We’re delighted to kick off our Plots & Pandemic Series with our co-founder David Albertyn. Join us on Saturday, June 20, 2020 to engage in a virtual face-to-face event where guests can interact with David and each other. We will begin with a short reading followed by a group discussion and Q & A.
Born in Durban, South Africa in 1983, David immigrated to Toronto, Canada in 1993. A graduate of Queen’s University and the Humber School for Writers – where he received a Letter of Distinction – he has been writing stories since the age of six. A tennis coach who has competed extensively in both tennis and track and field, David’s goal is to write visceral novels that are both thrilling and meaningful. The result of all David’s interests, influences and efforts is Undercard (2019), which is infused with scrupulous research and the pulse of the times we live in. It immediately resonated with David’s Canadian publisher, House of Anansi, and went on to resonate with his international publishers, HarperCollins Germany and HarperCollins France, his World English audiobook publisher, Dreamscape Media, and the award-winning production company that optioned the film/TV rights, Shaftesbury.
The vision behind The Authors’ Book Club is to bring authors and readers together. Our initiative, launched on January 1, 2020, started out strong. By our third month, the three of us – author David Albertyn, who co-founded this initiative, and Fiona Ross, our book club representative and I – had our goal and objectives firmly established. Fifty emerging and established writers from across Canada, from big, mid, and multinational publishers had joined us. We couldn’t be happier.
Then COVID-19 happened. While having a good book to talk about is very important, most book clubs served another function: the opportunity for like-minded people to get together in a social setting, often over food and drinks. Readers typically wanted to invite authors to their book clubs to meet them face-to-face, get their books signed, and to take photos with them. But none of that was suddenly possible.
My mother taught me early on the value of seeing advantage in every opportunity, good or bad. To that end, we encouraged virtual book club meetings. But we wanted to do more. A conversation with Tali Voron from The Soap Box Press and Coach House Books led to the virtual book launch of Patti M. Hall’s debut novel, Loving Large, published by Dundurn Press. Patti’s book launch was supposed to have been at Ben McNally Books in Toronto. We were thrilled when Patti enthusiastically accepted our invitation to hold the event online.
After considering several virtual platforms, we settled on Zoom. Learning to navigate it proved to be an adventure. Unfortunately on the night of the event, we ran into technical problems with the closed captioning third-party. My heart sank knowing that we were unable to provide that for our attendees. Luckily, my daughter, who at 20-years old is able to figure out most tech-related challenges, told me to hit the ‘record’ button minutes into the event otherwise that too would have been lost.
Thanks to Tali, we were also able to partner with an incredible Canadian publisher, Coach House Press. For the entire month of May 2020, we featured one of their books and its author in what became The Authors’ Book Club Spotlight Series. As a result, we have a wonderful collection of twenty blog posts!
Looking ahead, we want to continue The Authors’ Book Club Spotlight Series into the summer with different programming. Fiona suggested we call it “The Spotlight Series: Plots & Pandemic”. We’re thinking of hosting an interactive Author and Reader “meet & greet”. All participants would be in a virtual space with their cameras and mics on so that they could interact with each other and the author. The number of participants would be kept low to encourage engagement. More details on this to come.
In the meanwhile, thanks to my daughter, I’ve just learned to create a YouTube channel for The Authors’ Book Club. Yay! But after four hours, the file finally uploaded, more time is needed to process it. The video of Patti’s book launch will be available in a day or two. The transcribed notes will also be available to accompany it.
Three months ago, I had never even heard of Zoom; nor had I imagined the number of days I’d be spending in front of a computer learning new programs and relying on online communities and YouTube videos to problem-solve. Yet, here I am at 52-years old, learning new skills. I’m confident that my experience mirrors that of many others during these uncertain times. While none of this is extraordinary, it still feels damn good.
Ann Y.K. Choi‘s debut novel, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, was a Toronto Book Awards finalist and One of CBC Books 12 Best Canadian Debut Novels of 2016. Most recently, the Korean Canadian Heritage Awards committee recognized her for promoting Korean culture within Canada. Ann is the co-founder of The Authors’ Book Club.
The poems of Anatomic have emerged from biomonitoring and microbiome testing on the author’s body to examine the way the outside writes the inside, whether we like it or not. Adam Dickinson drew blood, collected urine, swabbed bacteria, and tested his feces to measure the precise chemical and microbial diversity of his body.
Structured like the hormones some of these synthetic chemicals mimic in our bodies, this sequence of poems links the author’s biographical details (diet, lifestyle, geography) with historical details (spills, poisonings, military applications) to show how permeable our bodies are to the environment. As Dickinson becomes obsessed with limiting the rampant contamination of his own biochemistry, he turns this chemical-microbial autobiography into an anxious plea for us to consider what we’re doing to our world—and to our own bodies.
