So many books to talk about! Including what’s currently in my stacks and what I’m reading with this year’s reading about writing.
Spring and summer reading: something for every readers. Historical fiction? Michelle Butler Hallett’s This Marlowe. Families unravelling? Catherine Cooper’s White Elephant. Fiction unravelling? Malcolm Sutton’s Job Shadowing. Cookbooks? Gwyneth Paltrow’s It’s All Easy. Mystery? Susan Philpott’s Blown Red. History: James Laxer’s Staking Claims to a Continent.
Casting a spell on girlhood: Joni Murphy’s Double Teenage. Mining it for laughs: Jessi Klein’s You’ll Grow Out of It. Just trying to survive it: Karen Molson’s The Company of Crows. Adding a splash of scent: Lisa Moore’s Flannery. With fruit-filling: Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards.
There’s talk of backlisted fiction too, like Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe and Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl. On that score, I’m currently reading Ernest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men, Robert Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls, Toni Cade Bambera’s The Salt Eaters, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped and Grace Lin’s The Year of the Dog.
And I’m looking forward to my next Toni Morrison, some Philip Pullman and more Guy Gavriel Kay (it’s been too long).
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!)
Excerpt from my reading journal:
Having read all of Jane Hamilton’s novels, and having waited since 2009 for another, I was pretty psyched for The Excellent Lombards.
Grand Central Publishing, 2016
My favourites were The Short History of a Prince and The Book of Ruth, which I read very quickly, but perhaps not as quickly as Jane Rider’s Masterpiece or Disobedience (well, they were shorter works).
They all take place in Wisconsin, but perhaps no other contains so many obvious parallels between main character and author; Mary Frances Lombard was born on a Wisconsin apple farm and Jane Hamilton married a man who was a partner in one and they live there still.
That is just the kind of adulthood which Mary Frances imagines for herself, though married contentedly (if not happily) to her brother,William.
For the duration of the novel, this is the only world which Mary Frances knows, and the only world which she cares to imagine.
This creates a rather confining cocoon for the reader, for although the novel is told in the past tense, one cannot escape the sense of an endless childhood.
This suits, however, for apparently Mary Frances (who goes by many names in the novel, depending upon who’s calling her – she hasn’t yet defined her own self, you see) was named for Frankie, the twelve-year-old heroine of Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding.
In a letter to Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers wrote: “Suddenly I said: Frankie is in love with her brother and the bride…. The illumination focused the whole book.”*
And, indeed, Jane Hamilton’s Frankie is in love with her brother, holding his hand to span the distance between their bunkbeds, although her love for him is not straightforward.
“A normal brother would have gotten furious, would have swiped the oar through the water and drenched his sister. Why was William so nice? That question made me even angrier. Why did he always have to be so patient, so patient and kind, too? He made me sick. A sharp awful pain in the head. What was wrong with him? I changed my mind – I didn’t want to be an orchard partner with him. You’d have to be an idiot, you’d have to be impaired to be so good.”
In The Excellent Lombards, unlike The Member of the Wedding, Jane Hamilton’s Frankie feels a member in every way, but also feels that her membership is threatened (sometimes by a perception that others are not as committed to the success of te apple farm as she is, sometimes by external factors, which she does not quite comprehend, although adult readers can intuit their nature).
So the similarities between the works are as interesting as the departures. (Although the idea of a library-cart relay team as a public display of prowess is more amusing, to my taste, than a wedding.)
Ultimately the focus of The Excellent Lombards, as one would guess by the title, is not only membership in the family, but the question of a legacy, the succession.
In this sense, the novel reminds me more of Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings, whereas initially it reminded me more of Jane Urquhart’s Sanctuary Line. There, too, is an overwhelming preoccuption with which members of the fishing family will carry on the family tradition, in a retelling of King Lear complicated with contemporary concerns about financial stability and resource exhaustion.
Urquhart’s novel is still a fine match, for its focus on the importance of memory, and the sense that one doesn’t properly recall childhood but reconstructs it, through a series of images recalled in a sequence which becomes a story.
As Frankie’s mother tells her father in The Excellent Lombards: “I do understand that for you the farm is the most important fearutre of the world,” she said quietly, and almost sadly, “I do know that. But, I’m not going to dwell on the money I put into the operation – gladly, I put the nest egg in gladly.”
What garners someone influence in the workings of the farm is sometimes difficult to recognize from the surface, so Frankie, as a young girl, does not completely comprehend the factors at work.
“We didn’t know that our parents were objecting to the other’s self, that enormous hulking thing each possessed, that a self of course is not inconsequential.”
And even when all the factors are known and understood, there are difficulties, differences of opinion.
“‘It’s always a slow process, coming around to change,’ my father said. He rubbed his eyes. ‘They’ll get there.’”
When one’s identity is fundamentally engaged with a piece of land, a way of life, it’s impossible to imagine oneself separate from it. “We weren’t just bored with the world; we were bored with ourselves, or we ere hardly in our selves anymore. It was hard to tell what was going on. Maybe, if we could remember one little trick about how we used to be, we could get there, get back, as if we ourselves were a country we’d left.”
When Frankie is asked “’Do you want to farm anywhere – do you love farming? Or is your love for farming about your love for home?'”, she is ill-equipped to respond.
All of these ideas are stirred up together for her, like a crumble with all the oats and sugar and cinnamon in with the apples (Courtlands or Empires or Macs would be especially nice).
*Quoted in Josyane Savigneau’s Carson McCullers: Her Life and Work (1968)
Massacre, killer, murder: when these words appear on a novel’s first page, readers are fore-warned.
And, yet, the first third of Sara Taylor’s Boring Girls (2015) is a coming-of-age story.
“It was becoming more and more apparent that I had been right all along. No one could truly understand me, unless they got me.” Despite the ominous introductory pages, Rachel’s experiences in high school are not extraordinary; she is unpopular, artistic, and a target for bullies.
But Boring Girls quickly develops into a coming-of-anger story. Rachel offers a perspective from a later date, and has enough self-awareness to take a step back from her narrative sometimes so that readers can assemble a broader picture, but Boring Girls is all about Rachel’s voice.
