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

Fresh bookishness!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How about you: what are you reading these days, and what are you looking forward to reading soon?

(First time here? Please don’t be shy: there’s no such thing as too much bookchat! Please leave a comment, say hello, talk books!)

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In My Reading Log, Summer 2017

In which there is talk of novels which were read too quickly to allow for extensive note-taking and snapshots: good reading.

Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door (2017)
Omotoso The Woman Next DoorLonglisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize this year, this story about two women in their eighties, neighbours in South Africa, is quietly mesmerizing. The prose is straightforward, the action inward, but something about Hortensia and Marion made this unputdownable for me.

Hortensia is living in the house which Marion designed when she was an up-and-coming young architect (before she gave up her career to focus on raising her family). Now both women are widows for Hortensia’s husband has recently died, and while she and Marion are at odds – and have been for, well, always – their conflict plays out against a backdrop of a more distanced conflict, in which a family who was unjustly removed from their land generations before is seeking permission to bury a loved one’s ashes in their community.

Both women married white men and benefitted from the prestige this alliance secured or protected (but also suffered from different kinds of injustice). When Marion comes to learn some of the community’s history, she longs to apologize – to her housekeeper, Agnes and even to Hortensia – but she cannot find the words. Her history of malice and cruelty leads her to dark places, and she is stunned to discover that Hortensia is not naturally superior anymore than she was declared naturally inferior under Apartheid, for Hortensia, too, is capable of cruelty.

How we refuse one another the simple (and complicated) kindnesses, when or whether it is to late to correct longstanding wrongs, and how we cope when we are in desperate need (and on an everyday basis, when we are not): these big ideas made me admire Yewande Omotoso’s novel, but those two small characters were what kept me turning the pages (especially Hortensia’s smart mouth).

Cusk The Lucky OnesRachel Cusk’s The Lucky Ones (2003)
Beginning with an unforgettable sequence involving a first-time mother’s particularly intense labour sessions (rather than spoil it, you can imagine what conditions might make labour even more intense), this is a startlingly tense novel, especially given that most of the action is psychological and relational.

There are many brief but disturbing dramatic scenes (some outright violent, some unfolding in a hostile environment) and the characters who inhabit them are linked, but the connections between them are not fully understood for some time. This collection of linked stories (blurbed as a novel) is not as tightly constructed as, say, Simon van Booy’s The Illusion of Separateness (2013) but nor is it as loose as, say, Katie Ward’s Girl Reading (2012).

What does excuse the ‘novel’ billing however is that the work is also linked thematically. The characters do intertwine but the even stronger sense of connection is, ironically, the pervasive sense of disconnect. Whether a 61-year-old woman is confronting her husband with year’s of (mostly) swallowed bitterness or a 20-something young woman is disappointed in a vacation which hasn’t turned out as she’d hoped, these characters are disappointed and adrift, even those who seem most determinedly rooted.

The work opens with a quote from Katherine Mansfield: “The firm compact little girls were not half so brave as the tender, delicate-looking little boys.” Katherine Mansfield readers will take the hint: not a lot happens here, not in a traditionally-plot-soaked sense. Other readers will be left just as aswim: is it better to be firm or tender, brave or delicate-looking? Any answer that you think you might spot, by squinting between the lines, will be contradicted in just a few pages. Which is what makes this story so challenging. So comfortable. So tragic. And exhilarating.

Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo (2010)

Storytellers in the world of Karen Lord’s debut novel seek out drama, as “excellent observers of humanity, professional harvesters of gossip and scandal”.  If readers assume they’re in for a romp, they’re right. This does not necessarily mean a tidy resolution: “Now I have come at last to the end of the story. For some in my audience, a tale is like a riddle, to be solved at the end. To then I say the best tales leave some riddles unanswered and some mysteries hidden. Get used to it.”

Infused with elements of Caribbean and Senegalese folklore, the characters feel both strange and familiar. (Although here an immortal can have not only wisdom and a sharp tongue but a sense of humour as well.) Not all of the main characters are human, but every one of them faces some disadvantages as well. (Well, how many of us know any immortals well enough to have conversations about their daily lives and their work, their responsibilities and to-do lists. It can’t be all fun and games.)