Discover Anatomic and enjoy the poem below, followed by Adam’s thoughts on the piece.
The umbrella is the starting point for a larger obfuscation. A constant mist of tiny particles rains upward, like neck hair at the cicada sex of a smoke alarm. Children outgrow the behaviours of cats, but for many years they are derelicts of skin flakes, stair runners, and upholstery. The average carpet smokes three packs a day. The glassy bits scratching your throat are leftover deterrents to predators. Dust is a conversation happening just out of earshot, it’s the street talk of the Endocrine and Alderaan systems, a vector for the invectives of misdirection. Dust is a bunch of nickels your uncle gives you to get him another Goldschläger. My thoughts, like every other coagulation cascade, are made of melted lint and move around with the chirality of lost oven mitts. In the dusty barns of Michigan, the wrong bag of pale grit was mixed into cow feed. Nine million people ate Firemaster. My limbs tingle just out of broadcast range. Here come the industry standards to burn down the roofs of our mouths.
Anatomic is a book that responds to chemical and microbial tests on my body. In conceiving of the book, my intention was to look at how the “outside” environment, writes the “inside” of our bodies. Consequently, over a period of several years, I worked with laboratories and scientists to measure levels of various pollutants in my blood and urine, including pesticides, heavy metals, flame retardants, PCBs, and phthalates. I also sequenced my microbiome through stool samples and swabbed parts of my body to measure the abundance of microbes living on and in me. How did these chemicals and microbes get into me? How are they biologically active? What are their stories in the context of industrial, political, cultural, and evolutionary history? I decided to respond to these chemicals and microbes through poetry because their capacity to affect the metabolism of our bodies constitutes, in my view, a form of writing at the limits of writing—they interfere with or otherwise influence the exchange of hormonal messages in the body.
We are currently in the midst of a global pandemic. At this point it is fair to say that the spread of the novel coronavirus disease via transnational travel and shipping corridors is as much a product of global metabolism as it is a product of human metabolic susceptibility. We write our environment as our environment writes us. I hope my book inspires people to think about the kinds of energy systems we surround ourselves with and the kinds of materials, foods, and supply chains we produce from these systems, especially as we begin to transition away from oil. As it stands, I can peer into my blood and see the signature of multinational corporations such as Monsanto. “A Bromide” responds to the presence of Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in my body. The poem’s epigraph indicates the precise level of the chemical in my serum. These chemicals belong to a class of compounds known as brominated flame retardants. PBDEs leach from common consumer products like TVs and carpets. Household dust is believed to be the greatest source of contamination for humans.
Adam Dickinson’s poetry has appeared in literary journals and anthologies in Canada and internationally. He has published three books of poetry. His most recent book, The Polymers, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, and the ReLit Award. His work has been translated into Chinese, Dutch, and Polish. He has been featured at international literary festivals such as Poetry International in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and the Oslo International Poetry Festival in Norway. He teaches poetics and creative writing at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario.
Midday at the Super-Kamiokande is part existentialist cry, part close encounters of the other kind. Think Kierkegaard in a spacesuit, Kubrik in a Left Bank café. Like the neutrino observatory of its title, Midday at the Super-Kamiokande seeks “glimpses of the obscure” to carve out meaning, alternately a resistance to rationalism and its champion.
It aims to tear through abstraction with the concrete, either catastrophic – road accidents, nuclear explosions, floods, extinction, eviction, suicide – or quotidian, finding threads of love, empathy, and belief within the fray. These are poems with no middle. These are poems of beginnings, and of ends.
Enjoy the title poem from the collection, followed by Matthew’s thoughts on the piece.
Midday at the Super-Kamiokande comprises 52 poems like this one, the title poem. So, it’s short. The stanzas with their clean enjambments offer closure, whole thoughts, while the leaps between stanzas eschew narrative, letting the temporal connection dangle, alighting on a seemingly dissociated image or idea. The white space between is charged, I like to think, with neural crackle.
In fact, the stanza order could conceivably shift and the poem would still be the poem, only phrased differently, the way a melody is still the melody even after variation. Try it. Each of the stanzas in this title poem would work as a beginning or an end. The poem exhibits “shufflability,” to use a highly technical literary term. Or, as the cover copy says, “These are poems with no middle; they are poems of beginnings, and of ends.” The nub, though, is that’s what poems are. As the incomparable Dean Young says, “You want middles, read novels.”
