AUTUMN 2013 So many books to talk about!
In September I read 30 books, one for each day. (Although, in reality, there were some days filled with print, from dawn ’til dusk, so that that other days could be occupy me in other ways.) That is a personal record for me.
I’ve finished reading the books shortlisted for the 2013 Toronto Book Awards and am currently reading my way through this year’s Giller longlist (and other prizelists).
Mixed with the excitement of adding some new titles to my reading stacks, is the disappointment that some of my favourite books in this reading year have not yet appeared on the prizelists. I wish there could be more awards, more bookchat, more, more, more. Still, there is more reading. And that’s something to relish.
On Wednesdays the focus on the works of authors appearing at the International Festival of Authors continues. And on most Fridays, another installment of A Fainter Footprint.
The next installment of the Alice Munro reading project will resume with The Love of a Good Woman at the end of October. Join me for a single story — or for the collection — throughout this summer. (Schedule here.)
And, on October 12th, the whole Buried In Print family will be reading as part of Dewey’s Read-A-Thon. You can imagine how many stacks of books there are around here.
How about you? What are your reading plans for this season? (I know, it might not be autumn where you are: but it’s always reading season, right?)
(First time here? Please don’t be shy: there’s no such thing as too much bookchat! Please leave a comment, say hello, talk books!)
Think there’s nothing in common between this year’s Giller Prize winner and Mélanie Watt’s Scaredy Squirrel series?
Take this quote from Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing: “You can only be vigilant, she thought, about a few things at a time. Otherwise it’s not vigilance anymore. It starts to be more like panic.”
Mélanie Watt takes her friend, Scaredy Orville Squirrel, up to the line between vigilance and panic and dances around and across it until the line is a blur.
I”m willing to bet that in a matter of a few pages, the blur is as much from the pitter-patter of little feet as from the near-weeping as the reader’s affection for Scaredy coalesces and swells.
The books begin with warnings. (If you are thinking that more elements of daily life should carry warnings, you are about to make a new best friend. Even before party invites are mailed.)
“Scaredy Squirrel insists that everyone wash their hands with antibacterial soap before reading this book.”
You just thought of someone you know, right? I mean, someone who practically has this warning tatooed on every exposed swath of skin. The co-worker with a pump bottle not only on the desktop but also in the top drawer (and, maybe, a bottle in reserve in a lower cabinet drawer nearby).
“Scaredy Squirrel never leaves his nut tree. He’d rather stay in his safe and famliar tree than risk venturing out into the unknown. The unknown can be a scary place for a squirrel.”
And there it is: the heart of the nut.
For most readers, regardless of age and skin covering, can relate to the fear of the unknown.
So, yes, he’s young and furry, designed to immediately and lastingly appeal to young readers accustomed to only a handful of words on each page of the book they’re reading.
But, yes, he’s determined and savvy, ready to dramatically engage not only with the unknown but with an emergency.
S.O.S. (I’m cheating: we don’t learn his middle name until later in the series) is a list-maker. You know one of those, too, right? (I am one of those, actually.)
The first volume in the series includes a list of some of the things he is afraid of (some that seem crazy, some that you might predict, but okay, mostly on the crazy side).
And he knows how to make a list with two columns: take, for instance, his list of advantages of staying in the tree and the corresponding list of disadvantages.
Many of these advantages fall under the umbrella of ‘predictable’, a concept introduced promptly.
And that is a core element not only of Scaredy’s life in the nut tree, but also in the narratives which follow his adventures (because, yes, he does venture into the unknown: of course he does).
Scaredy’s lists, his weighing of pros and cons, his daily routine chart, the essential items in the emergency kit, the plan with numbered and illustrated steps: these are all predictable elements of the stories upon which readers can rely.
Step 1: Panic. (This is always the first step, well past vigilance, in Lynn Coady’s parlance.) And the panic is provoked by the Event. (Sturdier souls might refer to this as the Adventure element of the tale.)
Panic leads to complications (these stories are as instructive as the girls’ stories of the latter century is some ways).
And in the wake of panic, Scaredy has few options, but one which he turns to predictably (and it still makes me grin as widely as the cover images grin back at me, even after eight books and multiple re-reads).
No, I’m not going to tell you what Scaredy’s “go to” option is, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard the advice given (and I may have employed it myself, thanks to Scaredy’s encouragement).
Scaredy Squrriel Makes a Friend is one of my favourites. (My apologies: I will say that again later, because I have too many favourites.)
Why? The warning, the list of individuals he is afraid to be bitten by, the list of satisfying solitary pastimes, the items required to make the Perfect Friend, the Perfect Plan, the Event, the Panic, the Response (still the same) and, my favourite part: Scaredy’s Risk Test (#4 makes me giggle like a little girl).
The difficulty in discussing this series and revisiting each of the volumes to do so, is that you want to say “Oh, this was when Scaredy met [insert name of Almost Perfect Friend] or [insert type of overwhelming disaster] but, of course, that would spoil everything. Or, maybe not.
The draw for adult readers is similar in many ways, and in some ways perhaps older adults can relate more readily to Scaredy’s tribulations; we recognize the advantages of not venturing beyond the nut tree and not making friends who might bite.
We, adult readers, have fallen from great heights. We have been bit. And, so, the brightly coloured version and the satisfying conclusions in these volumes are appreciated by readers of all ages.
In Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach, our hero brandishes his hard hat and constructs a beach, to avoid the panic which might ensue from visiting an actual beach. But, when the beach is missing the sound of surf, Scaredy needs to reconsider.
(I have two favourite parts in this volume; once upon a time, I was enamoured by the gear, which includes an eye patch to fool pirates, but now I am most fond of the passport. Yes, you need a passport for the beach. If you don’t have one, you clearly need to consult this book in the series before all others.)