“’‘It must be nice, not to have to eat, or sleep, or get cold and wet,’ Paama complained, shaking the drizzle off her grey wrap.
‘It must be nice,’ the djombi parroted in reply, ‘to taste, to dream, to feel the wind and the rain in your face.’”

 

The storyteller’s voice is direct and playful, and readers never forget that they are being led on this journey. “We are going to leave Paama and Giana for a while, because there are other things happening elsewhere that we should examine now lest they surprise us later on.” These directions (which some readers might feel to be intrusions) are scattered lightly through the text, but the chapters are short and the pacing solid, so that they feel like friendly nudges.

Although warned that in “stories as in life, it is an impossible task to please everybody”, Redemption in Indigo is enchanting, appealing directly to the sense of wonder in each of us. Her second novel is reputed to be every bit as satisfying, and I’m really looking forward to it.

What books have you been reading too quickly for note-taking?

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Mavis Gallant’s “The Moabitess”

Miss Horeham seems to have walked straight out of a Barbara Pym novel: an older woman with standards which are disappointed with some regularity.

Gallant My Heart is Broken. jpgShe has lived in this pension for long enough to see families come and go, long enough to recognise the rhythms of the seasons there, and to feel justified in complaining when things are not “just so”.

Mind you, she doesn’t do so on a whim. She needs some encouragement. The kind that comes from consuming a half-litre of red wine, left behind by the Lawrences from Wimbledon. This makes her bold and “talky”, gives her a “grape-coloured flush”.

Not that the standards are worth fighting for here; everybody knows that the decent places are closed over the holidays until after Christmas.

Miss Horeham doesn’t live in the decent places, but she is not so far removed from the idea of them that she doesn’t recognise another layer of propriety just out of her reach.

Although irritable and judgemental, Miss Horeham is not an entirely unsympathetic character. Readers learn that she demonstrated a sort of devotation to her father who, in turn, left her a pile of debts upon his death.

Almost at the end of the story, readers learn that he did not even appear to recognise his daughter on his deathbed, or, alternatively, did not bother to know her well enough to call her by her name. Instead, he called her Ruth.

Miss Horeham, however, is equipped to deal with disappointments. She has learned to camouflage them, colour them differently. She is not so much a woman in search of a silver lining, as a woman who has tucked a can of silver spray-paint in her oversized purse, ready to go at a moment’s notice.

(Another character might colour the entire story differently, for we see things from Miss Horeham’s perspective, but perhaps her father’s confusion was rooted in his physical deterioration, not a personal slight.)

So the story of her father’s deathbed becomes a somewhat romantic tale, in which Miss Horeham is wrapped in a beautiful Sicilian scarf – red and green and black stripes – a glamourous item bought on holiday. She bestows a kind of magic on it, claims that it transforms her into Ruth the Moabitess from the Bible.

She stores it in a small trunk of treasures, which she sorts through on nights when reading Proverbs does not subdue her restlessness.

The most recent addition to the trunk is a stone, which the boy who lives in the pension with his parents throws at her. The ever-resilient Miss Horeham chooses to view this as a gift from the boy and she puts it in the trunk with her other items of value.

Of similar value, readers wonder. If the stone was actually an object thrown at her in anger, what does that make the scarf (or the other items secreted therein)? Is it actually a box of treasures or a box of shameful and sorrowful memories?

The story is not intended to be uplifting, but neither is it barren and sombre. Not entirely. The rain comes off the Alps in “gusts, like grey swells, to merge with the grey fog on the sea”, but “on November nights, the world closed comfortably in”.

She never shared her life with any man other than her father, but she dreamed of it once, a dream “small and bright” which “slipped under the leaves [of her memory] again”. And perhaps the dream is preferred to any reality. Just as she considers noon in November to be much like a brilliant evening.

Yellow_Fairy_Book_1894The young married couple in the pension, the Oxleys, have a life replete with complications and unpleasantnesses. Mothering is wearying for the missus, and the mister spends his evenings at the pub.

This creates the opportunity for pleasant and ingratiating Mr Wynn to assist with putting Tom to bed in the evenings. But one evening he is still in the Oxleys’ room quite late, and Mr Oxley makes a scene upon discovering the adults there when he has returned from the pub.

