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Women of the Year (by Suzanne Sutherland)
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Women of the Year (by Suzanne Sutherland)

By 49thShelf
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Suzanne Sutherland is a Toronto-based writer, editor, and book-seller. Her writing has appeared in Descant, Steel Bananas, and on, and she is the editor of Her first book, When We Were Good, a young adult novel about girls, guitars and the Bloor Viaduct, will published by Sumach Press in 2013.
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Why it's on the list ...
Mary Boulton, the novel's central character, outwits, outplays and outlasts her crazed twin brothers-in-law in this fantastic feminist take on a traditional prairie adventure narrative.
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Fear of Fighting

Fear of Fighting

also available: eBook
tagged : urban life
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Why it's on the list ...
Marnie is a walking broken heart, and we've all been her at least once.
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This Will All End in Tears
Why it's on the list ...
In Ollman's collection of graphic short fiction, one story stands out as the one that really did make me cry, "Big Boned." The story's narrator, Charlene, does battle with her self-image as she contemplates her work-crush, Donny; the creepy superintendent of her apartment building, Mr. Karlson, who she sees as a last sexual resort; and the fate of a fat girl.
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Natural Order

Natural Order

also available: Paperback
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The buzzers keep me awake at night. That’s one thing that hasn’t gone—my hearing. Most everything else has faded. My taste. Vision. Even my voice, which comes out sounding like a scratch in the air.
The buzzers bleat in the hallway like robot sheep. We keep our strings close to us so they’re easy to reach and pull. Mine is attached to my purse. Before I go to bed, I always set my purse on my night table. During the day, when I’m in my room, I keep it on my bed. I always have it near. Sometimes, at night, when the sounds wake me, I’ll stare at my purse until I fall asleep again. It’s not a particularly nice purse. I don’t even think it’s real leather.
Most of the buzzers you hear aren’t for what you’d call real emergencies. Usually, someone needs an extra blanket. Or someone had a bad dream. More often than not, I think people pull the buzzer just to see how long it takes for someone to come to their room. I did that, the first few months after I came here. I’d pull the string and count the seconds, panic building.
17, 18, 19
What if I’d fallen out of bed? What if I was having a heart attack?
34, 35
What if I’d broken my hip?
What if I was dead?
Joyce Sparks.
My name is on the wall outside my room next to a straw hat with a yellow ribbon and a couple of glued-on daisies. The hat reminds me of my sister, Helen, although it isn’t hers. The social coordinator had us make our own hats for a tea party last spring. I don’t know why someone decided to hang my hat outside the door. I didn’t do a nice job of it. I’ve never been good at crafts. I don’t have the patience.
Ruth Schueller is the name on the other side of the door. She’s my roommate. She doesn’t have a hat next to her name because she wasn’t at the home in the spring. Instead, there’s a black-and-white photograph beside Ruth’s name, taken during her younger years. I hardly recognize her. Frightening how much damage time does to a face. Ruth is eighty-two. I turned eighty-six in July.
Ruth snores something awful. Not at night, usually. But during her daytime naps, she makes the most horrific sounds. She’ll fall asleep in her wheelchair and her head will fl op down like a dead weight. That’s when the snoring starts. Some days, it’s so loud I can’t concentrate on the television, even when the volume is turned up all the way—which it usually is. I’ll have to throw the Yellow Pages at her. (Never at her head, although I’ve been tempted. Only at her feet.) Then I’ll watch her out of the corner of my eye as she tries to sort things out. What was that noise? Where did this Yellow Pages come from?
Last week, I wheeled into the bathroom and found my hairbrush on the back of the toilet tank. This bothered me because I always keep my brush next to the faucet. I wheeled out of the bathroom, carrying my brush like a miniature sword.
She blinked back at me like I was talking another language.
I don’t know why they can’t give me a roommate who can talk. Ruth is the second mute person I’ve had in the past year. She replaced Margaret, who was also soft in the head. She’d sit in her chair, knuckle deep inside a nostril for most of the day.
“If you find an escape route up there, let me know,” I’d say to her. Then Margaret’s liver shut down and she turned bronze. She lay in her bed, day after day, while a string of family members I’d never seen before came in and out of our room. They stood at her bedside, joisted fingers over their bellies, looking down at Margaret and shaking their heads as though this was one of the greatest tragedies they’d ever witnessed.
It’s not nice having someone die in your room. I’ll say that much. I woke up in the middle of the night, the sheep bleating in the distance, and even though I couldn’t see her, I knew Margaret was gone. There was a stillness in the air, a cold pocket. I thought about reaching for my purse, but then wondered if it mattered. I didn’t want to deal with the commotion that would follow: the lights turning on, whispers, white sheets. So I lay there with my hands at my sides and said a short prayer for Margaret. Although she couldn’t talk, I could tell by her eyes that she’d been a good person. Kind. Gentle.
