MAY 2013 Mostly things are back to BIP-as-usual soon. So many books to talk about!
In May, I am reading for Once Upon a Time (my list of possibilities is here, chat of my beginnings here, my readalong post for Neil Gaiman’s Stardust here), and I will begin my first read for the Global Women of Colour Challenge, (yes, I know, I said this last month, too).
The next installment of the Alice Munro reading project has resumed with Friend of My Youth, beginning May 1, 2013. Join me for a single story — or for the collection — throughout this month.
I am still trying to follow the guidelines that I referred to in my Peeking Out of the Burrow post, but I am also making time to read whimsically.
Looking forward to catching up with all the bookishness as I am able in the coming weeks. Meantime, good reading to you!
(First time here? Please don’t be shy: there’s no such thing as too much bookchat!)
Jennifer Close has a reputation for having nailed the whole young-woman’s-coming-of-age thing in her first novel, Girls in White Dresses.
And that, with the image of a young woman on the cover messing with the belt of her dress, brought Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep to my mind.
Doubleday – Random House, 2013
Yes, I admit it: I wanted to read this book because of the cover.
(Even though, without context, the slim-woman-in-brightly-coloured-dress motif isn’t one which normally draws me in to a read.)
The Smart One invites readers to get comfortable with the unfastening of four women’s lives, right from the opening pages.
It’s not exceptionally-messy-unravelling (as, say, in Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz or Lynn Crosbie’s Life Is About Losing Everything).
It’s a steady build of discomfort, an accumulation of disappointments.
For two sisters in this novel, this evidence erupts as a sudden break, the sort that requires moving boxes and cancellations, new employment and reallocated resources and, perhaps most challenging, uncomfortable explanations to bystanders.
But the losses only appear sudden; their roots stretch into deeper disappointments. (But don’t panic: they are all recognizable, all explained.)
“If life was going to be unfair, it was going to go all the way.”
Claire observes that when she and Martha were younger, it was Martha who always won the contests to see which kid could withstand the heat of a fireball candy for the longest time.
There is a quiet but fervent competitive heat in the sisters’ relationship. Claire mentally hears the echo of her mother’s “Oh, Claire”, stretching back across the years. She hears it as disappointment. And, at times, Claire can’t stop herself from rolling her eyes at Martha’s achievements.
Martha does not bask in her “achievements” however. Indeed, she struggles to recognize them. She gave up her nursing career for a position in retail, and finds great comfort (and great frustration) in folding clothes for display tables. That is the kind of situation she believes she can manage, but it, too, is a disappointment.
Both Claire and Martha are struggling, and Jennifer Close’s third-person narration takes readers from one character to the next, brushing close enough to grasp understanding and empathy, but not alighting for long enough on any single character for the reader to become dependent on that relationship alone.
The bulk of the narrative is devoted to Claire and Martha, but Weezy (their mother) and Cleo (their brother’s girlfriend) receive consideration as well.
Weezy is the “smart one” of the title; her sister, Maureen, is the “pretty one”. Arguably, the sisters are created to inhabit these roles as well, but that certainly wouldn’t have been Weezy’s (Louise’s) outright intention.
Weezy was the sort of mother who made sure that her young daughters understood that ‘feminist’ was not a dirty word, but a reflection of her belief in equal rights. She was the sort of mother who insisted upon a woman’s right to work in and out of the home, even if Weezy herself did not “choose” to exercise that right, instead “chose” to focus on her children and her home.
Weezy is the sort of mother who, even still, worries a great deal about her daughters, about whether she has instilled qualities in them that have made it harder for them to be happy.
Curious about the belt image on Prep? Lee was a frustratingly well-drawn character, the novel painful and taut and detail-soaked
Random House, 2005
(To be fair, she worries about Max, her son, Cleo’s boyfriend, too, but she worries just as much about Cleo, whose mother was the “smart one” too.)
“Even though Weezy had just suggested the same thing, she immediately wanted to [say]…that marriage was a mistake. [...] They were children. How did they think they could make a marriage work? But she kept her mouth shut.”
With a shifting perspective, Jennifer Close pulls the readers into each character’s story long enough to create a general sense of complexity.
As simple as that woman’s situation might appear on the surface, emotionally, chances are that she is simply tightening her belt because she knows that she is being observed.
Perhaps Claire and Martha have not fully embraced the capacity to “act”.
Weezy certainly seems to be stalwart and wise, determinedly organized in the face of disorder. But when readers brush closer to her consciousness, they realize that Weezy, too, is merely pretending, as much to convince herself as anybody else.
Being the “smart one” is only about the perception of others, readers learn. The lesson is not subtly sketched; even though Weezy is clearly biting her tongue in the snippet quoted above, readers do not have to wonder about what she is thinking,.
There are some similiarites to Meg Mitchell Moore’s The Arrivals (but not-so-much literary) or Elizabeth Crane’s We Only Know So Much (but not-so-much sassy) in terms of subject matter and settings.
But the mother in The Arrivals who, like Weezy, takes in her grown children when their lives unravel, is left unsketched in ways that ultimately involve the reader in a different way.
“Ginny’s eyes were closed. Her words came out in a fragmented way; it was as if she were speaking through a net. She wore a sleeveless nightgown of a color that had once been a vibrant blue but had long ago faded to muted gray.”
In Meg Mitchell Moore’s novel, the wear and tear is expressed in dialogue that is not transcribed on the page, but left for the reader to imagine. (I find myself wishing that the fictional Ginny could have coffee with Weezy, the “smart one”.)
Ultimately, the kind of detail in Jennifer Close’s The Smart One (about holiday menus, hangovers, workplaces and decor) is not far off the minutiae of boarding school life drawn in Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep (so perhaps the similarities that I saw in these girly-shaded cover images were not entirely imagined).
But Claire, Martha, Weezy and Cleo reflect in a more straightforward way. (Unlike Sittenfeld’s heroine, Lee, who circles and stops-and-starts and wallows, oh, yes, wallows. Waaaallllllows.) Their struggles fit into sentences, and there is little room in which the reader can wonder or reflect.
Jennifer Close’s style is comfortable, her characters credible and recognizable, and the chaos they experience is corralled in her prose in a way which offers a certain kind of satisfaction.
But just how satisfying readers find The Smart One depends as much on how its readers define that satisfaction as on Jennifer Close’s style of storytelling.
