this is not a review: ‘if sylvie had nine lives’, by leona theis

As soon as I finished reading this I thought: I want to read it again. Not an altogether unusual thing for me to come to the end of a book then immediately re-read the first chapter to enter it slightly differently, with slightly more knowing so that I can experience deeper layers. Of course there are MANY occasions when that thought doesn’t come up, books I simply close and say, okay, that was that, and move on to the next. But good literature should never be read just once.

Although I would love to move on to the next book… I have a stack tottering in more than one room… but Sylvie is one of those that niggles, come back, she/it says, there’s another layer, and another.

And so I do.

Because, a) getting to know Sylvie is quite good fun and, b) because If Sylvie had Nine Lives is written in a way that makes it impossible to not want to hold up at various angles and see how things fit, what’s the same, what’s different. There is such pleasure in this literary puzzle and the writing is a joy. Here’s a sample. It comes from the chapter/story called ‘How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person Through Yoga” and rather beautifully punctuates an uncomfortable moment that has just passed:

“Sylvie came out of her bedroom and tinkled Cheerios into a bowl, a sound to rinse the air.”

See what I mean?

In a nutshell, the book is the stories of Sylvie, a woman we meet at 19 and then see different possibilities of every five years until age 49. The same person but from nine different life choices. The ultimate unreliable narrator except that every story actually happened, or it would have if she’d chosen an alternate route in the story before.

It opens with Sylvie about to be married to Jack. It’s 1974 when bridal cars are decorated with homemade plastic flowers in the colour of bridesmaids dresses and bridal showers include pie plate hats for the bride-to-be while grooms-to-be get wasted at bars and have to be carried home. Which (in my opinion) works out dandily for Sylvie. I’ll say no more.

The next story/chapter, she’s five years older having made entirely different choices five years earlier that lead to a different present life… and so on as we move through the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s to 2014. The attention to details in each decade so beautifully done, “… the unfurnished living room, evening sunlight filtering through the philodendrons and spider plants on the widow sill.” (do people even still have philodendrons?)… all of it tightly woven through the story, not an ounce of what feels forced; everything ‘belongs’. Each new story is another version of “let’s pretend”… let’s pretend there was no Jack or they didn’t get married or they did but he died or he didn’t (and she has guilt about that or doesn’t) or there’s a different cast of characters entirely or different jobs and maybe there were children or how about there are no children, all of it, whole futures, her futures and others, turning on a moment’s decision. Because that’s exactly how life works, turning and changing based on this choice and the next. We are where we are not necessarily because of what happened but because of what we chose to do about what happened.

So yes. I am re-reading this novel-in-stories with immense pleasure; I’ll begin at the beginning but then read out of order. I love that there is no wrong way to do this (in life and in the book), so many ways to imagine the future, so many fabulous ways to get there.

In the case of Sylvie’s lives, all of them a trip worth taking. Twice.

this is not a review: one hour in paris, by karyn l. freedman


Academic approaches to writing are never my favourite way to tell a story, but in the case of Karyn L. Freedman, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Guelph, it works. Indeed, she may be exactly the right person to have written this-book-that-needed-to-be-written. While it surely must have been tempting to veer too much in one direction or the other, in One Hour in Paris. Freedman has managed, for the most part, to balance facts and eye-opening statistics with what feels like heart on her sleeve honesty about the extreme emotions following a brutal event.

The book is about rape.

OneHourInParisCoverFinalBut that’s merely the grit, the sand in the shell that gets things going. The pearl that emerges is a story about trauma and how it can be experienced in as many ways as there are people experiencing it. Freedman’s analytical take on the subject works insofar as presenting a case for PTSD through her rape experience and showing us how society’s focus on the rape, or indeed any ‘incident of violence’, instead of the resulting trauma, diminishes the understanding of violence, undermines the victim and slows or even prevents healing.

In other words, we don’t tend to take these things seriously enough. Especially the lingering and messy aftermath of trauma. We give it an acronym, attach it vaguely to returning soldiers or first responders in newsworthy events. We sincerely hope they ‘get over it’, ‘get better’. But acronyms and hope don’t help. Trauma is hard enough to understand for those who are living with its effects without having to deal with the assumptions and judgements of those who have not experienced it, or who may have experienced it differently.

I’m not sure I would have been able to write that last paragraph before reading Freedman’s book. The way she explains the clinical aspects of trauma has given me a deeper and more practical understanding, not a more emotional one, and for that I’m grateful.

Freedman was raped in Paris on August 1st, 1990. The date is repeated throughout the book, to a degree that becomes slightly irritating, until one realizes that’s the point. She can no longer approach August 1st without remembering what happened. The date is embedded in her memory. She doesn’t need reminding. But reminders are there. Every year. And so by virtue of this repetition she shares with us the ‘irritation’ of not being able to forget something she can’t bear to think about.