She hadn’t deserved her fate. After a while, I fell back asleep. One week later, Ruth moved in. She’d been living on the second floor where the other soft-headed people are, but her family wanted her on my floor, the fourth. Did they think she’d be more stimulated up here?
I suppose it could be worse. There’s Mae MacKenzie down the hall, trapped with that horrible Dorothy Dawson. Dorothy keeps the divider curtains shut so the room is cut in half. She even safety-pinned the flaps together. She means business.
“She trapped herself in once,” Mae told me. “Kept pawing her way around, trying to find the opening. It was the best entertainment I’ve had here yet.”
Dorothy doesn’t talk to anyone. Mae says she’s a bitter woman. There’s been some talk of a husband who had wandering hands. A daughter into drugs.
 “Some people get a rough ride in life,” Mae said with a slow shake of her head.
I held my tongue.
The room that Ruth and I share is small, but big enough for two beds, two dressers and two wheelchairs, which I suppose is all the space that a couple of old ladies need. We’re on the south side of the building, so we don’t have the nice view of the lake. Instead, we face the street. I guess I can’t afford the lakeside setting. I’m guessing because I don’t know for certain. My niece, Marianne, handles my finances. She lives in Brampton. I call her once a month or so, but we don’t talk for more than five minutes. It always seems like someone is pulling on her arm. The last time I saw her was January. She showed up in my doorway wearing a dark brown blouse. She’d put on weight.
“Happy belated New Year, Aunt Joyce,” she said and sat down on the edge of my bed.
She looked like a bonbon left out on a hot day.
I shouldn’t be critical. That was Helen’s problem—always after Marianne and her son, Mark, to live up to some idea of perfection. Now look at them. Marianne is fat and divorced and Mark had a heart bypass two years ago. But I was grateful for Marianne’s company that day. I don’t have visitors, and living here makes you feel removed from the simplest things. I don’t remember the last time I went grocery shopping. Or to Sears. Or ate in a restaurant. Or visited the cemetery.
Sometimes, when I look around my room, I think, “This is the last place I’ll live.” When I go, they’ll be able to pack all my belongings in a cardboard box. I like to think I’m simplifying my life. Maybe it’s the other way around.
I’ve been here at Chestnut Park for six years. Marianne pressured me into it. I’d fallen in the bedroom in my senior’s apartment. I couldn’t be trusted on my own anymore.
“You’ve always taken care of others, Aunt Joyce,” she said to me. “Now it’s time to let people take care of you.”
I hadn’t taken care of anyone in my life. If anything, the opposite was true. But I was too tired and frightened to argue. My arm was stained with bruises and my ankle was swollen like a cantaloupe. I’d lain there, sprawled out between the bed and my dresser, for what seemed a lifetime. (They figured it was close to a day before the superintendent let himself in. Imagine my relief—and my shame when he found me on the floor, my legs wide open.)
I don’t remember much of the time in between. What I mean is, the time between my fall and the superintendent coming in. I was in and out of consciousness. I know I tried to reach for the telephone on the night table. And I remember seeing how dusty the floor was under my bed. Cobwebs everywhere. I was mortified. I wondered if these were the kinds of thoughts people had while they waited to die: the embarrassment of filth and the fear of discovery.
Mostly, I thought of my son.
There aren’t many bright spots in our days, but Hilda, the social coordinator, tries to keep us entertained. Every now and then, she brings in a children’s choir. Other times, there’s a tea social that only leaves us nostalgic for the lives we used to live. Once, Hilda brought in a dog. A black and brown beagle with a tail like a flagpole. I didn’t like the way it looked at me with its rheumy eyes and twitching snout. I refused to pet it.
“I didn’t know you were afraid of dogs,” Hilda said.
“I’m not,” I said. Then, because I knew that answer would likely lead to more questions, I said, “I’m not good with animals.”
I sit with three other people during meals: Irene, Henry and Jim. We don’t talk much. Mainly nudge and point to the things we need. Irene chews with her mouth open. Half the food tumbles out and down her bib and onto the table. It’s nauseating, and if I don’t keep my eyes down at all times, I lose my appetite. I told one of the nurses that I wanted to move to another table and she said she’d look into it, but I know that nothing will come of it. Nothing comes of anything in this place. The staff don’t listen to you. They bully you into taking your pills or making your poops or eating your food so that they can leave for home. I watch them tear across the parking lot towards their cars, a blur of uniform.
I do my best to finish my fish sticks, but they’re horrible. Soggy. The cooks bake them, which I know is healthier. But I’m eighty-six now. I’ll take my chances with trans fats. All around me, I hear the clatter of cutlery against plates and the occasional wet plop of something hitting the floor. Someone starts hacking (likely that woman from 405—she’s a smoker) and I think how sad that these are my final meals.
