Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Fresh bookishness!

So many books to talk about! Including what’s currently in my notebook and what I’m reading with this year’s projects.

Schofield MalarkyReading Louise Erdrich, fiction and non-fiction. Reading Mavis Gallant, one story at a time.

Exploring my grandmother’s copies of Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna stories.

Indigenous writers discovered (and rediscovered) like Marilyn Dumont, Greogry Scofield, Robin Wall Kimmerer and Robert Arthur Alexie.

New fiction from Zadie Smith, Michael Helm, Aravind Adiga, Madeleine Thien, Vickie Gendreau (translated by Aimee Wall) and more.

There’s talk of backlisted fiction and non-fiction too, like Margery Sharp’s The Rescuers (yes, it was a book first!) and Chester Brown’s Louis Riel.

I’m currently reading vintage crime by Margaret Millar, some past and present Women’s Fiction Prize nominees, various books about Life on Mars (inspired by Lori McNulty’s story collection)…and I’m adding to my TBR for Kinna’s 2017 Africa Reading Challenge.

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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Oh, the Saga-ness of it all

Rereading the Saga comics is definitely worthwhile. On first-reading, I was a little off-kilter, so engrossed in some panels that I missed others completely, only occasionally remembering to retrace my steps. Discovering wings or horns on characters who appeared humanoid at first glance was delightfully but consistently distracting.

Vaughan Staples Saga OneReaders are aware almost immediately that the story is actually being narrated by the character being born in the first volume’s opening pages, Hazel. So what we’re reading belongs to the past, the story revolving around her parents: Alana and Marco, in love Romeo-and-Juliet style, each a member of the opposite faction in an interplanetary-scale war.

Our narrator’s voice sounds a little world-weary and reflective; evidently she is no longer a squawling infant, but grown, and she is intelligent enough to recognize that we need help situating ourselves.

Quickly, we are offered a shifting scale: we can see Cleave (where she was born) and its passageways and buildings, its streets and throughfares, finally the planet in the sky. Then, the perspective shifts again, and a planet like Cleave is just a yellow dot on the page.

This is how we will experience the story; at times we will be directly engaged, feel the story intimately (there are a lot of body parts, on display, sometimes feeding a baby and sometimes loving a partner) and, at other times, it’s as though it’s happening far away.

The dialogue is credible, sometimes thoughts and sentences are incomplete. Which leaves room for striking images. For instance, a pair of legs attached to a head can look like it is simply all mouth. Colour contrasts are also notable, with some story sequences in jarringly bold shades and others in sombre muted tones.

Even in this first volume, the emphasis is on relationship-building, against a backdrop of tension and conflict (war between Landfall and Wreath, personal vendettas). With this focus at work throughout, communication must be concise: a single comment can be both angry and affectionate. Sometimes also humourous, which is key.

So, babies come complete with drool and fingernails like hypodermics; commentary on them suits the character and entertains readers:

Vaughan Staples Saga Two“I know, I’ve dressed gangrenous wounds that were less disgusting than this whole cloth diaper routine.”

In the second volume, readers are introduced to one set of parents (parents to a parent, as Hazel is still narrating).

This is an unexpected and intense scene, in which namecalling is replaced by spellcasting. The tension is lightened by having one member of the young couple clad only in a towel, because nobody was expecting company.

(In this series, people are naked or scantily clothed for believable reasons, rather than to sass things up. The nudity is prominent but not gratuitous. If someone is grieving while wearing a robe, there is no swell of flesh to tantalize. If someone has been away from their partner for some time, that robe is probably on the floor.)

Introducing the parents invites readers into another layer of the story; they represent a heritage of conflict and resistance and, so, the story expands organically.

We also develop more of an understanding of the Brio Talent Agency, whose hired assassins featured prominently in the first volume as well. (This is also an excellent opportunity to illustrate the breadth of the universe, in which swaths of dialogue can appear without translation, although the context clarifies the content.)

Another character introduced is the author of the book that Alana was reading when she and Marco met: A Night Time Smoke by D. Oswold Heist. He occupies an important role in the story and the simple importance of storytelling is underscored. In the third volume, this theme occupies a more prominent place: “When I was younger, your stories literally saved my life.”

The line between a war story and a love story shifts and wriggles – battles and break-ups mingle – so that the plot moves forward amidst broken hearts and broken treaties. Readers are caught in page-turning swells, with alliances of all sorts at stake, and betrayals both personal and political unfolding.

Vaughan Staples Saga ThreeThe final page of each comic is likely to contain a kind of revelation, particularly in sixes, where the last page serves as the last not only of a comic but of a bound volume in a book-length collection.

An identity, an unexpected interconnection or someone’s (something’s) true nature: readers can expect things to take a turn at the end of a volume. Figurative or literal.

In the second volume, for instance, “Thataway” prepares readers to turn elsewhere in the next volume. The third ends with “Thatagirl”. (There are more notable examples which revolve around spoilers.)

The women in these stories are not pale-faced damsels in need of rescuing; they are many hued and they, themselves, are rescuers. From the first volume, a man is as likely to be cradling an infant as a woman, and a woman as likely to be fighting with her other hand while cradling with the other.

These women are fierce and those who need rescuing are in need because of circumstance not prescripted roles (with one notable exception, which draws attention to her capable and active counterparts, and even this instance it is more about being a princess than it is about biology).

Readers also meet the other side of the family, a step-mother and father. And another distraction in the third volume is a pair of journalists: Upsher and Doff, from Jetsam, writers for “Hebdomadal”, who introduce another aspect of story-telling and truth-telling. Their passion for getting to the bottom of the story (as well as their passion for each other) reminds readers of the essential need for a free press and free expression.

This question of determining who benefits from silence is an intergalactic concern, along with the related matter of who can afford to pay to have things covered up and eliminated. This, too, is increasingly complex as the series progresses.

Vaughan Staples Saga FourRelationships between hired assassins also develop another layer of complication in later volumes; assassins, too, have families. Interconnections are not necessarily what readers will expect. Even characters with objectifying titles (like “The Will” and “The Brand”) have and develop attachments. Some of those attachments last beyond a lifetime.

“After that, things got action-packed.”

With less need for extension character-building and relationship-building, there is more room for plot as the series develops.

But, simultaneously, just as the conflict is notched upwards, the populace requires more from any given coping mechanism and the system is strained. “Like all stories involving real princes and princesses, there wasn’t a lot of happily ever after.”

Allusions made to industries designed to compensate for this kind of intense stress and sorrow crystallize in this volume, with readers gaining access to working behind-the-scenes of just such an endeavour.

“Open Circuit” exists “to pacify an angry and hopeless population”. Here readers meet an ex-wife mentioned briefly in the series’ second volume, demonstrating that these storytellers are patient, willing to allow their stories to unfold over many installments.

Now that readers have some sense of the main characters’ family backgrounds (albeit imbalanced) and a clear sense of the official conflict, including all the jargon which represents members on each side of the conflict (a Landfallian might also be called a ‘wingnut’, a resident of Wreath a ‘moony’), the conflict can broaden and intensify.

