So many books to talk about! Including what’s currently in my stacks and what I’m reading with this year’s International Festival of Authors in mind.
‘Tis the season of literary prizelists, and I’m enjoying the Toronto Book Award nominees and the Giller Prize longlisters.
There’s talk of new fiction, including Jon Chan Simpson’s Chinkstar and Jonathan Franzen’s Purity and aguest post, in which ReaderWoman discusses Blanche Howard’s last novel, The Ice Maiden.
Discussion of Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness has concluded my Alice Munro Reading Project, and I am currently reading Alistair MacLeod and considering another short story project.
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!)
So, it’s past the middle of November, so I’m surprised to find myself surrounded by so many mosquitoes.
First in the fifth volume of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series, On the Shores of Silver Lake.
Living so close to the land, the other residents are regularly brushing elbows (and paws and wings and other appendages) with the Ingalls family.
There is a bear where Ma is expecting to find a cow (don’t worry: the cow is fine).
There are wolves in a den which everyone thought was abandoned.
Of course, Jack the brindle bull dog, who loyally follows the wagon, until he is too old to walk behind.
And, oh yes, so many grasshoppers. And, then, so many grasshopper eggs. Which leads, obviously, to many more grasshoppers.
So, it only makes sense to find mosquitoes there. (The grasshoppers had their own chapter too, also illustrated by Garth Williams.)
When I was a girl, I reread my favourite volumes of this series regularly. My favourite was always The Long Winter, after I was old enough to read them all, but my longest-time favourite would have been Little House in the Big Woods, because for some years I only read the volumes with the larger print (the first four, technically, but I never liked Farmer Boy, because it was not about a Farmer Girl).
As an older reader, I wonder how I crawled over the assumptions about ethnicity and gender roles which I likely read without questioning at the time. Ma declares that the “only good Indian is a dead Indian” and even though Pa has picked out a couple who pass muster with him, they are clearly exceptional in his mind.
Nonetheless, I intend to finish the series. Way back in my girlhood reading years, I learned the habit of leaving series unfinished, and I am trying to make good on some of those as an adult reader.
For even though I loved Laura’s propensity for mischief when I was younger, I had no patience with her when she got older, capable of all the same chores that Ma could do…and then she began to eye Almanzo. Even so, The First Four Years: here I come.
(This is part of a more extensive project; this past summer, I also finally finished the last volume of the Anne books, which I had avoided for many years. Another summer, I finished the Sydney Taylor All-of-a-Kind-Family series. And then there was the Ramona series (the later volumes were published after I was reading Ramona regularly). And Little Women (again, gals got married and their lives became less interesting for me). And The Borrowers too.)
The only series that I actually finished reading when I was a girl was – oh, never mind, I didn’t ever finish one. (When I was in high school, I finally got around to finishing one, I think.)
But I get distracted. Something new comes out, and then I am compelled to read it instead.
Which is what happened with Michel Chikawanine’s Child Soldier (written with Jessica Dee Humphreys and illustrated by Claudia Dávila).
An ad for one of his speaking engagements got my attention, then I was slipping Child Soldier into my bookbag.
And, there again, talk of mosquitoes. Though the bloodshed in this story is at the hands of human beings. (Both the illustrations and the text in his graphic memoir are worth reading.)
In A.S. Byatt’s “Morpho Eugenia”, a novella included in the volume Angels & Insects, there is talk of not just a single mosquito.
Instead, there is talk of a cloud of them (even though the bulk of the story is preoccupied with a cloud of butterflies).
“The primeval forest out there – the endless sameness of the greenery – the clouds of midges and mosquitoes – the struggling mass of creepers and undergrowth – often seemed to me the epitome of the amorphous.”
This was the first fiction published by her after the inimitable Possession, which I loved to pieces (literally – I no longer have my much-abused copy).
It was also an early instance of Not-the-Book-I-Loved phenomenon, in which I expected an author’s subsequent publication to be both (a) new and fascinating and different and (b) exactly like the book they wrote before, the one that I had loved.
Although mosquitoes are not at the heart of this story, there are many flurries and bursts of things, some winged and others shoed.
William has just returned from the Amazon, in which he was shipwrecked for a time, most of his collected specimens lost. He managed to salvage only a couple of pieces, but their value managed to secure a future for him all the same (though perhaps not the future he would have imagined).
There is a lot of talk about ants (and bees, to a lesser extent) and they scurry through the story like the maids scurry up and down the backstairs of wealthy homes in the 19th century. (It does not take long to recognize the queen!)
In some instances, the mosquitoes in my reading have flown off almost immediately after I spotted them on the page.
But in Griffin Ondaatje’smiddle-grade novel The Mosquito Brothers (illustrated by Erica Salcedo), they take centre stage. Er, hover above it, anyway.
