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 my favourites from 2014 and what’s currently in my stacks and my reading log.

My love letter to short fiction begins on February 16, following a review of Dionne Brand’s recent novel, Love Enough. (She is one of my MRE authors.)

Talk of five collections and, then, revisiting the last stories in Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (Comfort, Nettles, Post and Beam, What Is Remembered, Queenie, and The Bear Came Over the Mountain).

Discussion of The View from Castle Rock begins on Saturday March 7th, with one story each Saturday. The schedule is here, as the Alice Munro Reading Project nears finish. (Only Too Much Happiness remains.) You’re welcome to join in, whether for a single story or for the whole collection.

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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Hollie Adams’ Things You’ve Inherited From Your Mother (2015)

Carrie’s mother died on Tuesday. The loss has fragmented her view of the world, dulled her senses (or is that the alcohol?) and sharpened her wit.

ThingsInheritedMotherHollieAdams

NeWest Press, 2015

Given the circumstances, the novel’s narrative tone is a quick slap to the face, heightened colour left behind in the shape of what has struck flesh.

Readers will most likely determine within a few pages whether or not they are drawn to the narrative. Which is not to say that they will find it comfortable (there is nothing comfortable about this story, which suits the theme perfectly). But many will relate to the spiralling and unravelling with which Carrie grapples.

“You may notice that time begins to speed up the days following your mother’s death blur together as if someone has thrown your life and copious amounts of red wine into a blender and hit ‘liquefy.’”

Carrie is directing her instructions and observations to the part of herself that seems to be standing apart from what she recognized as her life before and after, which is an accurate way of describing the way the world looks after a significant loss. The ‘you’ in the text might be a little disconcerting at times, but as with Doug Harris’ You Comma Idiot, the decision fits the work.

(Actually, her mother’s death is not the only disappointment, not the only source of regrets, in Carrie’s life: the gradual accumulation of “liquified” losses has left her beneath the surface, struggling to catch a breath. It’s true, isn’t it, that sometimes it takes a series of unhappinesses to allow us to recognize the root of sadness, which was so deeply embedded that it has become the status quo.)

“Wouldn’t human existence be exponentially easier if for every scenario, a set of words would flash before your eyes offering you just two choices? A fifty-fifty chance to do the right thing, every time.”

Hollie Adams takes this idea and runs with it, offering her characters and, in turn, her readers the opportunity to play with the possibilities. This is one of many devices which makes Things You’ve Inherited From Your Mother such a memorable reading experience.

“If you have begun dating your ex-husband’s doppelgänger and not realized it until your mother’s funeral, turn to page 886 where you will find a pier. Walk off it.”

Check out her site!

Hollie Adams

To the author’s and editor’s credit, the instances of these Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-styled decisions (who didn’t love those books, didn’t admire the simplicity they appeared to offer in terms of controlling one’s destiny?) are infrequent.

While Carrie’s tone could become overwhelming if the narrative didn’t have a variety of interruptions like these, their use is sparing, so that they do not become overwhelming either. (The pie chart and the lists were particularly fun for me, but as simple respite, each has another purpose as well.)

It’s unavoidable: Carrie is suffering and readers, too, would suffer with too much time in her company. And because grief has no borders and because there is no distance in the narrative itself (readers are completely immersed in her perspective), the only way to truly mitigate the impact is to keep the work short.

[Insert CYOA-styled moment: If you have a thorny and difficult narrator, and perhaps did not realize it until your manuscript was well under way, have the page numbering end at 168 and allow readers to walk off the pier into the sunset there.]

In such a controlled fashion, Carrie’s story is as often entertaining as it is disturbing. Even the chapter headings are amusing: “Get Your Groove Back (or Whatever You Had Before That Might Pass as a Groove – A Really Charming Rut, Maybe?)”.

But what makes them amusing is not so much a question of readers’ sympathy or empathy, but a matter of Carrie’s observations and intelligence. However disoriented and flailing she is right now, and regardless of the instances of poor judgement in her past that she chooses to share with readers the way, Carrie possesses a remarkable awareness and incisiveness.

This isn’t necessarily clear from Carrie herself (which makes sense given the circumstances) through the cloud of grief, but from the supplementary characters’ behaviours and observations, including her teenage daughter Kate.

“’Sorry, Mom only drinks Diet Mountain Dew or anything alcoholic. We have tap water if you want.’ You wonder what your daughter has the nerve to say when you’re not around.”

Click for details

Click for details

Kate is a smart and savvy young woman, who didn’t emerge fully-formed from the head of Zeus, so as naturally smart and savvy as Kate might be (even had she been left to her own devices from birth to the present-day), Kate’s sense of humour and ability to cope with the ground shifting beneath her feet reveals another aspect of Carrie’s person which is not immediately visible to readers at this particular juncture in her life but which must have informed her over time.