(For myself, I prefer a little more mess, a corner of the narrative that I can burrow into. But that’s just me.)
Have you read Jennifer Close’s work, or have you something of hers on your TBR?
At one time, Zeigler’s Department Store had a grocery department and a hardware department, but no longer.
1990; Penguin, 1991
The store assortment has changed. The role of the department store has changed. Downtown Walley has changed. And, perhaps most significantly, Murray has changed.
When the story opens, Murray’s father is telling him that he has hired a “looker”, and young Murray takes a swing past the men’s wear department to catch a glimpse of Barbara Delaney.
Barbara isn’t from ‘town’; she is from Shawtown, a half-rural settlement on the edge of Walley.
She is not only a “looker”, but her family connections add a layer of complication for her as well.
(The theme of ‘town’ and ‘country’ and ‘in-between’ echoes in several of Munro’s stories, including “Voices”, “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, “Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink”, “Winter Wind”, and “Half a Grapefruit”.)
Barbara, however, is straight-forward about her family’s reputation. She speaks out about them, even warning others’ of their flaws (for instance, her brother’s sticky fingers).
“Hearing about this, Murray was impressed by her lack of family feeling.”
More than being impressed, Murray fell in love with Barbara. He saw a kind of nobility in her statement, in her willingness to overlook the restriction that Murray felt were binding him.
But although Barbara’s willingness to set aside obligation, decency and love is what makes Murray fall in love with her, it’s also what brings about a fundamental change in their marriage.
(The story’s title refers to a game that Barbara invents after she and Murray have married, in which people have to choose between pairs of things — say, whether one prefers oranges or apples — with the choices initially fairly simple but growing more difficult as the game progresses. There is, as you might intuit, no way to win this game; the game is over when someone gives up and admits defeat. Once readers realize this, it seems unlikely that there will be a sense of having won something at the end of the story.)
Within a paragraph, the assortment of Zeigler’s store brings readers across the years and, almost as succinctly, the relationship between Murray and Barbara begins and formalizes and develops.
On the third page of the story, Zeigler’s Department Store no longer exists.
“Murray says that his is a common story. Does it deserve to be called a classic? ‘My great-grandfather got the business going. My grandfather established it in all its glory. My father preserved it. And I lost it.’”
Just as there is no winning in a game of “Oranges and Apples”, Murray’s story revolves around the idea of loss. But it’s a loss also identified by an air of cheerful commitment.
“He doesn’t mind telling people. Not that he waylays them and unburdens himself immediately. Guests are used to seeing him always at work. Repairing the dock, painting the rowboat, hauling in groceries, digging up drains, he looks so competent and unfrazzled, so cheerfully committed to whatever job he’s doing, that they take him for a farmer turned to resort-keeping.”
Zeigler’s Resort is north-west of Walley which means, that if readers are looking for the class commentary that characterizes so many of Munro’s stories, that Murray now inhabits the in-between too; he is not a farmer, but although he does operate a business, he no longer lives in town either.
But this loss actually comes later. The bulk of this story is rooted in a remembrance, in events which date back to Murray’s years running the store, to his town years.
This remembrance revolves around matters of the heart, but just as the early days of Murray and Barbara’s relationship receive cursory treatment, the sensory elements of the remembrance are sketched with broad, barely-recognizable strokes.
(As with so many of Alice Munro’s stories, “Oranges and Apples” is the sort of work that makes more sense on re-reading.)
Despite this, the sensory details of other elements of the story are striking. This night scene, for instance, set in town, is vivid and evocative.
“They could hear sprinklers, and sometimes distant shrieks, police sirens, laughter. That was the sound of television programs, coming through the open windows and screen doors along the street. Sometimes there was the slap of screen doors closing as people left those programs behind for a moment, and boisterous but uncertain voices calling into the other back yards where people sat drinking, as they did, or watching the sky.”
And, just when readers have brushed off their own memories of summer nights, have begun to feel a sense of connection with the characters in this story, a sense of dislocation nudges its way in:
“There was a sense of people’s lives audible but solitary, floating free of each other under the roof of beech and maple branches in front of the houses and in the cleared spaces behind, just as people in the same room, talking, float free on the edge of sleep.”
Murray’s loss is not a sudden event; just as the organization and stocking of the department store changed gradually over the years (regardless of how quickly that is summed up in the story), a cascade of changes slowly transforms Murray’s life.
“Murray had to face up to being out of step, to having valued, as if they were final, things that were only accidental and temporary.”
And, yet, with that loss comes a fresh sensation of freedom. ”Sometimes he felt in all his trouble a terrible elation. He was being robbed. He was being freed of his life.”
A choice between ‘loss’ and ‘gain’ might have seemed unworthy of Barbara’s game. Surely that is too easy a selection for a player, one might think.
But how one phrases the choice can make all the difference.
Have you been reading Alice Munro lately? Or, enjoying another collection of short stories?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and I plan to read the stories in Friend of My Youth throughout this month; this is the fifth story in the collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.
When Hazel Curtis travels to Scotland, she tells people that it was a trip that she and Jack had always planned to take together.
1990; Penguin, 1991
And now that she’s a widow, Jack cannot contradict Hazel, speak out to say that he never wanted to take that trip.
For now that she’s a widow, Hazel has her own reasons for taking the trip. (She is piecing things together à la “Meneseteung”, but with a lifetime of memories instead of a single text to interpret.)
Hazel (nee Joudry) Curtis, is a widow in her 50s, a high school biology teacher in Walley Ontario.
“She was a person you would not be surprised to find sitting by herself in a corner of the world where she didn’t belong, writing things in a notebook to prevent the rise of panic.”
That corner of the world is the Royal Hotel, which her husband Jack used to visit, when he was a navy man. He had a middle-aged cousin named Margaret Dobie who lived nearby, and Jack would go to the hotel for a drink.
To hear Jack tell it, there was a romance with the daughter of the man who owned the hotel – Antoinette – as well. (Though Hazel finds that story is told differently, when viewed from another perspective.)
When she travels there herself, Hazel does meet Antoinette, who seems to be the opposite of Hazel in many ways. She is also, surprisingly, the opposite of what Hazel expected her to be. (And no, those opposites do not cancel each other out: Antoinette is a complex character.)
Of course, years have passed. Years since Jack was spending time at the Royal Hotel. Years since he was not spending time there, when he was married to Hazel and working at the appliance store.
