Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Fresh bookishness!

So many books to talk about!

Some more stories in the Alice Munro reading project with Runaway concluding July 12th and The View from Castle Rock beginning July 19th. (Schedule here.)

Fortier WonderIn recent Canlit bookchat:
Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood (2012)
Shari LaPeña’s Happiness Economics (2011)
Nancy Lee’s The Age (2014)
Deryn Collier’s Bern Fortin Mysteries (2012; 2014)
Susie Moloney’s Things Withered (2013)
Dominique Fortier’s Wonder (2010; Trans. Sheila Fischman, 2014)
Elspeth Cameron’s Aunt Winnie (2013).

This summer, I’m re-reading some old favourites (including Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree and Jean Little’s Stand in the Wind, and I’m getting acquainted with the writing of some new-to-me authors (including Damon Galgut and Tom Rachman).

Amd I might read a few more from the latest list CBC has compiled of good Canlit reading. (I’ve read 74/100 so far.)

Coming this autumn, follow-up reading projects from 2013′s Toronto Book Awardsthe year’s Giller longlist, the International Festival of Authors, and various personal reading projects.

How about you: what are you reading these days, and what are you looking forward to reading soon?

(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!)

Heather O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (2014)

When a passage on page two is just breathtakingly powerful, readers’ expectations soar. It seems impossible to imagine reading beyond this passage without stopping to reread, or not reading it aloud to a friend sitting alongside, or not tapping the stranger sitting next to you, pointing and saying “Check this out”.

Girl Saturday Night ONeill

HarperCollins, 2014

  “We were all descended from orphans in Québec. Before I’d dropped out of high school, I remembered reading about how ships full of girls were sent from Paris to New France to marry the inhabitants. They stepped off the boat with puke on their dresses and stood on the docks, waiting to be chosen.
They were pregnant before they even had a chance to unpack their bags. They didn’t want this. They didn’t want to populate this horrible land that was snow and rocks and skinny wolves. They spoke to their children through gritted teeth. That’s where the Québec accent came from. The nation crawled out from between their legs.”

But when readers respond passionately to a work so early, there is an immediate concern that perhaps that level of accomplishment cannot be sustained.

When it comes to Heather O’Neill’s use of language, it is consistently powerful and beautiful throughout her second novel.

This is evident in short metaphoric bursts and in other sweeping descriptive statements. Her description of the Montreal setting is another fine example and indeed it is impossible to imagine the novel unfolding anywhere else.

“Dreaming too big was the cause of much horror on Boulevard Saint-Laurent. The street was filled with people whose dreams had gone bust. It wasn’t always drugs and bad childhoods that brought them this low. It was ambition. There was a whole group of fallen Icaruses sitting under the blazing fluorescent lights at the soup kitchen. Their jackets were half blown off by the fall. They had the complexions of clowns whose cigars had just exploded.”

These descriptions can contain a sensory weight, another dimension of possibility, that might remain static in another writer’s hands.

“There were horses on one of the girls’ T-shirts. If you put your ear up against her chest, you could hear them galloping. I was here on Rue Saint-Catherine that the most beautiful kisses in the world were grown.”

Heather O’Neill’s prose is remarkably lyrical, uncomplicated but impressive. Readers who appreciate beautiful prose, like that of Anne Michaels with a dash of the unexpected as in Karen Russell’s, will likely find themselves flagging multiple passages, regularly rereading and admiring phrases and paragraphs.

But whether the novel truly succeeds with readers depends upon a connection to character. The language alone is not enough to ferry readers through a narrative preoccupied with insecurity and near-misery.

Readers are immersed in simultaneous connection and disconnection and varied states between; there is constant conflict, in the shape of collisions and separations which threaten (and sometimes achieve) disruption or decimation.

This is certainly true of the core relationship, between siblings Nouschka and Nicolas, who are immovable, riding down the middle of the novel’s street.

  “I suppose there was something a bit freakish about our relationship. We hadn’t changed the way we acted very much at all since we were seven.
Nicolas got on his bicycle and rode next to me. We rode our bicycles in the middle of the street. The cars behind us kept honking at us to tell us to move out of the way. But we didn’t move. We still owned that street.”

But it is also true about provincial relationships, for considerable conflict is building regarding whether Quebec will separate from Canada.

“Other countries had declarations of independence written by men with white wigs and tailcoats and buckled shoes. Ours was written by men with bell-bottoms and sideburns and tinted sunglasses and enormous butterfly collars.”

This is uncomfortable territory, and relationships of all kinds are strained and fractured. Although in some ways The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is a love story, that does not guarantee a happy ending for either characters or readers.

“Love is like this small room where a child brings you to show you all their treasures. First the child shows you all the new toys that are bright and shiny and top of the line. But then she shows you all the stuff that has ended up at the bottom of the trunk.”

As in Lullabies for Little Criminals, however, there is a respite offered through art.

“Writers looked for secrets that had never been mined. Every writer has to invent their own magical language, in order to describe the indescribable. They might seem to be writing in French, English or Spanish, but really they were writing in the language of butterflies, crows and hanged men.”

Much of this story is difficult and painful, but there is something redemptive about the storyteller’s approach which eases readers’ discomfort. Readers who require a sense of steady progression and likeable characters will perhaps prefer another day of the week. But readers who appreciated the harsh beauty of Lullabies for Little Criminals will fervently admire The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.

IFOASmallBadgeHeather O’Neill will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.

This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.

Next Wednesday, thoughts on another IFOA2014 author.

September 2014, In My Notebook (Giveaway too!)

Check out this giveaway opportunity for Philippa Gregory’s new novel about lady-in-waiting Margaret Pole’s unique view of King Henry VIII’s stratospheric rise to power in Tudor England.

