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 my reading log.

My most recent Friday Fugue was a string of T.G.I.F. posts on books which explore fictional workplaces, including Deryn Collier’s Fortin mysteries. (one of my MRE authors.)

There’s talk of new fiction, including Mark Anthony Jarman’s Knife Party at the Hotel Europa and Neil Smith’s Boo and new non-fiction, including Joseph Luzzi’s In a Dark Wood and Sally Mann’s Hold Still.

Discussion of Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness began on June 20th, with chat about “Dimensions” and I expect it will continue with one story each Saturday. The schedule is here, and you’re welcome to join in, whether for a single story or for the whole collection. As for other reading projects, I’m also working through the books of Gabrielle Roy.

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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Summer Reading To-Do List for Stormy Days (3 of 4)

Such good reading this summer, so far. In other respects, perhaps mine has not been the most productive summer. But it all depends what one puts on a to-do list, doesn’t it! What if your to-do list was all about the books in your stacks?

Hannaford A Secret Music

Cormorant Books, 2015

For coming-of-age devotees: 

  • Accompany Lawrence Nolan on his journey to be a concert pianist in 193os Montreal

The burdens which Lawrence must carry necessarily distance him from readers; he is extraordinarily controlled and reserved.

“He couldn’t keep up with the changes: his brother John, Patricia, and now Mother Raynaldo. All of them had slipped out of their groove, and were rolling around like marbles on a glass table.”

Compelled to achieve for his mother’s happiness, his stress increases as her sorrows increase.

“‘I am quite my old self today. I feel genuine happiness. You can’t imagine what it’s like when it’s not there.’ She tucked a clean strand of hair behind her ear. ‘Muttney insists I take John to the doctor, says he’s whiter than a snowdrift. I heard him upstairs. He was having such fun with Patricia. She’s awfully good to him. It’s just our Irish heritage, we’re so pale in the winter.’”

His mother is not presented as a villain, but ironically she demands a primacy of place in readers’ hearts, just as she overwhelms her son. Nonetheless, all characters remain sympathetic to a degree.

Almost as important as the characters in this debut novel is the setting; Depression-era Montreal provides a vivid backdrop, and music permeates the tale, offering an old-fashioned, seemingly timeless feel.

Similarly, New York City in 1939 is captured in a handful of details: ads for the World’s Fair, Doublemint Gum, Roosevelt, Camels and “Gone With the Wind” transport readers effortlessly to another time and place.

This kind of detail is never extraneous, but at times there is a sense of over-explaining, when it comes to the psychological content of the story.

“Could he ever be his mother’s priority as he once was? It was a careless question that went around and around his head leaving him exhausted, until finally he had given up wanting her to be present in his life. How could she, when she hadn’t been present in her own?”

Careful readers could likely understand Lawrence’s questioning without having it so clearly identified. Perhaps more interior scenes with symbolic elements could have relayed the same realization without the need for such direct exposition.

Susan Doherty Hannaford’s characterization is solid, the scenic detail is deftly handled, and the themes are relevant and compelling to comtemporary readers; I look forward to her next novel.

For thriller gulpers:

  • Turn the pages of John Colapinto’s Undone
Colapinto Undone

HarperCollins – Patrick Crean, 2015

“Let’s face it, the bad guys are always more interesting – at least in fiction. Give me Iago over Othello any day.”

So says Jasper: quintessential good guy.

His boyhood love of Sherlock Holmes led him to create a moderately successful series of detective novels, but it is his recently published memoir which has sold astonishingly well. America can’t get enough of the story of a man who has appeared on Tovah to discuss his mid-life vow of celibacy following his wife Pauline’s debilitating stroke.

Fame and celebrity do offer rewards, but Jasper’s sudden notoriety increases his vulnerability as well. His Pure Tovah moment displays mendacity and sentimentality and it embodies self-congratulation and self-promotion. Viewers take notice.

One of those is Dez, who has hatched a plan, which he considers an act of pure creativity. The novel’s epigraphs, speaking of evil and devilish deals, warn readers that an “interesting” bad guy is at the heart of this novel.

Indeed, without Dez, Undone would be a dull tale. Jasper’s marriage to Pauline is rooted in openness, honestly and transparency. There’s no immediate incentive to turn pages there. But Dez is an ephebophile (one whose sexual preference is limited to partners in mid- to late-adolescence) and he comes with an elaborate and disturbing backstory.

John Colapinto introduces his characters thoroughly and deliberately. Readers need not use their imaginations: every detail is supplied. The story has such a cinematic feel that readers might wonder if the screen-play wasn’t written first. So it is unsurprising that there is not a lot of complexity to either the characterization or the resoluton.

Nonetheless, not everything is quite as it seems. Even in the context of Jasper’s relationship to Pauline, the situation is not ideal. “He realized that, for the first time since the stroke, they had run up against the limits of their means of communication.”

This is where the devil can catch hold of those idle hands and make deals, in the gaps. When people can no longer communicate, when their needs evolve and shift over time, when the “things we loathed become the things we loved”.

Reading Companions: S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, Gordon Henderson’s Man in the Shadows (2014), Elizabeth Renzetti’s Based on a True Story (2014)

For armchair sleuths: 

Elena Forbes Jigsaw Man

Spiderline – House of Anansi, 2015

 

  • Solve crime with Mark Tataglia in Elena Forbes’ fourth volume, Jigsaw Man

Elena Forbes’ series begins with Die With Me. Even if you are not the sort of reader who must methodically move through a series of books, in proper publication (or author-sanctioned) order, it is important to make Mark Tataglia’s acquaintance with the series’ debut volume.

If the thought of reading three volumes before embarking on Jigsaw Man distresses you, don’t worry: the novels are tightly paced and bolstered by relationships which grow increasingly complex as the series develops, so you are likely to enjoy each of the earlier volumes incrementally more.

 ‘We’re trying to find out. His body was found in the back of a burnt-out car. He was already dead when the car was set on fire.’
Chapman looked puzzled. ‘What, you mean this has only just happened?’
‘Yes. Just over a week ago.’
‘So where’s he been since May?’
Probably cut up in pieces in someone’s freezer, Tartaglia wanted to say. Instead he replied, ‘We’re still trying to put it all together. Thank you for your time, Mr Chapman. You’ve been a great help. If you think of anything else, please give me a call.’

Piecing it all together is what detectives do best. Jigsaw Man is perhaps the most aptly titled volume of the series. This is a particularly complex crime, which Mark Tataglia is assembling, and it is most engaging for the reader.

Although the bulk of the novel is presented from the series’ hero’s perspective, the perpetrator is also directly represented for the reader, although in succinct chapters, so that the reader does not have quite enough information to reach an understanding before Mark Tataglia does.

The details of setting are spare but selectively chosen, which allows readers who do not know the city to feel just as home there as the characters who inhabit it.

“London seemed just a grey, filthy, sprawling, unfriendly mass and he wondered whether he had made a mistake leaving home. Gradually, as he got to know the city better, he started to realise that most areas had their own distinct personality and community, which made life more tolerable. Nowhere was this more true than in Barnes, picture-postcard pretty and so rural that it could almost be in the country, even though it was only a few miles from the centre of town.” (Die With Me)

As suits the genre, the author uses language in a straight-forward and matter-of-fact way. When her prose takes a figurative turn, it is usually to add to the emotion of a particular scene or relationship. The following passage illuminates this quality, but is even more significant for the fact that it reveals the novels’ primary focus: relationships.

“Although they both went out of their way to be polite, each deferring almost unnecessarily to the other, they reminded her of a pair of dogs, hackles up, skirting warily around each other, spoiling for a fight.”

In this case (also drawn from Die With Me), it is a relationship between co-workers which is being discussed. And, indeed, therein lies much of the appeal for this reader: theebb and flow of workplace collaborations and friendships. Elena Forbes’ mysteries recall the early Tana French books and the more recent Robert Galbraith stories in this sense.

Unravelling the mysteries is one kind of satisfying, but the ultimate satisfaction lies in unravelling the relationships between characters; I’m looking forward to more from Elena Forbes.

