Book Review: Aubrey McKee by Alex Pugsley

Aubrey McKee
Alex Pugsley

This collection of stories about a well-to-do kid from Halifax’s South End is apparently meant to be the first in a 5-part fictionalized autobiographical series. This book covers Aubrey’s childhood and teenage years in the 70s and 80s, and includes a cast of characters that range from his parents’ friends to drug-dealing ruffians from the poorer parts of town, to a collection of eccentrics and misfits who are the early adopters of Halifax’s vibrant punk music scene in the early 80s. But Aubrey’s life is pretty insular and posh. Private school, tennis lessons, and yacht clubs all play a role in his development and it’s only when another character tells him off and points out that his life is nothing at all like that of other Halifax youth (a refreshing twist, because I wasn’t sure the author actually had that self-awareness up to that point and was beginning to think he might be an awful jerk), that it became clear that somebody had the great good sense to consider Aubrey a poncy twat, and to call him on it.

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Pride Vignettes — Willis

“Oh, it’s THAT day of the year again,” Willis opined to Gerald as they settled into a double seat on the streetcar. “Careful the seat isn’t already covered in glitter and who knows what else.

“I mean, really, what must their parents think? This… lifestyle. SUCH an embarrassment. I can’t imagine. How horrible it must be for them. To have your children grow up to be like… this…” Willis gestured widely at the streetcar’s interior, indicating twenty or so people dressed in sparkly clothing, feather boas, and rainbow-themed shirts, his voice full of disdain and intentionally loud enough to be heard.

People turned away, annoyed and disgusted, intent on ignoring Willis and his speechifying.

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Pride Vignettes — Katie

The place looked the same, Katie thought to herself as she exited the bus from New York. Ten years away and Toronto looked exactly the same. Okay, sure, there were more tall condos and the stores were not the same ones that had been here when she’d left, but overall, it was the same dull, not especially exciting, city that she’d fled.

Or maybe, Katie realized, it was she who had changed so much, and her old hometown just couldn’t keep up.

She caught a streetcar to her Aunt Paula’s house. She hadn’t seen any of her family since her mother’s funeral three years previous, where, against her better judgment, she’d dressed in the only men’s clothing she still owned, a conservative black suit kept specifically for the occasion, so as not to upset anyone by her appearance. It went against her principles, but it had been her mother’s last request of her. Upon returning home she had taken scissors to the suit and then also set it aflame, just for good measure.

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Pride Vignettes — Heather

Heather and Mattie walked the few blocks to the street party at a quick pace. Heather hadn’t bothered to dress up especially, knowing that Mattie was always the subject of any attention when they were out anywhere together. Once they entered the throng of people, all eyes, and often hands, would be on Mattie. Heather was okay with this. She was content to let Mattie be the draw, and to bask in the glory that surrounded her, knowing that she could take the opportunity to engage people once they approached to see her beautiful companion.

They reached the crowds of Church Street and were immediately an attraction.

“Oh my god! That dog is huge! Lady, can I pat your dog?”

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Pride Vignettes — Dianne

The shirt was a little snug. Dianne rooted through the boxes to find another one a size up, one that didn’t fit so snugly across her ample hips. She didn’t mind her hips, “child-birthing hips” Bruce had called them once when she was pregnant with Madeline, they were part of her and part of her life story, but she knew a tight t-shirt would drive her nuts and she’d be fussing and adjusting the hem all day if she didn’t find something looser.

She tidied the boxes and shoved them back under the long plastic table, repositioning the table skirt and feathering out the pamphlets on top in an arch, making sure that a couple of boxes of tissue were within easy reach. They went through a lot of tissues at Pride. So, so many tissues.

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Pride Vignettes — A Week of Pride-Themed Flash Fiction

Having spent a lot of time in the gay community and attending at least a few Pride events almost every year, I wanted to do something to celebrate both Pride itself and the interesting people I’ve come across. Most of the people I write about in this series are outliers, people on the periphery of the parades, festivals, and events who don’t exactly fit in, but who most definitely add to the overall atmosphere.

I started outlining this collection last summer, when it seemed as if this year’s Pride would be like all the ones before it. With no parades, marches, or street festivals to attend, no parties or dance clubs at which to gather, I wondered if stories celebrating those activities would even be relevant for Pride 2020. But unique personalities are always worth celebrating, and hopefully by this time next year, we’ll all be back out on the streets, sun-burnt and glitter-covered, reveling in the love and acceptance.