Gregory Kings Curse

Simon & Schuster, 2014

This corresponds with the lists in my notebook which detail the books in her series. The first that I read was (oh, horrorors!) actually the third volume in The Cousins’ War series.

That didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of it, but I have yet to go back to fill in the gaps so that I can enjoy her latest, The King’s Curse, which is the sixth volume. (There is a chapter excerpt here.)

The Cousins’ War:

  • The White Queen (2008)
  • The Red Queen (2010)
  • The Lady of the Rivers (2011)
  • The Kingmaker’s Daughter (2012)
  • The White Princess (32013)
  • The King’s Curse (2014)

Philippa Gregory has a habit of pulling the women of history onto centre stage and making their stories. She has also written The Wideacre Trilogy (Wideacre, The Favored Child, Meridon) and The Tudor Court series.

The Tudor Court:

  • The Constant Princess (2005)
  • The Other Boleyn Girl (2001)
  • The Boleyn Inheritance (2006)
  • The Queen’s Fool (2003)
  • The Virgin’s Lover (2004)
  • The Other Queen (2008)

Givewaway Details: There are two opportunties via Simon & Schuster Canada.

First, for two tickets to the Philippa Gregory event. Leave a comment with your full name and indicating your interest in attending the Al Green Theatre in the Miles Nadal JCC in Toronto Ontario on Monday, September 22, 2014 at 7pm.

Next, for a copy of The King’s Curse. Leave a comment indicating your interest in winning the hardcover novel. If you win, you will need to provide me with your name and address. (Canadian residents only.)

If you are interested in both the pair of tickets and the book, please indicate this in your comment.

Entries will be received until midnight (EST) September 18, 2014 and I will email winners on September 19, 2014.

Also in my notebook for September?

Rawi Hage Film Cockroach

Film inspired by Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach

Notes about “The Underground”, a short film based on Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach.

Its World Premiere was last night, part of TIFF’s Short Cuts Canada, and it plays again today in Toronto (Friday, Sept 12 at 2:45 pm at Scotiabank 10)

“A visceral portrayal of an Iranian man’s struggle to fit into Western culture, The Underground is a new short film by critically acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Michelle Latimer, which is set to have its World Premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

Araz, an Iranian refugee in Canada, experiences North American life by imagining himself as a cockroach. Having fought to escape the warzone he once called home, and destined for a fresh start, Araz arrives in Canada to find that North American life is not what he had dreamed of. In a struggle to overcome poverty and isolation, he turns inward in hopes of experiencing the life that eludes him.

Deeply disturbed by how ethnic assimilation remains at the root of so many humanitarian disasters, Writer/Director Michelle Latimer was fascinated by the prevalence of the cockroach as a symbol in genocidal propaganda, spanning multiple time periods, geographic regions and cultures.

“This story illuminates how the persistent notion of a human underclass impacts our humanity”, says Latimer.  “Informed by my Indigenous heritage and inspired by Rawi Hage’s courageous novel, I wanted to challenge and address this idea, while further exploring the issues of identity, loss of language, and assimilation.”

The Underground was Produced by Tara Woodbury and Kerry Swanson, and Executive Produced by Paula Devonshire and Danis Goulet with support from the National Screen Institute’s Drama Prize Program.”

Summer Canadian Story 2014

Hosted by Write Reads

And more scribblings?

A list of the short story collections that I read which fit into the Summer of the Canadian Short Story challenge:
David Helwig and Sandra Martin’s edited collection 84: Best Canadian Short Stories,
Samuel Thomas Martin’s This Ramshackle Tabernacle,
Richard van Camp’s edited collection Coming Home,
Andrea Routley’s Jane and the Whales,
Janine Alyson Young’s Hideout Hotel,
Alice Munro’s Runaway,
Gilles Archambault’s In a Minor Key,
Kathy Page’s Paradise and Elsewhere, and
Mary Sodertrom’s Desire Lines.

I dabbled in others, but I didn’t even get to pull Lorna Goodison’s By Love Possessed, Austin Clarke’s Choosing His Coffin or Clark Blaise’s A North American Education off the shelves. As usual, the list which seems to matter more is the list of books remaining, the stories which I still hope to read in 2014.

And last, but certainly not least, my list of possibles for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril IX, hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. Sign-ups here.
The event focuses on the following kinds of stories:
RIP IX Challenge

Hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings

Dark Fantasy

Or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above.

That is what embodies the stories, written and visual, that we celebrate with the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril event.”

And, there are two simple rules:

1. Have fun reading (and watching).
2. Share that fun with others.

You can sign up here. And then you will have a list in your notebook too. Although of course my list has more to do with dreams than reality. I figure I’ll read about 6 or 8 titles and maybe 2 or 3 of them will be from these lists. I am a moody reader, and the titles which appealed to me when I made these lists might not be the ones which insist on being read when I actually sit down with a book in hand.

Ordinary Wolf Girl

Anyone else thinking “GingerSnaps”?