My editor noticed two recurring motifs throughout the book; neither were planned with anything like high-level intent. One was the instances of doubling: doppelgängers and twins but also images, reflections, reversals, paradoxes and puns. Midnights and middays, as it were. The second was the proliferation of suns. The sun has, throughout Western philosophy, represented knowledge, the “light of reason,” and for some, like Aquinas, a way to God. Unlike the moon, which is a mercurial, slant light, the sun is fixed and direct. “Every sun is a full sun.” Yet the suns in Midday tend to be compromised, either setting, failing or strangely immaterial.
This more philosophical approach, mixing metaphysics with my materialism, was a pivot from my previous books, which took their cues from science. What if “reason isn’t reasonable,” I thought—or read and then thought. Maybe it’s in the darkness, in the shadows, we find the truth. The Super-Kamiokande, a neutrino observatory in Japan, is probing the mystery that is dark matter. But will finding the answer get us closer to the “something from nothing” that is the inescapable, unrelenting presentation of our universe?
I say no. FWIW.
To continue reading, purchase Midday at the Super-Kamiokande here!
Matthew Tierney is the author of four books of poetry; the most recent is Midday at the Super-Kamiokande. His previous book, Probably Inevitable, won the 2013 Trillium Book Award for Poetry in English. He is also a recipient of the K. M. Hunter Award and the P.K. Page Founders’ Award. He lives in the east end of Toronto with his wife and son.
The Crash Palace is a funny, moving, and surprising novel by the author of the Amazon First Novel Award–nominated The Milk Chicken Bomb. Audrey is unlike any character you’ve met before, and you’ll love being along for the ride.
Audrey Lane has always loved to drive. Anytime, anywhere, any car: a questionable rustbucket, a family sedan, the SUV she was paid to drive around the oil fields. From the second she learned to drive, she’s always found a way to hit the road.
And now, one night, while her young daughter is asleep at home, Audrey is struck by that old urge and finds herself testing the doors of parked cars in her neighbourhood. Before she knows it, she’s headed north in the dead of winter to the now abandoned Crash Palace in a stolen car, unable to stop herself from confronting her past.
In the middle of NonFiction week we wanted to sneak in a preview of Andrew’s much awaited forthcoming novel. So read on and meet Audrey for yourself in the following excerpt and enjoy Andrew’s thoughts on the passage.
She followed a washboard gravel road up and down a ridge of hills. A long line of parked vehicles ran up the edge of the road. She parked at the end and got out. Old pick-up trucks, little hatchbacks, old station wagons with ski racks. After a while she started passing orange trafﬁc pylons. She smelled grilling meat.
In a gravel parking lot, people in orange vests stood around a propane BBQ. A man in a cowboy hat was grilling burgers. Audrey saw a knot of people standing up at the top of a little ridge above them.
She hiked up through the brush. People were standing behind a line of orange ﬂuorescent tape, in a clearing between pine trees. Just past them was a stretch of gravel road. An S-curve switchback, a short straight- away, and then a ﬁnal curve before disappearing back into the woods. The gravel was brown and fresh, deep and scored with tire-marks.
She stood in the small crowd and was going to ask someone when she heard the engine.
She heard the engine and the conversation died down. Everyone stood quietly and then the car came around the corner. Taking the curve hard, back end drifting out in the soft gravel, kicking up a great cloud of dust. The driver shifted down through the S-curve, then revved up to pick up speed through the straightaway. Came close enough that Audrey could see the two of them in the car: two motorcycle helmets, a driver and a passenger, their heads bobbing back and forth through the curves. The car roared past, picking up speed, a Japanese sport sedan with a big spoiler, bright blue, the windshield, doors, hood, fenders all covered in stickers. It roared past and everyone cheered and they heard it shift again for the last curve and then it was gone, around the corner into the trees, the engine noise fading.
The cars came one after the other, a few minutes apart. All of them tackling the S-curve and then the short straightaway before the tight turn disappearing into the trees. Each of them a little different. They at- tacked the ﬁrst curve aggressively or cautiously. They didn’t all drift out on the ﬁrst curve. She saw them pick different spots to shift and rev.
The cars, the Subarus and Hondas and Ford Fiestas, got close enough each time for Audrey to catch a quick glimpse of the drivers and co- drivers in their matching helmets.
She watched twenty cars go by and at a certain point started cheering with the rest of the crowd. Cheered when the cars came into the curve, when they came by close enough to see the helmets, when they sped up through the straightaway and then disappeared around the other curve.
A big man in a denim jacket turned around and beamed at her. ‘That was a good day of racing,’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ said Audrey. ‘Absolutely.’