Things You’ve Inherited From Your Mother focusses on Carrie, but the broader use of characterization does as much to build readers’ understanding of Carrie as Carrie’s own narrative. Ultimately, however, it is Carrie’s voice which will linger for readers, as much as for the cringes and winces as for the giggles and snorts.

The prose remains buoyant even when the narrator is sinking. And the novel’s structure is tightly knit, so that the final words leave readers with an understanding that the simple fact that readers are holding this story in their hands demonstrates that Carrie’s means of coping with her grief were effective after all.

(This is a spoiler-free space, but I would love to tell you exactly why the ending was so fitting.)

Still not sure whether this debut novel is a match for your reading taste? Links to other TLC readers’ thoughts appear below (and thanks to the publisher and organizers for the opportunity to join in this discussion).

Tuesday, May 5th: The Discerning Reader
Wednesday, May 6th: BookNAround
Monday, May 11th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Tuesday, May 12th: Book Loving Hippo
Friday, May 15th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Tuesday, May 19th: Books and Bindings
Tuesday, May 19th: Sarah Reads Too Much
Wednesday, May 20th: Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Thursday, May 21th: A Dream Within a Dream

“What Do You Want to Know For?” Alice Munro

And, “Who Do You Think You Are?”

McClelland & Stewart, 2006

McClelland & Stewart, 2006

As readers approach the final tale in this collection, it seems appropriate to have it titled with a question.

Whatever might be resolved in the effort of creating a narrative in which to secure one’s ancestors, one could not help but have as many new questions at the end of the project as one had at the beginning.

The collection began as a quest, for understanding or for inclusion, for identification or imagination. But there is no resolution that the author can create. Ultimately she must live the resolution.

The closest the young Alice can get to concluding this work is to have the page count halt, so that the book can continue to pose the questions long after she has put down her pen.

“What does it matter to me?” (“The View from Castle Rock”)

“A life in the bush, away from the towns, on the edge of the farms—how could it be managed?” (“Working for a Living”)

“You see the Lord’s purpose?” (Home)

The gap between the lived experience and the ancestral record on the pages of The View from Castle Rock is vast.

Just as the series of physiographical maps of Southern Ontario by Lyman Chapman and Donald Putnam must representationally record the landscape on a flat piece of paper, just as a mammogram records an eruption in the landscape of Alice’s body, these records only hint at the reality which lurks beneath their surfaces.

“There was a lump deep in my left breast, which neither my doctor nor I had been able to feel. We still could not feel it. My doctor said that it was shown on the mammogram to be about the size of a pea.”

In the body, on the land:

“The ice has staged its conquests and retreats here several times, withdrawing for the last time about fifteen thousand years ago.
Quite recently, you might say. Quite recently now that I have got used to a certain way of reckoning history.”

How one reckons, history or experience, changes too. “So you have to keep checking, taking in the changes, seeing things while they last.”

If one continues to pose questions, one ‘s perspective continually shifts. But, of course, not everyone is the questioning sort.

“It is difficult to make such requests in reference libraries because you will often be asked what it is, exactly, that you want to know, and what do you want to know it for?”

In fact, those who question would appear to be in the minority.

“And wondering about olden days—what used to be here, what happened there, why, why?—was as sure a way to make yourself stand out as any.”

Which is why the questioners often seek one another out. Why they connect.

“Do you think they put any oil in that lamp?” the younger Alice asks her husband.

And, just as I am reading her question, I am asking the same question in my own mind. (One might say that is because I have read this collection before. Perhaps that’s true, but that was almost ten years ago. It’s simply the question which seems natural to me to ask.)

And she answers, in a fashion.

“He knows at once what I am talking about. He says that he has wondered the same thing.”

Did you?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the second-last story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Messenger”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

TGIF: In the workplace, on the page (2 of 4)

A new Friday fugue, running through this month, considering the ways in which our working lives appear on the pages of novels and short stories.

Wasn’t I just talking about novels set in bookstores? Yup, in last Friday’s post (here). Gabrielle Zevin’s book fits perfectly on that shelf.

McPoems

Arsenal Pulp, 2009

But if you’re more about music than books, but weren’t into the life of a Justin-Bieber-esque celebrity, perhaps a peek into the life of a retired opera singer will suit you (Lydia Perović’s Incidental Music).

And if you’re looking for snacks, certainly there is no shortage of fiction written about various aspects of the food-service industry (from Jaspreet Singh’s Chef to Abi Liebegott’s waitressing work The IHOP Papers).

