Category Archives: Books

Fictions in a pandemic reality

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I remember thinking that I might be less anxious if I hadn’t watched or read some effective disaster-fiction.  I had watched the first season or two of Walking Dead, where clean attractive suburban neighbourhoods with empty streets would be unexpectedly filled with looters, gangs, or unspeakable zombie horrors.  And the first episodes of Black Summer had the same feel.  The post-disaster young adult novel series by Susan Beth Pfeffer that started with Life as We Knew It kept coming to mind too – the teenage viewpoint characters and their families trying to cope with increasing isolation and decreasing food supplies, a contagious illness, the little excursions and temporary hopes dashed … I was trying to think why the post-disaster-isolation trope in the young adult fiction felt so resonant and recalled a couple of other kids’ books.

One I read in a school library was Hills End, by Australian Ivan Southall.  In this novel, a group of contemporary (to 1962) children is trapped by a storm and flood.  One scene that had stuck with me clearly involved a boy who had no sense of smell, exploring the abandoned or destroyed town, and experimenting with the sausage-making equipment at the butcher shop not realizing the meat had spoiled.

Another kids book with intrepid siblings coping in isolation, which I read at a public library in the mid-1980s, was set on a small farm near Guelph Ontario.  I haven’t been able to track this one down or find anyone else who remembered it, so I’d love leads or confirmations.  Anyway, on a winter day the parents head to town to do provisioning but by the time the school bus drops the kids at the end of their lane, it’s snowing so hard that the parents stay in town and the kids manage with feeding the animals, keeping themselves warm, and resorting to making porridge out of pig food and sugar to feed themselves without needing to kill a pig.

I tried to reassure myself that small disasters and temporary crises, managed by civic infrastructure that was mostly adequate to the task, were probably much more likely but just didn’t make exciting fiction.  But it was hard – it still is – to observe current events, as a lover of speculative fiction, and not imagine what worse things could happen.  So I turned to fictions where the disastrous situation was more historical.

In Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery’s 1921 novel of a teenage Canadian girl growing up in World War I, there is a bit early in the war where

“The war will not be over before next spring now,” said Dr. Blythe. […]

Rilla was murmuring “knit four, purl one” under her breath, and rocking the baby’s cradle with one foot. […] She laid down her knitting for a moment and said, “Oh, how can we bear it so long?” – then picked up her sock and went on. The Rilla of two months before would have rushed off to Rainbow Valley and cried.

This bit sounded familiar and comforting, so I got out the copy I’d received as a child and read the rest of the story once again.  Sure enough, the wartime worries and challenges that felt overwhelming at the start became matter-of-fact background over the four years of the story.  I also recognized the way community members learn and enforce new etiquette or ethics of consumption – snatching up scarce everyday goods and provisions or trying not to take more than their share.  Feeling ashamed of buying a too-extravagant velvet hat reminded me of current discussions of about non-essential goods and a certain multinational delivery service.   In this story as in history, the war did end, and the novel has a happy-enough ending for marketable young adult fiction.  When I read it as a child and teenager, the wartime setting seemed like ancient history.  It’s only recently that I began to realize the significance of being raised by adults for whom the deaths and worries and financial hardships of World War II were not long ago.  For them, the world was probably still an unpredictable and dangerous place, in a way that it wasn’t for me.

Wanting something to watch while I knitted that was well-crafted television but was familiar enough that I would anticipate the sad or shocking parts, I worked through all five seasons of The Wire, the David Simon work of fifteen years ago focusing on crime, policing, and society in Baltimore.  It is my third or fourth straight-through viewing and I still think it’s one of the best television dramas ever.

Then I moved on to the same creators’ project Treme, about life in post-Katrina New Orleans.  So far I’ve re-watched the first two seasons, but my original viewing of those was always spotty and mostly on Air Canada planes with their free HBO selections.  It’s hard to believe this month that I used to fly often enough that I had a preferred airline because of their televisions, and that I could keep up to date on a series that way.

And as you’d expect, it’s very topical.  There’s almost nothing showing the characters during the hurricane or immediately afterwards, and I am glad of that choice.  But watching people rebuild their houses, their businesses, and their lives when they’ve all survived the same disaster gives me hope.  I appreciated seeing the discussions of when and how to open the schools, how unsophisticated people struggle to navigate the application processes for rebuild funding, and how disaster and post-disaster collapse can contribute extra stresses to small businesses, to families, and to individuals at risk.

I also appreciate the frequent demonstration of the resilience and necessity of the arts and artists, in the many musician characters of the series.  As a theatre artist and member of the arts community, I know that there will be arts, storytelling, and theatre after this pandemic.  I don’t know the details of when it will resume and what it will be like, but I know that we will be performing and telling stories and watching and listening and talking about them.  And I am so grateful to the team that brought Mr Burns: A Post Electric Play to Edmonton last year, because I keep coming back to its message of hope – that even in the kind of destroyed civilization that has no Diet Coke, there are still theatre makers and theatre viewers and it matters.

