So many books to talk about! Including what’s currently in my stacks and what I’m reading with this year’s reading about writing.
Historical fiction? Michelle Butler Hallett’s This Marlowe. Families unravelling? Catherine Cooper’s White Elephant. Fiction unravelling? Malcolm Sutton’s Job Shadowing. Cookbooks? Gwyneth Paltrow’s It’s All Easy. Mystery? Susan Philpott’s Blown Red. History: James Laxer’s Staking Claims to a Continent.
Casting a spell on girlhood: Joni Murphy’s Double Teenage. Mining it for laughs: Jessi Klein’s You’ll Grow Out of It. Just trying to survive it: Karen Molson’s The Company of Crows. Adding a splash of scent: Lisa Moore’s Flannery. With fruit-filling: Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards.
There’s talk of backlisted fiction too, like Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe and Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl. On that score, I’m currently reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Jean Rhys’ Good Morning Midnight, George Elliott Clarke’s George & Rue and Robert Wiersema’s Walk Like a Man.
How about you: what are you reading these days, and what are you looking forward to reading soon?
(First time here? Please don’t be shy: there’s no such thing as too much bookchat! Please leave a comment, say hello, talk books!)
At the “Modern Families” roundtable at this year’s IFOA, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan explained that it only felt natural to build her characters with the seemingly endless details that comprise their lives, their selves.
Identity is clearly at the heart of her much-lauded debut, Harmless Like You, and a good part of that settles in the miasma of family, even if one is estranged from – or abandoned by – them.
“As if the solution could be found in bone structure, I examined her face looking for my own. I’d always known I had her eyes. White people just didn’t have eyes like mine. But I hadn’t realised that the high-flat cheekbones were also hers, or that the slight symmetry of my eyebrows – the left had an up-tilt – was genetic. Inherited inconsistency.”
Jay’s mother abandoned him when he was two years old but, even so, he has constructed an identity based on his ideas about her, in the absence of a life with her.
Jay’s narrative is set in contemporary times, but although the novel begins in his voice, the bulk of the narrative is his mother’s; her portion of the story flashes back, offering readers a Künstlerroman which unfolds largely in New York City.
“Yuki still went to school on Fridays for art class. Light and shadow required no translation, and while drawing she forgot herself in the whisper of charcoal on paper.”
Yuki regularly navigates the territory of translation, with varying degrees of success. “Who knew there were even four levels of politeness? And who knew that being too deferential could be considered a form of rudeness? Yuki was a chīzubāgā – enough to make a Japanese person sick and still inauthentically American.”
She has also inherited a certain kind of solitary existence. It’s fitting that Yuki has never heard the word ‘shinyū’ (meaning ‘close friend’) because her mother has not had one for a very long time. “Yuki had never heard the word before. Her Japanese was like that – things about which her parents did not speak did not exist.”
There is a quiet loneliness which pervades the novel. A sense of being untethered. “All day, she looked in the sky for planes, but saw none. The sky was flat and still as a bathtub. The city felt oddly empty without them in it. She had the same light-headed feeling as not eating all day.”
An integral element of loneliness is the sense of being not only overlooked (at an extreme, abandoned) but being misunderstood and misrepresented. Jay obviously feels this (his mother’s absence being the most glaring example, but he is also disconnected from other significant figures in his life) but so does Yuki.
She is not a ‘harmless little girl’. It’s not that simple. Nothing is. “Seriously though, I think the cowards are the ones over there [in Vietnam] killing harmless little girls like you.’”
But what she is? That’s not simple either: she does not see herself reflected in the wider world beyond. “She laughed. Being married to Edison seemed sitcomical. He was so nice. But she was not a sitcom wife. She’d never seen herself on TV. Sh’d never even seen the all-American-girl version of herself on TV.”
She does not naturally fit into the spaces which she inhabits; over time, she takes on other shapes that are convenient (but not necessarily fulfilling) to adopt.
“Yuki sat next to Lou. He put his arm around her. It was heavy. It pressed down on her spine, curving and compressing her. As if he might squash her. The body let itself be pressed into a slump.”
At first, this seems situational, but eventually it becomes a way of life. Or, a way of not-quite-living. “She just needed to find somewhere clean and clear to think. She would find a way of loving that didn’t maim. Then as soon as she was worthy of these people, she’d come back.”
Loneliness is often accompanied by a deep sense of longing, and that is true in Harmless Like You as well. “I think that’s all most people want, to find someone they love so much they’re embarrassed to talk about it. Oh, and to be loved back as embarrassingly much.”
It’s easy to see how those who are left behind are left longing for something or someone, but those who have done the leaving are often longing just as intensely.
Throughout her debut, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s prose is carefully and delicately constructed, often poetic. This occurs within the narrative (“She’d display the raisin of her heart. It was such a shrivelled thing.”) but is most striking in the segments which introduce Yuki’s younger years, before she becomes pregnant with the child who will become the novel’s second narrator.
Consider this description of “Raw Umber”: “Umber from Umbria, as in the raw earth of Italian mountains. It is the colour of a fur coat rarely worn, the oak bar in the Plaza, coffee dried to the bottom of a cup.” Even here, the question of neglect and oblivion and remnants permeates the prose.
The structure moves through time solidly, offering readers who do not naturally slip between time and space in fiction enough chronological plot to move steadily through the story. And the bursts of lyricism are not so frequent as to put off readers who prefer a more conventional prose style. But ultimately the novel is preoccupied with characterization (my favourite is Celeste, the aging four-legged companion who represents Jay’s fledgling capacity for devotion) and its success depends upon readers’ connections with Jay and Yuki.
Is this debut on your TBR? Have you been attending IFOA events this week? Have you been reading another debut novel?
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s appearances at Toronto’s 2016 International Festival of Authors:
Saturday October 22 1pm “The Modern Self” (Reading)
Tuesday October 25 2pm “Modern Families” (Reading/Round Table)
When I picked up Cherie Priest’s I Am Princess X, it was on the advice of a trusted bookseller for a (then) thirteen-year-old friend of mine. Then an older reading friend raved about it too. At last, I picked it up, and was pleased to find it was my first RIP read.
