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 stacks and what I’m reading with this year’s reading about writing.

Historical fiction? Michelle Butler Hallett’s This Marlowe. Families unravelling? Catherine Cooper’s White Elephant. Fiction unravelling? Malcolm Sutton’s Job Shadowing. Cookbooks? Gwyneth Paltrow’s It’s All Easy. Mystery? Susan Philpott’s Blown Red. History: James Laxer’s Staking Claims to a Continent.

Casting a spell on girlhood: Joni Murphy’s Double Teenage. Mining it for laughs: Jessi Klein’s You’ll Grow Out of It. Just trying to survive it: Karen Molson’s The Company of Crows. Adding a splash of scent: Lisa Moore’s Flannery. With fruit-filling: Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards.

There’s talk of backlisted fiction too, like Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe and Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl. On that score, I’m currently reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Jean Rhys’ Good Morning Midnight, George Elliott Clarke’s George & Rue and Robert Wiersema’s Walk Like a Man.

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

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

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailShare

The Promise Falls Trilogy

Promise Falls has a history. You might not think so, but it matters.

barclay-broken-promise“Are we too insignificant up here: A couple of hours away from New York? Is that what we’re foolish enough to think? Let me tell you something, my friend. You want to strike fear into the hearts of Americans? Then go to the heart of America. The big  cities are the obvious targets. But why not Promise Falls? Why not….” [Far From True (2016)]

And what are things like in the heart of America? In Linwood Barclay’s trilogy?

‘This is a town that’s living in fear. This is a town where people are afraid to leave their doors unlocked even when they’re home, in the middle of the day. There is, and I think some of you may snicker when I say this, but there’s an evil in this town. Something’s very wrong.’ [Far From True (2016)]

The source of this fear is complex. It’s not a single instance of violence. But there are significant markers which still impact some Promise Falls’ residents, even years later.

“It ws a long time ago. Seven, eight years? The Langley murders. Father, mother, son, all killed in their home one night. Derek and his parents lived next door, and for a period of a day or two, Derek was a prime suspect. The real killer was found and Derek completely exonerated, but it had to be a scarring experience.” [Broken Promise (2015)]

At the heart of the trilogy is the murder of a young woman named Olivia Fisher.

“You had your whole life ahead of you. Just finishing up school, ready to fly on your own. Whoever did this to you, he didn’t just take you away from me. He killed your mother, too. It just took longer where she was concerned. It was a broken heart that caused her cancer. I know it. And I guess, if a broken heart can kill ya, he’ll get me eventually, too. Of course, it wasn’t just him that broke my heart. There’s plenty of blame to go around.”

Each of the trilogy’s three volumes has one single first-person perspective and a wide range of third-person narratives; each man has a degree of proximity to a suspenseful situation which dominates that respective volume.

barclay-far-from-true“’Really?’ I might have sounded surprised, but I wasn’t. Grieving families often left the rooms of those they’d lost untouched. It was too painful to go in there. Cleaning out a bedroom was a final acknowledgment of what had happened. And even if the bedroom could be used by another family member, who wanted to be the relative that moved into it.”

But even though there are major crimes and betrayals, what fuels the trilogy is the quieter, everyday kind of violation.

“Jan had never been who she claimed to be, and it made everything I’d once felt for her false in retrospect.” [Broken Promise (2015)]

The ordinary noises we hear in the night, from childhood through adulthood.

“The cover page features a drawing of a little girl walking through a forest at night. It was titled ‘ Noises in the Night by Crystal Brighton’.
There was a yellow sticker attached that read: ‘NOT a comic book.’
I looked back at the house, to a second-floor window, presumably Crystal’s bedroom. She was silhouetted against the light, watching me.”

So while Promise Falls is the setting for the trilogy – and the town does hold its shape just as well as the towns in Stephen King’s novels – the emotional landscape is just as important.

Ultimately the success of the novel lies with its characters. One notable quality – in a genre known for its stereotypes – is the credibililty of the wide range of characters (although the small town is fairly – but not entirely – homogeneous in terms of ethnicity). In particular, the female characters are sketched fully and broadly, a quality which has been absent in too many thrillers.

barclay-twenty-threeRelated to this is the author’s skill in balancing acuity with ambiguity. He knows just when to drop into neutral pronoun usage, to allow readers to run with their own assumptions and prejudices, without sacrificing a consistent attention-to-detail which rewards careful readers.

Halfway through the final volume of the trilogy, I began to worry that there was no way to successfully resolve the many threads that appeared to be unravelling, whipping around in the whirlwind of developments as the suspense increases.

Although I’ve read and enjoyed one other Linwood Barclay novel, that wasn’t enough to settle my nerves; I resolved that I could be a little disappointed and still acknowledge the strengths I’d observed in the three works…but I wasn’t disappointed at all.

“So I was back where I’d started.
There were other issues with the Fisher crime.
The witnesses. Or, at least, the potential witnesses. There’d been so many of them. Twenty-two, according to Rhonda Finderman’s notes.
Twenty-two people who heard Olivia Fisher’s screams.
And did nothing.”

Linwood Barclay can hold a whole lot of voices in his head – more than twenty-three if one counts supporting characters who recur and hold their own on the page – and there was not a drop of disappointment.

This trilogy has shifted me from being a Linwood Barclay reader to being a Linwood Barclay fan.

Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016): Third Variation

This is the third of three posts spiralling around the notes made while reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Each with ten parts. Thirty segments. As though my post is the aria and the thirty segments are the variations. In recognition of the importance which Bach’s Goldberg Variations holds in relationship to the novel.

Although Madeleine Thien has expressed this idea in several interviews, the “Canadian Notes and Queries” piece, an interview conducted by Brad de Roo, is particularly striking.

