Tuesday, January 6, 2009

January Reading

We had a little reading hiatus in December (most of us were probably too busy watching The Muppets' Christmas Carol and How The Grinch Stole Christmas to get any serious reading done, anyway -- maybe Christmas reading should have been The Polar Express!) but now that it's January and we're back in action, we need to get back to reading. January is kind of a depressing month, what with Christmas being over and us having to shovel and/or wade through snow that holds promise of slush and dirt rather than a white Christmas, so I figured that instead of a book that exposes humanity's horrific shortcomings or how enamoured we are with fart jokes, I'd pick something light and funny with a can-do attitude and a happy ending. Therefore, January's book is:
The Widows by Suzette Mayr.

I first encountered this gem in my second-year survey of Canadian literature course, and though it's not exactly a Canadian classic (too new, perhaps?), it certainly provided interesting fodder for class discussions. The plot centers around Hannelore, a German woman who lost her husband to the second world war and her son to an "ethnicky" new wife -- an artist who is into bare feet and healthy eating. Hannelore hauls herself and her older sister Clothilde from Germany to Edmonton to be close to her son and his family, but her rigid, traditional German style is at odds with her daughter-in-law's multicultural free-spiritedness. Thus, she spends her time trying to find a place where a 70-something widow fits in, along with her 80-something spinster sister and her sister's equally elderly divorcée "friend", Frau Schnadelhuber.

The trio find and lose jobs and lovers, things that do not commonly happen to women over 45 in the mainstream narrative. Throughout the novel, the plot trajectory of Hannelore loosely follows that of the life of Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to survive a tumble over Niagara Falls in a barrel. One look at the cover of the book, and you can see where this is going.

Hint: the climax occurs somewhere in Southern Ontario.

A personal favourite part occurs somewhere near the beginning of the book, but towards the end of the fragmented narrative: Hannelore realizes that her 80-something-year-old spinster sister might not be going through a phase -- she probably actually prefers women. Hey, phases can last upwards of sixty years, right?

If you've ever wondered what two old ladies fucking is like, this is the book for you. If you could live a happy and productive life without ever knowing what two old ladies fucking is like, thankyouverymuch, I promise it isn't that bad. Mayr, without glamourizing anyone or anything (she certainly doesn't shy away from describing old women in highly realistic terms), somehow manages to sublimate what would otherwise be graphic into hilarious, using pervasive and gentle satire to tackle touchy topics (for example, Hannelore's accidental pejorative terming of her daughter-in-law's naked paintings as "Jew art", or her in-denial defense when her granddaughter accuses her of having been part of the Hitlerjügen).

Should you read this book? Well, if you like third-wave feminism, books set in Canada, books about old ladies, ironic, slightly absurd situational humour, or if you think that Slaughterhouse-Five would be awesome if it made a little more sense and wasn't such a huge downer, then The Widows is for you.

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