Just as A.S. Byatt takes the world of insects and positions readers so that they wonder if they are viewing an ant colony or a pseudo-mediaeval manor house, Griffin Ondaatje tells Dinnn’s story – the story of a young mosquito – in the context of his everyday life, with his family and attending school.
One could read this as a nice middle-grade story about a young wanna-be-hero, who doesn’t have the same attributes as the other youngsters but learns to accept himself for who he is and sees that he really does have something unique to offer.
But I read it as someone who needed more information about mosquitoes, having had so many chance encounters with them lately (on the page).
Dinnn was named with 3 ‘n’s because his mother had 400 children to name, so it was necessary (nnnecessary) to double up eventually. This is a problem that I had never considered. (It’s one of the reasons that the interview with the author and Shelagh Rogers, on a recent episode of CBC’s “The Next Chapter”, caught my attention!)
So Dinnn’s mother has my sympathies. All the more so because she ran away to a parking lot with Dinnn’s father and only later discovered that he was a floater.
That’s right: her husband spends the bulk of his time bumping around the drive-in movie theatre screen. Then again, maybe he is struggling with the fact that his sweetheart had another family before, in an abandoned tire, with some other mister-mosquito some years back.
When Dinnn’s father goes to parent-teacher night, he falls asleep, because he’s up so late, with the movies playing every night at the Lakeside theatre. Or maybe the air is just too stuffy in the school, which is an old air-conditioning unit.
Ironically, The Mosquito Brothers was intended as my final book on the subject. But Dinnn learns some truly fascinating facts about his kind, when he attends school. Griffin Ondaatje’s book might not be the last on the subject in my reading after all.
Bundle up, Dinnn: it’s nearly December, and you’re going to need a warmer coat!
I returned to picture books when a face-to-face bookclub read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Books without pictures still outnumber the illustrated volumes in my stacks, but I am working to adjust the balance.
The Good Little Book, written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Marion Arbona, will suit booklovers of all ages, and likely some pre-bookloving youngsters who are drawn to boldly coloured and intricate drawings as well.
The inside leaf has a bookplate with a number of readers’ names in childlike handwriting, the names of the author and illustrator and various loved ones with whom they have shared the volume.
Against a rich floral pattern, around the plate and on the facing page, it looks as though some young hands have drawn some stick figures, outlined some of their favourite things (including a dinosaur and a rocket) and an x’s and o’s grid (in which o won).
Much is revealed here: books are to be shared and readers are to interact with their favourites, to make them a part of their everyday lives. The Good Little Book does have a story, but there are only a few pages, so that’s best left for readers to discover themselves.
However, in case you need to recognize it in a crowd, here is a description of the main character: “The good little book was neither thick nor thin, neither popular nor unpopular. It had no shiny medals to boast of. It didn’t even own a proper jacket.”
And here is a hint of the action contained herein:”The silence of reading slowly filled the room.” Sometimes things get more exciting: “Then he turned back to the beginning and read it again.”
Marion Arbona’s illustrations are slightly disorienting, in a way which seems to pull readers into the story: buildings with straight lines angle towards one another and a reader in an armchair repeats across a spread-page as though the floor is never flat or still.
In collage-styled spreads, people and other creatures overlap like sardines in a can, body parts colliding, instantly creating a mood. There is a playful tone, which would appeal to children (a couple of scenes in particular will make them giggle, offering eyes on uncommonly viewed territory) but the colours and intricacy will also appeal to adults. (I would happily hang prints from this volume on my walls, the two which are not covered with bookshelves.)
As with Kyo Maclear’s Virginia Wolf, the prose is clearly written to reach young readers, but it resonates with older readers as well. It is delicately and deliberately constructed, and perhaps it’s because I so enjoyed her debut novel The Letter Opener and still remember the feeling that book created, but the prose feels inviting, warming even (the colours help with that too, of course).
If you’ve loved Sarah Stewart’s The Library (illustrated by David Small), Manjusha Pawagi’s The Girl Who Hated Books (illustrated by Leanne Franson) and Kate Bernheimer’s The Lonely Book (illustrated by Chris Sheban), you will want a copy of The Good Little Book on your shelves.
It can hang out with all the other good little books there.
Do you have a favourite illustrated bookish book?
Three of the books in my stack currently are heavy or over-sized (G.R..R. Martin: I’m looking at you), but there are several skinny options making an appearance in my bookbag this week.
First, Michel Chikawanine’s Child Soldier (written with Jessica Dee Humphreys and illustrated by Claudia Dávila); he begins by introducing himself and saying that the “story you are about to read is true”.
It is a story aimed at young readers, who may be shocked to learn that an estimated 250,000 of their peers are soldiers.
Half of this number are involved in Africa, but their experiences are shared by many on other continents as well, and the supplementary material also draws attention to the impact of other kinds of violence and crime on children everywhere.
