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!)


Louise Erdrich’s Four Souls (2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country (2003)

Mavis Gallant’s “Señor Pinedo”

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

Madrid Postcard Spain Gallant

Imagining the pension (Madrid)

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

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

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

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

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

José Antonio Primo de Rivera Gallant

José Antonio Primo de RiveraClick for source details

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-reading Emily: L.M. Montgomery, Again

Exploring a coffee shop near Riverdale Park last week, I started a conversation with a young woman reading at the communal table in the back, while I waited for Mr. BIP who was waiting for the coffees (he was enjoying the view across the park and greeting the four-legged companions waiting near the door).

Emilys Quest StackNot that I am usually the person who interrupts the reading person, but I had tried too many times – unsuccessfully – to peek at the cover, enough times to catch her eye, and I felt I had to ‘fess up about my curiosity.

Apparently she was uncomfortable being seen reading a children’s book, but every year, when she finishes her academic year, she rereads the C.S. Lewis Narnia series.

That’s just what I used to do with L.M. Montgomery’s books, most often the Anne series. Although I read them during those years, too, while preparing for exams, whenever times were stressful. So Naomi’s idea of rereading the Emily books was a lovely one, from the beginning.

On this rereading, I was most struck by the sense of what matters in stories and why they continue to matter, in Emily’s world, in L.M. Montgomery’s world, and in my own wordy world. One of the reasons that I have returned to L.M. Montgomery’s stories so often is the idea that she cares about nothing happening.

In Emily Climbs (1925), Emily is offended by Mrs. Alec Sawyer’s declaration: “The idea of saying ‘nothing ever happens here!” She retorts in her diary. Which is where all the important things about nothing get said. There she is, determinedly believing that “folks here are interesting in themselves” but putting all those interesting things into a notebook, keeping them to herself.

But in the final volume, she stretches her voice; even though she continues to be enamoured with more melodramatic tales (and continues to overuse italics), Emily uses the stuff of everyday to craft tales, because the stuff of everyday is tale enough.

Above all, the Emily books show Emily developing into a tale-teller, more boldly than Little Women‘s Jo March (if not as boldly as Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, which would be published just a couple of years later).

When I was a girl, I reread Emily of New Moon (1923) because girl-Emily appealed to me and I eschewed the other two books, in which girl-Emily becomes interested in boys. As an adult I reread Emily of New Moon intending to read on, but even though I still loved so many things about girl-Emily (her cats, her friends, her scribbling, her home) she became less believable to me for a rather superficial reason (and I usually did not read on, my copies of the second and third volume looking nearly-new).

Girl-Emily is a terrible speller and this pretense on the author’s part breaks the spell for me, because this pretend young Emily doesn’t mess about with her grammar to the same extent as her spelling, and also it’s wrong, the way she gets spelling wrong: I just can’t believe that a kid would misspell ‘knight’ but still include the silent ‘k’ in the misspelling. Her letters to her father are interspersed throughout the novel, allowing a more personal glimpse into her feelings and thoughts, but they leave me feeling further away.

Having read the author’s journals only contributes to the sense of fracture for me, because so many elements of LMM’s experience in this series are reflected in Emily’s quandaries. Like Emily, LMM had a series of beaus, but she ultimately married for practical reasons, and she did not find contentment in her marriage. Her own journals, which she rewrote later in life, believing that they would be read after her death (and, so, presumably shaped to cover the worst bouts of depression) reveal the same kind of angst and disappointment.

This time around, I enjoyed Emily’s Quest (1927) most of all but it, too, left me feeling saddened. Now, knowing that LMM wrote her way out of despair (something she ‘gave’ to Emily), I was overwhelmed by the fact that she left Emily at the end of the story, being contented by the idea of being a “dutiful wife”, as though simply knowing that her husband would support her artistic dreams and ambitions was so satisfying that she didn’t need to actually pursue them anymore and could contentedly join Ilse in married life.

EONM RereadingAnd this is what LMM gave her as a “better” ending. This is the ending she could write because it was not her own ending, not the one she had to live. And this is the happiest ending she could imagine for her? “I shall always end my stories happily. I don’t care whether it’s ‘true to life’ or not. It’s true to life as it should be and that’s a better truth than the other.” (EC)

But we readers have a sense of that from the opening pages of the final novel, when she suggests that change and separation always leaves a chill between once-loving friends. Emily is so lonely. And, perhaps it simply must be so. For, by now, LMM is lonely too. As though she has been surrounded by ununderstanding people, like Aunt Elizabeth, for far too long: solitude careening into loneliness.

And one of the reasons that this makes me even sadder, is that it seems to undercut her belief that everyday stories do matter. If she cannot find contentment there, if she cannot fashion a happy ending from these ordinary and everyday scraps, then perhaps it simply isn’t true. Perhaps these are not the stories which matter, if, in the end, the tale-teller is left alone in a room, seeking an end to suffering after a series of lonely white nights (as I imagine LMM to have been).

