you? How does it happen?” The anger in her voice, the frustration — it was clear that she wanted so much to believe there was something else, something more. I think it's innate in us. For better or for worse.

HL: Maggie’s brother Francis, a Catholic priest, is also on a self-destructive path, and it is only after he suffers the ultimate humiliation on YouTube that he is forced to face his demons. Francis and Maggie together are hilarious and a reminder that life goes on regardless of tragedy. Despite Francis’s fall from grace, he is very good with people and he loves his work. Besides his obvious role as a mediator, why was it important to have an openly gay priest struggling with sobriety and celibacy in this story?


BL: When my husband and I were first dating, he was in the seminary in Washington, DC. I used to visit him there, and on the weekends I'd be up on the rooftop patio drinking cocktails and bantering with young men who felt they had a vocation but were unsure if they could put their appetites aside. So a lot of Francis came out of meeting these guys and seeing all their fear and grace and that wicked sense of humour. A few were gay and clearly had strong appetites for sex and alcohol. The Catholic church doesn't accept active homosexuality and, although priests in the Eastern Catholic rite can marry, that only applies to the straight ones.

I used to ask— Why? why are you so determined to get ordained when it means spending your life in hiding? Why not become an Anglican/Episcopalian? Then you can get ordained and married.  But I think for a Catholic, the only church is The Church. At any rate, a couple of these guys who eventually got ordained did run into trouble later. One of them ended up in a drunken viral video similar to the one in Francis's situation. But the people in his church still wanted him. They found his presence was very healing and merciful and they gave it right back to him. 

It's not very often that you see clergy in film or in books where they're just human beings. Usually they feel as if they're tiptoeing around being excruciatingly holy. I liked many of those seminarians and priests I met. And it was clear to me in witnessing them as they dealt with people, as they delivered the sacraments, that a person can make lousy decisions in his personal life and still be a great catalyst for love and healing.
 

HL: I told you in an email that it took me months to digest this book. Initially, it made me feel like I wasn't as tolerant as I thought I was. Maggie and Ben taking a prescription drug the night their two-year-old died was just one of events that stuck in my craw. Not the bottle of wine, which is so acceptable in our society. Or the fact that two-year-olds can take off in a flash from sober, alert parents. Just ask the woman whose three-year-old ended up in a zoo enclosure with a gorilla.


We, myself included, are so quick to judge others. It was quite liberating and refreshing when I realized that the Crooked Heart of Mercy was all about forgiveness. Well done.


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Review: The Crooked Heart of Mercy by Billie Livingston

I have interviewed Billie Livingston, who talks about her inspiration for this novel. Stay tuned for my next post.


The Crooked Heart of Mercy
Billie Livingston
Harper Collins
William Morrow Paperbacks
ISBN: 9780062413772


In The Crooked Heart of Mercy, the sixth novel by award-winning Canadian novelist Billie Livingston, we meet Maggie and Ben, a once happy working-class couple whose world is torn asunder when their two-year-old son scrambles out their apartment window just as the couple has settled in for quiet evening together. If this isn’t bad enough, their date-night involves a bottle of wine and a prescription drug that was not prescribed to either Maggie or Ben.

If you’re wincing right now then that is precisely what Livingston had in mind.  But just as the author takes you down to the unfathomable depths of grief, she will just as quickly whisk you back to hope and optimism, with plenty of gallows humor along the way. Livingston continually challenges her readers to look beyond their own prejudices and to suspend their judgment by showing the vulnerable, soft sides of her characters, who have made mistakes, but haven't we all?

After the tragedy, Maggie is no longer able to face Ben and moves out. Ben not only has to contend with the loss of his son and his wife, the only things he got right in life, but he also has to deal with an ailing father and a wayward younger brother. Unable to cope or sleep, Ben attempts to take his own life.

The story opens with Ben finding himself in a hospital room that is “as white as a scream.” In a dissociative state and unable to answer simple questions, Ben is confused as to who Ben is. In response to his psychiatrist’s question about how he ended up in the psychiatric ward with a bullet in his head, Ben does not answer aloud, but to himself, “Dr. Lambert wants to know about the hole. Ben’s black hole. If he stuck his finger in, surely Lambert could find the answer in there.”

