Composed of stories that sketch the resonant heights and depths of an auto- biography, Subject to Change is a series of portraits along the road of a life well lived. Each story is an articulate, intelligent, passionate record of how an encounter with a significant “other,” be it a parent, a lover, a neighbour, a child, a grandchild, a politician or a friend, has changed and shaped the humanity, character and community?the “subject”?of the writer.
These are masterfully crafted stories: attentive to detail; conscious of the fact that our eccentricities often mask precisely what is authentic in our lives; and aware that a finely honed empathy is as likely to cause exhilaration as to cause pain. It is precisely this uncompromising empathy of Rodin’s voice that lends a sense of profound drama to the lives of the “ordinary characters” she reveals in these stories?a voice that knows how to take a measure of those characters on their own terms, to let them speak for themselves and to report on what both shakes us to the core and transports us to a place where we seem larger than ourselves.
Renee Rodin has said that: “Throughout my life I’ve had the privilege of peace and have never seen, unless in the media, the ravages of war, what people have had to live with, or die because of.” Subject to Change reminds us that the most vital moments of recognition in our lives come from those with whom we share our hopes and dreams.
It is Rodin’s masterful ability to show the reader that things we usually think of as too ordinary to talk about or too extraordinary to be able to communicate to others are often the most formative elements of our social lives that make this book such a great read.
Writer, visual artist and cultural worker Renee Rodin was born and raised in Montreal. Her writing has appeared in numerous periodicals, and her visual work, generally photographic, has been displayed widely. Her piece in the exhibition Fear of Others?Art Against Racism toured North America in 1990.
Subject to Change by Renee Rodin Reviewed by J. Rosel Kim (thebullcalfreview) Renee Rodin. Subject to Change. Talonbooks, 2010.
Subject to Change is a collection of short essays about Rodin’s life, which begins in Montreal, then moves to Vancouver in its hippie heyday. Rodin’s Montreal and Vancouver no longer exist: apartment rent on Rue Prince Arthur costs $65 per month, Kitsilano is populated by activists and hippies rather than Lululemons and condos, and owning an independent bookstore and hosting weekly readings is somewhat financially viable. The essays are brief, offering glimpses of Rodin’s various roles in life: as a young woman getting married, as a community activist offering readings, and as another city dweller and traveller coming into brief contact with strangers.
The most memorable essays in the collection are about those random encounters, where Rodin effectively recreates paradoxical moments of anonymous intimacy. In “Predation,” she sits next to a nervous young man on a bus from Seattle to Vancouver. The young man tells her about his first meeting with an internet fling in Seattle, then confesses that his appearance is just a front: “This look I have, so sweet and innocent, is just to get across the border. I’m a musician and when I perform I pattern myself after Sid Vicious” (47). After begging her to help him to call his mother, he walks away from her abruptly with a man who simply asks the boy: “are you ready?” (48). There is nothing for Rodin to do, except vent about her strange bus ride to the taxi driver and warm up a can of soup at home.
Rodin describes her former self with an ironic distance that is just self-aware enough to be entertaining, but not so self-deprecating that the reader feels uncomfortable. She recalls the naïve days of her youth when she wears a sari without knowing its cultural implication: “If there were any raised eyebrows about my appearance, I was as blissfully unaware of them as I was of the concept of cultural appropriation” (10). She also describes a failed attempt to obtain Greek Orthodox priests for her marriage ceremony because she “liked the dramatic way they looked with their long beards and long dark cassocks” (11), only to realize later on that they resemble the Chassidic rabbis that scared her so much as a child. In those more lighthearted moments, Rodin’s voice somewhat resembles Nora Ephron’s, though her life is more politically engaged than the late director/essayist.
Loss runs through Rodin’s essays as a common theme. Sometimes the loss is personal, such as the loss of her father, which is made even more poignant by his request to his daughters to end his life. Other times, it is a loss of a community—the demise of the independent bookstore R2B2 in Kitsilano, which Rodin partly owned, is one. Then, there is the ultimate loss of the twenty-first century that changed contemporary history: 9/11. But the most devastating account of loss is about the death of a young Thai woman who was engaged to Rodin’s son (“Googling the Bardo”) and the family’s failed efforts to prosecute the alleged murderer. Although loss is abundant, it never feels like total despair—at least not for long—because in the end, she picks up the pieces and moves on to the next event.