When I return to Emily, I want to be like Emily returning to the playhouse. “Yet, when Emily went to the playhouse next morning, bent on retrieving her share of broken dishes and boards, there was Ilse, skipping around, hard at work, with all the shelves back in place, the moss garden re-made, and a beautiful parlour laid out and connected with the living-room by a spruce arch.” (EONM)

I want to believe in a way of being alone which is not lonely. “I’ve been reading one of Father’s books to-night. I always feel so beautifully near to Father when I read his books–as if I might suddenly look over my shoulder and see him. And so often I come across his pencilled notes on the margin and they seem like a message from him.” (EC)

I want to believe that Emily and LMM can find an escape whenever needed. “She would write it out–she would begin that very moment. Flinging a dressing-gown over her white shoulders to protect them from the keen gulf air she sat down before her open window and began to write. Everything else was forgotten–for a time at least–in the subtle, all-embracing joy of creation.” (EQ)

When I was rereading these stories in the past, I was often looking for a way to restore my belief in what lasts, in what remains. Now, on rereading, I am distracted by thoughts of what the author believed, by what only passed as belief, and by what she might no longer have believed in.

Margaret Millar’s A Stranger in My Grave (1960)

Here, the figurative language of Millar’s 1950s novels (like Vanish in an Instant and  Wives and Lovers) is replaced by a cleaner style which often focuses on extremes.

Millar Stranger in My Grave“But Fielding’s pity, like his love and even his hate, was a variable thing, subject to changes in the weather, melting in the summer, freezing in the winter, blowing away in a high wind. Only by a miracle did it survive at all.”

Instead she directs readers’ attention to specific kinds of extremes: inequities and injustices.

From the beginning, Daisy Harker’s concerns are dismissed as the anxieties of an unfulfilled woman.

“’All I can do is assure you that the matter is, to everyone else but Mrs. Harker, quite trivial. There are no lives at stake, no money, no great issue.’
He was wrong: all three were at stake. But he hadn’t the imagination or the desire to see it.”

Ironically, the speaker here, Steve Pinata, is often judged unfairly himself, his ethnicity not immediately identifiable (indeed, his parentage is uncertain, which suits this story in particular) but he certainly is not white.

“Few whites ventured out on Opal Street after dark. This was his part of the city, his and Camilla’s, and it had nothing to do with Daisy’s part. Grease Alley, some of the cops called it, and when he was feeling calm and secure, he didn’t blame them. Many of the knives used in brawls were greased.”

Although he is initially unable to recognize the prejudices which limit Daisy Harker’s ability to resolve her concerns, Pinata does pursue the information she requires and he provides to her what relief he can. In short, Daisy cannot remember what happened on a certain day and believes her existence depends upon this lost information.

“Perhaps a very special event had taken place in the world on December 2, 1955, and once the event was recalled to her, she would remember her reactions to it; it would become the peg on which she could hang the rest of the day, hat and coat and dress and sweater and, finally, the woman who fitted into them.”

It is not her imagination. Not simply her refusal to play the role of “happy innocent” which she believes her mother and husband require of her. “Any good marriage involves a certain amount of playacting,” Daisy observes.

Expectations of wives are key to this story, and key to its resolution (but in a quiet way). “Mrs. Fielding was too subtle to say any of this outright, but the implication was clearly made: Daisy had to be a super wife because she couldn’t be a mother.”

She, like other women in Margaret Millar’s stories, seems paralyzed by her inability to meet the demands on her as a wife. But she recognizes that these expecations are not fair or just.

She presses against the boundaries, longs for a certain kind of escape (as was also the case for characters in Wives and Lovers and An Air that Kills).

“She wanted to be a train, a huge, beautiful, shiny train, which never had to stop for fuel or to let people off or on. It just kept on going, blowing its big whistle, frightening everyone off the tracks.”

Pinata faces a similar kind of paralysis in the face of prejudice, and he has questions about his identity too.

In the following passage, Daisy’s mother issues a blatant warning, a tidy summary of the racism simmering beneath stories like these (present too, in Beast in View and The Listening Walls).

“’Tolerance is one thing. Foolishness is another.’ There was a curious rasp in Mrs. Fielding’s voice, as if her fury, which had been denied admittance into words, had broken in through the back door of her larynx. ‘You know nothing about such people. They’re cunning, treacherous. You’re a babe in the woods. If you let him, he’ll use you, cheat you—’
‘Where did you learn so much about a man you’ve never even seen?’
‘I don’t have to see him. They’re all alike. You must put a stop to this relationship before you find yourself in serious trouble.’”

Daisy is a “good girl”, caught in a situation which a “good girl” is ill-equipped to handle, but she uses her determination and her intelligence (also her husband’s resources) to get to the bottom of things.

Published in 1960, this attempt to address social inequities in crime fiction is interesting. But Margaret Millar’s strength remains in her depiction of quotidien detail, her willingness to expose and engage with the psyches of ordinary women.

This type of passage (complete with meander-y observations in parentheses, which would be playful if the conversation itself weren’t so tedious and demanding for the participants) reveals the author’s attention to detail and fascination with psychology and interpersonal relations and conflicts.

“Mrs. Fielding had talked nearly all the way home while Daisy watched the dreary landscape (where were the green hills?) and the slate-gray sea (had it ever been blue?) and the barren dunes (barren, barren, barren). It wasn’t the end of the world, Mrs. Fielding had said, count blessings, look at silver linings. But Mrs. Fielding herself was so disturbed she couldn’t go on driving. She was forced to stop at a little café by the sea, and the two women had sat for a long time facing each other across a greasy, crumb-covered table. Mrs. Fielding kept right on talking, raising her voice against the crash of waves on pilings and the clatter of dishes from the kitchen.”

The next three volumes promise angels and fiends and monsters: perhaps ordinary women will take a back seat to their activities.

Mavis Gallant’s “About Geneva”

Even the shortest story in The Other Paris provokes a strong sympathy on the part of readers.

Bill Perlmutter: "Through A Soldier's Lens. Europe In The Fifties".