This suits the tale, as she also becomes the voice of a heavy metal band, the lead singer, who is known for delivering a memorable show for audiences. “If more people treated assholes like assholes, then anyone could be a hero.”
Rachel wasn’t looking to be a hero, but she does want to prove people “dead wrong” if they think girls can’t be singers, and in time her ambition swerves into the territory occupied by Rachel the renegade, the unbalanced, the criminal, the murderess.
The most disturbing element of Boring Girls is that aspects of Rachel’s spiral are presented as quotidien details. Not exactly boring, but not titillating either. (Yet, it remains, even in talk of art-class and who-dates-whom, compelling.)
The prose is not commercial, the story not a page-turner. The most scenic and crafted aspects of the novel are about the band members’ experiences related to practices and gigs (the bands’ names are wickedly funny), undoubtedly a reflection of the author’s own experiences (as a member of “The Birthday Massacre”).
“None of these questions are really meant to have answers. It’s just the stuff that cycles around in my mind.”
And even after bad things happen, there is no satisfying conclusion. It’s disturbing because it’s believable, most horrors do not have explanations. Not satisfying ones.
Inanna Publications, 2016
There is a massacre in Valerie Mills-Milde’s After Drowning (2016) too, but the novel begins with a single death, which Pen observes while at the beach with her young daughter.
“The drowning has turned over ancient soil, and with it, the bones of Pen’s past. Last night, unable to sleep, she had reimagined the scene over and over.”
Pen has returned to Port in an effort to orient herself, but this disaster strikes soon after her arrival, and larger questions of rescue and struggle, succumbing and surviving come to the surface.
“‘It’s hard to go back to things. Especially if when you saw them last, everything was so messed up.'”
Surrounded by the familiar and the near-familiar, she begins gingerly exploring her roots, but ‘home’ and ‘away’ are slippery states. Parental and sibling relationshps are dislocated, disorienting.
“The cats in Pen’s childhood were like phantoms, half-starved and nameless. Now, Irene’s cats loll around like porn stars and have the names of dead celebrities; Marilyn, Tony, Frank.”
Sometimes changes are dramatic and readily reconizable. (Even then, there is at least a hint of darkness. Marilyn. Patches.)
“’Has it changed, Pen? The lake, Port, I mean?’
She thinks for a moment. ‘I thought so before, but now I’m not so sure. It’s still the same old mix: fishing families, the summer people, a few more restaurants and boutiques. Oh, and bikers. Lots of them.’”
Port bears substantial similarity to the town of Port Dover in Ontario, which has also seen substantial cultural change in recent years. (The massacre is pulled from Southwestern Ontario news headlines as well.)
“There are probably hundreds of bikers in the province, she reasons, and many in Port. Many all along the Erie shoreline. In recent years, each time a Friday the thirteenth occurs, the bikers converge on the town like a flock of black gulls. No reason to assume that T or the others, had been involved in these killings.”
Valerie Mill-Milde’s narrative is as familiar as her small-town setting: a search for identity and a sense of belonging, against a background of rapidly changing times both personal and political. Including excerpts from some reports (insurance documents and newspaper articles) reminds readers that there are other versions of the truth hovering beyond Pen’s story, and that adds a degree of complexity to the flow between past and present-day events.
The author draws attention to some key moments which crystallize in the glare of summer sun reflected off Lake Erie with a quiet sensibility. Her sense of irony and compassion could propel the narrative of her next work into truly sophisticated storytelling.
House of Anansi, 2016
James Laxer‘s is a bloody tale as well, a historical volume in fact: Staking Claims to a Continent: John A. Macdonald, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and the Making of North America.
This is the second volume in a trilogy which began with Tecumseh and Brock and a consideration of the War of 1812. Not only is he drawn to pivotal events which define nations and continents, but James Laxer has an intuitive understanding of what makes for good reading: conflict fuels narrative.
James Laxer successfully combines a zoom-lens and a satellite-view, so that a variety of readers can participate in his work. Consider the way in which he presents John A. MacDonald’s staked claims to the north. MacDonald is the “Master Builder of Confederation”
“He was, as well, a gifted performer on the hustings during an election campaign. But in the intimate confines of a conference with a number of political leaders thrown together for a period of days, he excelled. Both on the floor and in private encounters when the conference was out of session, he drew others to him, won them over to his vision, and honed the needed compromises on matters of detail that kept the agenda advancing.”
What follows is a summary of one particularly important speech, made in the provincial legislature on February 6, 1865, which enumerated the flaws of American federalism and promoted the idea of British North Americans uniting to take any defensive action required.
Then readers are invited into another layer of the conference, with a discussion of George-Etienne Cartier’s speech on the following day and George Brown’s the day after that. Now readers have a greater understanding of the similarities and differences between allies on the matter of Confederation.
Finally, he shifts into a discussion of the opponents’ perspectives, choosing A.A. Dorion to present in detail. “I can tell those gentlemen that the people of Lower Canada [Quebec] are attached to thir institutions in a manner that defies any attempt to chane them in that way,. They will not change their religious institutions, their laws and their language, for any consideration whatever.”
Perhaps many of the details are lost on contemporary readers who are not currently engaged in the study of Canadian history, but there is an eye to current events throughout the work, so that even this one speech reminds readers that tensions between francophones and anglophones persist yet.
Similarly, the focus on the American figures, approaching and fielding the conflict which came to be called the Civil War, reaches into the past to consider the development of American political parties, growth of industry and resource availability and institutionalized inequality. (Spoiler: the war was about economics not human rights.) This feels surprisingly relevant given some of the issues at the forefront of the current election campaigns in the U.S. and ongoing civil rights’ conflicts.
(There is not much said about Mexico, other than in the context of which territories would eventually be successfully brought into the union, along southern borders. So the “making of North America” in this context is really about the U.S. and Canada.)
James Laxer is not targeting the casual reader. He does use endnotes, not footnores, so that readers are not constantly reminded of the immense effort of scholarship behind the work, but there are two pages of primary sources in his bibliography and more than six pages of secondary sources.
Whereas Charlotte Gray’s works of narrative non-fiction urge readers to lean back in their chairs to get comfortable with some storytelling along the way, Staking Claims to a Continent feels like a book which should be read at a table, with a notebook at hand.