Fiction is powerful. It can enhance my despair, but it can also remind me of reasons to hope and reasons to rejoice.  So I’ll keep reading and watching and listening and discussing.  If you are up for reading something about life in a fictional pandemic, this is a strong recommendation for Naomi Kritzer’s 2015 story So Much Cooking.  And if you’d like a general list of books that can suck you in, Jo Walton’s list of Books that Grab You is great.




Chris Craddock’s Velveteen Rabbit – charming and satisfying Christmas fare

Margery Williams’ original Velveteen Rabbit was published in 1922.  Chris Craddock’s adaptation, first produced last year, makes the story work for modern sensibilities and builds in enough exposition of unfamiliar concepts and customs to allow contemporary children to follow the tale, by using the framing story of a Dad (Chris Craddock) reading the old book to his youngest child (Alyson Dicey), while answering her questions and talking about their family.  “What’s the name of the Boy in the story?” the little girl asks, proposes her own name, suggests a few more changes “And there’s a robot, okay Dad?” and then leaps into acting it out.  The scenes then alternate between the period story and the contemporary bedtime reading.  The children’s ways of narrating and negotiating pretending games are spot-on, in the same way as the characters in Craddock’s Fringe 2012 play, “Apocalypse: A Period Piece” shifted seamlessly between making real plans and imagining themselves as Elvis, President Kennedy, and their father.

In the story, the Velveteen Rabbit and other non-human characters are appealing puppets (credited to Green Fools Theatre).  Jamie Cavanagh’s Skin Horse was particularly expressive.  Tatyana Rac as Nana, in white pinafore, showed her affection for the Boy and her own grief at having to dispose of the Velveteen Rabbit.  I was a bit distracted by trying to figure out whether her accent was supposed to be from Belfast, Glasgow, or somewhere else, and then got wondering about the relative class marking of having an Irish or Scottish nanny.

In the bedtime reading, the little girl asks whether the Boy’s parents are dead like her own mother, or whether they’re not in the story because they don’t love him.  The Dad explains that in those days the way loving parents took care of their kids was to hire a good Nana.  The little girl asks what scarlet fever is, and begs her father never to burn her toys if she gets sick.  The Dad reassures her that we have better ways of dealing with germs nowadays, and tries to slip into the story a line about washing your hands before meals.

You might remember that the happy ending of the book is that the toy, set aside to be incinerated because of germs, is magically reincarnated as a real flesh-and-blood rabbit to jump and dance with other rabbits forever.  The real rabbit later has a brief encounter in the garden with an older Boy, who almost recognises him.  I suppose that in that era, that’s one of the few positive ways of imagining a happy ending for a well-loved toy – although the hint that the Skin Horse had been kept around after being loved into reality by the Boy’s uncle suggests some tolerance of sentiment.  But I can’t help wondering whether the ending seems equally satisfying to contemporary young people who were encouraged to hang on to their own well-loved bears, taking them gently to university and giving them places of honour in their own homes.

The story of the toy being outgrown by the Boy is echoed by the Dad’s stories about cherishing the stages early in each of his children’s lives where they think he is awesome, before they move on to video games that he isn’t good at.  The happy ending of the contemporary narrative shows the little girl growing up, bringing a boyfriend home for Christmases, getting married, and then handing the Dad a little bundle of baby, for whom he will “get to be awesome” once again.

The show was at the newish Capitol Theatre venue in Fort Edmonton Park.  Its last performance for this season was this afternoon, but it’s worth watching for next year.

Capitol Theatre at Fort Edmonton Park

Capitol Theatre at Fort Edmonton Park

The key concept of the original story is that toys can become Real when children love them.  I wasn’t particularly fond of the story as a child, because I wasn’t attached to stuffed animals myself and because I found the story too sad.  But it’s a powerful concept, validating children’s lives of imagination and empowering them.  It’s also an image worth borrowing.  Jesse Green’s 1999 memoir Velveteen Father: An Unexpected Journey to Parenthood talks about what happened after he fell in love with a man who was adopting children.  Although he’d never anticipated being a parent, and although he had no biological or legal ties to the children, he became a real parent because the children loved him and made him a real parent.  On this Christmas Eve, I’m looking at the parcels under my tree from the faraway young people who made me a parent in the same way, real because children loved me, and I feel very fortunate to be a velveteen parent.  I hope that all of you will have love in your lives, no matter what form it comes in.