This results in Mr Wynn’s hasty departure the following morning and puts Tom at the heart of a turf war the following day. His father whisks him away to the beach, which seems as though it should be brilliant, but both return rumpled and irritable.

Miss Horeham’s disapproval runs rampant, but she sees no need to prettify the confrontation she has observed. She has a stake in wanting the single life to appear to be competitive on the scale of disappointment and discontentment, and the Oxley family’s misfortune is just another shadow in the fog.

An injury to Miss Horeham can be transformed into a treasure, but another’s injury is allowed to shine on its own terms, transforming her own quiet life into something of value.

As valuable as any bright piece of a dream might have been in some other life.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the third story in My Heart is Broken. It has not been collected elsewhere (AFAIK). Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.

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Chinese Girls: In Fiction, In Photos

Bette Bao Lord’s In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson (1984) opens when Bandit is living in China in her grandparents’ home. She is ten years old (nine in Western birthdays) and she is about to learn that she will be going to live in the United States.

Lord In the Year of the Boar  “Holding Precious Coins even tighter, Bandit inched toward the carved ebony chair in the center of the room. She kept her eyes on Grandmother’s bound feet, which rested on a stool.
She set the boy down. At once he plopped to the floor and put his arms around her left leg.
‘Good morning, Grandmother,’ she whispered, still keeping her eyes on Grandmother’s feet. They were very tiny, like little red peppers.”

One of Marc Simont’s illustrations accompanies this description, capturing the young girl’s uncertainty and her brother’s fierce grip perfectly. Soon after, she adopts a name suitable for America; she chooses Shirley Temple.

“Home was Brooklyn, New York, but Shirley would not know that for a while. To her, it was simply Mei Guo, Beautiful Country.”

As the chapters unfold, one for each month of the year in the Western calendar, Shirley’s perspective alters slightly, the number of Chinese words gradually decreasing as she becomes more integrated into her new life in Brooklyn, attending P.S. 8 and learning to love baseball.

“Shirley felt as if the walls of the classroom had vanished. In their stead was a frontier of doors to which she held the keys.
‘This year, Jackie Robinson is at bat. He stands for himself, for Americans of every hue, for an America that honors fair play.”

In an era in which the president of the United States does not honour fair play, does not believe that Americans exist in more than one hue, the passages spoken by Shirley’s teacher, and by Jackie Robinson himself when he (oh, wait: spoiler! never mind!) are particularly touching.

Sometimes, books written for children just get it right in the simplest terms. Shirley is not a perfect child. She makes mistakes and misjudgements (often reaching just beyond her grasp, then requiring the assistance of someone more experienced – well, this is what childhood is about) and often quietly regrets her decisions but determinedly moves forward.

Amitabha! Why had she been so quick to show off again? Next time, she would hold her tongue. Next time…if there ever was a next time.”

She brought a much-needed pluck to my reading stack. Her story also brought an additional layer of sadness to my explorations in Richard Bowan’s Mei Mei Little Sister: Portraits from a Chinese Orphanage. Novels like Bette Bao Lord’s make it easier to imagine experiences far removed from our own lives.

Bowen Tan Mei MeiTurning the pages of mei mei I couldn’t help but think of Bandit, couldn’t help but want a happy ending for the girls in these photographs.

The introduction to this volume is written by Amy Tan, “The Unfinished Story of Our Lives”, who also discusses her own experience looking at these images.

“I must be careful not to fall into either helpless pity or the romanticism that I can rescue them all. I must avoid the ethnocentric gaze of comparing these girls to luckier or unluckier ones. I want to see each girl for who she is. It’s impossible, of course. But it’s good to ask every now and then. What is the essence of any of us beyond the comparative assessment of others?”

Ultimately, she arrives upon the importance of witnessing.

“As with any photograph one might see in a history book or a family album of snapshots, they are portals, to another’s consciousness in a particular time and place. For as long as we look, we can imagine. With a bit of imagination, we can inhabit that moment over and over again, that mind and heart, that smile or frown, those desires and needs. We can look and hope to know more. That is the start of compassion, I think. The rest just naturally follows. And before we’ve even finished turning the pages, those girls are already part of our lives.”

P.P. Wong, author of The Life of a Banana, underscores the importance of Asian writers telling their own stories. The last page in her debut novel encourages readers (and writers) to visit www.bananawriters.com which is a fantastic resource. (Warning: your TBR list will likely grow demonstrably if you read these interviews.)