In this volume, I became that much more aware that at the end of each installment, Scaredy has added something to his existence; at times, this may be subtle and more experiential, but other times, there is a new addition to the nut tree, and that adds another layer of humour to this story for sure.
Scaredy Squirrel at Night includes all the familiar elements. It, like the last volume, contains slightly advanced vocabulary and the planning capacity is more complex. Nonetheless, there are still several close-ups (all squirrelly teeth and ears, button eyes gleaming).
My favourite part of this story is the close-up on Scaredy with his wristwatch displayed: “It’s time to prepare for the worst.”
Readers will not be surprised to learn that Scaredy Scquirrel “never has big birthday parties. He’d rather celebeate alone quietly up in his tree than party below and risk being taken by surprise.” Scaredy Squirrel Has a Birthday Party reveals all.
There is a lot more text in this volume, but it’s necessary because parties, even for non-scaredies, take a lot of planning. (My favourite part is the checkmark next to the No I Can’t Attend, with the corresponding reason.)
There is a giant leap, all would agree, in the risks that might befall readers in the acts of making frends and going camping. Scaredy has come a long way. Many adults view camping as an extremely risky activity, not to be undertaken lightly, if at all.
Older readers might not include Penguins in the list of threats that Scaredy identifies, but the others will likely be familiar, which adds another level of appreciation to this volume in the series.
(One of my favourite parts of this story is the TV schedule, in particular the show which airs at 10pm, after young, sensitive camping enthusiasts are most likely asleep. Myother favourite part is the last page which, clearly, I cannot comment on at all.)
Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Christmas is at the top of my seasonal reading list: a generously illustrated chapter book for scaredies.
Those readers just encountering our hero for the first time can study “Scaredy Squirrel in a Nutshell, which includes all birth-related information, pet peeves and other essentials. (Psst…did you catch the ‘nutshell’ bit?)
The Scaredy Christmas Quiz proves that this guide is for me, because even one question alone scored me a point; I’d not have scored for saying that decorating makes me feel either creative or festive but, instead, it makes me anxious, so I have at least one point. (Note to self: don’t reveal full scoring.)
Often times holiday-themed books seem to be more about marketing and profit than pure pleasure, but it’s clear from the start that Scaredy and the holidays are a perfect fit. (I mean, green anti-bacterial soap for a festive look? Why, of course.)
Although I hadn’t taken note previously, it was with great relief that I scanned the Scaredy landscape with snow. The nut tree looks completely different (and, I might say, immediately festive).
The lists of red and green things to avoid decorating with? Tremendously helpful. Scaredy’s Top 10 Worst Kissing Scenarios? Very funny. (And I’m sure kissing wouldn’t even have been on the option earlier in the series: progress for Scaredy!)
But as with every holiday special, I am a sucker for the everybody-gathers-together scene, and that was true, too, for me with Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Christmas. (But my favourite part? The coping mechanism playing out against the snow. And just when I thought it was missing from the story, with the jump to chapter book!)
Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Hallowe’en has a format similar to the Christmas volume: chapters (eight of them) and substantially more text than the previous books. One highlight includes the Jack-o’-Lantern carving advice (When carving a facial expression, always go with a friendly look”), which reveals a facial expression remarkably similiar to that of Scaredy Squirrel himself.
The decorating tips (unscary items in the traditional colour scheme), the Face-Off (Makeup Vs Mask…get it? Face-off?), the list of rational excuses not to enter a haunted mansion (I’ll be using “I have to water my plants” next year): this holiday is MADE for Scaredy.
My favourite part of this volume is, paws down, the costume list. If I could print it out wall-sized, I would.
That’s the other intersection between the Giller prizelist reading and Scaredy O. Squirrel stories: readers who love one might surprise themselves and love the other too.
Have you been previously introduced to S.O.S.? Or are you off to hunt for his nut tree now?
“I’ve invented lives. The man with the drum never told me about himself. I wove a story from his gnarled hands and his bent back. He mumbled to himself in an ancient, distant language. I acted like I knew all about him. The man I invented – I loved him. And the other lives I embellished. I wanted to see the beauty; I wanted to create it. Change the nature of things – I don’t want to name them – so that I see only the embers that still burn in the hearts of the first inhabitants.”
Naomi Fontaine’s Kuessipan Translated by David Homel (Arsenal Pulp, 2013)
To come up face to face against the real person – whose face will never appear to you as you envisioned it – is to come up against and interrogate your own imagination and discover through cross-examination how true or how false you’ve been to this person, to the past, and to yourself. The ramifications are serious, no matter how elusive. Perhaps, more truthfully, I hoped I wouldn’t actually find her and force her to become real once again. Who you imagine others to be reflects on who you imagine yourself to be.”
Priscilla Uppal’s Projection (Dundurn, 2013)
Have elements of your reading life aligned in curious ways recently? Or are you one of those dedicated readers, who have only a single book on your current stack, so that collisions like this rarely occur?
The third volume in the Nina Borg series by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis builds upon the successful elements of the first two novels and adds an historical element to the plot which makes the story even more satisfying.
Nina is a complicated character who challenges the conventional expectations of a devoted wife and mother while exhibiting tremendous courage and professionlism.
In her paid work as a nurse and in her volunteer work in that capacity for a network which assists those in crisis who cannot access traditional social service agencies and support sytems, Nina is capable, passionate and resilient.
Trans. Elisabeth Dyssegaard
Soho Press, 2013
“’What the hell makes you think,’ she said, in her most glacial voice, ‘that I am anybody’s victim?’”