I grew up outside of Okotoks, Alberta, which is just inside the first rises of the Rocky Mountain Foothills. East of you is flat prairie and west are the higher and higher foothills. There’s a network of roads through those western hills—not a grid but a series of meandering routes that twist along the contours of the valleys and coulees between Highway 549 and Kananaskis Country. When I was a teenager I had a 1985 Dodge Ram with a second-hand stereo duct-taped to the pull-out ashtray. I’d put on a cassette and drive west into that maze of roads and see where I could end up that I’d never been before.
As an adult living in Calgary I didn’t drive for years. I missed it tremendously. I loved getting other people to tell stories about driving when they were younger. I had a friend who’d bought and sold $50 junk heaps throughout high school and I had a friend who’d been a crew driver in the Oil Sands.
Eventually I started driving again and I even moved out of the city back to Okotoks. I spend a lot of time driving now, although most of it is commuting slowly up and down Deerfoot trail, which is not as exciting as turning off onto an unknown gravel road somewhere southwest of Bragg Creek.
The parking spot next to mine at work belongs to a software developer named Eric. Eric drives two cars—a heavily-modded Japanese hatchback and an even more customized left-hand drive race car. Both of them are covered in decals and in immaculate condition. After work he’ll often be down there tinkering with something. I was talking with Eric one day and he told me about the different racing clubs he’s part of—his drifting club and his rally club. And that conversation—helped out by some of the rally club websites he recommended to me—became a key piece of the puzzle for Audrey, and turned into the Elbow Falls Rally Race.
Andrew Wedderburn is a writer and musician from Okotoks, Alberta. He graduated from the University of Calgary in 2001. His stories have been published by filling Station and Alberta Views Magazines . His debut novel, The Milk Chicken Bomb, was published by Coach House Books in 2007. In 2008 it was a finalist for the Amazon / Books in Canada First Novel Award, and long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. As a musician and songwriter Wedderburn has written, recorded and toured extensively in the groups Hot Little Rocket and Night Committee, releasing seven full-length albums over the last two decades. Andrew Wedderburn currently resides in Okotoks, AB.
Fairy tales shape how we see the world, so what happens when you identify more with the Beast than Beauty?
If every disabled character is mocked and mistreated, how does the Beast ever imagine a happily-ever-after? Amanda Leduc looks at fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm to Disney, showing us how they influence our expectations and behaviour and linking the quest for disability rights to new kinds of stories that celebrate difference.
Discover Disfigured through the excerpt below, followed by Amanda’s thoughts on the passage.
Years after I first saw the Disney film, I read the Hans Christian Anderson version of ‘The Little Mermaid.’ Now, all these years later, I find myself focused on this image: the mermaid, mute and heartbroken, arcing that one long dive into the sea. She has been mutilated in a number of ways: her tail and tongue taken from her, her ability to connect with others stolen from her as a result of the witch’s machinations. She has no hope of convincing the prince in this story, bedazzled as he is by the beauty and charm of his new bride. She is made, by virtue of her disability, less than what he might desire.
How should we take this, in this world of modern-day story- telling? Perhaps it’s unrealistic to think that a different outcome could have visited this story, especially given the era of its provenance. (The rudimentary beginnings of European sign language were just entering infancy during Andersen’s time.)
Still. Surely the Little Mermaid and her prince could have learned sign language, of a kind, or communicated through gestures? Did no one in the palace think to teach the ‘little dumb foundling’ how to read and write? In the Disney version, Ariel physically signs a contract with Ursula in order to give up her voice. Couldn’t she have written Prince Eric a note?
But fairy tales have historically been concerned with morals – and historically, morals have concerned themselves in a very particular way with the disabled. Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, as we’ve seen, is one of those people who might never reach the top of the social ladder, no matter how much they try. (The glimmer of hope at the end of ‘The Little Mermaid’ seems to me so faint as to not be a glimmer at all.) Disney’s Ariel, by contrast, not only manages to regain her voice; her other disability – the immobility afforded by a mermaid’s tail on land – is eradicated by her version’s happy ending. At the end of the Disney version, Ariel has legs, her voice, and her prince. The original mermaid, by contrast, dies with none of those things.
So, suddenly we have two versions of the tale: one in which the disability is vanished and the abled body reigns supreme, and another in which the disability is permanent and leads to grief and suffering. Where is the space for disability as a simple fact of life in a scenario like this? If Ariel couldn’t hope to get her prince when she didn’t have legs and/or a voice, what hope could a disabled girl like myself have for a life that was free of torment and bullying unless she was free of a limp and had all of her faculties intact?
In this excerpt from my book, Disfigured, I’m exploring what it meant to me to become acquainted with the Hans Christian Andersen version of ‘The Little Mermaid’, after having grown up on the Disney version. Specifically, I’m looking at the ways in which the Andersen tale highlights so many things about the disability experience without ever explicitly treating TLM as a disability story—the Little Mermaid is made to suffer, and undergo trial through virtue of experiencing disability, in order that she might one day shed her mermaid’s tail for good and walk permanently on land as a human.