Nonetheless, it is not an academic work either; the language is heightened but accessible, the content dense but not overwhelming, and the structure complex (layered and shifting across borders) but clearly expressed. And, there’s a revolution afoot. Potentially more than one. Who says this doesn’t make good summer reading?
How about you: any bloodshed in your stacks this season?
Jill Sexsmith’s Somewhere a Long and Happy Life Probably Awaits You (ARP Books, 2016)
“Tulip stopped at the doorway. She had grown up with the whir of a mitre saw in the background, always cutting her thoughts and sentences and songs in half. Still, the sound of the blade tearing through wood always made her nervous.
Her father sometimes invited her in. Had dreams of whittling with his daughter. But the doorway was as far as she could go. Today, when he saw her, he took his eyes off the blade for a moment and the tips of three fingers flew past Tulip’s head.”
This excerpt represents many of the qualities that I loved about these stories.
Very ordinary things, like mitre saws, are everywhere. But a tree in a Jill Sexsmith story isn’t like a tree in some other story.
Sometimes the unexpected happens: in fact, often. Like fingers flying across the room. Just when you were preoccupied by the whir, covering your ears with your hands? Thoughts and sentences and hands become casualties. And you should have put out your own hands like a shield, to block your gaze.
Also, there are thresholds. They do not look like what you might have thought that thresholds would look like. And a threshold for Tulip might be another character’s nightmare of whittling.
And even when something very dark is happening, there is something whimsical and playful about the tone. Wickedly playful. It made me want to stop and read passages aloud at frequent intervals.
Images might be poetic, but the language is straightforward. And if there is a moral to the stories, it is that one shouldn’t look for morals in stories. One should look out for flying digits instead.
Contents: “Somewhere a Long and Happy Life Probably Awaits You”, “this s an epic love story”, “The Problem with Babies”, “A Box Full of Wildebeest”, “Airplanes Couldn’t Be Happier in Turbulence”, “Downward Slump in the Prodigy Market”, “You Cry Ugly”, “The End of the World (now postponed)”, “Hybrid Vigour”, “Step on a Crack”, “Play the Dying Card”
Gianna Patriarca’s All My Fallen Angelas (Inanna, 2016)
Inanna Publications, 2016
“Vicky’s parents had no idea about feminism and the Women’s Liberation movement. Nor did they have any real idea about the American dream, or about boutiques or about women like Cheryl Tiegs. They were simply hard-working immigrant parents who wanted to create a good life for themselves and their children, and they lived by their traditions and religious beliefs. But Victoria, who wanted to be called Vicky, had begun to dream a different dream when her father brought home that first television set as a Christmas gift for the family.”
There are as many kinds of feminists in All My Fallen Angelas as there are likely to be feminist readers of this debut collection. Young girls as dreamers, older girls as ghosts: each has her place.
“I believed I could make it happen. I believed that it would all come true. It would all turn out the way it was meant to be. I could live the enchantment. I would be wife to the husband prince, daughter to the King and Queen, and mother to the noble heirs to come. I would remain the dawn of every possibility.”
The variety of perspectives (including a ghost, a child, a freshly engaged 29YO woman, and a “good daughter” who returns home to care for her aging mother) keeps the reader engaged, and beneath them all lies the author’s fascination with life stories.
Many of these stories consider (or unfold with a backdrop of) the experiences of newcomers to Canada and Gianna Patriarca is especially interested in the gap between expectations and dreams and the reality of everyday life. Often the backstory, events which played out long before the characters arrived in Toronto, is more important than present-day events, with memory shading all that follows.
As if to reflect the world beyond its pages, the epigraphs to the stories reach widely geographically, frequently to the works of poets (including Eavan Boland and Dylan Thomas, Lucille Clifton and Dionne Brand).
But Toronto sets the stage for these tales, most often Little Italy. Many historic and lasting landmarks are featured, from Union Station to Tivoli (a greasy spoon at the corner of St. Clair and Dufferin), from Kensington Market to the Piper Club (on the east side of Dufferin with its afternoon dances), from the Royal Cinema on College to the Sicilian Café (further along the strip, at the corner of Montrose).
Tivoli is filled with sensory detail as well (smelling like hormones and cigarette smoke, fries and onion rings) and there are delicious foods to tempt readers as well (rum-drenched and custard-filled brioche, almond biscotto, and maple caramel candy), along with less appealing details (a steaming and foaming waterfall of pee, or the smell of oil in soil air and plants of Petrolia).
All My Fallen Angelas feels like a community-soaked collection of stories, always character-driven and often moving and affecting.
Contents: “All My Fallen Angelas”, “A Girl Named Ascenza”, “The Apron”, “My First American Candy”, “Waiting for a Miracle”, “In My Blood”, “Painted Windows”, “My Grandmother is Normal”, “Grazia on Grace”, “Blonde Forever”, “Anna at the Window”, “Table for Two”, “A Girl Made of Lavender,” My Mother, “My Father”, “My Sins”
Jess Taylor’s Pauls (Book Thug, 2015)
Book Thug, 2015
Readers of All My Fallen Angelas might be suprrised to learn that there is not an excess of Angelas to be found therein; those readers will be content to learn that a plethora of Pauls peoples Jess Taylor’s debut collection.
Not, however, as the same Shell appears in all 13 Shells of Nadia Bozak’s recent book. There are ten stories in Pauls, but not ten Pauls.
First off, readers meet two Pauls, one who works at a paper mill and one who works as an academic. Immediately multiple Pauls. Then there are more. Sometimes they narrate, sometimes they are “him”s. There is a Paulina, too, who is also a Paul. And sometimes one Paul later becomes another Paul.
This Paul-ness is complicated by the fact that many of the characters in this collection – Pauls and otherwise – are caught in the act of becoming.
“What are you going to do now that you’re done your job?”
“I don’t know. Maybe just read. I wish I knew how to do something. I want people to think I have a bleeding soul, that I offer some sort of unique vision. I want topple to see what I see, and I want them to go, Wow, wow.”
Sometimes this is an active state, but often it is something quiet and sprawling.