In The Death of a Nightingale, a plotline emerges fully, which is rooted in a fragment of story which surfaced periodically in the first two volumes.
This adds immensely to credibility for readers who have followed Nina’s story throughout the series volumes, and this layering supports readers’ investment in the new plot elements.
(Quotations below are pulled eratically from the volume, so as to avoid spoilers while still revealing the prose style and thematic concerns.)
As with earlier volumes, images of disarray and decay dominate the prose.
“They had arrived in Mykolayevka in the fall right after the harvest, and Olga had hated the place instantly. Half the village’s houses stood empty, with rattling shutters and broken planks and beams. Most of the trees along the main street had been chopped down, and the few that were left had been stripped of their bark and were as dead as the houses around them.”
And, yet, the characters demonstrate such courage and determination that the overarching sense of the story is one of endurance rather than onslaught.
“Stop thinking like a mouse, she said to herself. Now you’re the hunter, and she is the one who has reason to fear. The days of shivering in the dark are over.”
As with The Boy in the Suitcase and Invisible Murder, the focus is on relationships and characters’ motivations are rooted in recognizable and human emotions and compulsions.
“The man who loves and smiles one day can hate the next. Turn your back for a moment, and feelings will change and flow in new directions.”
The tension is sometimes expressed overtly and other times appears in images and scenic details which add to the readers’ experience cumulatively.
“The route was too short; he had [to] circle the lake four times, which made him feel a bit like a hamster in an oversized wheel, and even though the council did clear the paths of snow, they were still slippery and greasy with a grey-brown mixture of gravel, shush, goose shit and salt.”
This is not a warm and attractive story; children and families are at risk, struggling against enemies known and unknown, against individuals driven by a personal vengeance and organizations (official and otherwise) fuelled by corruption and opportunity.
“Was Babko one of the bully boys who routinely beat detainees with water-filled plastic bottles or kept them handcuffed for days? He didn’t look like the type, but then, not many torturers did.”
Nina, too, might not look “the type” to assist in cases in which torturers play a part. But she is compelled to assist, in search of a happier outcome.
“The truth had left a sharp, metallic taste on her tongue. Nothing else.”
Death of a Nightingale leaves a sharp, metallic taste on readers’ tongues too.
The Nina Borg mysteries are the best kind of storytelling, informative and entertaining, disorienting and mesmerizing.
What mysteries have you been reading lately? Are these on your TBR?
Nina Borg’s first appearance in The Boy in the Suitcase introduces her as a sensitive and determined nurse, willing to set aside her own convenience to meet the needs of others.
Invisible Murder also demonstrates this quality of her character, but readers are forced to recognize that the way in which Nina overlooked the needs of her own children to assist that young boy in the first novel was not necessarily an isolated instance.
2010; Trans. Tara Chace
Soho Press, 2012
As a volunteer in an underground network of professionals who assist those who cannot turn to social service agencies, Nina is on-call and in demand. As a wife and mother, these qualities are expected too, but Nina relies increasingly on her husband to fill the gap.
“As if Ida were only waiting for a chance to relegate Nina once and for all where she really belonged: Mom Hell. The place reserved for bad mothers, career women, alcoholics, and mentally unstable women where they might suffer for all eternity because they had dared to reproduce despite a complete absence of maternal qualifications.”
The complexity of Nina’s character, the reader’s awareness of her compassion and dedication to people in a crisis in contrast with her forgetfulness/neglect of the everyday needs and desires of her own children (and husband), adds immensely to the series’ heft.
Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis are interested in the cracks in the foundation, rather than a consistent smooth edifice. This is as true in their characterization as in their storytelling.
“The building had been in a state of disrepair for ages but in recent years the pace of its decline had picked up as if the building was trying to beat the bulldozers to it. Like a man committing suicide to avoid being murdered, Sandor thought. The plasterwork was peeling off in sheets, and it reeked of dampness, brick dust, dry rot. The rooms still had four-meter ceilings, but the electricity came and went, the water pipes were corroded and smelled like sewage, and after four months of empty promises and sheets of black plastic, he had ultimately given up and had repaired the window in his room himself.”
This is a long passage to share but it illuminates many of the series’ outstanding elements.
First, the tactility of the scene. As with The Boy in the Suitcase, the characters in Invisible Murder are introduced rapidly and sequentially, and the prose is clean but still evocative. The authors introduce new characters deliberately and offset the pace of their emergence with vivid scenes that assist the reader in understanding.
Next, characterization is supported by small details, so that readers observe Sandor’s resilience and endurance, even under siege. As a Roma, Sandor faces prejudice and persecution, bpth subtle and overt, in his daily life. The building in this scene is remarkable for its sensory detail, but it also exists as a symbol for social decrepitude.
And, furthermore, the image of architectural disarray is echoed in other scenes in the book; buildings that have been abandoned or are no longer used for the purposes for which they were constructed figure elsewhere in the novel. (Even avoiding spoilers, there are two locations in particular which are vitally important to the story which fit this idea and add resonance to the readers’ experience.)
“These days, even the most loathsome proclivities could find affirmation from likeminded nutters via the Internet, easily and more or less anonymously. And no matter what they wanted, it was out there — stolen antiquities, endangered species, illegal World War II souvenirs, pornography in all shapes and forms, weird drugs, and, yes, also arms, explosives, and dangerous chemicals.”
The Denmark of Invisible Murder, in “these days”, is a dynamic setting. And Nina’s work, which brings her into contact with a group of Hungarian Roma, intensifies the sense that this time and place is rapidly changing.
The professionals with whom Nina interacts, including Soren, the detective, who appears in the other two volumes of the series as well, offer commentary which aids the reader in understanding broader socioeconomic changes which influence the events unfolding on the pages of the novel.