Wong Life of a BananaThe Life of a Banana (2014) landed on my stack because it was longlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize a couple of years ago. (I’ve never been disappointed in the books on this prize’s longlists, and quite often they have brought a terrific writer onto my reader’s radar.)

Xing Li’s voice is smart and funny, even though readers meet her in London after her mother has died. The book’s presentation is playful, too, with little images marking the beginning and ending of each chapter.

But it can’t all be fun and games in the wake of such a trauma, especially given that she and her brother must now adjust to life with a more traditional Chinese grandmother.

Ultimately Xing Li learns that life was not easy for her mother either; she, too, felt pulled and torn when aspects of her identity left her in conflict.

“Mama wrote to Autie Mei every week, it must have been tough hiding Papa away while being there for Uncle Ho. Mama’s big heart must have had to split into two, one half for Papa, one half for Uncle Ho. How did Mama do it? She was always splitting her heart for everyone. Once Mama’s best friend Mrs. Alsanea told me ‘Your mother’s heart splits in all directions. If someone asks for help she never knows when to say no. She takes on too much, sometimes I’m worried that your mother’s heart will explode.’ Mrs. Alsanea was right, when the oven exploded and killed Mama her heart exploded too.”

The structure depends upon some overly earnest and spelled-out-for-you explanations like this one; Xing Li is only twelve when her mother dies, so there’s only so much she can provide as a narrator. She did not have the opportunity to understand her mother’s choices herself, so she relies upon others to supply her with that information, which makes for some “so-and-so-said”. And she’s not significantly older or experienced in telling this story, so she doesn’t quite own the insight even when she relays it to readers, which muddies the waters of her maturity.

There are, however, many aspects of the story which are satisfying: her friendship with Jay, her brother’s different way of coping with their mother’s death, the trip to Singapore, and her glimpse into her grandmother’s pasr during the trip (though the attempt to update it felt tacked-on). On a scenic-level, there are a lot of powerful moments in The Life of a Banana.

Have you read any of these? Does one of them appeal to you more than the others?

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Mavis Gallant’s “Bernadette”

Alice Munro’s hired girls like to read too.In “Sunday Afternoon”, Alva asks Mr. Gannett if she could borrow “King Lear” and, also, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

Mr. Gannett agrees to share his books with Alva, just as Mr. Montjoy gifts the young Alice with his copy of Seven Gothic Tales at the end of the summer in “Hired Girl”, in The View from Castle Rock.

In Mavis Gallant’s “Bernadette”, Robbie Knight also loans Bernadette Le rouge et le noir, as well as L’Amant de Lady Chatterley, La porte etroite, and one of the Claudine books.

Oh, the disappointments and betrayals: love is not all what one hoped. Neither for servant girls nor married folks.

Bernadette has moved from Abitibi to work for the Knights, Robbie and Nora, who have been married for nearly 16 years. Robbie is a consulting engineer, the ‘Knight’ of Turnbull, Knight & Beardsley. In many ways, they are the establishment.

“They considered themselves solidly united. Like many people no longer in love, they cemented their relationship with opinions, pet prejudices, secret meanings, a private vocabulary that enabled them to exchange amused glances over a dinner table and made them feel a shade superior to the world outside the house.”

When readers meet her, and when the Knights meet her, Bernadette dreams of a more satisfying unity, even if she can’t really describe it. “She believed in love and in uncomplicated stories of love, even though it was something she had never experienced or seen around her.”

But the concept seems somewhat removed, not only from her daily life and experience, but from the world around her. “She did not really expect it to happen to her, or to anyone she knew.”

Bernadette carries with her, within her, not only an absence of hope, but a kind of darkness, a sense of impending loss. “Death and small children were inextricably knotted in Bernadette’s consciousness. As a child she had watched an infant brother turn blue and choke to death. She had watched two others die of diphtheria.”

Her mother had 13 children in 15 years and only six of them survived. Bernadette’s family situatin and size is significant because Mrs. Knight has begun to suspect that Bernadette is pregnant, although she has no intentions of addressing the matter.