“I read all day sometimes, when I wasn’t working. Things that had happened to me before moving to the city left me raw. And reading just like when I was a child, along with my friendships, seemed to be the way to fix it. I was learning. I could feel myself growing every day into a woman. And it was maybe not an easy thing. But it was a special thing.”
Sometimes you only notice the becoming when you look back over your shoulder and see how much of it has pooled behind you, while you were watching something else. Sometimes it is about imagining oneself as the watched one, not the one who is watching.
“The gaps made more gaps and then more gaps. She imagined him sitting by her naked body, just watching. Spending the whole night watching.”
In the process, there is talk of the weather (of sunsets, but also lightning), colours (of bruises, but also skies), textures (of tongues, but also sumac trees), and the tangible (say, the positioning of Barbie dolls’ hands) but also the intangible (lies and promises and wishes).
What happens if we take a deep breath in – what happens when we let it out? What do we hold in there? Where is the line between potential and destiny? What can we do with the gap between those states?
“Fine is a funny word. The weather can be fine. There can be fine stitching on clothes. Fine can mean small, contained, delicate. Fine can mean okay, all right. Comme ci, comme ca. When someone asks, How are you? You can say, Fine, and mean the opposite, or you can mean, I am like a careful line of stitching, how are you? You can mean, I am delicate. Be careful that I don’t get snagged and unravel.”
There is a sharp and simultaneously tender vision at the heart of Pauls. It’s fine. And it’s fine. And it is also fine. And, it’s a careful line of stitching.
Contents: “Paul”, “Claire’s Fine”, “We Want Impossible Things”, “Breakfast Curry”, “Multicoloured Lights”, “Wishweeds”, “And We Spin Like Records (and we Climb like Trees)”, “Below the Spoon-Tree”, “The Letters”, “Degenerate”
What short stories have you been reading lately?
As a screenwriter and a playwright, it’s not surprising that Tracy Barone’s debut novel, Happy Family, reads like a series of scenes.
Little, Brown and Company, 2016
The first unfolds on August 5, 1962. “The pregnant girl enters the Trenton Family Clinic, looking like she parted the Red Sea to get there.”
She is as adept at sneaking out of the hospital after giving birth as she was sneaking doses of morphine while an ER nurse has gone to fetch the necessities, while the rest of the staff was coping with other life-and-death matters.
The baby is left behind to serve as the inspiration for a nearly-400-page-long novel.
The success of the novel depends upon the reader’s faith that the scenes will assemble themselves into a montage.
Initially it is disorienting because readers have no sooner settled into the pregnant girl’s story, when they are pulled into Billy Beal’s narrative. (Billy witnessed her escape but was unnamed in the opening segment, because although the girl noticed him, she did not appear to recognize him even when he appeared again later on the edges of the scene.)
There is an explanation offered at the end of the story, presented in the voice of a character whose story emerges with the novel’s second of four parts, titled “Chicago 2002: somewhere in the middle”.
“If life is a river, we can see only a small patch of it. A little in front of us, some behind. We don’t know when we’re going to run into a tributary or hit a waterfall. If you could pull back and up to see how it all connected to the ocean, if you could see the whole story of all of your parents and their parents, would it alter your memories of them?”
Happy Family is an attempt to reveal the whole story. And, of course, this involves a preoccupation with the whole family. But there is no sense of intimacy here, neither between characters or between reader and story.
“She is filled with a deep longing, the profound sense of missing something she’s never really had. It’s young and primitive, the fantasy of family; the idea that someone is threre for you no matter what.”
The novel is more about longing and grasping, sometimes about the near-grasp of something meaningful. This is not only evident in specific plot developments, but in the characterizations of eras as when 1984 is described as a time in which women could bring home the bacon and cook it too.
More than halfway through the novel, a character visiting a psychiatrist is told: ““All children long for a sense of family. However fractured yours was, these people were connected to you. They were the other piece of the puzzle.”
But while engaged in treatment, it’s clear that the emphasis is on the fracture rather than the connection.
Happy Family, which opens with the famous Tolsoy epigraph about happy families, is (as one might guess) not so much about happy families after all.
Anna Karenina wasn’t an entirely happy tale either; in fact, the moments of happiness ultimately seem far outweighed by the suffering. Whether a character is debating the merits of medcation versus meditation, or whether they are struggling with the lumps in a banana-bread batter, trouble is afoot.
Tracy Barone writes very well about sorrow. For much of the novel, the description is light (which suits a writer accusomed to having a prop department at her fingertips), although there are occasionally some bright bits of imagery. (One of my favourites: a dog’s “tongue hanging like a wind-blown necktie.”
But she can write about sadness very well. (This is a long quote, but it also reveals the sensual nature of some of the prose, and the emotive power of particular narrative events. Note: I have omitted one word from this passage, as it would spoil a plot development.)
“It’s amazing how sadness can make itself infinitesimally small so as to invade even the whisper of an opening. But once it enters, it transmutes, into a vast, carnivorous beast, relentlessly, growing through flesh and tissue, organ by organ. It had been waiting years, tick-like, for this moment. Despite her attempts to use drugs and booze as sealants to plug up the cracks, the sadness has found its way in. It’s consuming her, she can feel its tundra breath on her neck. Buckle, wail in anguish, rend garments like a normal person, for fuck’s sake, give it what it wants.Take the pill to make you taller or stop running and take its grotesque head in your hands and kiss it on its open mouth.”
As preoccupied with loss as it is with love, Happy Family perhaps could use some finesse to plug up the cracks between the scenes, but the scenes themselves are vividly and powerfully drawn and I look forward to seeing it dramatized on screen.
This debut collection is filled with sensory detail. From brisket and chicken soup to gefilte fish and borscht.
From paint-by-number clowns to lacy pillow-slips. From red-striped deck chairs to weathered shutters.
Inanna Publications, 2016
Whether it’s Debussy or lyrics from “Oklahoma”, the details matter. But Aspects of Nature is actually preoccupied with broad and expansive themes.
More than one of stories, however, indeed one of the cornerstone tales (“Finding Maryan”), does have music at its core, however.
“Finding Maryan” is based on her experience studying with musician Maryan Filar, in Philadelphia in the 1950s, when he had newly arrived in the Philadephia.
