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! Including what’s currently in my stacks and what I’m reading with this year’s reading about writing.

Historical fiction? Michelle Butler Hallett’s This Marlowe. Families unravelling? Catherine Cooper’s White Elephant. Fiction unravelling? Malcolm Sutton’s Job Shadowing. Cookbooks? Gwyneth Paltrow’s It’s All Easy. Mystery? Susan Philpott’s Blown Red. History: James Laxer’s Staking Claims to a Continent.

Casting a spell on girlhood: Joni Murphy’s Double Teenage. Mining it for laughs: Jessi Klein’s You’ll Grow Out of It. Just trying to survive it: Karen Molson’s The Company of Crows. Adding a splash of scent: Lisa Moore’s Flannery. With fruit-filling: Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards.

There’s talk of backlisted fiction too, like Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe and Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl. On that score, I’m currently reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Jean Rhys’ Good Morning Midnight, George Elliott Clarke’s George & Rue and Robert Wiersema’s Walk Like a Man.

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!)

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Hodgepodge of Irish Bookishness

There’s some Irish in me and some on my bookshelves, too, but this March, with Reading Ireland hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and memories of reading Irish short stories with Mel at The Reading Life, I went for a library browse to add to the volumes I’d pulled from my shelves.

reading-ireland-month_2017The first plucked were Kate O’Brien’s Not Without My CloakAnakana Schofield’s Malarky and Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies. Then, on a hunt for an old favourite, in the back rows on the shelves of children’s books, I discovered Patricia Lynch’s The Bookshop on the Quay.

This mix pleased me from the start – a classic, and two wildly different contemporary novels, along with a children’s story – together with a story anthology and some illustrated volumes from the library.

Kate O’Brien’s family saga spans from 1789 to 1877 in the Considine family, primarily set in the town of Mellick, on the banks of a river with the Bearnagh hills to the west. Although really Denis’ story, the women in the family are significant, too, often torn between personal desires and public expectations. (Were they more daring and spirited, Kate O’Brien’s heroines might have had small roles in novels like Elizabeth Taylor’s, but these women are more traditional, but with an air of sadness better suited to Edith Wharton’s heroines.)

With this event in mind, however, I was looking for Ireland on the page. In Mellick, we have “the crumbling Old Town that looked so gently beautiful at evening; grey, sad, and tender, huddled on humpy bridges about canals and twisting streams”.

Then, there is the surounding landscape: “His eyes were on the hills beyond the river, hills where he had trudged so often and whose colours and lines he had learned by heart in his three years in Mellick.”

There’s even a brief peek at Dublin: “‘It’ll all be the same in a hundred years,’ is Grafton Street’s motto, and if, say, twice in every hundred years she had to be emphatic about this, Irishmen being the noisy lunatics they are, she is never perturbed, for she keeps on finding that men and women remain the same, with life’s seduction just as sweet to them, however the years receded with their fashions and fanaticisms.”

Anakana Scholfield’s Malarky is preoccupied with the internal landscape, populated by a grieving woman. Mind you, the voice is unmistakably Irish, and there are references to Dublin but the ground trod upon is psychological.

“As a matter of fact I had had enough of this grief conselling.
As a matter of fact I’d had enough of Grief herself.
As a matter of fact there are a hundred people I would rather talk to.
As a matter of fact.”

Our Woman’s voice is inescapable, relentless and enticing. (I’m only halfway.)

Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies won the Women’s Prize for Fiction Award in 2016 (sponsored by Bailey’s that year).

Like Anakana Scholfield, Lisa McInerney pries out the humour in painful circumstances. The prose, here, is more dense, and the setting more deliberate and concrete (Cork). But, once more, the emphasis in on the internal setting.

“It had been a season of extremes. The sun, when it shined, crisped everything it caught, but it never appeared except in a bruise of cumulus clouds. Showers kept the children indoors. The air was thick with fuming wasps.”

The outdoors reflects the tenuous and vulnerable emotional terrain. (Again, I’m only halfway.)

Irish fairy talesPatricia Lynch’s The Bookshop on the Quay is a story which should be served with tea and soda bread slathered with farmers’ butter.

“‘Am I the kind of chap would stay in Waterford when the road to Dublin lies open before me? The road, a herd of the best bullocks from the Golden Vale, and a couple of lads who can sing a song, or tell a story with the best shanachie from West Cork!”

Even so, my favourite scenes are not in the Irish countryside, but in the bookshop, which has a copy of Gulliver’s Travels in the window (unless one of the children takes it to bed with them) and a devoted staff which reads more often than it dusts.

Just as I was reading from my own shelves, however, pointedly. I began to recognize some glimmers of Irishness which snuck in, including a biography of James Joyce in Javiar Mariás’ Written Lives.

He was no Joyce fan for, even as a young man, he was “already rather pompous and full of himself, concerned only with what he would write and with his early (and perennial) hatred of Ireland and the Irish”.

Nonetheless, it was fun to find his biography in these pages. (Just as I excused my binge-viewing of “The Fall” in conjunction with Reading Ireland!)

Even the remarks made in Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna stories, particularly about Adeline’s father, also fit with the theme: “Ah, what beautiful manners has my father! The courtesy, the amiability of an Irish gentleman! ’Tis my regret that he does not live nearby for a constant example to you.” (The young Whiteoaks are hardly examples of good behaviour, but it’s debatable whether Renny Court was really all that either!)

From the library, for atmosphere, there was Peter Harbison and Leslie Conron Carola’s Ireland: a Luminous Beauty. Originally I had hoped to find photographs which corresponded directly to the books I was reading, but I ended up enjoying the book on its own terms, reading through and especially enjoying the photos of early sacred sites and seascapes.

Also for atmosphere, Robert O’Byrne’s Romantic Irish Homes (Photography by Simon Brown). Mind you, there are a lot of pictures of books in here, too. But there is plenty of atmosphere here even without the bookishness. Here, I enjoyed the idea of choosing a particular nook in a photograph in which to imagine reading a particular Irish story. (Yes, there was even an imagined perch for reading Malarky, but that was harder to choose.)

For context, Ireland: The Autobiogaphy (edited by John Bowman) which begins with a conteporary account of the Easter Rebellion and ends with a centenary reflection upon the rebellion. Most of the pieces are only a couple of pages long and work to create a scene vividly and experientially. It’s a fine beginning for any Irish reading project.