Rodin’s prose has an effortless charm that is reminiscent of listening to the life stories of an interesting relative whom you admire, but rarely get to see. Subject to Change might not be unique in its subject matter—loss, love, and marriage are as universal as it gets—but Rodin’s storytelling and the rich details of her life definitely are.
Book review: Subject to Change by Renee Rodin
Memory, for good and bad, is crystalline: fragile, delicate, and with a tendency to distort. But in Subject to Change, it is like a crystal held at just the right angle, revealing some startling moments of clarity and beauty.
Surveying a life of writing, motherhood, and activism, Renee Rodin’s prose is both understated and unflinching. When grappling with heartbreaking grief at her father’s cancer or a horrific encounter with violence, there are no grand pronouncements about life—only pain and the recognition that it doesn’t go away, but simply takes on more subtle textures over time.
The collection is also full of the whimsy and fire that follow those who abandon themselves to art and activism: the charmingly blasé way Rodin ran famous Vancouver bookstore R2B2 Books, or the time she ran into former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell and chose to lean in and hiss, “You’re bordering on fascism.”
Not all of it works. Some stories, like “Neighbourhood,” veer too far toward abstract tableau, and the rhetorical excesses of ’60s and ’70s leftism flicker when neighbours who cut down a tree are labelled “Imperialists!”
Rodin ends with an inversion of Hemingway’s famous six-word short story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”). She lists the 31 (and counting) people who have used a wicker basket Rodin herself carried her children in. The piece is titled “Wealth,” as if a life spent writing and struggling for social justice—and extending the fruits of those lessons to others—affords one just that.
These short narratives may move with the whimsy of anecdote, but are rich with consequence. Rodin renders a full range of human possibilities: from the profound and fragile bond between a daughter and her dying father to the halting and ambivalent connection between a mother and the predatory young man who adopts her as a surrogate. Always fluid, always seeking, Rodin’s prose in these embodied snapshots offers up a complex and fascinating contemporary world.
” Anne Stone
Here is a clear-eyed account of a life lived with passionate commitment to community, family, and the undying need for social justice. Renee Rodin’s candid voice opens up dark seams in contemporary life even as it lightens them with a quick sense of the surreal in the serious. We need her gritty mix of pathos, anger, and deadpan humour to look at what we often overlook in our daily connections both sought and unsought. Here are pages that moved me deeply and pages that made me laugh out loud.
” Daphne Marlatt
Renee Rodin’s writing is stunning in its clarity and the depths of emotional resonance that it draws from. Each word that unfolds is a gift that she brings to imagination?both the terror and the awe-full fragile beauty that the process of living discloses. It’s all so singular yet what she writes speaks to me in and beyond language. A truly beautiful book!
” Roy Miki
Renee Rodin lives the life I would try to live if I had the time. Luckily for us, she tells the stories that such a life provides. Take the time to read one tonight, and another tomorrow night. I’ll meet you there.
” George Bowering
?The intensity, care and wit that Renee Rodin brought to years of cultural and other activisms is now honed into a distinctive voice?funny, relaxed, passionately intelligent, deeply attentive to reality.”
” Stan Persky
?Renee’s style is spare yet elegant, her narratives deceptively simple. And what a life! — enriched as it is by her arrangement of it, as literature.”
” Michael Turner
??a delightful testament to the complexity of people and the many roles we play in our lifetimes.?
“Here is a clear-eyed account of a life lived with passionate commitment to community, family, and the undying need for social justice. Renee Rodin’s candid voice opens up dark seams in contemporary life even as it lightens them with a quick sense of the surreal in the serious. We need her gritty mix of pathos, anger, and deadpan humour to look at what we often overlook in our daily connections both sought and unsought. Here are pages that moved me deeply and pages that made me laugh out loud.”
“Renee Rodin’s writing is stunning in its clarity and the depths of emotional resonance that it draws from. Each word that unfolds is a gift that she brings to imagination—both the terror and the awe-full fragile beauty that the process of living discloses. It’s all so singular yet what she writes speaks to me in and beyond language. A truly beautiful book!”