He occasionally answers the question of the other characters in the story, but mostly he answers in a meandering interior monologue, airing his comic disdain for therapy, mental health professionals and privileged individuals, such as fellow patient Greg the attorney, who claims at a group session that he was selected by God and brought in with nails in his hands and feet.

While Ben has a hole in his head, Maggie looks on as claw-fisted diggers are excavating a hole on a building site. Maggie has just left Ben and is grieving the loss of her son. But money is needed, and she is on her way to an interview as a helper-cleaner to Lucy, an 82-year-old self-absorbed senior. One of Maggie’s duties is to accompany Lucy to the Church of Spiritualism to listen to a medium who speaks with the dead. This is a little more than Maggie can bear. As a lapsed Catholic, she claims she doesn’t go in for any “hocus pocus”, but she still listens closely just in case her son sends her a message.

If grieving weren’t enough, Maggie gets a call from the seminary about her gay brother Francis, a Catholic priest who has caused a scandal which involves his drunken rant at the county jail being captured on social media. Francis has to go and stay with his sister in her tiny apartment. In one of the book’s funnier moments, an exasperated Maggie confronts her brother about his choice to become a priest. As a bullied child, Francis confesses that he liked the safety of the church and that close-to-God feeling. He also reveals that he likes helping people and he enjoys being a priest, to which Maggie replies, “Why? Is it the robes? Getting all dressed up in the vestments? Is it like the ultimate drag show or what?”

While Francis lives with Maggie, he goes on a short-lived party-sex binge. Despite his weaknesses, Francis is very good with people. His gift of lending an ear and offering hope makes all the difference in this story.

The Crooked Heart of Mercy is suffused with a compassionate take on spiritualism, both conventional and pagan. But rest assured there is nothing preachy in this book. It serves as a reminder that the religion of our childhood, even after we’ve firmly closed the door on it for myriad reasons, is often where we turn, albeit in a more subdued form, when faced with tragedy, crisis and grief, even in spite of ourselves. But unlike the fairy tale depiction of redemption we’ve seen countless times in mainstream media, the reader sees through Ben that there will always be scars.

This is the most ambitious and complex of Livingston’s novels to date, and without a doubt her finest. Of all the books I have read in recent years, this one gnawed at me for months. I found that it poked holes in my belief system and raised so many new questions. Why did Livingston choose to have the couple take a prescription drug? Why did the plot revolve around such a horrific tragedy? Why did the author make Ben so resistant to seeking psychiatric help? And why did she have Francis go on a party-sex binge?

These are a few of the questions that I have asked Billie Livingston. Please drop by for my interview with her.

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A Virtual Team Trek: 10,000 Steps a Day


All My Walks Take Me to Jarry Park
I am a language professional who has the privilege of working from home. It sounds pretty sweet, doesn't it? No more commute, no more running around making my kids' lunches while trying to figure out what to wear, and no more flying out the door because we are late again. (Okay, we still do this.)

Teleworking or working from home sounds pretty good.... But there's one little problem. All that rushing to get to work and get home at the end of the day does burn a lot of calories. Now add that to the fact that desk jockeys like us are sitting for over seven hours a day. This means that those with the luxury of working from home can put on a lot of weight and develop an unhealthy lifestyle very quickly.

I work with a team of eight language professionals who live across Canada, so I came up with the idea of a virtual walk from one co-worker's place of residence to the next. Aware of the dangers of sitting for long periods of time, my colleagues were more than a little enthusiastic about doing this walk with me.

The original goal was for each of us to walk 25 kilometres (about 15 mi) a week, from Monday to Friday. That would mean walking 5 kilometres (about 3 mi) a day in our respective neighbourhoods across the country. At the end of the week, everyone sent me their tallies of the number of kilometres they had walked that week. I added all their weekly totals together, and using Google maps, I plotted our collective distance on a map and announced how far we had walked.

Week 1 of our Virtual Cross-Country Trek
We started our virtual trek in Barss Corners, Nova Scotia, the hometown of one co-worker. Our destination, some 5,716 km away, is Williams Lake, British Columbia, where another co-worker lives.