Here, she observes the relationship between books and writers and readers: “I think every book about China (or any place, really) reveals both China and the writer. So much of narrative is about distance, intimacy, who we think we’re speaking to (or not speaking to), how we imagine ourselves in relation to another.”

Madeleine Thien interviewed by Brad de Roo

Asked whether a novel is like a conversation, she replies: “Not every novel will work for every person, of course, but sometimes there’s a real chemistry. As a reader, I often feel I’m meeting another mind, and it’s exciting.”

Here are some of the points where the novel met my reader’s mind most memorably. On the question of books and writing, records and stories.

1

“’You understand, don’t you?” she said. ‘The things we never say aloud and so they end up here, in diaries and notebooks, in private places. By the time we discover them, it’s too late.’ Ai-ming was holding a notebook tightly. I recognized it at once: it was tall but thin, the shape of a miniature door, with a loose binding of cotton thread. The Book of Records.”

2

“Surely another story could serve the same purpose, and lift her out of her solitude. She lost herself in travel books about Paris and New York, imagining a journey that would bring her to the far west.”

3

thien-do-not-say-we-have-nothing“After all, the Book of Records was just a distraction from the realities of modern life. It was only a book, so why couldn’t she let it go? She opened her trunk and saw objects from her past, a vanished time and a former self.”

4

“The Professor read aloud from the most battered book Sparrow had ever seen. The book turned out to be a play….”

5

“How the city mesmerized me. Shanghai seemed, like a library or even a single book, to hold a universe within itself.”

6

“I know that throughout my life I have struggled to forgive my father. Now, as I get older, I wish most of all that he had been able to find a way to forgive himself. In the end, I believe these pages and the Book of Records return to the persistence of this desire: to know the times in which we are alive. To keep the record that must be kept and also, finally, to let it go. That’s what I would tell my father. To have faith that, one day, someone else will keep the record.”

7

“It is a simple thing to write a book. Simpler, too, when the book already exists, and has been passed from person to person, in different versions, permutations and variations. No one person can tell a story this large, and there are, of course, missing chapters in my own Book of Records.”

8

“A story is a shifting creature, an eternal mirror that catches our lives at unexpected angles.”

9

“Sometimes Ai-ming cried for no reason, even when the story was a happy one. Sometimes, when the story was sad, she felt nothing, not even the beating of her own heart.”

10

“It was just as Wen the Dreamer said: she could take the names of the dead and hide them, one by one, in the Book of Records, alongside May Fourth and Da-wei. She would populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts.”

Books like Do Not Say We Have Nothing do live on. As dangerous as a revolutionary.

Note: The first and second variations appeared here and here.

Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016): Second Variation

This is the second of three posts spiralling around the notes made while reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Each with ten parts. Thirty segments. As though my post is the aria and the thirty segments are the variations. In recognition of the importance which Bach’s Goldberg Variations holds in relationship to the novel.

Although Madeleine Thien has expressed this idea in several interviews, the “Canadian Notes and Queries” piece, an interview conducted by Brad de Roo, is particularly striking.

Here, she comments on the state of quiet: “The qu is sometimes not having the words, or having the words taken from you, for instance in a political climate when words begin to mean their opposite. I think listening is a state of being. You have to listen to know when you can add your voice to the fabric of sound and be heard.”

Madeleine Thien interviewed by Brad de Roo

Asked whether a novel is like a conversation, she replies: “Not every novel will work for every person, of course, but sometimes there’s a real chemistry. As a reader, I often feel I’m meeting another mind, and it’s exciting.”

Here are some of the points where the novel met my reader’s mind most memorably. On the question of language and words. Sometimes an overt mingling with the idea of expression. Sometimes the expression itself.

1

“Kai still said nothing. He reminded her of a cat with one paw raised, about to touch the ground, momentarily confused.”

2

“Would I still be the same person if I woke up in a different language and another existence?”

3

thien-do-not-say-we-have-nothing“She was as graceful and beautiful as a written word, but any word could be so easily erased.”

4

“What mattered was the here and now and not the life before, what mattered were the changeable things of today and tomorrow and not the ever, infinitely, unbearably unchanging yesterday.”

5

“Across the courtyard, I saw a miserable Christmas tree. It looked like someone had tried to strangle it with tinsel.”

6

“Her long braid touched the small of her back, a pressure like her mother’s hand guiding her through the invisible, ever-watching crowds.”

7

There were days in my life, he thought, that I passed over as though they were nothing and there are moments, seconds, when everything comes into focus.”

8

“How could a lie continue so long, and work its way into everything they touched?”

9

“It must have rained not long ago. The air felt renewed, the dawn light was the colour of pearls, unreal against the pavement.”

10

“Mathematics has taught me that a small thing can become a large thing very quickly, and also that a small thing never entirely disappears. Or, to put it another way, dividing by zero equals infinity: you can take nothing out of something an infinite number of times.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing might be a small book – one of a couple hundred in my stacks in last year’s reading – but it became a large thing very quickly.

Note: The first variation appeared here. The third variation will appear tomorrow.

Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016): First Variation

This will be the first of three posts spiralling around notes made while reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

Each with ten parts. Thirty segments. As though my post is the aria and the thirty segments are the variations.

In recognition of the importance which Bach’s Goldberg Variations holds in relationship to the novel.

Although Madeleine Thien has expressed this idea in several interviews, the “Canadian Notes and Queries” piece, an interview conducted by Brad de Roo, is particularly striking.

“Bach’s Goldberg Variations was key. It taught me a great deal about counterpoint and structure and ambiguity and range. And Glenn Gould’s recordings of this music taught me about expression, time, desire.”