Irish Short Stories EnrightAnd, for stories. But also because it has a lovely green ribbon for a bookmark: Celtic Tales: Fairy Tales and Stories of Enchantment from Ireland, Scotland, Brittany and Wales (Illustrated Kate Forrester). “The Clumsy Beauty and Her Aunts”, a trickster tale in which a girl is “beautiful as a spring day” but too clumsy to be a good weaver (which is just fine, as it turns out). “The Soul Cages” a sea story about a young fisherman who yearns to hang out with a merrow and discovers the unexpected beneath the waves.

Plus, three short stories in The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, edited by Anne Enright.

I selected three new-to-me writers beginning with Philip Ó Ceallaigh’s “Walking Away”. Perhaps it’s just me, but Anne Enright’s fiction seems sorrow-soaked to me, and this story fit right in as a portrait of grief. “He felt like holding something solid and imperfect, pulling himself back to earth from those sleepwalking days.” Although its clarity and starkness is almost overwhelming, in the end “he was feeling something strong, and his mind beginning to awaken”.

This awakening also shows itself in Hugo Hamilton’s “The Supremacy of Grief”. “Nobody knows when the real grief sets in. Nobody knows what a man alone in his grief might do. They had no children and it was considered better or safer for him to be in company for a while longer.” The “heavy sediment” of grief shifts and suddenly readers are asking a different question “Nobody knows the difference between a dead man and a man who wants to play dead.”

Gerard Donovan’s “Visit” considers a different kind of grief, when a man takes his mother out from the nursing home. “At a certain age and when the cities of the body no longer accept emissaries and require advance notice for anything, movement becomes a ritual like a king’s procession, it builds into ceremonies of delay, whether to the bathroom or to the window, both of which are thousands of miles away.”  It sounds sombre, but it ends with a certain slant of light.

How about you? Were you Reading Ireland in March? Or March and April?! Which of these books do you think you might like to include if you were reading on this theme?

Mavis Gallant’s “The Deceptions of Marie-Blanche”

If the story were titled “Les Deceptions de Marie-Blanche”, it might be translated as “The Disappointments of Marie-Blanche”: an apt choice.

SanFran Earthquake Gallant

San Francisco Earthquake, 1907 – Click for source details

And, yet, as it stands, there is the added implication that Marie-Blanche has not only been disappointed by her love affairs, but that the gentlemen have disappointed AND deceived her.

There have been quite a few of them: all disappointments AND deceivers, from the perspective of Miss. and Mrs. Dumard.

“Marie-Blanche is deception-prone the way some people keep bumping their heads or spraining their ankles.”

Only four of the deceptions are in this story. Only four have spent substantial time in that Montreal parlor, with its coloured picture of the San Francisco Earthquake over the imitation fireplace. (Disaster looms.)

The first was an Irish boy called Georgie O’Ryan.

Then, Wilfrid (whose friend, Jean-Jacques, tearfully passed Wilfrid’s regrets to Marie-Blanche).

Next, Télésphore Ouimette.

He was followed by many smaller deceptions who visited for only a few Fridays.

And, amongst those, was Sylvestre Dancereau, who was not only a deceitful disappointment but also a farmer. (I’m imagining not just a sprain here, but a full-on break.)

The narrator once sat in that parlour with the Dumards, even accompanied Marie-Blanche on some of her dates during the way, and has now received news of her engagement. Another engagement, that is. “The reminder of her engagment is, for me, only a reminder of her deceptions”.

It’s hard to take Marie-Blanche’s losses too seriously. Even though those Friday evenings must be very tedious, with or without a suitor.

She once wrote to a newspaper to ask for specific instructions on how to make Shirley Temple curls and now wears thirty-one curls in her light fluffy yellow hair, which set off her innocent blue eyes, alert and inquisitive.

But the effort to secure a husband has taken nearly twenty-five years: those curls have surely lost some of their spring. Although some of Marie-Blanche’s innocence remains.

“[H]er information was pieced together from romantic magazine stories, the prudishly censored confidences of her married sister, and the unprudish stories of salesmen in the shops where she works. Madame Dumard, of course, would rather have died on the spot than utter one enlightening word to an unmarried daughter; and even had she chosen to do so, at Mariie-Blanche’s age it would have seemed rather silly.”

Gallant Other ParisThe reality is, however, that some of those people observing Marie-Blanche’s adventures believe that they are better able to assess her prospects. In some cases, this is rooted in long-standing prejudice.

“The superiority of city over country people was too established to require pointing out; they would wait and see.” But Marie-Blanche’s city relatives are not actually waiting to see; when Sylvestre Dancereau comes for Christmas dinner, they are simply waiting for the comedy to begin.

The last of Marie-Blanche’s suitors refused a glass of wine, but Sylvestre not only accepts, but he accepts many times. And then he gushes about his horse.

This is particularly galling for Marie-Blanche, whose curls hint at vanity. She loves to have her photograph taken, and is furious when her suitor expresses a clear preference for a four-legged kind of beauty.

The fact that the scene plays out over a large holiday meal temorarily adds a light touch to the comedy, but ultimately this is yet another deception. Marie-Blanche enjoys neither the meal nor the company, and she openly acknowledges her disillusionment.

And, yet, although the story ends on that sad note, it begins at some future time, after Marie-Blanche has agreed to try again. The narrator muses upon some of the excuses which have broken Marie-Blanche’s engagements in the past, and readers are left to wonder at their banality (and muse upon the “real” reasons).

I wonder if the illustration on my 1986 copy of this collection could be attempting to update Marie-Blanche’s story. The woman pictured there is kinda Kathleen-Turner-ish, her curls loose but very blonde, her makeup precise and vibrant, her gaze determined and inviting.

She stands near the foot of the stairs, their destination unclear, with her back turned to an admiring man with a generous mustache and a jaunty cap. His shirt is crimson red, matching the band on her stylish fedora-styled hat.

He could be the one. He could be just another one.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the sixth story in The Other Paris. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “Wing’s Chips” (which also appears in some other collections as outlined in the schedule).

In My Notebook, April 2017

Sometimes it’s not so much about a list. More about ideas and possibilities. Either way, my notebook is busy this month.

With Kinna’s 2017 Africa Reading Challenge, I’m eyeing the possibilities. Maybe some Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo or Buchi Emecheta, some Chinua Achebe or Brian Chikwava, or maybe, finally, Tsitsi Dangarembga.

Notebook April 2017Sometimes it’s very much about a list.

Like the books on my shelves that would fit with the #1951Club Reading.

(Links to both hosts’ sites there, if you’re curious!)

Bagnold, Enid The Loved and the Envied; Colette The Other Woman; Davies, Robertson Tempest-Tost; Keane, Molly Loving Without Tears; Klein, A.M. The Second Scroll; Lewis, C.S. Prince Caspian; Roy, Gabrielle Where Nests the Water Hen; Taylor, Elizabeth A Game of Hide and Seek; Tey, Josephine The Daughter of Time; Thirkell, Angela The Duke’s Daughter; Wyndham, John The Day of the Triffids. 

