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Summer Reads: Letting It Go by Miriam Katin

Letting It Go 
by Miriam Katin
Drawn and Quarterly

Changing a career path becomes more difficult with age. Now imagine a career change in your sixties, right when most people are thinking about the end of their professional aspirations. Artist Miriam Katin did just that. In her seventh decade, she became a graphic novelist, not a change you’d expect with the genre’s high concentration of authors under the age of 40.

In 2006, Katin penned her first critically acclaimed graphic memoir, We Are On Our Own. In this story, a very young Miriam and her mother are forced from their home in Budapest during World War II after the Nazi invasion. They change their names and go into hiding, managing to stay just steps ahead of German soldiers. This experience marked Katin for life, giving her an understandable reason to despise all things German. However, in the years following the publication of We Are On Our Own, some unexpected news forced Katin to come to terms with her haunting past. Letting It Go is the account of this painful but ultimately inspiring experience.

In this, her second graphic memoir, we meet Katin and her husband living peacefully in Brooklyn. Their son Ilan arrives with his girlfriend, a Swedish comic artist. Over a cup of coffee, the son tells his mother not only that he and his girlfriend are moving to Berlin, but also that he wants his mother to help him with the paperwork so that he can become a Hungarian citizen and obtain an EU passport. Katin’s immediate reaction is horror, and she refuses to help her son. But when she realizes that her actions could undermine their relationship, she seeks the advice of friends and loved ones, and eventually relents. On the surface, she puts on a brave face, but underneath she suffers in silence, and her inner turmoil has some very surprising physical manifestations. In the end, she and her husband travel to Berlin, not once but twice, and the trips are filled with some wonderful unforeseen surprises. But we also see that letting go of long-harboured grudges is a very difficult process.

Although this might sound like a serious book, there are many light moments that make it an easy read. Katin’s borderless panels have a beautiful flow to them, and many of her finely detailed establishing shots are stunning. My personal favourite was the crayon effect of the choppy river below the Brooklyn Bridge.

However, while this book is enjoyable and sends a powerful message, it has one significant shortcoming. Although we can see and hear Katin’s pain in Letting It Go, we don’t feel her trauma. This will be particularly true for anyone who has not read We Are On Our Own. Without having a clear idea of Katin’s past, this memoir loses considerable power. In spite of the book’s many references to the horrors suffered by Jews at the hands of the Germans in World War II, the references are too well known and impersonal to produce the desired effect. A flashback might have helped readers better identify with Katin’s experience.

Nevertheless, it is inspiring to read a memoir by a woman in her seventies who is not only willing to share her past, but who also shows us that it is never too late to face our demons. Katin has the courage to tell her story, warts and all, and do it unconventionally with a graphic novel.

This review has been cross-posted at the Montreal Review of Books.

Other related posts
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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Summer Reads: Stony River by Tricia Dower

Stony River
By Tricia Dower
Penguin Canada

Often portrayed as the era of innocence, the 1950s brought North Americans post-war prosperity, suburban life and the nuclear family, with its clearly defined gender roles. The medium of the day—television—served up squeaky clean characters like June Cleaver, the mother and wife on television’s Leave It To Beaver, a role model to legions of housewives. But as most viewers were aware, made-for-television families had little in common with those living in small towns like Stony River, the setting and title of Tricia Dower’s novel.

In the Author’s Note, Dower describes the 1950s as repressive “when secrets crouched behind closed doors.” In her novel, she shows what goes on behind those doors and unveils the dangers for all young women who came of age in the mid-twentieth century. Based on the actual
killing of a police officer while Dower was in high school and the murderer’s subsequent crimes, the story sheds light on not only the era’s glaring gender inequalities but also the town’s sordid underbelly that is worthy of a film noir.

I love this cover.
Teenaged neighbours Linda Wise and Tereza Dobra spend their time hanging out in the summer smoking “punks” or cattails on the polluted river’s shore. The blond, Linda Wise, comes from a middle-class family and spends her time with the darker-complexioned Tereza, whose household is violent and decidedly working-class. Nevertheless, it is Tereza who snubs Linda for her inexperience.

One hot June day, the two girls are shocked to see a pale teen girl accompanied by police officers
emerge from the home of Crazy Haggerty, the town oddball. Everyone had assumed that Haggerty lived alone. Crazy Haggerty’s relationship to the mysterious shut-in teen, Miranda, is discussed in hushed tones.