In the meantime, I offer you seven stories of the (perhaps not typical) Pride experience. Running each morning from June 22nd to June 28th, they are short bursts of “flash” fiction, each a quick, fun read, coming in at under 1000 words, and offering a unique perspective on the diverse and amazing people celebrating Pride.

Please stop by each day, starting Monday, June 22nd, for a new story.

June 22 — Darren
June 23 — Dianne
June 24 — Terrence
June 25 — Heather
June 26 — Katie
June 27 — Beth
June 28 — Willis

Bookish – In Which I Offer Mini Reviews for Many Books

Nobody reads my book reviews anyway, so I figure it’s totally okay if I cheat and pile a bunch into one post. I just want a place to record everything I’ve read because otherwise I’ll pick up the same title five years from now and read it again, and seriously, there are too many books to read, I’m not reading something twice unless it changes my life in some way.

So here’s what I’ve been reading lately…

Crow Winter
Karen McBride
This novel about a young Anishinaabe woman returning to her family home after the death of her father reads more like a young adult novel with traditional characters from the spirit world coming to life to help her come to terms with her loss and save her community. Beautiful artwork throughout by the author. A good entry point for readers of colonial descent to learn more about First Nations culture.

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Book Review — Recipe For a Perfect Wife

Recipe For a Perfect Wife
Karma Brown

I flagged Recipe For a Perfect Wife after a review (or maybe it was a press release) made it out to be a bit of a thriller. While there was murder and mayhem, it was of a more genteel sort, served with tea sandwiches and cake, that was not much of a challenge.

A dual storyline — Nellie in the 1950s and Alice in 2018 — tells of both women’s lives in the same suburban house. Both women have secrets, and are living unhappy lives, making choices mostly to please their respective husbands. Nellie’s mid-century marriage is full of abuse, belittlement, and even rape, while Alice is a modern working gal who has torpedoed her career and agrees to move to the burbs as some form of self-imposed penance.

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Book Review — The Great Believers

The Great Believers
Rebecca Makkai

I approached this one with trepidation. Set partially in 1985 – 1990 in Chicago’s gay scene, it deals with the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the devastation it caused within that community. My first job after high school was delivering meals in a hospital and although the gay scene in Halifax was tiny there were still a handful of AIDS patients at that time, placed on the cancer ward because the hospital didn’t know what else to do with them. Amongst a flood of ignorance and misinformation, many of my co-workers refused to deliver trays to these patients, so I found myself regularly getting called in for an evening shift and working only one ward (about 25 beds out of 900). I got to know a lot of these men in their last days, and with many of my close friends also being gay men, it was terrifying to watch.

The Great Believers follows Yale in the 1980s as he watches his friends die one by one, supported by his friend Nico’s younger sister, Fiona. The book then jumps to 2015 as Fiona arrives in Paris in search of her estranged daughter. The work jumps back and forth between time frames and while it first seems as if the book is two separate, disjointed story lines, things come together and we discover that Fiona, jokingly referred to as “Saint Fiona of Chicago” for her support of her brother and many of his friends as they died carries her own trauma and PTSD which has affected her life and that of those around her.

Makkai creates a parallel between the AIDS epidemic and the Great War/Spanish Flu epidemic with the storyline of Nora, Fiona’s great aunt, who was a model in Paris before and after the first world war, and who has valuable artwork that Yale tries to secure for the gallery where her works. Nora lost many of her friends and colleagues, either at the front or from the flu, or other related ways (such as suicide) after the fact.

Although the story appears to be about Yale, Fiona is actually the central character, both in her involvement with her boys in the 80s and in 2015 as she goes searching for her daughter and discovers that she’s never really let go of the trauma of the 1980s; she still lives and works in Chicago at a charity shop that donates proceeds to AIDS charities even though most of the people she loved are gone.

But the world has changed in 30 years. Some of the men she knew came through the epidemic unscathed (no glove, no love, people!), some who were believed to be dead show up healthy and robust thanks to the advances in drug therapy in the late 1990s/early 2000s. And Fiona realizes that she’s the only one who hasn’t let go and moved on. And that her dedication to the memory of her boys has destroyed other, current — and incredibly important — relationships.

The Great Believers has been picked up for development by Amy Poehler, so we can probably expect to see the book made into a series within the next couple of years. Still worth reading in the interim though, especially if you lived through those awful years and are still carrying those memories around with you.

