So many books to talk about! Including what’s currently in my stacks and my reading log.
My most recent Friday Fugue was a string of T.G.I.F. posts on books which explore fictional workplaces, including Deryn Collier’s Fortin mysteries. (one of my MRE authors.)
There’s talk of new fiction, including Mark Anthony Jarman’s Knife Party at the Hotel Europa and Neil Smith’s Boo and new non-fiction, including Joseph Luzzi’s In a Dark Wood and Sally Mann’s Hold Still.
Discussion of Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness began on June 20th, with chat about “Dimensions” and I expect it will continue with one story each Saturday. The schedule is here, and you’re welcome to join in, whether for a single story or for the whole collection. As for other reading projects, I’m also working through the books of Gabrielle Roy.
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!)
Beginning: Was it like this before? A slow start, a growing realization that these characters are not trying to be likeable, only to be believable?
Doubleday Canada, 2015
Pip (short for Purity) seems rather like a middle-aged woman in a young woman’s skin, so many worries and an overwhelming sense of disappointment.
She only has three friends left, and I’m not sure that I’d volunteer to be her fourth (but I do admire the effort she makes to bake the perfect cake).
Nor do I find that Andreas’s story is making me want to pick up the book in the evenings either.
But as Zoë Heller says: “In any event, sympathy, or likeability, is an overrated quality in fiction…. Since when did you start going to fiction to seek out people you like? If that’s what you’re looking for, go to a bloody cocktail party.”
Fitting. As so far, the only place that I find reading this enjoyable, is my local pub, with a beer in a frosted glass and companionable folks at the tables nearby (and, yes, it’s air-conditioned, and that absence of that luxury in my other reading sessions might be impacting my enjoyment of, well, everything).
Page 100: No, it wasn’t like this before, with The Corrections and Freedom.
Previously I have become quickly and dramatically immersed in his novels.
So I wonder if perhaps this isn’t a sign that Purity is a book “out of time” for me.
Should I set it aside, focus instead on my reread of Alias Grace?
[I think about this for a few days, but then decide that it’s now or never. There is a lot of talk about this novel right now, and if I wait, and stumble upon a spoiler, the decision will be made for me. I am still waiting to forget who the “suitable boy” is in Vikram Seth’s doorstopper of the same name.]
While deciding, I dipped into Jonathan Franzen’s collections of essays, looking for clues.
The first in Farther Away, is titled “Pain Won’t Kill You”, in which readers learn this: “To go through a life painlessly is not to have lived.”
Something tells me that the next hundred pages of Purity might be difficult too.
But despite the story’s painful elements, I recognize that Jonathan Franzen is well-read.
And I appreciate the sign-posts he offers along the way. Like when Andreas’s mother, Katya, says: “Enough with the Hamletizing.”
(And perhaps it was handy to have Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace at hand: “One father leads to another.”)
So I know to pay attention, watch for the spectre. “’What would you say,’ the ghost said, ‘if I told you I’m your father?'”
(You will have to read it – or some other reader’s thoughts on it – if you want to know the boy’s answer.)
But either way, what lies ahead will be disturbing, because “childhood was a sense-defying brainf*ck”.
It is hard to move ahead with a story, when the chances are that your narrator will be “still a wanting four-year-old, still betrayed by shit that had happened to [his/her] brain before [she/he] had a self that remembered”.
It is hard to have hope.
Page 200: And, yet, there is something about the voice behind this story that keeps me turning the pages.
The prose is dense, and sometimes it feels like I am caught on a spread for a half hour. (Admittedly this might be because I have not wanted to read this book at home lately. Sometimes it ends up at the bottom of the stack, untouched, for a few days.)
But there is something about the quality of the detail, the observing eye, which intrigues me.
And this new character, Leila Helou, from the Denver Independent? I’m curious.
“With whiskey, the capillary bloom was more diffusely rosy than with gin and less purple than with wine. Every university dinner party was a study in blooms.”
But the overarching tone is exclusionary, even when an invitation is issued. “‘He tells me a lot, sister. I’m still first among nobodies. Don’t you be forgetting that.'”
Every gesture of conciliation feels hesitant, if not outright hostile.
Page 300: The broadening cast of character is softening the edges of this story, but it is still a disturbing read.
“Apparently pity and betrayal were related.” There are a lot of different names which all describe feelings-that-I-would-rather-not-be-having, when in the company of these characters.
Page 400: It’s true that life is filled with inherently contradictory truths. And that’s not Jonathan Franzen’s fault.
“Don’t talk to me about hatred if you haven’t been married. Only love, only empathy and identification and compassion, can root another person in your heart so deeply that there’s no escaping your hatred of her, not ever; especially not when the thing you hate most about her is her capacity to be hurt by you. The love persists and the hatred with it. Even hating your own heart is no relief. I don’t think I’d ever hated her more than I did for exposing herself to the shame of my refusing to speak in Leonard’s voice.”
He is a believable character; I believe that this is his true version of events.