But I don’t know of another book like Billeh Nickerson’s McPoems. (This is the first of his books that I discovered, but I have enjoyed Artificial Cherry and Impact: The Titanic Poems too.) Maybe you think you’re not a “poetry person” but I bet you will love this poetry.

Billeh Nickerson’s McPoems (2009)
“Flush twice:
it’s a long way to the kitchen.”
“Your Favourite Washroom Graffiti”

More than three years after a first reading, I happily reread McPoems to refresh my memory. The walk-in freezer and the drive-through window, frying and cashing, from French fries that spell out words to cannibalistic birds: Billeh Nickerson’s poems provoke an emotional response as quickly as the smell of those golden fries once sparked my appetite. If a book of poems about the experience of working in fast-food seems unlikely to satisfy, a copy of McPoems is guaranteed to make you rethink.

AJ Fikry

Viking, 2014

Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (2014)
“Knife. Flatten. Stack.
And yet… He had spent hours with the man over the last half-dozen years. They had only ever discussed books but what, in this life, is more personal than books?
Knife. Flatten. Stack.”

Of course readers have an affinity for stories about bookstore owners, but although Gabrielle Zevin does capture both the tedium and the charm of such work, A.J.’s story turns out to be as much about caring for human beings as it is about curating his shop and its contents. As opinionated as he is well-read, he is a solitary and independent character forced to reach beyond his comfort level in his working and beyond, which results in some unexpected reading choices (among other changes). The author’s style is uncluttered and the story told in broad strokes, as befits an experienced YA author, but bookish readers will happily forgive any perceived weaknesses, for the tale is as book-soaked as can be. Not only is it a gentle, warmly told story, but it might well add several other titles to your TBR list.

Inanna Publications, 2012

Inanna Publications, 2012

Lydia Perović’s Incidental Music (2012)
“When he was gone she placed his folder on top of the urgent pile. The urgent pile was now several folders tall. She was about to check her voicemail when the phone chirped again. ‘Good morning, Jennifer Moreland’s office.’”

From part-time work in academia to more-than-full-time as a campaign worker, from a day filled with chatter about renos and heritage buildings to memories of a professional career as an opera singer: Incidental Music incorporates women’s working lives alongside talk of politics and relationships, exploring dedication and devotion in causes and couples. The story is Toronto-soaked and routes and neighbourhoods are immediately recognizable for those familiar with the area, but the broader themes of meaningful work and connections ensure that readers who do not call Toronto home will still find a place to inhabit in the narrative.

Swap the hamburgers for donuts and change the script on the telephone and I can relate to these workplaces too.

How about you? Do you want to see your workplaces on the page? Or do you get enough of that in your working life?

Susin Nielsen’s We Are All Made of Molecules (2015)

Henry K. Larsen — star of Susin Nielsen’s last novel — was a savvy young fellow: “I know I can’t change my stupid red hair or my stupid freckles. But I can lower my freak flag.”

Nielsen Molecules

Tundra Books, 2015

In contrast, Stewart — star of her most recent novel — flies his freak flag high. Higher than high.

If you were to query him about it, he would probably — and happily — provide details regarding altitude and wind direction.

(And if you were actually laughing up your sleeve when you asked, he likely wouldn’t notice, or he might offer you a tissue.)

Henry could have given Stewart some pointers about the (regrettable but realistic) need for a certain kind of conformity.

(And, it’s true that some of Susin Nielsen’s characters do wander from book to book.)

But both boys struggle in a wake of a loss which would shake the foundations of any young person, change their definitions of highs and lows.

Nielsen excels at stirring the pot and plucking out problems for her young heroes and heroines.

Ambrose and Violet (who starred in Word Nerd and Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom, Henry and Stewart: all have their share of difficulties. but because this is kidlit their endings remain hopeful. And because it’s kidlit-à-la-Susin-Nielsen, these endings are neither sugar-coated nor incredible.

In Stewart’s world, pre-Molecules, he was an essential corner of a triangle.

“We had been like an equilateral triangle. Mom was the base that held up the whole structure. When we lost her, the other two sides just collapsed in on each other.”

When We Are All Made of Molecules opens, that shape is changing.

“For a long time he was Sad Dad twenty-four-seven, and I was Sad Stewart twenty-four-seven, and together we were Sad Squared, and it was just a big black hole of sadness.”

Now geometrically speaking, the figure includes Stewart and his dad, but also the woman Leonard has been dating, Caroline, who is also Ashley’s mom.

But if Stewart and his dad were Sad Squared, then Ashley and her mom (who have been facing their own adjustments, their own sadness) make the situation Squared Squared.

Tundra Books, 2008

Tundra Books, 2008

(This which exhausts my mathematical ability. Stewart: help?)