For armchair riders:

Jackman Winter Family

Penguin Random House, 2015

 

  • Saddle up in outlaw territory in Clifford Jackson’s The Winter Family

From the opening pages, this debut novel yanks readers back in time to a volatile and gritty setting, peopled with sharply defined characters.

“It is often observed that murderers do not look like murderers. No one said that of Augustus Winter.”

In Oklahoma, Georgia, Chicago, Phoenix and California: readers travel from 1864 to 1900 with a man who looks like a murderer.

“Until the day he died Bill would remember their lack of expression. No betrayal, anger, fear, surprise. Nothing. Just bright, alert, and empty. Like the eyes of a mountain lion that glances with magnificent disinterest at the hunter before it plunges away into the underbrush, back into the profound wilderness, unaffected by a brief intercession with the world of men.”

The wilderness of the territories plays a significant role in the story, and even in the settlements there is a sense of vunerability.

Consider this scene, in 1864 Georgia:

“The cornfield was desolate, shorn of its crop, the stalks rustling in the gentle wind. The house was tall and painted white, with an expansive porch and wide pillars, but as they drew closer they could see the paint was flaking, the steps were green with moss, and grass was growing up between the boards.”

The setting in this novel is striking and an inherent part of building the novel’s atmosphere and reflecting the archetypal themes.

Some of the men who do not look like murderers have hidden depths. Characters in The Winter Family have “learned early on that gentle pressure from figure in authority could compel ordinary men to evil as easily as those of depraved character”.

Violence infiltrates every aspect of the story, whether sanctioned or lawless. “To you, this war is nothing more than a license for criminality. I know that, and so does the lieutenant,” observes one character.

The Winter Family scratches the thick skin of worn and injured individuals, exposes for readers the bloody and visceral fight to survive and dominate.

“Civilization changes where it abuts the wilderness.”

But as much as it is a novel about the wilderness, it is most revealing in its observations about civilization. Many of its characters inhabit the margins and amorphous borders of society, but The Winter Family leaves readers to question whether the definition of civilization is more complicated that it seems.

Henry Morgan

House of Anansi, 2015

For armchair pirates:

  • Plunder Robert Hough’s The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan

The stand-out quality of Robert Hough’s writing is his ability to capture the voice of a storyteller. Sometimes this is a more removed and formal voice, as in his memorable novel, Dr. Brinkley’s Tower. In The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan, it is a casual and personable voice: that of Benny Wand.

When readers meet Benny, he has been suddenly and dramatically displaced; arrested in London for illegal gaming, he now resides in Port Royal, Jamaica.

He presents his story in language more contemporary than historical (though the epilogue reveals sources which interested readers can consult), language designed to entertain, the language of a tale-spinner.

“The funny thing was, a lot of those lives resembled my own, hard circumstances leading to harder choices. Maybe it was the grog talking or maybe it was feeling like I’d escaped all of the things that can hold back a man forever, top among them being the country you were born in and the family that raised you and the neighbourhoods that knew you best.”

In some ways, Benny does represent an escapee, for his decision to leave England undoubtedly saves his life (the alternative having been incarceration in Newgate for a dozen years). But in other ways, he remains imprisoned. In order to survive, he engages in activities which put his life immediately and profoundly at risk.

“We headed toward the hill. Our hearts thundered and our breath came in great heaving storms and we were all of us wondering if they were just going to let us walk in like unruly house guests. A few hundred feet from that hill, the enemy still hadn’t moved – and that’s when it happened, one of those things you don’t believe is possible, so you test your eyes by waving a hand in front of them and when both eyes pass, you’re forced to figure they’re giving you the real story.”

What Benny survives makes for a fantastic tale, and indeed the plot of the novel is terrifically satisfying, but the crux of the story is ostensibly Benny’s relationship with Henry Morgan, who has been tasked with raiding Spanish strongholds and subsidized by the great coffers of colonialism.

“I’d never met a posh bugger who like the game more than the idea of winning. It’s the reason none of them are any good at it – it’s just the win they want, their self-regard stoked.”

Henry Morgan is arguably most important for introducing a worthy opponent, not on the plunder-field but at the games table. He, like Benny, enjoys chess: both men are strategizers, constantly evaluating odds and calculating risks.

Although a noteable character in the historical record, Henry Morgan illuminates the board in Robert Hough’s novel. He reminds readers that just as Henry Morgan’s power has complex roots (the lines between the personal and political inherently intertwined), Benny’s does too.

Just as these two men are angling and sussing out advantages, constructing an arc designed to deliver a victory, so, too, is the author.

Pieces move across a board and characters move through a narrative: both games are equally elaborate and complex, and Robert Hough has a winning strategy.

Are any of these already on your stacks (whether or not it’s summer, where you are reading)? Or, are you adding them to your TBR now?

Every day this week, more items on the Summer Reading To-Do List. More for stormy days tomorrow!

Summer Reading To-Do List for Sunny Days (2 of 4)

Such good reading this summer, so far. In other respects, perhaps mine has not been the most productive summer. But it all depends what one puts on a to-do list, doesn’t it! What if your to-do list was all about the books in your stacks?

Tavis Smiley My Journey with Maya

Little, Brown and Company, 2015

For memoir readers:

  • Remember the works and words of Maya Angelou, via Travis Smiley’s My Journey with Maya

Tavis Smiley met Maya Angelou when she was in her fifties and he in his twenties. He took copious notes during their private conversations and this book relies on those, as well as transcripts of their public conversations and her published works.

“I believe Maya will be remembered as black America’s greatest Renaissance woman – dancer, poet, actor, screenwriter, memoirist, director, lyricist, activist,” he states.

Other than a quick trip across the Detroit border to Windsor, Smiley hadn’t travelled anywhere before accompanying Maya Angelou to Ghana. He packed W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk and Maya Angelou’s memoirs to read on the journey.

Her advice had great personal resonance with him. “Since time immemorial wise people have been saying that all comparisons are odious. When we compare, we set up a winner-loser dynamic. If my crisis is greater than yours, then yours is belittled and insignificant. I say that’s nonsense. Each crisis has its own power, its own unique reality, What was the reality of yours, Travis?” She listened attentively to his story about having been taken from his parents and raised by foster parents.

On other occasions, she offered wisdom which he found inspirational whether in personal, professional or spiritual matters.

Sometimes this had a concrete impact, for instance, following his forced departure from BET, when she reminded him that blessings didn’t always present themselves as such; this led to his later work with ABC, CNN and NPR, and he later he understood what she had meant.

Sometimes her words resonated in broader terms. “I know that courage is the core ingredient. Without it there is no creative life, no spiritual life. Without courage, life is bereft of excitement and wonder.”

This slim volume will be of greatest interest to those who have an interest in both Tavis Smiley and Maya Angelou, and it is an uplifting memoir which will inspire Maya Angelou’s readers to return to her writing with renewed enthusiasm.

Graham Tides of Honour

Simon & Schuster, 2015

For romance lovers: 

  • Tour Halifax during the years surrounding the explosion in Genevieve Graham’s Tides of Honour

The novel opens with a brief glimpse of Halifax in the moments preceding the 1917 explosion, backtracks to wartime, then intersects with the community’s efforts to rescue and restore in the wake of the disaster, before moving ahead in time.

The theme of change runs through the novel, on the broader political scene and closer to home.

When Danny Baker returns from the front, he has difficulty adjusting. “Same creaking board on the floor, same rust stain by the window latch, even the same melody humming through his mother’s lips as she worked around the kitchen. He was the only stranger here.”

Audrey Poulin has been irrevocably changed by the war as well.

“Even Audrey’s art had changed. In the past she’d avidly collected petals, leaves, and berries, boiling and smashing them into the shades she desired, mixing them with either egg yolks and water or flour and water, depending on what was more available, then she’d captured the brilliant colours of the world flourishing in the fields and the forests and beyond. Now if she wanted to play with anything other than greys or browns, she had to dig deep into her memory to find a model.”

Ultimately, the changes caused by the romance between Danny and Audrey are the focus of the novel. They meet and marry young, and many difficult experiences await them.