Creepy Canlit for Grown-ups
Kelley Armstrong’s Visions (second in Cainsville series, following Omens)
Todd Babiak’s Come, Barbarians
Linwood Barclay’s No Time for Goodbye and Safe House
Joey Comeau’s The Summer is Ended and We Are Not Yet Saved
Nick Cutter’s forthcoming novel, The Deep
A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife
Matthew Heti’s The City Still Breathing
Emily Pohl-Weary’s Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl
Andrew Pyper’s The Guardians
Michael Rowe’s Enter, Night
Robin Spano’s Dead Politician Society
Russell Wangersky’s Walt
Michael Winter’s The Death of Donna Whalen

Group R.I.P. Read
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House

Creepy Canlit for Teens
Kelley Armstrong’s Sea of Shadows (Age of Legends #1)
Leah Bobet’s Above
Erin Bow’s Plain Kate, Sorrow’s Knot
Charles de Lint’s Under My Skin (Wildlings #1)
Maggie de Vries’ Rabbit Ears
Hopkinson, Nalo Sister Mine
Evan Munday’s The Dead Kid Detective Agency, Dial M for Morna
Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavour (Viktor Frankenstein #1)
Shane Peacock’s Eye of the Crow (Boy Sherlock Holmes #1)
Edeet Ravel’s Held
The Seven Series, an interconnected set of seven mysteries
Drew Hayden Taylor’s The Night Wanderer
Richard Scrimger’s Zomboy

ow about you? What bookish notes have you been making lately in your notebook?

Have you read any of the books discussed here? Are some on your TBR?

Debra Komar’s The Lynching of Peter Wheeler (2014)

Debra Komar creates a narrative which manages to straddle the line between scholarly analysis and page-turner, relying upon court records, newspapers, and other historical documentation to gather evidence surrounding the murder of 14-year-old Annie Kempton in Bear River, Nova Scotia in 1896.

Lynching Wheeler

Goose Lane Editions, 2014

“This book looks back so we can see ourselves more clearly now,” the author explains.

“David Milgaard, William Mullins-Johnson, Anthony Hanemaayer, Steven Truscott, Kyle Unger, Romeo Philion, Guy Paul Morin — a tragic litany of wrongful convictions plague the Canadian justice system, men falsely accused of murder and caged for decades for crimes they did not commit. Their faces form a dire and haunting portrait of a legal system fraught with injustice, bias, and all-too-human error. We sit equally transfixed and paralyzed by their nightmarish tales of agony and salvation. The nation’s news cameras focus on these exonerated men but only by widening the lens to include Peter Wheeler does a clearer picture emerge. More than a century on, it appears we are none the wiser when it comes to understanding how wrongful convictions occur.”

Along the way, in pursuit of understanding how Peter Wheeler was sentenced to death for this crime despite solid evidence of his innocence, many subjects of historical relevance are explored.

Debra Komar considers the practices of newspaper reporters (the ways in which a thirst for salacious detail overrode traditional constraints), policing and the crime fighting ethos (with an emphasis on prevention and collaring drunks), the synchronicity of this crime’s proximity to the London papers’ reporting of Jack the Ripper’s exploits (which influenced the aforementioned members of the community and the community-at-large) and the question of forensic science in regards to this case.

About 50 pages into the work, the proverbial tide turns against Peter Wheeler. A teenage girl’s testimony raises doubts as to the veracity of Peter Wheeler’s original statement. Debra Komar’s description of the scene serves as an example of the way in which she infuses trial transcripts with personality and emotion.

“The Morine girl swore Annie never asked her to stay that evening or any other. Under questioning, Grace was defiant, wielding all the petulance and indignation afforded a teenage girl accused of something she did not do.”

The author blatantly addresses the racism which also fuelled the fire lit beneath Peter Wheeler.

“In 1896 Canada was unfathomably, unrecognizably racist. The country, a mere twenty-eight years old, had already weathered a turbulent and troubled history. During their formative years, the Maritime provinces had witnessed the expulsion of the Acadians and the systematic denigration of its First Nations peoples. Many had known slavery to be legal in their lifetime. Halifax, the region’s capital and one of the principal gateways to the New World, funnelled an endless stream of cultures, creeds, and languages through its port and expelled them into the less than welcoming arms of those eking out a living in the lands and waters beyond. Clashes verging on race wars were inevitable.”

Her background in forensics provides useful information. For instance, readers learn that the techniques used to determine time of death in 1896 are based in the same three principles today, which are known as the Mortis sisters: Algor Mortis, Livor Mortis, and Rigor Mortis (temperature, lividity, and muscle rigidity).  She also explains that the “potential of fingerprints in criminal investigations was widely recognized but poorly understood” as another factor which contributed to the unjust prosecution of Peter Wheeler.

And, perhaps most impressively, based on the transcripts and testimony, she re-constructs a timeline which was deliberately presented in such a disorderly fashion as to obscure the fact that much evidence was provided to vindicate Peter Wheeler of this charge.

The narrative is interspersed with a number of illustrations including hand-drawn maps provided to the coroner during inquest, archival photos of Bear River, and artists’ renderings of participants in the trial. It is followed with twenty pages of references in the endnotes, predominantly newspaper articles with frequent nods to the trial transcripts.

Although The Lynching of Peter Wheeler could have been written in a dry, officious tone based on the documentary evidence, Debra Komar presents her findings in a consistently engaging style. History lovers and readers of crime fiction are both likely to be satisfied with the results.

Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings (2014)

Like his first novel, Touch, The Lobster Kings showcases Alexi Zentner’s penchant for storytelling.

Knopf Canada, 2014

Knopf Canada, 2014

Readers who learn that this novel is a retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy “King Lear” might expect the tale to distance readers, with the original story centuries old and memories of stilted readings in school or black-and-white films working against its relevance.

There is perhaps a sense of out-of-time-ness for the story, the setting a small fishing village, its island setting further removing the events from the recognizable for contemporary urban readers. Nonetheless, although the setting is a vitally important element of the story, vividly drawn and sensorily rich, the themes transfer readily to this modern retelling.

The territories of fishers in a world which has recognized too late the value of sustainable food production make a thriving conflict not only credible but inevitable.