April Reading List

Tete-a-Tete
Hazel Rowley
The biography of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir based on her journals and letters. Honestly, this is a DNF for me, as I just couldn’t get past what a dick Sartre was, both to Beauvoir and the many women he had relationships with. Plus Beauvoir grooming her young high school-aged students to become his lovers was also way creepy.

The American Agent
Jacqueline Winspear
Another fantastic novel in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series, this one taking place during the Blitz in the fall of 1940. Winspear has maintained Dobbs through 15 novels now and they remain sharp, intriguing, and well-written. Many red herrings and twisty paths, as usual, the murderer turns out to be a complete surprise.

Life Admin
Elizabeth F. Emens
One of those books that talks about theoretical issues rather than offering much in the way of concrete advice, if nothing else it will give the reader pause to consider how much of our life is unavoidable admin work (grocery lists, permission slips, taxes). Also, an understanding about how different people approach admin tasks, and how some things that require our attention feel like a waste of time.

Rage Becomes Her
Soraya Chemaly
An important read, but it can come off cluttered at times and doesn’t really offer much new insight into all of the things women have to be angry about. Unequal pay, harassment, mansplaining… it’s all here, and Chemaly offers concise details, but there’s little in the way of concrete advice. At best, you read this to get worked up at the injustice against women and then come up with your own ideas to fight it.

How to Be Famous
Caitlin Moran
The second book of a trilogy (How to Build a Girl #2) loosely based on Moran’s early adult life as a music writer. This starts out clunky and I almost discarded it, but it picks up and becomes a great story and a love letter to young women. Seriously, worth reading just for protagonist Dolly’s letter to her rock star boyfriend about the power and energy of young female music fans, and how the music industry — so dependent on the custom of teenage girls — treats them with misogynistic disdain. Rating: a hearty Fuck Yeah!

Highland Fling & Christmas Pudding
Nancy Mitford
The first two books from The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford. Mitford was a London socialite in the early 20th century, one of a family of sisters, a few of whom were closely linked with the Nazi party during WW2. While Mitford’s writing is said to improve with her later works, the first two novels were not well-received at the time of publication and mostly deal with the gender gap within the aristocracy between the old guard and the Bright Young People. Lots of country estates, hunting, characters with names like Squibby, and discussions about how much inheritance per year would justify marrying someone you didn’t love. Characters were mostly based on Mitford’s friends so didn’t really translate well to the rest of the population. I may come back to the later novels at some point but these two just made me despise silly rich people.

The New Me
Halle Butler
This is one of those new-fangled books about Millennial ennui, and Butler’s character Millie is scathing, cynical, and sarcastic, covering up some fairly severe depression and self-loathing. It’s ultimately a flip-off to Western society’s promise of the reinvention of the self through consumerism (that lipstick, rug, cereal, car, yoga class, or facial treatment will make your life so much better!). The narrative jumps from Millie’s point of view to that of other characters in some chapters, and this would work better if more of it came back to Millie in some way. It’s meant to show the universality of our depressing work/life treadmill and how we try to improve it, mostly by purchasing stuff, but it could have been tighter and more succinct if the characters had more interaction.

Maeve in America: Essays By a Girl From Somewhere Else
Maeve Higgins
Irish comedian Maeve Higgins has spent the last few years in the United States, and this collection of witty and often funny essays detail her accounts of swimming with dolphins, renting a ballgown for an awards ceremony, body acceptance and family. An enjoyable read that made me hope she tours Canada as I’d love to see her perform live.

You Have the Right to Remain Fat
Virgie Tovar
Tovar’s claim to fame might not be fat activism, but rather that she incorrectly accused another fat activist of plagiarizing part of this book in the TV series Shrill. (This claim was debunked by the fact that Tovar’s book was released after the scene in question — fat girl pool party — was filmed.) This was successful in getting Tovar plenty of free publicity, but not all of it positive. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t go anywhere new in the realm of fat activism and is mostly more preaching to the choir. Tovar makes good points (it’s not fat people who have to change, but the mainstream attitude towards them), but amidst the noise about stolen ideas, those issues will not be heard by the people who need to make the actual changes.

On Being 40(ish)
Lindsey Mead
While a few of these essays do actually touch on issues all women face in mid-life, far too many of them were along the lines of “here’s something that happened to me when I was 40”, as opposed to “because I was 40”. So many of the essays in this small collection didn’t feel especially relevant. “Soul Mates: A Timeline in Clothing” by Catherine Newman, detailing a lifelong friendship that ultimately ends when one of the friends dies of ovarian cancer might have been the best piece in the book. I was hoping for a lot more from this collection.