Bill Perlmutter: “Through A Soldier’s Lens. Europe In The Fifties”.Click for source details

At the heart of the story are two young children, Ursula who is older than seven and Colin who is younger than seven.

They live with their granny and their mother, who is thirty-four years old and anxious-looking but semi-youthful.

The children have just returned from two weeks with their father, who is now in another committed relationship.

Granny is openly suspicious and resentful; she does not believe the children have been properly attended to while they were away and although she recognises the limitations of her authority, she makes her disapproval known.

If she were in charge, the children would have remained in their grandmother’s flat, rather than having travelled to Nice, when they have eaten entirely too much ice-cream.

There is talk of the lake and white water birds, a parasol and a boat with coloured cushions; and someone dared to cut Colin’s curls.

It was about time, his mother declares, suggesting that a boy is not well-brought-up when tended to by women alone.

Nonetheless, as the story procedes, the mother’s capacity for acceptance and interest weakens. It’s clear she has her own doubts.

In the beginning, however, when Ursula announces that she is going to be a writer (like her father, apparently), her mother puts forth an impression of support and encouragement. Ursula’s play has a splendid line in it, about Tatiana all in gold and a Grand Duke, and her mother is suitably impressed. She even offers her a writing desk from her bedroom, which has a lock.

Granny objects, asking where the children’s mother will keep her own things if she gives the desk to Ursula. Mother insists: “I’m not writing a play, or anything else I want kept secret. Not any more.”

Raynaud Menu Nice France Gallant

Raynaud Restaurant in Nice, France 1950sClick for source details

What is a secret? Is there any way to separate it from the idea of romance? Can there be intimacy without secrets? Can there be secrets without intimacy?

Colin is not consciously keeping secret the events of the afternoon which he had with his father and the new woman; he does not recall much of it.

“As he said it, the image became static: a gray sky, a gray lake, and a swan wonderfully turning upside down with the black rubber feet showing above the water. His father was not in the picture at all; neither was she. But Geneva was fixed for the rest of his life: gray, lake, swan.”

Like Barbara in “One Morning in June” and the narrator from “Autumn Day”, Colin’s idea of the picture is preserving something pure, something worthy of notice. And, as such, it’s significant that neither his father, nor the new woman, appear in the image.

Neither, however, do the children appear. Of course, Ursula was not in attendance, but Colin was. And he has positioned himself deliberately outside of the image.

His mother cannot discern whether he truly does not remember more of the day, or whether he has begun to identify more with his father and is prepared to keep his secrets.

“But Colin seemed to carry the story of the visit with him, and she felt the faintest stirrings of envy, the resentfulness of the spectator, the loved one left behind.”

And it’s not only Colin whose loyalty is now in question. Ursula is keeping her own secrets (whether indications of her disloyalty of not).

“But how can they be trusted, the children’s mother thought. What of them can one believe?”

Ultimately, however, it is not about the children’s memories, but about their mother’s ideas about their memories and about her own memories. (And presumably, the grandmother has the same doubts about whether her own daughter is trustworthy, about how much she might alter her impressions to provoke a particular response in her own mother. Geneva: neutrality? This is a story of extremes, not moderation.)

“But, really, she doubted it; nothing had come back from the trip but her own feelings of longing and envy, the longing and envy she felt at night, seeing, at a crossroad or over a bridge, the lighted windows of a train sweep by. Her children had nothing to tell her.”

She is a woman alone, and her son has just had his first hair cut. What next?

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

In My Stacks, May 2016

How much of your reading is non-fiction? Does it fluctuate, or are you committed to reading (or not reading) it?

When others were participating in non-fiction November last year, and actually reading a lot of the books that I’d been kinda-half-sorta thinking about reading, I realised that tending towards fiction had shifted into reading almost entirely fiction.

May 2017 Nonfiction ReadingThe thing is, there are always novels to pull my attention away from these other important and serious and overtly edifying choices.

My goal? Increase my non-fiction reading to 15% and focus on finding new areas of reading interest so that I would find the non-fiction shelves as inviting as the fiction shelves.

The Artist’s Library by Laura Damon-Moore and Erinn Batykefer (2015) contains chapters on how the library can serve as a source of inspiration or a place to work creatively (also practical chapters on how to start an arts organization and work on your business in the library). My favourite image is that of a fingerprint in which the whorls and marks are shaped by the names of books and authors. Light and easy, this is great for dabbling.

Maya Angelou first appeared on the Oprah show in 1993; that’s the first time I encountered her, and she brought a presence to the stage which I found so striking that I had to learn more; I bought my copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings shortly afterwards. Just a glimpse of a volume like Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration (2008) and I would have been all-the-more smitten. So many photographs and copies of pages from her memoirs: this volume makes a terrific companion for reading Maya Angelou’s autobiographies. (I just looked at the pictures!)

Lynn Knight’s The Button Box (2016) contains twenty-eight chapters, each titled for a particular kind of button which opens the door to a discussion of a chapter in women’s socioeconomic history. It’s tremendously accessible although readers who yearn for more detail could track the sources in the voluminous pages of reference materials at the back (endnotes and selected bibliography, fiction and non-fiction). “Favourite dresses, best coats, everyday overalls, children’s clothes, their buttons reach across the generations and the large and small stories of women’s lives.” VMC and Persephone devotees: you will love this!