“Earnings are way down in the prostitution business due to the financial crisis.”
“Do you know why?”
“Fewer courses, conferences, and fringe benefit trips. Greater need for security.”
But Invisible Murder is not about security. It is about rapidly evolving social change against a backdrop of prejudice and injustice.
“Soren didn’t what a murderer looked like anymore. And he supposed what she had wanted to commit wasn’t homicide, not in the standard sense. Just a quiet, invisible murder of the future.”
There isn’t anything standard about the crime in this volume of Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ series. Invisible Murder is a worthy follow-up to The Boy in the Suitcase. The focus on relationships and social justice continues, and readers who found Nina’s character of interest in the first volume will be intrigued by the developments in her life in this volume and eager to meet her in the third volume.
How about you? Is this series on your reading list?
The Nina Borg mysteries are rooted in relationships, beginning with this first volume in the series.
There are crimes, yes. And the plot unfolds in matter-of-fact prose, which is designed to build tension and suspense.
2008; Trans. Lena Kaaberbøl
Soho Press, 2010
But ulitmately these stories are about the methodical assemby of truths which are rooted in interpersonal connections.
This approach could make for a story which proceeds at a slow-boil, but Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis constuct their story scenically.
Quick shifts from one character to the next afford a momentum to the story which allows for the connections to be revealed in a controlled manner.
This requires patience on the reader’s part, as each perspective is introduced without explanation, the connections assembling gradually.
And, yet, this adds to the credibility of the story, for as motivations are uncovered, they are immediately recognizable, raw human responses.
“If you hurt my boy, I will kill you. Does an act have to be conceived in the mind before it can happen? And once one had thought of it, did that bring it closer to reality? She had thought it. And now she had done it. The calm she had felt seemed very distant now.”
(Note: the excerpts are presented in a deliberately disordered fashion to avoid spoilers, so that readers can get a taste of the story’s tone, without brushing against plot developments and truths exposed via characterization.)
“Something happened when they looked at each other. A silent agreement. Not a trade-off, more a sort of covenant.”
Even the characters who seem compelled by darkness are motivated by forces readers can understand. And even the main characters, including Nina Borg, struggle with elements of darkness.
“She didn’t want the child to be afraid of her. She didn’t like that he looked at her as if she might be a monster little different from the man in the railway station, but she had no idea how to win his trust.”
Nina is a nurse, who volunteers with a network of people who assist people in crisis, who cannot access the traditional avenues of service in society, often women and children, often marginalised individuals. She has a husband and two children, and frequently their needs are set aside while Nina assists other families in need.
Nina as wife and mother appears on the pages of The Boy in the Suitcase, but it is Nina as rescue-worker whose actions drive the story’s events.
The tension builds subtly at times. Sometimes in small actions. (“Click, click, click. The point of his ballpen appeared and disappeared, appeared and disappeared.”) Sometimes in metaphor, more obviously. (“He wondered if they were watching him. The taxi slid through the midnight traffic like a shark through a herring shoal, and he couldn’t tell whether any specific car stayed behind them.”)
And, at times, the tension is overt. “It was then she heard the scream. A shrill heart-rending note of terror, like the scream you hear in the night when a hare is caught by a fox.”
Underpinning the story, another sort of tension lurks. The theme of social justice adds another element of complexity to the storytelling and Nina’s compassion for the disenfranchised stands in opposition to her erratic parenting.
“No one has asked the refugees, the prostitutes, the fortune hunters, and the orphans to come knocking on Denmark’s door. No one has invited them, and no one knew how many there were. Crimes committed against them had nothing to do with ordinary people and the usual workings of law and order. It was only dimwit fools like Nina who were unable to achieve the proper sense of detachment.”
The question of class and entitlement lurks beneath each of the series’ volumes. A ‘right’ for one person is a ‘privilege’ for another and a ‘dream’ for another.
“People like you, Mr. Marquart. People like you don’t need to kill anyone themselves. After all, it’s so much easier to pay someone else to do it.”
These are major issues, and if readers suspect that there will be no tidy resolution, they are correct.
“But you don’t see all that many happy endings, do you? a small cynical voice commented inside her. Nothing ever really comes out the way you want to.”
Despite that cynical voice, however, the ending of The Boy in the Suitcase manages to be both realistic and satisfying.
Tomorrow, talk of the second volume, Invisible Murder.
How about you: have you read this series?
The evening in the Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library begins with a sincere expression of enthusiasm on the part of the interviewer, introducing and welcoming the author.
Not rote expression of interest or distant admiration, but a sense of true excitement as Jared Bland takes his seat, and the author of The Goldfinch stands at the lectern to read from a segment near the end of the novel.
Donna Tartt first saw a copy of Carel Fabritius’s 17th-century painting in Christie’s in Amsterdam. For her, books come from a mood that won’t leave, and she simply has to work through it in fiction. The intersection between this experience in Amsterdam, with her fascination with New York City (New Amsterdam) and endangered art (like the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiwam in 2001), and a trip to Las Vegas (with all the connotations of luck, chance, fate and fortune) resulted in a 771-page novel.
Little, Brown and Company, 2013
The Goldfinch was born of the tension between majesty and fakery. Stylistically and structurally, the novel might have seemed an unfashionable work, had its author come upon it in the library she worked in as a teenager.
As a young library worker in a small town, she felt as though there was only room for minimalist realism on those library shelves, like Carver’s works about “grown-up horribleness”, suburban chronicles about marital disarray, the kind of novel which continues to dominate. And, yet, there is room for the Pynchonesque novel now, she says: a work like The Goldfinch “doesn’t feel as unfashionable now”.