We began our virtual journey the week of November 9, 2015. Our first week's collective total was 193 km (120 mi), but by week 17, my team had walked 296 kilometres (184 mi). To date, our virtual trek has taken us through Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, northern Maine, Quebec (to visit me in Montreal), Ontario (to visit five teleworkers in and around Ottawa), northern Minnesota and Manitoba (to visit two teleworkers in Winnipeg). In total, the eight of us have walked 3,638 km (2,261 mi) in 17 weeks.

Our collective trek across Canada has also had the benefit of stimulating conversation about walking, exercise and vacations, and has been a nice team-building experience. Most of my team members have reached 40 km (25 miles)  more than a few times, while another team member has walked 75 kilometres (47 miles) in just one
week.

Originally, I wanted to make our walking goal 10,000 steps a day. This is apparently the distance to walk for good health, but it changes for everyone depending on the length of their stride, among other factors. For me, it means walking about 8 km (5 mi) a day.

Beautiful Jarry Park
By Christmas, I noticed that it was easier to reach 8 kilometres (5 mi) a day if I went out to walk at least three times a day. It was too overwhelming to attempt this distance in just one walk. Using Google maps, I now calculate the walking distance before I leave home and keep my daily and weekly tally on a post-it note on my computer screen.

My New Year's resolution was just once to walk 50 km (31 mi) a week to see how I felt afterwards. As anyone who exercises regularly knows, the benefits of exercise can often be felt a few days later. I managed to walk 50 km in the first week of January, and it felt great. I was afraid that it was too much and that I would be exhausted. Instead, I felt energized. The combination of fresh air, sunlight and exercise has made this a wonderful experience, and I have walked 50 km a week ever since.

But what has made this much easier is knowing that seven other people are doing this walk with me, even if they are hundreds or thousands of miles away.

But it has cut into my blogging.


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Advice on Creating a Graphic Novel

We all grow up with a misconception that some people have innate artistic talent. While it's true that some people are born with some natural talent, succeeding as an artist requires self-discipline and years of practice. I've told my 13-year-old daughter this countless times, but as a mother, my view point sometimes falls on deaf ears.

Better to get that information from an actual artist.

That's why I was so pleased to have some input from Alison McCreesh, the artist and storyteller behind Ramshackle: A Yellowkife Story. Here is  how her experience of living off the grid came to be a graphic memoir/travelogue/diary. (That's her self-portrait below.)`



Enjoy drawing
"I had travelled a fair amount before and had always kept illustrated journals of some kind or another. I didn't give it that much thought. I just liked to draw and also liked to keep some kind of notes about my wanderings."

Draw inspiration from other artists
"It took until about 2008 for me to start discovering more indie and alternative comics and to realize that there was a whole genre of visual storytelling that actually existed and got published. A little while after that, I also started following a bunch of comic blogs and was inspired to start my own."

Set short-term goals
"My plan was to draw a few panels a week - never less than one - to document my travels. I figured that a little accountability to the World Wide Web would keep me motivated. I called the blog 'Alison a fini l'école' and started working on it in earnest when I headed out to do an internship in Halifax to wrap up my undergrad."

Exercise self-discipline
"I was surprisingly disciplined once I started and kept it up for a good three years. I made several panels a week and posted them diligently as I wandered - and as I eventually came to settle in Yellowknife. After a while of being sedentary, and of other creative projects taking up more and more time, the blog eventually fizzled out."

Build on the seed of an idea
"It seemed a shame to have done all that work and for barely anyone to have ever seen it and I always planned to do something with it. It just took me a while to figure out the precise incarnation. It wasn't cohesive enough for me just to stick it all together into a book."

Don't expect everything to be perfect
"The visual style changed over time, the drawings were sometimes sloppy and there was often a lack of context. It was a lot of raw material though!"

Decide on your focus
"In the end, I decided to go back and focus on reworking a section and that's how Ramshackle came to be. The book is directly based on about four months worth of the blog - the four months that span our first summer in Yellowknife."

