Little Cat

Little Cat
By 
Tamara Faith Berger
Coach House Books, 218 pages, $19.95
Reviewed by 
Nico Mara-McKay

Following the success of Maidenhead, which won The Believer Book Award in 2012, was short-listed for the Trillium Book Award in 2013, and was the most reviewed book of 2012 according to the Canadian Women in the Literary Arts Count, Coach House Books has released revised versions of Berger’s two earlier novels, Lie With Me (1999) and The Way of the Whore (2001), in a single volume titled Little Cat.

Lie With Me opens with a young woman’s unapologetic acknowledgment of desire and how her needs don’t fit the narrative assigned to her. When men experience sexual pleasure, she feels it’s localized, but for women, she finds it easier to become disconnected from the sensation; she says that a woman “can get lost trying to know herself” (p.8). Then later on the same page she continues with this same line of thought: “[b]eing a slut kind of implies getting lost, going astray.” In this rambling confession, she desperately seeks affirmation or at least acknowledgement that her desire, her want, is as valid as a man’s, yet remains afraid of the label, slut, and what it might imply. 

The unnamed woman regularly goes to a bar, gets drunk, and picks up strange men. They’re usually surprised at her aggressive sexuality, that a woman would want this as much, or even more, than they would. She takes them back to her apartment, nondescript beyond the filth and stench of it, which worsen as the novel progresses. The results are graphic and hardcore, first told from her perspective, then from a rotating circle of men. These numbered  but otherwise anonymous men take over the narrative, though guided by the young woman, as she explores her desire, learns control, and how to express her wants. There is no clear narrative or plot—the story progresses in pornographic scenes, and what we’re left with doesn’t quite add up to a whole.

The Way of the Whore is centred on Mira, a young Jewish woman, and her introductions to sex—as a child with her cousin and other boys, as a fifteen year old seduced by an older man, the appeal of sex work, her seduction of an older stripper, and a man far more dangerous than any she’s ever known. Mira reflects back what men want to see: Ezrah, sexual exploration within the confines of middle class values; John, seducing an underage virgin, telling her what he wants her to want; Gio, with his religious allegories, viewing her as the Whore of Babylon with a redeeming purity; and the countless nameless and faceless men she transacts with. She’s present with each of these, but in a clearly secondary role. In seducing her stripping mentor, Adi, she enters a position of dominance, which Mira associates with the male role—she feels “like a man.

Both these novellas are extremely hot and challenging to read. Not just for their graphic sex scenes, but for the raw needs of these young women, both physically and emotionally. They maintain a complex relationship with shame and social (especially male) expectation and desire. 

37.4, open issue

Room Magazine invites polished, unpublished writing on any theme for our upcoming issue, 37.4, edited by Christina Cooke and Taryn Hubbard.

Before submitting, please read our About section to see if your work fits within Room's mandate, then refer to the Submission Guidelines on how to format your work.

Deadline: Wednesday, April 30 2014

Whisk

Yoko's Dog Whisk
By 
Yoko’s Dogs
Pedlar Press, 72 pages, $20.00
Reviewed by 
Candace Fertile

Reviewing a poetry book by a collective in a magazine created by a collective is a lovely fit, and Whisk by Yoko’s Dogs is an utter delight to read. Pedlar Press has produced a beautiful little book full of gems.

The members of Yoko’s Dogs work together on all the poems to create a truly group effort. No poem is credited to a specific poet, since each poem is worked on by all four women in the group. Evidently, a format was selected, one modelled on haikai no renga, a series of linked poems similar in form to what most readers of poetry in English would call haiku.

The poems predominately use short words, gathered into short lines, in stanzas of two or three lines (which alternate not only through the individual poems but also through the entire collection), in poems of four (the most frequent) to twelve stanzas. The master of the haiku, Basho, appears in “Ukiyo-E” (translation: pictures of the floating world): “the bowl’s empty/ Basho sleeps in a windowless room,” and while the Japanese influence is evident, the Canadian landscape is the focus. The entire collection or sequence could be seen as pictures of the worlds the Dogs inhabit.

One of the worlds consists of nature and animals and food, the basics of life in many ways. The Canadian fascination with weather is captured in many of the poems, and some of the most arresting have to do with winter.