Linda, Tereza and Miranda cross paths several years later in connection with a series of heinous sex crimes. But this happens after freewheeling Tereza runs away and play-it-safe Linda slips up. Miranda, however, proves to be exceptionally bright and has special skills, in spite of never completely overcoming her years of isolation.

“Nothing was as it seemed back then,” writes Dower in the Author’s Note, and fleshing out what lurks beneath outward appearances is what Dower does best in Stony River. She’s also adept at creating full, plausible characters. My favourite is the deliciously foul-mouthed, sexually promiscuous Tereza Dobra. Fiction is in dire need of a few good bad girls with agency to shake up those preconceived notions of the 1950s.

There’s also a wonderful infusion of Celtic lore alongside some beautiful writing in Stony River. Dower writes, “James said that if words could be held and tasted and smelled they might be enough to live on.” There is, however, one shortcoming. There are two stories that don’t come together convincingly enough at the end. In fact, I could easily see two solid standalone novels—the Crazy Haggerty and Miranda story and that of Tereza and Linda. The author has taken a step back and incorporated both stories under the broader theme of the town—Stony River.

The theme of rape is central to this tale, and it’s interesting to see just how little we have advanced in 50 years. At trial, the rape victim in this story is made to feel that she isn’t telling the truth, and her credibility is further undermined because of the weight she put on in the aftermath of her assault. After all, no one would ostensibly rape an overweight woman…. Similarly, this week in the news it was reported that one in five Canadians between the ages of 18 and 34 believe that “women are responsible for sexual assault because of their actions or appearance,” according to Anu Dugal, Director of Violence Prevention at the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

If you’re interested in reading a well-written novel reminiscent in parts of a true crime story, Stony River is worth your while. You may even want to read it after perusing the highly realistic photos of the 1950s photo journalist Weegee (Arthur Fellig) or while listening to a little Patsy Cline.

This review has been cross-posted at Rover Arts.

Other reviews of books you might like:
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
One Good Hustle by Billie Livingston
The World is Moving Around Me by Dany Laferrière
The Return by Dany Laferrière
The Goodtime Girl by Tess Fragoulis


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Cirque Éloize: Music-Hall de la Baronne

Le Music-Hall de la Baronne
Cirque Éloize
Montréal Complètement Cirque Festival

Last night was the opening show of the fourth annual Montréal Complètement Cirque Festival and the inaugural performance of the cabaret Le Music-Hall de la Baronne by Cirque Éloize, which is also celebrating its 20th anniversary. And what better venue than the Olympia theatre.

For those expecting mind-blowing circus acts, this was not the show. Instead, it was more of a sexy acrobatic cabaret hosted by Baroness Catherine Pinard, who had a wonderful diva stage presence in spite of taking too much of the spotlight.

Although there was a cabaret venue, the show felt more like vaudeville with some initial tinny piano music and a couple of performers trying too hard to please. In fact, the only thing missing was a hook to pull the tap dancer off the stage. It would appear that the early tunes and first few acts were meant to drive home the point that this was not circus, but cabaret, a genre that many of us are unfamiliar with. Once you get your head around this, the silly jokes and considerable theatrics have a wonderful retro feel to them.

The music and performance quality later improves immensely.

The show really got started with Garbo-esque Christine Gruber who performed a sensuous routine on the rings while smoking a cigarette. But the most stunning acrobatics were performed by couples on the trapeze and in the finale. Their movement was fluid, unpredictable and beautiful. There were also some very impressive solos to accompany the acts. A beautiful rendition of "Summertime" immediately comes to mind.

Overall, the attention to detail was lacking. The circular stage seemed too small to accommodate the performers. Frédéric Lemieux-Cormier's number on the German wheel moved dangerously close to the edge and had front-row spectators leaning back nervously in their seats.

There was also a puzzling lion tamer routine that poked fun at intergenerational differences between babyboomers and les carrés rouges. This did little to enhance the show, even though political satire was often part of cabaret acts.

For a red-carpet affair, Music-Hall de la Baronne felt not quite ready. However, this could change in the coming weeks when some of the kinks are ironed out, and some of the secondary acts, namely the Baroness and the tipsy waitress, are shortened.

Nevertheless, Music-Hall de la Baronne is an exciting undertaking and a wonderful opportunity to see the beginning of what could be a cabaret revival. Cirque Éloize will undoubtedly rise to the challenge.

This has been cross-posted at Rover Arts.

Other related posts
Séquence 8, les 7 doigts de la main
Must-see: Cirque Eloize`s iD


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