Partly because she simply doesn’t wish to. “In spite of her own motherhood, Nora detested, with a sort of fastidious horror, any of the common references to pregnancy. But even to herself, now, she could think of Bernadette only in terms of the most vulgar expressions, the terminology her own family (long discarded, never invited here) had employed. Owing to a ‘mistake’, Bernadette was probably ‘caught’.”

Partly because it seems to imply a quiet betrayal on the part of Nora’s husband, Robbie, as well as a betrayal of the assumptions Nora had made about Bernadette. “She is so uninnocent, Nora thought, surprised and a little repelled. It occurred to her that in spite of her long marriage and her two children, she knew less than Bernadette.”

Nonetheless, Nora believes she has made both overt and unspoken agreements with Robbie, determined to build a life which satisfies them both.

“She agreed that his real life was the theatre, with the firm a practical adjunct. She was sensible: she did not ask that he sell his partnership and hurl himself into uncertainty and insecurity – a prospect that would have frightened him very much indeed. She understood that it was the firm that kept them going, that paid for the girls at St. Margaret’s and the trip to Europe every second summer. It was the firm that gave Nora leisure and scope for her tireless battles with the political and ecclesiastical authorities of Quebec.”

But Robbie remains dissatisfied. And Nora’s version is, at least, contradictory. (She is more resigned than content, and with these fresh questions about compromise, she is more angry than resigned.)

“He had decided, that winter, to reread some of the writers who had influenced him as a young man. He began this project with the rather large idea of summing himself up as a person, trying to find out what had determined the direction of his life. In college, he remembered, he had promised himself a life of action and freedom and political adventure. Perhaps everyone had then. But surely he, Robbie Knight, should have moved on to something other than a pseudo-Tudor house in a suburb of Montreal.”

So, then, it’s not so much about direction as misdirection. Somewhere, things have gone awry. And not just for Robbie. (But Robbie is seemingly most concerned about Robbie.)

At first, even the young Bernadette offers no glimpse of something more. “She stood still, uncertain, a fat dark little creature not much older than his own elder daughter. He turned a page, not reading, and at last she went away.”

Then, she does. But that’s not enough either. “He no longer liked the classic role he had set for himself, the kindly educator of young servant girls. It had taken only a glimpse of his thin, busy wife to put the picture into perspective.

Not enough when it comes to Robbie. And nor is it enough when he considers Nora.

“He allowed himself one last, uncharitable thought, savoring it: Compared with Bernadette, Nora looked exactly like a furled umbrella.”

(This observation about the umbrella is wonderful, isn’t it? So restrained, so functional: but just as an umbrella should be, possessing only two true states.)

The dissatisfaction is not limited to the Knights either. Bernadette is dissatisfied with them as well. “Nothing was too farfetched, no wisdom, no perception, for these people. Their mental leaps and guesses were as mysterious to her as those of saints, or of ghosts.”

Nobody is content. (And, if Bernadette is pregnant, imagine how the list of dissatisfaction could grow.)

“The world was ugly, Montreal was ugly, the street outside the window contained houses of surpassing ugliness. There was nothing left to discuss but television and the fluctuating dollar; that was what the world had become.”

But the story is named for Bernadette, in her second-hand imitation-seal coat and black velveteen snow boots trimmed with dyed fur and tied with tasselled cords. Listening to Edith Piaf and reading D.H. Lawrence.

Readers are meant to think of her: an unbrella, most decidedly unfurled.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the second story in My Heart is Broken. It also appears in The Cost of Living. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.

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Mazo de la Roche’s Mary Wakefield (1949)

There were “few openings for women in the nineties” and, so, Mary Wakefield is forced to consider work as a governess in the 1890s.

Mary Wakefield3She is fortunate, in fact, that Ernest Whiteoak is seeking a governess for his brother’s young son (nine years old) and daughter (seven years old).

Their mother died seven years ago and they have had a series of serious women as their governesses; now they are about to have a supremely unqualified, but young and pretty, governess.

Ernest, whom readers last saw in Morning at Jalna, running away as a young boy with his siblings (unsuccessfully), is all grown up and viewing his history from quite a distance.

“I was the first child born in it,” he says, of Jalna, after describing the way his parents met when his father was an officer in India, how they journeyed to Canada some forty years ago with his mother (Adeline) and his sister (Augusta) and elder brother (Nicholas), who was born in Quebec, to live on 1000 acres in Ontario.