The young Donna Tartt, earning $2.10 hour, found the arrival of new books in the library exciting, although the books themselves did not always appeal; perusing John Updike’s The Coup, she was unimpressed. It seemed puzzling, baffling. Nor did Mrs. Dalloway appeal. “Well, this is just crap,” the young Donna Tartt exclaimed, but when she re-read Woolf in her 30s, she realized that those observations said more about her as a younger reader than about Woolf’s fiction.
Both as a reader and a writer, Woolf is now a figure to admire, and she mentions her desire to find a streak of lightning just once on a draft page, even if it takes an entire page, just as Woolf described.
The influence of books and reading is fundamentally important to Tartt. In responding to an audience question about The Little Friend, the author observes that subconsciously her decision to re-read Harriet the Spy did impact the novel, but it’s hard to predict how reading will come out in a manuscript. If a book she loved as a child impacted the work, it was not a deliberate decision.
“If there’s no surprise for the writer, there’s no surprise for the reader.”
Between writing novels, she reads a lot. While on holiday some years ago, she read John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, and her memories of Canada are now pressed in that book. Characters in her books are often bookish as well, with Harriet’s reading in The Little Friend playing an important role, and the overt influence of reading material in The Secret History (she steers clear of spoilers).
In this regard, the characters in The Goldfinch also present an abundance of cultural reference. Boris and Theo have an obvious interest in movies and music, whereas Andy’s interest in Japanese manga/comics was more apparent in scenes that remain unpublished.
In response to an audience member, Donna Tartt relucantly and laboriously chose the five books she would take to a desert island: the OED, Lolita (all about knowing one’s soul from the inside), Bleak House (Jared Bland grunted approvingly, which he does whenever someone mentions this novel), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (there’s some of it in each of her books), and The Great Gatsby.
“Books are a kind of medicine; we take them in and they change us; you are different, altered forever after you read a book.” It is the experience of another person’s soul, she explains.
Boris is one of Jared Bland’s favourite characters in recent years, he comments, and several audience members nod in understanding. The author speaks of the way in which her characyers inhabit her, the way she takes notes from each character’s perspective. “Sad to say, they are my galley slaves.” Characters can occasionally surprise you, but generally they follow authorial direction.
As readers would guess, discussion of The Goldfinch leads to talk of art, even beyond the painting which inspires the story, but when reference is made to the Nietzsche quote “”We have art in order not to die of the truth”, the discussion wraps up. What can follow Nietzsche.
The evening ends with a rush of applause and polite nods and smiles, with Donna Tartt standing in thanks for Jared Bland’s thoughtful questions, followed by a quiet repetition of gratitude, inaudible beyond the front rows.
My current reading stack includes both The Goldfinch and The Luminaries. It seems ridiculous to even think of adding to it and, yet, I’m now eyeing The Little Friend.
As the writer for HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme”, George Pelecanos’ reputation is impeccable.
His style is succinct, polished. And he is as skilled at drawing intense, vivid scenes as he is at casting a wide story arc, allowing characterization to take centre stage.
His Lucas Spero mysteries showcase all of these talents.
The first in the series, The Cut (2011), introduces Lucas, a young veteran who has returned from tour in Iraq and now works as a P.I. in Washington.
Little, Brown and Company – Reagan Arthur, 2011
“I woke up one day and knew that I was never gonna have a college degree or wear a tie to work. I was coming up on thirty years old and I realized, I’ve fallen through the cracks. But I’m luckier than some people I know. I’ve found something I like to do. My eyes open in the morning and I have purpose.”
Even his inner musings read as easily as dialogue. (And Pelecanos’ dialogue is spot-on.)
And within just a few pages, readers have a cursory understanding of the significant relationships in Lucas’ life: with the city that he loves, his current employer, his mother, his brother, and his lover.
The pacing is swift and the prose is deliberate.
When Lucas’ brother Leo teaches contemporary fiction, he chooses writers who will appeal to the young black men in his class, and the qualities their works possess are evident in George Pelecanos’ writing as well.
Both Leo and the boys admire “…the author’s use of dialogue, how it illustrated character and moved the plot forward; how the central conflict of the novel was set up economically in the early chapters; how the protagonist, Ryan, struggled with alcoholism, and how his problem was handled with subtlety and grace.”
And the observation made about one of the main characters in a detective novel, “Parker is a man of action…defined by what he does rather than what he says” seems to suit Lucas as much as this other fictional man.
Lucas, too, has a struggle, but not it is not alcoholism.
Readers are aware of its existence in The Cut, although there is little examination of it. That, too, is significant.
For the one aspect of Lucas’ life which is core to his identity – his work as a soldier – is the one aspect about which readers know next-to-nothing.
Readers learn only a little more in the follow-up, The Double (2013).
As with The Cut, it opens with a discussion between Lucas and his employer, Tom Petersen.
It’s an interesting approach, because this exhibits Lucas’ formal relationship to a world which is starkly different from the world of military combat.
“Petersen looked at Lucas, a marine veteran of Iraq who had fought in Fallujah, where the fiercest house-to-house combat of the war, perhaps any war, had occurred. A man who’d left his youth in the Middle East and come back looking for a replication of what he had experienced there every day: a sense of purpose and heightened sensation.”
But although Lucas works regularly for Petersen, the grit and muck of the stories comes from the cases he accepts which are not discussed in Petersen’s office.
The setting works well for character introduction, however, and because Petersen, reputable and recognizable in his business attire observes and accepts Lucas, readers are inclined to do so as well.
Little, Brown and Company, 2013
From Petersen’s perspective Spero presents as an “aw-shucks kind of guy” but one with a “look just as studied” as Petersen’s nonetheless.