Tales of the (River) City and other stories

The Garneau Block, Todd Babiak, 2006

You know that kind of story genre that’s a whole series of newspaper-column-length chapters? Like Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City and sequels, Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series, and so on.

I just discovered that a newspaper columnist here, someone whose tweets I sometimes follow, wrote a book like that about five years ago. I found it when I was looking for library books to stick on my kobo for my trip last weekend.

It turned out that it’s a very funny sendup of the institutions and character archetypes of this city and mostly the parts between my home and my work. Of course because it’s five years old, there are some dated lines like how if you want to oppose the Conservatives around here of course you join the Liberal party even if you’re a communist or something. But otherwise I enjoyed it for the recognition just as much as I enjoyed it for the story.

I love this place.


Following on from The Garneau Block, I’ve since read two more novels set in versions of my usual orbit of Edmonton. The protagonist of one seemed to be living at around 108 Street and 87 Avenue; the other was a bit harder to place and could be anywhere from 109 to Bonnie Doon, somewhere between Whyte Ave and the river. Maybe all of these people did their writing in Remedy and looked out the window for their settings.

Gayleen Froese, Grayling Cross, 2011: This is the kind of supernatural+detectives story that people like Tanya Huff and Mercedes Lackey have done well. A psychic and a public-relations specialist have an agency, and get tangled up with big mysterious powers. It wasn’t as good as Summon the Keeper, the Tanya Huff book set in our old neighbourhood in Kingston, but it was fun. Turns out it’s second in a series, and I’ll probably look for the other one.

Janice MacDonald, The Monitor, 2003: Another recurring feature in all three books about this neighbourhood is that they all include characters who would like to be U of A academics and aren’t. Sigh. Anyway, this one is a more straightforward amateur-detective-with-cop-boyfriend thing, part of a series. The weird thing is that it’s a book about internet chat rooms set about 10 years ago I think and copyright 8 years ago. So some of it is really dated, the stuff the author has to explain, the number of characters who aren’t on the net at all, etc. And I was never involved in any kind of internet-socialising thing that was quite as flirt-heavy as what was described, but other features sound credible. Some things near the end were annoying me, but not so much that I want to spoil the book for anyone else who might feel like reading it. Again, I’d probably read the rest of the series but I wouldn’t buy hardcovers.

Continuing the library visits

Last year I started a project to visit all 17 branches of Edmonton Public Libraries, having only seen my local branch and the downtown one.  I visited six more, but I only ever got around to writing up four of the visits – and I can’t find the pictures I took on those visits either.

From memory, then:

7.  Lois Hole Library is a large brand-new facility set in a huge parking lot in parkland in the west end in the Callingwood neighbourhood (which, as far as I can tell, is pronounced exactly the same as the Ontario town of Collingwood).   It’s modern and attractive and spacious, with the kind of high-ceilinged plate-glass foyer that feels like a new arena complex.  That part of town is one of the ones that reminds me a lot of Mississauga, meaning that it was probably developed in the 1970s.  On this visit I ended up explaining to a library employee what I was doing, because I was showing her the bizarre phenomenon of having two checked-out books (different titles by the same author) which the bar-codes thought were actually one copy of one book.  She noticed that I was having my holds sent to Strathcona so she offered to fix it, which is why I had to explain.  I went there one Saturday last fall when I had a rented car.

8.  Woodcroft Library is a small branch across the road from the Westmount shopping centre.  I went there by bus, when I had time to spare doing some other errands north of the river.   I don’t remember what I borrowed from that branch; I do remember a nice display of the pro-library campaign signs and buttons that they were inviting people to display during the municipal election.

That brings us to this weekend.  On Saturday I pulled over to the side of the road on my way back from Namao (the base) when it looked like I was probably within a developed enough area to find a library.  I used the EPL application on my iphone to find the closest library  (I just love that concept!) and it directed me to Londonderry.

9.  Londonderry Library is actually in the basement of a shopping mall.  Despite its low ceilings and lack of natural light, they’ve done a good job with white walls and angled low bookshelves to make it look inviting.  The kids’ section and a little bit of browsing space are upstairs at ground/shopping level.   Although there isn’t much study/lounge space, the collection is about double the size of that at my home branch.


So now I’ve been to more than half of the current branches (two new branches and two re-builds are planned, and one re-build is under way) .  Some of the others I’ll need to visit on weekends when I have a car, but there are still a few that are feasible by bus.  And the weekend visiting is easier than it used to be, because now all the branches are open on Sundays except in summertime.

Among Others – notes on a book, with updates Nov 2012

Jo Walton’s newest book, Among Others, was published last week. There are lots of good and useful positive reviews of it on line, like this one from Locus.