“‘’What do you think, Cordelia?’ he said as he hauled open the door of the diner. He paused, glancing in the diner to make sure everybody was paying attention, and then looked back at Rena and me, his voice loud enough to carry both inside and out. ‘We’ll encourage the James Harbor boys to get out of our waters, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll go to war.’’”

The storyteller’s voice is assured and the device openly acknowledged, which adds a playful tone to the work, this modern Cordelia an updated version of the character insisting on her rightful place on the boat.

“Cordelia. Straight out of Shakespeare, and god thank my mother for exerting at least a small amount of restraint on Daddy for the rest of the children. Cordelia. The name was my father’s idea of a joke. We were the Kings, and so he’d give me the name of the king’s favourite daughter, the one banished but true. When I finally read the play, my junior year in high school, I went up to my father in a huff, pointing out that the play ended with me dead.”

The Kings family is haunted by loss. The backdrop of tragedy echoes Shakespeare’s story delicately but deliberately. Brumfitt Kings’ paintings bring that off-the-page so convincingly that readers will be inclined to look up the works online.

“The series probably wouldn’t have been considered so important if the dates and the events hadn’t lined up so neatly with Brumfitt’s own life: his oldest son died at the age of ten, in December of 1739, his boat overturned in a storm, his body broken against the rocks. The first Kings boy taken by the sea.”

(In the same way that I, as a young girl, longed for my favourite storybooks to be made into films – before I realized that that would only be satisfied if I was making the film based on my own interpretation of the story – I long to see Brumfitt Kings’ paintings on canvas. I, like the tourists in the novel, would travel to Loosewood Island to see the vantage points depicted in the artworks I would have found in galleries around the world; I would dream of discovering a treasure chest with his lost works inside.)

The novel is told from Cordelia’s vantage point. Although unflaggingly loyal to her father, she is not quite the blindly devoted daughter of Shakespeare’s play; an experience in Cordelia King’s younger years has allowed her to view her father not only as her father but as a man stressed and strained by the demands of life. (This scene of her realization haunts me still.) This perspective on his humanity affords her a degree of objectivity which allows her to be as dutiful as her namesake without crossing the line into too-good-to-be-true.

This kind of subtle machination is what makes the mythic elements of the novel work so well too. In some respects this is simply elemental. It is not a stretch, for instance, for readers to accept that a fishing family would have an almost sacred connection to the water.

“I like to think of it as something else, something mythical and primal, like the sea just pulls at me and will never let me go. We’re connected to the earth and the earth is connected to the sea, and once you’ve had a taste of the ocean—if you’re a true child of the ocean—nothing can keep you away.”

But Alexi Zentner takes readers across a line, affords them the opportunity to imagine beyond the ordinary. These instances have a sensory basis – characters are generally practical, sometime even scientifically-minded – but they contain possibilities.

“My favourite picture of Brumfitt’s wife is probably Marriage Bed. It’s dated from the first year of their marriage. Brumfitt’s wife’s hair is splayed down her naked back, the sheets billowing and creased around her lower body, leaving an amorphous shape below her waist that Daddy thinks looks like a mermaid’s tail. I’m not sure that I agree with Daddy, but there is something else in the picture that makes me think of the selkie myth instead: pushed partially under the table is a stool, and on the stool is what appears to be a coat made of sealskin. Maybe Brumfitt stole her skin, but loved her enough to offer it back. And maybe she loved him enough that she didn’t take it up, loved him enough that she refused the gift of her skin returned, loved him enough that she let him keep her skin, let him keep her bound to Loosewood Island, bound to Brumfitt Kings.”

The extraordinary is invited to take its place in the tableau, perhaps not in the foreground (the skin is on a stool, pushed partially under the table) but alongside the everyday.

What is most remarkable about this novel is the balance between its moving parts; the setting, the characterization (not only of Cordelia but the supporting cast as well), and the story (divided into five parts just as “King Lear” was written in five acts, but feeling all-of-a-piece) are consistently well-drawn. What makes it succeed as a whole is the confidence and style of the storyteller’s voice.

The Lobster Kings is a tremendously satisfying read, which will particularly please readers who enjoy retellings (Jane Smiley’s Thousand Acres and Priscila Uppal’s To Whom it May Concern, among others) but it is a novel worthy of being read in its own right: a tale of Kings.

IFOASmallBadgeAlexi Zentner will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.

This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.

Next Wednesday, thoughts on another IFOA2014 author.

September 2014, In My Stacks

Have you got it marked in your calendar? Diversiverse runs September 14 to September 27, 2014. The sign-up post is here. It’s not too late!

Diversiverse2014Looking for some ideas?

I’ve enjoyed these recently: Tamai Kobayashi’s Prairie Ostrich (2014) , Shani Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab (2014), Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao (2014), Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk (2014), Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer (2014), jordan abel’s the place of scraps (2014), Alice Walker’s The Cushion in the Road (2014), and Mark Sakamoto’s Forgiveness (2014)

In my stack, I’m aiming to fill some of the final squares in my reading bingo while playing along.

N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms would count for the Sequel square. Toni Morrison’s Beloved would fill the Made Into a Movie square. Ann Petry’s The Street is a forgotten classic. Lawrence Hill’s Any Known Blood is a story rooted in history. The others, the Gloria Naylor books and Louise Meriwether’s Daddy Was a Number Runner, have been on my shelves for ages and ages.

And what about the rest of September?

Pictured below: Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters, Laird Hunt’s Neverhome, Hannah Pittard’s Reunion, Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On (which implies The Great Gatsby), Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Edmund Metatawabin’s Up Ghost River, Nick Cutter’s The Deep, Jeffery Deaver’s The Skin Collector, Kim Thuy’s Man, Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief, Michael Crummey’s Sweetland, Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm.