Madeleine Thien interviewed by Brad de Roo

Asked whether a novel is like a conversation, she replies: “Not every novel will work for every person, of course, but sometimes there’s a real chemistry. As a reader, I often feel I’m meeting another mind, and it’s exciting.”

Here are some of the points where the novel met my reader’s mind most memorably. On the question of music and silence.

1

“It was a time of chaos, of bombs and floods, when love songs streamed from the radios and wept down the streets. Music sustained weddings, births, rituals, work, marching, boredom, confrontation and death; music and stories, even in times like these, were a refuge, a passport, everywhere.”

2

“Was this what music was, was it time itself containing fractions of seconds, minutes, hours, and all the ages, all the generations? What was chronology and how did she fit into it? How had her father and mother escaped from time, and how could they ever come back?”

3

thien-do-not-say-we-have-nothing“She said, “The only life that matters is in your mind. The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book. Silence, too, is a kind of music. Silence will last.” In the west, in the dry wind of the Gansu Desert, Big Mother and Swirl had finally recovered Wen the Dreamer. He stared at the illusion before him and wept.”

4

“In jianpu notation, zero indicated a caesura, a pause or rest of indeterminate length. Did time that went uncounted, unrecorded, still qualify as time? If zero was both everything and nothing, did an empty life have exactly the same weight as a full life?”

5

“Paper flowers jumbled over the ground, paper carnations grew from the trees, though some had fallen and been mashed by the everlasting stream of bicycles. He heard their tinkling bells and also a music in his head, shaken loose, the Twelfth Goldberg Variation, two voices engaged in a slightly out-of-breath canon, like a knot that never got tied. He could still write music. The thought jolted him.”

6

“He had lived only half a life. Without intending to, he had silenced Zhuli. He remembered how much of himself he had poured into that Symphony No. 3. He could have left the papers in the trusses of the roof, he could have hidden them with the Book of Records. Why had he not done so? Why had he destroyed them with his own hands?”

7

“If Gould had been prevented from playing the piano for twenty years, what other form might his music have taken?”

8

“Many lives and many selves might exist, but that doesn’t render each variation false. I don’t believe so. If he were still alive, that is what I would tell him.”

9

“Noise from the ongoing demonstrations filled the room. Radio Beijing didn’t broadcast music anymore, instead the loudspeakers kept repeating the fact of martial law. He regretted all the radios he had ever built.”

10

“He wanted to find some way to cut all the wires, to hush all the voices, to broadcast stillness, quiet, on this city that was coming unmoored.”

More variations tomorrow….

Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future (2015)

The Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is essential reading.

TRC, 2015

TRC, 2015

As a component of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the TRC’s “mandate is to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian Residential Schools (IRS).”

The report is intended “to document the truth of survivors, families, communities and anyone personally affected by the IRS experience”, including “First Nations, Inuit and Métis former Indian Residential School students, their families, communities, the Churches, former school employees, Government and other Canadians”.

The summary document is available in full online (each part available in PDF here) or in a bound version. Volunteers have also organized to read the document aloud to ensure that those who cannot read the document have access.

It’s that important that these survivors’ accounts be witnessed. As one (non-aboriginal) listener describes it: “By listening to your story, my story can change. By listening to your story I can change.”

These are hard stories to hear. The definitions of the different kind of genocide are brought into focus immediately with even short excerpts from the survivors’ statements.

Like Victoria McIntosh’s description of  her experiences at the Fort Alexander, MB residential school, which taught her not to trust. “You learn not to cry anymore. You just get harder. And yeah, you learn to shut down.”

And the facts included are significant too, bringing another undeniable layer to the surface. For instance, in 1966, residential schools in Saskatchewan spent $694-$1193 per year and per student, whereas comparable child-welfare institutions in Canada spent $3300-$9855 per year and per child, and comparable residential care in the United States had a price-tag of $4500-$14059 per year and per child.

Many of these experiences have been recently explored in fiction and non-fiction, even graphic novels. From the well-known works of Richard Wagamese (particularly Indian Horse) and Joseph Boyden (Wenjack) to the classic tale Beatrice Culleton’s In Search of April Raintree (a legacy story, with more direct commentary on the Sixty’s Scoop flavour of genocide than direct commentary on the IRS system) to the graphic novels by David Alexander Robertson.

Even so, there are important elements which are not explored substantially elsewhere, which this volume brings into the light. For instance, an extension of the residential school system’s mandate was its officials’ impact on many aboriginal people’s marriages even after students had managed to survive the system.

Because government officials believed that a marriage to someone outside residential school system would encourage a now “civilized” student to revert to “uncivilized” ways, they made marriage part of the process of leaving the residential school system to further support an assimilationist policy.

Such marriages were not only encouraged but arranged, well into into the 1930s, and officials made efforts to block “unsuitable” marriages as well.

(Elsewhere in the document, readers are reminded that it is important to make a distinction between the process of becoming civilized and the price paid for being colonized.)

This like many other facts could have been lost along the way. Between 1936 and 1944, there were at least 200,000 Indian Affairs files destroyed. This practice must have been common enough to have been preserved in the remaining records.

Another element which is not often represented in other works about the experiences of residential school survivors is the rebellion which occurred at the community level.

Apparently it was not uncommon for parents of an entire community or region to refuse to return their children to school when the abhorent conditions were shared with their elders (children who dared to speak, adults to dared to believe and to risk rebelling).

For example, there were 75 students from the Blood Reserve in Alberta who were held back by family members, kept at home, kept from returning to the school. In other instance, in the 1960s, a group of Edmonton students blocked entry to a school dormitory at night to protect the residents therein from abuse.