Vaughan Staples Saga FiveAfter all, “the whole point of having enemies abroad is getting to ignore the ones back home”. Politics simmers beneath the series as a whole but now readers are invited to peek behind the curtains, to glimpse quieter revolutionaries whose sacrifices are not necessarily newsworthy.

Previous volumes have also included images of bookplates in the supplementary materials which follow the comics, but those included here (particularly of Ghüs) are brilliantly bookish. (A set would be just lovely! Okay, even one.)

Throughout the series there are casualties and betrayals (some accidental, some deliberate). In the earlier volumes, readers were unprepared for these losses, unable to judge the depth of pain related to them for some of the characters who were profoundly affected by them.

In the fifth volume, readers are as attached as the characters, now forced to face not only the loss but forced to tease out the differences in their nature, to consider – for instance – the difference between rebellion and revolution.

Questions loom. Whether/when to take a life. Who bears the lion’s share of suffering in war. These are ultimately unanswerable, but the story continues to play with possibiliities, developing on more than one level to afford readers multiple entrances to the fundamental philosophical questions bubbling beneath.

Vaughan Staples Saga Six“Every relationship is an education.” The cast broadens, so that readers meet Halvor (brother to “The Stalk”) and Quain (Captain of the Fourth Cell) and other planets are named also. In the sixth volume, a doctor and teacher are introduced. Whether or not such “new” characters will play prominent roles in the story ahead remains to be seen.

The sixth volume introduces a prison once more (echoing the prison in which Marcus was held in the first volume). The prison industrial complex introduces another layer of ever-present conflict. But this is not a binary conflict; alliances are unpredictable and there is fluidity where one might expect rigidity (and vice versa).

A young Hazel discovers a storybook which she remembers being read to her, a relic from her past (even though she is still a young girl), with which the writers remind readers that “anyone who thinks one book has all the answers hasn’t read enough books”.

Trust remains a cornerstone of the story. When someone says that you can tell them anything, to what extent do they mean it? What happens to good intentions when pressure intensifies?

The threat (and support) is not always immediately clear. One might only see it in a reflection in someone’s eyeglasses, rather than clearly presented in a panel of its own.

“Families are goddamn wildfires.” This opens the seventh volume but could have easily opened any one of them, as family is at the heart of this saga. This volume ends, however, in an unpredictable way: a series of black pages. But this is wartime, remember?

Staples Saga SevenNone of the threats of extinction in this volume are faceless (although what constitutes a face is more open-concept than in some graphic novels), but the most disturbing scenes are of the one-on-one violence (also: two-headed one-on-one violence).

Ironically, less of the story in this volume is page-turning conflict; rather, there are a number of broader threats, which readers become aware of, but the focus is the impact of this news on the characters more so than the events themselves (but the story does still unfold in view and remains entertaining).

Questions of belief and homeland, belonging and identity, transitioning and extinguishing, addiction and rehabilitation flourish: things are messy here.

Until now, Hazel has been so young that it’s been easy to overlook the coming-of-age aspect of the series. As a narrator, she has already come of age, and that’s what has enabled the tale-telling. But it’s easy to fall into Hazel’s accounting as though it’s real-time. Now, as a character, she is old enough to make decisions which are dramatically affecting the course of events.

Drawing attention to this process, is the experience of another young girl who was rescued earlier in the series from a life of servitude, who is just a little older than Hazel; she faces a decision regarding her apprenticeship, which reminds readers that everyone here – even Alana and Marco – once made crucial decisions like this one, long ago, changing the course of their lives. And Hazle is not far removed from this kind of juncture.

(Of course, Alana and Marco’s relationship, their decision to start a family is the most obvious example, not only fundamental to their experience but to the series as a whole. Otherwise, Hazel would not exist as a narrator!)

Observing this decision from a young person’s perspective is an excellent reminder that significant shfits sometimes carry an ominous sense of corner-turning with them. But, not always. In this volume, a series of small decisions are made, revolving around larger issues, which leave emotional marks, and readers can expect to feel the sting in future volumes.

Have you been following this series as well? Do you have a favourite character or plot-line?

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Margaret Millar’s How Like an Angel (1962)

Exploring in the back country of Santa Barbara County California, Margaret Millar discovered a group of abandoned buildings on top of a ridge of the Santa Ynez mountains. The view was incredible: the Pacific Ocean, the Santa Ynez valley, Lake Cachuma, and the San Rafael mountains, along with a main lodge, out-buildings, and a tower.

collected-millar-mysteries-oneHer friend, George Hammond, said “So start your own”, when she said that she didn’t know anything about cults, and How Like an Angel is what issued from the idea that these buildings had been last occupied by a mystic and George Hammond’s challenge.

Readers discover the landscape for themselves when Quinn is dropped off at “nowhere”, having hitched a ride to San Felice.

The driver suggests that Quinn must be from the eastern United States, if he thinks 45 miles is a long way away. In California, that’s close by. Distance is something else: open space is commonplace.

So, here’s Quinn, 45 miles from his destination, with The Tower being the only source of food and drink nearby.

“It’s a — well, sort of a self-contained little community,” his driver explains.

Quinn is correct to jump to the idea of religion, but the fellow doesn’t share much information (partly because he’s never been there himself, but partly because Quinn is resisting the idea and the fellow has no intention of driving out of his way).

Even after Quinn arrives at the Tower, however, he remains unclear as to the community’s organization and key tenets.

  “When the sound of its engine died out, there was absolute silence. Not a bird chirped, not a branch swished in the wind. It was an experience Quinn had never had before and he wondered for a minute if he’d suddenly gone deaf from hunger and lack of sleep and the heat of the sun.
He had never much liked the sound of his own voice but it seemed very good to him then, he wanted to hear more, to spread it out and fill the silence.
‘My name is Joe Quinn. Joseph Rudyard Quinn, but I don’t tell anyone about the Rudyard. Yesterday I was in Reno. I had a job, a car, clothes, a girlfriend. Today I’m in the middle of nowhere with nothing and nobody.’”

The point: this community is isolated. The tower itself also hints at the idea of a hierarchy, a desire to reach towards the heavens, and a search for something deemed sacred. (Later, the tower takes on a more practical significance in the story.) But readers are meant to observe, above all, the sense of nothing-ness.

Closer to the end of the novel, Quinn’s observations remain much the same. (That’s ‘closer’ as defined by a reader who neither inhabits the east nor the west of the continent, but somewhere in the middle where there is very little nothing to be heard.)

“Nothing seemed to have changed since Quinn’s first visit. The cattle grazed in the pasture, tails to the wind; the goats were still tethered to the manzanita tree, and the sheep in their log pen stared incuriously at the car as it passed. Even the spot on the path where Quinn had met [someone] earlier in the day bore no traces of the encounter, no drops of blood, no footprints. Oak leaves and pine needles had drifted over it, and the dark orange flakes of madrone bark that looked like cinnamon. The forest had hidden its records as effectively as the sea.”

These circumstances are perfect for concealment, but How Like an Angel is about the process of shining a light into dark corners. Quinn is intelligent and curious; he tells himself to stop asking questions, but he yearns for the answers anyhow.