So many of the narratives that we tell in our fairy tales, Hollywood stories, and other mainstream media follow this same kind of structure, where people are made to experience disability as a kind of “flaw” in their character or as a kind of punishment. And often, the only way that we’re made to understand someone’s triumph in a story is through eradicating the disability in some way. In the case of the Disney version of the Little Mermaid, Ariel gives up her life at sea—her family, her friends, and all she’s ever known—in order that she might be a human, that she might walk on two legs. In the Hans Christian Andersen story, she gives up her very life itself in order to protect the human man she’s come to love. The understanding in the Andersen tale is that she is broken because she is disabled and can’t speak. In both stories, even though they have very different endings, it’s taken for granted that the Little Mermaid cannot have what she wants with the body that she has—she must change in some crucial way in order to get her happy ending.
When people read my book, I’d like them to think about the ways in which we often ask characters to do or say or fit into impossible ideals in order to achieve their happy endings. All too often, we associate a happy ending with a certain degree of physical prowess—someone is pretty, or walks on two legs, or doesn’t have the kind of “difficulty” in their life that we often associate with disability—because we assume that a difficult life is somehow not worth living, or not worth as much happiness as a life that is free of these complications. But what does it mean when we re-imagine what a happy ending might look like? What happens when we read and tell stories and understand that happy endings and happy lives are not made less so because of complications—but that, instead, a story becomes all the richer for the specific disabled joys that might live inside it?
Amanda Leduc’s essays and stories have appeared in publications across Canada, the US, and the UK. She is the author of the novels The Miracles of Ordinary Menand the forthcoming The Centaur’s Wife. She has cerebral palsy and lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where she works as the Communications Coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), Canada’s first festival for diverse authors and stories.
Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, by Suzette Mayr, follows Dr. Edith Vane, scholar of English literature, who is contentedly ensconced at the University of Inivea. Her dissertation on pioneer housewife memoirist Beulah Crump-Withers is about to be published, and her job’s finally safe, if she only can fill out her AAO properly. All should be well, really. Except for her broken washing machine, her fickle new girlfriend, her missing friend Coral, her backstabbing fellow professors, a cutthroat new dean – and the fact that the sentient and malevolent Crawley Hall has decided it wants them all out, and the hall and its hellish hares will stop at nothing to get rid of them.
Discover the world of Dr. Edith Vane by reading the excerpt and Suzette Mayr’s thoughts on the passage below.
She hears the dripping. A steady drip of the tap in the bathroom across the corridor. A drip that intensifies, pokes into her concentration, fragments her midnight genius. She pushes the exams away, stands up from her desk, slips her keys into her pocket.
She pushes open the washroom door into moonless black. The sound of water running from a tap. She flicks on the switch. Only one fluorescent light flickers on. The ceiling gutted and cavernous.
Her heart startles, clatters in her chest.
A woman in a yellow dress bends over the sinks. Coral, rinsing her mouth.
Coral’s hand stops, mid-rinse, her hand still cupped over her mouth, water drip-dripping, her bloodshot eyes gazing at Edith through the dim reflection in the mirror.
– I’m sorry, Edith half shouts. – I didn’t know anyone else was in here. You scared the stuffing out of me. Coral! You’re back, she sighs. – You’re back from the hospital. I’m so glad to see you.
Edith sighs again, holds out her hand.
Coral’s hand stays cupped to her mouth.
– I was so worried about you, Edith says.
Vestiges of water curl down Coral’s forearm, drip from her elbow into the sink. Edith drops her hand.
Edith knows it would look stupid to leave the bathroom without using it, so she shuts herself into a cubicle, shoots the bolt of the door, and pulls down her pants. Sits down.
She hears the faucet turn on, then off. Then on again.
She pees, wipes, stands up, and refastens her pants. She swings open the cubicle door.
Coral is still standing there, her back still to Edith. Her hair straight and shiny as a red toy car.
Coral’s fingers over her mouth, red.
– I like what you’ve done with your hair, says Edith. – The colour, I mean. Or maybe it’s the light in here. Is it?
Water drips from Coral’s hands, rivulets in the sink.
– Have a good night, whispers Edith, and she scuppers out the door without washing her hands, her urine-speckled fingers firmly pushing into the middle of the orange poster that trumpets PleaseWash Your Hands.
What I wanted to do with Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall was explore the nature of horror and the uncanny but in a less predictable horror setting.
