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!

**Please Note: My database is pitching a hissy fit. Turns out there might be such a thing as too much bookchat after all. The oh-so-smart-coder-types are sorting out the details, and things should be back to tickety-boo later in April, but in the meantime, there’s no room for any new words on this site. Not even comments. Many apologies. Back to bookishness as soon as possible. Meantime, good reading to you!**

So many books to talk about!

In 2013, I read more than 200 books, inspired by the 2013 Toronto Book Awardsthe year’s Giller longlist, the International Festival of Authors, and various personal reading projects. A good year: favourites here with standout reads here.

In 2014, I want to read more, more, more. In some cases, that means continuing with existing projects. Some more Fridays for installments of A Fainter Footprint. Some more stories in the Alice Munro reading project resuming March 15th with Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. (Schedule here.) Some Irish Short Stories. Some more mini-reading-projects.

The week of March 8th, a series of posts on first novels, including:
Greg Kearney’s The Desperates,
Kim Fu’s For Today I Am a Boy,
Carrianne K.Y. Leung’s The Wondrous Woo,
Lissa M. Cowan’s Milk Fever, and
Ghahib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country.

A truly stunning compendium of style, content, and talent.

How about you? How are you enjoying your reading in 2014 so far?

(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!)

“Family Furnishings” Alice Munro

Alfrida’s apartment is crowded.

Alice Munro Hateship Small“’I know I’ve got far too much stuff in here,’ she said. ‘But it’s my parents’ stuff. It’s family furnishings, and I couldn’t let them go.’

The story about her parents, the loss of her mother, the other family with whom she visits only half-heartedly after she has moved to the city: all of that part of Alfrida’s life is served to the table gradually for readers to receive.

But her history is not presented like a buffet, all laid out and there for the readers’ taking.

Rather, it’s a series of servings, very small portions, the ordering unpredictable, and the silverware is heavy and practical but the dishes are sleek and modern.

Contradictions abound. Expectations are thwarted.

In many ways, this seems the quintessential Alice Munro story: a hopscotch board of storytelling with familiar characters and themes.

A mother no longer simply inconvenienced by illness but with a destiny defined by it.

A daughter whose responsibilities at home increase as her mother’s health declines and whose bookishness sets her apart.

A father who could have stepped out of “Night” and into the role of the patriarch in “Royal Beatings”.

A writer who orders and arranges as in “Cortes Island”.

The complications of family reminiscent of “Chaddeleys and Flemings”.

And the sharp tension between town and country so sharply defined by the breakfast menu in “Half a Grapefruit”.

Alfrida’s apartment is not what the narrator expects. She has imagined it to be glamorous, the cornerstone of Alfrida’s life in the City.

Not the Big City. But the Small City. But, still, the City.

In the narrator’s experience, this is not simply a geographic description, but a much broader description.

“It meant something more abstract that could be repeated over and over, something like a hive of bees, stormy but organized, not useless or deluded exactly, but disturbing and sometimes dangerous.”

But Alfrida’s apartment, though perhaps stormy and disorganized, appears neither disturbing nor dangerous. In fact, it is a lot like home.

It looks like the Not-City. Perhaps, a ramshackle. But, a failure?

“Failures in life—failures of luck, of health, of finances—all struck him as lapses, and his resolute approval of me did not extend to my ramshackle background.”

Here, in “Family Furnishings”, one of the most celebrated stories in this collection, Alice Munro allows readers to sample her most beloved family recipes.

What, on the menu, most appeals to you as a reader of this story?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the third story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week: “Comfort”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

“Floating Bridge” Alice Munro

Jinny has been standing on shifting ground.

Expectations are thwarted: these are times of transformation.

This was true, too, in “Gravel” and in “Oh What Avails”. Alice Munro Hateship Small

But there she is: the space in which she is standing shifts both literally and metaphorically.

Things have been all-a-shift for some time now.

Readers have the detailed description of the ways in which the house has transformed, literally and metaphorically making room for Jinny’s cancer.

Alice Munro’s detailing is delicate but pervasive, and readers understand that Jinny’s routine and Neal’s routine, and their routine as a couple: it’s all been upset.