There is a dark current running beneath the novel throughout. Little snippets of the narrative hint at this without spoiling the story: ”
Like this. “That’s what they say everytime they catch a serial killer. Either nobody’s paying attention…or ‘normal’ is much, much worse than everybody thinks.”
And this. “Everyone looks down for things that are hidden. Everyone looks in holes, in drawers, in trunks, and in basements. That’s why the best pace to hide is up high – evern if it’s in plain view. Nobody ever looks up, except people who’ve done a lot of hiding of their own.”
But ultimately the power of the novel is more broadly based. It is an adventure story, a surprisingly compelling one too, but it is about friendship most of it. And about the power of stories themselves.
“Were they talking in code? Perhaps. But all they had in common was this story, and if the story held all the signs, all the words, then that’s what she’d use. ”
And not just for the reader, for the teller of tales as well. “It was kind of like therapy, maybe, telling the story, and drawing again. It gave me power.”
Libby and May are terrific characters, credible and gutsy and vulnerable and funny. And even though I really don’t need to add to my list of series to finish, I hope that Cherie Priest plans another in this vein.
The novel which I began to coincide with this event was George Elliott Clarke’s George & Rue, which retells the story of a taxi driver bludgeoned to death in 1940’s New Brunswick, Canada and a subsequent hanging.
This was a beautiful and brutal choice and one which must be discussed in detail in another post.
It is atmospheric and moody: “The winter was already bruisingly bitter. That ice-daggered wind slashing into Cynthy’s face while she dragged squalling Georgie and sullen Rue onto the yard of Alisha’s rough and uncouth house, painted charcoal black, with her ghost-callin bottles hung on the branches; a dog slobbering, pissing like a horse, and yowling blackly and pulling at the heavy chain that held it back; and Alisha’s horse tethered weirdly to a railroad track switch plunked down ex-nowhere.”
It is dark and unsettling: “A white devil moon haunts the black 1949 brand-new four-door Ford sedan when a black hammer slip out a pocket and smuck the taxi driver’s head, from the side. Not just a knock-out blow, the hammer was a landslide of iron. It crashed down unnervingly.”
It is poetic (of course, because the author is a poet): “Imagine the blood aquariuming Silver’s brain. The resistless hammer squashing the egg of the brain, its lobster-paste merde, its waspish humming. Then a dynamite of pain. Imagine the whiplash of the hammer, the sizzle of it against the skull, the brilliant cum of blood, accumulating redness, almost like a cloud, and the sussurus of pain, molesting, eclipsing, his nerves. The whinnying blood. Silver’s last breaths making a noise like hardwood cracking. To make his skull a bloody egg, smashed open like a piñata, consciousness seeping out, sparkling.”
It is complicated: “Ultimately, this novel conducts a tryst with biography. Perhaps the dual impulse to creativity and violence in my own genealogy serves to illustrate the Manichaean dilemmas of the African odyssey in this strange American world.”
It is startlingly extensive for a two-hundred page novel: “What neither Asa nor Cynthy knew was how much their personal destinies were rooted in ancestral history—troubles. Their own dreams and choices were the passed-down desolations of slavery. African Nova Scotia and, specifically, Three Mile Plains were the results of slave trade and slave escape.”
In other novel reading, I’m continuing with Greg Iles’ mystery, The Bone Tree. Most of the characters from the last volume are still featured here, but one, which I was attached to, is not. This doesn’t affect my commitment to have the story resolved, but I’m not as interested in the broader plot.
Intersecting with a major conspiracy in American history, I can see where this volume would be of intense interest to some readers, but it’s as much about the individual stories for me, in particular some hate crimes dating to the 1960’s which I’m keen to see solved. Readers learned in the last volume who was responsible for these, and there has been plenty of additional evidence to support that finding, but the political machinations are complicated.
What initially drew me to the series was an episode of the CBC Mystery Panel on “The Next Chapter” with Shelagh Rogers, in which one of the participants explained that he had read the entire book in about 24 hours. Another member of the panel seconded that enthusiasm, and I was hooked, even more so when I saw just how big those 800 pages look in person. (Nonetheless, I don’t find the story quite that riveting. Or, alternatively, I have other more pressing library duedates than this one.)
Steven Price’s By Gaslight begins with a heavily atmospheric chapter. “He entered banks with his head low, his eyebrows drawn close, his huge menacing hands empty, as if fixed for strangling.”
The setting is suitably eerie when viewed from this perspective. “He loathed London. Its cobbled streets were filthy even to a man whose business was filth, who would take a saddle over a bed and huddle all night in a brothel’s privy with his Colt drawn until the right arse stumbled in.”
Business in London is messy: “Wading through the night’s fog, another man’s blood barnacling his knuckles, his own business in London nearly done.”
And the long (“…long scar in the shape of a sickle running the length of her face”) and short of it is that the “[w]orst way to keep a secret is to write it down.”
Two other novels which I’ve read also fit the event and also will be discussed in greater detail in other posts: Shari Lapena’s The Couple Next Door (2016) and Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2016)
I know, I know: you know about this #RIPXI thing. My sign-up post is here and the event’s page is here. Are you reading with it in mind, too? Have you read any of these, or are you planning to?
With a lengthy TBR, it’s sometimes difficult to finish reading a series: this year, with trilogies, I am exercising my completion muscles. Earlier this year, I went back and reread the initial volume of Margaret Drabble’s Thatcher trilogy and Judith Kerr’s Out of the Hitler Time trilogy, and then finished the other two volumes in each. Then I started and finished Stephen King’s Bill Hodges’ trilogy. So, it turns out that I can start and finish a trilogy in a reading year. Who knew?
The Ransom Riggs’ volumes were all new to me, beginning with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2011), along with Hollow City (2014) and Library of Souls (2015). When I found all three, in lovely new copies at the library, I knew the bookish universe was whispering that I should begin.