Diversiverse 2014Am I really doing any better with my addiction to starting to read series (which then languish untouched or, at least, unfinished)? No. I am starting just as many but, it’s true, that I am more often reading on in short order. (Witness my devotion to the Bern Fortin books.) But I have only read on in three series which I didn’t also begin reading this year: the Time Quintet books and two children’s series (Yotsuba&! and Courtney Crumrin).

Many Waters interests me because it turns the lens to Sandy and Dennys, but I miss Meg and Fortinbras. Maybe I am just meant to reread Wrinkle repeatedly.
Laird Hunt’s novel makes me think of C.S. Richardson’s The Emperor of Paris and David Bergen’s The Age of Hope, books you want to just sink into, read in a single sitting.

Hannah Pittard’s style reminds me of Polly Dugan’s So Much a Part of You and Elise Juska’s The Blessings. Readable and smart.

Did you, like me, manage to avoid reading The Great Gatsby in school? Listening to the WBC podcast on it helped to increase my interest, but what was that whole story about Zelda writing a good bit of his stuff and F.Scott not ‘fessing up? That really put me off. Is that unfair, or untrue? In any case, my Gatsby-less days are numbered.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing landed on my stack when it landed on the Orange Prize list. (Yes, yes: the Bailey’s Prize.) It impressed me, but I put it aside after Part One; I just wasn’t in the right mood. I’m ready now. Has that happened to you lately?

Edmund Metatawabin’s Up Ghost River is going to be one of those reads which should be parsed out. I’m reading a chapter a day every couple of days.

It might take me most of September to work up the nerve for Nick Cutter’s The Deep. Thinking about The Troop still makes me squirm. That’s a good thing. Really.

Jeffery Deaver’s The Skin Collector took me back to the first in the Lincoln Rhyme series, The Bone Collector. It was a rough read but I grew attached to the character and am curious to see where the eleventh book finds him. (Do you read series out of order? I rarely do. This feels very adventurous.)

September Stacks 2014Everyone seemed to love Ru more than I did, but I am really looking forward to her follow-up novel in translation by Sheila Fischman. Perhaps, as with Neverhome, it will be a single-sitting read. Any guesses as to whether this will appear on the season’s upcoming prizelists?

Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief was recommended by Maureen Corrigan in the NPR podcast, with Max Brooks’ and Canaan White’s The Harlem Hellfighters (which was utterly fantastic and should be on school curricula for mature students everywhere). How often does a book reviewed on radio catch your attention?

Sweetland. This is going to be one of those gushing posts. I just love this book. I never want it to end. And, yet, I know he is going to end it brilliantly, so I want to see that happen too. Have you read Michael Crummey before?

Plunging into Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm on the heels of The Cuckoo’s Calling might not have been the smartest plan. (But witness my start-and-finish-series oath. See, I’m not failing all over the place. Only in isolated areas.) I liked the first book, but I’ve heard this one is even better. What do you think?

What does your stack look like these days?

Are you expecting to read a lot this month, or will it be a challenge to squeeze in the books?

s there something in particular you are enjoying right now or anticipating?



Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows (2014)

Excerpt from Reading Journal:

Knopf Canada, 2014

Last night I finished reading All My Puny Sorrows, and when I woke up this morning, I was weeping.

This doesn’t reveal how the book ended, because I read more than half of it last night, half-skimming the first half that I’d read on in other sittings. The story is simmered in sadness. Two sisters: one of whom no longer wants to live, the other who does not want her to die.

I knew, if I didn’t finish reading it in one go, I might not return. It might be the perfect book to read to allow one to cozy up to a personal sadness, while reading about Elfrieda (Elf) and Yolandi (Yoli), butI need to keep sadness at arm’s length right now and, yet, I wanted to read this before it made appearances on various prizelists.

There are definitely similarities with other novels that Miriam Toews has written. I could imagine this passage pulled from The Summer of My Amazing Luck.

“We Poor Cousins don’t care at all though, except for when we’re on welfare, broke, starving, unable to buy cool high-tops for our children or pay for their university tuition or purchase massive fourth homes on private islands with helicopter landing pads. But whatever, we descendants of the Girl Line may not have wealth and proper windows in our drafty homes but at least we have rage and we will build empires with that, gentlemen.”

And this fits with A Complicated Kindness:

“I’d like for us all, my mother, my sister, my kids, Nic, Julie, her kids—even Dan and Finbar and Radek—to live in a tiny isolated community in a remote part of the world where all we have to look at is each other and we are only ever a few metres apart. It would be like an old Mennonite community in Siberia but with happiness.”

And I suppose there was sadness there, too. When I loaned A Complicated Kindness to [a co-worker], she said she didn’t think it was funny at all. It was just painful, she said. And that’s true, I suppose. But Miriam Toews writes about pain and sorrow beautifully.

She doesn’t often rely upon metaphor but, when she does, it strikes home:

“…Elfrieda is so thin, her face so pale, that when she opens her eyes it is like a surprise attack, like one of those air raids that turns night to day.”

And, yet, there is something playful and dynamic about her prose. (“Public enemy number one for these men was a girl with a book.”) Even in All My Puny Sorrows, whose subject matter warns readers to look elsewhere for grandiose joys. (“Wild was the worst thing you could become in a community rigged for compliance.”)

She clearly recognized the challenge from the start. And helpfully shares the advice she likely aimed to follow:

“Plus, it’s hard to write, right? You want to go in, get the job done, and get out. Like when I worked for Renee’s septic tank cleaning. I considered this and realized that it was the best writing advice I’d received in years. In all my life.”

But is this necessarily advice which works for readers?