After lunch, I’m wheeled back to my room and positioned between the bed and the wall. I’ll usually try to nap in the afternoon as it helps to quicken the wait until dinner, but Ruth is already passed out in her chair. I press my eyes shut, willing myself to fall asleep before the snoring starts, but it’s a lost cause.
“Hello, Joyce.”
I look up to see Hilda coming into the room. She’s a tall woman, although everyone seems tall when you’re in a wheelchair. There’s a strand of chunky turquoise beads around her neck.
“How was lunch?” She sits down at the foot of my bed.
“Fine,” I say. “We had fish. Is it Friday?”
She nods. “Are you Catholic?”
“United,” I say.
“They have a service every Sunday downstairs.”
“I know.”
“Are you a religious woman?”
“Not particularly. But we’ll see what happens on my deathbed.”
“I have a new volunteer starting tonight. A young man. Do you mind if I send him to you?”
“What does he want?” Most of the volunteers are women.
“Nothing. He’s coming for conversation or errands or whatever you like.” She leans in and lowers her voice. “He goes by Timothy. Not Tim. He was quite firm about that.”
She waits for me to respond. I say nothing.
“A friend once told me that when a man goes by the long version of his name, chances are . . .” She laughs. “It’s nice, though, having a male volunteer for once.”
There are a handful of puffy women volunteers, running around before the bake sales or planting impatiens in the front garden, their eyeglass strings swaying this way and that. Well intentioned, I suppose, but intrusive. They make me uncomfortable when they come into my room, asking if my plants need watering or my pillows need fluffing or my water jug needs filling. No, no and no, I say, anxious for them to leave. I don’t need their short-breathed fussing. This is my room. I didn’t ask for their help, did I?
“Timothy will be coming in after dinner,” Hilda says, standing up from the bed. “Around seven.” She glances over at Ruth, who is now sucking back air like it’s food at a buffet.
“I think you’ll like him, Joyce.”
“The only thing I’d like . . .” I begin. Hilda leans towards me, waiting. She wants something from me. A surrender.
This will make her dogs and choirs worthwhile.
“The only thing I’d like is a nap,” I say.
For some reason, I never thought I’d spend my final years in Balsden, even though it’s the only place I’ve ever lived. I grew up on Shaw Street, and then spent my married life on Marian Street. After I sold the house, I moved into a seniors’ apartment building on Finch Avenue. Now I’m here. And while
Balsden is a small city of forty thousand, it’s only now that I realize how tiny my world has been. The four cornerstones of my life have been within a ten-minute drive of one another.
“There isn’t anything on earth you can’t find in your own backyard,” my mother used to say.
I remember as a girl standing on our back porch, contemplating the pine trees and the wire fence that circled the yard, the laundry poles and the ants whose grey-sugar castles sprang from the cracks in the concrete. I believed in these things and my mother’s words. Perhaps, in some ways, I still do. In other ways, I think they’re lies.
I was certain I’d end up in Andover, a much larger city, only forty minutes from Balsden via the double-lane highway or the old one with its winding single lane winding through towns and farmers’ fields. Life seemed better in Andover. People were cut from a different cloth. There was a university and a downtown park with a bandshell and a rink where people went skating in the winter. When we were young, my best friend, Fern, my older sister, Helen, and I would take the train to go shopping for back-to-school clothes. That seems so far back in the past, I question it. That’s the problem with getting old. Time bends and shifts. Memories spring up, uprooted. Sometimes, I’m not sure if my life happened the way I remember it, and there’s no one left to verify the facts. Fern moved to Andover after she sold her house. She had a cousin there and asked me to go with her.
“We’ll get an apartment,” she said. “Raise some hell.”
But I was grounded by fear, afraid that my money would run out in a larger, more expensive city. And I had to consider Helen. She’d been in and out of the hospital on account of her heart. When she died a year later, I reconsidered. There was nothing left for me in Balsden. I was alone. But then Fern was found dead one morning. And when her cousin called to tell me, I became aware of something I never thought possible: that solitude had another floor down.
No matter. Maybe I deserved it. No freedom for someone like me. No respite from guilt. Everything I ever did in life, I did wrong. Everything I touched, I destroyed.
I spend the rest of the afternoon trying to watch my soap opera. I wish I had a pair of earphones. Stupid Ruth. Oh, it doesn’t matter. My mind is fl uttering around like a distracted bird anyway. Timothy. Not Tim. I rub my hands, trying to loosen muscles that feel more like strips of jerky.
A while later, an attendant comes in with our afternoon snack. Today, I get two digestive cookies and a blood pressure pill.
“You’re looking well today, Mrs. Sparks,” I’m told. It’s the Filipina woman. I forget her name and I can’t read her badge. She’s just a wisp of a thing, a pink peppermint stick in her uniform. “How are you feeling?”
“My neck hurts,” I say, even though it’s no better or worse than usual. “My hands, too.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Filipina woman says, tipping the contents of the tiny white cup into my palm. She hands me a glass of apple juice with a straw bent like an elbow. I could’ve told her I was pregnant and she would’ve asked me if I wanted ice in my glass.