The love story is predictable (which is often a most satisfying element in the genre).

In a good way. “He leaned closer, and she met him halfway. Their lips touched, and Danny forgot everything but Audrey. She was his again. He could breathe.”

And in a not-so-good way. “‘Goodbye, Danny.’ Her eyes were like wells. There was no bottom to the pain in them.”

But the novel’s setting — and the surprising connection with another novel with a similar setting (a brief appearance of Tommy Joyce from Jon Tattrie’s Black Snow) — certainly sets this love story apart.

JudithClaireMitchellReunionofGhosts

HarperCollins, 2015

For family saga devotees:

  • Cross the veil with the Alter family in Judith Claire Mitchell’s A Reunion of Ghosts

“In the end, this is a novel, and it’s about an imaginary family,” writes the author in a note following the novel.

In fact, however, Lenz Alter was based on German-Jewish scientist Fritz Haber, famed for his Nobel Prize and his work with the gases employed in chemical warfare. And Iris, Richard and Rose Alter were based Fritz Haber’s first wife Clara Immewahr Haber, son Hermann, and Hermann’s eldest daughter Claire.

If you are thinking German-Jewish scientist + gases + world war = Judith Claire Mitchell appreciates irony, then you have already calculated correctly

“Just note the columns, how she tries to keep them perfectly lined up, like prisoners summoned to the yard for roll call.” (This of a character’s diary, which includes lists – pages and pages long – of the people killed by chlorine gas in May 1945.)

This ironic and playful tone makes the work surprisingly pleasurable to read. “Who could deny that our family history was a little soap-opera-ish?”

She has a way of summing up events, even the most tragic events, to provoke a smile, even in the grimmest moments.

“In less than a week the archduke will be assassinated, and the events that will lead to the first world war will be triggered. (Pun intended. Pun always intended.) But for now Lenz is in Berlin….”

A Reunion of Ghosts covers a number of generations and characters but three sisters are at the heart of the story. “So: black-clad, gray-haired, saggy, baggy Lady. Pale-skinned, bald-harded, flat-chested Vee. And little Delph. Three easily distinguishable women. And yet people still mix us up.”

The narrative voice, however, is not straightforward. “But the truth is, I should have been saying ‘I’ for some time now. We – the three of us together – wrote our life stories and the stories of our ancestors with emphasis on Lena and Iris Alter. But only I wrote of this summer.”

This focus on a collective and personal narrative reflects the novel’s preoccupation with the borders between family history and individual experience. A global tragedy contains many stories of personal loss and misery-soaked statistics of wartime casualities obscure individual pain and sorrow.

  “Because isn’t it true that here in this vale of tears, there’s always someone who can out-tragic you? This world, after all, is nothing but a misery bazaar, and each of us just another merchant behind a booth, showing off her wares.
We have a riddle.”

Judith Claire Mitchell states that she lives “in a house in the woods in the Town of Madison (adjacent to the City of Madison), where we’re visited frequently by small herds of deer, gazes of raccoons, passels of possums, flocks of wild turkeys, fluffles of bunnies, and annoyances of Segway explorers. To date no reunions of ghosts have materialized, but the terrier is keeping an eye out.”

I, for one, will be keeping an eye out — not only for ghosts — but for her next novel (as well as her first, The Last Day of the War).

Jennings Connecting Dots

Second Story Press, 2015

For kidlit afficionados: 

  • Sharpen your pencil with Sharon Jennings’ Connecting Dots

Lee (Leanna) Mets meets Cassie (Cassandra) Jovanovich in the 2009 novel Home Free.

Lee is a reader and particularly fond of Anne of Green Gables; she compares characters to Miss Stacy and Josie Pye.

She compares her heartbeat on seeing David to Anne’s seeing Gilbert when she’s half-drowned in the river.

And she imagines breaking a slate over someone’s head (even though, as she points out, it’s the 1960s).

So, of course, when she meets Cassie, Lee hopes she will be a kindred spirit. (Anne was always on the look for those, too.)

But their friendship is not uncomplicated; the girls have had very different life experiences and it’s not immediately obvious whether they are, indeed, kindred spirits.

Lee persists, nonetheless. “Cassandra didn’t know anything about Anne Shirley, but I was pretty sure she knew all about Anne’s depths of despair.”

Home Free is devoted to Lee’s perspective but, in Connecting Dots, Cassie takes centre stage. And Lee is correct: Cassie has had a challenging life.

(Ironically, her life is experience is a little Anne-ish, in some respects, but to avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it at that.)

Reading about the disappointment and devastation that Cassie has endured makes for difficult reading. And, yet, she does endure. She finds comfort and inspiration in the experiences of others who have endured and, through her writing, she regains considerable strength.

Connecting Dots is a companion volume and best enjoyed in the company of Home Free (ideally, following it). At times, it has an overly earnest feel to it, but the subject matter is of grave import, and readers who have not had much experience with these themes might well appreciate the deliberate construction.

Hwang Sokyong Princess Bari

Periscope Books, 2015

For fairy-tale dreamers (and nightmare-ers):

  • Undertake a mythic quest with Hwang Sok-yong’s Princess Bari

Born in Chongjin, North Korea, in 1983, the baby girl is not given a name until she has lived one hundred days.

Her father is dismayed by the appearance of a seventh daughter, for whom he was not prepared. Even in the most basic terms, he has nothing to offer the infant. The first six girls have even claimed all the names: Jin, Sun and Mi (Truth, Goodness and Beauty) and Jung, Sook and Hyun (Grace, Virtue and Wisdom).

Her mother anticipates his anger and despair, and she tosses the baby into the underbrush in the pine trees, covering the infant’s face and leaving her to die. But she is saved, by the family dog, Hindungi, who drags both blanket and infant into her doghouse, where the grandmother is pleased to find her.

And, so, she is named by her grandmother, for the heroine of a story that she was told by her own great-grandmother, the story of Princess Bari (her name meant ‘abandoned’). From the outset, she is a survivor.

“Ever since then, Old Grandmother Bari has lived inside of us. She’s inside me and inside you, too.”

Also from the outset, she endures deprivation and outright cruelty, but this is a good part of what makes Bari such a memorable character. What begins as a coming-of-age story develops into a more complicated tale, as the gir’s unique powers of communication become apparent. Real-world events propel the plot, but mysical events punctuate it.

The strong and intimate relationships that Bari has with particular key figures (beginning with Hindungi and Bari’s grandmother) counter the hardships which she experiences in life, and as she progresses in her quest, these characters become almost as significant as Bari herself.

Sora Kim-Russell’s translation affords English readers a seamless reading experience; she eases all barriers so that readers are unencumbered even if they are unfamiliar with the original tale (which is sometimes described directly by the author for additional clarification, other times alluded to in a broader archetypal sense).

“The snow fell for so many days straight that the whole world was a storm of white both night and day. We stayed cooped up in our dugout but the whole time, like hibernating animals. Snow weighed heavily on the spruce, larch and pine trees until the branches split down the middle or snapped off of the trunks entirely; during a break in the flurries, when we stuck our heads out from behind a straw mat that served as our door, the ice coating the branches glittered radiantly in the sun. But those icy branches looked more deadly than pretty to me.”

Kenzaburō Ōe identifies Hwang Sok-yong as “undoubtedly the most powerful voice of the novel in Asia today”; Periscope’s edition of Princess Bari provides an excellent introduction to his work.

Are any of these already on your stacks (whether or not it’s summer, where you are reading)? Or, are you adding them to your TBR now?

Every day this week, more items on the Summer Reading To-Do List. Some for stormy days tomorrow!

Summer Reading To-Do List for Sunny Days (1 of 4)

Such good reading this summer, so far. In other respects, perhaps mine has not been the most productive summer. But it all depends what one puts on a to-do list, doesn’t it! What if your to-do list was all about the books in your stacks?

Kwan China Rich Girlfriend

Doubleday Canada – Penguin Random House, 2015

For satire junkies: 

  • Wallow in the privilege in the first two volumes of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians trilogy

The first volume, Crazy Rich Asians, offers readers a surprisingly detailed and complex family tree.