A sense of humour always helps...in art and in life
"As for humour, I try to be of the school of 'the more aggravating at the time, the better the story later.'  Being under pressure (even self-imposed pressure) to draw weekly comics also did wonders for my attitude: every tiny hardship was potential gag material. Working on the story of that first summer in hindsight was also a plus. In revisiting all the old panels and strips, I mostly saw the funny side. It's easy to laugh at sleepless mosquito infested nights when the bites are long forgotten."




Read a review of Ramshackle here.




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Ramshackle: Living Off The Grid

I found myself at Montreal's Expozine again this year. This time, it was to give my daughter a few ideas for creating comic strips. She likes drawing manga characters and has been after me to come up with a story for her characters, and we've worked on some things together, but it's hard to know what is cool to a 13-year-old.  I thought that she might get some inspiration from the eclectic collection of artists at the Expozine.


While we were there, I ran into a few familiar faces from the days when I used to review a lot of books. At Conundrum Press, I was handed a copy of Ramsmshackle: A Yellowknife Story by Alison McCreesh, just in case I wanted to review it. The author was on hand with a very small baby strapped to her chest. A brave mother, I thought.


McCreesh was signing copies of her graphic novel while chatting with a few people. The St-Enfant Jésus church basement, the Expozine venue, can get really hot. Sweat trickled down my back as I waited, watching McCreesh's tiny baby who began to wiggle with impatience. I wondered how the author was going to handle the situation when the heat made him loud and cranky. In the midst of her conversation she effortlessly opened a flap, a little red face popped out, breathed and then went back to sleep. Very smooth, I thought. The woman is a pro.


McCreesh's infant-toting, book-signing feat was my first clue as to her taste for adventure.
Ramshackle is the story of McCreesh and her boyfriend's drive across Canada in a barely roadworthy minivan and their lives starting out north of 60 in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. This is much more than just camping. Think large mosquitoes and no plumbing for months.


The unfathomably high cost of living and rent in Yellowknife force the 20-something couple to live out of their minivan, duct-taping the vents shut to keep the mosquitoes out. They eventually land dull day jobs and make some friends. Then they become house-sitters, the guardians of residents' pets and plants, while enjoying the modern amenities of a comfortable bed, hot showers and flush toilets, periodically returning to the minivan between gigs.


But their lives begin in earnest when they find their place and later their home in Dragon Shack Woodyard, their alternative, off-the-grid Shangri-La, in a tiny community with other like-minded people, sandwiched between million-dollar homes.
McCreesh and her partner not only like their makeshift existence, honey bucket and all, but they also thrive in the land of the midnight sun.


I loved this story of resilience, a type of antithesis to our consumer culture. I especially liked the idea of introducing a woman into pop culture who forges an untraditional path that she clearly finds rewarding, at a time when most people seem to opt for luxury items, comfort and debt.


The last ten years of the planet's swing to the right has often left me searching for a way out of the rat race, but I don't quite have the same sense of adventure as McCreesh.

Ramshackle left me with a lot of questions about the author's obvious enthusiasm for living off the grid. Where did this enthusiasm come from? What sense of community was there? How was this sense of community created? There was plenty about stocking up on water and maintaining a sawdust toilet, presented in a playful way, but what about heat north of 60? What equipment and clothing were absolutely essential to living off grid?


These questions and a few others will be answered in my interview with Alison McCreesh in my next post.



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Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Adult Onset
Ann-Marie MacDonald
Knopf Canada


Ann-Marie MacDonald is an award-winning actor, playwright, broadcaster and author. Given the range and depth of her talents, readers should not be surprised to read something completely original in Adult Onset. Although there are some similarities with her two previous best-selling novels Fall On Your Knees and The Way the Crow Flies, namely a father in the Royal Canadian Air Force and a mother of Lebanese descent, MacDonald’s new release does not span decades.

Instead Adult Onset takes place in real-time, focusing on just 7 days in the life of forty-something stay-at-home mom Mary Rose MacKinnon, also known as Mister. In this typical week, which starts out relatively peacefully, Mary Rose toils alone with her 4-year-old son and willful 2-year-old daughter while her partner is out of town. For unexplained reasons, she is suddenly seized with discomfort and then pain.