Also not often discussed were other voices of dissent, which included members of staff who dared to speak out against policies and procedures. Although originally (the IRS system began in the 19th century – there is a lengthy historical study included in the report) the staff was primarily religious and governmental in nature, as generations passed, many graduates chose to remain at the schools. By 1994, out of 360 staff members working in Saskatchewan schools, 220 were of aboriginal ancestry.

Even early on, however, there were members of the staff who did not engage in the abusive and exploitative practices typical of the system. Some members not only eschewed the operating principles, but they even spoke up for the rights of the aboriginals. For instance, Hugh McKay (superintendent of a Presbyterian missionary) criticized the federal government for not having implemented its Treaty promises and for failing to alleviate the hunger crisis on the Prairies. And William Duncan (an Anglican missionary in Metlakatla British Columbia) advised the Tsimshian how to advance their arguments in favour of aboriginal title.

These incidents appear uncommon; in contrast, one of the document’s appendices includes a list of the staff members who were charged with criminal offences for some of the actions they committed against students in the schools, with a summary of each sentencing.

Nonetheless, recognising and recording this kind of rebellious behaviour would not have served the purposes of the IRS system, so it seems possible that there may have been other instances of rebellion – both without and within the aboriginal communities – which have been lost to the purging of files.

This discovery process is important. Even a single reader can act as a witness.bCurious? You can read it for yourself here.

Or, perhaps you’ve already read it? Or have it on your TBR?

Zadie Smith’s Swing Time (2016)

In the first musical number in the classic RKO comedy film “Swing Time”, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance with grace and finesse; towards the end of the number, they even leap across the fence-like borders which circle the floor.

zadie-smith-swing-time

Hamish Hamilton – PRH, 2016

Astaire and Rogers barely seem to touch the floor, but in Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, even the dancing characters spend more time stumbling across barriers than cascading across them, even tripping across the everyday.

Zadie Smith offers readers the necessary details to add an additional dimension to their reading of the novel, so we needn’t be familiar with the film.

Swing Time functions adequately as a story of female friendship and a mother-daughter tale even without giving the film a second glance.

But taking it in context, with the film cast as a backdrop like a childhood memory, the novel becomes brilliantly complex, each subplot multi-dimensional.

Readers who are willing to take a closer look will be rewarded substantially.

“Look closer at that Cotton Club, she said, there is the Harlem Renaissance. Look: here are Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. Look closer at Gone with the Wind: here is the N.A.A.C.P. But at the time my mother’s political and literary ideas did not interest me as much as arms and legs, as rhythm and song, as the red silk of Mammy’s underskirt or the unhinged pitch of Prissy’s voice.”

The narrator’s mother urges her daughter to take a closer look, but she remains disinterested. Nor has the narrator ever visited her mother’s family home in St. Catherine, Jamaica.

But perhaps ‘never’ and ‘endless’ are not so far removed as they might seem. “For me the film had no beginning or end, and this was not an unpleasant sensation, just a mysterious one, as if time itself had expanded to make space for this infinite parade of tribes.”

Despite all the re-viewings of “Swing Time” however, the narrator’s memory of the film is incomplete. And as often as she and her friend Tracey watch these dance numbers, they do not interpret them the same way either.

Tracey, for instance, is quite offended by the narrator’s fondness of the video “Stormy Weather”, which Tracey feels unfairly and unkindly excludes white people. “We wouldn’t like that, would we?” Tracey demands. And our narrator is left “going over and over this curious lecture in my mind, wondering what she could have meant by the word ‘we’.” Because of course all of the other videos which the girls watch could be described as having unfairly and unkindly excluded black people. Yet, Tracey dreams of being Ginger Rogers, even though she’s clearly on the other side of the colour line.

Perhaps Tracey imagines another version of herself who might be as successful, and as included, as worthy of belonging, as Ginger Rogers. A shadow version perhaps. Just as the narrator remarks upon the three shadowed figures in the “Bojangles of Harlem” number (a tribute/mockery performed in blackface).

Readers are urged from the novel’s opening pages to look out for shadows. “I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance – the opposite. A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

The narrator’s experience of herself as a kind of shadow is echoed in her experience working for a white dancer who seems to have achieved the kind of success that her friend Tracey dreamed of having for herself. “But why should she get to take everything, have everything, do everything, be everyone, in all places, at all times?”

This sense of being excluded is explored in other aspects of the story too (notably when the narrator travels to Africa, for work).

“At this Lamin laughed, heavily sarcastic, and Hawa’s cousin replied sharply to Lamin in Wolof – or perhaps it was Mandinka – and Lamin back to Musa, and back again, while I stood there, smiling the awkward idiot grimace of the untranslated.

And of course one cannot discuss exclusion without considering powerlessness

“Did all friendships – all relations – involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power? Did it extend to peoples and nations or was it a thing that happened only between individuals? What did my father give my mother – and vice versa? What did Mr. Booth and I give each other? What did I give Tracey? What did Tracey give me?”

And, perhaps more to the point, the nature of power and control.  “There can’t be no understanding between you and me any more! You’re part of a different system now. People like you think you can control everything.”

The illusiveness of power. The quiet nagging of being unfairly judged. “The power she has over me is the same as it has always been, judgment, and it goes beyond words.”

Zadie Smith’s Swing Time is an invitation to look closer. To peer at the barriers and decipher a means of crossing or dismantling or settling alongside.

“And so we got something like the truth, quite like it, but not exactly.”

Is this one on your TBR? Have you read Zadie Smith before?

Aravind Adiga’s Selection Day (2017)

Mumbai remains an important character in Aravind Adiga’s fiction, but the main character in Selection Day is something else: cricket.

Scribner -S&S, 2016

Scribner -S&S, 2016

In fact, in the “Glossary of Cricket Terms” in the novel, he writes: “India: A country said to have two real religions – cinema and cricket.”