“She was shy and prudish and intelligent. Jack triumphed easily over the shyness and the prudery, and he was not as irritated as most men were, then, by the intelligence. He took it as a kind of joke.”
Jack is described in some detail, but he also quietly stands in contrast with the solicitor that Hazel meets in the hotel, Dudley Brown.
At first, Hazel believes Dudley is part of the hotel staff, but she immediately realizes that he is not a fit for Antoinette’s establishment. (She later must revise her evaluation somewhat, but that is related to plot points best left unspoiled.)
When Hazel first meets him and figures that Dudley is either a bachelor or a widower, she weighs on the side of bachelor because of his twinkly-ness. ”That twinkly, edgy air of satisfaction didn’t usually survive married life.” (Readers can’t help but summon up the un-twinkly, un-edgy Jack, selling microwave ovens in Walley, Ontario.)
Everything in Scotland is fascinating and Hazel is intent upon deciphering what she finds there. “She must have thought that she was invisible, the way she slowed down and peered.”
Even casual references contain glimpse into history with which she is unfamiliar. In her travel diary, a notation for ‘Philiphaugh’ is fleshed out with further knowledge later. (The violence surrounding this detail echoes the unexpected discovery of the history of the Cameronians, which rounds out the first story in this collection, “Friend of My Youth”.)
Often the site of violence appears unremarkable later, whether a public square or a pub mentioned in an old ballad. “But the pub now seemed ordinary….”
What is recorded, what is remembered, is not necessarily reflected in the present-day scene. And yet, sometimes what is recorded (like an old ballad recited by the now-much-aged Maggie Dobie) can reveal unexpected truths about the present-day.
“A ton of words Miss Dobie had, to bury anything.” But Hazel can burrow beneath the surface of those words and find something meaningful underneath.
Sometimes lines can be drawn, connections made between people who appeared distanced, alliances where connections appeared to be severed, intertwined states that exist somewhere between connectedness and disconnectedness: Hazel can decipher some of this, even when others might prefer it remain unrecognized.
But one question remains: “The whole worrying, striving, complicated bundle of Hazel – was that something that could just be picked up and made happy?”
This is true for other heroines in Munro’s stories too (like “Circle of Prayer” in The Progress of Love): ”She stood outside her own happiness in a tide of sadness. And the opposite thing happened the morning [he] left. Then she stood outside her own unhappiness in a tide of what seemed unreasonably like love.”
Whether in Walley or Scotland, Hazel is standing outside of her own happiness, examining its relationship to the love she has known in her life.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and I plan to read the stories in Friend of My Youth throughout this month; this is the fourth story in the collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.
In my first post about this year’s Once Upon a Time reading, I mentioned all the books that I have, since, finished reading, though at the time I was just beginning:
Image links to Challenge Announcement
Image by Melissa Nucera
Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride (1993), Bill Willingham’s 1001 Nights of Snowfall (2006), Charles de Lint’s The Dreaming Place (1990), Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife (1999).
My post on re-reading The Robber Bride is going to take some time (in short, though it was one of my “just-fine” Atwoods, it is now one of my favourites).
I will be waiting to chat about de Lint’s book until I read the next in the Newford series (it was rather short, but enjoyable enough).
The Willingham was not one of my favourites, but it satisfied the urge for illustrated stories.
And the Duffy poems are terrific from start-to-finish. Even if you do not often read poetry, but like the idea of someone taking the perspective of the “Mrs” for mythic and historical figures (from Penelope to Mrs. Darwin, from Mrs. Midas to Circe), you would find these of great interest (and, frequently, laugh-out-loud funny).
And now? Five other reads underway. Well, four reads and one re-read. With two recent additions to the stack of soon’s.
(I also finished Martin Millar’s The Good Fairies of New York (1992), which I found a lot of fun, though I realize I did it a disservice by reading it in so many short reading sessions. I had wanted to prolong the entertaining aspects of the story — such a plethora of ‘good’ fairies with ‘bad’ habits is hilarious — but there are so many characters that I realize, now, that I’d have done better to have simply sat still and giggled through it over the course of a day or two, while it was all fresh-in-mind.)
My marker is nearing the end of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (2006), but I am moving very slowly, reading a chapter every other day or so. (This is the kind of reading for which one is grateful to have a book like Martin Millar’s as light-hearted relief alongside.)
The novel opens with a tidal river snake, a creature larger than storm clouds, “laden with creative enormity”. What is it creating? Tunnels, valleys, many rivers and, finally, one last river.
2006; Constable & Robinson, 2008
“This is where the giant serpent continues to live deep down under the ground in a vast network of limestone aquifers. They say its being is porous; it permeates everything. It is all around in the atmosphere and is attached to the lives of the river people like skin.”
The novel has claimed several literary awards (including the 20o7 Miles Franklin Award) and it is impressive and curiously engaging. Only now, in the fourth chapter from the end, am I beginning to feel as though I understand some of the places I have travelled to in its pages but, even so, I have never considered setting it aside.
Nearing the halfway mark in Donn Kushner’s A Book Dragon (1987), I am already tempted to say that it will be a favourite.
Nonesuch is a charming dragon, even before he discovers the “treasure” of print. His family history offers many instances of the kind of story-within-a-story commentary that usually makes me want to skim, except that I actually enjoyed all the supplementary stories. (And I found the scene of his exploring his grandmother’s caves surprisingly touching.)
This book has been lingering on my shelves for more than twenty years unread, so I’m curious to find it so enjoyable after having had it waiting here for so long. (A strong argument for paying more attention to the books on my own shelves. *nods)
Having kept A Book Dragon company for almost as many years, is Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin (1991). Whether I added it to my TBR as a result of perusing the Mythopoeic recommendations on Terri Windling’s site, or whether it was a result of more general enthusiastic chatter, I’m no longer certain, but I understand why it has been so popular with readers. (I do remember Kat re-reading it a couple of years ago and that gave it a good nudge up my list: Kat, you there?)
Not only is it a campus novel (which, yes, I also love), but Janet is an English student (and her father an English professor). And there is a ghost, which is an unexpected bonus. (I don’t remember the original tale very clearly, but I wouldn’t have expected the kind of ghost I’ve glimpsed here.)