The series is plot-driven and features “Jacob Portman, boy nothing from Nowhere, Florida” in all three volumes (each of the first two volumes ends with a cliffhanger, so now you know that he survives each time, but I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler).
[Note: all quotes herein are from the first volume, largely in an effort to avoid spoilers, unless otherwise cited.]
But he is not actually a “sort-of-normal messed-up rich kid in the suburbs”: he’s peculiar. Without going into detail about how this is the case, or about the specific peculiarities of the other children he meets, here is a hint.
“’We peculiars are blessed with skills that common people lack, as infinite in combination and variety as others are in the pigmentation of their skin or the appearance of their facial features. That said, some skills are common, like reading thoughts, and others are rare, such as the way I can manipulate time.’
‘Time? I thought you turned into a bird.’
‘To be sure, and therein lies the key to my skill.’”
This is perhaps a little spoilery, but all of these ideas are included in even the most basic of the promotional materials for the series.
The hinge of trilogy turns upon this idea of transformation and, in particular, transforming time, which isn’t explained in detail in the novels either. In fact, it’s a common criticism of the series, that the mechanics of the time-travel or time-shifts are not consistent.
Perhaps this is true, but I am not the kind of reader who requires that kind of accuracy. To my mind, the series is much more about atmosphere and story-telling and the device upon which these turn isn’t the crux of the works.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was actually inspired by a series of peculiar photographs, and the book grew up around them (the succeeding volumes, too). It’s easy to imagine that the author’s popularity grew faster than his world-building skills as an author.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that he had a lot of fun creating the stories of these characters’ lives. In the Q&A which follows the first volume he explains: “If I can’t know their real stories, I’ll make them up.” And as the series’ popularity grew, Ransom Rigg’s access to inspiration also grew: “The photographs came first, but I never stopped collecting. Even as I was writing the story I was finding more photographs to work in.”
He was not writing an instructive manual for time-slips, he was creating back-stories. Which occasionally surprised even him. One plot development so surprised him that he describes it as follows in the volume’s Q&A (I’m not saying which, so that you’re not looking for a big reveal in a particular volume): “When it occurred to me, I clapped my hands and cackled so loud it scared the cat out of the room.”
There are actually some fantastic creatures in the series, but it’s difficult to discuss them without spoilers. Here is a glimpse of the grimbears: “They are the preferred companion of ymbrynes in Russia and Finalnd, and grimbear-taming is an old and respected art among peculiars there. They’re strong enough to fight off a hollowgast yet gentle enough to care for a child, they’re warmer than electric blankets on winter nights, and they make fearsome protectors….”
But even though there are monsters in the book, it’s as likely to be a human being who behaves monstrously. And, in this case, it’s actually a building which is monstrous.
“What stood before me now was no refuge from monsters but a monster itself, staring down from its perch on the hill with vacant hunger. Trees burst forth from broken windows and skins of scabrous vine gnawed at the walls like antibodies attacking a virus – as if nature itself had waged war against it – but the house seemed unkillable, resolutely upright despite the wrongness of its angles and the jagged teeth of sky visible through sections of collapsed roof.”
As with Anne of Green Gables and many classic children’s quest tales, the idea of home – and a place to belong – is at the heart of the collection and this house straddles the desired and the feared. Some characters have a home, others do not and lament that if “…we were to take up arms against the corrupted and prevail, we’d be left with a shadow of what we once had; a shattered mess. You have a home – one that isn’t ruined – and parents who are alive, and who love you, in some measure.” (HC)
Often the ultimate threat is something more vague, amorphous: “The real danger then, wasn’t the figures on the platform, but the shadows that lay between and beyond them; the darkness at the margins. That’s where I focused my attention.”
Sometimes the threat is oblique, as in the descriptions of wartime life: “The kids applauded like onlookers at a fireworks display, violent slashes of color reflected in their masks. This nightly assault had become such a regular part of their lives that they’d ceased to think of it as something terrifying – in fact, the photograph I’d seen of it in Miss Peregrine’s album had been labeled Our beautiful display. And in its own morbid way, I suppose it was.”
But the novels offer an understanding of wartime from a peculiar perspective. And as Jacob ages, there is a slightly more reflective tone to the stories. “Despair was tangible here, weighting down everything, the very air.” Relationships grow more complex and there is more of a focus on internal action, an emphasis on mental states and emotional experiences. “Turbulent dreams, dreams in strange languages, dreams of home, of death. Odd bits of nonsense that spooled out in flickers of consciousness, swimmy and unreliable, inventions of my concussed brain.” (LoS)
The teenage perspective in the early volumes is less credible; sometimes Jacob’s thinking seems to suit a 30- or 40-something narrator instead. For instance, as a child of the digital age, I think he would be unlikely to use a metaphor like this one, even though it is quite striking: “Then, like a movie that burns in the projector while you’re watching it, a bloom of hot and perfect whiteness spread out before me and swallowed everything.”
But the emphasis is consistently on the story, and such details are likley less important to the target YA audience. “Just a story. It had become one of the defining truths of my life that, not matter how I tried to keep them flattened, two-dimensional, jailed in paper and ink, there woul always be stories that refused to stay bound inside books. It was never just a story. I would know: a story had swallowed my whole life.” (LoS)
These stories did not swallow my whole life: they read quickly and provided solid entertainment on some hot summer afternoons, and may provide an additional layer of enjoyment to the recent Tim Burton film.
As for other trilogies in the stacks, I’m still planning to finish reading Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy and Kelley Armstrong’s Nadia Stafford trilogy this year. But, then, good reading intentions abound.
Have you been reading books in a trilogy this year? Do you have a favourite trilogy? Or one that you might be tempted to read all-in-a-burst if the timing was right?
Peril of the Short Story is an aspect of RIP which I often neglect, despite my best intentions. Not so, this year.
First, MOONSHOT, which is edited by Hope Nicholson for AH Comics (Alternative History) contains many elements which suit this reading season.