In the community established around The Tower, however, identities are slippery. People shed names and histories like second skins, having arrived at an opportunity for a fresh start. Quinn is intrigued by the relationships in the community, but although those remain significant, the setting (geographic and relational) serves to highlight other relationships which surface as he searches for answers.

Even though these relationshps are the same sort which created such a tight net in Margaret Millar’s other mysteries (particularly An Air That Kills and Wives and Lovers), there is a sense of sprawl in this  story, framed by the setting and Quinn’s solitary journey, which shifts the focus just enough for a truly surprising ending.

Dusty and gritty, How Like an Angel explores new territory, searches for another kind of wilderness, but maintains the author’s interest in psychology and the strange intensity of intimate relationships and those in which other kinds of power dynamics play out.

There are two more Margaret Millar mysteries in this volume and I am currently reading The Fiend. What’s the last mystery that you read? Or, what’s the next one in your stack?

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Life on Mars, Again and Again

When you’ve looked up a book title, have you ever been tempted by the other books you’ve found with the same title as the book for which you were searching?

In adding Lori McNulty’s debut short story collection to my online TBR list, I discovered several other books with the same title, including Tracy K. Smith’s poetry, Jon Agee’s children’s book and Jennifer Brown’s middle-grade novel.

Smith Life on MarsLori McNulty actually offers “Evidence of Life on Mars” while Tracy K. Smith suggests “The Universe is a House Party”.

Jennifer Brown’s novel includes Morse code for “We come in peace” and Jon Agree supplies a box of chocolate cupcakes. (Well, of course.)

The poetry collection heads straight for the psychological territory that one might expect.

The titles of the poems are filled with wonderment and curiosity. Tracy K. Smith considers “The Largeness We Can’t See” and “The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack”. (This is doubly appropriate as the notes explain that the collection’s title is courtesy of the David Bowie song.)

“Tina says what if dark matter is like the space between people
When what holds them together isn’t exactly love, and I think
That sounds right – how strong the pull can be, as if something
That knows better won’t let you drift apart so easily, and how
Small and heavy you feel, stuck there spinning in place.”

These poems feel more like narrative than lyric; as a prose reader, I am immediately comfortable. The ideas simmering beneath these poems are the same kind of ideas that bubble up in the novels and stories I gobble more readily than poems. If this is outer space, I can snuggle in.

Upstairs at the StrandIn Upstairs at the Strand: Writers in Conversation at the Legendary Bookstore (2016), Tracy K. Smith speaks with Tina Chang. When asked if there are some poems in the collection which were harder to write than others, she switches gears to discuss ones that were harder to read, including one which she doesn’t think she’s ever read for an audience.

She digresses to describe the experience of reading from the collection knowing that someone else in the audience actually knew her father (was, in fact, her father’s girlfriend of twelve years, who happened to be visiting New York), given her struggle to come to terms with his death through these poems, being accustomed to sharing that experience only with people who only “knew” her father via these poems.

She explains that “there are some poems in the book about family that are a litte bit hard” and specifically references “No Fly Zone” which made her say some things that she had “always tried to swallow”.

If these are poems about Mars, they also are about the strangeness which makes us Earthlings cozy up together (and makes us mourn when the dark matter takes hold).

Jon Agee’s story is written for younger readers, or for older readers who appreciate illustrations as much as text. Our protagonist is, nonetheless, an explorer who has questions about the world around him.

Agee Life on Mars“I am on Mars. I hve traveled a long way from Earth. I am here to find life.” He is seeking life on Mars, and he has brought a box of chocolate cupcakes as a housewarming (planetwarming) gift.

The story is simple, with only a few words on each page. Our protagonist is not distracted from his goal for even one moment. In this way, he bears a similarity to the poet and all of the other seekers here.

Jon Agee’s Life on Mars provides readers with a perfect example of irony (in a double-spread), as well as a playful resolution which invites more questions.

Jennifer Brown’s middle-grade novel Life on Mars offers a blurb which focuses on “The Astronaut”, “The Mission” and “The Hypothesis”. Arty comes from a family of scientists, you see, and his name is Arcturus Betelgeuse Chambers. The geek factor is off the charts and he’s not even trying.

Also seemingly effortless is the goofy and funny tone of the story. True, some of the jokes will go over better with the middle-grade crowd (which is as it should be) but it’s not all talk of boogers; there are little bits for the grown-ups too, as when Arty describes how his “best memories get all boogered up”.

At the heart of the story is an unexpected friendship, which is sweetly satisfying without crossing into full-blown-saccharine territory; the connection might seem a little too-good-to-be-true, but it isn’t all sweetness-and-light either, because not everything works out brilliantly.

Brown Life on MarsThere are Fun Facts about Mars at the end of the book and fun chapter headings too (like “Total Eclipse of the Mom” and “The Big Scream Theory”). So, even though I’m not super science-y, I loved these parts of the story and immediately thought of readers (young and old) who would enjoy the story.

Speaking of stories, you might remember that it was Lori McNulty’s collection of stories which started all of this.

Previously, her work has appeared in some top-notch Canadian literary journals (the Dalhousie Review, DESCANT, Fiddlehead and the New Quarterly) and been nominated for the Journey Prize (for “Monsoon Season” and “Fingernecklace”).

The short story is an ideal medium for this author, who delights in trying on a variety of narrative voices and peeking into the dark corners of this planet. No need, really, to look beyond Earth for strange and unexpected things. A number of her characters feel at odds with the world around them, as though they belong somewhere else entirely, but are forced to find their own niche.

She explores the voice of addiction in New York City.

“The piano notes strike up bright orange hues, are climbing a Technicolor pedestal in Tu’s skull.” (“Two Bucks from Brooklyn”)

And of a young widow in Calgary.

“Until I met Marcus, I was half done, like a foam cake bent on not rising, though you whip, you whip.” (“Battle of the Bow”)

She plays with geography and classic novels, peering into Middle of the Road High School, which is situated at the end of Suburban Sprawl Lane, and through the lens of Italo Calvino’s masterpiece, in a story titled “If on a Winter’s Night a Badger”.

“In the dissolving moonlight, under a starry wilderness, the only thing that matters now is to continue reading. Don’t let your attention drift. The fragments and fallen crumbs will pull you apart, may abandon you in places. Read on. The good part is coming.”

McNulty Life on Mars

Goose Lane Editions, 2017

The language is simple and rarely dips into figurative territory (but sometimes claws do emerge unexpectedly in the story and rice could smell “like buttered bones”).

For the most part, the emphasis is on the invitation: the invitation to inhabit another’s skin, if only for a few pages. Also for the most part, this isn’t entirely uncomfortable.

In “Monsoon Season”: “Her long legs draped to a perfect patent-leather point on the floor.”

But they are not so uncomfortable as to leave the reader breathless either.

In one story, for instance, two siblings plot an escape from an abusive family life. It’s a touching relationship – messed-up and believable – like an episode of “Shameless” but with Canadian content – and some ugly things happen, but the resolution offers a potential transformation. It might be good, it might not be, but it’s an offering to the reader, a chance to slip off a pair of patent-leather pumps underneath the table while the conversation continues.