Don’t sweat over it. It’s complicated. Most of the characters probably couldn’t clearly articulate the connections either.

The characters inherently embody the cultural opinions about old and new money, about mainland and overseas identity, about traditional and modern values.

Readers will marvel at the “whoest-who of Singapore society”, a plane that makes Air Force One look like a sardine tin, and a closet with a built-in system to ensure no outfit is worn more than once.

It’s entirely possible to allow the characters speak for themselves and follow along with the terms helpfully defined (briefly and often humourously) in an occasional footnote. For instance, gow tzay, a “charming Hokkien term”, which describes people who are equal parts bitchy, unreasonable, stuck up, and impossible to deal with.

“Do they still have those lines at Louis Vuitton that they make all the Asian customers wait in?”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t been inside a Louis Vuitton in decades, Auntie Elle.”
“Good for you. Those lines are terrible, and then they only allow Asians to buy one item. Reminds me of the Japanese occupation, when they forced all the Chinese to wait in line for scraps of rotten food.”

See? It’s impossible to misunderstand Auntie Elle’s position. Kevin Kwan’s characterization is detailed and textured. With or without charts or footnotes.

And the overarching themes are universal, even if readers are more accustomed to novels set against a background of American or European, rather than Asian, wealth. Nonetheless, men with fortunes still seek wives (and, yes, it’s obvious that Kevin Kwan has studied his Austen too).

These volumes are highly entertaining. Like an “issue of Vanity Fair magazine come to life”.

And the satire is even sharper when one considers that the author was counselled to editr some of the extravagent elements he had included, which were based on his own personal observations of this world. (There is a lengthy NPR interview with the author here.)

Kearsley Desperate Fortune

Touchstone – Simon & Schuster, 2015

For historical-fiction enthusiasts:

  • Find a mystery in the mirror: Susanna Kearsley’s A Desperate Fortune

Although highly-entertaining and a satisfying page-turner, there is more substance to this novel than the cover might suggest.

Not only is the duality of a shadow-court inherently intriguing (“a castle with its king and all his courtiers who were real, yet without substance, moving always as a mirror to their counterparts across the sea”), but the mirror imagery operates at a variety of levels.

Reflections abound. One woman is in the present, who has learned to mimic others around her in order to camouflage her Aspergers, is near Paris (at La maison de chatou). And she is decoding the experiences of a Jacobite exile, written 300 years ago in the past, who learned to mask her true feelings and transform like a fairy in an old-fashioned tale.

The diary presents itself with two faces as well. Readers see it in the present-day with “worn cloth-covered boards and pages turned a golden beige by time and …[ink once] black, but time had faced it to brown”.  And, through the original writer’s eyes: “with all its pages blank, exactly like the one in which her uncle kept household accounts, with cloth boards and a leather spine, and with it had been a cylindrical travelling pen set, the inkwell and talc in small sections that screwed one on top of the other beneath the only section ta held three plain quill pens with neatly carved nibs.”

Even the fairy tales have more than one layer of meaning reflected within.

“‘Well, these are not the fairy tales that we grew up with. These were written for adults, and they belonged to a distinct period of time, and a distinct group of women, nearly all of them women of the novel class. It was a clever and subversive thing they did, to tell these fairy tales. Sometimes they would take well-known tales from folklore and adapt them, but as often they created them from their imaginations, and you see how they are commenting on how life is around them, on the world and how it limits them.”

And this is precisely what it seems that Susanna Kearsley aims to do: comment on how life is around these women, on history and how it has limited them, but also comment on how these women’s cleverness and revolutionary thoughts and actions allowed them to adapt and endure.

Crozier Wrong Cat

McClelland & Stewart – Penguin Random House, 2015 

For poetry readers:

  • Get in touch with your inner-feline: Lorna Crozier’s The Wrong Cat

As an added bonus, you can also cool off with a poem like “January”:

“As she grows thin,
she likes the winter aspens more, not less, stands
among them in the cold, absorbs the dwindling gloom.”

If you are a confirmed poetry-reader, this volume is probably already in your stack.

But, if you are not, and you keep meaning to make time for verses, this collection is both welcoming and accessible.

The cat-inspired epigraphs which appear between the sections are simply beautiful.

But you’ll meet many other critters (two-legged, four-legged, many-legged, winged, finned) on the pages there as well.

“It can strip flesh off a saint
or a bull elk or a whale, take out a whole
cotton crop and forest or, more modestly,
ruin a bag of flour.”

This is from “An Extraordinary Fondness for Beetles”, one of my favourites in the collection (but I would choose a different one on any given day, because that is a hard decision indeed).

For short-story addicts:

Douglas Welcome Circus

Freehand Books, 2015

 

  • Take in the three-ring action in Rhonda Douglas’ Welcome to the Circus

This passage, from the author’s collection of poetry, Some Days I Think I Know Things, offers a key to readers:

“A small knowing, an itch, sense of what is buried beneath. Truth gives itself away, wants to be found, shows itself in an eyelash flutter, a short intake of breath: come and get me.”

These small knowings are also at the heart of the stories in Rhonda Douglas’ debut fiction collection.

Contained herein: Nous and René Lévesque; Humanitarian Relief; Love Notes for Eighth Grade, La République de France v. ‘Mata Hari’; Still Life with Book; Sounds of Our Paleolithic Past; Monday Night at the Porn Emporium; Welcome to the Circus, Sooky Baby; God Explains the Collapse of the Cod Fishery; Cancer Oratorio.

Just scanning the titles might also give you clues as to the tone and style.

An eighth-grade girl is as worthy of consideration as ‘Mata Hari’.

A natural history museum butts up against a porn emporium.

God explains the fishery collapse but is not the one singing about cancer.

You might even catch a peek of “what is buried beneath” and guess that the author is preoccupied with fragility.

“In the end what knits them together is that they are all falling apart, all looking for someone to fall into, someone who could fix them, help them hold it all together.”
(From “Humanitarian Relief”)

This sense of vulnerability infuses the collection, subtly but determinedly.

“She threw both boots in the corner beside her makeup chair; where they looked like small animals curled up asleep. She collapsed in her chair.”
(From “Monday Night at the Porn Emporium”)

But simulaneously, there are other moments which twin with these. It’s not all bad. In fact, it’s definitely not all bad.

“Even through the cellophane, the candy apples release their scent into the room. They smell like love.”
(From “Welcome to the Circus, Sooky”)

Characters find comfort and strength, often in unexpected places.

“(Are these bee-sting lips fair? Should she have those and the swingy blonde hair? Let’s say at twenty-four she gets chlamydia, just because we can.)”
(From “Love Notes for Eighth Grade”)

Playful and oh-so-savvy: Rhonda Douglas’ stories landed hard on my list of favourites after the first story. With every story, I was afraid that I had fallen too fast. But each one secured my heart.

“But today she craves this old story the way she needs the patchwork quilt.”
(From “Cancer Oratorio”)

I already crave a reread of this collection; I need it like I need a patchwork quilt and candy apples.

Nights Twice as Long

Goose Lane Editions, 2015

For letter writers:

  • Write a love letter inspired by Where the Nights are Twice as Long and put an Alice Munro stamp on it

This volume covers more than a century of romantic correspondence, from 1883 to 2014.

If that simple idea alone doesn’t appeal, perhaps David Eso’s romantic story, of a man waiting out a rainstorm in a library and thinking of a lost love, will draw you in.

Or maybe Jeanette Lynes’ skillful summary of the breadth of content.

There are also 3o pages of contributors’ notes and credits as well as an index, so the volume works as a superb introduction to a variety of Canadian writers’ and poets’ works, as well as being a rewarding anthology in its own right.

The poems are arranged not chronologically, but by the age of the letter writers: isn’t that a fantastic idea?

The sections are named: No Road Back to the Old Life (by teen-lovers and 20-somethings), A Minute is Too Long (by 30-something lovers), From the Bottom of My Spongiform Heart (by 40-something lovers), Hiring Omniscient Narrators (by 50-something lovers) and I Promise Not to Philosophize (by lovers 60-something and beyond).