Understandably, neither young person is entirely pleased with their parent dating the other parent; Stewart’s perspective is somewhat more analytical (he can rationalize his father’s interest) but neither is pleased with the adults’ decision to live together.

“Clearly my mother is delusional. Leonard is a huge step down. In fact, as far as I can tell, the only thing he has over my dad is that he is not gay—which I guess is a biggie, but still. There are a lot of not gay men out there, so why on earth did my mom go for this one?”

Ashley isn’t fond of Leonard, nor is she fond of Leonard’s “midget-egghead-freakazoid” son (that’s Stewart, whom she calls Spewart).

“‘Right now, as I’m talking to you, you’re probably picking up a few Stewart molecules and vice versa.’
She slapped her hand over her mouth. ‘Gross!’
‘I don’t think it’s gross. I think it’s kind of beautiful. Everything, and everyone, is interconnected.’”

But not everybody is as resistant to Stewart’s flag-waving charms.

“’What is the chemical formula for the molecules in candy?’
‘I don’t know,’ she replied.
“’Carbon-Holmium-Cobalt-Lanthanum-Tellurium.’ She looked at me blankly till I wrote down the elements’ symbols on the front of my notebook. ‘CHoCoLaTe!'”

(This is a spoiler-free space, so I won’t identify the speaker, but I will say that she giggled. And also, I really want a purple T-shirt which says “ALWAYS BE YOURSELF. UNLESS YOU CAN BE A UNICORN. THEN ALWAYS BE A UNICORN”.)

And new living arrangements and social stresses (for Stewart is adjusting to public school too, now that he no longer lives close enough to the school for gifted kids that he used to attend, and Ashley is adjusting to having Spewart in her grade) are not the only problems that these two kids face.

“If I am one hundred percent totally honest, I sometimes long for the olden days, when we were all just little dorks. Things are so much more complicated now.”

Tundra Books, 2012

Tundra Books, 2012

Stewart outwardly faces more challenges than Ashley (who keeps her freak flag in the closet, if she even has one) but he soon finds his niche.

“And Mathletes is just about the best thing that has ever happened to me. I fit in with Phoebe Schmidt, Walter Krasinski, George Hung, Oscar Bautista, Clark Fowler, and Aryama Daliwal. On Wednesday, we had our first actual competition against a high school on the west side called Trafalgar. Even though they had this one kid named Farley who was almost as good at math as I am, we won easily.”

(Committed Nielsen fans will recognize Phoebe and Farley, and those are not the only cameos in We Are All Made of Molecules, a device which hoists the whole beautiful and interconnected theme to the top of the flagpole.)

But Ashley faces a challenge which she could not have predicted, related to a romantic interest which develops between her and a new guy at school. Even she would probably like to return to some earlier time, when things were less complicated, than deal with the expectations which pile on her as the pages turn.

“The thing is: he’s so perfect in every other way. And usually he is very sweet to me. Maybe I can change the not-so-nice stuff over time. Men change for the better thanks to the love of a good woman all the time in the movies, so why not in real life?”

So, yes, there are some serious issues in this new work by Susin Nielsen. The characters she depicts are just slightly older than those she has spent time with in the past, and, as such, the issues they must confront are that much more complex.

But there is a good bit of humour in the work as well, which affords readers some relief as Stewart and Ashley learn to cope with the challenges they face.

“’But I’m not gay. Or lesbian, or bi, or transatlantic.’
Sam smirked. ‘I think you mean transgender.'”

Stewart and Ashley have some sharp edges when We Are All Made of Molecules begins, fitting for the straight-lines and squares and rectangles (or, should that be hexagons and octagons? no spoilers here!) they inhabit when readers meet them. But the contents swell and those edges are smoothed until they settle into a suitably Susin-Nielsen-esque ending: satisfying but not saccharine.

Susin Nielsen designs a freak flag like nobody else: bold and proud. Nuthin’ half-mast about it.

Sam Maggs’ The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy (2015)

Fangirls Guide Galaxy

Quirk Books, 2015

She understands that fangirls can be marginalized and unwelcome in the nerd community, and despite recent strides and growing visibility, Sam Maggs couldn’t find a book like this one, so she wrote it.

“Being a geek girl is the best thing ever and here are all the ways you can do more nerdy things that are awesome and don’t ever apologize for it because you are the best person out there and I’m so proud of you and you’re beautiful.”

That’s the message, in one spirited on-and-on sentence fuelled by fangirlness.

Beginning with a playful discussion of the kinds of geeks who might find a place between these pages, the book immediately invites readers to get comfortable with their inner fangirl.

Maybe you don’t want to be a Bookwalker (someone who reads and THEN watches epsiodes of “Game of Thrones” on HBO, as opposed to those who set aside the books and simply enjoy the show).