These stories don’t carry the grit of some contemporary collections (like Shawn Syms’) or overwhelming darkness (like Elaine McCluskey’s). Yes, in one story, there’s this: “His head a red planet, light screaming through his skull. Gus said the meds were like sparks shooting off.” But, also this: “The smell comforts him, in a quiet way, as dawn breaks between glass and steel, bathing Yonge Street in fractured yellow hues.”

The stories do not vary dramatically in style (like Cherie Dimaline’s) although they do not possess a homogeneous voice either (like K.D. Miller’s). Instead, there are fine threads connecting the stories – a focus on the elements and a glimpse of the faraway – but the reader can take time with the collection, allow time to unfold between the stories, and resituate themself upon return, gazing upwards, musing.

“Cold as this grey day in February. Cold as the dark side of Mars. Cold as a fist of raw hamburger in the freezer. Cold as dissected brain tissue on the coroner’s table.” (“Ticker”)

“On the farm at night you could see the Milky Way like a giant, hazy pinwheel. Sometimes even Mars, outshining all the stars.” (“Gindelle of the Abbey”)

Contents: Evidence of Life on Mars, Battle of the Bow, Fingernecklace, If on a Winter’s Night a Badger, Monsoon Season, WOOF, Last Down, Prey, Gindelle of the Abbey, Polymarpussle Takes a Chance, Two Bucks from Brooklyn, Ticker

Have you been to another planet in your reading lately? Literally or figuratively?

Which of these would be most likely to transport you elsewhere?

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Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine (1984)

“Since writing Love Medicine, I have understood that I am writing one long book in which the main chapters are also books titled Tracks, Four Souls, The Bingo Palace, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse and The Painted Drum. The characters appear and disappear in my consciousness – a lamentable, messy place.”

Erdrich Love Medicine

My fourth Erdrich novel of 2017

This is not a linear story; it meanders across time and space, readers must scurry to catch the threads and hold them in a way in which one could weave with them.

Love Medicine was originally published in 1984, but the author has revised it twice. In 1995, two sections were added like short stories. In 2009, one of those was removed completely and the other appears in an appendix.

The work feels episodic, but readers are situated more clearly than the table of contents suggests; in a list, the sections appear cohesive, as though the chapters are simply named. As readers encounter them in the book, however, each section begins with a character’s name (also, sometimes, a date).

Emotionally, Love Medicine is rooted in 1981, spiralling around June Morrissey’s death. The circumstances of her death were notorious but even more remarkable are the ripples outwards, primarily surrounding the identity of her two sons, one who is acknowledged outwardly to be her son (King) and one whom everyone knows to be her son (Lipsha, who was adopted by Nector and Marie Kashpaw).

There is a lot of disconnect in this novel, even beyond its structure. From the first few pages. “It was that moment, that one moment, of realizing you were totally empty. He must have felt that. Sometimes, alone in her room in the dark, she thought she knew what it might be like.”

Mothers are disconnected from their children (sometimes willingly), spouses from each other, as well as lovers and siblings. People are disconnected from the land (rarely willingly). Politics is disconnected from the people (decisions are made on paper, not in the context of relationships).

There is also a lot of conflict. Inward and outward. Consider Marie Lazarre’s situation in 1934: “And I looked white. But I wanted Sister Leopolda’s heart. And here was the thing: sometimes I wanted her heart in love and admiration. Sometimes. And sometimes I wanted her heart to roast on a black stick.”

The majority of the story revolves around the experiences of the women in the community, however, even when it appears otherwise. Lulu Lamartine’s perspective, offered from 1989, illustrates that:

“I’m going to tell you about the men. There were times I let them in just for being part of the world. I believe that angels in the body make us foreign to ourselves when touching. In this way I’d slip my body to earth, like a heavy sack, and for a few moments I would blend in with all that forced my heart. There was this one man I kept trying to forget. The handsome, distinguished man who burnt my house down. He did it after I got married the third and last time. The fire balded me completely. I doubt I’ll ever marry again.”

Because even though the women’s voices are strong, their stories often revolve around the experiences of the men they love (and hate). But this passage also reveals other key aspects in Love Medicine.

First, this is all about storytelling, about what one character is going to tell you about another (or about themselves): no pretense.

Next, there can be a mix of emotions – even conflicting emotions, as was true, too, in Marie’s feelings about Sister Leopolda – which complicates the telling. So, those men, being part of the world: does she let them in because of admiration or resignation, envy or fear? All or none, or some other reason entirely?

Here, the earthly and the sacred intertwine. There are heartful burdens borne and sorrows best forgotten, as well as tragedies and transformations. Destruction and devastation, too, but a narrow space left for hope and possibility as well.

Love Medicine is a difficult story, fragmented but not hopeless. It certainly secures my interest in this cycle of tales, but next, I’m reading Chickadee, one of the sequence of books for younger readers. Then, The Beet Queen.

Do you have any interconnected novels on your stacks these days?

My Louise Erdrich Reading Project (2017-2018)
Tracks
 (1988)
Four Souls (2004)
Love Medicine (1984)
The Beet Queen (1986)
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001) *Reread
The Bingo Palace (1994) *Reread
Tales of Burning Love (1997)
The Antelope Wife (1998)
The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003)
The Painted Drum (2005)
The Plague of Doves (2008)
Shadow Tag (2010)
The Round House (2012)
LaRose (2016)

Also, Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country (2003)

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2017 Africa Reading Challenge

Even though Canada only has a land mass of 9.985 million km², reading works by Canadian writers comprises more than half of my reading.

Meanwhile, Africa has a land mass of 30.37 million km² and less than 1% of my reading has come from the pens of African writers this year.

Africa Reading ChallengeCurious about that less-than-1%? It’s Téju Cole‘s Everyday is for the Thief (and Cole now lives in Brooklyn, so I’m not sure if everyone would consider him an African writer, although this novel in particular is set entirely in Nigeria, whereas Open City had a NYC setting).

Even though writers of colour comprise 39% of my reading this year, only one book of those books has been set in Africa.

And even though the United Nations counts 54 countries in Africa, I have read one book set in one of them in 2017.

Let’s consider this in terms of population: Canada in 2015 contained 35.85 million, whereas Africa in 2016 contained 1.216 billion.

Which means that, in terms of land mass, if less than 1% of my reading was from African pens and minds, then comparing my related reading habits in terms of population, between my home country and the African continent, I must be looking at a negative number here. (If you’re math-y, feel free to jump in. There will be decimals, I’m sure.)

And clearly, if I want to fill this gap, it’s not just going to happen.(Last year? African authors comprised less than 1% of my reading as well, including some Chinua Achebe and Nurudin Farah along with other African writers now living elsewhere.)

The choices on bookstore and library shelves are not going to correct this imbalance without an effort.

The recommendations from publishers and booksellers and readers are not going to magically adjust these stats.

If I want to read more books by African writers, I’m going to have to make a point of it.

The library branch in Little Jamaica has a more colourful collection than some, including a special Black and Caribbean Heritage collection. (Dust is one I pulled from those shelves.)

It is not my neighbourhood branch, but it’s not too much further to walk there, about twenty minutes rather than ten.