As a child, she had a medical condition that she has long since grown out of. The adult onset of her pain, as she slowly discovers, is the resurfacing of long-buried early childhood trauma that she has not yet come to terms with. The reader follows Mister’s every thought, slipping back to her vivid childhood memories, as she tries to pinpoint the source of her malaise.

Raising young children is, after all, when most of us are likely to revisit our childhoods. Mister’s parents, Dunc and Dolly, may not seem ideal by the standards of today’s helicopter parents. They are tough as parents were in the day when it was believed that a coddled child would not fare well. Mister is also a child who was born in Germany, where her father was stationed. Dolly, like many military wives, had to come to grips with the strain of raising her young children far from her family, while grieving the loss of two other children.

I identified very closely with Mister, as I had my two children late in life and was familiar with the obsessive thoughts about banishing BPA-laden plastic containers and finding organic ingredients year round for my children. I was also haunted by the resurgence of my own childhood trauma, which MacDonald portrays perfectly, so perfectly in fact that I was convinced that this book was a memoir.

Rather than using trauma as a literary device to propel the story, the author opted for a realistic, intellectually honest portrayal of trauma, a process of two steps forward one step back, until Mister has her epiphany. There is other trauma in Adult Onset that I found equally as moving. As a young adult, Mister came out to her parents in the early 1980s.

Although straight folk often equate the eighties with sexual openness, Dunc and Dolly are anything but accepting of Mister’s sexual orientation. While it is easy for outsiders to dismiss this as mere bigotry, MacDonald takes us in for a close-up of Mister’s relationship with her parents and shows us where the pain lies, particularly in relation to her father.

He is not horrible or narrow-minded. Instead, he is a warm, intelligent, loving father who just can’t accept his daughter’s homosexuality, which he sees as a lifestyle choice and not a matter of identity. MacDonald does a beautiful job of balancing the story with Dolly and Dunc’s acceptance and rejection of their daughter’s homosexuality, something that afflicts Mister’s entire adult life.

 According to MacDonald, Adult Onset was the most interior of her three novels and the hardest one to write. She describes it as the third book in a trilogy, and while it may appear to be a memoir, the author has said that it is about a character who is very similar to herself, living in a parallel universe.

 I was taken aback by this book for many reasons. As an army brat who grew up in Kingston, Ontario, where many of Mister’s childhood memories are set, MacDonald describes the town exactly as I remember it, right down to her father’s drive to RMC in the morning. In fact, I lived a few streets away from Our Lady of Lourdes, a Catholic grade school in Kingston where a clear-eyed nun identifies Mary Rose MacKinnon as a gifted child.

My personal connection to the book aside, this is a beautiful, spellbinding story. Although some may argue that it doesn’t have quite the same entertainment value as Fall On Your Knees, I would argue that Adult Onset will be one of her most enduring books. Let’s hope that there will be many, many more.

This has been crossposted at Montreal's Rover Arts.
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Jimmy Beaulieu's Bikini

Here's a review I wrote for the Summer 2014 issue of the Montreal Review of Books. Because the following graphic novel was pretty slim, I spent some time at the public library reading other works by Jimmy Beaulieu. He definitely dares to be an innovator, and I'm sure that there are people "borrowing" some of his unique ideas. I particularly enjoyed his take on body image, both male and female.  

My Neighbour’s Bikini
Jimmy Beaulieu
Conundrum Press

Jimmy Beaulieu is a creative force in the French-speaking graphic novel milieu. The cartoonist has published 16 books in the past 14 years, in addition to working as the publisher at Mécanique Générale and starting his own small-print press Colosse. In 2010, English Canada was finally able to see some of Beaulieu’s work with the release of Suddenly Something Happened. It was the story of Beaulieu’s life, his childhood growing up among a huge extended family on Île d’Orléans, his parents’ separation, his years of singledom in the Métropole, and finally life with his girlfriend in Montreal’s Rosemont. Suddenly Something Happened showcased Beaulieu’s significant skill as a graphic artist and his wonderful sense of humour. However, it failed to show another aspect of the cartoonist’s considerable talent, something that is fortunately in My Neighbour's Bikini.