But maybe you DO want to know where to start watching another TV because you have always yearned to be a Whedonite.

These questions (and more) are answered directly by the author. Want to know the differences between Twitter and Tumblr? Or, how to survive a convention? (Complete with descriptions of some of the larger events in North America.) Trying to pack your Cosplay Emergency Booster Pack? (Don’t forget your safety pins and contact lens solution.) Looking for new sources of fanfic? (Or use the grid provided as inspiration to write your own.)

Scattered throughout are short interviews with a number of prominent fangirls, who also answer a set of salient questions.

Jill Patozzi, for instance, defines being a fangirl: ““We’re all fans of something, but being a fangirl means you’re willing to show it, unabashedly and with great vigor.”

And Tara Platt gives advice to fangirls: ““Be willing to put forth your best version of yourself and don’t let anyone else’s interpretation of who they think you are get in the way of you being you.”

But The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy is not just about how to identify and behave; perhaps the most valuable part of the book is that which guides fangirls in misbehaving, in breaking through the stereotypical expectations which threaten to silence fangirls everywhere.

From discussion of the myths of feminism that need busting to lists of recommendations on where to find kick-ass heroines in various media (fictional and otherwise), the Aim to Misbehave section of the book has plenty to offer (especially in conjunction with the general resources, community and online, offered throughout).

Whether your inner fangirl wants to brush up on her acronyms or whether you want to gift a beloved fangirl with a nod of recognition that you understand her kind, Sam Magg’s book is fun and informative.

“Home” Alice Munro

McClelland & Stewart, 2006

McClelland & Stewart, 2006

Alice’s father has remarried, and Irlma has made many changes in the house.

“Irlma is a stout and rosy woman, with tinted butterscotch curls, brown eyes in which there is still a sparkle, a look of emotional readiness, of being always on the brink of hilarity. Or on the brink of impatience flaring into outrage.”

Perhaps because he is inwardly uncomfortable with the shift or perhaps because he is truly concerned that the young Alice will return to the house with a set of expectations and disapprove, her father makes motions to include her in the changes.

She, however, is less troubled than he might have guessed. (Or, is she?)

“And I don’t tell him that I am not sure now whether I love any place, and that it seems to me it was myself that I loved here—some self that I have finished with, and none too soon.”

These are not the changes with which she believes she is concerned. She inhabits these spaces differently now.

  “In the car I sit beside him holding the can and we follow slowly that old, usual route—Spencer Street, Church Street, Wexford Street, Ladysmith Street—to the hospital. The town, unlike the house, stays very much the same—nobody is renovating or changing it. Nevertheless it has changed for me. I have written about it and used it up. Here are more or less the same banks and hardware and grocery stores and the barbershop and the Town Hall tower, but all their secret, plentiful messages for me have drained away.
Not for my father. He has lived here and nowhere else. He has not escaped things by such use.”

The changes her father charts are drawn from another perspective, one which she views as more rooted than her own.

She has transformed these places, these people, in fiction. And not only transformed them, altered them, but consumed them somehow.

This is different from the kind of change observed in her old home: superficial changes which she imagines or understands to have been instigated by (and executed by) Irlma, rather than her father.

“The books that used to lie under beds and on tables all over the house have been corralled by Irlma, chased and squeezed into this front-room bookcase, glass doors shut upon them.”

How is this different from the kind of change that the young Alice observes while her father is driving?

Through writing, something is consumed. Not shut away, behind a door, but simply no longer.

And, yet, there are changes which she did observe, unexpected and inexplicable.

She is startled by her father’s response to Joe Thoms when they go to check on him. (In turn, they both seem surprised by his recent declaration of sobriety, which readers, too, receive as surprising news, given Irlma’s comments about his consumption habits.)

Joe has found religion and is eager to share his enthusiasm.

‘You see the Lord’s purpose?’
‘Oh Joe,’ says my father with a sigh. ‘Joe, I think all that’s a lot of hogwash.’
I am surprised at this, because my father is usually a man of great diplomacy, of kind evasions. He has always spoken to me, almost warningly, about the need to fit in, not to rile people.”

The young Alice has embraced elements of this philosophy as well. She too has spoken up, during this visit, when once she would have remained silent.

“I feel obliged to say, ‘Oh, that’s just the way people talk about Indians,’ and Irlma—immediately sniffing out some high-mindedness or superiority—says that what people say about the Indians has a lot of truth to it, never mind.”

Yes, nevermind. Because these are not the kinds of changes with which “Home” is preoccupied.

When her father is seen by Dr. Parakulan, other kinds of change move to centre stage.