There isn’t room anymore, it seems, for either of them to be the person that one has been in the past.

Neal packs up some things but he gets rid of more; the idea of what-life-might-be-like-in-the-next-while moves in with the hospital bed.

The story begins with an air of deprivation, a battening of the proverbial hatches, as this couple (at the ages of 42 and 58) prepares for the next stage of change.

“The unspeakable excitement you feel when a galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility for your own life. Then for shame you must compose yourself and stay very quiet.”

Readers recall other caretakers in Munro’s fiction, most recently Enid’s role at Mrs. Quinn’s home, in “The Love of a Good Woman”, which doesn’t lighten hearts.

Times have been tough for Jinny, but it seems they are going to get tougher.

The scenes viewed from the car as they travel between the doctor’s office and the hospital (for the caretaker, who stopped to pick up a pair of shoes from her foster sister) are bleak and broken.

“They went past a wrecking yard, with the car bodies only partly hidden by a sagging tin fence. Then up a hill and past the gates to a gravel pit that was a great cavity in the center of the hill.”

Which is where the terrain shifts, again, this time for readers. For the news that Jinny has gotten on this day, just before the story opens, news which she has not yet shared with Neal, is not necessarily news which whispers of a tougher time to come.

“If she was back in her old, normal life she would not be here at all.”

Although the news still heralds a time of change, and perhaps it wil be just as diffcult — in unexpected ways — for Neal. (But there spoilers lie: plenty of space for those in the comments below.)

She has been forced to grapple with her own powerlessness and lack of agency, been compelled to dig dip into strength she was not sure that she possessed. She has inhabited the crater in the gravel pit and when she climbs to the top of the hill to survey, she is unhappy with the view (and with this young woman whom Neal has retained to be their assistant in troubled times).

“Everything must be right at the surface with her, her attention and the whole of her personality coming straight at you, with an innocent and—to Jinny—a disagreeable power.”

She is seeking a new landscape, a new role to play in the story of her life. When a series of events affords her the opportunity to discover possibilities she has not allowed for, the story takes a turn (again, literally and figuratively).

“‘Bridges all along here,’ he said. ‘And where it’s not bridges it’s culverts. ’Cause it’s always flowing back and forth under the road. Or just laying there and not flowing anyplace.’”

The Borneo Swamp is an ordinary place with a bit of magic in it for Jinny. And, possibly, for readers.

What did you think about this story? Where do you believe it falls in the H – F – C – L – M scheme? Do you see connections with the title story? Does it make you want to read on in the collection?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the second story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week: “Family Furnishings”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

“Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” Alice Munro

In playing the game, a girl writes the name of a boy beside her own name, crosses out the letters in common and counts off the various states of being: ”Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”.

Alice Munro Hateship SmallThis is what matters: her relationship with a man.

And, reading it that way, it seems to be a progression, but if there are fewer than five letters, the momentum is arrested, and if there are more than five letters, the words become a chant, and Marriage nestles next to Hateship in the round.

When the story opens, the only relationship Johanna Parry appears to have with a man is with the station master, who is responding to her request to have some furniture shipped from Ontario to Saskatchewan.

The station master is playing games of his own, flirting and cajoling, instructing and patronizing, checking for rings and assessing marriageability, calculating the role this unknown woman must inhabit in the town’s social hierarchy.

There are rules to this game, too, but Johanna Parry is not a contender in the station master’s eyes.

Had she referenced her connection to Mr. McCauley, her employer, one of the town’s “upright-walking fine old men in three-piece suits”, the station master “might have taken more of an interest, and things might have turned out differently”.

But although the station master is unaware, the way in which Johanna views her own status is shifting, transforming.

“She went at the wood with soft dustrags, then lemon oil, and when she was finished it shone like candy. Maple candy—it was bird’s-eye maple wood. It looked glamorous to her, like satin bedspreads and blond hair. Glamorous and modern, a total contrast to all the dark wood and irksome carving of the furniture she cared for in the house.”