The winner was Robertson Davies’ Tempest-Tost, his first novel and the first of the Salterton trilogy. (Like I needed to start another series.)

Also spanning March ’til May, is a TBR Challenge hosted on Habitica. (Anyone else use this site to kick-start/maintain habits?) This helps me focus on series that I have started but haven’t finished, as well as group reads that fall between the cracks in my reading plans.

Basically the books that I keep saying “soon” about, finally making them “now”. You know the ones: there’s no particular reason to pull them off the shelf immediately (as opposed to, say, those books published in 1951), so they never get pulled off.

This includes three from each of three series which I’ve been trying to finish for years: Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series (Black Powder War, Empire of Ivory, Victory of Eagles), Maya Angelou’s autobiography (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Gather Together in My Name, and Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry like Christmas), and Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna series (Morning at Jalna, Mary Wakefield, Young Renny).

thien-do-not-say-we-have-nothingWould you believe that I’ve even reread the early Temeraires and the first Maya Angelou more than once, planning to read on to finish the series, but still never actually followed up? Are there series like this on your shelves, that you just never seem to finish?

My list for the Habitica Challenge also includes three books that have been on my TBR for at least twenty years.

I know, it’s embarrassing. But the first step is admitting that you have a problem, right?

So, that explains why I’m aiming for Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on the Road and two books by Julio Cortazar, Blow Up and Other Stories and Hopscotch.

Next, the Library Thing reading group for Virago Modern Classics, which has chosen these three authors for April/May/June: Elizabeth von Arnim, Willa Cather, and Margaret Laurence.

That’s worked out to Christopher and Columbus, with “A Work in Progress”, and two others, as yet undecided.

All decided, but not all read, are my Reading Ireland choices: Malarky and Glorious Heresies and Ireland: An Autobiography.

Next week I’ll summarize what I have read so far. Were you reading Ireland too? Did you add something interesting to your TBR?

And, finally, there’s the matter of the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize, which I’ve been following since its inception. Since you used to have to comb the newspaper hoping there would be a reporting on the day-after. And my TBR for the prize has been growing for that long, too, because there have only been a couple of years in which I read all the longlisted titles after they were announced.

Short-listed this year are Ayöbámi Adébáö’s Stay With Me, Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle, C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, and Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

Long-listed this year were Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, Emma Flint’s Little Deaths, Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare, Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians, Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, Yewande Omotose’s The Woman Next Door, Heather O’Neill’s The Lonely Hearts Hotel, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, and Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata.

Not to over look my rereading of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily books, which I was inspired to reread because of Naomi’s impassioned readalong, even though I haven’t been doing well with the readalonging.

And then there are the daily reads, right now alternating between Lori McNulty’s short story collection, Life on Mars, and a compilation called Our Story which fictionalizes tales from aboriginal history and includes pieces by two of my MRE (MustReadEverything) authors, Tomson Highway and Thomas King.

Does a notebook aid you when you are planning your reading? Is there some overlap between our reading plans? Is there anything scribbled here that you’ve read and enjoyed?

Mavis Gallant’s “The Picnic” (1952)

The weight of the brooch pulls the fabric of young Margaret Marshall’s picnic frock. It always hangs just fine off her navy blue shorts, but the light-weight dress doesn’t provide a suitable backdrop.

Scans of 2 d images in the public domain believed to be free to use without restriction in the US.

How disappointing for young Margaret, who so treasures this gift from Madame Pégorin, the photo of the woman’s beloved poodle encircled by seed pearls.

The old woman has told the Marshall children many stories about Youckie, who died of influenza shortly before the war. As often as their mother begs them not to bother the woman, they beg the woman to tell them more about the dog.

It’s sad, of course, that the children could not know Youckie. But perhaps Youckie didn’t have it so bad; Youckie didn’t have to see how far downhill things went after the war.

Quite likely, Youckie would not have enjoyed sharing a house with the Marshall family either. But, of course, the Gould family was intolerable. The father in that family was only a sergeant.

Those two little boys (Henry and Joey) caused no end of trouble. Really, they shouldn’t even be allowed to play with the Marshall children. Their father is a Major.

The Marshall family is caught between, however; they are far too good to be living in the army barracks in Virolun, France but not really good enough to be living in Madame Pégorin’s house either.

In fact, Madame Pégorin dislikes “foreigners” and “she had told the Marshall children so”. (This insular distrust appears in characters scattered throughout this collection.)

Perhaps she would not have been so bold with Major and Paula Marshall; indeed, she “tried, as well as she could, to ignore the presence of the Americans in Virolun, just as, long ago, when she traveled, she had overlooked the natives of whichever country she happened to be in”.

The Marshall children are not put off; they adore Madame Pégorin. And her stories of her poodle. And, also, the treats (sugared almonds and rum cakes) she keeps in a tin near her bed.

Anyway, “they, fortunately, did not consider themselves foreign, and had pictured instead dark men with curling beards.” (This recalls Carol’s fears in “The Other Paris”: there are many threats in this collection and just as many prejudices running beneath them)

Their mother does not encourage their devotions, but treads carefully around them all the same. She recognizes that her husband is in a difficult position, caught between two sets of expectations.

Although he has been asked to organize a picnic, this is not a simple matter. “She suddenly felt terribly sorry for him, because of all that was in store for him this day, and because the picnic was not likely to clarify his status, as he so earnestly hoped. There would be fresh misunderstandings and further scandals.”

The picnic is intended to be a clear demonstration of the amitie between the Americans and the French, but also a quiet resolution of potential (real or imagined) conflict between many other states of between-ness.

“He admired Madame Pégurin, confusing her, because she was old and French and had once been rich, with courts and courtesans and the eighteenth century. In her presence, his mind took a literary turn, and he thought of vanished glories, something fine that would never return, gallant fluttering banners, and the rest of it.”

Readers might allow their imaginations to take a literary turn as well. Maybe they will think of picnics in Enid Blyton novels or the scene in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. Maybe Hanging Rock will come to mind or Jane Austen’s Emma.

TNYBut the story isn’t actually about a picnic, anymore than Madame Pégorin is a courtesan with fluttering banners. It’s about the idea of everyone gathering together in simplest form.

Even though there is nothing simple about simplicity. It’s like charting the difference between poverty and minimalism. The number of objects might be the same, but it’s not at all the same story beyond the number.

What is the role of the army in all of this? Hopefully the photographs snapped by the invited journalists will clarify that. In the meantime, Mavis Gallant is prepared to expose the humour inherent in this undertaking.