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Why it's on the list ...
Joyce Sparks' life may seem small, but in her Brian Francis has created a complex character who only made me cry twice. Maybe three times. Honourable mention goes to Peter Paddington(of Francis' first novel, Fruit)'s neighbour, the foul-mouthed, bed-wetting would-be beauty queen Daniela, who is the most excellent perversion of femininity I have ever read ever, maybe.
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Roll With It
Why it's on the list ...
Eventually we all have to grow up, make our own decisions, and get down with the derby. All right, maybe not that last one, but our heroine Neddy does, trading in her ice skates for roller skates, in this fine YA novel.
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Why it's on the list ...
As if this book being so (f-bomb)ing beautiful weren't just cause to include Megan Speers in this list, this wordless story traces a new feminist archetype, forged in dumpsters, with anarchist ideals.
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A Complicated Kindness


I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window. Nothing great. The furniture keeps disappearing, though. That keeps things interesting.

Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing. Ray and I get up in the morning and move through our various activities until it’s time to go to bed. Every single night around ten o’clock Ray tells me that he’s hitting the hay. Along the way to his bedroom he’ll stop in the front hallway and place notes on top of his shoes to remind him of the things he has to do the next day. We enjoy staring at the Northern Lights together. I told him, verbatim, what Mr. Quiring told us in class. About how those lights work. He thought Mr. Quiring had some interesting points. He’s always been mildly interested in Mr. Quiring’s opinions, probably because he’s also a teacher.

I have assignments to complete. That’s the word, complete. I’ve got a problem with endings. Mr. Quiring has told me that essays and stories generally come, organically, to a preordained ending that is quite out of the writer’s control. He says we will know it when it happens, the ending. I don’t know about that. I feel that there are so many to choose from. I’m already anticipating failure. That much I’ve learned to do. But then what the hell will it matter to me while I’m snapping tiny necks and chucking feathery corpses onto a conveyor belt in a dimly lit cinder-block slaughterhouse on the edge of a town not of this world. Most of the kids from around here will end up working at Happy Family Farms, where local chickens go to meet their maker. I’m sixteen now, young to be on the verge of graduating from high school, and only months away from taking my place on the assembly line of death.