Not to worry if you don’t know a thing about cricket because the glossary appears at the back of the book.

The story is accessible without any specialized knowledge: “…cricket, two spectacularly talented slumboys, what could go wrong?”

Apparently it was inevitable (the novel about cricket, not what could go wrong with two talented slumboys).

In an interview with Economic Times conducted by Charmy Harikrishnan (September 2, 2106, here), the author exclaims: “How can you not write about cricket in India today? It’s colossal, it’s everywhere.”

But Aravind Adiga did not determine to write a predictable novel on the subject. “Like the master-servant relationship in India that I explored in The White Tiger, cricket is so big that it’s almost invisible. We don’t question or interrogate cricket enough in this country.”

He intends to take a closer look. Nothing is as simple as it seems, and he is a big proponent of reexamining, rethinking and relearning.

“This was a truth about life he had never forgotten, even after he had left the village and come by train to the big city. Only recently, Ramnath, his neighbor in the slum, observing that poor Muslims were becoming revolutionaries in Egypt and Syria and kicking out their governments and presidents, had whispered: ‘Maybe the same thing will happen in India, eh?’ Mohan Kumar had smirked. ‘Here, we can’t even see our chains.’”

Even though this is a novel about cricket, a coming-of-age novel, a story about the bonds between fathers and sons and brothers, it is – perhaps above all – a novel about living between desires (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively).

“Radha could see there was no hope for his brother, who seemed to desire men at one moment and women at another, and lived in between his two desires, like a hunted animal – an animal which had finally run to their father for protection.”

For, in theory, sport is rooted in the simplest of principles. No matter where the game is played.

“A brick wall stands in Bowral, New South Wales. Once upon a time, a boy appeared before the wall and threw a tennis ball at it. It bounced back; so he hit it with his wooden bat. He kept on doing this and kept on doing this until he became Sir Donald Bradman, the world’s greatest batsman.”

So many larger questions circle around a story about games: failure and excellence, competition and rivalry, winning and losing, rules and expectations. And everything between. “Every man must martyr himself to something: but we have martyred ourselves to this mediocrity.”

As readers will expect – if familiar with his earlier works, which also cast a light on dark corners – there are many humourous moments in the story.

“Are you thinking of shaving? I can see in our eyes that you are thinking of shaving.”
“No, Appa.”
“A boy mustn’t shave until he’s…”
“Twenty-one.”
“Why must a boy not shave till he’s….?”
“Hormones.”
“What are not good for….”
“Cricketers.”

Dialogue is realistic, scenes are sketched vividly, characters are bold and dramatic: the functionality of a screenplay melds with the artistry of literary phrasing and shaping.

But perhaps Selection Day is not what some readers would expect from an Indian novel.

“Oh, I do read Indian novels sometimes. But you know, Ms. Rupinder, what we Indians want in literature, at least the kind written in English, is not literature at all, but flattery. We want to see ourselves depicted as soulful, sensitive, profound, valorous, wounded, tolerant, and funny beings. All that Jhumpa Lahiri stuff. But the truth is, we are absolutely nothing of that kind. What are we, then, Ms. Rupinder? We are animals of the jungle, who will eat our neighbor’s children in five minutes, and our own in ten. Keep this in mind before you do any business in this country.”

Maybe readers looking for all “that Jhumpa Lahiri” stuff might not appreciate the “animals of the jungle” slant, but surely the storytellers’ bookshelf has room for both kinds of stories.

“Unlearning is the most important thing you have to do when writing about anything in India because so much absolutely useless information is dumped on us from birth. Whether it is regional prejudices — south Indians do this, north Indians do that — or political prejudices, or for that matter worthless notions about sports, we are taught from childhood to accept stereotypes over the truth.” (Economic Times interview, also cited above)

Whether or not it is a true story, and whether or not there is a win, Selection Day plays out as a rich and satisfying story.

In My Reading Log, December 2016

Once again, my idea of reading more non-fiction this year didn’t materialize. During Non-Fiction November, so many people were actually reading books that I have been meaning to read but I picked up a novel or collection instead. Nonetheless, I’ve squeezed in a few.

jula-shaw-memory-illusionJulia Shaw’s The Memory Illusion (2016)

Memory is plagued by “biological flaws, perceptual errors, contamination, attentional biases, overconfidence and confabulation” but The Memory Illusion helps us to gain an understanding of “the circus that is our perceived reality”.

Although the cover seems to suggest a volume that tends towards self-help, Dr. Julia Shaw is a scientist; although quick to excuse readers who eschew indepth explorations, she isn’t afraid to go into detail. (She explicitly offers readers a pass on the chapter about brain biology, but it is both fascinating and accessible for not-so-science-y readers.)

There are also substantial resources in the back of the volume, for those who wish to pursue the subject, but The Memory Illusion is satisfying as a standalone. And even without text-boxes and bullet-point lists, readers can grasp some key ideas to make changes to daily routines if so desired.

For instance, we are reminded that we need to be paying attention to create memories (“sleep is crucial for consolidation and strengthening of those memories”). Also, the brain is not equipped to multi-task (each task takes longer in the end, so keep that in mind as you’re working through – or across – your to-do list).

Readers can also learn to modify our expectations of others: “Emotional memories have no special protected places in our brains – they are just like all other memories. Understanding this can make us more considerate of the memory errors of others, can inform our approach to the investigation of criminal offences, and can help us empathise with survivors of extreme situations.”

And, why? “Rich false memories exist, whether we want them to or not.”

But forget the extreme situations, even in an everyday sense our memories are “hopelessly fragile, impossibly inaccurate”.