Anyway, I was itching for a copy of the first volume of the autobiographical trilogy by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, which was on their shelves. (Having read only Téju Cole this year, it’s unlikely that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o would naturally fall into my stack.)

A few years ago I attended an event which considered the writing of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Brian Chikava and Carole Enahoro, with a moderator posing a series of questions to this varied panel; ever since, I’ve meant to read something by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o but it became one of those “someday” ideas. (And when I say “few”, it’s probably more like ten years.)

But, suddenly, it’s a “now” idea because I have been reading Maya Angelou’s autobiographies this year and am freshly intrigued by the idea of multiple volumes of memories. As I am about to begin reading her fifth, I was longing to see how another writer might approach this kind of project. (I’d dabbled in Doris Lessing’s two volumes, but I can’t think of other multi-volume autobiographies, besides that massive set of Mark Twain volumes – and maybe those are diaries. Suggestions?)

Kinna’s Africa Reading Challenge actually requires only five books, a list which would be immediatley shortened if I enjoy the work of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o because he has completed three volumes in his autobiographical writings. However, I also plan to include the three books fanned on top of this library stack (I’m trying to read from my own shelves as well as the library shelves).

So I’m aiming to read more than five. (That’s what I read in my last less-than-one-percent year anyway.) Which might also include the two leaning books here, which are about Africa but not written by African writers (supplementary reading, not challenge reading).

So far, the only book in the stack which I have read is Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door (which I’ll discuss in more detail soon). Recently longlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize, it’s a quietly mesmerizing story of two South African women who were determined not to be friends, each carrying her own baggage as her life on one side of the colour line sprawls into unfamiliar territory (emotional and geographical).

I’m not sure which of the other books pictured here will nudge their way from the stacks-in-the-wings to the seriously-underway-and-actually-reading stack, but this is only a first browsing. If you have comments or suggestions about any of these (or others which would fit this challenge), do share.

Meantime, I’m enjoying the possibilities. Once upon a time, I would read maybe one short story collection a year, and thanks to the advice of Mavis Gallant (in short: leave time between reading each story) and lots of exploring, story collections now comprise a significant portion of my reading.

Time to exercise another reading muscle. Have you been exercising a new reading muscle recently? Or, planning to?

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Mazo de la Roche’s Morning at Jalna (1960)

Although the last of the Jalna books written, Morning at Jalna is only the second in the sequence.

It is set while the civil war is raging in the southern United States, and readers are immediately informed that the Whiteoaks are sympathetic to the southerners.

Mazo de la Roche Morning at JalnaIn school, during the 1970s and the 1980s, I was taught that the American Civil War was fought between the south – which was in favour of slavery, and the north – which was against slavery. As a schoolgirl, I was convinced that this was a war between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions.

Now the issue is recognised as a conflict over state and federal rights, in which the south believed that states should be able to form their own stance on issues like slavery (e.g. property-related issues) and the north believed that these decisions should be made at the federal level.

So that rather than a pro-slavery/anti-slavery conflict which focussed on morals, the conflict actually circled around the economic risks of the southern states seceding, with policies about slavery only coming under discussion later, when it became expedient to shift the focus to gain greater consensus. (I’m not sure the curriculum has changed much, however.)

It makes sense that the privileged Whiteoaks would be supportive of the landowners, echoing the principles of self-determination and independence which so many settlers pursued.

It’s unsurprising that they would be sympathetic to the Sinclair family, which is seeking asylum and working to organize resistance from north of the border. (They have even brought some of their slaves with them, because of course they cannot imagine life without them.)

From the perspective of the story’s setting, readers are reminded just how tentative the peace around the border appeared to be. The Sinclair family is afraid they will lose their inheritance and their livelihood, and the Whiteoak family fears a similar threat with a potential American invasion (1812 was not so long ago). Characters predict that the Yankees’ aggression is unstoppable; without active resistance, the Whiteoaks will be American citizens in short order.

From the perspective of the author’s writing, however, the novel is drafted in the heart of the Cold War, in which the relationship between Canada and the United States is characterized by union and interdependence, with the Civil War being viewed solely as a matter of morals, with the knowledge of the Union’s victory over the Confederacy a fact. (The work was published in 1960, and was apparently written quickly, compared to her other novels, so perhaps 1959?)

When Curtis Sinclair’s resistance activities swell, neighbours who are fervently against slavery become more vocal about their disapproval of the Whiteoak family’s hosting of the southerners. Philip resents the interference, claming that he does not support slavery but nobody should dare to choose his friends.

The Whiteoaks do not have slaves; they have staff. They are not comfortable hosting the three slaves who accompany the Sinclairs. However, these characters (two female, one male) assure the Whiteoaks that they do not wish to be free, only wish to return to their home with the Sinclairs (some to family, also to service).

Morning at Jalna2Mazo de la Roche does attempt to develop these characters, especially Belle, with detail and intensity; Belle’s religious fervour and her devotion are noteworthy. However, these three are most often discussed as a group (“the blacks”) and their engagement with the other characters is unpredictable.

Curtis Sinclair’s attempts to reassure his wife, Lucy, of his plan for their future, which involve monies to be paid, result in his directing her to rely upon Jerry, the male slave. He can be relied upon to shoulder this responsibility and make the necessary purchases and payments which confuse Lucy even before those events transpire.

Perhaps that is the most progressive element of this not-so-progressive story, the sense that some effort has been made to complicate characterization.

For instance, the Whiteoaks’ neighbour dispproves of Tite, simply on the grounds that he is a “half-breed”, but he is forced to reevaluate when Tite informs him of Curtis Sinclair’s subversive activities in the woods.

Mazo de la Roche is willing to include exceptions in these stories, but they remain exceptional, which maintains the stereotype as a status quo.

“You have boasted of your noble blood. Yet – here you are, proposing to marry a mulatto.”
“Belle is not black, or brown, or even yellow,” Tite said proudly. ‘She has the eyes of a white woman.'”

Just as the working-class woman fell in love with baby Gussie on the voyage to the “New World” and wanted to care for her more than her own babies. Just as Belle and Cindy and Jerry beg to return to their homes as slaves in the south, when the Sinclairs speak of their future. Just as Tite dallies with Belle but aspires to win a white woman’s heart.

The underlying question of supremacy is not progressive at all and the exceptions remain just that.

Although set on a precipice during wartime and named for promise and anticipation, Morning at Jalna is a very traditional novel.

Like Gone with the Wind, it might have been a bestseller, satisfying many readers wholly and completely, but fear and uncertainty colour the tale irrevocably for contemporary readers.

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Adding to My Indigenous Reading List

When I was musing on the possibilities for a reading list of indigenous authors, almost all of my favourites were fiction (just one memoir and some poetry snuck in). It just happened! But halfway through the reading year, I read the Summary Report of the Truth and Reconcilation Committee with my reading for the Tenth Annual Canadian Challenge, and knew that I needed to read more non-fiction like it.

Taylor Me FunnyThen, four volumes of poetry by Marilyn Dumont snuck in before I pulled a variety of other books from the shelf to try to mend the gap.  First up was Me Funny (2006), an anthology compiled and edited by Drew Hayden Taylor.