It should not have surprised me that there is a lot of heart-break in the volume. “I begin to think love is a bad thing,” P.K. Page wrote in 1944: “It doesn’t make you strong.” And “Oh my darling, tell me, what can love mean in such a world, and what can we or any lovers hold in this immensity of hate and broken things?” asked Phyllis Webb in 1954.

And, oh, plenty of loneliness and unwanted separations. “I miss having you to talk to. And to touch,” wrote Susan Musgrave to Stephen Reid in October 2011.

“I would rather have you to warm me
than either a blanket or a poem,
but what can I do?”
(That’s from Elizabeth Brewster’s “Chill”, from 1974).

And there are unexpected casualities along the way as well. “I burnt my toast thinking of you today,” wrote Priscilla Uppal in 1997.

Some of the letters I expected to enjoy, like those between Milton Acorn and Gwen MacEwen (I’ve been fascinated by her since I read Rosemary Sullivan’s Shadowmaker).

But some letter-writers were unexpected favourites, like Robert Service, who wrote so passionately to Constance MacLean. “I’m different from most men you see. Love is all in all to me,” he wrote around 1903. And in 1905, he wrote: “I call your name a hundred times a day.” And I found Louis Riel’s letters to Marguerite Riel (particularly his letter of November 16, 1885 suprisingly touching, although he writes very formally.

It is the diversity of this volume which is so striking, across decades and lifetimes, from writers with starkly diverse backgrounds and experiences. Where the Nights are Twice as Long is a tremendously satisfying work: willing readers will find a long-term and rewarding relationship with it.

Are any of these already on your stacks (whether or not it’s summer, where you are reading)? Or, are you adding them to your TBR now?

Every day this week, more items on the Summer Reading To-Do List. More for sunny days tomorrow!

“Free Radicals” Alice Munro

As one of the shorter stories in this volume, I was inclined, at first pass, to presume it was a simpler story. Its ending seemed to underscore this impression.

Munro Too Much Happiness RANWithout going into detail, the story has the kind of resolution which could serve as the sole focus of discussion, in terms of what Nita actually concealed and revealed.

But then there is the matter of the story “Fiction”, which appears earlier in this volume.

“Fiction” seems to tell another version of this story, in which another carpenter’s assistant becomes the “other woman”.

Of course, some of the details are different: names and such, the kind of work done, the role of the assistant.

But there is a man who works with wood. There is a wife. There is a younger woman who becomes a new wife.

And then there is another detail, the title of this story, which is not just a detail but a vitally important clue. (In fact, “Free Radicals” might be a ‘free radical’ in the context of this collection.)

Nita does not quite understand the concept of free radicals.

She refers to them in terms of what she consumes. Her cancer is in remission, but obviously she has been warned as to the havoc that can be wrecked on her body, if there is an excess of something harmful.

So, there has been talk about red wine and herbal tea. But this is not uncomplicated because while Nita has absorbed that it is a matter of balance, she cannot recall the exact nature of the relationship between red wine and free radicals.

As a character, she knows that a lot of something is desirable, and correspondingly less of something else, but her motivation remains unclear (in this regard, and in more serious matters, past and present).

She has given up drinking wine; she has adopted the habit of drinking herbal tea. She has made these choices with only a vague understanding that such habits, daily choices, impact broader trends and events.

Alice Munro, however, as author, does understand the science.

The concept of free radicals, rooted in chemistry, involves an unattached electron which can cause damage if it exists in a solitary manner.

Relevant to this story, the significant factor is that when this unattached electron is paired, attached to something else, the damage is halted and the electron becomes something new and different in its freshly combined state.

Relevant to Nita’s decision-making, it is a question of eating and drinking things which contain antioxidants, which will bind with the problematic free radicals and reduce the imbalance.

But Alice Munro presents this character, who is openly contradictory, who seeks antioxidants in one place (tea) but ironically avoids them in another (wine).

And there is another central contradiction as well, because Nita deliberately presents as truthful something which she quietly admits is a falsehood.

The story begins with a number of falsehoods, so readers are unsurprised by the tendency, but some of the details might remain surprising. For instance, Nita pretends to be eating and sleeping just fine, even though her routine has crumbled, following the unexpected death of her husband. When concerned friends press her, she habitually offers them an acceptable version of events, designed to redirect their energies.

Alice Munro is introducing readers to a woman of contradictions, small and large.

She creates Nita, who could be either the free-floating damaging particle or the attached-happily-married particle.

(In the story which Nita spins to her listener, she is the bonded element. She is the one who has ousted the outlaw element. But she admits that she has presented herself as that bonded element, and readers know that she was, in fact, the renegade solitary. “Dear Bett, Rich is dead and I have saved my life by becoming you.”)

And, furthermore, Alice Munro offers this other story, “Fiction”, which could serve as the other side of a much-needed bond.

(In “Fiction”, the narrator really is the bonded element, when the story begins. The free radical, the assistant, does not get a voice in “Fiction”. And even in the fiction which the free radical’s daughter writes, the focus is shifted yet again. And readers are reminded of the fragile and essential relationships between fact and imagination.)

Perhaps if “Free Radicals” binds with “Fiction”, something-like-truth comes together.

As a free-floating tale in this collection, there are many details to enjoy. I love the palette: the wine, the ketchup on eggs, the stitching on a blouse, the red veins of the rhubarb. The dialogue and interplay between Nita and her guest. The seamless weaving of simmering backstory to boiling present-day plot.

But the ultimate pleasure in “Free Radicals” lies, for me, in sorting out the attachments.

Nita once loved her fiction.

“She hadn’t been just a once-through reader either. Brothers Karamazov, Mill on the Floss, Wings of the Dove, Magic Mountain, over and over again. She would pick one up, thinking that she would just read that special bit—and find herself unable to stop until the whole thing was redigested. She read modern fiction too. Always fiction. She hated to hear the word ‘escape’ used about fiction. She might have argued, not just playfully, that it was real life that was the escape. But this was too important to argue about.”

It was not an ‘escape’ for her: for Nita, if fiction is reality, then real life is the ‘escape’.

If the ‘escape’ she plots, as her listener attends to every details, involves sharing the details of her real life, then perhaps our understanding was a deliberate mis-understanding on Nita’s part.

What are we readers to do, when our fictional character turns her back on the worlds of fiction that she has, for so many years, willingly inhabited.

Well, that just makes everything about “Free Radicals” real, doesn’t it?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the fifth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Face”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

“Deep-Holes” Alice Munro

So many of the risks in “Deep-Holes” are either averted or declared meaningless.

Munro Too Much Happiness Vintage

“Sally packed devilled eggs—something she hated to take on a picnic, because they were so messy.”

Nobody ate the devilled eggs anyway, so it didn’t matter how messy they were.

“Ham sandwiches, crab salad, lemon tarts—also a packing problem.”

The tarts arrived intact, too. A second risk has proven itself not-so-risky, early in the story.

And, perhaps most memorably, there is the matter of the wine glasses.

“She had bought plastic champagne glasses for this occasion, but when Alex spotted her handling them he got the real ones—a wedding present—out of the china cabinet. She protested, but he insisted, and took charge of them himself, the wrapping and packing.”

Sally has thought ahead, evaluated the risk,and purchased accordingly.

But Alex has an idea in mind, and his idea of celebration does not include plastic glasses.

“The picnic was in honour of Alex’s publishing his first solo article in Zeitschrift für Geomorphology. They were going to Osler Bluff because it figured largely in the article, and because Sally and the children had never been there.”

The entire trip was motivated by Alex’s work and his corresponding achievement, professional and laudatory; even though the boys would have recognized it to be a holiday, the event is a life-marker of great significance for Alex.

And it would seem that Sally is an over-worrier, too concerned about everything from messy eggs to broken glass.

But the risks of the natural world remain, and they do not present themselves as one might expect.

“The entrance to the woods looked quite ordinary and unthreatening.”

Perhaps if the danger here had been woodland based, the story would have turned out differently. When one goes into the woods, one expects danger. But the risk of the deep-holes is something “other”.