The story requires that she flesh out her understanding of him a great deal, building upon the scant facts known about his life.
“Well, it isn’t enough, is it, to march chronologically through a story, beginning to end? Every writer knows that; every reader feels that. An epiphany, a point toward which the narrative drives, a climax of a sort, is required: What happens on a “Thursday” afternoon at four p.m.? What Thursday afternoon would you like? The day the SS wrench Maryan Filar’s father, Adam, from Warsaw ghetto streets, never to be heard from again? Or the day his mother and sister vanish?”
Perhaps it is how a writer defines an epiphany which has the potential to nurture alliances with readers.
Much the same way that Bonnie Burnard spoke of wanting to tell, in her novel A Good House, the story of a family that mostly functioned. Even though the literary climate was weighing heavily on the side of dysfunction, and the tension and drama associated with fractured and flailing familial relationships.
Many readers loved A Good House and it also won that year’s Giller Prize. But some readers expressed deep disappointment that nothing happens in that novel.
Rhoda Rabinowitz Green’s stories are quiet and filled with ordinary and everyday occurrences in some respects as well, but often there is darkness at their edges (even, sometimes, their cores).
Sometimes this results in an over-earnest tone, as sweeping observations are made, but this is not uncommon in debut collections. Consider: “Only music kept him from becoming slave to the devil of bitterness, hate, and despair.” An attentive and experienced reader senses this is true, does not require the elucidation.
These periodic pronouncements are not as immediatley apparent when presented in plainer language. Consider: “Pretending there was something going on here that was worth a life, worth talking about.”
And when offered as casual asides, or displayed through elements of a scene rather than directly, they add flavour and spirit to the collection. In “Dear Doctor”, for instance: “‘Doctor will have to speak to you,’ she crisps (They all say Doctor, generic noun, like Father as in Holy).”
The darkness does weigh down the reader at times (readers should have opted for a bright and sunny daytime scene on the cover if they hoped otherwise). “Seconds of silence go by like minutes, weighted with a lifetime of pleasures made bittersweet with present sorrows.”
But a spirit of resilience is also present. “That confident assertive woman I always knew was there, latently potentially powerful like the genie in the bottle.”
Settings are as varied as Florida and California, Toronto and Philadelphia. But much of the drama is interior, the setting merely a detail (sometimes even unnamed).
The language is mostly straightforward, with the occasional lofty image (like seaweed snaking in strands, Medusa’s tresses). Sometimes metaphors and descriptions are predictable (slashing rain, whooshing wind, hair colour of chestnuts, or crashing ocean breakers) but sometimes powerful (splinters of time, or a rumour spreading like a contagion of lice).
Aspects of Nature is a solid debut collection, preoccupied with “rewinding the possibilities” and decisions about where and how to live, and whether and what to sacrifice. Sometimes it’s simply about a Thursday afternoon, other times someone vanishes.
Contents: “At Wind at Her Back”, “You Make Your Decision”, “Finding Maryan”, “Aspects of Nature”, “Dear Doctor”, “Shayndeleh”, “The Day of the Gorgon”, “What’s Going on Here, Anyway?”, “Out to Lunch with the Girls”, “Age Appropriate”, “Shayndeleh’s Real Estate”
It might seem to be, at first glance, a quintessential CanLit passage, a poetic description of the natural world.
Linda Leith Publishing, 2016
But the opening passage of The Company of Crows reveals more about Karen Molson’s debut novel, than one might think.
“Thin grey lines fan out across the earthscape like a gigantic, tattered spiderweb. The routes – some asphalt, some gravel – dissect realms of trees and loop around the huddled flat-roofed buildings; farther east, they separate swampy thickets from clusters of houses. Each subsection of the web relays a different complexion of light. The colours can change by the millisecond; in late summer, wind can sweep green from a field of ripe wheat and whirl it into gold. But it’s not yet the time for wheat.”
It will be preoccupied with the earthscape but also the airscape, which is what will reflect and refract the multiple complexions of light. The story of a thirteen-year-old girl named Veronica Reid, a story about an innocent negotiating the currents of experience.
It will be about weaving, telling a story in such a way that one might draw a single cord in and out of a broader work, to alter colour and texture, to accentuate and embolden. Surrounding and securing Veronica’s story are stories of other residents in the environs of Laughing Willows Trailer Park (some winged, others not).
It will observe variety and multiplicity, illuminate pathways and border-places, especially spaces in which the wild and the seemingly-not-so-wild must (or choose to) co-exist. Veronica is on the threshold of adulthood, an ominous and looming wilderness, but faces serious threats in spaces which are seemingly domesticated and protected; when her mother decides that the family will spend the summer in a trailer park, Veronica is keen to sleep on the porch, prepared to make even a small space her own, in this wider and wilder world.
It will consider change and transformation, small and large, the kind which unfurls across moments and seasons, relentless and glorious. Many of the characters, including Charlotte and Grace, have adapted to cope with stresses in their environments (with varying degrees of success), some in the natural world and others rooted in human relationships.
It will swoop and hint at what is to come, then circle back to a time before. Although told in the present tense, the novel is set in the summer of 1974. Written with an immediacy, it only quietly whispers about how poignant memories of one’s thirteenth summer could be.
Maybe Veronica doesn’t want to be a heroine. “It’s not that she wants to be a heroine, but she’d love to be someone other than herself. Someone lucky, smart, or even pretty would be good. Or just a bit less of a misfit.” Nonetheless, she inhabits the role in The Company of Crows.
Although she doesn’t necessarily fit the profile, at least not according to what she’s read in books (and she is quite a reader).
“She gnaws on a thumbnail for a while. Emma Bovary goes mad with despair. Anna Karenina. Scarlett O’Hara. But the thing with heroines is that none of them are stricken with acne, have to wear braces or endure thick eyeglasses – or, God forbid, all three at once. The heroines are always beautiful, always headstrong, every intrepid. Veronica feels like she becomes them when she’s reading about them. Even more so since her braces finally came off two months ago.”
Whether it’s a quiet nod to another CanLit heroine or not, Veronica’s musings about being beauiful or intelligent or good echo other coming-of-age tales in which lives of girls and women are restricted from the get-go (although Anne of Green Gables was written by a woman engaged to a minister, so goodness was perhaps more relevant than fortune in her worldview).