“One of the research workers had, quite recently, asked Major Marshall whether it was true that when young Mrs. Gould asked Madame Pégurin if she had a vacuum cleaner, she had been told, ‘No, I have a servant.’ Was this attitude widespread, the research worker had wanted to know. Or was the Army helping break down the feudal social barriers of the little town. Oh, yes, the Major had replied. Oh, yes, indeed.”

The Marshall children wouldn’t have known about the status of Madame Pégurin’s household applicances either, but they might have been able to provide a tally of pistachio creams and spongecakes.

Only a parent, however, would have been able to make the connection between the quantity of such delicacies and feudal social barriers. And perhaps a “foreigner” is ill-equipped to determine the dimensions of social change. Particularly if their employment depends upon the belief that they are instigating it and maintaining it brilliantly and lastingly.

Herein resides the between-ness. The Marshall children’s expectations for the picnic are, relatively speaking, uncomplicated. Margaret simply wants her brooch to hang properly. They do not yet understand that they are crossing a gap if they choose to cross a field to play with the Gould boys. They do not even feel the pinch of being caught between their mother’s frustrations with Madame Pégurin and their father’s confusion about her true status in her home territory.

So many things are anticipated as failing for this picnic. The delivery of the Coca-Cola will be delayed. The movie projector will be on the fritz. The players accustomed to using the field for a football match will literally be sidelined and scowling.

The list of conflicts is seemingly endless. Far simpler to be an image, caught in a photographic plate, frozen in time. This ever-shifting world is confusing.

Sometimes all one can do is overlook the parts one doesn’t like.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the fifth story in The Other Paris. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “The Deceptions of Marie-Blanche”.

Indigenous Tales: A Pulitzer

Momaday House Made of DawnHe was the first native American novelist to focus on the plights of the contemporary Native American.

The supporting materials in the back of the paperback edition of N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1966) do a fine job of explaining the unique importance of the work culturally, within the broader context of postwar American fiction. (Very helpful – and the list of additional resources was much appreciated too.)

House Made of Dawn is set in the Southwest, in what is now viewed as northwestern New Mexico. The Pueblo people call this world of cliffs and canyons the “center of Creation”.

The novel’s focus is Abel, who inhabits this landscape wholly and inextrciably. Momaday imagines and establishes Abel in “the cultural and physical context of Walatoa, just as Stephen Dedalus, say, must be fashioned in the mould of Dublin”.

Divided into four parts, the work is fragmented deliberately and methodically. Readers move through The Longhair Wahatowa (Cañon de San Diego, 1945), The Priest of the Sun (LA, 1952), The Night Chanter (LA, 1952) and The Dawn Runner (Wahatowa, 1952).

Time and space shift. Identity shifts too. “He did not know who his father was. His father was a Navajo, they said, or a Sia, or an Isleta, an outsider anyway, which made him and his mother and Vidal somehow foreign and strange.”

Sometimes shifting develops into obliteration.

“The Bahkyush immigrants brought with them little more than the clothes on their backs, but even in this moment of deep hurt and humiliation they thought of themselves as a people.  They carried four things that should serve thereafter to signal who they were: a sacred flute, the bull and horse masks of Pecos; and the little wooden statue of their patroness Maria de los Angeles, whom they called Porcingula. Now, after the intervening years and genearions, the ancient blood of this forgotten tribe still ran in the veins of man.”

The idea of what we are at the core of ourselves is at the heart of the novel, but because this is threatened and attacked, the work is structured in parts not wholes. Sometimes the most important pars of the story are the spaces.

“And the simple act of listening is crucial to the concept of language, more crucial even than reading and writing, and language in turn is crucial to human society.”

How we express ourselves is integral to our concepts of self and to how we understand the world around us. Consider how a substance can be defined in sacred or chemical terms, how it can be viewed playfully or medically.

“It contains nine narcotic alkaloids of the isoquinoline series, some of them strychnine-like in physiological action, the rest morphine-like. Physiologically, the salient characteristic of peyote is its production of visual hallucinations or color visions, as well as kinesthetic, olfactory, and auditory derangements.’ Or, to put it another way, that little old woolly booger turns you on like a light, man. Daddy peyote is the vegetal representation of the sun.”

So it’s unsurprising that the language and structure of the work is vitally important to understanding the characters’ stories. Reading is almost always disorienting, sometimes upsetting. Key aspects of selfhood have been devastated, directly and indirectly; readers have to make sense of the fragments.

Nonetheless, some things endure. In particular, the relationship with the land. The descriptions of the landscape are simple but powerful.

“They must know it as they knew the shape of their hands, always and by heart. The sun rose up on the black mesa at a different place each day. It began there, at a point on the central slope, standing still for the solstice, and ranged all the days southward across the rise and fall of the long plateau, drawing closer by the measure of mornings and moons to the lee, and back again. They must know the long journey of the sun on the black mesa….”

In discussing his intent, N. Scott Momaday shared his concern about “the way we treat our environment. We haven’t done a very good job in protecting our planet. We have failed to recognize the spiritual life of the earth”.

He also observed what was missing in the modern world and paid homage to it in his writing:  “I saw people who were deeply involved in their traditional life, in the memories of their blood. They had, as far as I could see, a certain strength and beauty that I find missing in the modern world at large. I like to celebrate that involvement in my writing.”

Although he experienced many of the same hardships and challenges that his characters face in House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday has found a way to embrace his fragmented identity and shape it for himself and for his readers.

“I grew up in two worlds and straddle both those worlds even now. It has made for confusion and a richness in my life. I’ve been able to deal with it reasonably well, I think, and I value it.”

House Made of Dawn contains that confusion and richness as well: it’s a work to be valued and admired. (I’d been wanting to read this for many years; Caroline’s selection of it for her War and Literature Readalong secured the deal for me.)

Have you read this one? Is it on your TBR?

Mavis Gallant’s “Going Ashore” (1954)

For the first time, twelve-year-old Emma Ellinger feels truly connected to her mother. They are finally “doing something together, alone, with no man, no Uncle Anyone, to interfere”.

Morocca Gallant

Tangier, Moracco 1887 Click for source data

It’s true that the cruise hasn’t gone entirely as planned; they have packed the wrong clothes (all summer dresses, which is what one might imagine one would wear on a cruise, which includes going ashore in Africa, but reality is otherwise) and never seem to properly anticipate the next stage of events.

Nonetheless, the sense of comradeship which Emma feels is intense. And the story her mother tells to other travellers seems to echo that: “She was born during the war. We only have each other.”