One of my recurring memories of my mother, Trudie Nickel, has to do with the killing of fowl. She and I were standing in this farmyard watching Carson and his dad chop heads off chickens. You’d know Carson if you saw him. Carson Enns. Arm-farter in the back row. President of the Pervert Club. Says he’s got a kid in Pansy, a small town south of here. Troubled boy, but that’s no wonder considering he used to be The Snowmobile Suit Killer. I was eight and Trudie was about thirty-five. She was wearing a red wool coat and moon boots. The ends of her hair were frozen because she hadn’t been able to find the blow-dryer that morning. Look, she’d said. She grabbed a strand of hair and bent it like a straw. She’d given me her paisley scarf to tie around my ears. I don’t know exactly what we were doing at Carson’s place in the midst of all that carnage, it hadn’t started out that way I’m pretty sure, but I guess carnage has a way of creeping up on you. Carson was my age and every time he swung the axe he’d yell things at the chicken. He wanted it to escape. Run, you stupid chicken! Carson, his dad would say. Just his name and a slight anal shake of the head. He was doing his best to nurture the killer in his son. It was around 4:30 in the afternoon on a winter day and the light was fading into blue and it was snowing horizontally and we were all standing under a huge yellow yard light. Well, some of us were dying. And Carson was doing this awful botch job on a chicken, hacking away at its neck, not doing it right at all, whispering instructions on how to escape. Fly away, idiot. Don’t make me do this. Poor kid. By this time he’d unzipped the top half of his snowmobile suit so it kind of flapped around his waist like a skirt, slowing him down, and his dad saw him and came over and grabbed the semi-mutilated chicken out of Carson’s little mittened hand and slapped it onto this wooden altar thing he used to do the killing and brought his axe down with incredible speed and accuracy and in less than a second had created a splattery painting in the snow and I was blown away by how the blood could land so fast and without a single sound and my mom gasped and said look, Nomi, it’s a Jackson Pollock. Oh, it’s beautiful. Oh, she said, cloths of heaven. That was something she said a lot. And Carson and I stood there staring at the blood on the snow and my mom said: Just like that. Who knew it could be so easy.

I don’t know if she meant it’s so easy to make art or it’s so easy to kill a chicken or it’s so easy to die. Every single one of those things strikes me as being difficult to do. I imagine that if she were here right now and I was asking her what she meant, she’d say what are you talking about and I’d say nothing and that would be the end of it.

It’s only because she’s gone that all those trivial little things from the past echo on and on and on. At dinner that night, after the slaughter at Carson’s place, she asked us how we would feel if for some reason we were all in comas and had slept right through the summer months and had woken up around the middle of November, would we be angry that we had missed the warmth and beauty of the summer or happy that we had survived. Ray, who hates choosing, had asked her if we couldn’t be both and she’d said no, she didn’t think so.

Trudie doesn’t live here any more. She left shortly after Tash, my older sister, left. Ray and I don’t know where either one of them is. We do know that Tash left with Ian, who is Mr. Quiring’s nephew. He’s double-jointed and has a red Ford Econoline van. Trudie seems to have left alone.

Now my dad, you know what he says in the middle of those long evenings sitting in our house on the highway? He says: Say, Nomi, how about spinning a platter. Yeah, he uses those exact butt-clenching words. Which means he wants to listen to Anne Murray singing “Snowbird,” again. Or my old Terry Jacks forty-five of “Seasons in the Sun.” I used to play that song over and over in the dark when I was nine, the year I really became aware of my existence. What a riot. We have a ball. Recently, Ray’s been using the word stomach as a verb a lot. And also the word rally. We rally and we stomach. Ray denied it when I pointed it out to him. He says we’re having a good time and getting by. Why shouldn’t he amend? He tells me that life is filled with promise but I think he means the promise of an ending because so far I haven’t been able to put my finger on any other. If we could get out of this town things might be better but we can’t because we’re waiting for Trudie and Tash to come back. It’s been three years so far. My period started the day after Trudie left which means I’ve bled thirty-six times since they’ve been gone.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Why it's on the list ...
Forced to pretty well fend for herself after the disappearance of her older sister and mother from their Mennonite community, Nomi Nickle does the best she can.
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Why it's on the list ...
Code White's narrator, Alex, navigates the politics of CAMH and dykedom with flair to spare.
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