First,”The Qallupiluk: Forgiven” which was originally published in Ajjiit: Dark Dreams of the Ancient Arctic (Inhabit Media, 2011). With narrative by by Seon and Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley and illustrations by Menton J. Matthews III, this is a suitably unsettling story.
There is also “Tlicho Nàowo”, a story about the ‘Night the Spirits Return’, which coincides with October 31st in the Dene First Nations community in the Northwest Territories: a “ritual that expresses love and respect to family members who have passed on, as well as to impolre the spirits of the Caribou people for a safe and plentiful hunt for the community”. It’s written by Richard Van Camp (with Mahsi cho to Rosa Mantla) and illustrated by Nicholas Burns.
I’ve also been reading from Ladies of Fantasy: Two Centuries of Sinister Stories by the Gentle Sex. Some of these stories are actually rather gentle, but others are not, like Madame Blavatsky’s “The Ensouled Violin” which is truly horrifying.
The stories are selected by Seon Manley and Gogo Lewis, and include works by E. Nesbit, Joan Aiken, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Grazia Deleddo, Madame Blavatsky, Jane Roberts, Grena J. Bennett, C.L. Moore and Lady Eleanor Smith.
Some are mostly about atmosphere, like E. Nesbit’s “The Pavilion”, in which “the starlight lay gray on the dew of the park, and the trees massed themselves in bunches of a darker gray, deepening to black at the roots of them”.
Similarly, “The Muted Horn” by Dorothy Salisbury Davis: “The music when he once more tilted the horn into the nght had a quiet sadness that soon grew into melancholy. It was a lament htat might have been winded over the last fires of a dead hero’s camp. The birds grew still.”
Others have a specifc hook upon which the tale turns, as with Joan Aiken’s “Searching for Summer”: “And they’ve never even noticed that that the sun doesn’t shine in other places.”
Mary Elizabeth Counselman plays the card for more overt thrills in “The Unwanted”: “A tall, spare mountaineer with a bushy red heard and a missing right arm had appeared, as though the rocky ground had sprouted him. His narrow blue eyes held an expression almost identical to the look of the rifle bore he held cradled in his left arm. It was pointed directly at my heart, which was pounding against my ribs like a trapped rabbit.
Jane Roberts’ “The Red Wagon” felt startlingly modern, with a young boy realizing that voices aren’t supposed to come out of thin air, which soon spirals into a tale of possession/loss of sanity.
The threats can take unexpected forms, as in Catherine Moore’s “Doorway into Time”: “There was a narrow space in the corridor between himself and it. The lightning had weakened one wall already. He swing it away from the oncoming colossus and played the fire screaming to and fro upon blackened stones, seeing mortar crumble between them and girders bending in that terrible heat.”
The short introductions to each story do place the works in a context which is helpful, but they also include some commentary which make it clear that women writing fantastical stories is something of an aberration in 1975, which adds a quaintness to the collection, which allowing the works to speak for themselves might have overwritten.
Also in shorter fare, Tom Hammock’s Will O’ the Wisp, which comprises the first volume of the Aurora Grimeon series, illustrated by Megan Hutchison, which contains six installments.
It caught my eye in the teen section of the library, because it has a gold clasp on it, like the quintessential young girl’s diary. This alone might not have lulled me in, were it not for RIP XI, but its illustrations are dramatic and suitably creepy.
The story contains all the hallmarks of the genre (from scorpions to skeletons, from fog to figments) and a particularly spooky house. This, Aurora only recently began to call hom in the wake of her parents’ death, with her grandfather’s sudden emergence as her only living relative in the swampland of the southern United States.
But my favourite part of the series is Missy, the raccoon, who is determined, smart and loyal, and who sleeps like a cat and offers Aurora the friendship she craves. Missy isn’t creepy, but she adds a bit of fresh flavour to a story which feels eerily familiar.
Next up, the collection of tales by Rui Umezawa, Strange Light Afar. It’s a slim volume, illustrated by Mikiko Fujita, and it will round out my story reading nicely.
You already know about this #RIPXI thing, right? My sign-up post is here and the event’s page is here. Are you reading with it in mind too?
It’s not meant to be complicated. “I hope to help you think about your writing, and to approach the task with more confidence, excitement, and hope.”
That’s Alice Mattison’s intent. But of course it is complicated. Which is why there are countless books about the craft of writing.
Viking – PRH, 2016
The Kite and the String particularly reminds me of Elizabeth Berg’s Into the Open (which is kind of kite-like, now that I think about it) and Stephen King’s On Writing. Books by other commercially successful writers who have taken on the task of sharing their experience with other writers. (There are many examples and I’ve just mentioned a couple of my favourites: how about you?)
In the case of Stephen King’s book, he has included specific information about his own writing process with specific works, so that I can imagine King fans who do not actually have a personal interest in writing might find the volume of interest.
But with Alice Mattison’s book, there is very little of this. She is writing for writers, although close readers might enjoy the specific examples she draws upon (which are nicely varied) and the ways in which she pulls wisdom from the works.
Because reading is of great importance to her. (This is true for Berg and King, too.) “Read small-press books and literary magazines. And, of course, read the books into which you fall as into a warm bed on a cold night.”
Specifically reading with curiosity. “Of course, you can’t read everything – but are you reading with curiosity, with a willingness to see what some authors can do that you can’t (or can’t yet), and with intellectual energy?”
And, also, with intention. “Read to develop a sense of shape and form – what make works of art feel right, feel complete – and then, as you revise your own work, listen for the messages from within you that say, ‘No, no – a little more’ or ‘Stop here’ or ‘Slow down – now speed up!’”
Occasionally, she reminds me of Anne Lamott (her classic, Bird by Bird), but Mattison dresses up her language. So, no “shitty first drafts”. Instead, she says: “Good writing goes through stages where it’s not so good.”
There aren’t any exercises in this one (unlike Berg’s) but there is a lot of substance. It took me longer to read than many books on writing (say, Dani Shapiro’s, which I also really enjoyed).