But Mrs. Ellinger’s story is told for reasons which Emma hasn’t fully understood yet. Being born during the war invites conjecture regarding a missing husband and father; and, even more importantly, it offers an acceptable explanation for the man’s absence. And being alone is another kind of invitation, a way of indicating a particular kind of need.

It’s a familiar story, and one which Emma has heard many times. She has lost track of all her uncles. Sometimes she remembers the gifts they’ve given her. Sometimes an object unexpectedly embodies them (as with the high-school edition of “The Merchant of Venice”). But, mostly, it’s a blur of uncles for Emma.

Mrs. Ellinger is caught in a fog herself, unable to see the road ahead. “She was adrift on an ocean whose immenseness she could not begin to grasp. She was alone, she had no real idea of their route, and it was too late to turn back.”

She, like many other women in Mavis Gallant’s stories, is caught in a place between. The cabin on the cruise is really just another hotel room (another summer rental, another temporary billeting).

“The cabin was gray, chintzed, consolingly neutral; it resembled all or any of the hotel rooms she and Emma had shared in the past. She was surrounded by her own disorder, her own scent. There were yesterday’s clothes on a chair, trailing, smelling faintly of cigarette smoke. There, on the dressing table, was an abandoned glass of brandy, an unstoppered bottle of cologne.”

But going ashore? That contains a myriad of possibilities.

Here, however, readers might recall the disappointment in this collection’s first story, when the imagined version of Paris does not mesh with its reality. Young Emma, too, has ideas about Africa.

When she imagines disembarking and having lunch in Tangier, she thinks of sand dunes and camels, lions and trailing vines. If she’d been able to browse one of the guidebooks that her fellow travellers depend so heavily upon, I imagine she might have seen a picture of the marketplace like this one above: her suppositions swelling into some combination of slightly outdated and overly “romanticized” images.

Sue Barton books GallantAnd whether a result of the heat or the excitement, Mrs. Ellington is more-than-the-usual-kind-of-adrift, when the two go ashore. She looks longingly back towards the ship, and Emma has to boss her into a taxi, instructing the driver to take them to the centre of town.

Mrs. Ellington is by terns overbearing and demanding, fragile and easily cowed. When Emma watches her readying herself, she observes her “thin shoulder blades that moved like wings”. And perhaps it’s her recognition of this fragility which urges her to accommodate her mother uneexpectedly.

While in Tangier, Emma obediently agrees to allow her mother to purchase a bracelet for her, which is both unappealing and fits too tightly. The bracelet – shiny and ornamental – leaves a green mark on her skin, which Emma can barely remove later.

It’s another disappointment. “The new life was always there, just before them, like a note indefinitely suspended or a wave about to break. It was there, but nothing happened.”

Childhood is, perhaps, the greatest disappointment of all. “Everyone she knew had a life, complete, that all but excluded Emma.”

More than anything, Emma wants a life, something complete. She calls out the shopowner, who claims that the toy tiger he has for sale is an authentic piece of art and comes complete with the capacity to fulfill ten wishes, as bogus; but part of her also wants to believe his tale.

She flushes with her desire to believe. The shop scene is poignant, painful. And although readers will not be surprised when Emma later discovers the “Made in Japan” stamp, it’s still disappointing. Even just one wish would have been lovely.

It’s not as though Emma’s life is characterized by deprivation. Mrs Ellinger is clear to point out the good mothering she has exhibited, referring to the white-on-white wardrobe she maintained for her daughter in her younger years (when, presumably, it was even harder to keep her clean). And Emma herself chronicles some of the bounty she has enjoyed from her various uncles, including a trip to the circus and a complete set of Sue Barton books. (Again: complete.)

Indeed, the experience of the cruise has contained many positive elements, not only the attentions of Miss. and Mrs. Mann (another mother-daughter pair, but considerably older and both more sensibly dressed and better stocked with guidebooks and maps) but those of Mr. Cowan (a solo traveller whom Emma comes to know over a series of conversations in the ship’s bar) and Eddy (the bartender aboard).

Almost accidentally, Emma is learning a great deal along the way, even beyond her mother’s common and vociferous exhortations (e.g. don’t get married, don’t have a baby). And if her mother has to pay her pound of flesh to cover the costs of raising a young girl, she can also enjoy a sunny afternoon in Tangier.

Despite some sorrowful and strained moments, the story is not entirely hopeless. Primarily because readers experience the journey through Emma’s eyes. (This reminds me of Carol’s purchase of the violets at the end of “The Other Paris”; even though part of her believes they will be dead before she gets home, she still buys them, still hopes for another outcome.)

“Yes, they were nearly there. She could see the gulls swooping and soaring, and something on the horizon – a shape, a rock, a whole continent untouched and unexplored. A tide of newness came in with the salty air: she thought of new land, new dresses, clean, untouched, unworn. A new life. She knelt, patient, holding the curtain, waiting to see the approach to shore.”

And this time? Nobody will interfere.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the fourth story in The Other Paris. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “The Picnic” (which also appears in some other collections as outlined in the schedule).

Intersection: Games and Books

The Games We Played: The Golden Age of Board and Table Games by Margaret K. Hofer is a sriking showcase of the games in Ellen and Arthur Liman’s historic collection of American games.

It began with a $6 yard-sale purchase in 1980 and grew to contain more than 500 games which they donated for display in NYC.

Games We Played HoferEven if you’re not interested in playing games, the collection is fascinating for the insight offered on society’s changing values, aspirations and prejudices.

Middle-class household could spend between a quarter and three dollars for small boxed card games and more elaborate spreads.

But not everybody played: games were viewed suspiciously by those who saw the Devil in the idle hands that played them.

Some of that outlook remains today, but people spend more money on games today than ever before, although Guild Wars feels far removed from the classic card game Pit.

Roots of today’s well-known games are visible in this early collection however, like Scrabble, which is based on Anagrams (popular at the turn of the 19th century). Or, consider Pick-up Sticks, which was based on an old dexterity game called Jack Straws.

Before Trivial Pursuit was The World’s Educator, which contained over 2,000 quiz questions and answers. (The answers were in code and printed on oversized cards, but it does look all THAT different.)

And before the Wii was a parlour game called Pillow Dex, a forerunner of Ping-Pong , which required players to volley a balloon over a net strung across a table.

Board Games like BooksFrom Tiddledy Winks to war games with Napoleonic conquests, from Fish Pond to fotune-telling games: the volume is sumptously illustrated and strangely mesmerizing.

There is far more detailed information about the history of games in David Parlett’s The Oxford History of Board Games. (He also wrote The Oxford Guide to Card Games, if that’s more your thing.)