What’s really interesting to me is the notion that at the foundation of the “uncanny” is the familiar made unfamiliar, and that horror isn’t necessarily about big flamboyant moments, but the subtle tweaks to the normal so that the normal becomes less and less recognizable, more destabilized, and the peripheral begins to upstage or even overtake the centre. A university campus as a setting was the ideal place for this kind of writing experiment and exploration because university campuses have so many Gothic tendencies. Classic gothic stories often feature an old building filled with secrets. There are many, many secrets hiding in any university building, no matter how new that building might be. My main character, a stressed out professor named Edith Vane, is preyed upon by her building’s secrets. The building strips away the fragile pretense she has been desperately using to protect herself, and reveals the familiar as creepy, insidious, and maybe even terrifying.
To continue reading, purchase Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hallhere.
Suzette Mayr is the author of four previous novels: Monoceros, Moon Honey, The Widows, and Venous Hum. The Widows was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in the Canada-Caribbean region, and has been translated into German. Moon Honey was shortlisted for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Best First Book and Best Novel Awards. Monoceros was longlisted for the Giller Prize. Suzette Mayr lives and works in Calgary.
Y, by Aaron Tucker, follows J. Robert Oppenheimer: reluctant father of the atomic bomb, enthusiastic lover of books, devoted husband and philanderer. Engaging with the books he voraciously read, and especially the Bhagavad Gita, his moral compass, this lyrical novel takes us through his story, from his tumultuous youth to his marriage with a radical communist and the two secret, consuming affairs he carried on, all the while bringing us deep inside the mind of the man behind the Manhattan Project.
Discover Y by reading the excerpt and Aaron’s thoughts on it below.
They stayed at Perro Caliente for two months, and during that time he and Kitty would ride together under the heat of pride and competition across the hardest New Mexico trails, each admiring the other’s meagre movements of control, a flex of legs rarely aided by spurs in the stirrups, instead a light tap with the side of a palm or tug upwards on the reins, their mutual wonder a recognition of each other’s shared muscle memory. She was there even though she was married to another man; in fact, he knew Kitty’s husband, Richard Harrison, a friend and doctor, and the two men would sometimes share notes and drinks in the restaurants near Berkeley, spaces crowded with noise. Yet he didn’t feel the yank of guilt and instead relished his and Kitty’s overlapping, a low and constant rumble like the engine of his exquisitely curved Chrysler coupe as he drove Kitty around, the speed of the big car accented by his half-attention to driving and her describing how the two of them would soon stride into rooms together, powerful and charming and overwhelming. Although she was married, he would burst into parties pronouncing her his fiancée, and Kitty would emerge, inflorescent, from behind him, bursting out in unthinking laughter, her body unconfined by the distant and overwrought movement Jean showed even in hesitating when turning the kettle on, Kitty bathed in the scent of orchids, the large petals drooping over his thin fingers as he thrust the flowers excitedly towards the hosts. He would overhear her tell her friends, “I simply adore Robert,” and knowing that he was listening, would explain how he would expand when he was in a conversation, become as large as the room in the way that a soft bulb glows and settles over every person and thing.
They remained that way all through the summer, winding through the pines and spindly birches that blanketed the mountains, only stopping to build a secluded fire, eat and, sharing a sleeping bag, groan against each other, “Robert,” him above her and her hands clenching and pushing him further into her, “Robert,” the stars just above them, white, large, blossoming. She told him how brilliant he was, how he was going to conquer the future, that she would conquer it with him, barbarians consuming mussels soaked in garlic butter and leeks, duck confit piled beside black currants, drinking the best wines of every city, of every decade, and he saw in her imagery sattvic, Krishna explaining the best of the three kinds of food,
Where vigor, life, power, comfort, health Content are strengthened, food Bland, solid, cordial, savory Is relished by the good,
and she repeated to their guests at Perro Caliente, to an amused Katy after she handed back Kitty’s underwear, left at her ranch home, looking at him with bemusement and caution, and Kitty left that August pregnant with their son, Peter.
Although Y looks like a piece of historical fiction on its surface, in my mind, its heart is the love triangle between Robert Oppenheimer, his wife Kitty and his mistress Jean Tatlock that is the affective centre and prime mover of the work. It is through Robert’s relationships with these powerful and engaging women that his own perspectives of the world, and his actions within, come to bear. While Jean and Kitty are not opposites, they do represent two separate and appealing paths for Robert that roughly parallel his feelings about his leadership of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and the subsequent use of the atomic bomb: Jean embodies much of the doubt he has about himself and his work, while Kitty is more aligned with his ambitions and sense of patriotic duty.