It’s thoroughly enjoyable, and even though Janet and I don’t share many favourites (her taste is much more classic-minded than mine, although if I’d had an English professor as a father, I might have been inclined that way as well), the bookishness is wholly seductive.
(In some ways, it reminds me of Jo Walton’s Among Others, which I read and loved earlier this year, but I feel as though Walton’s style is more polished, though I have only read a little more than a quarter of Pamela Dean’s work, so perhaps that’s not representative enough to make such a comparison.)
2005; Harcourt Inc, 2006
The characters in the first story in Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners might have made interesting companions for Janet, although it would have required some magic, indeed, for they do not inhabit the same literary geography.
I’ve read “The Faery Handbag” before, but not often enough for Baldeziwurlekistan to roll off my tongue (that took some practice). It was the story that prompted my buying this collection, but I’m anxious to move beyond it, to see what else awaits in this collection.
(My problem is that I try to read only a single short story daily, and I recently finished Théodora Armstrong’s Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility, which is definitely worth adding to your TBR list, and am currently reading two other collections, byAlice Munro and Sherman Alexie, so I might still be reading the Kelly Link stories in June.)
And, finally, Linda Medley’s Castle Waiting Volume I (2006), which is actually a re-read, because I’ve recently added Volume II to my stack. This collection is one of my favourites, and I’ve been itching to read the next volume for years. I have read a lot of graphic novels in the interim, and I’m curious to see if my opinion changes in terms of the episodic nature of the storytelling (I didn’t question it before, but have several series since and wonder if I won’t long for more interconnections) but, in the meantime, I’m happy to be back on Linda Medley’s pages.
When I’ve finished re-reading, I’ll be delving into the next volume of Castle Waiting. And sometime soon, having miraculously jumped from #70 to the top of the hold list for G.R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords (2000), (even though the library only has 27 copies — see, this is why I just don’t get this idea of suspending your holds, because I was planning to suspend it when I moved into the 40-something range), I’ll be starting that as well.
In other planned reading, I’ll also be re-reading the Grimm story that accompanies the Atwood novel, and I plan to include a LeGuin novel before the Solstice. If I manage that, I’ll be thrilled. My reading list of possibilities was over-long, but this sampling has been just perfect for my current reading mood.
Oh, and all that talk of Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere? I’m itching to read that, now, too. Or is that, more properly, an RIP read, would you say?
Have you read any of these? Or are you planning to? Are you enjoying your OUaT reading?
Some writers might take a book to do it. Carol Shields did, in Swann. Timothy Findley did, in The Wars.
1990; Penguin, 1991
Alice Munro takes a short story to build a life from fragments left behind.
In this case, in “Meneseteung”, the fragments are culled from a book called Offerings (“Gold lettering on a dull-blue cover…author’s full name underneath: Almeda Joynt Roth”) and snippets from the local newspaper, the Vidette.
From such sources, the curious amongst us can “put things together”.
They use notebooks and gravestones and microfilm, “just in the hope of seeing this trickle in time, making a connection, rescuing one thing from the rubbish”.
But, first, the verse. It follows a photograph (dated 1865, eight years prior to the book’s publication, in 1873) and a preface.
Even the verse’s titles contain clues, but the actual works contain actual information, though its nature remains uncertain.
“Perhaps Almeda was called Meda in the family, or perhaps she shortened her name to fit the poem.”
It is difficult to spot the line between artistry and identity. (But, in fact, later a discovery of a gravestone is detailed, a stone with ‘Meda” on it, which appears to answer this uncertainty.)
Some of the curious go so far as to include details commonly left out of imagined scenes.
Alice Munro mentions this in a later story (“Dear Life”): “Fresh manure was always around, but I ignored it, as Anne must have done at Green Gables.”
Perhaps in an effort to cultivate versimilitude, the re-imaginer of “Meneseteung” includes these details, bringing the scent of the past off the page:
“And, like an encampment, it’s busy all the time – full of people, who, within the town, usually walk wherever they’re going; full of animals, which leave horse buns, cow pats, dog turds that ladies have to hitch up their skirts for; full of the noise of building and of drivers shouting at their horses and of the trains that come in several times a day.”
Those horse buns, cow pats, and dog turds that the ladies — including Meda, no longer ALmeda — hitch their skirts for? They even attract flies.
“Strangers who don’t look so prosperous are taunted and tormented. Speculation surrounds all of them – it’s like a cloud of flies.”
But, speculation? Isn’t that what the curious re-imaginer is doing as well? Speculating?
And, if so, perhaps it’s not such a decent pastime. If it draws vermin to the scene.
“The young girl herself, being a decent girl, has never walked down to the last block or the swamp. No decent woman ever would.”
In “Meneseteung”, the last block and the swamp are afforded room on the pages of memory, or, at least, imagined memory.
Notebooks and gravestones and microfilm?
Perhaps, for some. Alice Munro uses fiction instead.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and I plan to read the stories in Friend of My Youth throughout this month; this is the third story in the collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.
As with “Friend of My Youth”, the bulk of “Five Points” concerns a story told by one of the characters, Neil, who is speaking of events from his past, when he was a boy in British Columbia.
1990; Penguin, 1991
In both stories, the story rooted in Neil’s memories and the present-day story of Neil and Brenda, there is a question of exchange, of goods and services, sought after, procured and paid for.
Early on, it is clear that the quality of the goods is important to consider. Are they fresh, unsullied, well-presented, pleasing-to-the-eye, well-cared for, satisfying?
The candy store that Neil recalls from his early childhood was run by a grouchy woman with eyebrows painted-on, the candy in cat-pissed cardboard boxes.
Then a Croatian couple took over the store, cleared out the stale candy and sold the fresh goods in jars, along with coffee and soft drinks and homemade cakes.
(There are other transactions to think of: services, not goods; their quality is weighed and measured as well, the question of long-term satisfaction the subject of debate.)
Along with the pierogi and poppy-seed loaf, one of the two daughters soon develops a side-business at the store. She has her own desires and she is willing to pay a price for them.
At first, in running the Confectionary, this older daughter is savvy and she rigorously monitors the business dealings. Over time, however, she makes an error in judgement about her own transactions, and this impacts the family business fundamentally.
Brenda and her husband, Cornelius, also have a business, which they run from their barn, selling used appliances, furniture and household goods.
This is how Neil meets Brenda, following a conversation with Cornelius about a particular sort of bicycle that Neil is looking to buy second-hand.
