Meghan Bell

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Our Top Posts of 2016

2016 may have sucked, but on the bright side, it inspired some incredible writing (see #3 on this list). Last year we shared our top 15 most-read posts of 2015, and I thought I'd continue the trend—and so, here are the ten most-read posts on roommagazine.com in 2016.

50 Books Written By 50 Canadian Women of Colour

More often than not, when Roomies gather, we talk about books. Books we can't put down, books we couldn't put up with, and books that make us talk. For this reading list, eleven of us got together and discussed novels, short story collections, poetry, memoirs, and comics that we have read and loved which happen to be written by Canadian Women of Colour. A few of these are well-known classics, a few are upcoming releases. There are stories set locally and abroad, and also include one in dystopian Toronto. Writing from the Women of Colour perspective is not a genre, but instead a multitude of voices, stories, and experiences coming together. And even though we are honoured to feature a handful of these writers are in our upcoming anthology, we know that this is just a starting point, and by no means a comprehensive list of books written by Canadian WOCs. At Room, we recognize that there is work to do, and we are already working on a part two.

The Mystics of Mile End

By 
Sigal Samuel
Freehand Books, 296 pages, $21.95
2015
Reviewed by 
Meghan Bell

In the early pages of The Mystics of Mile End, the first of four narrators, eleven-year-old Lev Meyer, quotes the Talmud: “a word is worth one coin but silence is worth two.” It’s an idea that Samuel beautifully deconstructs in her stunning debut—Lev’s earnest voice alone earns the author the back-cover comparison to Nicole Krauss’s acclaimed novel The History of Love.

After the death of his mother, a “yeasty silence filled the house and rose, inch by inch, until it filled the space” between Lev, his older sister, Samara, and his father, David, a professor of Jewish mysticism who rejects his former faith. When each member of the Meyer family becomes obsessed—in their own way—with the Kabbalist concept of the Tree of Life, another tragedy threatens to tear them further apart. Mile End explores themes of faith, loss, and healing—and touches on feminism and queer identity through Samara’s storyline—but at its core this is a moving and evocative story about the ways we communicate and the ways we sometimes fail to. 

It is ironic, perhaps, that a book that warns against looking for patterns and symbols would appear to be so full of them—“When you are studying [the Tree of Life], it is easy to become obsessed,” Hebrew teacher and Holocaust survivor Mr. Glassman warns Lev. “Suddenly everything you see looks like a sign from above.” As the story moves from one narrator to the next—from Lev to David to Samara to the eponymous Mile End—it is peppered with little revelations that pull the reader deeper into the story and closer to the enigmatic members of the Meyer family. Samuel is an expert at foreshadowing; while a close read of the first section arguably provides enough information to guess—but not know—the major plot points in the other three, the details serve to build the multiple mysteries. However, the care put into pulling all the threads taut arguably comes at the expense of secondary characters: the Glassmans, for example, feel more like thematic devices than people. 

The Mystics of Mile End is a smart, compelling, and, at times, magical read—a promising introduction to a young author who might one day be counted among Canada’s finest.

Motion Sickness

By 
Ursula Pflug
Inanna Publications, 122 pages, $24.95
2014
Reviewed by 
Meghan Bell

Speculative fiction author Ursula Pflug ventures into a new realm with Motion Sickness, a “flash novel” told in fifty-five chapters of exactly five hundred words, accompanied by scratchboard illustrations by SK Dyment. 

Twenty-year-old Penelope spends most of her time getting “blotto” and playing music. After she meets and jams with an older bass player named Theo and they mistakenly swap journals, she decides he’s “Mr. Right” based on a line of his poetry: “Hearts on ropes and flowers on telephone poles.” Unfortunately, when she returns to the club to look for him, she ends up in a drugged threesome with the “potentially” dangerous Stan and his girlfriend. The encounter leaves Penelope pregnant, and Stan obsessed with her. To make matters worse, it’s later revealed that Theo is married. 

Motion Sickness is disorienting—dizzying, even. Penelope is an unreliable narrator: she’s easily distracted, preoccupied, and, frequently, drunk. In one scene, she thinks to herself: “If you drank less you might remember more.” She’s “so good at living in the present [she] didn’t even remember last week’s conversations.” Facts introduced in one chapter are forgotten in later ones, and speculations grow into belief.

Because I spent time looking at Dyment’s illustrations before reading each section, the “flash novel” format broke the flow of reading for me—even when the new chapter began seconds after the previous one ended. Initially, I flipped back to reread scenes, but when I stopped and accepted the reality of each chapter as a self-contained flash fiction, I became more fully immersed in Penelope’s in-the-moment realities. The format of the novel perfectly reflects and enhances the perspective of the narrator—the disjointed, disconnected vignettes recreate the feeling of being twenty, self-focused, overly imaginative, and drunk.

At times, the supporting characters feel underdeveloped—which can largely be attributed to Penelope’s narrow point of view—and, in particular, I was frustrated by the storyline with Theo’s wife, Annabelle. The only thing we ever learn about Annabelle is that she works at the hospital and broke her husband’s leg with a baseball bat because of his emotional affair with Penelope. It’s an easy cop-out, allowing the reader to side with Penelope in her desire to break up their relationship without any real emotional barriers or a nuanced understanding of what it means to fall in love.

Pflug’s history as a speculative fiction writer is apparent—Penelope’s story exists out of time and without the boundaries of logic. Toronto is reduced to a self-contained microcosm, where people are known only on a first-name basis and stumble into each other in unexpected places. In other ways, the story is firmly rooted in reality. There is no magic here, only gritty surrealism, an inverted reality that is complemented by Dyment’s illustrations. As a side note, colour (especially red) plays a huge role in the story, and I thought it was an interesting choice to use black and white art, and leave colour and its significance to the reader’s imagination.

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