The second chapter, from which this excerpt has been taken, details Robert and Kitty’s blossoming romance. Importantly, the two bond over their mutual love of New Mexico and horseback riding, and their passion for each other is crystallized in the beginning of their bold and unapologetic affair. For me, this passage shows how the two are unbridled and completely enamoured with each other, providing essential nourishment for the other; yet, the relationship is not quite equally symbiotic, even from the beginning. Kitty has to fold parts of herself into Robert’s ego and drive, become his wife and put aside her own dreams, and, despite her immense love for him, there is a well of tragedy there. She empowers Robert, but Robert drains a key energy from her.
As well, the passage reflects a further contradiction and tension within Robert: his respect and care for the New Mexico landscape that he also destroys by leading the Manhattan Project. The incorporation of the poetry here reflects Robert’s interior struggles and his constant turning to the texts of his life for ethical and spiritual guidance.
Aaron is the author of two collections of poetry, irresponsible mediums: the chesspoems of Marcel Duchamp and punchlines, as well as the two scholarly manuscripts Virtual Weaponry: The Militarized Internet in Popular Cinema and Interfacing with the Internet in Popular Cinema. His current collaborative project, Loss Sets, translates poems into sculptures which are then 3D printed; he is also the co-creator of The Chessbard, an app that transforms chess games into poems. In addition, he is a lecturer in the English department at Ryerson University.
Queen Solomon, by Tamara Faith Berger, chronicles the erotic awakening and mental disintegration of an intense young man who meets Barbra, an Ethiopian Jew, when she is brought into his home by his father for the summer. Terrified of Barbra and drawn to her in equal measure, our narrator finds himself immersed in compulsive psychosexual games with her, as she binge-drinks and lies to his family. Seven years later, as our narrator is getting his life back on track, with a new girlfriend and a master’s degree in Holocaust Studies underway, Barbra shows up at our narrator’s house once again, her “spiritual teacher” in tow, and our narrator finds his politics, and his sanity, back in question.
Get a taste of Queen Solomon in the following excerpt, and read Tamara’s thoughts below.
Ariane worked with me during sex to change my ‘bad thinking.’ She actually called it ‘traumatized thinking’ – a need to smother all my bad thoughts with sex. Ariane said I had textbook sex addiction, that my shame from Barbra and the failed way it ended meant, in fact, that I hated myself.
For two years, okay, this is what me and Ariane talked about. I mean, this is what we worked on during sex. I didn’t tell Ariane that it was not always therapeutic. In fact, some- times it even made me feel worse. Like, Ariane would tell me in sex to go slower and why, and then harder and why, how to lick her, how to suck her and why and why. I secretly did not always subscribe to her method, even though I did like that we had a lot of sex.
What Ariane ﬁxated mostly on about my relationship with Barbra was that she thought that I thought that Barbra wanted to be submissive because Barbra explicitly told me to hurt her.
‘I was mistaken about that,’ Ariane deduced. ‘Barbra was obviously not a submissive.’ Ariane said that what we did was s/m 101. She said what Barbra did is called ‘topping from the bottom.’
Uh, does ‘topping from the bottom’ mean you make up all the rules? I wanted to ask her. Does ‘topping from the bottom’ mean that the knife is always truly yours?
I did not tell Ariane about our speciﬁc scripts. I did not tell Ariane about what truly happened at the ending. I told her my scar was from surgery when I was fourteen after I broke my collarbone. I told her, in general, that Barbra asked me to do something and I did it. I told her that we didn’t really have to say yes or no. It was a system, I explained, of complicit synchronicity. Ariane scoffed. She continually tried to school me. In sex, she said, the woman must lead.
‘This is ancient knowledge. Stuff the Tantrics believed.’
Did the Tantrics believe that a turned-on and traumatized woman could be actually violent? Tantric is outdated, I thought. What did they know about consent?
Ariane assured me that my true self was not chauvinistic.
She said that all real men worshipped cunt.
Ariane said, ‘If you love cunt, you actually have to know how to treat it. If you love cunt, you have to know your way around its complex abyss.’
Sometimes I thought Ariane only liked me because I made her feel worshipped. I loved Ariane’s body. She was long- armed, big-nippled, bluish-skinned. When we had sex, I usually licked her pussy for an hour. Between Barbra and Ariane, I’d practised cunt-licking. Girls always said that they loved my way of licking. I always signed my name on their thighs. I licked them and tricked them, massaged them and slapped them. Pussy foam, pussy oil. I liked period pains. I got off being smothered. I liked to see girls get really wild. Licked-open cunts liked to get really wild.
I told the cunt to sit on my face.
I said to the cunt, please hump my whole head.I loved cunts lodged with matter. I loved a maw full of cunt on my pillowcase.