“It depends where you want to leave your audience, happy and content, innocent again, like babies, or wild and restless and yearning for something they’ve barely known. Both are good.”

As much as All My Puny Sorrows is about both death and life, it is not a story which can leave readers innocent again. Which, I suppose, means we are left with ‘wild’ and ‘restless’ and ‘yearning’.

Or perhaps the goal is something else. Perhaps we are meant to follow the mother’s advice delivered to the child who didn’t like camping: “…well, honey, it’s meant to alter our perception of things.”

All My Puny Sorrows altered my perception. It made me want to bring my sadnesses closer to see if I can’t just go in, get the job done, and get out. And it did make me cry and cry and cry, both in and out of consciousness. But that’s not all.

If writing a novel like All My Puny Sorrows can heal the storyteller, perhaps it can help readers to heal as well.

IFOASmallBadgeMiriam Toews will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.

This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.

Next Wednesday, thoughts on Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings.


Tamai Kobayashi’s Prairie Ostrich (2014)

You might be tempted to call eight-year-old Egg Murakami enchanting or winsome. Even plucky or spirited.

Goose Lane Editions, 2014

Goose Lane Editions, 2014

Each of these terms does reflect Egg in some sense. But such descriptions suggest something young-Oprah-heroine-esque about her.

Egg’s character is too fully rounded to simply select the glossy, desirable qualities. (Rounded or ovalled? Sorry.)

And this coming-of-age story has some dark elements, which would strain even the most spirited heroine.

Readers have to piece some of that together independently, because while Egg recognizes the different life-stages and struggles that family members inhabit, her observations are rooted in the ways in which these distinctions affect Egg, rather than the person’s broader reality.

But even at eight, Egg intuits some truths about older people, particularly her sister, with a startling clarity.

“Kathy is seventeen, as if she knows everything. She’d bust out of herself if she could, bust out and leave everyone behind.”

And Egg is coping with her grief in her own way, just as confined and restricted. “Albert will never be with them. He has been dead for three months, two weeks, and five days — such a long, long time. Now they are all broken apart and Mama’s lost and drifting and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will never be able to put them back together again.”

Like Madeleine in Ann-Marie Macdonald’s The Way the Crow Flies and Jane Finlay-Young’s From Bruised Fell, Egg views the world in a fresh and invigorating way. Readers are invited into her imagination and quickly become immersed in her perspective.

“The stone ridge stretches out at the beginning of the flats; the jutting rocks bleached white by a relentless sun. Riding at the back of the creaking school bus, Egg imagines the backbone of some long-dead creature. Here be dragons. This is dinosaur country after all. Egg loves the sweep of the prairie fields, that receding tide of grasslands, sculpted outcrops, the mysterious sentinels of the stone erratics. The sky, ever changing and eternal, is a boundless blue. Another ocean, Egg thinks. She likes the words azure, aquamarine.”

There, Alberta, covered by a sky-ocean, with other beautiful ‘a’ words. For Egg loves words. Their power and the possibilities they reflect in stories.

“In an adventure tale, you can be a Hero or a Damsel Fair. But not both. Girls are never heroes. In an adventure story, someone is saved. The dragon is slain. The moral is that good triumphs over evil, just like in real life.”

Tamai Kobayashi’s prose style presents Egg’s voice in a perfectly calibrated collision of innocence and imagination. But perhaps the most memorable aspects of Prairie Ostrich are the bits of brightness that provoke a smile. There are moments in which humour eclipses some painful realities.

“Kathy says Bittercreek is so small you could spit from one end to the other and flat enough you could watch your dog run away for a week.”

Egg is an outsider, and she understands that Kathy feels a desire to run, as much as any dog, away from something as much as towards something else.

“They are the only Japanese-Canadian family on the prairie, except for the mushroom farm way out in Nanton. Lethbridge is so far away, it doesn’t even count, even if they do have the Japanese Garden.”

But at eight years old, Egg has to work with what’s right in front of her. She finds solace in relationships, with books and select creatures.

“School is books too, the best Dictionary of all and Evangeline Granger in the library. A once upon a time and a happily ever after.”

And she finds chaos, too.

“You make up a story to make sense of the world. But what if the world doesn’t make sense?”

Prairie Ostrich is a slim volume, but Egg swells beyond the page, and Tamai Kobayashi’s debut novel shakes its tailfeathers across the Canlit scene with poise and panache.

August 2014, In My Reading Log

Although I always have a small stack of books underway, I have carried to extremes this act of multi-booking this summer.

Yesterday I finished Michael Crummey’s new novel (Sweetland), Alison Wearing’s memoir (Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter), Jan Zwicky’s poetry collection, the second volume in the Fruits Basket manga series, and Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel Level Up (artwork by Thien Pham).

Maybe that sounds impresssive. Or impossible.

But I’d been reading all of them for a couple of weeks (and parcelling out Wearing’s work for even longer), a few pages or chapters here and there, and then, bam, the final pages.

Some of these will have full-length reviews in the weeks to come but for now, here are some thoughts about other recent discoveries:

  • Guillaume Morissette’s New Tab (2014)

    Vehicule Press, 2014

    Vehicule Press, 2014

  • Eufemia Fantetti’s A Recipe for Disaster and Other Unlikely Tales of Love (2013)
  • Mark Sakamoto’s Forgiveness (2014)
  • Alice Walker’s The Road Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers (2013)

Guillaume Morissette’s New Tab (2014)
If you are the kind of reader who annoys friends, possibly even strangers sitting nearby, by reading out passages from the book you have in your hands, with all the clever bit and fascinating observations that you simply must share, maybe you should avoid this book. Even if you think you are not that kind of reader, New Tab will probably turn you into that kind of reader. \

Relationships between roommates are not as orderly or predictable as opening up a new tab; replacing Dan is not as simple as closing an old tab, and interactions with Ines, Cristian, Brent and Pierre are suitably challenging as expectations are stressed and strained. Neither work nor romance are turning out as well as hoped, but dissatisfaction on those fronts can’t be resolved by closing down those connections either.