Train schedules are immovable, class structures are rigid, but inward perceptions and expectations are fluid, and just because a woman has always worn ankle socks does not mean she will never wear a pair of stockings.

Johanna has always shopped at Callaghans Mens Ladies and Childrens Wear, when she needed something. She inherited clothes from her previous employer Mrs. Willets, and she never had to buy for Sabitha, the girl she looked after in Mr. McCauley’s house.

But after she makes arrangements for the furniture delivery, she goes into Milady’s, where the sign reads “Simple Elegance, the Mode for Fall”.

Here, readers are treated to the proprietor’s eye for detail on fashion. But throughout, readers are treated to Alice Munro’s flawless eye for detail.

The specific observations that the station master has made of Johanna are no different; in fact, even they are rooted in fabric and texture to some extent. But they revealed to readers with a subtle masterful touch. This storyteller need not talk of velvet eyes, need not show off her craft directly.

“It feels as light as silk, but it wears like iron. You can see it’s lined throughout, lovely silk-and-rayon lining. You won’t find it bagging in the seat and going out of shape the way the cheap suits do. Look at the velvet cuffs and collar and the little velvet buttons on the sleeve.”

Johanna wants to try on the suit, but she leaves with quite another dress. The proprietor has sized her up (literally and metaphorically) and created a space for the new Johanna to inhabit.

And, in the process, readers learn that Johanna has a new status which she has not spoken about with anybody else yet.

“But you found somebody. You won’t be on your own anymore and isn’t that lovely?” the proprietor exclaims.

For Johanna Parry’s name is to be written alongside Ken Boudreau’s. That’s Kenneth Boudreau, of course. And if you play the game, it ends in Marriage.

This bears some similiarity to the marriage planned from a distance in “Pictures of the Ice”, but in that story, the man goes shopping for new pants and tells everybody about the pending union. Though he, too, observes a harsh and unforgiving landscape on the precipice of great change.

When Johanna leaves Ontario for Saskatchewan, the heat is relentless, the surroundings bleak:

“She looked with longing to the shade of the town ahead, but when she got there she found that the trees were either spruce, which were too tight and narrow to give much shade, or raggedy thin-leaved cottonwoods, which blew about and let the sun through anyway.”

Just as the environment feels oppressive, the story considers states of decay and stagnancy, questions whether it’s possible to be released from an oppressive and dis-eased state.

Mr. McCauley wonders about this too, back in Ontario, seeing ”in the fog the looming buildings of the old Exhibition Grounds—homely, spacious buildings, like enormous barns. They had stood for years and years unused—all through the war—and he forgot what happened to them in the end. Were they torn down, or did they fall down?”

And of course the story begins with Johanna’s pursuit of another kind of life, her reach for the possibility of something “more”, for a “real life”.

Mr. McCauley’s granddaughter, Sabitha, seems poised to discover a different kind of release, in her burgeoning sexuality. But her friend Edith recalls her mother’s warnings about the wrong kinds of abandon, the legislated sorts of release and rejuvenation.

     ”Years ago, before she knew what she was doing, she had gone to sleep with the blanket between her legs and her mother had discovered her and told her about a girl she had known who did things like that all the time and had eventually been operated on for the problem.
     ’They used to throw cold water on her, but it didn’t cure her,’ her mother had said. ‘So she had to be cut.’
Otherwise her organs would get congested and she might die.”

And the risk attached to sexual expression and exploration is clear fromreferences made to Sabitha’s mother’s history. Johanna’s situation stands in stark contrast. (Or, does it?)

The consideration of young women’s sexuality brings readers of Munro’s stories back to the experiences of Del and Rose in The Lives of Girls and Women and Who Do You Think You Are?; ”Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” feels connected to many of the author’s earlier stories. It seems like the title could have applied to other entire collections.

Sabitha and Edith’s friendship recalls “Jesse and Meribeth”; Sabitha and Johanna’s relationship recalls “Vandals”; the relationship between Ken and Sabitha’s mother, Marcella, is not discussed, just as the mother in “Before the Change” is completely overlooked; the ways in which truth can be concealed/fabricated in letters brings “Carried Away”, “The Jack Randa Hotel” and “A Wilderness Station” to mind. 