Readers of Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Crow Planet will be especially pleased to discover more talk of the feathered in The Urban Bestiary (2013). Also included is talk of the furred and the rooted, along with some helpful images (for identifying pawprints or determining whether scat belongs to a mouse or a rat or a squirrel). Her tone is inviting and informal and the volume is also entertaining, particularly when she shares anecdotal information about humans’ common fears and obsessions about creatures alongside stats which reveal these are both unjustified and irrational. I read this one straight through and then reread some parts afterwards.

Kimmerer Gathering MossIn writing Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (2003), Robin Wall Kimmerer draws on knowledge received from the plants themselves, from her training as a scientist, and also from an affinity for the traditional knowledge of her Potawatomi heritage. “Mosses and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception. All it requires of us is attentiveness. Look in a certain way and a whole new world can be revealed.” She has a way of making analogies and issuing invitations to readers into her passion for moss which looks easy but obviously takes years of study and attention. Although I was known to snap photos of moss long before I requested this book from the library (there was a long wait and I haven’t finished in a single borrowing term), this slim volume has given me new words and new ways to see and listen. “Finding the words is another step in learning to see.”

The Island of Knowledge by Marcelo Gleiser (2014) landed on my TBR thanks to brainpickings. It’s the most challenging read in my stack, but this makes sense because this is a book which takes over where science leaves off. Not being much of a science-y reader, you might think this would make me more comfortable. Instead, this is the kind of volume which requires that I read even the first sentence of each paragraph – the introductory sentences – twice (at least), let alone the later sentences which build upon the introductory idea. “To what extent can we make sense of reality?” he asks. To what extent can I make sense of this book, I answer. But, then, I try again.

But, then, Stephen Buchmann’s The Reason for Flowers (2015) is science-y, so not all is lost. There are definitely words in here which make me slow down – like ‘pollinators’, ‘hybridizing’, and ‘glandular’) but also talk of mythology, marketing and murals. For every ‘thorax’ there is a ‘chocoholic’, with talk of state emblems and online shopping alongside talk of insect activity and DNA. Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire was one of the first non-fiction books to tempt me beyond the fiction shelves (it’s still a favourite) and this volume is just as accessible, although longer and more specific (whereas Pollan’s was shorter and dealt with only one flower and three other kinds of plants). This is one I will need to renew, but I don’t wonder whether I’ll be able to finish it either!

A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka by Ajith Boyagoda and Sunila Galappatti (2016) landed on my stack thanks to 2016’s International Festival of Authors. Sunila Galappatti’s discussion of her experience writing the story of Commodore Ajith Boyagoda’s experience as the highest-ranking detainee of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka was gripping and her struggle to capture his voice and his story fascinates me. This is not a long book, but it is a challenging story (as it should be). Galappatti Boyagoda A Long Watch

Barbara M. Walker’s The Little House Cookbook (1979) exists because Laura Ingalls Wilder’s frontier stories contained so many scenes with delicious meals. A lot of them included pancakes! The cookbook also includes some of Garth Williams’ illustrations (for additional charm) and the ingredients and instructions have been adjusted so that what was once prepared on hearth and old-fashioned stove can be readily replicated with modern kitchens. The recipes typically contain a snippet of the original story with some explanation when substitutions and alterations are required for today’s cooks and sometimes a bit of historical context.

Kathryn Laskey and Meribel Knight’s Searching for Laura (1993) will immediately appeal to bookish folks who imagine tracing the literary footsteps of their favourite characters. Meribel Knight was five years old when her mother first started reading her the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books. So, years later, when the family planned an RV trip to the real-life Plum Creek and Walnut Grove, Pepin and De Smet, it seemed like a dream come true. But these characters lived more than a hundred years ago, and what Meribel discovers looks very different. The photographs her father, Christopher Knight, snaps of the holiday are perhaps meant to capture a kind of quiet musing, but there is sadness there too, it seems.

Kristin Petrovich’s Elemental Energy (2016) snuck into the stack not only because it has a pretty cover, but because the whole book is pretty. It’s like a Dorling Kindersley book for grown-ups about crystals and stones, so how could I not. There are sections on acupressure and massage, creating elixirs and detoxifying. It’s great for browsing and brings a whole new meaning to the idea of bringing home stones from the beach.

Samarra Khaja’s Sew Adorkable (2015) includes fifteen projects which are perfect for the “chic geek”. Even though I haven’t sewed anything since the tenth grade, and don’t expect to take up the habit because it would interfere with my excessive bookishness (hard to read and sew at the same time, right?), I had fun browsing the projects. My favourites were the cover for a tissue box, which looks like a typewriter (the tissues come up like pages of paper) and the shower curtain which looks like binder paper, with blue lines and a pink border. So cute!

Davis Qigong through seasonsIf you’re looking for an introduction to qigong, Ronald H. Davis’ Qigong through the Seasons (2015) might serve you well. The format is slightly over-sized and he takes time to explain elementary concepts, from ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ to the ‘five phases’. There are chapters on mindfulness and meditation, food and chronobiology, as well as long sections on each of the four seasons. The diagrams for movement are stick figures – which comes off as charming rather than cheap (a long way from Namaslay, see below) – and for those new to the forms perhaps best used in conjunction with some supplementary videos online, but the tone is no-nonsense and down-to-basics.