And Veronica herself deliberately works to echo her favourite stories, writing in her diary in old-fashioned language: the stuff of stories. Really, she is a heroine: she just doesn’t know it yet.
“Along with my childhood, I have left behind my former belief in imaginary things like unicorns and mermaids. These beliefs have been extinguished for good. I can see what it’s goingto take now to resolve my dilemma is a miracle.“
Perhaps that’s because even those who know her have not yet begun to recognize her heroine-potential. “Yesterday Veronica had come by looking for a needle and thread. She’s a strange girl, Grace reflects, those big glasses making her look so awkward, and that odd manner of speaking making her sound slightly foreign.”
And, to be fair, Veronica doesn’t recognize Grace to be a heroine either; Veronica does, however, feel a sense of kinship with the local librarian. (Not only is this anoter delightfully bookish passage, but it also brushes against the themes of innocence and experience, thresholds and wonders.)
“She helps Veronica fit all the books into her backpack. When she heaves it on to her shoulders, it feels to Veronica like the weight of joy; tangible, specific possibilities of vicarious journeys and knowledge and intriguing thing, all measured here in her backpack by the pull of gravity; in this haul, the real substance of wonder and enchantment.”
The Company of Crows considers a series of characters (most intimately, Veronica) who are travelling the archetypal territory of love and loss. A single moment can contain both tranquility and conflict.
“Most of all, she likes the fact that she can read her book between customers, pinning it to the counter with her elbows.
As the sun goes down, it slants parallel to the lane and falls between the trees, lighting up the spread pages. Soon she’ll turn the lights on behind her, but for now she’s absorbed in Pride and Prejudice. She’s just begun the last chapter when a shadow falls over the page.”
Karen Molson’s debut novel arcs and plummets with grace and intelligence: The Company of Crows is assured and accomplished.
“My main career goal has been to get to go to work every day on something that I’m proud of, with a bunch of people I really like and respect, who make me laugh.”
Grand Central Publishing – Hachette, 2016
This is Jessi Klein, interviewed by Cosmo, for its “Get That Life” series, which considers how “successful, talented, creative women got to where they are now”.
A detailed accounting of the various roles she filled, before she became an executive producer on “Inside Amy Schumer”, reaches back to her days as a temp at Comedy Central; it’s as complete as a CV, replete with dates and titles, but it is followed with this recognizable and familiar statement.
Jessi Klein has a knack for sharing experiences which are uniquely her own, and then inviting onlookers and readers to respond to the universalities therein.
For every element which makes her uniquely Jessi Klein, there are so many shared experiences, human experiences, as straightforward as the desire to produce meaningful work with good people.
“When I’m in the rhythm of doing stand-up regularly, it makes me more observant. You get in the habit of coming up with material and writing things down and you become more attuned to what’s going on around you. In that process, you remind yourself what you think is funny. Then you find out if what you think is funny is what other people think is funny.” (Writers’ Guild of America East Interview)
Her writing process for her new book, You’ll Grow Out of It, was slightly different. A longer project “encourages tangents and twists and turns that you can’t indulge in a half-hour script”. She was particularly pleased to find the pieces developing around a theme, because it “felt very book-y to have one”. (This from an interview with “The New York Times”.)
“[T]hroughout my life I’d always felt like an outside observer to my own experience of growing into a woman,” she explains.
This sensation is immediately apparent in You’ll Grow Out of It, from the opening pages of the first piece, “Tom Man”.
“Once I reached high school, however, my transformation from Pippi Longstocking-esque tomboy to are-you-a-lesbian-or-what tom man began in earnest, I was supposed to be entering into the full bloom of puberty, nibbling, like a delicate baby panda, at the first tiny bamboo shoots of womanhood. But I resisted. Even though I was interested in men, and wanted a boyfriend desperately, I didn’t relate to any of the activities women partake in to create the circumstances where a teenage boy might be coaxed into the role.”
The furry animal comparisons continue, as she considers contrasting models of womanhood, categorizing women into poodles or wolves.
Comedy can be polarizing, and immediately I thought about the quote about there being two kinds of people in world, those who think there are only two kinds of people and those who don’t.
Before reading You’ll Grow Out of It, I’d have said that two kinds of animals wouldn’t be enough. But, as Jessi Klein describes it, I am obviously a wolf.
And, so is she. Which is possibly why she made me laugh so hard and so often. Because our kind travels in packs.
But I think I would still have enjoyed this collection, even if I was more of a poodle. Because I’m not a perfect wolf either.
“Standards are something you accumulate over a lifetime of interacting with potential romantic partners and figuring out, as you encounter new bullshit, what is bullshit you will tolerate and what is undeniably deal-breaker bullshit.” (“The Cad”)
Ultimately, what I most appreciate about Jessi Klein’s humour is that she is as willing to look at herself through its lens as she is willing to look at others. I wondered if I would think she was so funny if I identified as a Buddhist, after finding this passage (and laughing).
“The Buddhists say that you shouldn’t let shame about pain cause you to feel a second, self-inflicted pain, which is good advice; but sometimes it’s hard to do what the Buddhists say mainly because so many of the people who currently talk about Buddhism are in those newfangled sweatpants with the cuffs on the ankles and are otherwise insufferable.” (“All the Cakes”)
But there are times in You’ll Grow Out of It, when I am the person with the habit or characteristic that she is observing, and I still think it’s funny, Because each of it has our own insufferabilitites, and even while she’s pointing out other people’s, it’s clear that Jessi Klein has been just as observant of her own.
“…I had a dim feeling that it might be nice to have a kid when I was old. More specifically, I would think about being on my deathbed (I’m fun), and how if there was no kid, it would be sad and lonely (for me – I didn’t think about how the kid would feel).” (“The Infertility Chapters”)
In response to “The New Yorker”‘s characterization of “Inside Amy Schumer” as “raucous feminism”, she had this to say in an interview with “Vulture”:
“‘We don’t sit down and think, Let’s make sure we write a super-feminist show today, but, and I include the men in this, we’re all feminists,’ Klein says. ‘It’s rewarding that people think that it’s an incredibly feminist show.'”