Eight years later, he explains, his younger brother (Philip) was born there too. Readers are now all caught up in the Whiteoaks family doings, aware that most of the key players are still alive and well, somewhere in Canada (only the patriarch, Philip and his namesake’s wife the exceptions).

Mazo de la Roche establishes the setting in subtle terms. Just two books ago, Gussie and Nicholas were the children playing at Jalna. Now Adeline’s and Philip’s grandchildren are playing there. But, rather than talk of time tables, fashion trends set the stage.

“Those were not the days of shorts and pullovers, of scant dresses and bare legs or abbreviated play-suits. Renny put on an undervest, a shirt, trousers held up by braces of which he was very proud, and a jacket, brown stockings and laced shoes. Meg, still sleepy, got into an undervest, black stockings held up by suspenders from a heavily ribbed garment called a Ferris waist, frilled white drawers, a white starched petticoat that buttoned down the back, a pleated navy blue serge skirt, coming just below the knee, and a white duck blouse with a starched sailor collar. It was to be a hot June day.”

The prejudices of the household help are broadcast loudly upon Mary Wakefield’s arrival. Mrs. Nettleship (Old Nettle, the children call her) makes her opinion clear. “I’ve never crossed the ocean…I believe in staying at home and earning your living in the country you was born in.”

In turn, Mary responds with sass, just as a young Adeline might have retorted: “But how would this country have got populated if everyone had stayed at home?”

Mary is given to “frills and flounces” and Philip “did not know and could not learn how to behave towards a governess, any more than Mary knew how to behave like one”. Which is a problem when Adeline eventually returns to Jalna. “She stood like a queen with courtiers encircling her, a pleased smile curving her full lips.”

When he was hiring for the position, Ernest didn’t recognise the threat that Mary could pose to the stability and propriety at Jalna, but when the matriarch Adeline returns, she cottons on immediately. Mary must create at least the charade of an engagement just to maintain her position as governess.

She does formalise an arrangement with a country gentleman, sho is sincerely smitten with her frills and flounces, and this commitment is enough to satisfy Adeline before she and other family members travel overseas for a few months. While the Whiteoaks are abroad, Mary works to shift her focus from Philip to her admirer.

“His name was like a cold hand laid on her heart. Her exalted brain halted in its imaginings. Her taut nerves slackened. Suddenly her legs felt weak and she sat down on the bed. She stared blankly in front of her. She did not know how long a time passed, but she began to be very cold. Her mouth felt unbearably dry yet she could not bring herself to the point of getting a drink. She sat like one doomed, while his name rang like a bell through the empty chambers of her mind.”

Adeline doesn’t really want another woman at Jalna (perhaps a silver lining to her daughter-in-law’s death) but if there must be one, she has an eye on Muriel Craig, who – in turn – has her eye on Philip. This matter of marriage is of the utmost importance.

“Now your father will always tell you you’re a Whiteoak and the Whiteoaks are English, but you must remember you’re part Irish too. And your Irish blood is your best. My grandfather was an Earl.”

Inviting anyone else into the bloodline is serious business. And no matter that Philip likely had his hand slapped for marrying an Irish girl, way back when; now that Adeline is the dowager, she is not easily distracted by frills. The novel ends with Adeline looking towards the future, riding off with young Renny, who will be at the heart of the next volume in the series.

Written many years after the initial Jalna story was published, Mary Wakefield works hard to establish the importance of tradition in the post-war years, even though the upstart governess threatens all of that. (Progress is inevitable.)

Readers who equate a wedding with a happy ending will be pleased, and those seeking a new heroine as passionate and head-strong as the young Adeline will be curious to see what Young Renny holds.

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Mavis Gallant’s “Acceptance of Their Ways”

As is fitting for the opening story of Mavis Gallant’s second published collection, My Heart is Broken, many themes feel familiar.

The question of what constitutes a “good” woman, particularly when she is not a wife.

The dilemma of trying to live an interesting life while maintaining a sheen of “goodness”.

What bonds can be formed in the absence of close familial ties. What comprises a life lived off-season.

And, perhaps underscoring all of these, the idea of belonging.