That his marriage has become something hard and brutal.
“She moved on while I stayed stuck. I have to hand it to her: I feel checkmated.”
Page 500: But that doesn’t make this comfortable reading.
And even though I am reading the last half of this novel (from the point at which Leila’s character extends the canvas) more quickly than the first half, I will be relieved to finish this story.
(Because I must finish it, now: there are things that I want to know. Really.)
“The people who’d bequeathed a broken world to her were shouting at each other viciously. Jason sighed and took her hand. She held it tightly. It had to be possible to do better than her parents, but she wasn’t sure she would. Only when the skies opened again, the rain from the immense dark western ocean pounding on the car roof, the sound of love drowning out the other sound, did she believe that she might.”
Ending: If a character in this story can only believe in something “better” when there is a storm pounding all around here, something is really wrong.
But, then, the alternative?
It never raining hard enough to block out the ugliness?
That doesn’t warm the heart either.
What I’m left with, is a nagging and burning feeling that there is no resolution.
This, on its own, is a quality that I appreciate in fiction. As with Alice Munro’s stories, I like having more questions than answers when I have turned a book’s final page. But in the company of these characters, I feel even more alone.
This could be the intent. There is no doubt in my mind that Jonathan Franzen writes with intent. That he has inhabited these characters and spent time in their skins.
Purity does not feel shaped or crafted in the way that a tale like this might (with its complicated relationships nipping and darting in the dark, beyond a reader’s scope). In “On Autobiographical Fiction”, Franzen explains that a “writer has to begin somewhere, but where exactly he or she begins is almost random”.
This feels true. But some of the details in the chaos feel dazzlingly deliberate. (For instance, the dual use of ‘Purity’ in the story – one representing a person and the other a thing – and that’s character’s nickname ‘Pip’ with all the Great Expectations involved with that allusion.)
And here again is that contradictory swell. In the same essay Jonathan Franzen writes: “I will note in advance that much of the struggle consisted—as I think it always will for writers fully engaged with the problem of the novel—in overcoming shame, guilt, and depression.”
Which if one extrapolates to the present-day, presents readers with the ultimate contradiction: Purity filled with and motivated by shame and guilt and depression.
No wonder this is hard.
It is hard to have hope.
You and your books have been a real downer lately. It’s not me, it’s you.
This was not in the stack. If it had been, I would have known that sadness awaited.
True, I stacked them there. But “disturbing and yet deeply moving” on the back cover did not prepare me for what was to come.
“Blood and brain tissue were splattered as far as the large elm trees standing more than twenty-five feet away, but his dark blue suit with matching light-blue shirt, silk vest, and tie remained undisturbed and immaculate. He was forty-seven years old.”
This was from the third book in a row which pulled me into dark territory
It wasn’t clear in the beginning, because the first instance of it was a children’s book, an ostensibly light-hearted story.
But, yes, the story opened in 1914. Fair warning, you say, and I agree: that’s on me. And, so, two sons go off to war. The first a stalwart and determined young man, who enlists straight-away. The second a gentle soul who writes poetry, who enlists only after a great deal of soul-searching.
And I believed that I was prepared. This classic tale was published almost a hundred years ago, and it’s well known that its author was devastated by The Great War; I knew it would not be easy reading. But I believed that I remembered the outcome; I thought the eager-to-enlist son died, but it was the poet.
It would have been sad either way, of course. Families and sweethearts left behind and, oh, this tugged at me something fierce: a dog who will not leave the train station, because his beloved companion has left on a train and has not, yet, returned. He cries and cries and then, one night, he howls. Still, he will not leave.
And, this? This was my lighter read.
The other in my stack was a contemporary novel which has lingered on my shelves for ages, by an author whose works I admire tremendously. I heard her read from it more than a decade ago, at the Eden Mills Festival, and I remember sitting on the hillside, laughing out loud at some of the bitterly funny parts, in this story about a mother whose son is on trial for murdering an elderly couple, while the mother is coping with a recent diagnosis of breast cancer.
You might think that I was warned here, too, despite those sharply funny bits. But besides the fact that the writing is top-notch, you would think that, if this is where the story begins (did I mention that her husband left her recently, for another woman?), it has to get better.
A stack of books like my recent reading could turn any reader into a Scaredy Squirrel.
And, yet, sometimes, in life it does not get better.
And in this novel, it gets worse.
It gets as bad as it can get.
The body count rises and for the last twenty pages I was past sobbing, turning the pages like an automaton.
When I set the book aside, I realized you might be up to something, beside-stack-of-books.
I started eyeing you from a different perspective. It was too hot to read anyway, one of those nights when you wish your body would not touch the mattress because it’s just so hot, hot, hot. Everywhere, hot. Inescapable.
I saw the short story collection there too, the one with ‘happiness’ in the title, but the only story remaining to reread in it was the least-funny story in it. Lots of people die in it too. And before they die? They are very UNhappy.
And there was another reread there, too, about a nineteenth-century woman convicted of murdering her employer and a housekeeper.