Candace Moore’s Namaslay (2016) might have immediate appeal for fans of her website, but I stumbled into the book and borrowed it because I liked the format, with large-scale photos with arrows pointing out detailed information about positioning and focus which I can use in my fledging home practice. Overall, it feels like there is more emphasis on the perfect asana than I find comfortable; the text accompanying each pose often includes suggestions for modifcations and occasionally these are also pictured in a second photograph (the book as a whole is helpfully divided into beginning, intermediate and advanced), but the focus seems to be on the goal rather than the process and, as a beginner, I don’t quite feel included. Nonetheless, she says all the right things in the segments which are about her personal journey and the tenets she believes underscore a healthy and nourishing practice, so maybe I am simply intimidated by the glamour.

What non-fiction have you been reading lately? Or, thinking about reading, if you’re more of a fiction-lover too?

If you had to read something out of this stack, which would you choose? (Or, have you already read one/some?)

Does any one of these make you want to recommend another specific book to me?

If you made reading goals for this year, how are you doing so far?

Mavis Gallant’s “One Morning in June” (1952)

In another collection, this story is called “One Morning in May”, and I wonder if anyone thought about renaming it “The Other Menton”. For as surely as the title story takes a young woman’s expectations of Paris and examines how they conflict with her real experience of the city, this story bursts the balloon of another young woman’s ideas about a picnic in Menton.

Menton Winter Palace Gallant

The Winter Palace Hotel in Menton, France

The string of hotels which faces the beach in Mention is renowned, the buildings named for Albert and Victoria and the Empire. Even though Barbara Ainslie is not staying in one of these, but is staying with her aunt, her residency is just as itinerant.

Not that she has experienced much of life yet. She is sixteen years old, and has been educated in a New York day school. A relatively sheltered existence.

“Barbara was conscious, every moment of the day, that she was to get something from her year in France, and return to America brilliant, poised, and educated. Accordingly, she visited all the museums and copied on slips of paper the legends of monuments.”

Already she has learned a lot. But she is not yet “brilliant” or “poised”, although still striving.

“She had read a great deal in the winter, and she could have told anyone that Africa seethed, Asia teemed, and that something must be done at once about the Germans, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Spanish or Heaven only knew what would happen.”

There are so many threats to disorder, on the political and personal levels. Barbara is on the precipice, waiting to see “what would happen”.

Mike Cahill is a little older (not much) and he is also passing through Menton, because “…his family had decided that a year in Paris would show whether or not his natural bent was toward painting. It was rather like exposing someone to a case of measles and watching for spots to break out.” (This is one of my favourite lines in this collection. Artistry as affliction!)

Like the narrator of “Autumn Day”, Barbara is amused by the idea of viewing herself with Mike, placing herself in an image which suits her imaginings.

“She carried her camera, slung on a strap, and she felt that she and Mike formed, together, a picture of art, pleasure, and industry which, unhappily, there was no one to remark but a fat man taking his dog for a run; the man gave them scarcely a glance.”

Notably, she is only interested in the perspective which includes Mike alongside.

“It had occurred to her many times in this lonely winter that only marriage would save her from disgrace, from growing up with no skills and no profession. Her own mother did nothing all day, but she was excused by having once been married.”

Quai dAnjou Paris Gallant

Quai d’Anjou, Paris

Barbara has no way of imagining herself in the future, no idea of who she might be.

Like the younger narrator of “Wing’s Chips”, she is preoccupied by the idea of what she is not.

“From her reading she knew that she would never meet men or be of interest to them until she could, suddenly and brilliantly, perform on the violin, become a member of Macy’s Junior Executive Squad, or, at the very least, take shorthand at a hundred and twenty words a minute.”

With all the qualities she lacks, she remains undesirable. She sits and knits while Mike paints Menton (which is not all that much different from Barbara imagining the photograph of the two of them, except that he is not interested in drawing figures, perhaps has no need to situate himself in relationship to anything else, because he is at the centre of the act of viewing, not of being viewed).

Mike has been studying with an English painter named Chitterley, who advertised his services by poster in a cafe and has a studio on the Quai d’Anjou.

In Paris, he paints “with sober patience the bridges of the Seine, the rain-soaked lawns of the Tuileries, and a head-on view of Notre Dame”. (Readers of “The Other Paris” might imagine that he is painting what Carol expected to find in the city, before she visited it.)

His paintings are large and slightly askew, which is what he has brought with him from his studies at home. (As if the scale is all out of whack, ill-fitting and lacking perspective, either from within or without.)

The artistic projects are dissatisfying and he remains insecure, but at least he has not suffered an embarrassing audition for a theatrical role (which has been Barbara’s experience). He continues to create (rather than auditioning for someone else’s creative projects).

Barbara is no good at acting, it seems, and perhaps this is why she cannot pretend that it doesn’t matter if Mike is not enchanted by her.

She craves his enchantment with her. She needs to be able to imagine herself in somebody’s image of a happy married couple.

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

Mazo de la Roche’s Ringing the Changes (1957)

When I first peeked into the Jalna books, I discovered that Mazo de la Roche’s biographers depended heavily upon Ringing the Changes, her autobiography, which I was pleased to find in the library.

Mazo de la Roche Morning at JalnaIt’s that kind of old book whose pages have been turned so often that they are softer near their edges, which means there are a lot of stains too, which I choose to interpret as chocolate or coffee spots and smears.

There are no footnotes or endnotes, but there are photographs, in which everyone – and everything – looks lovely.

At this point, the author is about to write her last Jalna books which “sold 9 million copies in 193 English- and 92 foreign-language editions” and she is writing this for her fans but also for herself.