But it is his observations of Lucas emotionally that offer the readers more insight.
“Petersen sensed that there were night-black shadows beneath the surface of his investigator’s cool façade. He was fond of Lucas, at times close to fatherly, but in personal matters, out of respect, Petersen didn’t push him.”
Both The Cut and The Double are Lucas’ stories.
Only brief glimpses of him from the perspectives of minor characters, like Petersen and Olivia O’Leary acquaint readers with an external view of the novels’ hero.
Olivia O’Leary is a psychiatric therapist who works at the hospital at which some of the men he served with are being treated.
When Lucas inquires about a fellow serviceman’s health, we also gain some insight into Lucas himself.
“’A relative few are as fortunate as you’ve been, Spero. You’ve found work that approximates the exhilaration of the experience you had in the Middle East. Most don’t have that. Coming home can be a relief, peaceful even. But after a while, when things stateside don’t turn out like they’ve imagined, soldiers often feel a disappointment, a kind of void. Those feelings turn to bitterness and hurt. I’m not telling you that this is what’s going on with Winston, specifically. I’m speaking in generalities, of course.”
And, when Leo is concerned about his brother Lucas’ health, readers have yet another glimpse of the kind of trouble that Lucas might be dealing with, the struggle which might parallel that other fictional hero’s experience.
“’I’ve been reading stuff, Spero. About all the veterans who’ve been committing suicide. It’s up to one a day now. That’s a higher rate than the combat deaths in Afghanistan this year.’”
The reason that it’s possible to speak at length about these books without discussing any of the plot therein is that the series is fundamentally rooted in Lucas Spero’s character.
The cases he solves are interesting and the action is gripping (sometimes violent, but not gratuitously, matter-of-factly, which suits Lucas’ experience).
His relationships with women create the opportunity for action-scenes of another sort entirely, which are sketched just as boldly.
And with both kinds of action, George Pelecanos is prepared to get messy in terms of characterization; he inhabits the grey-space between black and white.
Sign me up for the next Lucas Spero mystery.
Have you read either of these? Or others of his?
Setting Mary Swan’s novella The Deep alongside her recent novel My Ghosts, the blues in their covers are rich and varied.
The cover of one features statuary, a feminine form, opaque but graceful; the cover of the other showcases a butterfly, luminescent and fragile.
They seem to intertwine. And one could pull a pair of sentences from The Deep and allow them to speak for My Ghosts.
“Without each other we are in pieces, we are scattered to the wide winds. These past weeks we are put together like the broken teacup.”
Alfred A. Knopf – Random House, 2013
The characters who voices speak to the reader in pieces in My Ghosts are scattered, too.
How does one reassemble an understanding of the world once one has been scattered.
Each of the narrators in My Ghosts has a different approach. One muses upon the nature of time (yes, that kind of novel) and studies diagrams which allow her to take part clocks and watches and put them back together again.
“In one of the illustrations the pieces are exploded out, each one separate with its own neat label. But you can see that they are all in order, that at any moment they could fall back into place with a tiny sound and become whole again, and then time will go ticking on.”
This seems to be a position of great power but, in fact, there is the paradox that time has been ticking all the way along, even while the device had been stopped.
This is one of those questions that cannot be answered, which leaves one feeling powerless. It is something like those word problems presented in school, designed to assist with the handling of quantifiable data.
But numbers that represent distance travelled and hours of daylight obscure other important information. Often this information is left out of the story entirely. Noting its absence can confound a serious thinker, forestall all problem-solving.
“Easy enough if she stopped wondering just where the man was going, that the days were becoming shorter. Who he had left behind, and if he ever missed them.”
But what matters most cannot be contained in the language of figures and data.
It does not matter that the first section of this story takes place between the years 1879 and 1905; the characters the reader meets in these pages matter, who is left behind and who is missed. (It is that kind of novel.)
And so a sense of powerfulness remerges.
“You can make anything into a story,” Aunt Clare used to say. “Everything is connected, or at least you can find a way to make it so.” (And, in this way, that teacup is mended.)
But mending and connecting is not uncomplicated. Relationships fracture and intensify, bloom and grow stagnant. Gaps are as significant as joins.
“But it took me longer to realize that even the spaces between words made a pattern, and could tell you something different.”
Some of the characters in My Ghosts find hope and promise in spaces created.
“She had the feeling that something had been torn and she had stepped through, like one of those old stories about a hidden, magic world.”
Other characters imagine that creating a space is an act of generosity, whereas others see only loss.
“That would be right, that would be better, and it would be a better thing, a braver thing, to leave his son with the story he would make for himself, from the things unpacked from the battered bags.”
Mary Swan’s language is spare and often poetic. Sentences hold emotion as often as they hold information.
They are sometimes fragmented: “His growing up somehow a process of folding away.” And, other times, they are sculpted, complete: “In his own life things had always brushed by him, though sometimes close enough he felt their breath.”
And the story itself is sometimes amorphous and slippery, other times deliberate and solid.
Consider this beautiful image (and, perhaps, recall the train in The Deep):
“There were flashes in the distance, the lighted windows of the late train, trailed by a mournful wail, and he remembered the coins he’d once laid on the track, remembered how they’d emerged, pressed smooth and shiny and new.”
And consider, alongside, this passage which overtly addresses the matter of movement between worlds and states of being:
“And it wouldn’t be as tidy as an equation, but she wonders if there’s some kind of rule for how long you keep seeing the dead, wonders if it’s the same for everyone. How long before you stop following a familiar back in a crowd, before a profile no longer makes you blink and stare. She thinks it must be a progression, the way they retreat from the real world but still stroll through your dreams, fitting themselves to whatever is happening there.”