I knew not to pick up either of those.
The most recent arrival was a slim Canadian classic, which had been nominated for Canada Reads several years back, a work in translation with a reputation for being difficult reading.
And even though I am spoiler-phobic normally, I was anxious about this volume, so I started with the afterword. That’s where the blood and brain tissue came in, a description of the author’s suicide scene.
“Now I’m suddenly afraid that I’ll never get out, that all the doors are closed forever. My own future is a throbbing pain. I’m haunted not be passive melancholy but by rage, a rage that is mad, absolute, sudden, almost without an object!”
Dear Bedside Table — I know what you’re up to.
Is it too much? Or, just enough. What am I to make of this final story in my Alice Munro reading project. (I read her last collection, Dear Life, in 2012.)
While rereading Too Much Happiness, I was constantly aware of the references to being happy, to happiness, in the stories.
Straight away, in the first, Maggie asks Dorre “Is everything all right with you? I mean in your marriage? You’re happy?” and Doree doesn’t hestitate in saying ‘yes’.
But of course her studious determination not to hesitate reveals the charade. Which begs the question: does answering ‘yes’ also require a charade.
Women in these stories are happy when there is “nice weather or flowers in bloom or the smell of a bakery”, when they shed their day’s work at home and make the “last dash to the door, through the dark and the wind and the cold rain”. A young mother is “happy with her year-old son”. A man is happy that another woman’s child remembered him from a previous visit.
A child “is so happy she has cramps in her stomach”, then becomes “less stricken with adoration, though entirely happy”. A man who has killed two children believes that he is in communication with them, and reports that they are fine, “[r]eally happy and smart”.
A son refuses his father’s advice, claming that he was “very happy with the job he had now, and was making good money, or soon would be, as he got promoted”. Later, he lets “go of that stupid self stuff ” and says that since “I realized this I’ve been happy”.
A woman scorned imagined her ex hearing about “how pretty she looked, how sexy and happy, how she was simply bowling over all the men”; perhaps he would lament his choice “once he saw her happy and glamorous and in command rather than moping and suicidal”.
The woman scorning is “embarrassed to think how readily she had played the younger woman, the happy home wrecker, the lissome, laughing, tripping ingenue”.
A dying woman learns that an old friend has published a book: “How excited and happy I was to see your name in Maclean’s magazine.” Her nurse has a “soft happy voice”.
A dying man “sat propped up on his pillows and looked for all the world as if he was happy. Happy just to close his eyes and let her talk, then open his eyes and find her there, like a chocolate bunny on Easter morning. And then with his eyes open follow every twitch of her candy lips and sway of her sumptuous bottom.” Musings upon whether his wife and his mother were motivated by his happiness, and the ways in which they did/did not look happy in its pursuit, are also considered.
A man who is not in love with a woman urges her to return to where she has been living (apart from him), because “she should be happy where her friends were waiting for her”. A young man imagines being an omnibus boy but is warned that perhaps he “would not always be happy calling out the stations”. And he replies: “Why not? It’s very useful. It’s always necessary.”
Happiness can be ordered. “I order you, order you to be happy for me.”
Happiness can be arranged. “My heart will never heal. But I have something good to tell you, something happy. I am to be married in the spring.”
“Too Much Happiness” is about a woman who is a mathematician and a novelist. Readers much assume that because she resides in the title story, that there are clues to be found in her life about happiness.
“She had never heard of sines or cosines, but by substituting the chord of an arc for the sine, and by the lucky chance that in small angles these almost coincide, she was able to break into this new and delightful language.
She was not very surprised then, though intensely happy.
Such discoveries would happen. Mathematics was a natural gift, like the northern lights. It was not mixed up with anything else in the world, not with papers, prizes, colleagues, and diplomas.”
But in looking to this story for thoughts on happiness, readers are troubled.
And, so, I reread it yet again.
In the meantime, I found all sorts of talk of happiness in my other reading. In Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce, Annie is wondering at the fact that she has found happiness in the big city, the last place she would have expected to find it. (I am unsure whether the author is teasing her/us; her story is as-yet unfinished.)
In L.M. Montgomery’s journals, she writes: “Perfect happiness I have never had – never will have. Yet there have been, after all many wonderful and exquisite hours in my life.” [March 13, 1921]
I was revisiting her journals alongside a reading of her last Anne novel, Rilla of Ingleside. There is not a lot of happiness in that story of the home-front during Great War. “I could hear Jem’s whistle and Walter’s yodel, and the twin’s laughter, and for just a few blessed minutes I forgot about the guns on the western front, and had a little false, sweet happiness.”
This got me thinking about sadness, and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. “Also in Raissa, city of sadness, there was an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence.”
Which made me think that perhaps my questioning should take a more direct approach, so I picked up Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home, whose subtitle appears instructional: “kiss more, jump more, abandon a project, read Samuel Johnson, and my other experiements in the practice of everyday life”.