Whereas anyone, even with a fleeting interest in either art of history, could still enjoy browsing through Margaret K. Hofer’s volume, only true afficionadoes are likely to spend more than a minute with David Parlett’s work.

First, he begins by sharing the criteria on which he decided to organize his discussion of board games.

This is surprisingly intricuate, with arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ various options, which also challenge or support similar decisions made in earlier histories of the subject.

Ultimately he divides them into five sections: race, space, chase, displace and more modern theme games (the volume was published in 1999, so it’s no longer current).

These categories reflect traditional human preoccupations and activities (e.g. hunting, war)and it’s impossible to forget that games are an inherent part of our culture.

Old Maid Board GamesIn that sense, this volume has a broad appeal. But, in fact, the author’s approach is so detailed that one must be exceedingly curious about games to persist with his analysis, which is increasingly intricate as discussion of the general evolution of a particular game develops into more mathematical and scientific considerations.

Nonetheless, question of lineage and heritage are interesting. For instance, Pachisi is the predecessor of the popular American game Parcheesi and the British game Ludo. (I had no idea; I’ve also never played any of them.)

Pachisi means twenty-five, the highest throw possible in the game, and the game is like a complicated four-handed Backgammon.

Parlett posits that it has been played historically since the first millenium and refers to many ancient artworks which display element of Pachisi (or Chaupar) play.

Modern versions, like Parcheese and Ludo, were dramatically simplified, the latter in particular to appeal to children and families. (And, still, I didn’t play them!)

Having grown up playing Snakes and Ladders, I particularly enjoyed reading about the history of this game and, because it’s one that I remember very well, I even enjoyed the detailed discussions of conflicting rule-sets.

For instance, some players insisted that one must roll a 6 in order to put a marker on the board, whereas others began to play immediately after determining which player would move first.

Some players declared that only an exact roll could take a marker to the 100th square, and lacking that roll meant that one’s market remained stationary until that magical roll was achieved, whereas others moved their marker ahead and then backwards once more according to the die.

Some played with a single die, others with two dice.

Chinese Chess Board GamesHistorically, the game did not always have actual snakes and ladders either.

In traditional versions, it was not so much of a race game, but all about the morals. (For instance, there were Hindi and Jain and Muslim versions played in India, in which the ultimate goal was a Nirvana-like state whereas the lowered numbered squares represented base and human desires and conditions.)

This is the kind of detail which I am not equipped to appreciate about most of the other games considered in this volume. Even with the ones I have played (e.g. checkers, chess), I’ve not been very deliberate or devoted.

So, it intrigues me that people have this degree of interest in the games, but I skim past the calculations and read more about the history and evolution, rather than specific tile layouts or strategies.

Admittedly, my interest in this volume has more to do with my love of more modern board and table games, but the journey through these pages makes for an enjoyable diversion between play sessions.

How about you: do you play? Boardgames or card games? On tables or online? Or would it interfere too much with your reading time?

The Creative Life on the Page (Five Books)

Because I forgot my key one day, I had to wait in the neighbourhood library for Mister BIP to finish work, before I could go home. I suppose I could have waited in the subway station. But it was only a 20-minute walk. Of course I walked: wouldn’t you?

Marshall Triangular RoadOne of the books I brought home with me (because I couldn’t browse for more than an hour without finding new friends) was Paule Marshall’s Triangular Road (2009), an adaptation of a lecture series delivered at Harvard in 2015.

The theme was “Bodies of Water”, the specific rivers, seas and oceans and their impact on black history and culture throughout the Amercias, with her work divided into: “Homage to Mr. Hughes”, “I’ve Known Rivers: The James River”, “I’ve Known Seas: The Caribbean Sea (Barbadows, Grenada 1962)” and “I’ve Known Ocean: The Atlantic”.

It’s a slim volume, which begins with her memories of travelling with Langston Hughes when she was a young writer. “I had read The Big Sea as a teenager and had privately vowed, even back then, to follow the example of its author. Not only would I become a writer, but a travelin’ woman as well.”

In some cases, her memories are very specific, as with those of her neighbourhood library. “Best of all for me, 501 Hancock was only a short distance from a local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. A necessary home away from home. It was there, come age twelve, that I summoned up the courage one day to ask the white librarian for a list of books by colored writers.”

In other cases, she is musing on a broader scale: “After all, my life, as I saw it, was a thing divided in three…Brooklyn…Caribbean and its conga line of islands…colossus of ancestral Africa

Throughout, she is considering her life as a writer. “Writing fiction: a wonderfully conscious and unconscious act.”

Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye landed on my stack thanks to Sharlene at RealLifeReading, who regularly tempts me with her bookish explorations.

With his first comic having been published in 1954 in Singapore, Charlie Chan Hock Chye has spent a lifetime illustrating and telling stories, and Sonny Liew (also an artist and illustrator, who was born in Malaysia) assembles a kaleidoscopic glimpse into the achievements of his artistic life.

The book is arranged chronologically, divided into chapters which correspond to specific years and swaths of time which were significant in his personal and professional experience.

Considering more than five decades of work, there is a broad variety of styles and stories herein.

It contains rich and beautiful reproductions of oil paintings (for instance, one he painted from a photograph of his mother in 1983, which is placed near the beginning of the volume, to fit with the age she is in the photograph/painting, rather the age she was at the time of painting).

Charlie Chan Hock ChyeBut it also contains unfinished excerpts from his sketchbooks (the spread from the years 1956-60, including the Rex and Cathay cinemas along with a nightsoil collector and an old woman playing cards is exceptionally varied and it hints of many stories therein).

It must have been very difficult to select representational published works (not only based upon the volume of material but given potential copyright complications), but the reader gains a sense of the artist’s nearly incredible diversity of content and style.

From sedate black-and-white line-drawings to playful colourful animal cartoons, many works are reproduced only in part; even if readers aren’t partial to a particular publication or style, in just a couple of pages, something different is presented. (I read this over a month’s time, and even the pieces which I found less immediately accessible were enjoyable in this manner.)

Sometimes works are depicted in their original format (as with the Roachman covers) or in mock-ups. Sometimes unpublished works are also included (particularly works which one imagines could have been difficult or risky to publish for political reasons).

These comics seem far removed from my experience of the world, in terms of either time or space. I haven’t been taught anything about the history of Singapore and was concerned that might detract from my enjoyment of this collection.

But the supporting materials are clear and concise; readers with no familiarity with the region will be readily able to follow the artist’s political strips, using the editor’s footnotes in conjunction with more extensive endnotes, when more context could be helpful.