Whether Jessi Klein sat down and said “I’m going to make a super-feminist collection of essays about the lives of girls and women” or not, You’ll Grow Out of It is an incredibly feminist collection. It made me think, it made me laugh, and Jessi Klein has so many reasons to feel super proud of her work.
If it’s true, that “new thoughts only happen at the edge of what we already know”, then Malcolm Sutton’s Job Shadowing has provided me with plenty of new thoughts.
Book Thug, 2016
Job Shadowing is a novel which pools at the edges of the shape that I recognize as fiction. It would be difficult to fill out the answers to the kinds of questions my sixth–grade teacher would have asked me to consider for a book report.
Who is the main character? What is the conflict they are facing? Did you like the book? What is the author trying to say?
“Most goals, she gets to thinking, most don’t just involve other people. Most require paying other people, and some require convincing or manipulating other people. Most involve wedging oneself into new situations that demand a response from others. She hopes that whatever happens with Caslon will demand as little manipulation as possible. She hopes they can figure out a place of equal ground.”
But that’s to be expected when the main character is only a shadow, an amorphous version of some original self.
A self which has…what? Disappeared? Dissolved into the surroundings? Degenerated into a “drab and flat observer”?
“But more: encountering a famous person give the feeling that a door might be opened, an opportunity might emerge from out of the wealth or power, and that such an opportunity can be / capitalized on, or so she likely considers since that is her frame of mind as she listens to the possibly famous man.”
If human beings are able to recognize their shadows beginning around the age of nine, how long might it take for the shadow to become more significant than the person?
What happens when one no longer even recognizes oneself, one’s own scent and shape?
What happens when one does recognize it, but sees it to be inferior and vacuous: does one identify with it still?
“Because a starting place is an opening that is all potential. One place it often comes from is a question or a problem. Without a question or a problem we just go on as is, without looking for a starting place. The world without questions just carries on by sheer inertia.”
Characters in Job Shadowing are wrestling with these questions, or have been wrestled to the ground by them, left to lie inert on the page, flat and unresponsive.
When does a life not feel like a life? How could a second self help, a double presence, another life to live as an extension of one’s original life?
If one assembled a postcard of the lives of the characters in Job Shadowing, maybe the five images could include: an abandoned strip mall, a blindfold, a disco ball reflecting pink and white points, of light, a cupcake with wax numbers ‘2’ and ‘3’ stuck in the icing, and a faux-fur panda costume.
And what is included takes on a significance if only for what is excluded. For “defining some things means excluding most others”.
“Art is the act of exclusion.” Statements like these hover at the edges of something-like-story.
- “Perhaps the authors wrote what happens next, but it is likely there was nowhere to go from there.”
- “Time seems both free and wasted.”
- “Unhappiness can be disastrous because of its incredible tendency to spread.”
What kind of story can be told when the present tense no longer feels that intense? When no tense can bring a reader closer to what’s real? When the “dull realization of the constant present” weighs down what-might-have-been-a-story?
If documentation is proof of something happening, what does it mean to read a story about nothing happening? What happens to the character, consigned to the flat page, when s/he risks blurring into the background, all in a fruitless effort to please the boss and keep a job which seems meaningless to begin with.
“I see myself in him, am willing to believe the answer will come from a book. I want to believe that words from a book could unravel our situation. […] But another part of me knows that such a book would have no answer. Rather it would simply present the contradictions by which we live our lives, offering no solutions or even consolations, just ways that someone might constantly interrogate them….”
Job Shadowing unravels our beliefs, observes the kinks and twists and snarls, and leaves readers wondering whether it matters if the yarn splits.
“It’s about being an explorer, a treasure-hunter.” Sue Finlay is still passionate about her work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, just as she was in 1957, when she put her love of numbers to work. (See video here.)
She speaks about the early days spent with a Friedan calculator and a notebook, the complex calulations which required programming skills before there was a word for them. Originally, the term ‘computer’ was used to describe a person who computes, centuries before machines were developed to assist with that work.
Sue Finlay is amongst the group of women at the heart of Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls, who knew how to do this kind of work before a vocabulary existed to define it.
“It only took seconds for a rocket engine to be fired, but analyzing that one experiment could take a week or more for the human computers. Notebooks quickly accumulated, often six to eight of them for each experiment. Barby liked to stack them on her desk, forming a wall of paper. As the notebooks piled up, so did her feeling of accomplishment.”
To chart the rise of the rocket girls, Nathalia Holt looks back to the 1940s, to a time when minimum wage in California was 40 cents/hour, when a computer could earn 90 cents/hour.
A computer would set aside the traditional employment opportunities available to women, choosing not to be a secretary or a nurse or a teacher. But a computer would need to set aside some of the romanticized idea of being an explorer too.
“Lost in the drudgery of everyday calculations was the beauty that first drew her [Marie] to math. There was splendor in how numbers could describe nature so perfectly.”
In the life of a computer, much of the satisfaction of the work was rooted not so much in the beauty of Fibonacci numbers, but in knowing that one was working alongside other women who recognized this kind of beauty, the hard-working members of the team of women hired by Macie Roberts.
Many of these women also understood the demands of the second-shift, bearing the brunt of household chores and child-care in the evenings, after the sitter’s shift was done.
“Day after day, she would get home from the lab and rush to make dinner, give the kids a bath and get them to bed, then wash the dishes and do the laundry. At 10 p.m., she’d get into her pajamas and feel exhausted from head to foot. Being a working mother was always hard, but unlike Barbara and Helen, she didn’t have an equal partner at home. The man she chose at nineteen had no interest in helping out around the house. Margie sighed and wondered how much more she could take. She knew something had to give.”
Rise of the Rocket Girls considers the earliest days of the JPL, whose name was coined when the word ‘rocket’ carried negative connotations, observing that southern California had only 1,000 workers in the aerospace industry in 1933 but 300,000 in 1943.
Indeed, the aerospace industry gets a lot of ink in this work, and the final chapter brings readers from the 1970s into the present-day. Readers who are not familiar with sequence of scientific discoveries in the United States (some references are made to competitors’ efforts, but this is an American history) will find that missions begin to blur.