(Neil has seriously considered what he’s looking for in this bicycle and he outlines it in detail to Cornelius, suggesting that he keep watch for one, as Neil is in the market. He is a serious buyer.)
There is no bicycle in Cornelius and Brenda’s shop that day, but Neil leaves with a fresh interest in a new commodity. And, when Neil returns to see if a bicycle has materialized, Cornelius is lying down in the house and only Brenda is there to deal with Neil.
“Neil and Brenda made everything clear to each other then, without saying anything definite. When he phoned and asked her to have a drink with him, in a tavern on the lakeshore road, she knew what he was asking and she knew what she would answer.”
But as much as Brenda appears to know the trajectory of this story, her own story, the reader does not completely understand how the outcome can be so certain in her mind.
“She told him that she hadn’t done anything like this before. That was a lie in one way and in another way true.”
The reader, ultimately, is left to deduce which part of Brenda’s statement is a lie and which part is true.
But what is clear? Without anything definite having been said? That that which we do not see has a weight all its own.
What happens in the shed behind the Confectionary? What goes on beneath the surface of the lake in the mines that Cornelius works in?
What happens in a trailer off the beaten path? What Brenda’s daughter is doing in a car on the highway with several girlfriends when she told her mother she was going to play tennis?
The cost of these transactions is measured in more than one way; it is not always about the dollars and cents when assessing value.
“A shapely woman, with fair, freckled skin and blue eyes rimmed with blue shadow and liner, screwed up appealingly against any light. Her reddish-blond hair — touched up yesterday — catching the sun like a crown of petals. She wears heels just for this walk, just for this moment of crossing the road with his eyes on her, the extra bit of pelvic movement and leg length they give her.”
Brenda has assessed her own value, and as her relationship with Neil grows more intimate, she assesses his as well, along with what they currently exchange.
The figures that she has calculated before and after she has heard Neil’s story about the Confectionary differ substantially.
“Five Points” considers and embodies the weight of depreciation.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and I plan to read the stories in Friend of My Youth throughout this month; this is the second story in the collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.
When we meet Jonny, he can’t sleep; he turns on the light to play The Secret Land of Zenon.
Simon & Schuster, 2013
In this first sentence of Teddy Wayne’s novel, Jonny might be any eleven-year-old boy.
But even while listening to the background music for Zenon, Jonny recognizes the audience-loyalty retention strategy at work.
And readers immediately recognize that Jonny — who is wired after the show that night and itching for some of Jane’s zolpidems to help him sleep — is not a typical eleven-year-old boy.
In The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, Jonny was born Jonathan Valentino, but he has become Jonny Valentine, a Beiber-esque figure, professional heart-throb and crooner who rose to fame via online vids and savvy management.
(There has been a lot of chatter about this novel, and I’ve always wondered why everyone seems to compare this character to Justin Bieber, but the epigraph is Justin’s: “I want my world to be fun. No parents, no rules, no nothing. Like, no one can stop me. No one can stop me.”)
The novel portrays both the public and private worlds of this character, and because they are often in conflict, the story makes for compelling reading.
“I kept looking over at the kids behind the glass windows of the doors, which was unprofessional camera protocol, but I couldn’t help myself.”
There are many times at which Jonny is aware of the conflict between his personal desires and professional expectations (e.g. he wants more fries but must consider his waistline), and there are many times in which he can’t help himself (e.g. he looks over at those kids, eats more fries).
But this theme is most memorably embodied in the scenes in which Jonny realizes that his professional identity has fundamentally changed him.
When he realizes that there are aspects of Jonny Valentine that have completely engulfed Jonathan Valentino, Jonny’s situation touches readers in an unexpectedly poignant way.
“If I went back to school, and a celeb came to visit, I’d be one of those kids behind the glass. Except I wouldn’t cram my face up against it like they were doing. That’s one of the ways I could never really be like them again.”
Just as Jonny is both innocent and worldly and his songs are corny and golden, the experience of being a celebrity comes with great reward and great cost:
“I got under the covers. It had that feeling of being too big, like it was an ocean and I was a stone someone skipped in it, where you watch it carefully at first to count how many times it skips, and then it sinks, and you pick up the next stone and forget about the last one.”
(This passage stands out because the language is simple and the idea contained therein straightforward, but Teddy Wayne shifts the voice mid-stream to include the audience — in this case, the reader, “you” — which reminds us that Jonny is as much about what “we” made him into as anything else.)
Jonny is part savvy marketer and part sharp-tongued pre-teen:
“I felt rested the next day, zero percent damage, my voice was back in condition, and I had an A-plus workout in the hotel gym in the morning with Jane, where we competed to see who could do more crunches and had less stomach chub. I won both, but it’s not fair because Jane’s a woman and she was turning middle-aged the next day.”
Jane is Jonny’s “mom-ager”, and the way in which Teddy Wayne sketches their complicated mother-son relationship is believable; the reader is both frustrated by and sympathetic to this woman who was, not long ago, a supermarket cashier, who loves her son but occasionally finds her desire for his success to be in conflict with her genuine affection.
The author discusses “entrepreneurial narcissism..one of the defining features of our age” in an NPR Interview with Jackie Lyden, and the ways in which childhood and marketing intersect make this idea that much more pernicious, revealing the “cracks in the facade” of our society.
Could be that that makes it sound more complicated than it is. Anyway, The Love Long of Jonny Valentine is simple stylistically; the few figurative phrases used do suit an eleven-year-old boy’s perspective:
“The sky was the color of a mouse and matched the highway and all the buildings. The outside was like an animal that changed its color to blend in.”
For in many ways, Jonny is still like other kids, although the stage upon which his achievements play out is globally visible:
“When you can do whatever you want vocally and everyone is the stadium knows it, it’s like getting the invincibility potion in Zenon.”
But at an age in which the question of identity is inherently slippery, Jonny struggles to spot the line between Jonny and Jonathan, to figure out what actually makes him happy and what makes him successful (and whether those two states can intersect):
“She reminded me of the girl in the hospital who said I sounded sad when I was singing about happy things. Everyone sees what they want in songs, the way Walter said they do with fortune cookies.”
Further complicating his efforts are the changing relationships in his retinue of staff (his choreographer is getting older, simultaneously reminding the reader of Jonny’s own sell-by date and the delicate balance required to gain and maintain new demographics) and fundamental questions regarding his father (it seems that Jane might not have told the truth about him).