Originally published in French in 2006, My Neighbour’s Bikini is the story of two shy neighbours living on the Plateau who meet on a sweltering summer day when everything grinds to a halt because of a power blackout. Simon introduces himself to his neighbour Bernadette on a downtown street, and after they walk home together, Bernadette invites Simon to go for a swim at the neighbourhood pool. The chance meeting has an authentic cringeworthy feel to it, mainly because of the realistic dialogue, and this short tale offers a very accurate depiction of Montreal. However, at first glance, the story has some sizable shortcomings. I initially thought that the problem might be the translation, but upon closer examination I realized that there was a problem with the story’s flow.

In a graphic novel the reader has to be able to readily understand the relationship between two consecutive panels, through visual or textual clues. However, in my first reading of My Neighbour’s Bikini, this relationship between panels was not always clear. Two vignettes have been inserted into the storyline that have zero or little impact on the outcome of the narrative. In the first instance, Bernadette and Simon’s conversation is interrupted by a sequence with a young man cycling on the Mont-Royal. In the second, the story jumps abruptly from Bernadette and Simon walking home to two women in an apartment sharing an intimate moment. One of these women, who the reader later meets at the pool, is Bernadette’s neighbour. While these two vignettes were initially confusing, they do add some atmospheric detail to the story, lending it an overall dreamlike quality. Introducing vignettes into the traditional storyline, I discovered, was a recurring pattern in Beaulieu’s other work. This is especially true in À la faveur de la nuit, a humourous tale about two women telling each other stories late into the night.

Another recurring feature in Jimmy Beaulieu’s work that was non-existent in Suddenly Something Happens is nudity, which is tastefully presented and never gratuitous in My Neighbour’s Bikini. Beaulieu has considerable talent at drawing nudes, and the author should be given credit for presenting natural-looking full-hipped women rather than the standard waif variety. In the past, he has presented work with frontal nudes of men, which was the subject of complaints at the Quai des Bulles Festival in St Malo, France. Naked women were apparently fine, but a naked man in an intimate moment was apparently offensive….

I must admit that I was initially puzzled by the publisher’s choice to translate a book that was first released in French eight years ago. Obviously, it did not reflect how far the author has come since then. But My Neighbour’s Bikini, although not Beaulieu’s best, is tamer than some of his other work, and it may be a way to test the waters to see how English speakers will react to his more audacious content. Overall, once I accepted his non-traditional storyline, I enjoyed the oneiric quality of his work, and of course, I liked that his characters, both male and female, looked like everyday people, a refreshing and welcome change.

Other book-related reviews
Lily and Taylor by Elise Moser
World of Glass by Jocelyne Dubois
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Letting It Go by Miriam Katin
My Mother, the Nazi Midwife and Me by Gina Roitman
Stony River by Tricia Dower
Susceptible by Geneviève Castrée
Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado
Bombay Wali and other stories by Veena Gokhale
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
Gay Dwarves of America by Anne Fleming



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Interview w/ Heather O'Neill, author of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night


Here's an interview I did with Heather O'Neill last May. I made the fatal error of not writing it up and pitching it immediately. Instead, I pushed headlong into planning our summer holidays in the UK and registering my two children for day camp. When I came up for air, I noticed that every conceivable media outlet in Montreal had interviewed the author, so I decided wait for a lazy day, like today, to post it.

It’s been seven long years since the release of Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals, the gritty tale of Baby, a motherless child raised on Ste-Catherine Street by her drug-addicted father. The book went on to become an international bestseller, shortlisted for the Orange Prize and long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin International Literary Award. This is indeed impressive for a first novel. But that unexpected success put considerable pressure on the author to come up with an equally as good follow-up, and according to the author, this was not easy.

“The idea for The Girl Who Was Saturday Night came very slowly,” said O’Neill at our interview, one of many she would give that day.

According to O’Neill, the pressure came mainly from herself. “I’d start something and then ask myself how it would be received in say, South Africa. There was this idea that I had to please, something I didn’t feel with my first book. ” She added that her brother-in-law had once referred to her distracted stare as second bookitis.