We can be fooled by them just as we are surprised by errant first impressions; we not only misjudge, we misremember. Because “our memories can have inbuilt flaws as a result of the ways our perceptions can be fooled – by visual illusions, our level of arousal, and even from having a poor grasp on the seemingly intuitive ability to sense time”. No matter how complex, concepts like ‘flashbulb memories’ and ‘recollection rejection’ are clearly explained.

Usually there is a breakdown of the related elements, which are explained individually as well. For instance, in the segment about memory hacking, the term is defined, as well as the related elements, the pieces of the memory puzzle that can allow false memories to happen (including a lack of scepticism, assumptions about ‘symptoms’, presumptions of guilt, scientific illiteracy, and one’s presumption of certain ‘truths’).

Here we have not only a matter of observations and studies, but some theorizing as well. For instance, readers are introduced to the concept of fuzzy trace theory, which “proposes that memory illusions are possible because each of our experiences is storied as multiple fragments, and these fragments can be recombined in ways that never actually happened”.

Best read in small but regular bursts to absorb the concepts, The Memory Illusion is certainly informative if not memorable (which is all my fault, of course).

forster-aspects-of-the-novelE.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927)

As a series of lectures, E.M. Forster draws appropriately on the works with which his listeners would have been most familiar. And, of course, he has his favourites.

“The final test of a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, and of anything else which we cannot define.”

He loves the Russian novelists, Tolstoy in particular.

“After one has read War and Peace for a bit, great chords begin to sound, and we cannot say exactly what struck them. They do not arise from the story, though Tolstoy is quite as interested in what comes next as Scott, and quite as sincere as Bennett. They do not come from the episodes nor yet from the characters. They come from the immense area of Russia, over which episodes and characters have been scattered, from the sum total or bridges and frozen rivers, forests, roads, gardens, fields, which accumulate grandeur and sonority after we have passed them.”

But above all, he loves fiction. “And that is why novels, even when they are about wicked people, can solace us: they suggest a more comprehensible and thus a more manageable human race, they give us the illusion of perspicacity and of power.”

And he discusses specific aspects of creation in detail. Well-known are his observations about flat and round characters. (“The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat.”) His definitions of story and plot. (“‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.”) And endings. (“Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up.”)

But in Aspects of the Novel there is more to discover: much more detail on each aspect, including some lengthy quotes from the works he’s chosen to explore.

“The characters arrive when evoked, but full of the spirit of mutiny. For they have these numerous parallels with people like ourselves, they try to live their own lives and are consequently often engaged in treason against the main scheme of the book. They ‘run away’, they ‘get out of hand’; they are creations inside a creation, and often inharmonious towards it; if they are given complete freedom they kick the book to pieces, and if they are kept too sternly in check they revenge themselves by dying, and destroy it by intestinal decay.”

Of course there’s always more to discover when one goes to the source, rather than relying on the excerpts most often quoted.

rajiv-surendra-elephants-backyardRajiv Surendra’s Elephants in the Backyard (2016)

One of the highlights of Rajiv Surendra’s memoir is his recounting of his visit to India.

“I was greeted with the wild chaos, disorder, and craziness in which India seemed to function perfectly well. My first major challenge: I had to cross the street. Having just arrived in Pondicherry, the air, thick with moisture and heat, exuded a kind of primeval energy that had a strangely calming effect on me. Even the light seemed different here. I was fueled by a sense of adventure, my feet now planted in a completely new world.”

Previously, he was your typical Scarborough kid. (Which makes him easy to relate to and, for those who know him from “Mean Girls” it’s probably reassuring that he was just a normal kid, before he was famous and all.)

“In sixth grade it was Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. When it was warm enough outdoors, my best friend, a Trinidadian kid named Reshad, would meet me every day after school and we’d set off on our horses (bikes) with swords (plastic) strapped to our backs, traveling the countryside (suburban Scarborough, made up of cookie-cutter-type subdivisions) looking for battles that needed our help (these were completely made-up and usually took place in an obliging park or field).”

He visits India as research (not so much into his own heritage, which might have been another kind of story:; he has decided that the role in the film “Life of Pi” is destined to be his and he seeks to understand the character in more detail.

Having first learned of the role from a camera-man on another set, he is struck by the similiarites between him and Pi, most remarkably that both boys grew up with a zoo nearby. (There are no notable exchanges with tigers here, however.) He pursues the role vigorously.

The replies that he receives from Yann Martel – who makes it clear that he is not part of the production process and has no influence over casting – are interspersed with Rajiv Surendra’s own experiences.

“I too was in a sort of nowhere place with regards to a firm cultural identity. No, I could not confidently say that I was only Canadian. And now, in India, I felt completely unworthy of calling myself Tamil when I couldn’t even speak the language or cross the damn street.”

Because he is so young, this question of identity is the main aspect of the work likely to appeal to readers who are older than he is. And this question of identity does develop even beyond ethnicity. (Spoiler: “Kissing this boy, without thinking at all, broke the spell.”) Readers younger than he might be equally impressed by other stories, like the one about the groundhog who gets inside one of the buildings in the Pioneer Village, where his acting skills are put to use between more glamourous roles.

Is any one of these on your TBR? Which do  you think you’d be most likely to enjoy?

Have you been reading non-fiction this month? Any recommendations?

Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (2016)

“There was virtually no aspect of twentieth-century defense technology that had not been touched by the hands and minds of female mathematicians.”

HarperCollins, 2016

HarperCollins, 2016

That might not come up in math class at school, but it’s evident on every page of Hidden Figures.

“What I wanted was for them to have the grand, sweeping narrative that they deserved, the kind of American history that belongs to the Wright Brothers and the astronauts, to Alexander Hamilton and Martin Luther King Jr. Not told as a separate history, but as a part of the story we all know. Not at the margins, but at the very center, the protagonists of the drama. And not just because they are black, or because they are women, but because they are part of the American epic.”