Despite the glittery cover and the timely topic of celebrity (er, “entrepreneurial narcissism”), The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is a traditional coming-of-age narrative:
“I jumped to a new level in Zenon. The land was mine to explore, all mine. I could go wherever I wanted, do whatever I wanted, no one stopping me, nobody else around, over the tall mountains and through the deep forests and into the dark dungeons. Just me.”
In an interview with Sam Tanenhaus on the NYRB podcast, Teddy Wayne discusses having created a Twitter account for Jonny Valentine (ironically @TheRealJonny) and being unsure whether some of his young followers can distinguish between the fictional and the authentic.
Jonny Valentine, too, falls somewhere between: a savvy, damaged, resilient, triumphant 11-year-old boy who lives on the page, the pop charts and in some readers’ and listeners’ hearts.
The title story of this collection begins with talk of an act being “too transparent in its hopefulness, too easy in its forgiveness”.
1990; Penguin, 1991
On first reading, this seems a straightforward observation about the narrator’s relationship with her mother.
She has been dreaming of her mother on occasion.
And this recurring dream stops, she posits, because the hopefulness and forgiveness contained therein are overwhelmingly present.
Another way of saying this?
The dreamer no longer believes in the hope and forgiveness that her subconscious has created for her.
She requires a more elaborate fiction to find hope and forgiveness.
And this story, “Friend of My Youth”, might offer the narrator that fiction she desires. But it is neither “too transparent” nor “too easy” to find.
To begin with, the reader must try to decipher whether the narrator is actually thinking about her mother, because the focus of the story which unfolds in the past seems to be Flora rather than her mother.
As it was explained to the narrator, Flora Grieves was living in the Ottawa Valley with her sister Ellie and her sister Ellie’s husband, Robert Deal, (they being Cameronians, some “freak religion from Scotland”), in a “black board house with its paralytic Sundays and coal-oil lamps and primitive notions”.
All of this was and is mystical, not only to the narrator, who has heard stories of her mother’s younger years for her entire life, but to the mother as well. Nobody knows why wood in the Ottawa Valley wears down by turning back rather than grey. And nobody knows what to expect from such a “backward” religious belief system either.
The unexpected holds a certain allure, however; the young teacher, bound for her position in a one-room school, is prepared to face the mystery.
(The unexpected is significant in the dream too; it is the unexpected sighting of narrator’s mother there, in the dream, which is memorable. But the mother always comments — in the dream — that she knew it would happen “someday”; she was prepared for it all along.)
“Flora and Ellie were both dark-haired, dark-eyed women, tall and narrow-shouldered and long-legged. Ellie was a wreck, of course, but Flora was still superbly straight and graceful.”
Flora could “look like a queen”, a slender gypsy queen, “with her black hair and her skin that always looked slightly tanned, and her lithe and bold serenity”.
Everything about life at the Grieves seems to have been unusual, unexpected: their looks, the way the house is divided, the rhythm of life on weekdays and Sundays, household routines.
The way people had spoken about them, her mother expected the sisters and Robert to be middle-aged or older, but Ellie was about thirty and Flora seven or eight years older than that.
(“Robert Deal might be in between.” Where Robert might be? That’s something else entirely. The story is preoccupied first with the narrator, then her mother, then Flora, and finally Ellie. But, as it turns out, Robert is at the heart of the plot, even though the reader hardly understands a thing about him or where he falls in relationship to the two sisters. And, if the reader accepts that these relationships are mystifying, it seems quite possible that there is something about Robert’s relationship with the narrator’s mother than the reader does not understand either. For some reason, there is no overt comment made about this man; the narrator is left to speculate, to imagine a resolution for him and the women around him, and the reader is left in the same position.”
Even basic details are not as expected. How women behave — in relationship to the expectations of them in a traditional sense — is a preoccupation in “Friend of My Youth” as in other stories by Alice Munro and here, again, the exception is more significant than the rule.
The narrator’s mother is a dutiful fiancee, preparing her trousseau. Flora is a responsible house-keeper, cleaning and keeping house and offering support to her married sister. Ellie is weak and bed-ridden, having suffered a series of miscarriages and stillbirths.
But not all women behave in an appropriately (or expected) feminine manner:
“Her hair was freshly done to blind the eye with brassy reflections, and her face looked as if it would come off on a man’s jacket, should she lay it against his shoulder in the dancing. Of course she did dance. She danced with every man present except [her husband]….”
This woman, introduced a third of the way into the story, plays a pivotal role in “Friend of My Youth”. Although the reader does not completely understand the way in which she impacts the Grieves sisters, this woman stands out and apart from the other female characters herein.
In a quieter way, Flora does not behave as expected, neither in terms of conventional expectations of her as an unmarried woman (but I shall not reveal the decision that she makes which appears contrary to the subordinate role she has accepted throughout much of the story) nor in terms of the narrator’s mother’s expectations of this “gypsy queen”.
In fact, at one point in the story, Flora does behave in a way which some might consider ”too transparent in its hopefulness, too easy in its forgiveness”.
And the reader is left to wonder whether this is a fiction on the mother’s part or a fiction on the narrator’s part, or whether it is another fiction entirely which the reader should be contemplating in this story.
What do you think?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and I plan to read the stories in Friend of My Youth throughout this month; this is the first story in the collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.
“In the lane, I had already lost a boot and fallen on my knees so that now my trousers were soaked and one of my socks was sodden and the bottoms of both my sleeves were freezing against my wrists.”
Harper Collins, 1990
This is Timothy Findley, writing in his journal in November 1976, describing his experience in the mud.
He was researching his WWI novel, The Wars, attempting to duplicate soldiers’ fighting conditions: an impossible task, but one undertaken with determination nonetheless.
He had planned to stay at the end of the lane in the mud for 24 hours, in weather and conditions which matched those Robert Ross experienced in the novel, as best as the author could replicate them.
But of course Findley was not being fired upon, and the mud “was only ankle deep and, at its worst, it rose to halfway up my shin — which is to say — I sank down halfway up to my knees”.
He lists all the tasks that he carried out there and what he learned, including that it was “impossible to sleep”, “being out of doors in a freezing, driving rain, when you cannot hide from it, reminds you very quickly how vulnerable your face is”, “peeing is a mix of comedy and pain”, and there is “nothing for the mind to do but feed on present circumstances”.