Mostly I don’t write book reviews, because I don’t feel sufficiently competent and because it seems unfair that half the books I want to recommend are books by people I know. Oddly, I have no problem writing about television or movies from a casual viewer’s perspective. Despite all those disclaimers — and the additional one that I actually got to read an earlier version of this manuscript a couple of years ago — I want to tell you that I really liked Among Others, and to tell you a bit more about it because you might like it too.

Among Others is a real-world-with-magic book, a boarding-school story, a trauma-survivor story, a story told through the protagonist’s diary, and a story about someone who reads and how the books she reads inform her life. I like all those subgenres of books. So it is not at all surprising that I loved Among Others when I first read it, and that I have enjoyed both rereads so far and laughed out loud and cried in the bath.

The magic in the world of Among Others is subtle. It’s subtle enough that a reader inclined to look for mundane and psychological explanations could often grasp at them. But it is not trivial or consequence-free, for the user or for other people. This would explain why most people don’t seem to know about magic — because sane people who can use it rarely do.

I like boarding-school stories in general, although my favourites are the introvert-outsider stories of Madeleine L’Engle’s And Both Were Young, Kit Pearson’s The Daring Game, and some Australian story in a Virago Press edition, rather than Malory Towers, Chalet School, Chrestomanci, or Hogwarts. The solitary protagonist of Among Others has all the troubles you might expect when an awkward outsider arrives partway through the term, but she has such a strong sense of self (and a safe place to write about it, see below) that she never seems to be consumed by the petty social troubles and bullying that she endures. This is credible, because although she’s mostly stuck at the school she does have a bit of outside life and she also has interior life with time to write and read undisturbed while the rest of them are having Games. Also, it’s clear from some of her asides that she’s already endured much worse physically and emotionally before she got to the school.

I like stories of people who have recently been bereaved or divorced, stories that are about the going-on-afterwards. Mostly these are contemporary fiction stories. I can’t think of what other fantasy stories are mostly about what happens after saving the world at a cost. (The end of Lord of the Rings is great – but it’s not where the story starts.) In Among Others, the main part of the story starts after something both important and awful, with a protagonist who is struggling with loss, still trying to figure out her place in the magic, and trying to make sense of altered personal circumstances as well.

One problem with stories that are ostensibly written as the protagonist’s diary entries is that you have to think about whether the diary is secure. I grew up in a house with a lot of people and little respect for autonomy, so my first thought about diary entries in fiction is whether it’s realistic to expect them to be private. Either the diary discovery will be a plot point (I was scarred young by Harriet the Spy) or the protagonist is writing even less truth than she can bear to think, or the novelist is sort of cheating. In Among Others, though, I found it credible that the diary entries could be both frank and secure, because she says she’s writing them in mirror writing as well as keeping her notebook in her ubiquitous bag – and later mentions getting a locking notebook for Christmas.

The protagonist of Among Others is 15 years old in 1979, and a science fiction and fantasy reader. She reads a lot, comments on what she reads, and also uses her reading experiences to make sense of human behaviour. Although I was a few years older, I didn’t start buying my own books until shortly before 1979, so it was particularly fun to have Mori discovering some of the same new fiction that I was. I still remember discovering The Number of the Beast as an endcap display at the university bookstore, and extravagantly buying the trade paperback on the spur of the moment. Her observations on the books are pithy, opinionated, sometimes funny, and completely in character, and they’ve reminded me of a bunch of books I should read or re-read. I don’t know very many books about people who not only read but use their reading as a way of making sense of the life-outside-books that’s happening concurrently. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, of course, is another good example, just with a different reading list. And the Tam Lin protagonist, Janet, grew up in an apparently sane and supportive environment such that she hasn’t needed the books to work out how to behave, the way that Mori probably did.

In Canada you can buy Among Others in hardcover for an ordinary hardcover price (less than $30 full price, less than $20 on line at Chapters), or in a Kindle version for around $10. Greenwoods bookstore in Edmonton had a few ordered for the shelves the day I went in to get my pre-order. I understand that access is similar in the USA. But the weird and disappointing bit is that there’s no British hardcopy publication and currently no British sales of electronic versions either. It seems like SF/F fans in Britain would probably embrace the familiarity of Mori’s 1979-1980 reading list even more than those of us in North America, and it seems like if there are young people in Britain today depending on libraries for their science fiction and their real life and hope, they might benefit from this book more than the middle-aged fans who can order books from overseas or disguise their IP addresses to fool the Kindle store. I kind of wish there was a feasible fund to donate copies to libraries in Britain.


Update, November 2012:

Since I wrote this entry, Greenwoods bookstore is no more.

But Among Others has won the Best Novel Hugo 2012, the Best Novel Nebula 2011, and the British Fantasy Award 2012.  The other piece of good news is that Among Others has been published in the UK by Constable and Robinson.