“One Big Indian” by Allan J. Ryan, “Teasing, Tolerating, Teaching: Laughter and Community in Native Literature” by Kristina Fagan, “And Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, Get Ready for Some (Ab)Original Stand-up Comedy” by Don Kelly, “Whacking the Indigenous Funny Bone: Political Correctness vs. Native Humour, Round One” by Drew Hayden Taylor, “Cree-atively Speaking” by Janice Acoose and Natasha Beeds, “Canadian Native Playwrights’ Winning Weapon of Resistance” by Mirjam Hirch, “How To Be as Funny as an Indian” by Ian Ferguson, “Buffalo Tales and Academic Trails” by Karen Froman, “Ruby Lips” by Louise Profeit-Leblanc, “Why Cree Is the Funniest of All Languages” by Tomson Highway, and “The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour” by Thomas King.

Even without glimpsing the text, you might get a sense of the variety of materials herein, and the tone of the pieces varies dramatically as well. There are proper essays and actual jokes: the link is the content.

In one instance, you are reading footnotes and rereading sentences and reaching for a dictionary, and in another you are coasting through a stand-up routine and reaching for another beer. (Yes, whether or not it’s funny, to have beer play a role in native comedy: that comes up. More than once.)

Reading this over the course of several weeks, one essay at a time with plenty of space around each, the variety was stimulating and inspiring; if I had read it in a single sitting, I might have found it disorienting, but instead it made me think and it made me laugh (in equal measures).

Sellars They called me number oneAlso provoking a variety of emotions, was Bev Sellars’ memoir They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School (2015).

One aspect of this memoir which stands out is her grappling with the positive experiences she had at residential school, which carry their own emotional weight because they cannot be separated from the horrifying aspects of her experience and, yet, they are valid.

She developed solid friendships with some other students (one, in particular, who began as her protector) and some of her teachers showed sincerity and kindness (she even witnessed one teacher openly chastise another for using the strap, threatening the abuser’s own physical safety if he continued to use it).

Experiences shared with other survivors’ tales include personal affects being stripped as soon as the children arrived at school (e.g. traditional clothing), punishments for speaking their mother tongues, fabricated letters sent to family to report positive experiences, numbness replacing the pain which is perpetrated, abuse of all kinds (including night-time horrors), and youth suicides and mysterious deaths. But Bev Sellars’ decision to share a variety of experiences might broaden readers’ understanding in an unexpected way.

The legacy of pain and sadness remains, and in some ways the description of the happier moments only makes those aspects of her memoir that much more painful. Yes, they did have fun on weekends, and there were games and sports which allowed some students access to travel and to experiences which they would not have had if they have been raised with their parents. It creates a fuller picture of the students’ everyday lives, but it does not detract from the abuse and the systematic efforts to destroy her people. The photographs she shares also add tremendously to readers’ understanding.

Our Story IndigenousOur Story: Aboriginal Voices on Canada’s Past (2004) includes pieces by Tantoo Cardinal, Tomson Highway, Basil Johnston, Thomas King, Brian Maracle, Lee Maracle, Jowette Marchessault, Rachel A. Qitsualik and Drew Hayden Taylor.

The first piece is the perfect opener, Brian Maracle’s retelling of the Rotinonhsyón:ni (also known as the people of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy) Creation story, “The First Words”. It is an excellent reminder that setting the record straight is not simply a matter of including other voices, of allowing other voices (which have been silenced) the opportunity to speak their truths.

The very language which we use to enlarge our understanding and which we recognise as a tool and a means of insight must also be flexible, must to open to change. There is only one word for ‘we’ in English, for instance, but four words for ‘we’ in the Rotinonhsyón:ni language, which reveals the culture’s focus on people and relationships (correspondingly, less emphasis on nouns and things and objects). ‘We’ (a relatively exclusionary ‘we’, such as it is) must peer closely, ask questions and pay attention.

Beyond this piece, the volume contains works by two of my MRE (MustReadEverything) authors, so of course that was a treat. But less familar to me was the voice of Rachel A. Qitsualik, whose work I’ve only peeked at before, in a collection of frightening Inuit tales. In “Skraeling”, readers explore a “possible meeting” between the “dogsledding progenitors of Inuit (‘Thule’) culture out of Alaska” and their “now-extinct cousins, the Tunit (‘Dorset’)” on the eastern edge of Baffin Island. The darkness is a background thrum to this tale, compelling readers to turn the pages steadily, almost relentlessly.

Understanding a people is only possible when a reader wants to understand, is willing to live with them for a time, she explains. “And a story is the ultimate magic by which this may occur.”

These are fictionalized versions of historical events deemed culturally significant by community members. Some of them feel more like stories whereas others feel more like accounts: each one contributes to a different understanding of what has passed for these peoples. They move across history chronologically, from the creation tale to Drew Hayden Taylor’s Oka-inspired (Kanesatake-inspired) story of the later 20th century.

“Boy, that Coyote likes to tell stories. Sometimes he tells stories that smell bad. Sometimes he tells stories that have been stretched. Sometimes he tells stories that bite your toes. Coyote stories.” (Thomas King, of course!)

Scofield Thunder Through My VeinsGregory Scofield’s Thunder Through My Veins: Memories of a Metis Childhood (1999) was blurbed by Tomson Highway as “inspirational” and by Sharon Butala as “gracefully written, and very moving”.

His prose style is simple, unadorned. “In Cree, the story I am about to tell would be called achee-mow-win, which loosely translates to the telling of an everyday story, experience, or happening.” (In contrast to, say, ah-tay-yow-kun, creation stories.)

Carefully, he delineates his position. “I am neither victim nor oppressor. The choices I have made in my adult life are mine alone. I blame only myself for the shame, anger, pity, and success that I have allowed. I speak for no one community, although my heartland, my ancestral and spiritual homeland, is among the scrub poplar and wolf willow rustling along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River, the fiddle as it echoes through the empty coulees at Batoche – the very place where my ancestors fought to keep our nation alive.”

His story is arranged chronologically, so that there are fewer details about his early years. “I remember very little except for the howling of the huskies, the long nights, and the frightening blackness that seemed to envelop my five-year-old world.”

Nonetheless, from the time of writing, he is able to trace some developments much further in the past than his own existence. Of particular interest are the attempts and successes of various family members whose identity remains unclear. “Thus began a life of lies and secrecy for many mixed-blood people.”

He found great strength in the words of other writers who were asking questions about their own identities, their places in society. “I searched out books by Native writers and read them with a new sensibility, a new recognition and appreciation. I read such books as Beatrice Culleton’s In Search of April Raintree, Howard Adams’s Prison of Grass, and Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters. I re-read Maria Campbell’s Half-Breed.”

Thunder Through My Veins was published the year after Gregory Scofield won the Canadian Authors’ Association Award for the most promising writer; now, he is an established poet and writer, whose books are likely discovered with as much intensity as the classics he was once so grateful to find on the shelves.

After reading his memoir, I was inspired to seek out Witness, I Am (2016) and Love Medicine and One Song (2002), two books of poetry. Witness, I Am includes poems written mainly in English but infused with some Cree phrases, including the anchoring work, “Muskrat Woman”, which is terrific (especially read in concert with Brian Maracle’s story in Our Story). In Love Medicine and One Song, Cree is sprinkled throughout the poems as well, most of which are shorter and more lyrical than the later works.