In “The Weather,” for example, the following lines are impossible to forget: “tufts of snow on bare branches / forecast marshmallows on sticks,” and Whisk is packed with such memorable images. The simplicity of the diction belies the richness and depth of the visual components. In “Red Spotted Eft,” which begins by saying “briefly, it’s easy / to be ruthless,” the shift to delicacy keeps us in the largely gentle world of the book:

crouching

a man caresses a fledgling sparrow

with his bus pass

These small, precise poems are gems to be savoured. The words and their placement are paramount. Punctuation is minimal; no periods are used and commas are infrequent. The most common mark is the dash, which smoothes the path of words as it often marks the traditional “cutting” of the haiku form. The Dogs play with the form, and while this creation was no doubt much work, it’s evident they are having fun. Better yet, the fun is being passed on to readers who must surely marvel at the silky composition. I loved the final lines of the book, which allude to master imagist poet William Williams’s “This Is Just to Say.” Whisk is about saying—and cold sweet plums of poems.

Candace Fertile, a member of the Room collective, lives in Victoria, B.C.

Bone and Bread

Bone & Bread
By 
Saleema Nawaz
House of Anansi, 448 pages, $22.95
Reviewed by 
Cathleen With

The thing about Saleema Nawaz’s Bone & Bread is that I expected a book, (your typical book maybe?) about the larger sister and the anorexic sister. The tension between the two. How they navigated high school. How they were approached, or not, by boys. How they overcame their struggles and grew out of it all. As someone who has gone through a broad spectrum of eating disorders, I gravitate wonderingly to that kind of story, that novel that explores what’s going on—with young girls mostly, though of course we know that boys are increasingly  disordered as well—and how they see their bodies. Usually a traumatic event tips the scales, as in the case of these sisters—but rarely have I seen a story so deftly and unusually described: two Sikh girls living above their uncle’s bagel shop in Montreal. 

Their mother is a beautiful airy-fairy type who believes in many spiritualities, many religions, and exposes the girls to parties and sleepovers with strangers who are (thankfully) kind. They have the kind of existential conversations that few mothers do with their daughters. And the love and the taste and the colours of the mostly vegetarian food, fruits, vegetables, stews infuse the intense relationship Beena and Sadhana have with their mother. But this is soon to end, and Beena and Sadhana start to separate in ways that are completely off the spectrum: Beena toward teen motherhood and Sadhana toward voices attacking her already tiny body. 

What is transcendent later about this story is Montreal in all her characteristic hues, and Beena’s son, who wants quite secretly in all his “manhood” of eighteen years to go back to seeing his aunt and living with her the way they used to during his first eight years. This book is about his journey too, and the secrets the sisters have kept from him. What I loved about this book was exactly what I didn’t expect, an intricacy of plot, sense-sound-space of Montreal and the fusion of an unhuggable, yet caring Sikh bagel maker uncle, a delicate dancer who is wasting away, and the mother and son who are bound together. This gorgeously wrought book will make you uncomfortable at times because it is a peek inside us all, bound by bone and breaking bread.

Cathleen With’s first book, skids (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2006), about street kids on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, was short-listed for a Relit Award. Having Faith in the Polar Girls’ Prison (Penguin Group; winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Award), is her first novel. She was recently in V6A:Writings from Downtown Vancouver’s Eastside, which was short-listed for a City of Vancouver award.

Pages

Currently on Newsstands

  • Room 41.1, Family Secrets
    Edited by Rachel Thompson

    In this issue:

    Jennifer Amos, Fenn Archdekin-Leung, Jenn Ashton, Jamelie Bachaalani, Colleen Baran, Jenny Bartoy, Alexandra Chang, Kristina Corre, Maggie de Vries, Shirley Harshenin, Jia Hwang, Sharon Jinkerson-Brass, Elizabeth Johnston, Tamara Jong, Manal Kamran, Carrianne Leung, Lily Leung, Mary MacDonald, Alissa McArthur, Cosi Nayovitz, Margaret Nowaczyk, Deanna Partridge-David, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Rebekah Rempel

    .

Subscribe to Room Magazine RSS