Those talking animals are (perhaps unsurprisingly) representations of key historical figures, and knowledge of this significantly adds to the experience of sampling Charlie Chan Hock Chye’s work. Conflicts and resolutions are even more satisfying when one understands the scope of the story.

But even so, the aspect of the collection that I most enjoyed was following the portrait of the artist’s creative work and career, the balance of fortune and trial that he experienced in pursuit of his passion.

Of course it’s difficult (perhaps impossible) to consider this outside of the context of the immense changes his country endured during his lifetime, but one of my favourite segments depicts his process during his seventh decade, culminating in a sheet of panels which focus on the tools of his trade (which have remained consistent throughout).

So readers with a familiarity with Singaporean history might appreciate the refresher herein, and readers lacking that experience might be inspired to delve more deeply following this introduction, but even readers with no interest in political history could find the artist’s personal story rewarding.

This is a work which rewards readers on many levels. (Thanks, Sharlene!)

Vandermeer WonderbookEarlier this year, I explored Sylvia Plath’s Unabridged Journals, which have been on my shelves for more than a dozen years. She, too, was interested in the lives of other creatives.

In specific terms: “I loved Exupery; I will read him again, and he will talk to me, not being dead, or gone. Is that life after death – mind living on paper and flesh living in offspring? Maybe. I do not know.” (1944)

And, more generally: “But the life of a Willa Cather, a Lillian Helman, a Virginia Woolf – – – would it not be a series of rapid ascents and probing descents into shades and meanings – into more people, ideas and conceptions? Would it not be in color, rather than black-and-white, or more gray? I think it would. And thus, I not being them, could try to be more like them: to listen, observe, and feel, and try to live most fully.” (1944)

Now I am reading Mazo de La Roche’s Ringing the Changes, her autobiography. inspired by my reading of the Jalna books. It reads like a novel, heavily romanticized and descriptive. Perhaps for that reason, I am enjoying it every bit as much as the Jalna books themselves.

Alongside, many other volumes concerning the writing life have been making an appearance in my stacks. My favourite so far, this year, has been Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook.

Glossy-paged and sumptuously illustrated, it’s not only attractive but contains more than three hundred over-sized pages of material. Some interviews and essays are contributed by established authors (from Ursula K. LeGuin to Karen Joy Fowler) and some from the works of other writers less widely known (but well-established in the SFF and speculative fiction communities), but the core of the volume revolves around the development of one of Vandermeer’s own novels.

Because I’m not familiar with his novel Finch, I steered clear of these segments to avoid spoilers, but I still appreciated the infographics and commentary about the process. And there is plenty of content revolving around other materials (e.g. classic works, fresh content printed herein, exercises, art): one need not be familiar with either Vandermeer or SFF to enjoy this volume.

The only creative folks who might not find something of interest here, whether experienced or emerging, are those seeking primarily specific and granular pragmatic advice.

The variety of colours, fonts, and artistic styles maintains a reader’s interest throughout, and the overall effect is one of delight. Very inspiring!

Would anything in your stack make a useful addition to these volumes? Care to share a favourite?

Which of these have you enjoyed the most, or which do you find most appealing?

Mavis Gallant’s “Poor Franzi”

At one table, we have the Wrights, on the crowded hotel terrace, with the Austrian mountains playing picture-postcard for the family, who has journeyed from Baltimore.

They’re a cranky lot, with daughters Coralie and Joan having had a different set of expectations for their travels, which neither their mother nor their brother Charlie shared.

Mountains viewed from Salzburg - Click for credit

Mountains viewed from Salzburg – Click for credit

Mind you, Charlie seems to be having a fine time, having cosied up to a young English woman, Miss Mewling. (Whether for her own sake, or due to some deeper frustration with their brother, the sisters are none too fond of Miss Mewling.)

And when Mrs. Wright comments on the fact that young women get carried away and cause difficulties on a journey, the sisters are quick to observe that young men (i.e. Charlie) do get carried away and cause difficulties as well.

As you can see, there is no need for another table in Mavis Gallant’s story.

And, in fact, the Wright family was not cast as the main lot in this story either. The story opens with the Baronin Ebendorf, who is being introduced to Elizabeth Dunn at the next table. The Wrights have to turn to see.

And, they do.

As do we, readers.

It’s a queer twist in the mechanics of the story, because immediately readers must sort out all the family connections and the relationship between Elizabeth and the Wrights (there is none, not yet, anyway, and only barely, even later) and it’s all a little overwheming.

It would have been much simpler if readers were presented with the old woman and stayed with her point-of-view.

But, in fact, the Wrights are there to make a good deal of noise, but we are meant to keep our eyes on the Baronin. And she, in turn, has eyes only for her grandson, Franzi. Yes, “Poor Franzi”.

Even while she is taking Elizabeth Dunn’s hand, the Baronin’s gaze is fixed on Franzi. There: there is the story we are meant to see.

And, yet, there is not much of a story there. We have to hear from the Wrights about how much the Baronin adores her young grandson, how she longs for his company and how oblivious he appears to be. The story seems to be all about what has not happened. About meetings on the terrace which did not transpire.

Also, about who has something and who has nothing. When Miss Mewling corrects a disparaging remark made by Coralie (about the aid money America has sent to these countries), observing that the Baronin was unlikely to have received such monies personally, readers are alerted to the class matters at work.

From the better-off table, it is observed that Franzi’s car is old, seemingly held together by string, and that Elizabeth must be at least twenty-eight years old.

And, in turn, readers are offered a glimpse of Elizabeth’s thoughts, as she struggles to imagine the old grandmother, with her sunburned hands, sitting in a garden chair while Elizabeth’s mother messes about with the roses (an act of homage, not labour).

She, the old woman, “looks like nothing”, according to Coralie. But Elizabeth too, observes the financial state of the Ebendorf family and considers a disparity. She only belongs in her old house. “Being old, the house was damp; the leaded vine-encumbered windows admitted chunks of greenish light. Winters, in the rainy season, the old woman remained in bed for days on end.”

Elizabeth is American, like the Wright family. Franzi looks Danish, though. So, he is good-looking, fair and bright, but Miss Mewling warns that they “all have a little Czech, although they deny it”. The idea of these two ‘worlds’ colliding is, at best, awkward and, worse, unsavoury.

Brick GallantElizabeth is thinking about what life would be like married to Franzi. “She often did this, weighing her marriage as if she had shopped out of season for a costly and perishable fruit.”

The matter takes on a new urgency when the Baronin dies and Elizabeth attends the service in Franzi’s place. Franzi takes a business meeting instead. Franzi, with his “bemused and distant” smile, which inspired people to call him by his Christian name.