The fiction I’ve read for this challenge includes: Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls, Paul Seesequasis’ Tobacco Wars, Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat, Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie, Richard VanCamp’s collection of stories, Angel Wing Splash Pattern and Hope Nicholson’s edited collection of comics, Moonshot.

Have you read any of these? Anything on your TBR list? Which do you think would appeal to you most? What indigenous author did you last read?

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Mavis Gallant’s “A Day Like Any Other” (1953)

There is less than a year between Jane and Ernestine Kennedy, young sisters who “resemble little Renoirs”. They live with their mother, Mrs. Kennedy, who is so preoccupied with caring for their father, that the girls have a minder, Frau Stengel (their sixth).

Jane Wyman in “Das Herz Einer Mutti” 1951 Click for source details

Jane Wyman in “Das Herz Einer Mutti” 1951Click for source details

Frau Stengel has already seen the movie “Das Herz Einer Mutti” twice already. As a governess, it’s easy to see why she would have been drawn to this film, which chronicles the difficulties of a life caring for others but ultimately rewards its heroine’s service.

The girls’ governess cries a lot. “She lived a cozy, molelike existence in her room on the attic floor of the hotel, surrounded by crocheted mats, stony satin cushions, and pictures of kittens cut from magazines. Her radio, which was never still, filled the room with soupy operetta melodies, many of which reminded Frau Stengel of happier days and made her cry.”

But she has her reasons. “Frau Stengel and her husband had lived in Prague, where Herr Stengel, who now worked at some inferior job in a nearby town, had been splendidly situated until the end of the war, and then the Czechs sent them packing. They had left everything behind – all the tablecloths, the little coffee spoons!”

She is lucky to have such lovely charges. “Their charm, after all, was not entirely the work of nature; one’s character was just as important as one’s face, and the girls, thanks to their mother’s vigilance on their behalf, were as unblemished, as removed from the world and its coarsening effects, as their guileless faces suggested.”

But not everyone views the family so purely. In fact, there is some nasty gossip about the girls in the community, whispers of their being both German and adopted, which would have shocked Mrs. Kennedy.

Without a husband on hand, this is exactly the kind of misunderstanding to which the Kennedy family is vulnerable.

“Mr. Kennedy seldom saw his daughters. The rules of the private clinics he frequented were all in his favor. In any case, he seldom asked to see the girls, for he felt that they were not at an interesting age. Wistfully, his wife sometimes wondered when their interesting age would begin – when they were old enough to be sent away to school, perhaps, or, better still, safely disposed of in the handsome marriages that gave her so much concern.”

In the meantime, while they remain uninteresting, the girls are cared for by governesses. (It’s subtle, but amusing, that the rules of the clinics are described as being in Mr. Kennedy’s favour. Mavis Gallant is not all vinegar: she certainly does have a sense of humour.)

“The children were much too pretty to be taxed with lessons; Frau Stengel gave them film magazines to look at and supervised them contentedly, rocking and filing her nails.”

Mrs. Kennedy spends her days keeping her husband company and reading him the novels of Upton Sinclair (specifically the Lanny Budd novels).

Perhaps Lanny Budd’s character was appealing to Mr. Kennedy, who moved around Europe in search of a cure. Lanny Budd was charismatic and agreeable, managing to get along with everybody, regardless of differences between them.

Certainly his little girls are charismatic and wholly appealing and pretty. Right up until the moment when they are not. When they tax Frau Stengel mercilessly.

To be fair, they taxed her first. But what with the loss of her coffee spoons and, perhaps even more importantly, the loss of Herr Stengel (who mysteriously works in another town, unseen, unreal), Frau Stengel is in no mood to be trifled with.

When the girls make a joke about their father having died, they cross a line. They make their own sense of the world, and they make their own rules too.

And even though they ask Frau Stengel questions, they clearly doubt her capacity. Perhaps it’s all the crying.

Lanny Budd novel by Upton Sinclair Gallant

One of the Lanny Budd novels

“For them, God was the catch-all answer to most of life’s perplexities. ‘Who makes this rain?’
Jane had once asked Frau Stengel.
‘God,’ she had replied cozily.
‘So that we can’t play outside?’
‘He makes the sun,’ Frau Stengel said, anxious to give credit.”

But that exchange was ‘once’, as in ‘once upon a time’. And now, in real time, after the girls have made this joke, Frau Stengel issues a threat.

“Until now, however, God had not been suggested as a threat. The children stayed where they were, at the table, and looked wide-eyed at their governess.”

And then she exits. Which leaves Mrs. Kennedy alone with her girls.

“It was not often that Mrs. Kennedy had time to enjoy or contemplate something not directly dependent on herself or fated by one of her or her husband’s decisions. For nearly a full minute, she stood perfectly still and admired the night. Then she remembered one of the reasons she had come into the room, and bent over to draw the covers up over her daughters.”

This leads her to muse upon the idea of her children, who remain innocent and untouched in her mind. (Perhaps this is not all that different from Carol’s ideas about Paris.)

“Meanwhile, of course, they had still to grow up – but after all what was there between this night and the magic time to come but a link of days, the limpid days of children? For, she thought, smiling in the dark, pleased at the image, were not their days like the lights one saw in the valley at night, starry, indistinguishable one from the other?”

But, in fact, Jane and Ernestine have entered a period of darkness, in which the night of the valley and the night of Frau Stengel’s threat have become indistinguishable.

The children in Mavis Gallant’s stories are observant and responsive; their days are not limpid but pulsing with possibilites, not all of them golden.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the final story in The Other Paris. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next collection: My Heart is Broken. (Maybe starting sometime in July.)

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Louise Erdrich’s Four Souls (2004)

As with Tracks, the primary voices in Four Souls are Fleur’s and Nanapush’s.

Erdrich Four SoulsSo, although it was published more than ten years later, I opted to read Four Souls next, to keep these characters fresher in mind and heart, hoping for a deeper understanding.

Two other women play significant roles in this story as well (and one other man, whose perspective is represented only through two of the women’s experiences – isn’t that an interesting turn-about).

Four Souls is actually a name, and having the book named for a name is key to understanding the tales therein. The simple act of naming is not simple at all.

“There are names that go through the generations with calm persistence. Names that heal a person just for taking them, and names that destroy. Names that travel, names that bring you home, names you only mutter in the deep water of your sleep. Names that bring memory of painful attachments and names lost to time and the reckonings of chance. Names are throwaway treasures. Names hold the sweetness of youth, bring back faces and unsettling resemblances. Names acquire their own life and drag the person on their own path for their own reasons, which we can’t know. There are names that gutter out and die and then spring back, distinguished. Names that go on through time and trouble, names to hold on your tongue for luck. Names to fear. Such a name was Four Souls.”

Readers do not observe Four Souls in all of the situations described herein, but the act of naming is essential.

This is true for Nanapush too, “the one they call fire, the one who makes my own snare, who shot off a tree branch, ate snakes to survive, had wife upon wife, and remembers the making of Under the Ground”.