My Ghosts is a beautifully told tale, scored with faint lines like those in a mended teacup, like those in a butterfly’s wings, the seams that only a storyteller can stitch.
Reading Craig Davidson’s Cataract City took me somewhere else.
You might think, if you have heard something of the novel, that I am about to say Niagara Falls.
But as much as the novel is about two boys’ coming-of-age in this environs, it is a study of how ‘what-came-before’ morphs and alters into ‘now’.
Duncan Diggs and Owen Stuckey were inseparable friends; as boys, they experienced all the ordinary and remarkable events that comprise a growing up, and the intense – almost inexplicable – connection that engenders.
As the years pass, their lives continue to intersect, in sometimes startlingly unpredictable ways. In unfolding the narrative, Craig Davidson begins with the present, as one is released from prison and the other receives the call for a ride ‘home’. But what is ‘home’ after one has been incarcerated for eight years. And what is ‘friendship’ when it exists alongside something-like-betrayal.
Doubleday – Random House, 2013
Cataract City contains a set of hard questions. And it presents a particular view of the world, which does not necessarily align with readers’ expectations of fiction.
“But I think people can be more beautiful for being broken.” This makes for distinctly uncomfortable reading.
The story of contains plenty of brokenness. Some of it is detailed in visceral and bloody detail. Frequently, things come to blows. Sometimes to shreds and gashes, ruptures and tears.
It plays out in a time when boys were listening to John Fogerty’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer”, when bright yellow could recall the colour of thick plastic McDonalds straws or flimsy boxes of no-name cereal. This is Cataract City.
In tangible terms: “My dad said Cataract City was a pressure chamber: living was hard, so boys were forced to become men much faster. That pressure ingrained itself in bodies and faces. You’d see twenty-year-old men whose hands were stained permanently black with the granular grease from lubing the rollers at the Bisk.”
In metaphorical terms: “But you have to understand this: Cataract City is possessive. The city has a steel-trap memory, and it holds a grudge. Nothing that grows here is ever allowed to leave.”
And beyond those boundaries: “Memory like a sickness, memory like a drug. I stood in the lengthening shadow of the lane, swallowed up by the black hole of my past.”
And, lastingly: “The city’s got a wet-sidewalk memory: press something into it and the impression remains forever.”
Duncan and Owen both still live in Cataract City (setting aside the question of a temporary residence in Kingston Pen). But their experience of the present is cast against a past which cloys and clouds, like a sickness, a drug, a wet sidewalk. There are grudges left unspoken, there are confinements beyond steel bars.
Time presses and recedes. “The next moments unfolded in brilliant slow motion, as if the world were a 78 rpm record played at a laid-back 33.” These two characters are, in many ways, out of time. Counter-time. One, having had nothing but time to sit and contemplate the events of the past, who finds, upon return, that these events are both startlingly different and painfully familiar.
As they look back and negotiate the ever-shifting present, Craig Davidson takes care to depict their surroundings and experiences in bold detail, harnessing everyday images to bring a layer of unshakable realism to the story.
Consider the author’s use of language to engage the reader’s senses: “My cot felt no thicker than a communion wafer, coiled corkscrewing into my spine.” “The clean smell of the forest: cut-potato scent of earth, dry leaves leaving a taste of cinnamon on the tongue.”
Often the descriptions evoke a disturbing, painful response: “Blazing down the track so fast her skin must’ve screamed.” Soon a persistent doubt burrowed under my skin like a chigger.”
Sometimes a shield is offered: “”It was as though I’d gone into a protective cocoon that had mummified my sight and smell and taste, and now, back on the outside, my senses were hyper-attuned.”
But mostly the fears rage on, unchecked though transformed:
“As you get older, the texture of your fear changes. You’re no longer scared of a dead wrestler stalking you through the woods – even if you mind wants to go there, it’s lost the nimbleness to make those fantastic leaps of imagination. Your fears become adult ones: of crushing debts and extra responsibilities, sick parents and sick kids and dying without love. Fears of not being the man you thought you’d become back when you still believed wrestling was real and that you’d die in convulsions if you inhaled the white gas from a shattered light bulb.”
Readers inwardly wonder how much of this narrative can be believed. “But even back then I knew cheating was a big part of telling a story.”
But outwardly there is little time to debate; the pace of the novel is relentless, the switches in time are urgent and scenes in the past as raw as scenes in the present.
“And you’ll look back in the aftermath, trying to piece together how A met B, but you know what? The threads are tangled, yet the links exist in ways you can’t even imagine. And whatever you owe, you pay. The Point. It’s in the water; it’s in the sky. Things collapse into it, things spring from it. We’re all either moving towards it or walking away from it.”
Drama is heightened; a novel about life in Cataract City is as much a pressure chamber as one’s dad once warned, stained with grease and blood. And, yet, beyond the violence, there is something ordinary about this story.
“I toted up the facts of my life: I was jobless, wifeless, childless, living with my parents, sleeping in the bed I’d slept in as a boy. I was an ex-con with a busted face whose joints ached on humid days.”
Where each of us goes to sleep at night, the thoughts we have before we drift off, the dreams we dare to have even when they seem distinctly out-of-joint: this is the stuff of life, through the ages.
“But those younger, other selves are never really gone, are they? All their possibilities. Why would they be? They’re only waiting for you to chase them down and reclaim them, right?”
And that is where Craig Davidson’s Cataract City took me. To all those possibilities. Owen’s. Duncan’s. But my own, as well.
“There’s no backstitching in stories. Nothing can be locked in place.”
So says a character in Studio Saint-Ex, but readers of Ania Szado’s second novel might disagree; she seems to have no trouble locking a good story in place.