This story is extraordinarily complex — one can imagine entire stories written about several of the relationships therein — and there is a vein of darkness, in the young girls’ motivations and in what Johanna discovers and uncovers in Saskatchewan.

Alice Munro might like to play games, but her stories are works of art.

Which parts of this story stand out for you? What questions still niggle? If you could ask for a companion tale, whose story would you like to know more about?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the first story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week: “Floating Bridge”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country (2014)

Have Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird and Ghalib Islam’s debut novel met?

Were they caught up together in an air-raid shelter, sharing the same transistor radio while the sirens howled?

Fire Unnameable Country Islam

“Maybe it just wasn’t the right time for him to tell the story. Or maybe it doesn’t matter what century it was, maybe he just didn’t like the way the story was headed and it screamed and laughed and spoke in tongues when he tried to turn it around. We’ll never know how it ends,” she writes.

Oyeyemi’s words seem to speak of Fire in the Unnameable Country.

She seems to know its concatenation of voices, its pleated timeline, the manic bursts of exposition which fuel the narrative.

Islam’s words twist on the reader’s tongue.

An ownbulleted death. A gestation in wombwater. Some people are eyeshut.

Even the language seethes in this novel.

“She passes the cracked mirror alleyways broken homes walls floors and edifices.”

Strings of nouns, verbs, existing words, invented words: it seems as chaotic as the novel’s opening scene.

But the prose is not all “adda, nada, yada yada” as the narrator’s mother suggests of his father’s talk during the days he spends at the cigarette shop.

For instance, this talk of mirrors: it’s vitally important to the novel.

“He talks of a place where mirrors chokes streets and of an unnameable resistance exploding reflective labyrinth walls in that place.”

But what kind of reflection and refraction? Is it on a film camera, designed to augment the thoughtreels? Is it in the reader’s mind, designed to counter the belief that “a whole nation could fall into incurable sleep”?

The mirrors are one means of “dividing and subdividing hallucination” and in Ghalib Islam’s country they can reorder and revision.

They can rename and unname. So that “the gift of the future – and its arrogance – is the ability to cull the past and call it anything it likes”.

The perspective alters and transforms, the process complicated by shifting chronologies.

But this is not a trick. It is deliberate.

Ghalib Islam is aware that readers will flail in orienting themselves, in disorienting themselves.

“Son to father isn’t the usual journey in a family history, but the unnameable country necessitates gangster leaps backward.”

And he knows this will not be a gentle process, but a threatening, menacing gangster-styled leap.

At  times, readers might question whether this is truly a leap from one spot to another. Perhaps it is “a labyrinth of endless identical rooms”, senseless and excessive talk better suited to the cigarette shop.

But there is no question of authorial control here. “But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, too far ahead,” he declares.

It’s like a game of hopscotch: playful, yes. But directed, numbered.

There is a progression. But one-footed and balance ever-shifting.

And while the body is working to remain upright, there is turmoil blazing. The thoughtreels are aflame.

“There occurred two functions of the mind simultaneously, he noticed: one directly concerned with the world at large and the other internal and secret, doing the work of poetry.”

But storytelling, too, has more than one function simultaneously, and storytellers might disagree.

Some might think this leaping and hopscotching into the past is valuable, whereas others might question this “thinking all the time about parentsandyourbloodypast”.

Some might anticipate landing in a square of plot whereas others might yearn to play “a hopscotch of dactyls troches, lub-lubbing iambic on certain occasions like a heart”.

A single storyteller might contain more than one voice; a first-person voice might slip into a third-person voice.

One man might become two and a person might transform into another kind of creature (there are many reflections and glimpses of canonical literature in this work).

Readers might become “incapable of understanding the differences between their moving bodies and their reflections”.

Readers, like characters, might turn “mad from looking at themselves all inverted reduced enlarged reflected”.