“When I come here I usually stay from Friday night until Sunday night, no longer, and now that I have stayed on into the next week something about my life seems to have slipped out of control. I don’t feel so sure that it is just a visit. The buses that run from place to place no longer seem so surely to connect with me.”

In the wings lurks a change which the Alice of this present day will need to transform on the page.

She will need to use this up. To escape.

Put it between the covers, if not behind glass.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the tenth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “What Do You Want to Know For?”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

TGIF: In the workplace, on the page (1 of 4)

A new Friday fugue, running through this month, considering the ways in which our working lives appear on the pages of novels and short stories.

Some of my favourite novels spend a good amount of time considering the good amount of time that we spend in our workplaces.

Joshua Ferris’ And Then We Came to the End and Rob Payne’s Working Class Zero take readers inside office life.

Corey Redekop’s Shelf Monkey and Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps are set in bookstores.

(I’ve worked in both environments and although I wasn’t reading about them when they were paying my rent, I enjoyed revisiting those worlds on the page.)

In these three novels, the workers also take their cues from clients and customers, whether in a law office, an ad agency or a taxi cab.

Rieger Divorce Papers

Crown Publishers, 2014

Susan Rieger’s The Divorce Papers (2014)
“What is it about this divorce that’s getting to you? As I recall, you defended a child murderer without blinking.”

Sophie Diehl’s boss poses this question to her in a memo dated May 21, 1999.

The novel is entirely rooted in office and legal documents, and Sophie is the protagonist, who is more comfortable with alleged criminals than angry spouses, but she is asked to take a divorce case and settlement negotiations are underway.

The playful pink cover does not mitigate the bitter and relentlessly sad story of a marriage unravelling; the legal files contain copies of letters penned by other family members, and the emotional impact is felt keenly despite the distance introduced by the documentation.

The colour does perhaps reflect Sophie’s naivete, but without the sometimes-silly and occasionally-shallow (who isn’t?) banter with her girlfriend in emails and the complexities of her dating life, The Divorce Papers would be a sombre read indeed.

Pacing is steady, but not compelling: it is a matter of “due process”, and characters are solidly developed, so that one can set it aside for periods of time until the craving for the epistolary form strikes again.

Fallis No Relation

McClelland & Stewart, 2014

Terry Fallis’ No Relation (2014)
“So, you’re not quite ready. You haven’t quite outgrown this writing thing. The sand is running through the family hourglass, but there’s still time yet. Take a few more weeks, take a month, and you may feel differently at the end.”

Earnest Hemmingway, with an extra ‘a’ and ‘m’ to set him apart from Ernest Hemingway, struggles to assert himself on the literary scene and in the landscape of his life.

When the novel opens, he has lost his job, his girlfriend, and his wallet. The process of getting his license replaced should be the easiest element to fix, but even it results in an event which goes viral online once caught on video.

Fans of The Best Laid Plans will recognize the blend of credible characters and gentle humour.

If the tone is slightly over-“earnest” at times, that’s easily forgiven because the novel’s core idea (the importance of balancing one’s true identity and vocation with the burden of others’ expectations) is so integral to human happiness.

Terry Fallis’ fiction reminds readers to look for the humour in the darker moments. Canlit need not always be grim.

Carnival Rawi Hage

House of Anansi, 2012

Rawi Hage’s Carnival (2012)
“I can always tell by the strip of cars and lanterns in front of the Bolero who is inside. Some of the spiders always sit together and eat at the same time; they regulate their lives around the filling of their bellies and the smoking of their cigarettes. Then there is us, the flies, who come and go at all hours.”

Fly is a restless and solitary narrator who drives a taxi cab to pay for his rent (owed for both car and apartment) and food and a little besides; he is a wanderer, an observer, a dreamer.

Some aspects of his story are simply quotidian details (his fares on an evening, what he eats when he gets home), other aspects include memories and imaginings (brushes with the fantastic, visions of past and future).

Fly’s voice weights these equally, so the story veers sharply between these elements. The spiders camp at designated taxi stands; the flies drive around to find fares.

There is much to be learned of the culture of drivers in this novel (e.g. the political machinations within the professions, the varied approaches to shift-work, the night-time repair shop) for Fly is an excellent observer.

Have you read any of these? Do you enjoy fiction which allows the workplace to take centre stage?

“The Ticket” Alice Munro

The title of this story suggests a journey, travel and a destination. But the story itself focuses on the precursors to such events: the preparations and anticipation.

McClelland & Stewart, 2006

McClelland & Stewart, 2006

Nonetheless, “The Ticket” is preoccupied with the concept of movement, shifting position, moving from one zone to another (or, not).

There are delineations, and characters are aware of the lines drawn, eager to maintain traditional territories.

This might be interpreted literally.