In “Acceptance of Their Ways”, readers meet Lily Littel, who has a room at Mrs. Freeport’s on the Italian-side of the frontier.

Perhaps it’s more important to say that she is not staying along the French Riviera, but on the other side.

Where there is a “whiff of infirm nicety to be breathed, a suggestion of regularly aired decay”.

(I imagine the structure to be like the one pictured alongside, but that’s a building in Toronto that appeals to me, although it, too, did have a bare wintry garden, where I can imagine Lily and Mrs. Freeport sitting, after Mrs. Garnett has left for the season under a cloud.)

Lily Littel used to be Mrs. Cliff Little, but wartime afforded her the opportunity to escape that identity and a small income affords her the opportunity to live simply and independently as a woman. (This seems to have been a matter of decision, not fate, and I imagine Cliff living elsewhere, Lily-less.)

Four times a year, when Lily’s dividends are paid, she floats the story to Mrs. Freeport that she is travelling to Nice to visit her sister.

Instead, she drinks. Enough to last until the next payment. (It’s hard being Lily.)

“She simply looked on Mrs. Freeport and Mrs. Garnett as more of that race of ailing, peevish elderly children whose fancies and delusions must be humored by the sane.”

This illusion of the independent Lily requires some maintenance but the older women are either overly trusting or prefer the illusion. (I suspect it’s the former, as Lily has a thing for widows.)

“Then a lonely, fretful widow had taken a fancy to her and, as soon as travel was possible, had taken Lily abroad. There followed eight glorious years of trains and bars and discreet afternoon gambling, of eating éclairs in English-style tearooms, and discovering cafés where bacon and eggs were fried. Oh, the discovery of that sign in Monte Carlo: ‘Every Friday Sausages and Mashed’! That was the joy of being in foreign lands.”

Readers have a glimpse of Lily’s penchant for manipulation/self-preservation here, but also of the twinned desire for both ‘home’ and ‘away’. (Something Mavis Gallant, who left Montreal as a young woman, to live and write in Paris, likely understood.)

Lily’s identity is more complicated, however, for she is not simply a woman who belongs in more than one place, but a woman who has built a persona which requires constant tending.

“Talk leads to overconfidence and errors. Lily had guided her life to this quiet shore by knowing when to open her mouth and when to keep it closed.”

Her position does not appear to be not entirely happy, but comfortable. She understands the boundaries and lives inside the lines.

“Lily’s years abroad had immunized her to the conversation of gentlewomen, their absorption with money, their deliberate over-or underfeeding, their sudden animal quarrels. She wondered if there remained a great deal more to learn before she could wear their castoff manners as her own. At the reference to secret drinking she looked calm and melancholy.”

Observing the exchanges between Mrs. Freeport (whose guests are often needy, but none more so than the lonely gentlewoman) and Mrs. Garnet (whose lifelong sorrows resonate in small disappointments), Lily seems to inhabit familiar territory.

Although she is modifying her own reponses and deportment, opening and closing her mouth as required to support her identity as Mrs. Littel (rather than Mrs. Little), it appears natural, so familiar as to be innate.

“If Lily had settled for this bleached existence, it was explained by a sentence scrawled over a page of her locked diary: “I live with gentlewomen now.” And there was a finality about the statement that implied acceptance of their ways.”

But is it a bleached existence? Mrs. Freeport’s water lily hat suggests there is more to the story.

Firstly, it is a lily, so in some ways Mrs. Freeport could be said to be dressing up as someone else too.

But perhaps even more significantly, it is not only decorative but synonymous with grace and beauty (perhaps another kind of lily could carry connotations of mortality, but this kind is more likely to make one think of Monet).

Mind you, it is knocked askew on Mrs. Freeport’s head, so it is not a perfect symbol either.

“Instead of answering, Lily set Mrs. Freeport’s water lily straight, which was familiar of her; but they were both in such a state, for different reasons, that neither of them thought it strange.”

Mavis Gallant allows Lily to straighten an old woman’s hat, but she also allows the old woman’s hat to be straightened, and affords another old woman the opportunity to escape the scene, even if only for the winter.

If there are broken hearts here, the fractures are fine and go to character rather than devastating finality.

Have you been reading about broken hearts?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the first story in My Heart is Broken. It also appears in The End of the World and The Cost of Living. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.