The images and photographs help to distinguish various projects, but particularly when some of the key women are not involved in specific projects, they feel like footnotes added to a timeline.
There is an attempt to develop a narrative around some statistics and achievements, however. The author describes the sounds in a room filled with women using calculators and slide rules, the thick white and red calluses from gripping a pencil too tightly and relentlessly, the pucker of a page of graph paper beneath a sweaty hand. The joyful and rare sight of snow in California in one winter is contrasted with the gloomy holidays when launches did not go as planned.
Helpful in arranging the timeline is the discussion of technological developments, when women would have depended upon them. From the Friedan calculator to the IBM701 computer (comprised of 11 separate components, weighing 20,516 pounds, and costing $11,900/month to rent) to pantyhose. (Yes, that’s right. And pantsuits, too.)
Readers familiar with American women’s history will not find anything new about sex roles and social conditioning an expectations in Nathalia Holt’s account. Many of the computers found it difficult to meet men who would not only tolerate but support their career ambitions. There were disruptions to their employment when children were born, and there were concerted movements to professionalize sectors of work in order to restrict access to male candidates.
These situations are not expressed as elements within systemic challenges that women faced in the industry, however, but as problems experienced by individual women. If the rocket girls were openly battling the patriarchy, that’s the stuff of another book.
(There is, however, some amusing content surrounding the annual beauty contests held at JPL, which were a “result of JPL’s progressive hiring practices”. It’s true: their competitors were not willing to hire women, so they were unable to host beauty pageants!)
In many ways it feels like the author has played it safe and although the injustice of McCarthyism is considered in the context of one individual’s expulsion from JPL, the situation is quickly resolved. The Nazi war criminal, Wernher von Braun, is described as a “legend”, a “superstar”, and “one of the world’s preeminent rocket scientists”. Nathalia Holt’s focus is consistently the JPL and the valuable contributions various individuals made to it and, in that context, it “was hard to believe von Braun had once been America’s enemy”. Some of the individual women expressed some misgivings, upon his arrival, but Holt’s reporting suggests that was fleeting, with the focus remaining on his enthusiasm for various projects. You can almost hear the rustle of pom-poms.
Nonetheless, Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls serves as an enticing reminder for contemporary readers that behind every man who has stepped down on another planet, a woman has filled notebooks with calculations that directed his ship to fly into space.
Henriette has just met her, but Dark Territory is actually the second Signy Shepherd novel.
Simon & Schuster, 2016
“So wonderful to finally meet you, honey. We’ve all heard so much about you. […] Look at you, such a skinny little thing. From what Maitland said, I expected a giant killer, fourteen feet tall and swinging a mighty sword.”
In an interview with “Open Book”, the author discusses the genesis of the titles of both novels.
“Dark Territory is the latest in my thriller series following the adventures of Signy Shepherd, a conductor on a modern Underground Railroad, known as the Line. The working title for the first draft, The Ties that Bind, was a lifeless cliché. As I worked through the final draft, I spent a long time trying to come up with a more evocative title. Finally, I hit on the idea of using train terminology. Modern train related definitions are dry and technical, so I researched old-fashioned railroad language. Dark Territory means ‘a section of tracks without functioning signal lights'”.
Much of the inspiration for the series is rooted in her experience as a social worker, including a placement in a women’s shelter, which she describes in an interview with Civilian Reader:
“It was a fascinating place to work — never a dull moment. The women who worked there were strong, brave and dedicated to keeping other women safe. Occasionally, there appeared to be a coordinated effort to help women flee particularly dangerous situations — tickets purchased, rides organized, that sort of thing.”
But ideas can come from multiple directions, sometimes simultaneously, so whereas this earlier experience has its roots in her early working years, a more specific incident contributed to what would become the second novel in the series:
“At about the same time, there was a story in the newspaper about a woman who had fled her allegedly abusive partner. She ran across the United States, and eventually went into hiding with help from an Underground Railroad system. It was a controversial case. The woman claimed she was keeping her daughter safe — her partner claimed she had kidnapped their child — but what stuck with me was the entire concept of a modern underground railroad. I thought it was a brilliant idea, and very much needed by women who have been failed by the legal system.” (Also, from Civilian Reader: check it out in full.)
While there are many brave and determined women in these novels, there are also many who are openly disparaged and mistreated; there are abusive and misogynistic male characters in both novels, some presented in fleeting glimpses (revealing the pervasive sexism in our society) and some in what appear to be recurrnig roles (however, no spoilers!).
“‘Trust me,’ said Wilkington, moving Stone toward a side room where they could talk in private, ‘you don’t want to go there. The woman’s like a zebra mussel; she gets into everything and is almost impossible to scrape off.’ He gave Stone a reassuring squeeze on the arm. ‘Don’t worry, though. She’ll still write you a fat cheque. She has more money than she knows what to do with.’”
The second novel in the series opens with a simliar structure and pace as Blown Red did. The first segment focuses on the character(s) comprising the new case which will occupy the bulk of the story, Signy’s current assignment, with ensuing segments devoted to the other new character(s) who are most threatening in this file and the recurring characters recognizable to readers of the first novel
Although technically self-contained, readers who choose to begin with the series’ second volume will not have the advantage of understanding the shadow cast by Signy’s backstory, even though devoted readers have only a fleeting understanding of it. [Thoughts on the series’ first volume here.]
Much remains unknown, because she grew up in the foster care system, but at least one significant layer surrounding her identity and experiences as a young girl was revealed in Blown Red, and although this revelation is repeated in Dark Territory, the full impact of it isn’t felt in summarizing, but in discovering it along with Signy.
This reconstruction is challenging because Signy was very young when she was taken into foster care, and “…events before the age of four or five are ephemeral, eventually eclipsed by newer memories. It is not until about the age of ten that the memories begin to crystallize and can be accessed as the person moves forward into adulthood.”
But it is clear that something in Signy’s background or constitution drives her work with The Line. In situations which would leave many paralyzed, she takes action.
Much of the action in Dark Territory unfolds near Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks, but what will bring readers back for a third Signy Shepherd novel, will be the slow unfurling of the events which instiled in her the capacity for this action.
That’s the real story here.