“Deep chambers, really, some as big as a coffin, some much bigger that that, like rooms cut out of the rocks.”

At the outset they are linked with death (but time spirals in these stories, for obviously Sally is looking backwards, and given the outcome, she is unlikely to remember the chambers as big as a crib).

This risk is not averted. Kent falls through. And so begins a story about the pitfalls of parenting, which recalls the much-anthologized “Miles City, Montana”.

Guilt is not averted either. For as much as Alex’s domain is Zeitschrift für Geomorphology, Sally’s is the care of home and children.

She obediently accompanies and raises her glass, toasting Alex’s success, as an observer, but she does not claim to know anything about Alex’s work.

Whereas, in contrast, Alex is certain that he is better qualified to make decisions about packing for picnics and childcare than Sally is.

“He thought it was high time Savanna was transferred to the bottle—she was nearly six months old. And he thought Sally was far too casual about the whole procedure….”

His criticism stands on his judgement of everyday decisions (e.g. when Sally should begin weening) and, of course, in the wake of this near-tragic event.

And of course this is not to demonize Alex, who is like many husbands and fathers of that time and place (and, certainly, many today, as well).

Even in the course of this story, the doctor who treats young Kent, after his fall, expresses this opinion.

“’Kids have to be watched every minute in there,’ he said to Sally, who had gone in with Kent while Alex managed the other children. ‘Haven’t they got any warning signs up?'”

Sally needs to watch. She requires a warning sign in order to properly assess risk and danger.

“With Alex, she thought, he would have spoken differently. That’s the way boys are. Turn your back and they’re tearing around where they shouldn’t be. ‘Boys will be boys.'”

Alex is free to turn his back, allow the boys’ natures to play out, as they will, discount any element of risk.

There is no winning for Sally. She is either too lackadaisical or too over-protective.

“Sally clamps her mouth down on the automatic injunction to be careful. Alex looks at her and approves of the clamping down.”

Alex appears to approve of this decision, but it isn’t enough that Sally alter her own behaviour to Alex’s satisfaction; Sally is also responsible for altering the behaviour of the children to suit Alex as well.

“Kent got on his nerves, had done so even before the deep-hole drama happened. ‘Cut that out,’ he said, and complained privately to Sally.”

Then again, the story is told from Sally’s perspective and, given the outcome, she is clearly overwhelmed by responsibility and guilt. Perhaps part of this does rest at the feet of patriarchal expectations, but certainly some of it also must reside within.

Ironically, I did remember the second half of this story quite clearly, in which Sally meets Kent later in life, somewhere along Queen Street in Toronto, following the fire, which destroyed a stretch of buildings there some years ago.

But even when I began to re-read “Deep-Holes”, I did not remember that this story was the story in which this occurred.

I did not recall this to be the story in which a grown man who has survived a disaster deliberately adopts a lifestyle which affords him a peculiar proximity to risk and vulnerability.

Somehow, the idea of a family going on a picnic could not, even though I had read this story at least once before, simply could not end in this way.

And, how appropriate.

For how often are we surprised by the turns taken in life.

How often does one wince and marvel at the unexpected ways in which one event spirals into the next.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the fourth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Free Radicals”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

Young Love, Complicated Love: Walking on Trampolines

For weeks after reading Frances Whiting’s Walking on Trampolines, my vocabulary was peppered with LuluBelle-isms.

That’s how I thought of the habit that young Lulu and Annabelle had, of mashing-up synonyms to intensify the meaning of each individual word.

Whiting Walking on Trampolines

Gallery BooksSimon & Schuster, 2015 (2013)

“I’m starmished,” I would say at dinner. Or, “It’s importrucial that I get this done.” Even though I wasn’t as good at it as these girls, and wasn’t discussing the kind of heightened dramas which preoccupy Lulu and Annabelle, I had fun with it.

The novel slips between the early days of the girls’ friendship (and its development) and the present-day; it is a wedding invitation which provokes reflection.

Lulu’s current boyfriend frames the situation for readers:

“I don’t – I don’t understand why you would choose to go to that wedding when you could come to Hong Kong with me. Why, Lulu? Why? So you can be humiliated by that woman all over again, so that Josh can stand there with that stupid smirk on his face and tell you how lovely you look? So that Annabelle can talk to you in that ridiculous language and the two of you can pretend you’re still twelve years old and that nothing had ever fucking happened? Is that it?”

Lulu and Annabelle are not twelve years old anymore. And their relationship has been troubled for many years. In fact, the novel opens with a scene which adds a fresh fracture to their history.

“Little ripples were forming below the concrete that would eventually split and divide us like the tectonic plates they taught us about in Geography. I had no idea about those cracking, shifting plates beneath us; I didn’t even feel them moving.”

There are other disruptions in the girls’ lives which contribute to the instability they experience.

“But if my life did not remotely resemble the one I had planned, it was at least, a life. I had found comfort in its inertia, in the familiar rhythms of the office, where I arrived at half past seven and flicked the kettle on a minute after that, and at home, where even Rose’s moods, mercurial as they were, had their own pattern. Her depression waxed and waned, leaving our house in shadow or light, but always there; Rose, our very own paper moon.”

The evolution of secondary characters’ experiences adds a satisfying dimension to the novel’s management of time’s passing. In contrast, the core relationship between the girls feels familiar, predictable even, at times.

“Honestly, it’s fine; it was so long ago now, Annabelle. We were teenagers, everything seems so dramatic, doesn’t it, when you’re a teenager? I’m happy,” I told her, “we don’t have to go back there.”

Nonetheless, this is understandable, particularly given the author’s inspiration for writing the novel, which she considers a “very nostalgic book, I think, a bit of a bouquet to my own childhood. It was a far more innocent time in many ways, and I really wanted to capture that….” (This quote and the following quote are drawn from the Author’s Q&A which follows the text.)

The themes in Walking on Trampolines “are universal, the agony and ecstasy of first love, the intensity of female friendships, the awkwardness of the teen years, the stigma of mental illness, the family ties that bind, the way laughter can dissipate our fears….”

Frances Whiting’s novel is accessible and engaging, likely to satisfy readers who enjoy fiction by writers like Alice Hoffman, Jean Hanff Korelitz and Elizabeth Crane.

Young Love, Complicated Love: Nothing Like Love

Reading about Sabrina Ramnanan’s love of Anne of Green Gables made me really want to read the debut novelist’s Nothing Like Love.

And it’s a good thing that I understood this about her reading past, because it prepared me perfectly for her prose style.

Ramnanan Nothing like Love

Random House CanadaDoubleday Canada, 2015

“Thinking back on this day much later, Vimla would understand: this was the pivotal moment in her and Krishna’s relationship. The moment when the gods witnessed their audacious sacrilege. The moment it was decided a torrent of misfortune would rain down upon the pair.”

A “torrent of misfortune”: Anne-lovers will recognize a hint of Anne’s “depths of despair” in this descriptor.

And just as Anne spent a great deal of time soaking up the beauty of the natural world, Vimla is immersed in it as well.

Though Vimla does not see cherry blossoms and the landscape of Prince Edward Island out her bedroom window. No, she paints a picture of Trinidad.

“Vimla opened her eyes and rolled onto her side. She listened to the kiskadee morning call and watched the flutters of black and yellow in the guava and tamarind trees at her bedroom window. They trilled and rustled in the treetops, cocking their heads at impossible angles and announcing their presence to the world: kis-kis-kiskadee!”

The plot in Nothing Like Love revolves around a series of relationships but two in particular.

“Vimla saw Faizal Mohammed lean out of his window and drink Sangita in with insatiable desire. Vimla knew that look well – she had seen it on Krishna’s face just hours ago; only then it had been muted in pre-dawn shadows and nerves.”

The tension is subtle and rooted primarily in fractured connections, in the gap between “what is desired” and “what is unobtainable”.

“The secret sent thrilling zings through his wiry body; he loved to know what others didn’t. And Faizal’s rain-barrel baths were a particularly safe secret, as he was the only Muslim in the district, the only one who rose before the cock’s first crow, before the sun peeked over the horizon, to wash, and to praise Allah.”

