Friday, February 17, 2012

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

I love Margaret Atwood, but I actually haven't read a lot of her work. Cat's Eye is not a book I hear people talk about much; however, I found it to be, of her books I've read, the one that most clearly illuminates a feminist lens, and deals with the problematic issues of femininity and female relationships.

The story is about Elaine Risley, a painter who returns to Toronto in middle age for a showing of her work. Her weekend is cut with remembrances of her childhood, moving to the city with her strange (to others) family after early years of basically living in the wild (her father is an entomologist). Elaine has a brother, but has had no relationships with or experience of girls.

Through her three new friends, Carol, Grace and Cordelia, Elaine learns the ropes of femininity and the expectations of her sex through play, as little girls do. They do things like cutting out pictures of women and household items from the Eaton's catalogue and arranging them into scrapbooks, and playing with paper dolls of movie stars. But they also enforce a strange and arbitrary girl code that will be familiar to most girls reading, regardless of age; Cordelia makes up rules and standards that only she can see, but that Carol and Grace blindly enforce, and Elaine, longing to be loved and accepted, has to follow. She develops neuroses and bizarre fears, and is treated with increasing cruelty by her friends, but continues to return to them.

I can't describe much more of the plot because I feel like I can never do it justice. Atwood creates a very, very real girl world long before Mean Girls but similar in scope; an insulated world where no matter how bad things get, the worst thing would be to be cast out. The way Risley's half-remembered childhood influences her construction of herself, and her art, is heartbreaking; Atwood creates strong images and symbols that slowly begin to weave themselves through every aspect of the painter's life. Supposedly this is Atwood's most autobiographical novel ever, and of course it is - this could be any woman's life. The only thing that sets most of us apart from Elaine is that we grow up into the girl world; we learn the rules a little sooner.

The setting of Toronto is seen with cynical eyes. Post-war there is nothing going on; characters are constantly remarking on the lack of interest they have in the place. In the present day (the late 1980s) story, Elaine wanders around downtown and retraces her old steps, but the city itself still seems dreary and stale. The main character's relationship to the city and the period of her life when she lived there is a strong element in the novel, but this book is not exactly a tourist brochure for Toronto.

This is a story about memory and the construction of self; about women and their relationships to each other; and about loss. It was incredibly moving, but mostly just real - I think that for me, that is Atwood's greatest strength: her books are real talk.

I give this one five CN Towers out of five:

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

This is, hands down, the best book I have read for this project so far. Well, my favourite anyway, because can there really be an objective best book?

As a teenager and in my early twenties I worked my fair share of customer service, although probably not nearly as much as some of my peers. Retail has always been a particular hatred of mine, although food service is perhaps not much better. Hell is other people, as Sartre did so wisely note. But my most hated feature of those jobs was also kind of my favourite - the ridiculous customers and their stories.

At one convenience store job we kept a notebook under the counter, and we would write the funny or strange things that happened. Humour makes most things bearable. The Incident Report starts out much like that notebook. The protagonist works in a library, and the format of the novel is a series of incident reports - stark, emotionless, detailed tellings of things that happen. For the first little while it is flat out hilarious, in a distressingly sad way; in the face of the weird forms of humanity that flock to free public spaces, it is hard to know whether to laugh or shake one's head. We don't know what our protagonist, 35-year-old Miriam, does. She just tells us what happened.

I would have imagined a book like this to be uninteresting, but the lack of emotion does not stop the writing from being poetic and clever, and it challenges the reader to imagine desires and feelings for Miriam, to learn who she is by the way she describes things, and what she does. Baillie tricks us into thinking we are simply reading a list of things that happened, and that we are not invested - and then pulls the rug right out from under us in big, disarming moments of pure emotion. It is tense the whole way through; I had a very strong impression of Miriam doing her best to hold back the ever-present chaos of her life and the life of the library.

This is a story about stories, but for being set in a library it has little to do with books. There are many great allusions throughout, notably to Hansel and Gretel (which I almost missed because I'm not great at allusions). There are seemingly unrelated bits and pieces from the childhoods of Miriam's coworkers. Very few of the reports take more than a page.

The novel is set at the Allan Gardens branch of the Toronto Public Library, where I have not been (Danforth/Coxwell what what!) but now kind of want to visit. Toronto plays a very small part in the story, as most of the action takes place in the library. It still retains a very local flavour, however.

This is a beautifully written, smartly crafted and thoroughly engaging book. I loved it so much, and cried unabashedly on the streetcar (you'll know which part). I can't recommend it highly enough, and I will most definitely be reading more of Baillie's work in the future.

Five out of five CN Towers