Therein, I discover a trove of quotations on the subject, scattered throughout like sprinkles left behind on the plate once-filled with Christmas cookies.
“Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.”
John Stuart Mill
“Happiness is not achieved by the conscious pursuit of happiness; it is generally the by-product of other activities.”
“Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.”
“The idea of happiness is surely the sun at the centre of our conceptual planetary system—and has proved just as hard to look at directly.”
“The important question is not, what will yield to man a few scattered pleasures, but what will render his life happy on the whole amount.”
Most of the men in Alice Munro’s stories seem to be as preoccupied by happiness as the women, whether it is in scattered moments or all-encompassing. But when her characters consciously pursue happiness, it only seems to work out if readers don’t peer too closely. And those who look directly at the sun are often, yes, burned for their daring.
All of these things are true and not-true. And, yet, there is a certain kind of happiness to be found in reading a good story.
Did you find this final story in the collection to be satisfying? If you could have rearranged the tales, would you have saved this one for the end?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the final story in this collection, also the final story in my reading project. The other stories in this collection were discussed as follows: Dimensions, Fiction, Wenlock Edge, Deep-Holes, Free Radicals, Face, Some Women, Child’s Play, and Wood. (Links to the stories in the other collections appear here.)
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
The majority of my reading time this year has been devoted to the books which have been living for years, though neglected, on my own bookshelves. In May and June, I had a planned rebellion, and I enjoyed a great number of new books. But now I have returned to my own shelves once more.
Anchee Min’s Red Azalea (1993)
“Falling in love is so powerful that it makes you forget about almost everything else, even making revolution. Instead of wanting to struggle and destroy things, you want to find peace and to celebrate living. Because the Party knows that people in love are no longer completely under its control, its leaders have always been deeply fearful of love.”
When Anchee Min left China in 1984, she tried to write her memoir, but it wasn’t until her knowledge of English improved that she was able to put this story to paper. She required a new language to share her experiences. A language which represented the freedom that she had, at last, found.
Because she is looking into the past, in writing Red Azalea, the structure of the novel is primarily chronological, beginning with her childhood (she was born in 1957), but with some slippery bits; sometimes, her recollections pull her into musings and reflections, and the story waits until she has relayed this only-later-understood information.
This adds a sense of urgency to the story, as though there is still something unfolding, even though it is only her present-day understanding and thinking (meaning present-day at the time of her writing) which is still in flux.
There is also an undercurrent of tension simply due to the historical events, the restraints and cruelties she endured during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Nonetheless, what is most impressive about this story is neither this sense of urgency or the underlying tension, but readers’ growing awareness of a poet who is observing a time of great change. This is intensifed, further, by her love for another young woman in the camp. (This book has also completely changed my feelings about mosquito nets.)
Suzette Mayr’s Moon Honey (1995)
Carmen was a young white girl before she was a young black girl. She was having (lots of) sex with her boyfriend Griffin in both skins. She likes that he knew her when she was white, because as she moves out of school and into the working world, as she collects new experiences like trading cards, the people who know her have always known her to be black.
And of course that comes with many suppositions and prejudices, which Carmen can cite rigorously because she used to possess and promote many of them as a privileged white girl with perfect blonde hair and all the best shades of lipstick.
So those who meet Carmen later in her life only see one side of her. And sometimes all they see is the colour of her skin. Moon Honey is an ideal vehicle to explore the complicated territory of racism, and Suzette Mayr’s penchant for transformative tales (see Venous Hum) was solidly afoot even in this first novel.
Carmen’s transformation unfolds in standard text, but the novel is punctuated with italicized passages detailing other dramatic changes which characters experience.
But just as remarkable are the glimpses into characters’ pasts, so that even the seemingly unsympathetic characters are shown a degree of understanding that readers might not have afforded them based on first impressions.
So that readers, too, can allow their ideas about the story to transform.
Gabrielle Roy’s The Hidden Mountain (1961; Trans. 1962 Henry Binnse)
“Now I’m practically in the Yukon. The world is vast; life a thing incredible, unforeseen. All is new. I have come back to life.”
When he shows his art to a new friend met in Paris, Pierre’s work has the power to transport.
Gabrielle Roy’s writing, too, depicts a strong sense of place which invites readers into new territories.
Her fifth novel not only spends a significant amount of time in northern lands, but also in France.
Pierre’s drawing is represented as hard work; it is more like mountain-climbing which requires serious exertion than day-dreaming which comes naturally and easily. In many ways, it is a quiet meditative novel.
“The death of the present is nothing; it is the loss of the future within oneself that is heart-rending.”
But there are sharper moments too, including the winter Pierre spends with a trapper in the north, and these visceral passages ensure that readers do not forgot that a mountain, hidden or otherwise, may have a beautiful peak but has a solid and impressive foundation beneath as well.
Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True (1998)
“Was that the night that triggered it- set into motion whatever had blossomed in Thomas’s brain? Biochemistry, biogenetics: none of the articles I’d read – none of the experts I’d listened to – had ever been able to explain why Thomas had gotten the disease and I hadn’t. Had we given it to him – my mother and Ray and me?” (762)
Readers who discovered his work with the Oprah-lauded debut, She’s Come Undone, will find many of the same qualities in Dominick’s story. Both stories feel as though they are told to you in a basement room, a sheltered and warm space but one which seems to demand an excess of afghans all the same.
You, as listener, sink into a couch, and when you reach up to have your tumbler filled with another finger of rum, you realize you’ve sunk deeper than you could have if there’d been any spring left in the cushions.
Wally Lamb likes to get down to details and his dialogue (inner and outer) is plentiful and wordy, and this story of twin brothers is painfully insular and sorrow-soaked: you can’t help but feel a little claustrophobic.
Every kind of loss that a person can experience makes an appearance in the novel and often it is reflected in another aspect of the story as well (which suits a story about twins).
Abuse and miscarriage, rape and betrayal, illness and alienation: all told in a tone which invites readers to hunker down, settle in.
And, after a few hundred pages, a second narrative emerges and alternates with the story paper: a translation of some family papers which adds another dimension to Dominick and Thomas’ experience with schizophrenia.
The plot is as compelling as one found in a Jodi Picoult novel but the prose is neither streamlined nor polished, so that the artistry seems to add only bulk instead of flare.
In some ways, this can be explained as one can explain The Goldfinch’s style and length: the product of a burdened and searching narrator.
But I fell a little in love with at least one of Donna Tartt’s characters, and perhaps that kind of connection is necessary for a work like this to afford a reader the opportunity to cosy into uncomfortable lodgings.
So far all the good reading on my own shelves has encouraged me to stick with this change in habits.
Have you been changing reading habits lately? Willingly or otherwise?
Facts are only the random detritus of our lives until they are connected by story. Stories, to paraphrase Robert Kroetsch, make us real. If there is anything like truth accessible to us in the world, it must be through the ways we tell of ourselves to each other.
Tomson Highway’s Comparing Mythologies (2003)
When asked about fishing, my uncle Gordon Robinson said: “The most important fishing operation for the Haisla’s was oolichan fishing….From reading a white man’s history, you get the impression that the Indians were continually at war. That is a false impression. There was a lot of trade, you lived by trade and you couldn’t trade with your enemy.”
Eden Robinson’s The Sasquatch at Home: Traditional Protocols & Modern Storytelling (2011)
This year I have read some stand-out collections, but for the most part I neglected to take notes from them:
Joy Williams’ Honored Guests, Kathleen Winter’s The Freedom in American Songs, Jessica Grant’s Making Light of Tragedy, Shawn Syms’ Nothing Looks Familiar, Elaine McCluskey’s Hello, Sweetheart, Julia Leggett’s Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear, Mark Anthony Jarman’s Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, Rhonda Douglas’ Welcome to the Circus, and some Alice Munro rereading (The View from Castle Rock and Too Much Happiness).
My notebook was at hand for Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Water Museum, however, and many passages caught my attention, but this one sums up the collection perfectly:
“Why, hell – he was deep into some kind of strange Italian western. There were patterns moving across the sky, high, where small scallops of cloud shimmered like mother-of-pearl. He felt a part of the great becoming, the revelation of the West.”
Little, Brown and Company, 2015
This is from “Taped to the Sky”, but this sense of a “great becoming”, this pattern of revelations, this strange depth of feeling – this sense infuses the collection as a whole. Some themes resurface throughout the collection and add to the cohesion.
Sometimes this sense of expanse is a positive force, filled with promise, aloft. As in “The National City Reparation Society”: “I hven’t talked to you [Chango] in ten years,” Junior said. He sat on the tabletop and lay back and watched the undersides of gulls as they hung up there like kites.”
Other times, it is more an expanse of emptiness, as in “Mountains Without Number”: “Is a town dead when the old men die, or when the children leave?”
And, then, it can be something in between, as in “Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush”:
“The river seemed, at times, to be on a mad shopping spree, taking from the land anything it fancied. Mundane things such as trees, chckens, cows shot past regularly. But marvelous things floated there too: a DeSoto with its lights on, a wshing machine with a religious statue in it as though the saint were piloting a circular boat, a blond wig that looked like a giant squid, a mysterious star-shaped object barely visible under the surface.”
Which leads to another of the collection’s preoccupations, for here a flooded river can have a cow or a saint’s statue floating in it.
This is true in terms of story, at times, but discussing those instances would reveal spoilers. Suffice it to say that Luis Albeto Urrea also expresses this preoccupation in his desciptions of his characters’ world. (Only the first part actually reveals the sense of extremes in his prose, but I just love this buttons image from “Taped to the Sky”.)
“Barbed wire twinkled like spiderwebs and dew. The sky went all the way up and over and down. He’d never seen so much sky. It looked like the little sage bushes on the horizon were buttons holding it to the ground.”
And, in contrast, in “Mountains Without Number”, not barbed wire, but the softest thing: “Cool fog blanketed the face of the butte – the softest thing the valley had ever known.”