“People were sure to spot you if you were noticed in a part of town where you had no particular reason to be.”

Or metaphorically, in terms of society’s expectations and the limited possibilities existing, particularly for women, the roles they could naturally inhabit.

“Henrietta was not an unusual woman of her time but she was an unusual woman in that town.”

But the narrator herself is of an age where she is preparing to cross a line.

This is true geographically, as she readies herself for marriage in British Columbia, leaving her parents behind in their Ontario farmhouse.

But it is true in another sense as well, which she considers as she cleans the old house, polishes the worn and tends to the broken.

“Such efforts kept a line in place, between respectable striving and raggedy defeat. And I cared the more for this the closer I came to being a deserter.”

Even while she is viewing herself as a deserter, however, her understanding of the world (and what awaits her in it) is rooted in her experiences at home.

What she knows of and expects from married life is what she has viewed within the context of worn linoleum.

“I had three marriages to study, fairly close-up, in this early part of my life. My parents’ marriage—I suppose you might say that it was the most close-up, but in a way it was the most mysterious and remote, because of my childish difficulty in thinking of my parents as having any connection but the one they had through myself.”

Her perspective dictates the lines she draws between the members of the three married couples she has observed, and sometimes, as with her parents, she is incapable of standing outside those lines. Even though, in one instance (that of her grandparents’ marriage), she isn’t actually in the diagram.

Regardless, she has only viewed one married couple in which affection seemed to play a role.  “My father commented to me, some time after Uncle Cyril’s death, that Uncle Cyril and Aunt Charlie had been truly fond of each other […] such a condition was rare.”

These lines, these ties, these binds: some are more intractable than others. “I meant to hang on to him and to my family as well. I thought that I would be bound up with them always, as long as I lived, and that he could not shame or argue me away from them.”

This question of lines that push and pull, talk of departures and entrances: this is at the heart of “The Ticket”.

Aunt Charlie is concerned that the young Alice might have drawn a line, envisioned her trajectory, purchased a ticket for a journey that will not suit her in the way she hopes/expects.

“Aunt Charlie’s eyes had gone pale with alarm at what she’d just said. And at what she still had to say, with more emphasis, though her lips were trembling. ‘It might not be just the right ticket for you.'”

Readers who are aware that Alice Munro’s first marriage did not endure will recognize that Aunt Charlie’s concerns had some validity.

But once one has purchased a ticket, it takes a remarkable fortitude to step out of the queue and retrace one’s steps.

Worn linoleum is familiar but pales next to a freshly waxed floor.

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

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

“Hired Girl” Alice Munro

In Alice Munro’s first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, readers meet Alva in “Sunday Afternoon”.

Alva is the hired girl for the Gannetts, who expect that she will dutifully perform in their home and, then, travel with them later in the summer to their parents’ island in Georgian Bay.

McClelland & Stewart, 2006

McClelland & Stewart, 2006

“Sunday Afternoon” contains many of the elements which appear in “Hired Girl” in The View from Castle Rock. To begin with, there are many similarities between Mrs. Gannett and Mrs. Montjoy.

“Mrs Gannett had a look of being made of entirely synthetic and superior substances.” It would appear that the Gannetts are not quite as well off as the Montjoys, so it’s not surprising that Mrs. Montjoy projects the same belief in her own superiority.

Mrs. Gannett believes that a maid is a maid is a maid. The conversation which the young Alice Munro overhears between Mrs. Montjoy and the other women, about their hired girls, suggests that Mrs. Montjoy shares Mrs. Gannett’s opinion.

“Contempt was what I imagined to be always waiting, swinging along on live wires, just under the skin and just behind the perceptions of people like the Montjoys.”

The hired girl’s social rank is static, in the eyes of her employers. This is most prominent in the girls’ relationships with the women in the family who supervise the girls directly.

Whether or not the maid likes to read is not something the women of the household care to know. Whatever the women expect the maids to do in their off-hours, reading does not appear to be a sanctioned activity. When the young Alice is spotted reading some old magazines on her break, Mrs. Montjoy makes a comment which politely suggests disapproval.

Both girls recognize an opportunity to inhabit another position, however briefly or clandestinely. The young Alice in “The Hired Girl” remarks: “I would not admit that I ever felt humbled or lonely, or that I was a real servant.” Alva, too, possesses a similar sort of pride and determination.

With the men in these stories, the hired girls test boundaries which appear to mark different swathes of territory. The men in these families are removed from the details of household management themselves, and so they relate differently to the hired girls.

In the context of these relationships, the hired girls can press the limits of the behaviours expected of and accepted from them. Alva asks Mr. Gannett if she could borrow “King Lear” and, also, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. She actually does not intend to read the Shakespeare play, only the novel, but the request carries a significance. Mr. Gannett agrees to share his books with Alva just as Mr. Montjoy gifts the young Alice with his copy of Seven Gothic Tales at the end of the summer.