From the 1950, the golden age of aeronautics – when “America existed in the urgent present” – to 1960s space-age America, Margot Lee Shetterly works to solve for ‘x’, to fill in the scholarly blanks where these women deserve to appear. “Their goal wasn’t to stand out because of their differences it was to fit in because of their talent.”

This is non-fiction with a rich and compelling narrative style. Readers who more often choose to read fiction will readily settle into this volume, both language and pacing crafted with intention and deliberation.

This is an exciting time and the light-handed use of metaphors assists in creating an atmosphere filled with possibility. So, for instance, government buildings are “as full as a pod ripe with peas” and men in canvas jumpsuits are hovering like “pollinating insects” as they move from plane to plane.

Margot Lee Shetterly has a knack for creating atmosphere and for summarizing social movements which span significant swaths of time.

In this era, women “struggled to find the balance between spending time with her children at home and spending time for them, for her family at a job” (today, too, many women will find it easy to relate to this).

They faced discrimination at a variety of levels. “Women…had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations”.

But the women of West Computing in Virginia were the only black professionals at the laboratory “not exactly excluded, but not quite included either”. Even after Executive Order 8802 some were more equal than others.

These women were “racial synecdoches”, who were “keenly aware that the interactions that individual blacks had with whites could have implications for the entire black community”.

margot-lee-shetterly-ap-photo-by-aran-shetterly

Click image for author’s website

From the beginning, the author is clear about her decision to use terms which might be “discordant to modern ears” (including Negro, Colored, Indian and Girls), as part of her effort to remain true to the time period and to the voices of the individuals represented in the story.

She does not hesitate to expose inequity, though neither does she dwell upon it. (This volume explores the content which I longed for in Natalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls  which seemed to avoid consideration of deeply rooted prejudices and injustices.)

For instance, in only a few paragraphs, Shetterly’s description of one woman’s request for directions to the bathroom succinctly reveals the racism which continued to flourish, even in a seeminly inclusive environment. “In the moment when the white women laughed at her, Mary had been demoted from professional mathematician to a second-class human being, reminded that she was a black girl whose piss wasn’t good enough for the white pot.”

Her skill with summarizing social trends does not come at the expense of details. Margot Lee Shetterly has a wealth of statistics and specifics to offer as well.

Data is shared in a context which invites readers to make connections between social trends and the experiences of specific women whose lives are considered in greater detail on the pages of Hidden Figures. So, for example, it is interesting to note that one of the women discussed earned an annual salary of $2000; but the significance grows when readers learn that the average monthly wage for a black woman at the time was $96.

Similarly, details about the efforts to alleviate the housing crisis which arose in the wake of the industry’s rapid expansion are also revealing. In 1945, five out of ten people in southeastern VA worked for the U.S. government, either directly or indirectly. The housing development in the East End of Newport News contained 5200 prefabricated demountable homes. Of these, 4000 were in Copeland Park for whites and designated for whites and 1200 were in Newsome Park and designated for blacks. The percentages are significant, but perhaps even more relevant is the explicit reality of segregation.

Not-so-science-y readers need not be concerned that the material will be inaccessible. There are technical aspects to the material of course. So, readers learn that the formula for Area Rule predicts the correct ratio of the area of a crosssection of a plane’s wing to the area of the crosssection of the body. They also learn that the press called this the Marilyn Monroe effect or the wasp-waisted effect, which offers yet another point of accessibility to aid in readers’ understanding of the importance of the point where a plane’s wings connected to the fuselage.

Ultimately, however, all this talk of transonic planes and turbulence is a bonus. If readers simply grasp the fact that this information was meaningful for the women whose lives are considered in Hidden Figures, that’s the underlying idea of importance. “Together they shared the secret language of pericynthion altitudes and/ orbital planes and lunar equators.” This community not only existed but flourished.

“For too long history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies.”

Margot Lee Shettley’s Hidden Figures is both informative and inspiring: an overt invitation to rethink and relearn.

Thank you to HarperCollins and TLC Tours for the invitation to read and discuss this work.

Want to read more? Other participants include:

Click for details

Click for details

December 6th: Broken Teepee
December 7th: Ms. Nose in a Book
December 8th: Dwell in Possibility
December 9th: G. Jacks Writes
December 12th: Lit and Life
December 13th: As I turn the pages
December 15th: Reading Lark
December 16th: Art @ Home
December 19th: Leigh Kramer
December 20th: Emerald City Book Review
December 21st: Bibliotica
December 22nd: Helen’s Book Blog
December 23rd: Based on a True Story

All Those Who Are Missing: New 2016 Novels

Many writers suggest that a motivation for telling stories is to set things in order, to make sense of what seems senseless. Little wonder that so many novels are preoccupied with loss and absence, abandonment and grief.

In Melanie Mah’s The Sweetest One, Chris (Chrysler) Wong thinks maybe she’s cursed. Readers don’t understand, at first, why. And she’s not prepared to share the details right away either.

But it’s clear, by the way her thoughts circle back to key questions, that things have gone wrong. There aren’t as many teenagers in the house as there once were.

Melanie Mah Sweetest One

Cormorant Books, 2016

“Ghosts and rebirth and heaven, oh my. What happens to us when we die? What I want is for the spirits of the people we love to remain on earth, not in a haunting, horrible way but in a way that they can see what  you’re up to sometimes and still exist and not be nothing. Maybe they could give you signs of their presence – flicker lights or play significant songs on the radio. Maybe but probably not. What if the only way we live on is in the memory of others?”

These questions haunt the narrative but, in the beginning, readers are invited to get acquainted with Chris and her siblings.