It’s clear that this book could be immediately and powerfully put to use in classrooms, and the pages illustrated in colour seem as though they would be particularly appealing to young readers. (There are alsosix pages of supporting material at the end, including definitions and resources, whereas some terms – like genocide – are defined in the story proper.)
Yet there are pages interspersed, which are illustrated in the same style but include a few panels coloured in sepia or neutral tones, with maps or text, which also offer direct and concrete geographical and political commentary. This is presented in basic terms, so that generations of history are encapsulated in a couple of pages, and it situates readers in time and space succinctly.
Sometimes these panels contain no image, only a comment from the author which reveals a concept requiring additional explanation. “Looking back, I see it was unfair that I had been raised to think I was great because of my gender insetad of my deeds. But Congo, like most of the world, suffers from ‘boy is best’ thinking. Although my dad was smart, modern and understanding, he was still a product of his upbringing and his culture. I guess we all are.”
Perhaps younger readers would be pulled more completely into the story, for it is announced almost immediately that things are going to change, and a sense of tension lurks from the start; I find that I can only read a few pages at a time. Michel Chikwanine’s story is presented in the simplest manner, and it is tremendously affecting told in this way.
There is some grim reading in the November issue of “The Walrus”, but it, too, ends on a note of promise. “In a way, it’s harder to read about the brutalization of livestock than of humans, because we don’t put humans in Happy Meals,” writes Jonathan Kay, in his review of Project Animal Farm by Sonia Faruqi.
“Project Animal Farm penetrates our psychological defences, because Faruqi’s compendium of horrors is interwoven with the deadpan story of her own bizarre, mortifying, often hilarious interactions with a rolling cast of characters.” This one is on my reading list, thanks to the review.
I usually start reading “The Walrus” at the back (or the front) and then turn to the front (or the back) and read up to the feature article. This month, I began at the back, with Seth’s cartoon, and I loved what came next: the photographs taken by Joseph Hartman of the studios of Canadian artists (accompanied by a short piece by Kyle Carston Wyatt about the nature of the ‘studio’ and the photgrapher’s fascination with it).
Margaret Drabble’s books are often too heavy to slip into a bookbag easily, but Jerusalem the Golden does. It is just over 200 pages, and she is one of my MRE authors (MustReadEverything), so I am happy to bring her along.
This is the story of Clara Maugham. “She stayed indoors for the rest of the summer, lying on her bed, trying to read.” Readers meet her long after that summer, zip backwards to well before that summer, and then settle firmly on the other side of it once more.
“Her desire for such a life was so passionate, and her gratitude to Walter for this glimpse of it was so great that she could have kissed him in the street, and later that day she did in fact allow him to undo her brassiere strap without a word of protest.”
Passion and gratitude, bassiere straps and protest: Margaret Drabble’s novels are quietly subversive.
What’s in your bookbag these days?
Our young separatist narrator is imagining his own future and the future of Quebec, and both man and nation are struggling with matters of expression and independence, in Hubert Aquin’s Next Episode (published in 1965, translated by Sheila Fischman in 2001).
“I am the fragmented symbol of Quebec’s revolution, its fractured reflection and its suicidal incarnation.”
He is isolated and lonely: thinking back, thinking forward.
“I need you; I need to retrieve the thread of our story and the ellipsis that will take me back to the heat of our two consumed bodies.”
The narrative is deliberately disorienting for readers but, paradoxically, it is rooting the writer.
“Writing a story is no small matter, unless it becomes the daily and detailed punctuation of my endless stillness and my slow fall into this liquid pit.”
It is what maintains and sustains his sanity. (Or does not.)
“This book is the tirelessly repeated act of a patriot who’s waiting in the timeless void for the chance to take up arms again. Moreover, it embraces the very shape of the time to come: in it and through it I am exploring my indecision and my unlikely future.”
In Sheila Fischman’s translation, the prose is rhythmic and readers are caught up in the swell of long phrases which pull readers in and then cast them outwards once more.
“Writing is a great expression of love. Writing used to mean writing to you; but now that I’ve lost you I still mass words together, mechanically, because in my heart of hearts I hope that my intellectual wanderings, which I reserve for born debaters, will make their way to you.”
This classic novel takes work, as does any relationship, but one can’t help but feel that it is a love letter of sorts: a heartfelt declaration.
And even without an understanding of the politics and philosophy which simmer beneath the story, the storyteller’s passion remains seductive: seductive and secretive.
There is a lot of clandestine activity in Next Episode, as secret communications and quietly orchestrated acts of resistance unfold in any backdrop of revolution.
This is true, too, in Helen Weinzweig’s Basic Black with Pearls (1980). The narrator’s lover works for The Agency, and their capacity to spend time together is dictated by this organization’s demands.