[By the time I read this, in Inside Memory (1990), I had already read The Wars for the first time, but when I learned that the author had spent time in the mud to write it, I felt as if I had always known it; The Wars made for visceral and memorable reading, and that remained true for it on re-reading this month too.]
But although the author has accepted an unusual degree of responsibility for re-creating such visceral experiences for the reader, there is a great deal of responsibility left for the reader of this work as well.
In fact, the reader plays an essential role in The Wars, often being directly addressed in the narrative.
‘You’ make an appearance on the third page of the novel, and its final sentence is for ‘you’ as well. In between? More of that.
“As the past moves under your fingertips, part of it crumbles. Other parts, you know you’ll never find. This is what you have.”
What you have is an assembly of parts, fragments presented for you to observe, inhabit fleetingly, set aside, muse upon, revisit, and reconsider.
You are standing apart from the past, however. You are turning the pages of this novel, looking for a way into what has happened. Sometimes you need explanations, actual facts that aren’t readily understood so many years later.
1977; Penguin, 1978
“Lest Robert’s having to ask for his own side arms make no sense to those of you who weren’t around or haven’t read this part of history, it should be pointed out that this was a ‘people’s army’ – not an army of professionals.”
This is certainly helpful. But most often you need to understand what it might have felt like. You need to imagine the facts into something with emotional heft.
“There is no good picture of this except the one you can make in your mind.”
Outright, the kinds of gases employed in warfare during the Great War are listed. And that’s useful, for you, of course.
But what remains, most fervently? Passages like this: ”The gas drifted down in Robert’s direction – but this was a distance of five miles, south-west – so all they got was the taste of it on snowflakes.”
How can we trust anything other than the taste of it?
We are immediately informed that the way in which the past is recorded is often contradictory; the truth isn’t something whole and certain, but something shifting which must be assembled from fragments.
Even Robert Ross’ own accounts don’t necessarily reveal the truth of his wartime experiences.
For instance, readers familiar with the scenes on the ship, in which he has suffered in the underworld (below deck) and been unflinchingly exposed to the horrors of war, are startled to learn that he summarizes them in a letter to his parents as follows:
“here we are at last! It was an evil trip. I caught a cold and the doctor thought it might become bronchitis. There were storms. Someone put me in charge of the horses….”
(It’s clear early in The Wars that neither the four-legged, winged nor two-legged will be spared suffering in this story.)
Assembling something-akin-to-truth requires a kaleidoscopic perspective on events.
And some of the most colourful bits in the pattern are provided by the memories of Lady Juliet d’Orsey, “the most vivid and personal we have”, presented in the form of transcripts, though the tone of her voice cannot be captured in print.
Juliet was twelve years old at the time, so her commentary comes complete with its own commentary; she does share her memories ofher younger self’s perspective on Robert Ross, but she observes from her 70-year-old self’s perspective as well, in terms of how reliable these recollections might be.
She, like the reader, now inhabits the present and observes the past from a distance.
(Though the reader is one-step removed yet again, observing the observer in this case. And, technically, the reader is observing the observer who observes, but that’s perhaps best left unexplained, for some aspects of this novel’s framework are not fully understood until its final pages.)
Others’ observations are also alluded to (like the war poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, and Robert Graves) in the text and the author’s bookish research (out of the mud) included reading not only letters written during this war by his uncle but the works of these published wartime writers as well.
The Wars is structured in five parts, reflecting the author’s dramatic experience, with content alternating between the domestic (which set the scene, also with tragic elements) and the military conflict and struggle.
Not only does this alternation afford the reader a degree of respite (luxurious moments out of the mud), but it reminds reader that suffering comes in all shapes and sizes, on the homefront, in No Man’s Land, and behind-the-lines.
(Most often, technically speaking, the most horrendous scenes are written in the most elementary form: short sentences built of brutal words, one after the next. The clipped prose belies the weight of its content.)
The scene which some argue is the novel’s most haunting is the one for which this book still makes an appearance on lists of challenged/banned books in Canada: the rape scene.
Even before publication, the author was challenged for this aspect of his work. He agreed with those (like Margaret Laurence) who felt that the point that this generation of men had been violated was made consistently and clearly throughout the work elsewhere.
“But I cannot remove it. As a scene, it is intrinsic — deeply meshed in the fabric of the book as I first conceived it. I cannot cut away its arms and legs — no matter how convinced other people are that the book will stand and function without them.”
1977; Penguin, 1986
He speaks of the diplomatic suggestions made in hopes that he would choose to cut the scene: “a campaign of quiet but urgent persuasion”. But, ultimately, “It was rape. The scene stays.”
But surely anybody coming to this story does not expect it to be filled with pretty images and promises.
This passage concludes the novel’s fourth part:
“So far, you have read of the deaths of 557, 017 people — one of whom was killed by a streetcar, one of whom died from bronchitis and one of whom died in a barn with her rabbits.”
The deaths considered in isolation are not, one might argue, key to the story told in The Wars (Robert’s uncle, Robert’s peer, Robert’s sister). This might seem ironic, but underscores the idea that the wars considered in this novel are not only the political conflicts which play out on the main stage.
And each one of those losses — those unfathomable losses, only quantifiable in numeric form — each might well be accompanied by a work like Timothy Findley’s in attempt to put a single life, a single loss, into some sort of context.
For, at the end of The Wars, you will have read of 557, 018 deaths, and there is still so much which has not been understood about that single story.
And the reader is left breathless: choking on the mud, the rain, the gas, the flames.
The elements pull the life out of characters like Robert Ross who inhabit the printed page.
But Timothy Findley invites readers to breathe life back into them by turning those pages.
The pages of memory, the pages of history, the pages of fiction.
(Note: Originally I was re-reading this with Danielle (who has also posted about it at A Work in Progress), and then learned that she was reading it for Caroline’s readalong, so I was inspired to post about it sooner rather than later. Isn’t that often how it goes: one person’s reading plan slips a book into another’s stack, and so on, and so on…)
House of Anansi, 2013 Astoria Imprint
The clear skies and no wind?
That’s not often true, actually, in Théodora Armstrong’s debut collection.
The characters herein are faced with stormy conditions and life is in flux.
But 100% visibility?
That’s true: her vision is impeccable, her scope expansive but her perspective incisive.