Although the idea came to her like a coffee-machine set to slow drip, there are some undeniable commonalities between Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. Baby, like the twin protagonists Nouschka and Nicolas, basically raise themselves in the same sordid area of Montreal, clinging to each other for comfort as parentless children often do. O’Neill described the twins as “enmeshed.”In the story, they often feel like a single character with Nicholas embodying the dark side and Nouschka the light. However at age 20, Nouschka begins to forge her own path away from her brother, just as in the backdrop, Quebec is moving away from Canada.

“I chose to set the story in the period leading up to the 1995 Referendum to emphasize the theme of separation, both for the twins and Canada.”

Another commonality between the two novels is the less than ideal paternal figure. The twin’s father, the top-hat wearing Etienne Tremblay, is a washed up 70s folk singer with a criminal past. He is self-obsessed and uses his cute little twins as props, a means to garner more of the public’s attention. As I read the story, I tried to think of whom the character might be based on, and Jean Le Loup immediately came to mind. “Yes, he definitely wore a top hat,” said O’Neill. “I do have an unrequited love for Jean Le Loup, but he’s the wrong period.” Etienne was in fact a composite character based on many Quebec folk singers and performers, such as Gilles Vigneault, Robert Charlebois, Leonard Cohen and Claude Dubois. However, O’Neill emphasized that she drew on their very best, charismatic sides. After all, Etienne has some unsavoury proclivities.

But is The Girl Who Was Saturday Night a condemnation of celebrity? According to O’Neill it isn’t. Instead, she was interested in what it would be like to be a star or the child of a star growing up in Montreal.

“The Quebec star system has always been of great interest to me, and it’s funny that so few people outside of Quebec actually know it exists,” said O’Neill. Apparently, her US publisher needed to get the rights to the work of a Quebec artist that O’Neill had used in her previous novel. The publisher was incensed that she had to jump through so many hoops for the rights to something from a forgotten folksinger. The artist in question was Félix Leclerc. . . .

Overall, O’Neill’s latest novel is fun-loving with plenty of highly visual metaphors and simile. The author confessed that she did “have a soft spot for similes.” To give you an example of their visual quality, here is one my favourites: “When he exhaled, the cigarette smoke looked like a girl doing rhythmic gymnastics with a ribbon.” In fact, there were many scenes in Girl that I could easily see in another short animation like Claire Blanchet’s adaptation of O’Neill’s short story “The End of Pinky," which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September.

This book will be a hit with many young readers, or any reader for that matter who enjoys living vicariously through ingénues who chase bad-boys for some intense short-term pleasure, even when it means long-term pain. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night serves up a whimsical, sensual adventure through Montreal's dark side, complete with criminals, bikers and brilliant psychiatric patients–a great escape for a hot August day.




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2014: So Many Good Books So Little Time

Photo credit: ProfDEH Wikimedia Commons
I felt a little overwhelmed when I read the National Post's 25 of the most anticipated books of 2014. Not only did it list the Literary Editor's picks, it also listed many other books that would be released this year. And truth be told, it is going to be a stellar year for books, even better than last year. I immediately spotted five that I was dying to get my hands on. Here they are:

Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood, publisher and release date to be announced
Last year was a great year for short fiction with Alice Munro's Nobel Prize. As a lover of short fiction, I'm looking forward to Margaret Atwood's Stone Mattress collection. After seeing her and Sheila Heti at the Drawn and Quarterly-sponsored event in early December, I remembered how much I enjoyed Surfacing in my final year of high school. I went on to read everything available by Atwood at the time, but I haven't read anything by her recently. Seeing the witty literary giant on stage reignited my interest in her work. What will a master storyteller's short fiction be like? I can't wait to see.

Ellen in Pieces, by Caroline Adderson, HarperCollins, September
Canadian novelist and short story writer, Caroline Adderson is a gifted writer. Although well-known among avid readers and Canadian literary circles, she has not yet made that break into the mainstream. Ellen in Pieces is a collection of connected short stories that centers around the life of Ellen, a young Vancouver woman stricken with cancer but who still has a healthy sexual appetite. It contains a story entitled "Erection Man," which was long-listed for the world's richest (£30,000) short story prize, Britain's Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. Let's hope this book brings Adderson the recognition she deserves.