Shirley Kazenbowski (née Silverberg) looks in magazines for clues which might refer to an earlier meeting or could suggest possibiltiies for their next meeting. Everything has the possibility of containing a message, a sign (or, a memory, perhaps a loss).
“The question still remained: where, in the problem of dead elms [discussed in an issue of National Geographic], was his message for me? I counted words on a line, lines on a page, the number of Latin terms. Nothing was revealed. Fatigue diverted a rising dread.”
The personal landscape and the physical landscape intersect, the geography of memory settles into place.
“Even in the rain I could see that what appeared to be new shops and buildings were only facades over the old: larger windows, bright tile, some stone work. I felt my past had not been erased, just covered over and given new names in other languages.”
There is a strong sense of place in the novel, as she walks the streets of Toronto, looking for clues. In those shops near Spadina and Dundas Streets, she walks with her head down, in the rain. Often the weather parallels her emotions, when she is overwhelmed, suspended between meetings and missing her lover.
She is pulled into memories of other places in which they have spent time together as she searches through her collection of postcards.
“This card, recalling the night Coenraad first made his appearance, filled my mind with a clarity of detail that one sees in shock, as after a blinding explosion or during a night of labor. And even when the shock is the result of violent pleasure, then the ordinary properties of wood or plastic or paint or cloth take on strange and mysterious shapes and colors. The senses sharpen as if one’s very life were in danger, even in paradise.”
Her senses do seem to sharpen as the story unfolds, circuitously, through memory and imagination, through those parts of her past that have been covered over and renamed. Gradually, readers come to have a different understanding of her current situation.
“Perhaps I ought to try my hand at fiction. I would have to be careful: for me the power of the written word is so great that there would be the danger of my believing what I imagined.”
When I came upon this passage, I immediately thought of the way that Next Episode‘s narrator thinks about writing as an expression of love.
The narrator in Basic Black with Pearls hopes her words will reach her lover, too. And Next Episode‘s narrator desperately needs to believe what he imagines.
When characters start having conversations between books, I smile. (Even when their stories are sad ones.)
She tells you straight-up: “The decision when to begin a family story is arbitrary.”
HarperPerennial, 2015 (US edition)
And she lays out the doubts and uncertainties: “Who am I to claim the official version?”
And, so, Alison Pick is our seemingly uncertain and unsanctioned guide.
But, she also writes about the dynamic between certainty and reluctance in a relationship.
And this is true not only in an intimate and romantic partnership, as she describes, but in the relationship between reader and writer.
The more uncertain the writer, the more she is willing to explore and unearth difficult truths, the more she bares her humanity and confronts her doubts and fragility, the more we, readers, develop a certain trust in Alison Pick’s voice.
The story of her “own small life” in the context of her family mythology has long inspired her work. In her poetry collection, Question & Answer, she also considers the arbitrary nature of beginning a query into one’s ancestral heritage.
Consider these lines, from a poem written for her grandparents, “What They Left Me”:
“Her son: my father.
My own small life.
The first light snow of winter, their ashes at my back.”
For years, these stories have haunted her, even before the desire could be clearly articulated (a process she describes at length, in an authentic voice, which strikes a balance between peculiarly personal and universal human experiences), even before she understood the dimensions of their experience of the Holocaust.
“But I felt a growing unease. The clues were beginning to add up. Something wasn’t right in our family. Something was lurking, biding its time. It seemed to be pulling at me, a persistent tugging. I wasn’t sure I could resist much longer.”
It is more than a simple unease, however. With time, it becomes “…an oppressive, relentless psychic weight; a nagging voice that I have to somehow override each time I set pen to paper”.
This lurking and tugging, oppressive and relentless, settles into a diagnosis, but this is not a medical memoir; by nature a contemplative and reflective person, Alison Pick records and evaluates, reels and careens.
“There are things I used to care about: That the bills were paid on time. That we ate the kale in the crisper before buying more. I once nagged Degan about ironing his shirt before work. I remember this through a fog of comprehension, stunned that I would have noticed such a thing, let alone felt compelled to do anything about it.”
Her quest, unsurprisingly (given the title), focuses on matters of faith.
“At a time of spiritual crisis it is best to do nothing. To float. To rest. To ask for guidance. But when I finally make it home and collapse into bed, I find myself unable to pray. I am between Gods, as others are between relationships or careers.”
But the role of her creative work, her use of dance and music and language to form order from chaos: this, too, is vitally important in both questioning and answering.
“And a story, any story, has to start somewhere.”
In some ways, it starts when you get out of bed in the morning (or do not).
In other ways, it starts when you put pen to paper. While “between Gods”, the author is also composing her novel, Far to Go. (Her first novel, The Sweet Edge, is what drew me to this volume.)
“Maybe writing fiction serves a dual function: letting the author excavate her psyche while at the same time functioning as a kind of psychic shield.”