A similar sense of contrasting sensory details in evident in this passage from “Taped to the Sky”: “It was a good day. Ten miles ahead, on the port side of the highway, there was a buffalo herd Horses liked to look at. And beyond that, to the starboard, a llama ranch amused him when he passed it. And ostriches. It was like a free zoo all of a sudden. And he knew the Rockies would appear out of the blue haze to his right. Bright and vivid on the horizon, looming as he veered nearer, Growing taller.”
And sometimes it exists even in the details of characterization, as in this snippet from “Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush”: “To be macho, you must already know everything, know it so well that you’re already bored by the knowledge.”
Then, there is the collection’s focus on the Extraordinary.
But that is best discovered on its own terms. (You’ve caught a glimpse of it in the quotes above, I’m sure.)
Contents: Mountains Without Number; The Southside Raza Image Federation Corps of Discovery; The National City Reparation Society; Carnations; Taped to the Sky; Amapola,; Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush; The White Girl; Young Man Blues; Chametla; The Sous Chefs of Iogüa; Welcome to the Water Museum; Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses
For the past several months,I have been reading Gabrielle Roy‘s fiction. Her Street of Riches (1957) is a linked collection of stories too, with a tone similar to The Road Past Altamont. (Henry Binsse translated Street of Riches in 1967.)
This summer I have also enjoyed Gabrielle Roy’s Enchanted Summer, which is also soaked with her own memories. Its pieces are perfectly satisfying for an end-of-day read or an over-coffee-musing. Some of them are only a few pages long, others between six and twelve pages, and the collection begins and ends with the author and her sister travelling to a particular pond, where they have visited during many summers (some more enchanting than others).
Street of Riches has the same feel of familiarity, nostalgia dotted with wisdom discovered later in life. “’Without the past, what are we, Edouard?’ she asked. ‘Severed plants, half alive!'” Another quote from “The Gadabouts” also reveals this preoccupation: “Upon her face her memories were like birds in full flight.”
And as with so much of Canadian fiction, memory is intertwined with talk of time: “Was all this lost time? Then why is it that the time of futile questions, of minute problems probed to no effect, is the time that recurs and recurs to the soul as the time it has used the best?” (This quote is from “My Whooping Cough”.)
Another theme which is also at the heart of the author’s first novel, The Tin Flute, is the mother-daughter relationship. Maman in that novel is ambivalent about her role just as is the mother in “Petite Misère”: “Oh! Why did I ever have any children!”
Similiarly, in both novels, there is sympathy accorded to the mother’s character, even though being her daughter is not always easy. “I was about to answer when I realized that Maman’s anger, assuredly like many people’s, was no more than wearisome regret, the accumulation of many hurts in her heart.” (This is from “L’Italienne”.)
Just as in one of my favourite tales in Road Past Altamont, a journey is at the heart of one of these stories too (“To Prevent a Marriage”) and the experience gained while travelling is invaluable for the narrator too.
“’Are we in Saskatchewan?’ I asked Maman, and was about to feel pleased, because passing from one province to another seemed to me so great an adventure that it would certainly and completely transform Maman and me, perhaps make us happy.’
The simple matter of distance is often at lurking behind the characters’ experiences in Gabrielle Roy’s novels, even when an actual journey is not involved (consider the isolation of the family in Where Nests the Water Hen).
“A far journey to have come merely to behave, in the end, like everyone else – earn your living, try to make friends, learn our language, and then, in Wilhem’s case, love someone who was not for him. Do adventures often turn out so tritely? Obviously enough, though, in those days I did not think so.” (This quote is from “Wilhelm”.)
And, finally, here is one particularly bookish quote, which is my favourite in the collection:
“All around me were the books of my childhood, which here I had read and reread, in a dancing beam of dusty light, pouring down like a ray of sun from the gable window. And the happiness the books had given me I wished to repay. I had been the child who reads hidden from everyone, and now I wanted myself to be this beloved book, these living pages held in the hands of some nameless being, woman, child, companion, whom I would keep for myself a few hours. Is there any possession equal to this one? Is there a friendlier silence, a more perfect understanding?” (This is from “The Voice of the Pools”.)
Contents: The Two Negroes; Petite Misère; My Pink Hat; To Prevent a Marriage; A Bit of Yellow Ribbon; My Whooping Cough; The Titanic; The Gadabouts; The Well of Dunrea; Alicia; My Aunt Thérésina Veilleux; L’Italienne; Wilhelm; The Jewels; The Voice of the Pools; The Storm; By Day and by Night; To Earn My Living
Do you have some short stories in your stacks these days?
Strangely enough, although I read this story twice earlier this year as well, when I scanned the table of contents I could not place it.
Planning to reread for a third time this morning, I had no idea; it wasn’t until the talk of the truck and Roy’s need to gather the wood sooner than expected, that I remembered.