As a meditation on disconnect, there is not as much focus on traditional character development and story as there is, say, in Arjun Basu’s Waiting for the Man (which also considers the disconnect in our tab-filled existences), but there are so many laugh-out-loud and nodding-in-understanding moments, that one hardly notices.

Recipe Disaster Fantetti

Mother Tongue, 2013

Eufemia Fantetti’s A Recipe for Disaster and Other Unlikely Tales of Love (Mother Tongue, 2013)
“I stare at him, sitting across from me, still wearing his barbeque apron. He wears it every time he cooks, and each time I see it, I think, this must be what it feels like to lose an erection.”

These six stories pull readers through dramatic highs and lows in emotions, so in one instant a hand is covering one’s mouth in startling laughter and, in the next, the same hand works to hide a grimace. The prose is spare, the dialogue fragmented and realistic. Paragraphs are constructed with orderly sentences, clauses erupting to maximum effect on occasion, the contrast calling attention to important realizations and observations, or effective shorthand to characterization. Design-wise, the volume is striking, from its cover photograph and paradoxical pink-ness to the sketches of kitchen utensils. Oh, so domestic. Not.

Contents: A Recipe for Disaster, Sweets, Punch Drunk, Loss of Appetite, The Hunger, The Bread of Life

Sakamoto Forgiveness

HarperCollins, 2014

Mark Sakamoto’s Forgiveness (2014)
“Canadians arrived completely unprepared for the brutality of the situation. Hastings was worse than any rumour that had been conjured up. Not in their wildest dreams had Japanese Canadians thought they’d be locked up in cattle stalls among lice and manure. These were people: moms and dads and kids and grandparents. They had done nothing wrong. Their lives had been stolen. Everything was gone and there they sat in cattle stalls. Their sole crime being Japanese.”

Composed within the context of great love and admiration for his grandparents, Ralph MacLean and Mitsue Sakamoto, Forgiveness does not offer readers a multi-dimensional perspective of these individuals and their experiences; the prose is generous with emotion, description, and nostalgia, and readers are constantly aware just how personal this story is.

This is not a scholarly work, but these stories do have a broader historical significance, for instance, in the context of his grandfather’s experience as a Canadian in the Japanese POW camps in WWII and his grandmother’s experience as a Canadian in the Canadian government’s internment camps for Japanese-Canadian citizens in Canada in WWII.

All readers can understand the importance of knowing one’s ancestral stories, both as an homage and an act of gratitude. Forgiveness is necessary, not only to bridge gaps between individuals (Ralph MacLean and Mitsue Sakamoto appeared to be on opposing sides  in wartime), but between wider groups too, in order to heal the wounds of the past.

A sensitively told memoir like Mark Sakamoto’s might begin as a personal tale, but it resonates beyond the pages of the family scrapbook and reminds readers that forgiveness is only possible when history is remembered and acknowledged and allowed to serve as foundation for new beginnings.

World Follow Joy Walker

New Dial Press, 2013

Alice Walker’s The Road Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers (2013)
Written between October 2009 and August 2011, these poems range from personal verses (written for friends on their birthdays) to public calls to action.

Always accessible, Alice Walker writes with purpose and steadfast belief in the artist’s responsibility to engage with the world, to provoke thought and discussion and response.

Whether writing about an encounter with a gecko in her backyard (one of my favourites) or exploring new possibilities for the world (for instance, Democratic Motherism), readers who have enjoyed Alice Walker’s earlier works will appreciate this collection immensely.

Any of these in your stacks?

What stands out about your reading in August?

What are you looking forward to reading next? 

Shani Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab (2014)

Shani Mootoo sidles up to her story.

Moving Forward Sideways Mootoo

Random House Canada, 2014

A novel like Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao is more openly preoccupied with questions of grief and loss.

One like Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts explores family relationships and the passage of time in a familiar then/now rhythm.

In Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, Jonathan wanders through his memories of Sid, Sid’s own writing, and settles only temporarily in Sid’s environs, all as a means of grappling with mortality, a means of naming his discovery, of rooting his rediscovery.

Directionally speaking, Jonathan is a little all-over-the-place, which suits someone faced with a lot of changes all-at-once. It’s the kind of situation which invites excessive hyphenation and other extremes. And, yet, the novel’s style is neither verbose nor chaotic.

Links between narrative segments are drawn subtly and epiphanies are quiet, sometimes playing out underwater, allowing sensation to be simultaneously more subdued and more acute.

Take this childhood memory of Sid’s, shared with readers almost immediately:

“Zain was quiet for a while. Then, as she slid into the water, she said, ‘That’s a shame, because there isn’t anything crazy about you.’ She swam off and dipped under the water. Up came her feet, toes pointed at the sky. She stayed like that for a good minute.”

A hundred pages later, readers have this passage:

“What might I have become had I not left? Was remaining in Canada an act of courage or was it timidity? I certainly didn’t feel like a returning champ in front of my parents. I slid into the warm water. Keeping my eyes open, I dived under and splayed my hands on the concrete at the bottom. I thrust my feet up, pointing my toes to the sky.”

Zain’s toes and Sid’s toes: both point to the sky, but there is no additional elucidation provided for readers; perhaps the scenes will layer for readers and illuminate a parallel, but maybe the details will slip past.