The links between her ancestral history and her personal life are explored through a swath of experiences as varied as a traumatic hospital visit and an unexpectedly strong attraction (to another writer who has published a memoir about his experience growing up in the Orthodox Jewish tradition) to a tour of a concentration camp and a speech given by a Holocaust survivor. And, throughout, there is a persistent awareness that hers is “just one of many possible stories”.
Many scenes are rooted in religious traditions, both Christian and Jewish. From Passover to synagogue services, from Christmas carols to Communion wafers: many readers will likely be drawn to the detailed exploration and consideration of specific memberships. (There is a lot of detail about Toronto worship in particular, from community centres to Judaica retail locations.)
While I am sure that many readers will find these elements of the memoir central, for me the pull of Between Gods is its sense that each of us travels our own spiritual road, with or without formal affiliation (both states are considered at length in Between Gods). This journey of a lifetime (and across lifetimes) is a road much travelled, shaped by us as individuals and as members of communities (whether rooted in blood or in choice: Alison Pick finds travelling companions in both groups). And all readers can find something to relate to in this kind of travelogue.
“Narrative begs an ending. The desire to wrap up loose-ends, to make meaning, is human, and ancient. But things do not end. There is only progression, shape-shifting, the flow of a current that crashes and tumbles, diminishes, almost dries up, only to give birth to itself again a little farther downstream.”
Alison Pick begins her quest reluctantly, but her journey is punctuated by moments of certainty.
“The flip side of grief is a blazing, blistering gratitude for being alive.”
Find out more about Alison at her website and connect with her on Facebook.
Thanks to TLC and the publisher for the invitation to participate in this tour.
Other participants’ thoughts appear here: Back Porchervations, From L.A. to LA. Yet to come: Not in Jersey, BooknAround, Life By Kristen, Worth Getting in Bed For, The many thoughts of a reader, 5 Minutes For Books, Book Hooked Blog, Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews, Svetlana’s Reads and Views, Ms. Nose in a Book, and Book by Book.
Despite its sedate and unassuming cover, Pauline Holdstock’s The Hunter and the Wild Girl begins in a rush.
Goose Lane, 2015
“With a shriek of splintering boards, the girl breaks into daylight and stands blinded, panting, sucking air as if it were a great hot soup, her chest heaving.”
This sentence and the following pages remind me of Tomson Highway’s opening scene in Kiss of the Fur Queen, as Abraham races towards the finish line in a race.
Immediately we readers are engaged in this girl’s story because she is racing too, but readers soon understand that she is not aiming to win.
Perhaps we notice with the ‘shriek’ and the ‘break’ or maybe we need the outwardly expressed desire to be ‘away’, offered a few sentences later.
We realize that we are witnessing an escape not a race, and immediately we sympathize with the hunted.
What is slower to come is a sense of the layers of narrative and characterization which echo that dynamic of pursuer and persued thoughout the work.
There are two central figures in this story, but perhaps even more importantly, there are two roles: several of the story’s prominent characters inhabit both.
Peyre Rouff for instance, was once a member of a small community in 19th-century France, with a wife and child to provide for; but for much of this story he lives in a state that many would describe as “wild”, living off a pot of soup for a week and devoting his waking and sober hours to creating art.
Just there, what I really wanted to say is that Peyre is creating not art, but life, or at least, as close as nearly as one can create life, with materials gathered by post and skills gained via years of practice.
And perhaps I might as well say that, for my use of the word ‘art’ could lead you to think he is painting watercolours or sculpting with clay, whereas the surprise of learning that Peyre becomes a renowned taxidermist is appropriately disorieting.
Peyre possesses (or acquires) a gift. But just as one cannot be hunted unless there is a hunter, the idea of one possessing a gift begs the corollary: Peyre also has (or acquires) a curse.
The Hunter and the Wild Girl feels like a humble and simple tale about a world in which the role of the village is so central that many French villagers believe Paris to be a different country; yet it also reads as an archetypal tale sketched in such broad strokes that readers can interpret it in an ovewhelming number of ways.
The narrative rushes and slows, darts and stops to take a breath; its course is like a stream whose underground bits move with unexpected speed and direction. (Pauline Holdstock gets the credit for this metaphor, although explaining why would be a spoiler.)
The prose itself erupts in fragments, then settles into long comma-soaked descriptive passages. The solidity of the story rests in theme.
What happens when a person bears a responsibility which is too substantial for one person to carry. What happens when one recreates one’s world around a set of bones-once-buried.
What happens when we are confronted by the bestial elements of a human eixistence. What happens when the conventional definitions of wilderness and civilization are insufficient.
What happens when an individual faces an inexpressible loss. What happens when a community has the opportunity to blame an individual for an inexplicable loss.