“Thinking it over, I am convinced that I know little about the writing of an autobiography – that I am without skill in presenting my own life. But i have tried to see myself objectively, as a character in a book, my weakness and my – I hesitate to write the word strength, but will instead use the word resilience – my vacillations and my temerity. I realize that I have possibly given too much space to the telling of little things, but these had a way of pushing themselves in. They were important to me.”

She is preoccupied by her “record of books written…seeing her children grow up, of seeing a different sort of world rise into my astonished view”.

But the first third of the book is devoted to her younger years, especially to her growing friendship with her cousin, Caroline. They had a game of pretend, which reminds of the game “making up” that Edith Wharton played when she was young (but she did not have a Caroline), which they resumed whenever they could. This kind of scene plays out many times, here when the girls are in their later teens.

“When we were alone together I asked: ‘Have you forgotten our Play?’
‘Never.’ She gave her gay little laugh. ‘Never for a moment. Let’s do it now.’ And so we did.”

The style is anecdotal and informal, dialogue often imagined, as in the passage above. Nonetheless, certain patterns are shared comfortably in such a manner, as with the arrival of Bunty, who undoubtedly “worked” in such a fashion for the duration of her four-legged life.

“While we were passing through times of sorrow and preparing again to move, the Scottie, Bunty, was developing in her own sturdy carefree way. She busied herself in the grounds or explored the neighbouring cornfield. But when I wrote she would come and lie at my feet and this was the beginning of her share in my work.”

Many memories are untethered to dates. It doesn’t matter when a particular book was read aloud by a parent, for instance, only that it was read and shared.

“We were enthralled by old books. My mother read aloud Don Quixote, from a very old copy, with strange print and stranger illustrations. It had belonged to my grandfather de la Roche. There were nearly a thousand pages of it.”

Although of course publication naturally tethers some memories to specific dates.

Ringing the Changes“Before this removal was accomplished Knopf had published Explorers of the Dawn. It was highly praised by the critics and sold moderately well. Christopher Morley wrote of it: “There will be readers who will look through it, as through an open window, into a land of clear gusty winds and March sunshine and volleying church bells on Sunday mornings, into a land of terrible contradictions, a land whose émigrés look back to it tenderly, yet without too poignant regret — the almost forgotten land of childhood.”

Sometimes I surmise that readers glimpse some aspects of the author’s personality alongside such concrete details, as with the details of a particular publication’s success.

“For a time it was on the list of best sellers in America and I think it is not without interest to give the titles and names of the authors of the four books which preceded it on that list.

They were, and this was in 1922:
The Secret Places of the Heart, by H.G. Wells.
Gentle Julia, by Booth Tarkington.
Memoirs of a Midget, by Walter de la Mare.
Adrienne Toner, by Anne Douglas Sedgwick.”

This is not a matter of capturing the zeitgeist, rather an exercise in recounting which of the books were more successful than Mazo de la Roche’s. (She does not include the books which fell below hers on the list.)

It’s clear, however, that she loves books. (The following passage resonated with me particularly, as I am reading my grandmother’s copies of the Jalna novels, slightly mildewed, but not – thankfully – falling apart.)

“Some of the most beautifully bound literally fell to pieces in our hands. Dozens upon dozens we were forced to throw away. It was heart-breaking to see them, and there were the bookmarks to show where my grandfather had left off reading, and there were passages he had marked! What charmed me most, and it was in good condition, was an ancient volume of natural history with fabulous pictured beasts. Almost all the books were in Latin, Greek or French, the poetry and drama of the classics. Did my grandfather, demanded Caroline, never relax with a thriller? Why, yes, there was a book by Edgar Allan Poe — and in English, too!”

Nonetheless, at this point in her career she was remarkably accomplished and her autobiography is of interest in this context. She was perhaps obliged to capture her connections and achievements in that particular light.

“Our nearest neighbours were the Livesays who had already spent several summers in the woodland. They had built a comfortable house and surrounded it with lovely gardens. J.F.B. Livesay was president of the Canadian Press. He had been a Canadian war correspondent and had written what was acknowledged to be the best book on Canada’s part in the First World War. […] He and his daughter Dorothy were cherished companions. Now one of Canada’s most interesting poets, she has written a Lament for him, than which I think I have read no more beautiful tribute to a father.”

Master of Jalna10It’s particularly interesting to read about the ways in which she acknowledges connections with her Jalna stories and her experience. (A book has been published, since, which suggests more direct and plentiful connections, but I haven’t read it yet, preferring to discover the stories on their own terms first.)

“Jalna was inspired by the traditions of that part of Southern Ontario on the fringe of which we had built Trail Cottage. The descendants of the retired military and naval officers who had settled there stoutly clung to British traditions. No house in particular was pictured; no family portrayed. From the very first the characters created themselves. They leaped from my imagination and from memories of my own family. The grandmother, Adeline Whiteoak, refused to remain a minor character but arrogantly, supported on either side by a son, marched to the centre of the stage.”

With more than sixteen volumes in the series, it’s strange to consider that she once chose the name rather randomly, unsuspecting of its later significance to so many readers and viewers.

“The name Jalna was suggested to me in this way: a member of the Civil Service, in the same department as Caroline, had spent many years in India. When she told him that I was in search of names of military stations there he sent me a list of quite a number. I pored over them and chose Jalna because it was the shortest; it was easy to remember and looked well in print. When I wrote it at the top of my first page of manuscript, it never entered my head that one day it would become well-known to quite a number of people.”

The joy of writing this story is fundamental for her, and I love the idea of Caroline reading the pages aloud in the summer evenings. I imagine them debating plot points and directing and redirecting romances and losses.