What strikes me as funny about that, is that “Wood” is one of the more obvious titles (along with, perhaps, “Face” and “Deep-Holes”, although the hyphen in the latter remains mysterious, maybe some comment on unexpected connections).
And, yet, the first question I had, upon finishing this reread, was “Why, “Wood”?”. And, next: “Why not, “Forest”? And, then: “How many woodworkers does it take to fuel an Alice Munro collection?”
Perhaps fittingly, the other story in Too Much Happiness which contains talk of the forest, is “Fiction” (possibly my favourite, but I also really like “Child’s Play” and “Wenlock Edge” and “Some Women” and, oh never mind, I should have known better than to start down that road).
“Fiction” begins with Joyce driving home, where woodworking-Jon awaits, “beyond the limits of the town into the forest, and though it was a real forest with great Douglas firs and cedar trees, there were people living in it every quarter-mile or so”. Jon and his woodworking assistant Edie soon inhabit this house in the woods together, rather than Joyce and Jon.
And in “Free Radicals”, there is the question of Nita/Bett learning carpentry from Rich, one of them playing assistant-à-la-Edie too.
In “Wood”, Roy laments not having trained his wife’s niece, Diane. But loyal Alice Munro readers will think it just as well that he did not: the role of assistant-woodworker is extremely complicated in Munro territory.
The end of “Wood” makes it clear that the title was chosen deliberately. Perhaps, if Roy never did think of the word, readers could have debated whether the title was significant. But under the circumstances, it is named for “wood” and not for “forest” and we are meant to note that distinction.
In “Fiction”, the boundaries between home and forest are significant. “Perhaps it was that most were meant not just to look out on but to open directly into the forest darkness, and that they displayed the haven of home so artlessly.”
In “Wood”, the boundaries appear to demarcate psychological territory. “There’s another name for the bush, and this name is stalking around in his mind, in and out of where he can almost grasp it. But not quite. It’s a tall word that seems ominous but indifferent.”
As single entities, the trees do not appear ominous. “The ash, the maple, the beech, the ironwood, the cherry, are all safe for him. For the time being, all safe.” But taken together, they become something other.
It is dark and the snow is falling and Roy can no longer see behind the first trees. This is when he notices something about the bush that he thinks he has missed previously.
“How tangled up in itself it is, how dense and secret. It’s not a matter of one tree after another, it’s all the trees together, aiding and abetting each other and weaving into one thing. A transformation, behind your back.”
There are other transformations in Too Much Happiness. In “Fiction”, Joyce and Edie’s daughter are transformed and reality is turned into fiction. In “Dimensions” there is talk of bears shedding coats and snakes their skins.
Benmiller Inn, near Goderich (which I imagine to be the inspiration for the hotel in this story)
Here, in “Wood”, in the bush, in the wood, in the forest, Roy is transformed too. He no longer recognizes the security in the woodlots that he once found there. And he no longer recognizes Lea, who has been immobilized by depression but now appears capable and strong enough to offer Roy the assistance he requires.
But there, he “isn’t feeling quite the way he thought he would if her vitality came back to her” and he makes more noise to dramatize his pain in a way which reveals to him that he is uncomfortable with Lea’s seeming return. “But even if it is for good, even if it’s all good, there’s something more. Some loss fogging up this gain. Some loss he’d be ashamed to admit to, if he had the energy.”
For Lea, too, has transformed. And it’s lucky for Roy that this is the case, for she has found him in the bush, with the wood, in the forest, one ankle useless and the tools left behind, already buried by the snow where he fell.
There are two more mentions of the “forest” in “Fiction”, a reference to Matt having grown up in “a house on Windsor Road on the slope of Grouse Mountain on what used to be the edge of the forest” and Christie’s memory of coming to terms with lost innocence, the “buoyancy of her hopes, the streaks of happiness, the curious and delightful names of the forest flowers that she never got to see”.
There is nothing curious or delightful about the forest Roy sees at the end of “Wood”. But, then, that’s “Fiction”.
“Forest. That’s the word. Not a strange word at all but one he has possibly never used. A formality about it that he would usually back away from.”
But then he says “The Deserted Forest”. He must have used this word. He must have some previous impression or understanding of it.
It sounds like a line from a poem. But the poems I know are schoolchildren’s territory. Whose woods these are I think I know. (And, of course Roy knows exactly whose woods they are.) Two roads diverged in a yellow – not snowy – wood. (Roy could not even see the path behind him, where he had crawled, because the snow was falling so quickly.)
Anyway, what good would it do to track a single line from a poem. Wouldn’t it be about the whole poem in any case, rather than just a line?
But I am not convinced. There is something significant here about fragments and representations. About the way in which parts are split from wholes, a branch that a lathe can transform into a table leg and a mind whose sadness can swell until all else is obliterated.
Roy works with the wood, but he views it as fuel, something cut into pieces and consumed (sometimes creating a lovely smoke along the way). He lives with Lea, but he views her as helpless, someone who no longer hears his stories (sometimes offering a senseless comment at the end).