The narrative style is not entirely Anne-of-Green-Gables-influenced. Sabrina Ramnanan also uses dialogue to introduce readers to the rhythm of life in Trinidad.

“Vimla, it only have one woman and one man living in this house and that is me and your father,” Chandani said to her back. “If you feel you too big for we, pack your bags and go, nuh?”

The abundance of adjectives and adverbs and sensory detail might be overwhelming for many contemporary readers, but Anne-readers might find themselves falling in love.

Is this debut on your summer reading list?

Young Love, Complicated Love: Where Did You Sleep Last Night

“A man could do a lot for you, he added. I mean, like bulldozing and roofing, heavy lifting, he said. Maybe more.”

Crosbie Where Did You

House of Anansi, 2015

So says a character in Lynn Crosbie’s Life is about Losing Everything (2012).

It might not be the kind of statement that leads one to expect a passionate love story from her pen, but Where Did You Sleep Last Night is not about the bulldozing and roofing kind of love, but about the ‘more’.

The kind of ‘more’ that demands a little more from readers, too. Including a willingness to step away from the known.

“Earth looks like this when you are away: a big floating apartment building, where some of the drapes are drawn; others are open; where different things – eggs frying on a hot plate, a home perm, a cello’s sacred lowing – happen all the time.”

In this new place, narrator and reader alike, may have to step away, just to leave a space for what is intimate and frightening.

“I would eat in the library, where Mrs. Killzone ignored me as I watched the part in Nirvana Unplugged when, at the end of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night,’ he closes his eyes, pauses, then opens them, and it is so intimate and frightening, I would never fail to be shocked to tears.”

The emotional intensity of the story is a lot to take in, not only for the narrator but for the fictional Kurt Cobain, who returns to life on the pages of Where Did You Sleep Last Night.

“Eventually, I told him that he died young.
And that I knew all of his music, and a lot of personal things.
He saw that I was miserable, knowing too much, and held up his hand.
‘This can’t be good for either of us,’ he said.”

He and the narrator are married using expensive forgeries, as Evelyn and Celine Gray-Black.

“He didn’t know that I’d loved him as long as I could remember; that I had such a painful crush that I used to go to bed early just to imagine being with him.

The novel charts the history of their relationship, the narrator’s journey from reading “a lot of many, pretty good, Kurt Cobain fanfics to “our honeymoon in New Mexico, we stood above the Rio Grande gorge, and he carved our names on the bridge as my scarf unwound and fainted beneath us, landing like a vein in the stones.”

This passage reveals one of the many lyrical moments in the prose, but not all of them are beautiful although ‘unwinding’ is a recurring theme.

“We got stoned and saw our old skins putrefying in the compost and remembered stepping out of them, like sticky white salamanders struck by sunbeams.”

There is an overwhelming tension to the story.

“I could see inside myself, where I was not beautiful. And knew that he would see it too, my fury, my jealousy, and my need.
He would leave me.
I made sure of it. I found the plug to the whole universe and tore it out, then got high as everything, very slowly, collapsed.”

It is simultaneously disorienting and unstable, paralyzing and unyielding.

“The anger, I told her, was like a twister, funneling hard towards me, sucking dirt and poison into its mouth.”

It’s dirt and poison, eggs frying and cellos lowing, the kind of novel that pulls readers into the storm’s eye so sharply that whiffs of euphoria distract you from the crash-landing to come.

Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer’s Bookish Fairy Tales

On the outside? Between the Lines is an ordinary, kinda chunky YA novel.

But, inside? Some full-colour illustrations and a generous amount of silhouette artwork are scattered throughout the text, which is printed in three different colours.

Simon Pulse, 2012

Simon Pulse, 2012

It begins with “The Beginning”, in black text, and a once-upon-a-time tale. This is the story that Delilah is reading.

But readers haven’t met her yet. And neither has Oliver.

Who is the boy living the once-upon-a-time tale.

Over and over. Ad nauseum.

For Delilah is big on rereading.

Readers actually meet Oliver first. Which is only fair, because he more desperately needs to meet people. (The only people he has ever known are those stuck in the fairy tale with him, whose lives repeat in blue ink.) And, like a typical fairy-tale boy, he is craving something “more”.

“I wouldn’t mind doing anything other than the sme old things I have done for as long as I can remember. I guess I just have to believe there’s more to the world than what’s inside these pages. Or maybe it’s just that I desperately want to believe that.”

And, Delilah, too, wants something “more”. She prefers stories to her high school reality, which unfolds in green print. “No thanks; I’d much rather pretend I’m somewhere else, and any time I open the pages of a book, that happens.”

The hitch is that their needs are in conflict. Oliver is frantic to escape the endless repetition of living the same story whenever a reader opens the book he inhabits. And Delilah is desperate for the security that a familar and predictable — and happy — ending offers.

But Oliver and Delilah have a great deal in common as well. “Being a teenager isn’t all that different from being part of someone else’s story, then. There’s always someone who thinks they know better than you do.”

Oliver is looking for a world in which he is free to be something other than Oliver-in-the-fairy-tale and Delilah is looking for a world in which she can be herself. And what is more appropriate thematically for a teen novel than exploring identity and finding a place in the world.

The mechanics of the situation, which allow for character and reader to connect, are described vaguely enough to appeal to a wide variety of readers. And as various attempts are made to unite Oliver and Delilah, the border between fantasy and reality shifts to allow for more possibilities. Readers learn, for instance, that Oliver’s experience is not exactly limited to what is written on the pages of the story in black ink.

Picoult Van Leer Colour

Detail from one of Yvonne Gilbert’s illustrations

Some of the older characters in Oliver’s story have suggestions which widen his world, even when he is stuck in the context of the story which Delilah has reread so many times. “You know that anything that was in the author’s mind might exist in the book, even if it doesn’t show up in the proper story.”

There are many playful moments in which commentary is offered about the creative process (particularly in relationship to the story’s author, who had her own reasons for writing Oliver’s story in that specific way) and traditional fairy tale elements. For instance, Oliver observes: “One of the great ironies of this book is that the mermaids, in real life, don’t have a boy-crazy bone in their bodies.”

However, this is not an opportunity for Jodi Picoult or Samantha van Leer (mother and daughter) to show off her experience with Bruno Bettelheim or Maria Tatar.

Only the briefest of allusions is made to the tradition of wonder tales which preceded the Disney versions which have been so popular recently, and although some expectations are subverted (like, perhaps, with the mermaids), readers hoping to spot of a glimpse of Marina-Warner inspired critical-thinking will be disappointed. (As will those who prefer traditional language usage.)

There isn’t a lot between the lines in this novel; it is an entertaining diversion which is beautifully packaged. But the idea simmering beneath is complex indeed.

The relationship between book and reader can be profound; a narrative can transform a reader and many witers and readers have explored the concept of co-creating which unfolds when mind and story meet.

And for many bookish folks, what is bound between covers can often be more real than the world beyond those pages.

“I liked thinking that whatever Delilah and I had between us was so strong that there was no boundary between the true and the imagined, the book and the Reader. I liked the idea that although I started my lfe as a figment of someone’s imagination, that didn’t make me any less real.”

Picoult Van Leer Silhouette

One of Scott M. Fischer’s silhouettes

Jodi Picoult and daughter Samantha Van Leer use this idea as a touchstone, but just as Delilah and her mother prefer the Disney versions of the darker tales which inspired the studio, Between the Lines touches upon some serious themes but keeps them at a distance, so that readers feel free to race to the happy ending.

Or, is it a happy ending? In some ways, yes, for both Oliver’s and Delilah’s yearnings are satisfied to a degree. But there are complications.

Note: If you want to avoid spoilers, avoid the inner flap of Off the Page, which summarizes the events and conclusion of Between the Lines. (If, on the other hand, you don’t want to read the first volume in the series, the flap will suffice.)

Off the Page employs all the striking presentation elements in the series’ first volume, beginning with a colourful map by Yvonne Gilbert, and the first chapter headed by one of Scott M. Fischer’s silhouettes.