It didn’t surprise me that Pauline Holdstock’s novel was well-crafted; her Into the Heart of the Country was one of my favourites in 2011.
But what did surprise me? About 3/4 of the way into this novel, I began to want something for one of the characters, something that I couldn’t recall wanting for anyone before, fictional or otherwise. But then I realized that I had wanted it, but I called it something else. And now I have a new word for it. The Wild Girl showed it to me.
Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, Lauren B. Davis’s Our Daily Bread, Alissa York’s Effigy
(For thematic similarities although setting and style differ greatly amongst them.)
My stacks for this month are works-in-progress. Because even though we are two weeks into October now, my inner calendar is still hovering near the beginning of September.
So, part of me still thinks that I will have more time to read more of the books that I’d dreamed of covering in this year’s Diversiverse event (you can spot some of the same volumes in this enthusiastic post).
Whereas, the logical part of me realises that they have not been finished in time for them to be included in the event (of course that doesn’t change my commitment to reading them, only the timeline).
In September, I was reading a lot of skinny books, so I am looking to fall into longer tales now.
Which is not to say that I’m not reading short stories this month, for my Alistair MacLeod weekly reading continues (I slipped into this following my completion of Alice Munro’s stories, but I haven’t been writing about the stories in Island).
They are absolutely beautiful stories. You have probably heard that before. There is something almost hypnotic about his prose style, and even though they are often melancholy, the crafting in them elevates the reading experience to another level of appreciation, beyond the sadness.
Several of these books have been hanging about on the bedside table, untouched for days at a time. This is partly because my enthusiasm doesn’t necessarly match the available reading hours in my days, but it’s also partly because this time of year whispers of multiple reading projects even though my attention span isn’t cooperating.
So, for instance, I did read and reread all of the Courtney Crumrin graphic novels in recent weeks, but I have only read the first two pages of the new Margaret Atwood novel. This is how it goes sometimes, right? (This is also because it felt like I had nightmares all night after beginning the Atwood novel, whereas the night things in Naifeh’s series didn’t once keep me up.)
One of the books in which I have been half-heartedly dabbling, but which I can now properly attend to, is Madeleine Stern’s biography of Louisa May Alcott.
She is not one of my favourite writers, but I did reread Little Women and Good Wives a couple of summers ago (my girlhood copy of Little Women had included both volumes, unbeknownst to me) and then I read on, with Little Men and Jo’s Boys, which were fresh-reads for me.
There were so many things about the series which I hadn’t observed in the same way as a girl; Jo’s character challenged all the right things for the younger-me, but the older-me wanted her to be more of a rebel.
While I forgive the traditional choices of the characters in L.M. Montgomery’s novels, because I reread them so many times as a girl and throughout my life, I wanted more from Jo March than she was built to give (same with the other little and not-so-little women in the series).
So I stumbled into this biography because of Madeleine Stern (via her Old Books, Rare Friends), but what an interesting approach to biography. It reads like a novel, with Louy’s daily life unfolding complete with sensory experiences and fully sketched scenes from even her youngest years.
Yet, this is not fiction, for Stern has spent a lifetime researching this writer’s life and work. It is the work of a scholar, but written in a novelistic style. When I pulled this book into my stack, I’d left another biography (of Edna St. Vincent Millay, more conventionally styled) and an unabridged writer’s journal (Sylvia Plath’s) on the shelf. In my mind, I was expecting something near-academic in tone. This was an unexpected discovery, but I’m looking forward to reading on.
As for the others in this month’s stacks, some may return to the shelves until another reading mood strikes, but I’m sure there is some good reading ahead nonetheless.
What about you? How are your stacks this month? Anything you are thinking of setting aside for another time? Anything you have been inspired to squish into the mix?
“I’ve always conceived of language as music,” says Tomson Highway: musician, playwright, novelist. “I play Chopin still, but in Cree,” he continues.
Then, more than a decade later, it is as though he continues this conversation, in A Tale of Monstrous Extravagance.
This slim volume is subtitled on “Imagining Multilingualism”, which might strike you as a poor prospect for entertainment, but Highway is a gifted presenter.
With a live audience, this piece must have been wholly engaging. Even in only a handful of pages, flat stark black-and-white pages, his humour comes through, and readers have a clear sense of his cadence.
“Ever seen a score by Arnold Schoenberg? Learning Chinese would be easier.”
But in between these observations and witty snippets, there is a great deal of personal reminiscence, philosophy and mythic writing.
This volume begins with the tale of a birth, and even in the young life of Tomson Highway, it’s clear that there is a remarkable synergy at work.