And, while I was reading, I began to find kites and strings elsewhere in my stacks as well. Even in Olive Senior’s 2005 poetry collection, Under the Roofs of the World:
“In the sky
and the one
(And there were references in Alice Mattison’s book which informed the other reading in my stacks, in turn, like her discussion of the pastoral, which was helpful because I was reading André Alexis’ Pastoral.)
As far as kites and strings, the metaphor is discussed straightaway in Alice Mattison’s volume. “I needed abandon and control – a kite that takes off into the wind, a retraining string that’s unspooled a little at a time and pulled when necessary, a string that lets it fly, but not so far that it gets lost.”
But it’s not heavy-handed. And although there are some serious discussions, and a great deal to contemplate, there are also lots of brief snippets (as in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creating Beyond Fear, a recent favourite) which beg you to jot them down in a notebook (or, on a notebook, so you’ll open it and write, instead of read, at least sometimes).
Below are some of the jottings from my notebook: which is your favourite?
“Strong feeling, like it or not, marks every life. That’s our source.”
“Cherish the readers who offer more praise than you deserve, but find others as well – which may be more difficult. A critique should make you want to get back to work.”
“Can we say then that a plot is a series of events arranged in a way to arouse enough curiosity to carry us through a story? Except that events aren’t the only sources of curiosity, and even meandering, messy stories can take on just enough direction to keep us going.”
On honey and babies:
“In a story, if a jar of honey shatters on the floor just as the baby crawls in that direction, you need to stifle your impulse to snatch up the baby.”
“Coincidences happen in life; they are suspect only in art.”
“Throughout, the process will prove to be emotional as much as intellectual: often the problem is not what to do but how to find the nerve to do it.”
On transformation: “There is enough new incident not necessarily to change a character (some people never change) but to change the reader: we start someplace, go a distance, and return; or go a distance and arrive.”
And, finally, on revising:
“Take outrageous risks, and then have the patience and humility to fix your work. With a long-sturdy string tied to your kite, go out on the windiest day of the year, toss it into the sky, and see what happens.”
Have you been reading about writing lately? Do you have any favourites on the subject? Have you enjoyed Alice Mattison’s fiction? Is this volume on your TBR?
The FOLD (The Festival of Literary Diversity) is an annual event, in Brampton (Ontario, Canada) dedicated to telling more stories, to having audiences connect with a wider variety of storytellers. You can check out their lineup of terrific writers and storytellers who were a part of the debut festival in May this year, here.
Earlier in 2016, they posted a reading challenge, which I printed and dutifully began to read towards. (I’ve misplaced the link: sorry!)
- A book you’ve had for more than a year.
- A book outside of your ‘favourite genre’.
- A book you buy at an indie bookstore.
- A book by a person of a faith.
- A book by an aboriginal author.
- A book by a Canadian LGBTQ author.
- A book by a Canadian person of colour.
- A book by a FOLD 2016 author.
I’ve already discussed the following: Ernest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men (1983); N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms (2010); André Alexis’ Pastoral; David Chariandy’s Soucouyant (2007); and Farzana Doctor’s All Inclusive (2015). And I’ve chosen Lydia Perović’s All That Sang as my selection for a Canadian LGBTQ author.
Today, a book by an aboriginal author, Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat. (Which also counts towards my 13 indigenous reads for this year’s Canadian Book Challenge, the tenth challenge hosted by the Book Mine Set.
Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat was a whimsical choice off my library shelf, on a Saturday afternoon browse. Only afterwards was I reminded via Twitter that he’s written several other books as well (which weren’t on the shelf), including Corvus, most recently, which sounds particularly intriguing.
However this was an excellent place to begin. And, speaking of beginning, you are probably wondering “Who is Charlie?” You’re not alone. “I thought he might be one of yours. His father was Greek and his mother was Cree. She thought he said he was Creek. You know the Indians in the States. But anyway, now we have Charlie and we don’t know what to do with him.”
Charlie is all over the book, as you might guess, but so is Harold Johnson: on the periphery as story-shaper but also in the guts of it, seeming to be both author and character. He creates drama and inhabits it. As does Wesakicak — the trickster.
“Wesakicak watched the mist swirl in front and around his moccasins. He was nowhere. Nowhere is a good place to be when you are trying to think. There are no distractions. Wesakicak looked up from his feet at the nothing that surrounded him. He turned full circle. Still nothing. Nothing in front or behind. No distractions, but no inspiration either. What to do about Charlie?Wesakicak had no idea. He walked onward not going anywhere. He waved at the mist in front of his eyes, tried to clear his vision, tried to see.”
But Wesakicak is not the only trickster. A black-robed figure prompts this exchange:
“’Do you remember the one we played on you in 1894?’
‘No, can’t say I was around back then.’
‘I was, honest, I was there. Fantastic. We snatched the earth right out from under your feet, the classic tablecloth trick expanded to a whole country. Now, that was magic. Certainly our best of all time, you should have seen it.’
There are many sharply funny incidents and exchanges like this one. Figures use a broom to sweep away the snow in front of cars which are slipping along road lanes (playing curling with cars), customs’ protocol is slightly altered (you can’t enter the US without a gun and a Bible) and readers witness bureaucrats scurrying around on Parliament Hill with bags full of money, worrying about being followed.
When a government employee, responsible for enforcing the Indian Fiscal Accountability Act, sees Charlie put quarters into a parking metre, the rep asks if Charlie got a receipt. His advice is complicated: “In the event that receipts are not obtainable, and I assume that you used a public meter instead of an authorized parking facility, you are required by section twelve thousand nine hundred and eighty-four, subsection eighteen ‘G’ of the regulations pursuant to that Act to fill out forms ‘K’, ‘P’ and ‘V’.”
But sometimes the intelligence plays out more softly, quietly imbues the narrative.
“Four lanes flow into six lanes and flow into twelve lanes and I am a fish in spawn on a fast black river, and Thunder doesn’t know which way to go so he just goes. The black river glimmers and flashes between smears of windshield wipers. Slush and salt smaller the glass and I think I must be a Salmon to be swimming in salt water.”