She writes about the rape, what happened after, emotionally, professionally, how her father was instrumental in helping her case in ways that many other victims would never experience. For instance, the French government flew her back to Paris (from Winnipeg) at their expense in order to proceed with the case… a case which ultimately saw her compensated financially. While the benefit of such privilege tends to suggest that her trauma has been ‘resolved’, what it actually does is ask the question: what about the women that are raped and/or abused every day, citizens and visitors alike, for whom nothing is ever done, many of whom don’t even know who to tell or how to be heard or believed, much less be compensated and see the perpetrator sent to prison. It’s easy to start thinking that for women who receive this kind of privilege, it’s done. But Freedman is quick to point out that it’s not done. She knows she’s privileged, that this is not how it is for everyone. But all that is almost beside the point. The money, while substantial, is a token, the incarceration is merely fair. None of it is closure.

What’s needed is understanding, by society, a change in how we discuss issues of sexual violence against women, and how we understand the very real effects of trauma on the body, mind and spirit.

“… the sense of responsibility held by many rape survivors is at least partly driven by a dominant worldview regarding personal safety and harm. Although this picture is slowly changing, historically, at least in the West, girls have been taught from a young age that the world is basically a safe place and that so long as you are sufficiently careful and intelligent, you can protect yourself from any serious harm.

“Underscoring this narrative is the fact that in our entertainment-saturated media culture, the everday-ness of sexual violence against women is overlooked in favour of sensationalized stories of extreme violence. And because rape is typically experienced in private… the clear evidence of its pervasiveness is obscured from our collective vision….

“So how does the rape survivor reconcile this dominant worldview with what has happened to her? After all, it cannot be true both that the world is a safe place and that you were raped, unless, of course, the rape was your fault.” 

Any quibbles with the book are insignificant to the larger message.


One Hour in Paris is available online at Blue Heron Books. Support indies!


this is not a review: are you ready to be lucky?, by rosemary nixon

I began reading this book with the idea that it was a collection of short stories. And so, on finishing the first one, the title of which happens to be ‘Are You Ready to Be Lucky?’ I was sad. It was such a merry romp and I liked the characters so much and now they were gone. This was wrong, I thought. Just wrong. And terribly, terribly sad.Are-You-Ready-to-Be-Lucky-Cover

Then I began reading the next story. And I recognized the people. Stella and Roslyn and stupid Duncan the English twit, a personal favourite. (Duncan Bloxham; I mean is that the perfect name?) Good lord, I thought. Good lord…. Could it be??  I flipped forward a few titles…. and, yes, Roslyn, still there! Linked stories!
Oh wot a pleasant surprise.

Trauma behind me, I read. And read and read and read.

I drank peppermint tea with fresh leaves from the garden and put my feet up on the patio table. And hours passed and then the weekend, and clouds scudded by and the tea turned to wine. And I read til I finished this absolute delight of a book.

I will tell you nothing about it because sometimes I’m like that.

I will, however, tell you this: the chances are good you’ll enjoy this merry romp.

“The girl’s husband, thirty-five years her senior, cracks his sixth beer. He too is reading the Sunday Times. But only the pages that say what he wants to hear. The girl tries to remember how this man came to be her husband. How she became the third wife of a man only months after he divorced his second. She makes a disorganized list. It had to do with expensive dinners, a second-hand clothing store in Salmon Arm, with rutting elk, Canadian immigration, telephone calls across crackling wires, tears (his), frightening dreams of attacking ostriches (hers), a domineering ex-wife in England (his first), a suet recipe (bird pudding) using Crisco instead of lard. She adds the man’s talk of foreign places… How when he stood naked he reminded her of the pet turtle she had as a child, of whom she was very fond.”
Are you Ready to be Lucky?  (Freehand Books, 2013)




two things for a holiday monday

1.   Dear Moody Long Weekend Mornings… that conspire to keep their skies grey long enough to insist that I linger in bed fluffed with pillows and layered with pages—books, newspapers—and a pot of tea. Peppermint. Sometimes even going so far as to demand I have a square of dark chocolate.

My deep gratitude.

AND 2.   Dear Literary Press Group… who sent me a box of books that fit so well in the above-mentioned fluffing and layering. And all I did was like you on FB. How lovely you are, but please know my like is sincere and goes beyond any number of books (having said that, please also know I am beyond thrilled).

As for the books, well, they are perfectly exquisite gifts. The cover of each is a joy in itself.

I’ve already dived deeply into Rosemary Nixon’s Are You Ready to Be Lucky? because how can I do otherwise with an opening that goes: “Roslyn high-steps up Bantry Street on an icy Alberta evening buffeted by late-December gusts, holding high her sixty by forty centimetre tray of pineapple-stuffed meatballs, trying not to look like a woman who, at the yearly No Commitment Book Club Christmas gift exchange, received a can of gravy and… How to Seem Like a Better Person Without Actually Improving Yourself…”

There is also The Wondrous Woo, by Carrianne K.Y. Leung, and The Fleece Era, poetry by Joanna Lilley, which I’ve only peeked at and already love—not to mention that exquisite stock, the typeset, the black flyleaf. The words, did I mention the words? “I don’t look at paintings/ but at the walls on which they hang.”

Then there’s Swarm by Lauren Carter, a mildly dystopian novel about “a world only one turn of the dial from our own”, and a matter of survival by fishing, farming and beekeeping. My sort of thing. Finally—as if this bounty isn’t enough—A History of Breathing, a play by Daniel MacDonald that, based on a quick scan, I can’t wait to properly spend time with.

All of which to say: a thousand thanks, dear Literary Press Group. A box of books is no small event in this house.