“And where each of us had our little obsessions – Stef with the outdoors and our family; Gene with girls, art, and basketball; Trina with boys, clothes, and music; and me with reading and being weird – all Reggie had as outside interests were the dictionary and advanced science texts, and he probably only read those for academic benefit.”

Other weird girls who are similarly obsessed reading will almost immediately find her relatable and credible.

“I’m reading The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. If I knew an Illustrated Man, he’d tell me stories with his skin. He’d fill me up with words, pictures, ideas, everything exotic, so I wouldn’t have to leave.”

But she doesn’t know an Illustrated Man. And it seems unlikely that she’s going to meet one in her home town. Nor is she likely to venture beyond those borders, because of the curse. Her anger with one sibling who dared to do so permeates the story (inextricably bound with with her love). But that’s not entirely fair.

“Okay, one, you can’t fulfill all of a person’s needs and, two, you can’t compete with the world. We live in Buttfuck, Alberta. The smallest towns ever. There are six billion people out there, two hundred countries. Can you see why she’d wanna take a look?”

The dialogue is straightforward and ordinary, matter-of-fact pondering of big questions between teenagers (the grown-ups are on the periphery of the story, vitally important forces, influential even while broken, but Chris is at the heart of The Sweetest One): the kind of questions one keeps asking as a grown-up (if one dares to admit there are no solid answers, that is).

“Probably the thing I like best about my dad is his stories. First thing I’m gonna do if I become a writer is publish them.”

Much of the novel’s exploration of loss is secured in the silence and absence of key family figures, even more so than in Chris’ (and Conrad’s – that’s him up there, talking about wanting to reach beyond the known) deliberate explorations.

This is an understated novel, which offers readers some respite from what might otherwise be an exhaustingly sorrow-soaked tale. As with Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, readers are rooted in the aftermath, concerned with the effects experience by those left behind in the wake of trauma. There are also similarities with Riel Nason’s latest, All the Things We Leave Behind, which also looks for understanding in the past but is ultimately preoccupied with negotiating the present-day.

robert-olen-butler-perfume-river

Grove Atlantic, 2016

This is also true in Robert Olen Butler’s Perfume River. Characters here, too, are negotiating the present (to varying degrees of success) but the past resurfaces often and insistently.

One particularly impressive aspect of Perfume River is the way that, structurally, the story weaves between times. It feels untethered and organic, but requires skill and crafting on the author’s part. A scene transforms, subtly (for readers) but sensationally (for participants): time slips.

This is not disorienting for readers, because the characters (however troubled, and in the aftermath of war that trouble can be intense, even devastating) have a kind of self-awareness which keeps the story rooted for those watching it unfold.

“And all of this suddenly sounds crazy to him. Crazy that he still gives a goddamn about his father’s regard. Crazy that he’d even fantasize about saying something that risks his wife’s love. Crazy that his obsession over the first man he killed—with such mitigating circumstances—should have renewed itself all these decades later. Crazy to think that the twenty-three-year-old in 1968 has anything whatsoever to do with the man he is in 2015. And this last thought instantly seems crazy to him the other way round as well, that the twenty-three-year-old should have anything but a deep connection to the seventy-year-old. He is a historian, after all.”

He is a historian, and also a son, just as aware of the gaps between meaning in family relationships as of those in the historical record.

“Peggy says, ‘He wanted to name you William Junior, you know.’
This is not the first time he’s heard this either.
‘He loved you that much,’ she says.
What Robert wants is to avoid arguing with his mother on this night. However, he says, ‘What he wanted was his firstborn son to be just like him.’
She brightens. ‘You see?’
He has said this to her as if to disprove his father’s love. But he realizes she hears it as a demonstration of that love.”

emily-saso-weather-inside

Freehand Books, 2016

Avery is monitoring the conditions of her father’s love too, in Emily Saso’s The Weather Inside.

You can imagine her drawing shapes in the air in front of a green screen, pulling faces to represent something distasteful moving in, like a cold front (or a frozen dessert).

“I met Gloria a dozen years ago, at my father’s funeral. She was the sweet thing clinging onto my uncle’s arm. Blonde curls stacked like vanilla cookies. Cerise CoverGirl lips. Caramel tan. Teeth white as whipped cream. Bubblegum pink sports coat with shoulder pads thick as pound cake slices. Compared to the vanilla civil servants I was acclimatized to, Gloria was a strawberry sundae.”

On Avery’s wall is a poster of a painting by Lawren Harris (“Snow”) but even more significantly, she is seeing snow. In July.

Everywhere around her, there is loss. Her mother is “layering filo pastry into a pan, the sheets as translucent as ghosts”.

Despite all of this, she tries to climb out from beneath the accumulation.

“Normal Starting now.
Watch Battlestar Galactica, season two, episode two: Valley of Darkness. Shave legs. Do fifteen sit-ups and seven push-ups. Overpluck eyebrows.”

Some things appear to be miraculous and have explanations. There is coloured snow – green, pink, red and orange – in Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska, which is caused by algae.

But her father’s death has no explanation. No satisfactory explanation. His absence seems inexplicable.

And, yet, Avery’s voice is often wry and humourous, occasionally penetrating and astute (the scenes about her breakup with her boyfriend and the commentary on organized religion are especially sharp and savvy).

“I stay down here, on the floor, for hours. Fascianting. From this vantage point I see everything that’s trapped in my stupid Ikea throw rug. Dust and hair wound up in its modern swirls and bold concentric circles. I breathe in the air at this level….”

Avery’s perspective from down below makes it hard to breathe at times, for the snow is falling gently in the background throughout.

Has your reading been preoccupied with absence or loss lately? If you were going to recommend a book on the theme, do you have any favourites?