Charlies Muskrat is much shorter than Green Grass Running Water, but it does have a similar tone, playful and insightful. It has a fable-like quality to it, and reminds us that “[t]he distance between the Ancestors and Future generations is not far, a short paddle in a light, fast canoe”.
It’s a short paddle, but a satisfying journey.
Other Fold Reading List posts are here, here and here. There are still plenty of weeks left in 2016: why not join?
This is the award’s 42nd anniversary and the prize is announced on the evening of October 11, 2016 at the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon in the Toronto Reference Library.
This year’s finalists for the 2016 Toronto Book Awards are Howard Akler’s Men of Action (a memoir), Ann Y.K. Choi’s Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety (a novel), The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood (a non-fiction collection edited by John Lorinc, Michael McClelland, Ellen Scheinberg and Tatum Taylor), Cordelia Strube’s On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light (a novel) and Marnie Woodrow’s Heyday (a novel).
The only book I’d already read was Cordelia Strube’s, which was a memorable and intense reading experience for sure. The aspects of Harriet’s story which most struck me did not feel unique to the city of Toronto; the emotional landscape struck me more powerfully. When I think back to her experiences, I picture the Shangrila apartment building, which I could imagine being in any Canadian city. (I said a great deal about this novel here.)
The same could be true, to my mind, of the experiences chronicled in Howard Akler’s memoir, Men of Action, although my memories of his debut, The Ctiy Man, have a solid Toronto-ness which also imbue this more recent book.
The predominant landscape in this book for me, however, was also something less concrete: the neurological map, largely unexplored.
This is significant for Howard Akler’s story because he is describing his father’s descent into (and residence within) a comatose state. He journeys across memory and through research, in an attempt to understand this foreign state.
Some passages are science-soaked, others sprinkled with philosophy, and yes, indeed, there are some concrete and rooted passages, in which he walks the pavement, acound and approaching various institutions (two hospitals in particular).
Overall, however, Men of Action is a strangely compelling and deliberately constructed volume, which chronicles a journey across territories which are largely unseen and intangible.
He manages to capture the universal experiences which simmer beneath the specifics of his own family’s experience, so that readers are engaged in the meditative exploration, even if their own experiences hover around the margins of the situation he describes in detail.
The Ward is, obviously, Toronto-soaked. The essays consider the neighbourhood between what are now Yonge and University and Queen and College streets. The pieces are short (most of them are only three pages) and designed to quickly capture a reader’s attention and leave them wanting to know more.
Throughout the volume is a generous selection of photographs, some spreading across double-pages, some claiming large chunks on text-filled pages and others dallying in the margins. There are also some advertisements and several maps (which vary not only in terms of size but also style).
The visual element is perhaps even more important than the text for establishing mood and inciting interest. But the subject matter of the essays is curated so that such a variety of materials are covered that every reader will find something of interest.
There are some pieces which are devoted to general locations (Chinese cafes, public baths and laundries), some which consider specific locations (the Italian Consulate, the University Avenue Synagogue and the Elizabeth Street Playground), and some inspired by specific people (William James, Lawren Harris and Merle Forster).
As has been true of other Toronto-y volumes which Coach House has published, somehow the variety itself is fascinating and even if you aren’t the sort of person who gravitates towards non-fiction, their collections are satisfying and inspiring.
Ann Y.K. Choi’s Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety is a deceptively simple story, ostensibly about the daily life of a Korean family who owns a variety store in Toronto in the 1980s, but more specifically about the bonds between people which build/destroy identity and core strength.
A clue rests in the advice that Mary’s father gives her: “The difference between true love and infatuation is that while infatuation is about you and what you want, true love is always about the other person and what he or she needs. Remember that. It’s the lesson your mother taught me, and one I’m passing on to you.”
What is passed on (and what is not) and what is shared (and what is kept private or separate) : these are at the heart of the novel. For instance, she and her brother are forced to adopt “Canadian” names when they begin school, so their Korean names are private, known only within the family, and “Mary” makes friends with other children whose parents are from other places who understand what it’s like to be caught between familial expectations and “Canadian” customs.
Perhaps because she is distanced from large parts of her own self, it’s sometimes difficult to connect with her as a character, but the story pulls readers closer. Both vulnerable and daring, Mary has experiences which reach beyond the newcomer-to-Canada novels to unexpected territory; sometimes she is confronted by these, other times she instigates them. (At one point, I was truly shocked by the direction the narrative took: another route would have been much safer, although it was credible.)
The store itself is as much a character as the city of Toronto on the page; they are described with just enough detail to evoke broader scenes for those readers who know the territory well, but they are solid backdrops, not standalone entities.
The Toronto islands play a significant role in Marnie Woodrow’s Heyday. Although I haven’t finished reading the novel yet, it seems the kind of story which is truly rooted in a specific place.
Though not so much rooted in a specific time, for the story is kaleidoscopic, moving across the years in the matter of a few lines. “We met after the man Ferris invented his wheel and before time-share villas on Mars. It was hot for June. You came rushing down the ramp of life, all boots and hope.”
I’ve been fond of Marnie Woodrow’s writing ever since I heard her read a short story about a woman with such separation anxiety that she felt distressed in the supermarket as her food moved away from her on the coveyor belt towards the cashier (which was a funny and not-so-funny story: I love that).
Each of the voices in this novel is distinct and resonant; I want to spend more time in each character’s perspective, even when the content is difficult. Sometimes especially when the story is hard, because there is something very resilient which seems to simmer behind her stories (even with simple tragedies like groceries being dragged in the wrong direction, let alone a difficult death).
The language, too, is matter-of-fact but reaches for the remarkable (and often quietly humourous – because sometimes all one can do is look for a reason to chuckle) in the everyday. Bette’s father looks like a “perfectly wrapped present” and her brother-in-law is “all too passionate about the rising cost of ribbon – every time”.