Readers know what to expect from the first sentence of “Rabbits”:
“I wrap myself in our scratchy curtains and watch Mom from our front window.”
Eight-year-old Dawn’s story is told in the first person: it is uncomfortable (‘scratchy’), and she is unobserved but watching from behind the glass, her perspective uncluttered and clear.
Readers recognize a limitation in her view (she has only eight years of life experience to inform her), but Dawn is old enough to recognize both vulnerability and ferocity.
Rabbits can be hunted and, even at eight years old, Dawn has the potential to be a predator, or, at least, to step outside the role of easy prey.
Predators and prey also play overt roles in the last and longest work in the collection, “Mosquito Coast”, which is over 80 pages long.
“He raised his two hands, palms cupped inches from each other as though I were a small bird he was trying to trap.”
(And here, too, the perception of strength and weakness, power wielded and a sense of helplessness are complicated, but that’s all I will say, to avoid spoilers. The photographs on the author’s website illustrate aspects of this story, also without spoilers.)
The other six stories in between are filled with obvious tension as well.
Frequently the characters are openly stressed. One finds the “dull clutch of a headache is tightening the base of his skull”. Another has ”the sound of frantic water pouring through [his] weed-wrecked brain”.
They inhabit small spaces, like Dawn behind the curtains: an abandoned shed, or a hole dug into the sand for an entire day, or a dark room with flickering screens and a struggling air conditioner.
They observe from within an inner tube, or a cave with a “perfect circle of smooth rock walls with a dusty, pit-marked floor”, or a car packed so tightly on a ferry that the doors cannot be opened, or an isolated cabin on a west-coast island.
Sometimes the story contains overt imagery of being trapped and characters feeling overwhelmed:
“The backyard looked trapped in the aggressive hands of a five-year-old girl: pink napkins spread out on knees, rose petal plates, miniature food, and heart-shaped balloons. It all left me feeling nauseous.”
Sometimes the confinement is palpable and clear, but viewed from without:
“The highway is congested, cars packed to capacity, little faces pressed to back-seat windows, slack-faced boredom and wild eyes. In every car that passes I can see fights brewing like storm clouds sliding into a valley.” (See? Storms again.)
But often the sense of being trapped more subtly pervades the stories, with references to a family caught in a vehicle sinking beneath the surface of the water, lumber chained on a logging truck, congested highway traffic with a string of tail lights, or workers battling a forest fire.
(You might think these details would be overlooked, but even if you’re not noting patterns in word choice and imagery, I bet your shoulders will be hunched a little as you read on in this collection, the tension seeping into your reader’s consciousness all the same.)
The threats are overtly identified in some stories: ”all the cold running in”, or “a short-circuit that has eaten a smouldering hole through his grey matter”, or a boy’s “mouth still rabid with foamy toothpaste”.
Sometimes they are unnamed but hovering around the edges of the story:
“People don’t think about what’s hiding in the cracks of the linoleum. They don’t think about the stinking mop that wipes the floors every night and smells like death.”
There is actual damage, however: a “bruise yellowing like an overripe pear”, the “falls where jumpers have died”, and arms “cut up, short, bloody slashes running diagonally from his wrists to his elbows”.
And this damage is occasionally self-inflicted, as is the case for Charlie, in “The Art of Eating”, who also carries a callus from his years of cooking experience:
“But no one considers the mess – the anger, the sweat, the bedlam, the burns and cuts and stings it takes to achieve the perfection of those delicate slices of rose-shaped cucumber balanced on the edge of their plate.”
Even more disturbingly, this damage can even be pursued, sought after, even when the risk is understood, as it is for the water plane bombers who work to put out the forest fires: “It’s not that they wanted the forest to burn, but there was an itch there they couldn’t ignore.”
(There is one story that I will wait for a long time to forget, in which damage is deliberately inflicted in a more immediate way, but I will not spoil that with discussion of the details; if you have read the collection, you will instantly catch the reference.)
It is not always about obvious damage, sometime the focus is on the creep of decay, like the story of a decomposing whale carcass designed to keep a curious sibling at bay, or the dead tooth in a counsellor’s mouth, or a rank puddle in a parking lot.
One character’s fatigue is like “old deep-fryer oil pumping through his arteries”, there are dreams of dreams of “his teeth chipping, crumbling, falling out”, and there is a “foul taste he suspects may be his life rotting away from the inside out”.
Sometimes this sense is contained in a handful of words like these, carefully chosen; other times a longer passage allows the sensation to bloom, even in an everyday domestic scene:
“An overflowing shoe rack in his front hall, underwear hanging from his towel racks in the bathroom, a pile of half-read baby books stacked on his bedside table – she is spreading over all of his stuff, over him, like spores on a week-old loaf of bread.”
And then there is the damage caused by absence, like when a transport truck passes there is a “phantom feeling of impact”.
For even when there is “no wind” in these stories, stillness is no consolation: there are “branches of the towering evergreens fossilized”, a man’s hair is a “tornado above his head”, and the light cast by orange floodlights is “thick with winged insects”.
Even emptiness contains motion, sometimes even a menace:
“His fists are clenched under the table and even with concentration he can’t seem to loosen them. He’s suddenly aware of the nothingness they’re strangling in their grip. Open or closed, they’re still empty.”
And there is an excess of emptiness, of loneliness in these stories. Characters struggle to connect, but still stories end with people missing one another, with only voices and memories where they long for a loved one: “She is my childhood. She’s the part of me that has passed and I miss her.”
Scratchy stories of predators and prey.
Tension and traps. Stress and small spaces.
Threats and decay. Injuries and scars.
So, why read these stories?
Because the “night is warm and star-speckled”.
Because there “are remedies for a dull heart”.
Because maybe Dawn is too smart for her own good, but she is also a young girl who plays with her dolphin keychain in the snow.
Because the ”mountains look like they’re covered in snow, but the breeze smells like grass, green and sweet”.
And because the berries taste like exhaust but “there’s a sweetness in them too”.
“The neighborhood is buzzing in the late-afternoon heat, tinder-dry, vulnerable to any kind of spark. There’s been a water ban all summer and the lawns are brown and thirsty. There are thunderstorms in the forecast.”
Stillness can erupt into chaos in an instant, and there are horrors that we cover up because they are unbearable; the stories in Théodora Armstrong’s Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility simultaneously illuminate and offer shelter from the storms we inhabit.