Margaret Atwood and Sheila Heti at D&Q event
Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi, Penguin Canada, March  
Boy, Snow, Bird is Oyeyemi's fifth novel, the first of which she wrote while writing her final high school exams. The Cambridge graduate has also published two plays. Not bad for someone who is not yet 30. In 1953, Boy Novak, a woman obsessed with beauty, leaves New York to live in a small Massachusetts town where she marries a widower and becomes the stepmother to the gorgeous Snow Whitman. When Boy gives birth to dark-skinned child, she discovers that the Whitmans are light-skinned African Americans passing for white. It will be interesting to see how Oyeyemi treats the cultural constructs of race and beauty in the Pre-Civil Rights era New England, more than 30 years before the Nigerian-born, London-based author was born.

The Girl That Was Saturday Night, by Heather O'Neill, HarperCollins, May
Here is the long-awaited follow-up to O'Neill's 2007 international bestseller Lullabies for Little Criminals. This time, O'Neill tackles celebrity. Noushcka and Nicolas Tremblay are beautiful twins who live in a sordid apartment on St-Laurent Boulevard with their grandfather. As the offspring of famous bon vivant folksinger Étienne Tremblay, the inseparable twins are media darlings as children. However, their self-destructive behaviour on the eve of their 20th birthday attracts the attention of a journalist who unearths some disquieting secrets. It has been said that this book is classic, unforgettable Heather O'Neill.

The Fledglings, by David Homel, Cormorant Books, April
The Fledglings is award-winning translator David Homel's seventh novel. It is about the daughter of a Jewish bootlegger in Prohibition-era Chicago. What could be more interesting than a tale set in the days of Al Capone, particularly when it is written by a native Chicagoan? What might be even more interesting is to see how convincingly Homel writes from the point of view of a woman protagonist.

Other book-related reviews
Lily and Taylor by Elise Moser
World of Glass by Jocelyne Dubois
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Letting It Go by Miriam Katin
My Mother, the Nazi Midwife and Me by Gina Roitman
Stony River by Tricia Dower
Susceptible by Geneviève Castrée
Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado
Bombay Wali and other stories by Veena Gokhale
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
Gay Dwarves of America by Anne Fleming





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My Prairie Home by Chelsea McMullan

The only Canadian feature film in the official selection of this year's Sundance Film Festival, My Prairie Home was enthusiastically received in Park City, Utah. In the 77-minute NFB documentary, filmmaker Chelsea McMullan follows Montreal-based indie singer Rae Spoon across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in a Greyhound bus. But this is not your standard music documentary of a road trip. As we travel the highway across the endless prairie, we learn about the hills and valleys of Rae Spoon's early life.

The indie singer was raised in an evangelical Christian family under a tyrannical father, a church deacon of questionable mental health. Early on Spoon sought refuge in music to avoid her parents' continual sightings of signs of the Rapture. Life was already difficult enough for Spoon who couldn't see herself as a wife and mother, answering to a husband. In fact, a husband was almost unfathomable. Spoon is gay and describes herself as gender neutral, using the personal pronoun "they" in self-reference. As can be expected, high school was not easy, nor was coming out. In a soft-spoken manner, Spoon relates standing up to family, community and high school bullies, but the prairies remain an integral part of Spoon's identity and the place the singer still calls home.

Besides the stunning shots of the Canadian prairie, the viewer is treated to Spoon's hauntingly beautiful singing voice. For anyone who has driven across Canada, the prairie provinces seem endless. But there is a magical beauty to the golden velour-textured wheat fields and that great big prairie sky. My Prairie Home is a moving coming-of-age film that may be instrumental in challenging many preconceived notions about the transgendered.

If you missed the film at the Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal the NFB is screening it free online for 48 hours (January 26 and 27). To view the film on the NFB site click here.

Other film reviews
The Missing Picture by Rithy Panh
Detropia by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Finding Dawn by Christine Welch
The Fruit Hunters by Yung Chang


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