But this glimmer of acceptance and approval? (Is that what this is? Perhaps the men do not attach the significance to these exchanges that the hired girls imagine.) The girls have already drawn their lines and made their determinations before the men respond.

Vintage, 2006

Vintage, 2006

(And, in turn, the girls’ assumptions about their employers are just as limited and limiting. “A man would be more impressed by King Lear than a woman,” observes Alva. She makes the same kind of generalizations as her employers make: only the details change.)

The young Alice insists upon her own worth when she is out of the reach of the Montjoys’ judgement. “Its title was Seven Gothic Tales. The title made me want to open it, and even as I overheard the Montjoys’ conversation I was reading, holding the book open in one hand and guiding the vacuum cleaner with the other. They couldn’t see me from the deck.”

She is not the maid when she is not viewed through their eyes. And, indeed, it is this matter of perspective which is at the heart of these stories.

“She saw things differently now; it was even possible that she wanted to go there [to the cottage]. But things always came together; there was something she would not explore yet — a tender spot, a new and still mysterious humiliation.”

Each of these girls has an experience with a man which also changes her perspective of herself and the possibilities ahead of her as a woman.

“Nothing was the matter, but she felt heavy, heavy with the heat and tired and uncaring, hearing all around her an incomprehensible faint noise — of other people’s lives, of boats and cars and dances — and seeing this street, that promised island, in a harsh and continuous dazzle of sun. She could not make a sound here, not a dint.”

Both Alva and the young Alice carry a new weight after their experience of being the hired girl; the place they inhabit is often burdensome and there is not always an opportunity to express the feelings which result from their confinement.

A good hired girl watches her mouth.

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

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

Alice Munro’s “Lying Under the Apple Tree”

Whether and how a girl rode a bicycle mattered a great deal in the 1950s in southwestern Ontario, for the young Alice Munro.

2006; Vintage, 2007

2006; Vintage, 2007

“We lived just beyond the town limits, so if I showed up riding a bicycle—and particularly this bicycle—it would put me in the category of such girls. Those who wore women’s oxford shoes and lisle stockings and rolled their hair.”

What does it mean? To be such a girl? To wear oxfords? To roll your hair?

Such was the stuff of being a girl, being a woman. These details hold great significance.

And, yet, they might be completely misleading. Particularly if donned as a distraction.

“Or it might not have been a disguise, but just one of the entirely disjointed and dissimilar personalities I seemed to be made up of.”

Some girls were top drawer.

Other girls were not.

While some were more top drawer, others were less top drawer.

And what does that say about girls who chose to associate with either group.

“Salvation Army people were even less top drawer than the girls I was with.”

Some women, like Mirim Alpin, opted out.

Perhaps like those who eeked out an existence apart from either town or country, Miriam inhabited a different state: other.

” A life in the bush, away from the towns, on the edge of the farms—how could it be managed?”

Perhaps she insisted on her own set of standards, untraditional and in-between.

“She liked horses better than she liked people. She would have been married by now if she could have married a horse.”

Russell found a niche in Miriam’s world and, at least for a time, the young Alice believed she might carve out a place for herself in Russell’s world.

But it was, unquestionably, a world very different from hers.

“There were no bread-and-butter plates. You put your slice of bread on the oilcloth or on the side of your big plate. And you wiped your plate clean with a piece of bread before the pie was set down on it.”

This is about porcelain but it’s more about custom and status, about whether a girl accustomed to bread-and-butter plates will mind the oilcloth, the crumbs.

The young Alice has ideas about such things. Also about love, and about lust and passion. Some of these ideas (many of them?) came from the books that she read.

The Sun Is My Undoing. Gone with the Wind. The Robe. Sleep in Peace. My Son, My Son. Wuthering Heights. The Last Days of Pompeii. The selection did not reflect any particular taste, and in fact my parents often could not say how a certain book came to be there—whether it had been bought or borrowed or whether somebody had left it behind.”

Ironically, these stories educate her as a girl, but they also offer her an escape, when reality juts up against imagination.

“Even then I didn’t settle myself in a chair to be comfortable but continued to sit hunched on the stool, filling my mind with one sentence after another, slamming them into my head just so I would not have to think about what had happened.”

This story is the one which I remember most clearly from my first reading of this collection, perhaps because it so solidly confronts the question of romantic disappointment, as do many of the stories which I consider my favourites in her fiction.

I imagine that they began with the scenes described in “Lying under the Apple Tree”, with bread-and-butter plates and oxford shoes.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the seventh story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Hired Girl”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.