Have you read any of these nominated titles? Do you follow the award and have a prediction as to the winner?
Is there a similar award which you do follow and read from the shortlist annually?
“I do know that missing is a feeling,” Ruby announces, in Riel Nason’s debut, The Town that Drowned. Is it? It’s true for Ruby, and her story is preoccupied with what is being lost, a chronological tale rooted in the moments of losing.
At first glance, it seems as though Lydia Perović’s All That Sang echoes Ruby’s belief. “Have you ever desired anybody so much that your every waking moment was occupied by the thought of that person?”
Many readers will recognise the feeling, but the kind of missing with which All That Sang is preoccupied is not only a feeling, but something with a shape, dimensions and solidity.
This kind of missing is the space around which this story is structured, if one can still say that it is structured if the shape of it all is the shape of absence, the not-quite-story.
“I don’t know what I’m attempting to tell if I abandon the story, but I know I have that urge. Of telling without storifying. Of writing without re-enchanting. Without tidying. I have the desire to keep the muddle.”
But the desire to keep the muddle, to preserve the mess of it all, is not as disorienting for the reader as it is for the miss-er (the one who misses), even if it is not as orderly as the life of the miss-ee (the one who is missed/missing) appears to be.
“Plot is a form of self-medication: look, rejoice, there’s a glimpse of sense. Fragments will come together to mean something. Let’s ignore all what conspires against the narrative.”
Readers can ignore it if they wish, They can flip past the series of photos near the middle of the book, the streetscapes featuring buildings which occupy geographical space but also emotional territory in the narrator’s memory.
It’s as though they represent what was lost, even though they are connected to the almost-story by a particular (and very thin) thread.
The writer has not ignored all that conspires against the narrative. Neither did I, as reader. It wasn’t necessary to know the city of Paris, in order to appreciate the aspects of the novel which unfold there, but I set the book aside to search for some images of some of the locations described
This kind of detail affords readers a thoroughfare through the story. Although perhaps we have had to move to one side, to observe the loss-soaked story from the sidelines. (Also, to allow the voices of unexpected characters to offer their perspectives from the sidelines as well. But of course they have their own un-stories.)
“When I bicycle up Bathurst, I am also pedaling up Boulevard Sébastopol, direction north on both. That’s how the body recognizes it, the incline is exactly the same degree.”
The reader bicycles up neither street nor boulevard, but even without blood pumping, we can recognize that it is not only a thoroughfare but an artery.
There is a physicality -another kind of feeling but more-than-feeling – behind all of this. That tightness of calf and thigh is a memory of something that came before but which exists no longer.
“Perhaps language anchors her like pinning a butterfly, too precisely for a creature made of air and flight.”
That experience is not only a feeling but something absorbed into muscle and sinew which leaves the rider changed. Restriction and constraint: limbs and stories tied to spaces and pages. Or, not.
“That’s my ambition, that breeze. Yes, it also means task accomplished, something that may lead to more similar work with easily achieved goals, and rent paid in the city I dreamed about and only knew from the films. But it also means simply: that breeze.”
Lydia Perović conducts that breeze, orchestrates it. Just as a conductor directs musicians.
One could say that All That Sang unfolds in the space which follows a performance, in the gap which settles over a crowd before there is any applause.
One could say the near-story is rooted in the space before the conductor’s hands erupt into motion. Or in the space between movements, in which the musicians keep their instruments poised and the conductor’s hands remain raised, signalling that there is more to come.
“That’s how I feel. I’ve been the badly written character in my own life ever since I’ve met you – seen you, actually, really taken you in, probably since Mozart’s C minor mass.”
When does it change, exactly: with the seeing, the meeting, or the taking in?
When is it lost, exactly: with the telling, the analyzing, or the naming? With the tiring realization “that really she can’t be in anybody’s story”?
Music is such a powerful force and in Lydia Perović’s second novel (I’ve read her first, Incidental Music, too) it could even substitute for emotion at times. Perhaps recognizing, as George Sand did, that one can only write things down after passion has cooled, that describing intensity is less effective than pinning it inside another frame. (I’m also reading Robert J. Wiersema’s Walk Like a Man, which chroicles his coming of age with Bruce Springsteen’s music. Music holds things differently than words and can be profoundly important for writers.)
All That Sang is a slim volume, easily read in an afternoon, but there is much to discuss in the wake of reading. What makes for a good story? How does one tell about what is better left un-storied? Why Mozart’s C minor mass? Why does it surprise us to consider women in the role of conductor (on and off orchestral stages)? What series of photographs could encapsulate the person we once spent every moment thinking of? What two streets align in our memories of passions? What’s the biggest space inside of us, and what did it once hold?
Is there a space on your bookshelf which a copy of All That Sang could fill perfectly?
Almost ten years after its original publication, Butterflies in November was translated into English from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon. (This was in 2013, by Pushkin Press, though the edition which appears below was published in 2014 by Grove/Atlantic.)
2003; Translated Brian FitzGibbon, 2013
It gained substantial attention with its listing for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and it landed on my reading list because the author will be appearing at this year’s International Festival of Authors in Toronto later this month. (For more about my love of the IFOA, see here.)
When I first began reading this on a weekday morning commute, I wasn’t sure about spending time with the thirty-something Icelandic narrator. She wasn’t very warm and inviting, and then she ran over a goose (then she cooked it).
But she was getting the cold shoulder from nearly everyone around her (I noted a sharp-tongued comment from her mother when I’d first begun to read). So I didn’t want to abandon her and choose another book while she was down-and-out.
And that was a good thing, because as I read on, I found myself settling into the groove of her life. That’s not easy, because it’s kind of disintegrating. Her marriage unravels at the beginning of the book, which might not have seemed such a tragedy because it didn’t seem to be a happy one.
“If I were forced to, if I were to be locked up between the walls of an old classroom and complelled to produce an account of our four years and 288 days of cohabitation, I could maybe dig up enough eventsand words to fill a blackboard totaling thirty days. How many pages would that be in a double-spaced manuscript? The same words frequently recur over and over again. You can’t really say that conjugal life does much to advance the future of language.”
