Yes, I am that person who has a WWJJD magnet on the fridge: What Would Jane Jacobs Do? So of course, when I learned of Susan Hughes’ new illustrated children’s book about Jacobs, Walking in the City (Illus. Valérie Boivin, 2018), I sought out a copy.
The bulk of the story is set in New York City and it begins when she is a young woman: “Jane loved her hometown, but this city was huge and exciting. Day after day, Jane looked for work, but she also enjoyed getting off the subway at different stops and exploring whatever neighbourhood she found.”
She appears to have a very ordinary life, perhaps being more curious than the average person but not extraordinary in any obvious way. Nonetheless, her beliefs and convictions soon set her apart: “’Healthy cities need a mix of buildings that are used for different activities and filled with different types of people,’ explained Jane” to her future husband, Bob.
The conflict she faced is clearly presented, as when Robert Moses, angered by protests about expressway going through the city in NYC, declared: “There is nobody against this…NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY but a bunch of … a bunch of MOTHERS!”
Time moves quickly but subtly across page-spreads. Jacobs wears different style of eyeglasses and more practical clothing, the only buildings with sharp corners and uniform shapes are highrises, and Jacobs’ gentle smile manages to be thoughtful even though these seem to be more like colourful sketches than sophisticated drawings, work is in inviting rather than showy, which certainly suits its subject.
The Unpublished City anthology is edited by Dionne Brand and contains 18 short pieces by emerging authors who are writing about Toronto.
Most of the pieces are only a couple of pages long, some three, even fewer are four: the perfect kind of volume to slip into your bookbag and enjoy when you’re on the move.
And even more perfect to enjoy it – as I did – while travelling between destinations on streetcars, buses and subway trains.
One of my favourite pieces is Sanchari Surs “Mars in Scorpio”, which ends with short paragraph that reveals that the real story seems to exist elsewhere; throughout, readers have taken in impressions and ideas about a person who remains a cipher, but in the end, one is reminded starkly that the story which brings a family hundreds of miles from their home – and then returns them to it – is simmering beneath these surface observations.
Some pieces, like this one, are prose, but several are poems, and some fall between those categories.
Whether in paragraphs or verses, rhythm and syntax vary substantially; Dionne Brand has taken care to curate the collection to represent a variety of experiences, from city core to suburbia, loss to celebration, and despair to confidence.
As a sampler, this is a satisfying glimpse into the city; as a contender for this year’s Toronto Book Award, the volume will find it difficult to compete with finished works like Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You, Kerri Sakamoto’s Floating City and David Chariandy’s Brother.
At the heart of Abla Farhoud’s Hutchison Street (2011; Trans. Judith Weisz Woodsworth, 2018) is Françoise Camarand, who “is fifty-five years old, a perfect age to change”.
She lives on Hutchison Street in Montreal, which connects the neighbourhoods of Mile End and Outremont (some believe it divides them, but not her). The street is inherently interesting, never running in a straight line, changing direction several times and becoming one-way north, or one-way south, and unexpectedly two-way at times.
And Françoise is a writer, but all “the characters she portrayed were part of herself. Threads of the lives of others or threads of her own life – it didn’t matter – which she wove together to form the fabric of life itself.”
There are some who are not particularly bookish, like Batsheva, the grandmother, who lives on the Mile End side: “The unspeakable is not part of life. She had never thought that the unspeakable was part of life. In the history of her people, the unspeakable had occurred several times over. Her mind was too weary to remember all the countries where this had happened.”
But most of the characters are bookish, like Hinda, the oldest daughter in an orthodox Jewish family who notes: “I begin to write, right away. And when I start to write, I forget about everything.” Like Martine, who visits the café across from the bookstore and pulls out her purchase and “looks at the books from all angles, strokes them and, with a smile, mulls over which one she will dive into first”. And like Françoise most of all:
“She reads everything she can lay her hands on about the Jewish religion, about Hasidism. She looks for works of fiction written by Hasidim, but she doesn’t find much. She reads and rereads Disobedience by Naomi Alderman, Lakhaim!, the French translation of stories by Malka Zipora, Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander, which a friend gave her, The Street by Mordecai Richler, and all the novels she can find by Eliette Abecassis. She consults reference books, but she keeps on looking for fiction, which will give her a better sense, she feels, of people’s inner lives.”
Although marketed as a novel because of the central role Françoise plays, and with thematic echoes of bookishness throughout, Hutchison Street reads like a series of linked stories, but regardless of the classification, in the end, one really does want to live on Hutchison Street.
Find links to all of the books nominated for this year’s Toronto Book Award here.
Which of these would be most likely to make it into your TBR stack?