I would like readers to get a rise out of this section, to get a little dizzy between the head and the crotch. At first, the terms are flipped around victimhood, setting up a guy who has been sexually traumatized while Ariane, his girlfriend, is the dominant sexual presence. As this section progresses, the reader learns that the narrator had an S/M relationship with Barbra years ago where he was clearly in over his head. He is thus stuck between two dominant female lovers, while he remains linguistically in charge. I actually wrote this section as an ode to cunnilingus, and that’s how I would love to have it stand, yet I’m also aware that there’s some pretense in my narrator’s braggadocio.
What I’d like readers to take away from this section is that sex gives us knowledge. Ariane says that if you love cunt, you have to know your way around its “complex abyss.” While Barbra, the hidden character in this fragment, seems to have taught the narrator everything he knows: how to ‘top from the bottom,’ how to play mind games in sex. Mind games go with cunnilingus.
I hope that readers can overcome any aversion to a male narrator synthesizing his lovers with the word cunt. I love the power of this word. I think it consistently grows in erotic and syntactical meaning. Cunt is hot and “lodged with matter,” as my narrator understands.
Tamara writes fiction, non-fiction and screenplays. She is the author of Lie With Me (2001), The Way of the Whore (2004), (republished together by Coach House Books as Little Cat in 2013), Maidenhead (2012) and Kuntalini (2016). Her fifth book, Queen Solomon, was published by Coach House Books in October 2018. Maidenhead was nominated for a Trillium Book Award and it won the Believer Book Award. Her work has been published in Apology, Canadian Art, Taddle Creek and Canadian Notes and Queries. She has a BFA in Studio Art from Concordia University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.
It’s a difficult time to be launching a book into the world.
I’d been thinking this and worse to myself in these weeks leading up to my memoir’s publication date, April 25th. And, it wasn’t just me thinking it. You were thinking it too. (You were likely even saying how glad you were that you weren’t releasing a book right now.) We’ve all been cringing as much-anticipated books with their accessory publicity machines, released and then had multi-city book tours cancelled. We watched, peeking between our fingers as these authors then took to social media and vulnerably talked to readers about how rotten the situation was. We grieved as our favourite local bookseller closed the doors, and then celebrated wildly when they decided to fill orders online.
Writers, with and without the platform we are all told we need, and even many lacking the necessary extroversion gene, are funneling their energy into creative ways to help books find their readers.
My release date slipped under the wire when cut offs for printing were being chosen. Because my book was printed, warehoused, and in some cases shipped to bookstores, mine will be dropping a few days from now.
I don’t have strong feelings about it though. COVID-19 is tempering our reactions to disappointment. I’m not asking myself who is going to have an easier time getting their book into the world, me or my friend whose publication date is now pushed into 2021. In the time of COVID, there is no comparison. No one is doing better than anyone else right now. We are united in our fear, amazement, and cautious optimism.
Acceptance when confronted with medical challenges isn’t part of me. Looking for situational advantages when it comes to medical matters is something my readers will see me grow skilled at in my memoir. My son was diagnosed with an uber-rare disease, but we eventually found treatment, and although it took years to see much measurable success, it did come. Through it all, we always had the capacity to know that it could be worse for us. We knew what other families were facing. Medical crisis consumes all the compassion you have for your ill loved one, but it also permanently produces a reservoir of empathy that fills the gaps within you like water fills the spaces between river rocks.
When a diagnosis changed my son’s life trajectory, the impact was like the tectonic plates had shifted and our Before was out of jumping distance from the After where we found ourselves. I believe that COVID-19’s time will be a continental divide in how we do everything. I’m talking about more than books here. I believe our uninhibited proclivity for gatherings, unabashed willingness to cram into an airplane with a hundred or more other people (where the filtration system runs on a continuous loop, and we sit thigh to thigh, our faces about a foot away from one another), will be changed forever. And we’ll do it differently somehow. We will pivot into new behaviours and new boundaries in the After.
I’m excited to see what the publishing industry is going to do differently. Innovation in book marketing is only the beginning. I’m honoured to be among the authors that will have a virtual book launch, film a selfie interview to discuss the book’s themes on my social media pages, and record myself reading excerpts to send as an e-mail thank you to people who buy my book online.
I’m hearing from people that they don’t think writers are too affected by the COVID shelter-in-place restrictions. We stay home all the time working anyway, and by choice, they say. The mental montage of the writer as loft-dwelling loner, and unbathed squinty-eyed recluse, still prevails in people’s minds. I think we will be correcting a lot of stories about the nature of writing, promotion, and publishing in the coming months. We might even convince our judgy neighbours that we actually do get out of our sweatpants sometimes!
Patti M. Hall is a non-fiction writer and writing coach. She lives with her two sons in Bradford, Ontario.