The dissolution of her marriage also occurs right after her affair has also just unravelled, which leaves her feeling doubly alone. As she attempts to reframe her understanding of her own life, she does calculate the number of days in which she identified as one half of a partnership, but ultimately she is preoccupied with the words. As a translator, words matter.
“Because it’s impossible to say many words at once, things seem to happen one after another, events get dividied into categories of words, which take on the form of horizontal lines in my narrative when I phone Audur to tell her the news. In practice, though, the connection between words and incidents is of a completely different nature.”
But, ironically, despite her facility with languages, she often struggles to communicate. This kind of contradiction adds to her credibility as a character, but there isn’t a lot of room around her, in which to cozy up.
It’s not all grim and bleak, however. Just halfway through the novel,there are unexpected developments, involving the child of a friend who is a single-mother. The young boy both dislocates and roots her, in a strange but believable way.
“My vision of the world may be restricted by a cracked pane of glass, but I feel I’m gradually gaining a better grip on things, and it would actually take very little for me to consider myself a satisfied woman.”
Throughout the course of a literal and metaphorical journey, she has considerable opportunity to reflect on the highs and lows of her life heretofore.
“Many consequential events can occur in a woman’s life in the space of less than twenty-four hours. Most mistakes are made in afraction of a moment and can be measured in seconds: taking a wrong turn, stepping on the accelerator instead of the brake, saying a yes instead of a no or a maybe. Mistakes are rarely the outcome of a logical sequence of decisions. A woman can be on the brink of total surrender to love, for instance, without even pondering on it for so much as a minute.”
One has the impression that she hasn’t been much for pondering. That she hasn’t spent any time reflecting upon the tragic end of a goose, rather has launched into cooking it.
Speaking of cooking, the novel resolves in a quiet and not-so-resolved-but-still-satisfying way. The final chapter is long and filled with recipes (forty-seven for cooking and one for knitting), which loosely appear in the order in which they appeared in the story proper. Included are recipes for food “that did not go down partcualrly well with the characters…dishes that simply failed”.
This s one of my favourite parts of the story, because it consciously reserves a place for failures, which are often what make us grow as human beings.
“Silver Tea Boil water. Fill one-third of a glass with cold milk and then fill the other two-thirds with boiled water. Flavour with honey. Drink after dinner, with a child who has put on his/her pyjamas, just before brushing his/her teeth. Discuss the events of the day and plan the next day together over silver tea.”
This is not a despairing tale after all. And nor is our narrator as alone as she appeared to be. “I’m standing on the edge of the imaginary, on the edge of the fear of darkness. The only thing one can do is grope for another human being.”
Have you read a work in translation recently? Is this one on your TBR? (Don’t be put off by the pastel-blue cover!)
Unless we’ve just met, you already know that I am slightly obsessed with the International Festival of Authors.
I’ve already told the story about how it was one of the reasons I moved to Toronto, so that I could attend Harbourfront events without a hotel bill (like the one earlier this year with Annie Proulx).
This year’s festival has a pretty outstanding lineup and I am already saving my pennies because two of the focus events for this year (Irish authors and comics) have an immediate and intense appeal. Also spotlighted this year? Non-fiction writers. Looking forward to adding some titles to my TBR there.
As always, I aim to read all of the works in advance.
As always, that’s impossible.
Fortunately, some authors’ works are familiar, so sometimes I don’t worry so much about reading their latest.
I’ve seen Emma Donoghue read many times, and maybe I won’t get to reading The Wonder but I’ll have memories of Kissing the Witch, Room and a few others to go on.
And sometimes the author’s books have lingered too long on my stack but it’s the event which finally gets me reading.
So, for instance, it was knowing that Andre Alexis would be attending this year, which urged me to finally finally finally read A and Pastoral and Fifteen Dogs, so that I could begin The Hidden Keys in advance. (Last year I read his story collection, Despair.)
But sometimes their appearance is what gets a book on my TBR initially and then I’m scrambling to fit something in before the festival dates.
This is true of Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You, a debut which might have gotten lost in my good intentions, if it weren’t for her IFOA appearance.
This year’s notes were the first page I filled out in my new calendar. The week had already passed, but I was planning more than a single week’s reading for sure.
In the photo below, you can see another year’s list. See, I’m always making reading plans. Aren’t you?
So far, in IFOA2016 reading, I am specializing in beginning books.
For instance, Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.
Which is, by the way, decidedly creepy. And I’ve been reading it at night, whenever I can’t sleep. This has not been helpful in any way. Except that it has made me thankful for not being able to sleep, because otherwise I might dream about this story, and that would be terrible.
I’ve read about half of it, and even though I don’t want to keep reading, I keep reading anyway. That says something.
There are at least two more books in the sequence. I’m afraid I’ll have to read those too.
Also, Auđur Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November, which I’ve been bringing with me on some commutes, because the chapters are short.
It often makes me smile (although more because something is dark-funny than haha-funny).
“I suffered terribly when I gave birth to you, thirty-six hours of labour, five giving birth to your brother. Took me four months to recover, just physically I mean, after having you. I have to admit, in some ways I feel closer to your brother, he also calls me more often.”
This took some getting used to, and at first I wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend any amount of time with this woman. My hesitation was rooted in the fact that she runs over a goose and then brings it home to be cooked, but there are other characters who are also severing their connections to her simultaneously (or expressing disappointment in them, like her mother does here) and I felt guilty leaving her alone on the page (also, I haven’t been packing another book – it could have been more to do with that).
Despite the powder-blue cover and the strangely-softly-snarky tone, Butterflies in November is actually saying a whole lot of important things, in a strangely inviting/push-away tone, which becomes surprisingly addictive.
There are a lot of other books stacked up in my IFOA reading piles. How about you? Are you reading with this event in mind? Or with another literary festival on your schedule? Have you read either of these two authors’ works?