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June 2017, In My Bookbag

In which I discuss the skinny volumes which accompany me on my travels, while the heavier volumes (like Margaret Millar’s omnibus of mysteries, like Elizabeth von Arnim’s Christopher and Columbus) remain at home.

Tiphanie Yanique WifeTiphanie Yanique’s Wife appeared from Peepal Press in 2015, after a collection of stories and a novel: time for poetry. It is divided into four parts: “Notes for Couples Therapy”, “Altar Calls”, “Abandonment Stations”, and “Words (last, fighting, true, etc.)”. Sometimes this means a handful of words on a page (as with “I Try”, which considers a ghost bride). Sometimes it means a page solidly printed (as with “To Capture Ghosts”).

Disturbing. “Love and art won’t die. Those things haunt.” (from “To Capture Ghosts”) Poignant. “You come to belong to yourself.” (from “Traditional Virgin Islands Wedding Verse”) Painful. “A marriage is a myth cleaved / from the mirror.” (from “Blood Wedding”) Sharp. “I will say my husband is like skin.” (from “Zuihitsu for the day I cheat on my husband, to my fiancé”) Playful. “I do not want to marry the prince. Leave me with my beautiful mirror and my many dancing shoes.” (from “Feminist Methodology: a found poem”)

This one landed on my TBR because it won the 2016 OCM Bocas Lit Prize for Caribbean Literature in the poetry category, in the same year that Olive Senior’s The Pain Tree won for fiction. (If you have forgotten how much I loved The Pain Tree, this will remind you.)

Manguso 300 ArgumentsSarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments back cover reads: “Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages.” Which is exactly how it feels, reading it.

This means that it’s not a very satisfying read for more than 2 minutes at a time. (It’s a skinny book intended to be consumed in concert.) But a single passage can also be extraordinarily satisfying for two minutes independently. So, if you plan accordingly, this could be your perfect commute-read.

Her thoughts on writing itself were most appealing to me:

“I don’t love writing. I love having a problem I believe I might someday write my way out of”;

“Biographies should also contain the events that failed to foreshadow”; and,

“The title of a book seems so important before I commit to it, but my favorite titles don’t belong to my favorite books, and my favorite books transcend their titles as movie stars transcend their human names”.

Bishop Gymnast and Other PositionsJacqueline Bishop’s The Gymnast and Other Positions landed on my TBR because it won the Bocas Literary Prize for Caribbean Nonfiction last year (yes, with Tiphanie Yanique’s poems and Olive Senior’s stories, as above).

About a quarter of the volume is actually short fiction, but the bulk of the collection is comprised by essays and interviews.

The first story is the title story, which is broken into short sections named for gymnastic positions. It, like the rest of the stories and essays is short (perfect for reading on your commute or in a few stolen moments with a cup of something tasty between chores).

Under “Cartwheels”, we learn: “My mother was right. Cartwheels were what I was left doing, in the end. One after another, trying to get my trainer’s attention; trying to get anyone’s attention.” It sounds like a sombre tale (and it is, in some ways), but it ends on a note of triumph.

Many of the essays touch upon the experience of other Caribbean women. “My immigrant story, as are the stories of the other women I collected, is a record, a testament, even a testimony of who we believed ourselves to be in Jamaica and the lives we have made for ourselves in the United States. These are the stories we tell ourselves, as Joan Didion wrote years ago, in order to live. There are the stories we tell ourselves in order to build a narrative. These are the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives.”

There is much discussion of craft in the interviews, which will be of interest to the writing reader, but most particularly a reader familiar with Jacqueline Bishop’s work, both poetry and prose. In discussing her first novel, she writes:

“I felt I had to write The River’s Song. I felt that I had to write this book to go on to write other books. I had to understand this story of a childhood in Jamaica because then it would allow me to explore other things. It is something you feel you have to do. It is not even asking you, it is demanding.”

What’s in your bookbag today?

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Oh, the Saga-ness of it all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“After that, things got action-packed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Margaret Millar’s How Like an Angel (1962)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Life on Mars, Again and Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She explores the voice of addiction in New York City.

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

And of a young widow in Calgary.

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

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

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

McNulty Life on Mars

Goose Lane Editions, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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