“So there we were, Joe and Pelagie Highway’s brood, the privileged children of three Native languages each as distinct one from the other as English is from Arabic and Korean or French is from Mandarin or Swahili—for Cree, like Ojibway and Blackfoot, is an Algonquian language; Dene, like Slavey and Dogrib, Athapaskan; and Inuktituk resides in a linguistic family all on its own, like Hungarian in Europe, let us say. Between these three Native languages, that is to say, there is not a stitch of similarity, not a syllable in common.”
One can imagine the linguistics textbook.
“So if the Dene language belongs to and comes from the soil and the muskeg and the reindeer moss of the northern extremities of the three Prairie provinces and a sizeable chunk of the Northwest Territories—though not so much Nunavut for, on that side, the language merely peeks into is southern extremity—then Cree comes from the laughter of a cosmic clown, as he/she has been called, a merry-maker called the Trickster, Weesageechaak in Cree, Nanabush in Ojibway, Glooscap in Mi’kmaq, Iktomi in Lakota, Coyote on the plains, Raven on the west coast.”
One can imagine the poems, the lyrics, the songs.
“Without speaking other languages, you would never know these facts. You would never know that such a vision of life, one so different from yours, existed. There is simply no other way of digging out such information. Speaking one language, I submit, is like living in a house with one window only; all you see is that one perspective when, in point of fact, dozens, hundreds, of other perspectives exist and one must, at the very least, heed them, see them, hear them.”
One can imagine just how much more than is to imagine. Through all those windows.
Something similar is at work in The (Post) Mistress, a one-woman show, which contains eleven musical numbers in a variety of musical styles, written by Tomson Highway in Cree, French and English.
At the heart of the production is Marie-Louise Painchaud, a 49-year-old Francophone post-mistress in Northern Ontario. She is but a single window.
“You see this uniform, this counter, these boxes? Mailboxes. This is a post office, my post office, the post office where I work here in my hometown of Lovely, a small farming town near Complexity, Ontario, and just spitting distance from the legendary iviere Armitage, the long and winding, cliff-sided river that connects Lake Mahji-di-ate to GeorgianBay on Lake Huron, so you can just imagine how beautiful it is, maple trees for miles.”
Complexity, with its monstrous penny, evoking Sudbury with its monstrous nickel is a mining town, is in the background, however. The set is the post-office but overshadowing the props is Marie-Louise, whose voice, whose laughter, sets the stage more than anything.
Yet the letters and the addressees create the sense of enlarging the cast and they provide the opportunity for Marie-Louise to reflect upon a variety of subjects. She affords access to many windows.
“That’s Barbaro Botafogo, my friend Sylvie Labranche’s secret lover; writing from Brazil, can you believe it? He writes to her once a month ever since he had to fly back home – after his term at the university in Complexity was over one year ago – back to his wife and children in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the sexiest city in the world, this Barbaro Botalogo tells my friend Sylvie in these letters. Isn’t that terrible? He has a wife and God knows how many children down there and he still writes to her, the nerve, but anyway. Accordng to the man, it’s so hot down here in Rio de Janeiro that they wear nothing but dental floss, even to go shopping. ha! You wear dentail foss here in Lovely, Ontario, in February and you’d freeze to death, no doubt about it.”
The community is of vital importance and Mary-Louise evidently plays a central role in it, but in this context she appears to be on the margins, observing and considering the various scenarios which play out in the envelopes which come and go.
There is another aspect of this story which fits with a conversation between Tomson Highway and Shelagh Rogers on CBC’s “The Next Chapter”, in which he discusses his relationship with his brother, who died some years ago.
The conversation made me cry, but it was not simply that it was sad, but that it was so overwhelmingly beautiful. There was something so ludicrous and so true about his observatios, that I felt my understanding of the world shifting. I had not considered that words used to discuss loss and grief could contain so many possibilities.
But language is fluid and illuminating when you look through Tomson Highway’s windows. These are wonder-tales for our world.
(Source for initial quotes: CBC’s “Life and Times” documentary from the later 1990s)
If the idea of experimental or innovative short stories makes you squirm, even though you are simultaneously bored with more traditional structure, Not Anyone’s Anything belongs on your bookshelf.
Ian Williams puts relationships at the core of his work and this fiction collection exhibits this tendency as well.
I also wholly enjoyed his poetry collection You Know Who You Are, which opens, you might have guessed, with an epigraph from Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? and behaves, in some ways, more like a conversation than a collection of poems.
The stories in this collection reverberate within and throughout, seem to call-and-answer in an unusual and compelling manner.
Stylistically this is an exciting project as the author’s playfulness extends not only to trios of trios of stories, which reflect and refract, but to forms which shift and expand as the reader turns the pages.
Lines are drawn, for instance to afford the possibility of simul-reading two characters’ experiences on the same page (i.e. one person’s perspective on the left-hand side and the other’s on the right-hand side) or to align two experiences of the same narrative space (i.e. a horizontal line separating the characters’ experiences until they inhabit a shared space).