What is impossible to overlook, however, and accessible to readers whether or not they can perform handstands, is the broader theme of subverting expectations. Jonathan’s journey requires that he face the about-turn in his own identity, as he undertakes to become reacquainted with Sidney, who lived as a woman with Jonathan’s mother in Toronto but now lives as a man in Trinidad.

“All I learned about women and about men, including what I had learned as a child parented by two women, seemed now to be a lie. A wave of nausea crashed through me. I felt myself falling, and the tungsten lighting on the veranda dimmed.”

And, yet, as dramatic as this aspect of the story seems, Jonathan does not attempt to deal with it straight-on but seems to edge up to it, and though occasionally overwhelmed emotionally, he persists, staid and determined.

“As I remembered Sydney’s voice telling me this, I saw that, over time, I had become used to the switches in Sydney’s pronouns when he talked in this ironic manner about himself. Moreover, I had myself learned to be quick and creative in concocting sentence structures – often, I thought now, humorously complex structures – so as to avoid using pronouns when I spoke of his past as Sid.”

This is not a novel rooted in voice, however, unlike Shani Mootoo’s highly acclaimed Cereus Blooms at Night.

Instead, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab is rooted in the process of shifting and evolving understanding and Jonathan lacks the confidence to stake a solid claim on the page that readers of Shani Mootoo’s earlier works might expect.

This is as it should be for a character who is tentatively reaching out to secure connections which have been broken.

Jonathan is a writer, one skilled at adopting the perspectives of others, but that depends upon a certain solidity in his own connection to the world. With his changing perspective on his past, he is not able to write in the same way, neither to write the stories of others nor to write his own.

“Sid, I thought, could tell them stories about me.”

Zain rewrites, edits and revises. He reads, reconsiders and revisions. He moves forward sideways, gradually coming to accept a certain amount of mystery. Tales of transformation are seldom linear, always wondrous, and require space to unwind.

Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab shifts through past and present, Toronto and Trinidad, and love and loss delicately, stead-fastly.

IFOASmallBadgeShani Mootoo will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.

This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.

Next Wednesday, thoughts on Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows.

Jonathan Bennett’s The Colonial Hotel (2014)

Readers might expect a retelling of the ancient Greek tale of Paris and Helen to be a bulky, wordy novel as useful for propping up a window on a hot summer day as for entertainment; but Jonatham Bennett’s contemporary version of the story is a slim, polished novel that one would need to lie flat to allow only a finger’s worth of breeze into the room.

Colonial Hotel BennettThe tone is deliberately sweeping and the language determinedly precise in this story of two lovers in an unnamed colonized country who are employed as aid workers in wartime.

“The newspapers from each of these countries, when published in English, bled together over time to read as one bleak story, one political struggle, one act of poverty. They weren’t of course. They all differed, in ways major and minor.”

Readers are meant to reach past the specifics, to something broader and far-reaching, well, mythic. Indeed, quotes from Ovid, H.D. and Tennyson provide the epigraphs to the work’s three parts.

“My child, these are the same ancient songs I’ve passed on to you. They are a part of this story. They are your story, they are part of everyone’s story who is from this country, whether from the South or the North.”

But for those who are familiar with The Iliad and other versions of this tale, undoubtedly pleasures await in the process of comparing and contrasting retellings.

(Readers of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad,  Richard Powers’ Orfeo, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s All the Broken Things, and Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles will be familiar with the breadth of possibilities that exist for award-winning novelists in revisiting ancient tales.)

Even for those who are relatively unfamiliar, Jonathan Bennett’s work invites them into the foundation story as well, with the most well-known references to the original being recast just slightly to afford even the allusion-challenged to enjoy the interconnections.

“This story is the oldest story in the world, the one that launches a thousand dark dreams.”

However, readers who have read or reread the original source text will particularly appreciate the variety of perspectives offered on the old tales, in terms of affording “minor” characters a voice in this retelling. Some of these passages seem as though they could be lifted from a wholly contemporary tale.

“Priam was a dedicated family man. I can tell you, as we worked late into the night in the lead-up to a budget or whatever else was the pressing issue for the government of the day, Priam always ducked away for an hour. Got to tuck in my son, he’d say. He was not asking for permission the way some might. He knew where his priorities lay. Of course his son Paris is now a grown man and a notable physician working on the starkest front lines of delivering health care to our world’s most vulnerable populations in deplorable conditions. I spoke to Priam as recently as a month ago, and it was of Paris, and your important work, doctor, that he talked about most. There was never a prouder father of a son.”

Even more broadly, all readers will respond to the homage paid to storytelling in the most general way. This is what makes us human and, of course, what speaks directly to us as readers.

“I will tell it often, and in many different ways, until it becomes a part of you. This is the mother’s way of telling stories. This way is more permanent than writing, which may be lost or sold, or burned by others. This way will make sure that the story is in you, lives as you live. If you choose, you may change it as you like. You may give it away.”

There is a consistent emphasis on connection, not only between people and between places but also between the storyteller and readers who, it is hoped, will find resonance with these familiar themes in the space afforded by the storyteller’s broad strokes of story.

“In the end, if we are each able to find home in some way, a connection to place and country and another person who would die for you and for whom you would die, then that is more than can be hoped for from life.”

This is not necessarily about an intense emotional connection that is felt immediately and intimately, but across time and somewhat removed. “We would be each other’s home.” These kind of statements are sweeping and epic, but they are not intended to intensify readers’ attachments to individual characters.

Readers do not feel this, from either party’s perspective, but they are required to participate in creating that sensation, whether through memory or imagination.

Passive readers need not apply. But readers who appreciate the sense of an ancient and enduring tale will want to check-in to The Colonial Hotel.