  “That summer I lived with the Whiteoaks, completely absorbed by them. In fancy I opened the door of Jalna, passed inside, listened to what was going on. Except for Bunty I was isolated in my woodland till Caroline’s return in the evening. As the chapters were finished she read them aloud.
The months passed.”

[Naomi: this bit is for you, given your keen interest in another Canadian classic novelist. “Thomas Raddall, that fine Nova Scotian novelist, has written to me: ‘You cannot imagine what your winning of the Atlantic Monthly prize meant to us other Canadian writers. It was as though you opened a door that had been inexorably shut against us.’”]

The writing did not always come easily to her. “Only a writer who has suffered an attack of nerves, such as I had passed through, can quite understand the effort of beginning, the tremendous eagerness to put down the first words, the fear of defeat, of breakdown. I knew what I wanted to write. The words were at my hand. But could I write them?”

But it was worth the investment. “In Toronto, Whiteoaks with Ethel Barrymore had had a warm reception, even though on its opening night there was a blizzard. Traffic was blocked by cars and the First Night audience was a blaze of diamonds and ermine such as is seldom seen in the theatre nowadays, when people may look as dowdy as they choose.”

Mazo de la Roche inhabited a world of diamonds and ermine, although she wrote of a big house in a little woods in Ontario.

Louis Riel: On the Page, On the Stage

The Canadian Opera Company is now presenting a new 50th-anniversary production of “Louis Riel”, originally written for the celebration of the Canadian centenary in 1967, with an attempt to shift that oh-so-colonial gaze, now including indigenous artists and languages with more nuanced representations of the historical figures.

These are powerfully important figures, and seeing their stories performed live can have a profound effect on those whose voices are typically confined to the margins, to the audience, rather than centre stage. Such an effect is described by Gregory Scofield, who attended  another cultural historical event which he expected to ridicule and resent, called “Back to Batoche Days”.

In Thunder Through My Veins (1997), he writes: “Now I had new heroes – Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, the half-breed soldiers who had given their lives for our homeland, freedom and independence. Never again would I search for a place of belonging. This place, Batoche, would always be ‘home,’ my home.”

Scofield Thunder Through My VeinsThe event came complete with fiddling contests and a theatre production narrated by Gabriel Dumont’s character, and it was followed by a pilgrimage to the mass grave site of the Métis soldiers killed in the 1885 rebellion and a tour of the historical site (of which only the chapel and rectory remain).

“As we left Batoche I felt my heart sink into the very landscape, my spirit joining those of my ancestors in the empty ravines and coulees. I had searched so long for a place of belonging, and now I had found it. The importance that I had once placed on being Cree – a true and pure Indian – seemed to disappear with the sinking sun.”

More than fifteen years later, he more fully engages with this experience in Louis: The Heretic Poems (2011). Here, each of four sections, titled in French, consider four roles Riel played during his lifetime: as boy, president, spokesman and statesman. “The Orange Poems” section begins with verses inspired by Riel’s experiences in the Red River Settlement in 1869.

“I did not want this, a crate of oranges
spoiled by greed.
But it came to be, this unpleasant fruit.

I said to them, these pitted anglais
we will not be shaken like so many plums
We will not fall down
not even like one pitiless

And, yet, there is a descent. The third segment contains a series of works which parallel government documents which outline the requirements of newcomers/settlers with words from Chiefs of the indigenous peoples/inhabitants. Here are a few lines from Minahikosis (Little Pine), Chief of the Plains Cree:

Scofield Louis Heretic Poems“We are collected here
like raindrops in a bucket.
The piece of parchment says
We are to stay here
Like stones that do not move.
We are to wait for rations
Like a dog or beggar.”

After the successful rebellion of the Métis people,which should have drawn attention to the rights of the indigenous peoples to inhabit their homelands and also to freely move through these lands as needed, Louis Riel turned himself into the government, in an effort to secure protection for the Métis.

He was tried and sentenced to be hanged.

The final segment of Gregory Scofield’s volume of poems imagines what verses Riel might have written to leave behind. There are letters and excerpts from a diary which remain in Riel’s hand. It’s not hard to imagine a poem like “The Request” being left behind. Here is a glimpse of one of the volume’s later verses:

“I ask, too, that when I am laid in a box
I am not made to look the sufferer
as if I was man of great articulations,
as if I was more that of a mapmaker
rather than those of a boxer
whose movements are quick and calculated
such as the dance of drunk mumbling fool.
This is my fear.”

Chester Brown Louis RielAs such a noteworthy figure, how could he not wonder how he would be viewed as the years passed, whether he would be considered a calculating martyr or a foolish heretic. Given that his legal representation relied upon a plea of insanity, this fear would be compounded.

Non-fiction sources could include Joseph Boyden’s Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont (2010) or Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography (2003).

Readers familiar with the Extraordinary Canadians and Penguin Lives series will anticipate a cursory treatment in Joseph Boyden’s book.

He acknowledges the vast primary source material (particularly recommends Riel’s diaries) and cites a handful of secondary sources, including Chester Brown’s comic, but the narrative itself can be read comfortably in a single sitting.

The introduction to the series is written by John Ralston Saul, who also was in attendance at the COC production on opening night (with Adrienne Clarkson).

He writes: “Each one of these people has changed you. In some cases you know this already. In others you will discover how through these portraits. They changed the way the world hears music, thinks of war, communicates. They changed how each of us sees what surrounds us, how minorities are treated, how we think of immigrants, how we look after each other, how we imagine ourselves through what are now our stories.”