But these lines are inclusionary and engaging, rather than isolating and pretentious.
Musical staves or Korean language study-cards: you might not be able to predict the contents of an Ian Williams’ story, but loyal readers will know you can predict the degree of satisfaction which settles upon reading.
Personals examines the ins and outs of coupling.
From “Anticipation” to “Bore”–
From “The Romantic Lead” to “Superhero Fantasies” —
From “Sixteen” to “Stranger” —
Ian Williams charts the landscape of attachment and detachment.
But before the reader discovers the contents of the collection, there is the striking wrapping to study. (I can’t stop staring: design by Natalie Olsen.) Including charming endpapers.
And Ian Williams is a designer too.
The shape of his poems is remarkable.
And sometimes the shapelessness, too: the way that lines wrap and turn, rather than simply end.
Sometimes a verse is all about what is said and what has been said and what is still being said.
As with “Echolalia”:
“Once one gets what one wants
one no longer wants it.
One no longer wants what?
One no longer wants what
And sometimes what it is not spoken speaks louder than words.
Ian Williams’ works simultaneously challenge and invite, and sometimes the silences resonate as loudly as the words.
Curious? His website is here.
The first volume of his Toronto trilogy introduces readers to Bernice Leach, who has left Barbados to work in Toronto as a housekeeper in an upscale neighbourhood in the 1960s.
She has left behind a son and his father, as well as a mother and a sister, and she is preoccupied by the adjustments required for her to work for the Burrmann family and settle into this new country.
Although there are new opportunities for her in Canada, she faces new challenges as well, and she soon adopts new habits designed to facilitate her adjustment.
“One immediate result of this change in her place of worship, was that she stopped thinking Mrs. Burrmann was the devil; and consequently, stopped thinking of leaving the job. Life became a little less unbearable. She could stomach Mrs. Burrmann, who at this time, was going to the University of Toronto, doing a part-time course in Social Anthropology. Mrs. Burrmann had less time to herself; less time for the whiskey; and she spent most of the day studying. Bernice spent all her time caring for her personal appearance; and the appearance of her mind.”
She begins reading magazines which she recognizes as valuable to families like the Burrmanns and finds herself choosing different kinds of clothing; this new position both requires and encourages changes in almost every aspect of her being.
Of course there is a great deal of pressure to represent and a great deal of risk when one does not conform to social expectations (there are beatings and police chases, dismissals and insults).
“Look, you had better learn one thing. We is the only coloured people in this district. We have to be on our best peace and behaviour, always. Everything we do, every word we utter, we gotta be always remembering it is a reflection on all the hundreds and thousands o’ coloured people in Toronto and in the whole o’ Canada.”
But The Meeting Point does not paint a rosy picture of the lives of the Burrmanns either. For all that Bernice feels compelled to change integral aspects of her self (her appearance and her religious beliefs and her very thoughts), Mrs. Burrmann is not static and contented. Perhaps she does try some university studies, the way that Bernice tries a new church, but the reason to fill up her whiskey glass remains.
The Burrmann household is troubled and Bernice is clear that having money does not solve people’s problems. Even though who are most entitled in this society are struggling to find a meeting point, a sense of belonging.
“Mr. Burrmann really never felt at home, at home. Not even when, as a boy growing up on Palmerston Boulevard in the guts of old downtown Toronto, in the days when Jews inhabited and ruled that entire section bounded by College, north to Bloor Street, east to Spadina Avenue and as far west as Bathurst Street. He used to spend those days in a “gang.” Some of the “gangsters” were young “coloured boys,” sons of West Indians who had come to Canada to work as porters on the railroads, and as domestics in white, rich kitchens and homes. Mr. Burrmann was therefore acquainted, from an early age, with domestics.”
One outstanding feature of Austin Clarke’s The Meeting Point is the use of dialogue, whether internal or external. The scenes are rich and vivid, whether detailing a trip to the Malton Aiport or describing Bernice’s rooms in the Burrmann house, and the story moves steadily, showcasing the voices of the characters who will likely continue to play important roles in the series’ next two volumes.
Readers are fully immersed in Bernice’s experiences but there are enough more broadly sketched scenes for readers to observe some of the complications that arise, particularly surrounding the arrival of her sister Estelle. These complications also invite the greater participation of other members of the domestic community, who become embroiled in situations which are sometimes comic but more often painful. Disappointment and betrayal is as much featured as friendship and support.
The setting is detailed and one can imagine drawing a map of the neighbourhood which Bernice comes to know so well, even though it is not her neighbourhood, only a meeting point.
Want more bookchat about Austin Clarke? More discussed here. A bibliography on Wikipedia. A short formal biography at Athabasca University. A January Magazine interview following the publication of The Polished Hoe. An excerpt from his 2015 autobiography ‘Membering along with some terrific photographs.