Franzi’s looks are significant. It’s the look on his face, when Elizabeth has tried to subtly urge him to take the bill at the hotel rather than allow the Baronin to pay, that Elizabeth observes: his blank look. “Elizabeth, who had read a great deal about love but was ignorant of its processes, found the look adorable.”

The remnants of the Baronin’s life are meagre, as is the service. Which is, ironically, attended by the Wright family and Miss Mewling, but not “Poor Franzi”.

Franzi’s blank look is likely on his face again, when a neighbour ashamedly mentions the costs related to the service, when the neighbour accepts the responsibility for paying the sum, as though it was simply another hotel bill. But “Poor Franzi”.

“What will happen to me if I marry him, she [Elizabeth] wondered; and what would become of Franzi if she were to leave him?”

It’s not openly declared, just how much of the story’s title is intended sympathetically and how much is intended ironically. Elizabeth’s decision is not openly announced either.

But just as readers are instructed to look in unexpected directions, we are given a clue in the summary of Franzi’s sister’s life.

Adelaide does not make an appearance in the story; she has no seat on the hotel terrace.

And her story does not leak out in dialogue and grievances, rather is tidily displayed as follows: “His sister had married and gone to Australia, and she had not written to anyone for three years. Her husband farmed, her children were called Ian and Doreen, and she would have left them all in a minute had there been anywhere else to go.”

Outside, on the afternoon I am reading this story, it is grey and damp and dull. From my window, I can see the corner of a small city park, with its mounded and rounded flowerbed. It is dark and empty. Things do not seem to grow there: one day it is like this, another day it is filled with growing things.

The arrangement differs according to the seasons, transplanted by a team which completes the task (which includes the symmetrical bed on the opposite side of the street, which has an even smaller greenspace, not even large enough to hold a bench) in a couple of hours.

Most of the time, the park is empty. One man comes regularly and sits on the bench with his terrier on his lap, both of them staring outward, mostly straight-ahead. Another woman comes regularly in fine weather, spreads a cloth and stretches in the shade of a maple tree, surrounding herself with small entertainments which she cycles through for a couple of hours (the length of time it takes to plant an entire park). A young couple take turns bringing their black dog, standing with their backs to the traffic and throwing a bright orange ball towards the corner of the space until one of them tires of the game (seemingly always one of the two-leggeds).

Mavis Gallant takes transitory spaces and looks for a story. But where she does not tell a story is just as interesting as where she chooses to tell a story.

“Poor Franzi” is, ironically, not Franzi’s story. But whose story is it?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the third story in The Other Paris. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “Going Ashore” (which also appears in some other collections as outlined in the schedule).

Margaret Millar’s The Listening Walls (1959; 2016)

Although some of the characters in the Margaret Millar mysteries I have read answer their own phones, many answer other people’s phones instead: the telephones of older or more privileged relatives or those of their bosses. There’s even a switchboard operator in the mix, along with a woman better known for not answering calls at all (being under the in-flu-ence much of the time).

collected-millar-mysteries-twoCommunication matters and The Listening Walls opens with an overhead conversation. Consuela is a maid in a Mexico City hotel (with the finest drinking water available), nestled in a supply closet, bunking down on a stack of clean towels.

From her perch, she can hear everything that goes on in Suite 404, and the prejudice of the two American women staying there eventually allows Consuela open access to the room and their conversations, so convinced are they that their attendant would not be able to understand English, despite her work in the tourist industry.

But Consuela is not a stand-in for the readers’ attentions; she is simply one woman whose proximity to the women’s September-holidaying is significant.

At first, the pair is something of a blur: neither Wilma nor Amy is overly friendly, and each has her own frustrations, which add a degree of urgency to their vacation.

Each woman takes on a distinct persona when one of them dies in the hotel; the other is hospitalized and then unexpectedly leaves Mexico to search for the independence she believes has eluded her in her life to date.

“The American lady paused at the railing and looked down before she jumped.
She did not look down. She knelt and prayed.
She didn’t hesitate a moment, just ran across the balcony and dived over.
She screamed as she fell.
She didn’t make a sound.
She carried in her arms a silver box.
Her arms were empty, flung wide to the heavens in supplication.
She turned over and over in the air.
She fell straight down and head first, like an arrow.
The eyewitnesses all agreed on one point: when she struck the pavement she died instantly.”

The question of perspective is central in Margaret Millar’s mysteries and even the most casual observation of a secondary character reveals her fascination with psychology.

“You see? There’s a logical explanation for everything but [he] just won’t believe it. He’s practically irrational on the subject of family. I don’t know why, and I prefer not to think about it since there’s nothing I can do about it.”

This is Helene, the sister-in-law of Amy Kellogg, looking for a logical explanation for why Amy would send a letter from Mexico City explaining that she would be taking an extended leave. From her life, essentially.

Helene purports to be trying to defuse her husband’s concerns, speaking to Amy’s husband about her own husband’s doubts, which have ballooned to the point where he has hired a private investigator.

This is the first time I’ve met a PI on the pages of a Margaret Millar mystery: Elmer Dodd, “experienced in many things and expert in none”.

It’s Elmer who posits that Amy’s disappearance isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. “A lady gets bored or disgusted or both, and off she goes on a bit of a wingding. When the wingding is over, she comes home. The neighbours think she’s been on a holiday, so nobody’s any the wiser. Except maybe her. Wingdings can be rough on a lady.”

If you’re wincing over ‘wingdings’, you’re not alone. Rupert Kellogg recoiled from it too. “He coughed over the unfamiliar word as if it had stuck in his throat like a fishbone.”

In some cases, characters are reduced to stereotypes (“Did he quarrel frequently with his wife? Was he a lush or a chaser?”) but the emphasis for the most part is on human foibles.

And, on logical explanations, too. Even though they are sometimes unsavoury.

“It was a street of conformity, where identical houses and the future were planned with equal care, and even if everything went wrong, the master plan remained in effect – keep up appearances, clip the hedges, mow the lawn, so that no one will suspect that there’s a third mortgage and that Mother’s headaches are caused by martinis, not migraine.”

This question of keeping up appearances creates all kinds of opportunities for deception. “Nobody lies the way he’s lied unless he has something to hide.”

Indeed, there are a lot of liars in Magaret Millar’s fiction. But only some of them are murderers.

Have you been spending your time on the page with any notable liars of late?

I’m reading one of several volumes in a reprint series from Syndicate (Soho Press); when you line up the seven spines on your bookshelf, they will complete a suitably menacing/domestic image, which you can also glimpse in my posts about Wives and Lovers and Beast In View. My posts about Vanish In An Instant and An Air That Kills feature vintage covers. More Margaret Millar to come!