At first glance, it seems as though Lea is in the forest, but in the end, I think she was watching the whole time, as Roy edged closer and closer to the darkness, further from the warmth.
How different would this story have been if titled “Fire”?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the second last story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, the title story “Too Much Happiness”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
My IFOA Wednesdays are starting later than usual this year because I have been indulging in new books this summer. (You can check out my Summer Reading To-Do List, for all kinds of reading weather.)
But now that I’m looking at the calendar, there are dozens of books (new and backlisted) catching my attention.
Many of the authors who have appeared at events already this year and/or are scheduled to attend this October 22nd-November 1st have already made an appearance in my stacks.:
Harbourfront Authors 2015
Giles Blunt, Dionne Brand, Clark Blaise,
Lorna Crozier, Austin Clarke, Farzana Doctor,
Marina Endicott, Brian Francis, Lauren Groff,
Lawrence Hill, Helen Humphreys, Jeff Latosik,
Anne Michaels, Jordi Punti, Andrew Pyper,
Sabrina Ramnanan, Rosemary Sullivan, Ray Smith,
Karen Solie, Jillian Tamaki, Ayelet Tsabari, Miriam Toews,
Adrian Tomine, Jane Urquhart and Guy Vanderhaeghe.
Some of these have been recent reads, like Close to Hugh, Nothing Like Love, and The Wrong Cat.
Others have been particular favourites, like This One Summer and Love Enough.
But what a list like this does for me, more than anything, is give me the itch to make more lists, reading lists.
And because this year I am trying to read more backlisted books, those titles about which I keep saying “I’ve been meaning to read that for ages”, I am eyeing the works on my shelves by these authors which have gone too-long-unread.
Maybe this will be the season in which I finally make reading time for these other titles (often written earlier) by Canadian authors whose other works I’ve enjoyed.
Clark Blaise – Several times, A North American Education has gotten close to the top of my stacks, when I am looking for short fiction to add to my pile (but the newer titles often win out). Nonetheless, given how much I liked The Meagre Tarmac, I truly do hope to get to more of his stories soon.
Austin Clarke – Because he has published such a diverse list of works, including memoir and poetry, I have difficulty choosing which of his books I would like to read next. But because I did really enjoy More, I think that I would like to aim for fiction, probably the Toronto trilogy (also, obviously, set in Toronto), which begins with The Meeting Place.
Brian Francis – Fruit was such a charismatically-told story that I have worried for a long time that I wouldn’t enjoy another story of his as much. But, then, he started writing an advice column in Quill&Quire and I liked that as much as his blog on Caker Cooking, and I realized that if I could like these two things, which didn’t seem probable, I would probably love Natural Order as much as everyone else who’s read it seems to.
Lawrence Hill – Hearing him read from his memoir some years back at the Eden Mills Festival (long before The Book of Negroes) was what attracted me to this writer’s work, and I’ve collected his books ever since, but I’ve done a poor job of reading them. Any Known Blood is the one which most intrigues me, and that’s the one I’d like to read right now.
More Harbourfront Authors 2015
Helen Humphreys – Her AfterImage won me over, and I have enjoyed everything that I’ve read, and I’ve attended many readings, but I still have Leaving Earth and Wild Dogs left to read. I’ve heard good things about both of them, so why not?
Miriam Toews – The local feminist bookstore brought her Summer of My Amazing Luck to my attention when it was first published (her first novel) and I loved it. A few years back, I reread it. So why didn’t I reach for Irma Voth or Swing Low? I should do that, I know.
Jane Urquhart – So far, the book of hers that I loved the best was Sanctuary Line. Many people count Away as their favourite, but I just didn’t connect with it in the same way, even on re-reading. Both The Stone Carvers and The Underpainter have been recommended to me so many times, and by so many different readers, that I still feel a pull towards them, in hopes that I will love them as much as they did.
Guy Vanderhaeghe – Having enjoyed A Good Man so much more than I expected to, I immediately wanted to read everything else of his, and now that there is a new story collection, that is particularly inviting. But I still haven’t read The Englishman’s Boy and that’s the one I’m eyeing now.
And, then, there is the question of wanting to make time for particular rereads. Like Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces, Helen Humphreys’ The Lost Garden and Lorna Crozier’s The Garden Going on without Us.
And those individual books which have caught my eye that I have bought, often in a fit of must-have-ness but, then, have neglected horribly. Like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Anakana Schofield’s Malarky, Russell Smith’s Confidence, Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right to be Cold, Meg Wolitzer’s The Position, and Ronald Wright’s A Scientific Romance.
A favourite festival can provide the perfect reason to fill some gaps in one’s reading plans.
But it can also add demonstrably to one’s TBR and lead one to newer and shinier books.
For a list of the confirmed 2015 participants, check here. Which would you recommend?
There are many particpants whose works I haven’t discussed in this post, many first-time authors and writers from elsewhere: if there is one you would recommend, please let me know. As you can tell, I am in need of new and more complex reading projects!