She began where all good stories begin, with a fascination.
In her Acknowledgments, she writes:
“To conclude where Studio Saint-Ex began: When I was eleven, I was given a copy of The Little Prince. I will forever be aware – and grateful – that the gift of a book can change the course of a child’s life.”
Obviously Ania Szado is not alone in her love of The Little Prince, but she has extended that gift, and the curiosity it inspired, to examine the life of its writer.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has been the subject of many biographies, with conflicting assessments as Ania Szado explains in her notes.
She consulted many sources (including the biography written by his wife Consuelo, who also appears as a character in Studio Saint-Ex) as well as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s own writing and references them so that other curious readers can explore further too.
Like Mig, who is at the heart of Studio Saint-Ex, Ania Szado first looked for the man in his stories. Mig describes it like this:
“I had sought Antoine in his novels. I had recalled them as adventure tales. But what I found in rereading them was his testament that the noble man was condemned to wander unprotected and alone, his duties denying him a peaceful existence with a loving wife and the joys of settling in a community for longer than the span between missions or mail drops.”
When Mig makes this observation, it is many years after she has known Antoine; she is preparing to contribute to Expo 67 in Montreal, which was named for one of his books, Terre des hommes, and revisits his writing with certain expectations.
Mig wants to find the man in his fiction, but Ania Szado takes it one step further and seeks to create the man in her fiction.
It is a work requiring both delicacy and deliberation in equal measures, and these, too, are qualities which Mig possesses.
Twenty-two-year-old Mig is an aspiring fashion designer in New York City, in the 1940′s, at a time when the work of French designers is no longer readily available to wealthy women living in America.
She is fuelled by passion, but does not rely solely upon that or her ambition in pursuit of her goal; many of the novel’s most memorable scenes are of Mig labouring in the studio, hours and hours spent crafting a garment. (And, speaking of design, not only is the dust jacket of this novel beautiful but there is a surprise beneath: lovely.)
Much is uncertain for Mig at this time, but her desire to be a designer is consistent. Politically the world is in turmoil and Mig only has her brother and uncle to support her, but the Alliance Française, a haven for French expats in the city, offers a degree of security for her personally, even when other factors threaten to overwhelm.
She meets Antoine de Saint-Exupéry when she is asked to assist him with his language skills, a service she has offered there unhesitatingly to those seeking assistance with either French or English, but their relationship quickly grows complicated.
“I had spent my entire life on a single path in a single city. My travels had never taken me to another time zone, never mind another continent. And I was supposed to teach him?”
Whether it is her admiration or his which swells most intensely, readers are unsure.
“His mind, like his character, was complex, accomplished, infuriating: it was that of a dedicated storyteller and a natural mathematician, of a highly religious man who didn’t quite believe in God, of an inventor of magical worlds and of patented mechanical gizmos, a war pilot who would never take up arms, that of a man whose greatest pleasure was friendship and whose greatest needs demanded solitude. He was a bear who would sooner charm than roar.”
And when his wife takes shape in the narrative, readers’ uncertainty surges once more.
“Consuelo had ambitions, too. It was always the women who ached with hunger. Especially the wives.”
What remains consistent throughout the novel, however, is Ania Szado’s authorial voice, her determination to construct a narrative order to contain the inherently chaotic passions embodied in and surrounding Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
As methodically as Mig creates and employs scraps of fabric, Studio Saint-Ex takes shape.
“Soon, or later – here was no point in marking the time – the sleeves, the bodice, each section of the dress was detached and smoothed, and rested like a blue island on the brown sea of the table. I gathered the pieces without labeling them – I could read their shapes as easily as one reads words – and unspooled a roll of paper.”
Mig views the world as a series of stitches; letter-by-letter, Ania Szado hems the story.
Ania Szado’s prose is diligently and beautifully constructed. Sentence lengths vary and rhythm alters to reflect the content of specific scenes, and although much of the language is straightforward, sometimes lyricism takes hold.
(“Madame’s face gathered like a drawstring handbag”: is that not simply perfect, even setting aside the matter that a simile rooted in fashion is wholly appropriate.)
There are more questions than answers, which suits this contradictory and intriguing man, and the novel presents possibilities rather than prescriptions. The complicated relationships which ensue are simply allowed to remain so, not unexplored but undeclared. Readers are afforded the opportunity to temporarily inhabit more than one character’s perspective.
The idea of interpretation is central to Studio Saint-Ex; it might be true that once a piece of fabric is cut, it cannot be made truly whole again, but nor is there the sense that only one garment could be envisioned therein.
Even with a work as ostensibly simple as The Little Prince, readers can understand it very differently. (Just as a piece of fabric can be remade into other shapes, which is demonstrated literally and figuratively in this novel.)
Mig’s brother sets another reader’s interpretation on end by declaring: “It isn’t a love story, it’s a war story. The prince goes back to his rose at the end. That’s his country.”
Certainly, this is a valid interpretation, for although he faced great censure during wartime, many agree that patriotism and love-of-country was a driving force for Saint-Exupéry.
But others would argue that it is not that simple, that love cannot be confined in such rigid terms. There is nothing simple about the love stories in Studio Saint-Ex.
Ania Szado appears this week in Toronto as part of the 34th International Festival of Authors.
She will participate tonight in the “University of British Columbia Anniversary Celebration” with several other writers (including some discussed here previously: Théodora Armstrong, Joseph Boyden, Wayne Grady and Annabel Lyon), Tuesday October 29, 2013 at 8pm.
She will also be participating in IFOA Thunder Bay on Sunday November 3 at 7pm.
This post is part of the 2013 IFOA Celebration.