Simultaneously, a name is what is preserved and also what can preserve you.

“Your name will live inside of you. Your name will help you heal. Your name will tell you how long to live and when to give up life. When the time comes for you to die, you will be called by that name and you will answer. For you have been lonely so long, you nameless one, you spirit, and it wll comfort you to finally be recognized here upon this earth.”

A glimpse into Louise Erdrich’s study of Ojibwemowin in Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country (2003) underscores the importance of getting the words right, of understanding the role and significance of parts of speech, allocation and assignation.

The act of creation and restoration is integrally important in this novel too. This takes new and unfamiliar forms in Louise Erdrich’s perspective and women play a unique and vital role.

“To sew is to pray. Men don’t understand this. They see the whole but they don’t see the stitches. They don’t see the speech of the creator in the work of the needle. We mend. We women turn things inside out and set things right.”

This, too, adds significance to the visceral nature of the storytelling, this turning out and setting right. The language in Four Souls is spare but the sensory detail is rich.

“The chimneys were constructed of a type of brick requiring the addition of blood, and so, baked in the vicinity of a slaughterhouse, they would exude when there was fire lighted a scorched, physical odor.”

Storytelling rests upon that kind of power, identifiying and ordering and preserving. But sometimes what is omitted is as important as what is included.

“That is also the story – what is left after the events in all their juices and chaos are reduced to the essence. The story – all that time does not digest.”

Relationships are complicated in Four Souls and frequently readers only receive one version of a tale. “We are all imperfect in our love for one another.” And, yet, we expect one side of a story (often our own) to suffice for understanding.

Personally and politically, there are betrayals and misunderstandings in Four Souls. Nanapush – educated by the Jesuits and still bookish in his way – is keenly aware of the political noose tightening around the neck of his people.

“We were snared in laws by then. Pitfalls and loopholes. Attempting to keep what was left of our land was like walking through a landscape of webs. With a flare of ink down in the capital city, rights were taken and given.”

The link to the land, explored more directly in Tracks, remains prominent in Four Souls. The language is elemental, imagery frequently erupting from the landscape itself, even with (especially with) basic characterizations.

“Perhaps the Pillager stuff was all used up in Fleur. She was the last, and like the longest-boiled kettle of maple sap, she was the strongest and the darkest.”

It feels right to begin my Louise Erdrich reading project with the strongest and the darkest of the souls; I’ve tried to arrange my reading in chronological order in terms of recurring characters, but may resort to publication order as I read on with the stories.

Which of her books have you read? Have you dabbled or do you consider yourself a serious fan? Next, for me, is Love Medicine.

Erdrich Love MedicineTracks (1988)
Four Souls (2004)
Love Medicine (1984)
The Beet Queen (1986)
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001) *Reread
The Bingo Palace (1994) *Reread
Tales of Burning Love (1997)
The Antelope Wife (1998)
The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003)
The Painted Drum (2005)
The Plague of Doves (2008)
Shadow Tag (2010)
The Round House (2012)
LaRose (2016)

Also, Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country (2003)

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Mavis Gallant’s “Señor Pinedo”

Set in a Madrid pension, after the Spanish Civil War, “Señor Pinedo” has an ensemble cast. But, like many of the other tales in this colleciton, the story is told in the first person, from the perspective of a young woman who shares a wall with the Pinedo family.

Madrid Postcard Spain Gallant

Imagining the pension (Madrid)

They live together in a pension owned by Señorita Elvira Gómez and her brother, who lived in two rooms off the entrance hall. The staff also includes a maid, who earned the “sturdy sum of 200 pesetas” (about $5/month, compared to the $22.50/week that one of Marie-Blanche’s suitors earned).

The Pinedo family includes Señor (a thin, worried-looking man “who bore an almost comic resemblance to Salvador Dali”), Señora (who is twenty-three years old and married for nearly five years) and baby José María.

The room they live in is partitioned. There is a pink marble fireplace on the Pinedos side, green velvet drapery limp with age, a door on each side of partition which leads to a shared balcony, and on the ceiling is a semicircle of plaster roses bisected evenly. It is scupulously divided.

The other tenants in the building include a bank clerk, a student from Saragoza, a civil engineer, a bullfighters’ impresario, a former university instructor of Spanish literature (who is now working as the dispenser in a drugstore on the Calle del Carmen) and an Englishwoman (complete with mineral water, disgestive pills, Keen’s mustard and English chop sauce at her disposal).

The families live is such close proximity that on either side of the partition, all wake to the same alarm and go to sleep listening to the Señora’s prayers. But the community is even broader, still intimate though not quite at arm’s length.

José Antonio Primo de Rivera Gallant

José Antonio Primo de RiveraClick for source details

“The courtyard formed by adjoining apartment blocks, was so narrow that women on balconies across the way could hear, and were listening with interest.”

Here is the heart of the story. Not Señor Pinedo, but the courtyard.

“The courtyard, crisscrossed with lines of washing that dropped onto the cobbles below, seemed to be where the most active life of the apartment houses took place. Children played under the constant rain from the laundry, and the balconies were crowded with women sewing, preparing vegetables, and even cooking on portable charcoal stoves. The air was cloudy with frying olive oil.”

On an average day, the courtyard is busy. But the events of this story inject elements of the extraordinary into an ordinary evening. (Readers observe the scene in some detail.)

“The courtyard suddenly resembled the arena of a bull ring. There was the same harsh division of light and shadow, as if a line had been drawn, high on the opposite wall.”

The intensity of the event contrasts with the contents of a normal evening, in which Señor Pinedo would bring home documents from the Ministry of Housing for the narrator to read. He is seeking an audience, longing for a sense of importance.

The story is infused with quiet longing. The Señora pins up pictures of film stars while Señor pins up a photo of José Antonio Primo de Rivera (the founder of the Falange, who was shot by Republicans during the Civil War).

Downstairs in the heart of the pension are “cases of tropical birds” and “fat brocaded footstools”; upstairs, pages torn from magazines and newspapers. The entertainment was either the courtyard or the government reading.

Needless to say, even a tragedy offers a certain respite. Indeed, Señor Pinedo is giddy with the possibility of having a new kind of importance in the community.

A few of the people around the courtyard had drifted indoors, but nost of them seemed reluctant to leave the arena, where – one never knew – something else of interest might take place. They looked down through the tangle of clotheslines to the damp stones of the court, talking in loud, matter-of-fact voices about the accident.”

The narrator’s response is more difficult to discern In fact, she does not seem to be able to readily identify the appropriate response to Señor Pinedo’s excitement.

“[A]s I could not see his listeners’ faces, I could not have said whether the silence was owing to respect, delight, apathy, or a sudden fury of some other emotion so great that only silence could contain it.”

Because the tone of the story is as measured as the partitioned parts of the shared room, the mention in this last sentence of the story suggests this intense emotion – fury – might be closest to the narrator’s response.

Told from nearly-Señor-Pinedo’s perspective, the disorder is seemingly cherished. But from another father’s perspective, this would be a different story indeed.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the second-to-last story in The Other Paris. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story, the last in this collection: “A Day Like Any Other”.

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