Many familiar elements are demarcated, like the unicorn meadow and the enchanted forest, and readers will be reminded of the dragon who wore braces and will recall the scenes which played out on Everafter Beach.

The text is dual-coloured, blue and green, the former for the “real” world and the latter for the fairy-tale world.

One recurring character who is welcomed back immediately is Delilah’s best friend, Jules, whose Mohawk has grown out into a midnight-blue-coloured bob. (She says things like “I’m barfing rainbows”: my favourite.) And the scenes set in the high-school will inherently appeal to many young readers, with an abundance of dialogue and recognizable settings and conflicts.

Delacourte Press, 2015 Penguin Random House

Delacorte Press, 2015
Penguin Random House

“The really crappy thing about being a teenager is that even if you have a legitimate, monumental problem – the sky is falling or the zombie apocalypse has begun or you’ve contracted the plague – you still have to do your geometry homework.”

Fairy tales are populated with archetypes and there is an abundance of two-dimensional characters in this series too (the nerds run for class when they’re only 15 minutes early and the president of the LGBT Alliance has his own bow-tie business). The female characters possess a degree of agency that allows them to reach beyond the achievements of conventional heroines, but ultimately they are preoccupied with their romantic interest, their desire to connect with — or reunite with — “the one”.

The central theme of Off the Page revolves around a prince-pauper riff, which suits YA novels preoccupied with questions of identity.

“It’s not all that difficult to be the person people expect you to be. It’s harder to remember who you really are.”

The idea of adapting to an unfamiliar environment has a timeless appeal and is at the root of the humour in this story. Nonetheless, things do take a darker turn in this follow-up volume.

“I wish that someone would flip backward through the pages of the story…bringing us back to the Once Upon a Time.”

Readers flipping back in Off the Page might want to take a moment to peek beneath the dustjacket; the binding is a light purple (like the book which houses Oliver’s original story, the book that Delilah kept rereading) and the spine is lettered beautifully in an old-fashioned storybook style.

The cloth bound cover is embossed with a small image, too, which reminded me how much I loved the small scattered silhouettes throughout the first volume.

In the second volume, the silhouettes are intricate and impressive as subject headings, and they add as much character to the story as the lushly illustrated pages, but the small figures added an element of whimsy which is missing in the second volume.

Those who prefer some shady elements amidst the saccharine, who appreciate the more subversive elements of fairy tales for older readers (Neil Gaiman’s Stardust or Sheri Tepper’s Beauty), may long for more adventure.

But those seeking a light-hearted diversion with a side of bookishness could find a happy ending in their relationship with Between the Lines and Off the Page.

“Wenlock Edge” Alice Munro

1648 Henfryn Street and 363 Carlisle Street: “Wenlock Edge” feels so vivid that one can hardly resist keying in the significant addresses to see what appears on the digital map.

These addresses do not actually exist in London, Ontario. But there is a Henfryn Line which runs north-south, just east of Clinton, Ontario. And there is a town called Carlisle, which is halfway between London and the shore of Lake Huron (directly south of Clinton).

UniversityCollegeUWO

University College, UWO campus

It seems almost-nearly-practically possible to map the details, given Alice Munro’s attendance at the University of Western Ontario, which figures so prominently in this story and her familiarity with the countryside surrounding it, particularly Huron County (her home for many years).

But readers are left to imagine the residences of Mr. Purvis and Ernie Botts, the homes which served as university residences, and the old Chelsea restaurant on Dundas Street.

“The house looked just as it had when I had come here once or twice with my mother. A brick bungalow with a tiny front yard, an arched living-room window with an upper pane of coloured glass. Cramped and genteel.”

The public buildings which feature in the story are more readily identifiable. The girls probably would have attended their arts classes in University College, in the heart of the UWO campus, atop a large hill.

Here is a building that comes up immediately when one searches online. How deliberately the author has identified public spaces (we can imagine our narrator moving through the halls of this building, walking the tunnels which run between it and other campus buildings). And, yet, how imprecisely the private spaces are defined.

But there is a gap, too, between a woman’s public life and her private dreams, between what she aspires to and what she expects to achieve and, for our narrator, between her expectations of other womens sophistication and their quotidien lives.

  “Kay and Beverly were a disappointment to me. They worked hard at Modern Languages, but their conversation and preoccupations seemed hardly different from those of girls who might work in banks or offices. They did their hair up in pin curls and painted their fingernails on Saturdays, because that was the night they had dates with their boyfriends. On Sundays they had to soothe their faces with lotion because of the whisker-burns the boyfriends had inflicted on them. I didn’t find either boyfriend in the least desirable, and I wondered how they could.
They said that they had once had some crazy idea of being translators at the United Nations, but now they figured they would teach high school, and with any luck get married.”

The daily lives of these young women are at best predictable and at worst disappointing. The experiences of the girls’ landlady, Beth, who inhabits the first floor, also offers little hope of escape.

“Wet laundry—diapers and smelly baby woollens—was hanging from some ceiling-racks, bottles in a sterilizer bubbled and rattled on the stove.”

KingsUniversityCampus

King’s College, UWO campus

I imagine that the homes which served as residences for the university were down the hill, below University College, and across the bridge; there are plenty of older homes there, yet, on the side-streets bordering the campus, with two full stories topped with an attic with eaves.

But perhaps we cannot exactly identify them because any one of those buildings could house such secrets.

(The building pictured to the right was once a private residence but is now a key campus building in King’s College, which is also part of the UWO campus, a few blocks from the modern residences for the university’s students. Although I do not believe Mr. Purvis’ residence was half as grand as this, and it is described as being a modern dwelling, our narrator’s reference to travelling east and passing brick and mock-Tudor houses brings this kind of structure to mind.)

At first our narrator is not entirely pleased to share her space with Nina, but it is, nonetheless, a formative and influential relationship in her young life.

“Her life made me feel like a simpleton.
I asked her what was Mr. Purvis’s first name.
‘Arthur.’
‘Why don’t you call him that?’
‘It wouldn’t sound natural.'”

The relationship(s) with Mr. Purvis contain(s) echoes of the tension that other heroines have experienced in other relationships with men in other stories. I can imagine Mr. Montjoy, for instance, in “Hired Girl”, making this kind of arrangement (if he could find a way to occupy Mrs. Montjoy elsewhere).

“’It would be very kind if you would read to me. My eyes are tired in the evenings. You know this book?’
[A Shropshire Lad]
I knew it. In fact I knew many of the poems by heart.
I said that I would read.
‘And may I ask you please—may I ask you please—not to cross your legs?’”

LPL 305 Queens Avenue LondonON

Building which housed the London Public Library at that time

But ultimately the relationships between women (yes, Mrs. Montjoy, here too!) more sharply draw the lines of hierarchy and status.

Our narrator is not entirely certain whether she will respond to Mr. Purvis’ requests, but Mrs. Winner’s presence influences her decision.

“It was partly her contempt that made me stay. Partly. That and my pride.”

Innocence and experience are expressed in ordinary and uncommon ways in “Wenlock Edge”.

Pantyhose are hung to dry in a bathroom. There are peculiarly intimate readings of the works of English Country Poets. (Public readings, too, as it turns out.)

Nina’s unpredictable agency and compliance, her independent spirit and her desire to please, stand in contrast to our narrator’s approach, at first ambivalent, but then boldly determined.

Early in the girls’ story, when Nina seeks an escape out the back door of the city public library, our narrator follows.

(And, indeed, a side door of the library did open directly near the back of the building onto the parking lot, which backed onto an alley-way running parallel to Dundas Street, so it is conceivable that the girls could indeed have foiled Mrs. Winner, who saw them arrive by bus and would have naturally expected them to leave the same way.)

And, for much of the story, our narrator seems to react rather than act.

But, later in the story, she plots her own path. What motivates her actions is complicated, but she acts boldly.

“Better not to expect too much. Some things I guess you’re just not meant to have.”

The intersection between determination and resignation: familiar territory indeed.

And this is a landscape Alice Munro readers know intimately.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the third story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Deep-Holes”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.