This fits with Gregory Scofield’s experience of “Back to Batoche Days” too; the potential for transformation as we recognize heroes and homelands.

Chester Brown’s biography actually has more pages and extensive endnotes but it, too, can be read in an afternoon. It is divided into four parts also, with the panels in the final part blackened throughout Riel’s trial, only switching to a white background again following the sentence (and for the epilogue).

The Métis experience is not well known or understood. In his most recent volume of poems, Witness, I Am, Gregory Scofield writes:

Louis Riel Opera Study Materials“I apologize my skin
is not a good skin to be in

I’m not brown enough to testify
I apologize for my off-putting

beige hue, the discount colour
they sell at the fabric store”

In “This is not a manifesto”, he considers belonging as a place of betweens: “the half of a half of a half half half    the one little / two little three little     hatreds”. And in “Since When”, he describes the process of becoming a “no accent é Mé – tis / but a stand-my ground Metis / lay my bones at Batoche Metis / kill-me-if-you-can Metis”.

Tantoo Cardinal’s “There Is a Place” in Our Story considers later Métis experiences, betweeen 1915 and 1928: a “time of hopelessness”, in which the history of Red River and Batoche was forgotten. “The new immigrants knew nothing of it, nor did they care – a proud history forgotten. Now we had illiteracy, landlessness, and disease to consider in a new world where we had no place. We were obsolete.”

These are stories which need to be told. They require open-minded listeners. The Canadian Opera Company’s production of  “Louis Riel” by Harry Somers (libretto by Mavor Moore with the collaboration of Jackques Languirand) underscores this idea, presenting the tale in an atonal and discordant language, inviting us to enter uncomfortable spaces, encouraging us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Are you familiar with any of these works? Did you study Louis Riel in school? What aboriginal stories are next in your stacks or your TBR?

Mavis Gallant’s “The Legacy” (1954)

Inheritance: a common literary theme. Here, Mrs. Boldescu has died, leaving behind four grown children and a family grocery shop on St. Eulalie Street in Montreal: “Rumania Fancy Groceries”.

Grocery Shop 1935 Gallant

Small shops in 1935, imagine “Rumania Family Groceries” on the signClick for source details

Carol and Georgie are the older brothers, and the youngest boy is Victor, who is married to Peggy Ann now and living in Bloomfield, New Jersey.

Marina is sandwiched between the boys. And it quickly becomes apparent that she has felt the squeeze her entire life.

“She remembered at last what her brothers were like – not the somber criminal of sociological texts, denied roller skates at a crucial age; still less the hero-villain of films; but simply men whose moments of megalomaniacal audacity were less depressing than their lack of common sense and taste. It was for their pleasure, she thought, that people manufactured ashtrays shaped like little outhouses, that curly-haired little girls in sailor suits were taught to tap-dance, and night-club singers gave voice to ‘Mother Machree’ and ‘Eli, Eli’.”

There is a calendar in the kitchen, unturned from 1937, which is the year that Marina was supposed to travel to Grenoble for a scholarship, but something went wrong. (Readers do learn the details.)

So, the story is titled for the legacy of the family grocery store, with “Rumania Fancy Groceries” on the glass, “Mrs. Maria Boldescu in smaller letters beneath on the window”.

But it is also titled for the sense of confinement which all members of the family felt, but which both mother and daughter experienced intensely.

“Twenty, fifteen years before they had avoided each other like uncongenial castaways, each pursuing some elusive path that led away from St. Eulalie Street. Considering the way they had lived, crowded as peas in a pod, their privacy, she now thought, must have been a powerful act of will. In the darkening room, she saw herself ironing her middy blouse, the only one she owned, a book propped insecurely on the ironing board. Georgie and Carol came and went like cats, and Victor shouted outside in a game of kick-the-can.”

Gallant 1937 Calendar

When time stopped for Marina in “The Legacy”Click for source details

Victor’s life has turned out differently. He now works as a C.P.A. and he owns his own home south of the border. (He has also become a Protestant. Tsk tsk.)

The family grocery shop has no place in his life now, and Peggy Ann would never dream of running such a business. Yet, that’s exactly the future which Victor imagines for his sister, Marina.

““For me?”’she cried again. ‘I’m to live here?’ She looked around as if to find, once more, the path away from St. Eulalie Street, the shifting and treacherous path that described a circle, and if her brothers, after the first movement, had not held her fast, she would have wrecked the room, thrown her chair out the window, pulled the shrine from the wall, the plates from their shelves, wrenched the curtains from the nails that held them, and smashed every one of the ten tiny glasses that were her brothers’ pride.”

The images in this story establish the setting firmly and colourfully: the long black car hired for funeral, the wreath with “Good to You, Mama” on a violet horseshoe from the older boys, the radio with wood cut in a waterfall pattern, a shrine with a Madonna and her blue glass eyes, a pearl-and-diamond pin shaped like a daisy, a Persian lamb coat, Victor’s Buick, tin Pepsi-Cola signs, crepe on the window of the grocery, the 1937 calendar with the phone numbers of Sergeant-detectives Callahan and Vronsky on the back, and tins of chocolate empire biscuits.

Like a haze around all of these things, Marina’s anger is palpable. Possibly she imagined a kind of escape would await her, following her mother’s death.

Instead, she seems to feel the event is a death sentence for her as well.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the eighth story in The Other Paris. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “One Morning in June” (sometimes titled “One Morning in May”, as though one summer month is as good as another).