“It was around the time the unnameable country’s debts could no longer be accommodated by the Soviets, and against the Kremlin’s severest warnings, the President felt forced to meet with a team from the International Monetary Fund that had been hounding him for years like leprechauns that would turn up in the maid’s sweepings from under the armoire, would appear out of banishment unannounced at his door with please accept this gift a block of hay and a bag of oats for the first lady Dulcinea, or would whisper pss pss suggestions from the corner of his skull even during meetings and sheepishly adjust their ties when he thundered how in the world did you manage until, finally, when their buzzbuzzing became impossible to avoid and the country’s fiscal situation turned utterly unmanageable, he agreed, okay let’s break bread together at the same table and draw up a Hollywood structural adjustment policy of metamorphosing La Maga into a vast film set, thereby inviting all the vultures of the world.”

Characters rise above. Maybe awhirl in the maid’s sweepings, or on a flying carpet, or in a dirigible. Maybe by bootlace. And maybe it doesn’t matter, because “the floor of the earth is sky when underground”.

Characters take a step. Perhaps onto a raised platform, or it could be a stage. But perhaps it is a gallows. And characters are shackled. Maybe by chains. Or maybe by restlessness.

Readers travel with them, restless and breathless, whether through cracked-mirror alleyways or along a dolly track.

But perhaps it is a rail line. An internal rail line. Arranged like a hopscotch board. Designed to awaken the eyeshut.

And perhaps it ends, like Ghalib Islam’s novel, without a stop

 

Companion Reads:
Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati (2008)
Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night Traveller Trans. William Weaver (1979)
Ian Thornton’s The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms (2013)

Lissa M. Cowan’s Milk Fever (2013)

You might not guess from the cover of this debut novel that the epigraph would be drawn from Olympe de Gouges’ “Declaration of the Rights of Women”.

Milk Fever Cowan

Demeter Press, 2013

But one can be dressed in satin and lace and be a revolutionary, of course.

As was Olympe de Gouges, although her portrait was more modest.

(Perhaps her wrap was designed to conceal a plunging neckline.)

“Tell me, what gives you sovereign empire to oppress my sex? Your strength? Your talents?” she asked.

Lissa Cowan’s Milk Fever poses the same question, but through story.

More specifically, through the story of Céleste, who is working as a servant when she meets Armande Vivant.

Armande was the wet nurse for the family Céleste worked for, in the years preceding the French Revolution, but Armande was not like the other wet nurses.

She “spoke and walked like a gentle lady unlike most of her profession who were coarse as tree bark”.

Intrigued by the woman immediately, Céleste asks the estate’s cook about Armande. The cook explains that just as “a gentlewoman gobbled sweet breads and pies and puddings, Armande devoured poetry, philosophy, history and botany”.

“This, she said, made her refined, and also made the infants in her care different from other children. Everybody knows, the cook told me, her hands resting on her plump middle, when a child sucks at a woman’s teats, the thoughts of that woman are impressed upon it.”

You know I couldn’t help but quote such delightfully bookish passages (with talk of pastries too, no less). But these passages also serve to illustrate the novel’s style and some of its preoccupations.

The prose in Milk Fever is accessible; it does not mimic the narratives of 18th-century Europe.

Rather, it invites contemporary readers into a story which does not feel more than two hundred years old. So, there is gobbling and devouring but without a wholly anachronistic tone.

In this sense, Lissa Cowan’s work reminds me of Mary Novik’s style in novels like Musewhich also considers the position of European women in times of great political and social change.

And the author’s decision to root the narration in the voice of a marginalized observer recalls works like Pauline Holdstock’s Into the Heart of the Country, affording a voice to one who rarely appears in the historical record.

For while the cook finds it worthy of note that while gentlewomen might have the opportunity to indulge in baked goods, Armande does not have that opportunity.

(Nor would there have been a portrait of Armande commissioned by an artist like Alexander Kucharsky, for whom Olympe de Gouges sat.)

Alexander Kucharsky’s portrait of Olympe de Gouges

And while Armande has the capacity and opportunity to indulge in books, the cook and Céleste do not.

“Books covered the walls: brown spines with gold letters, green spines with red letters, dusty yellow with words surrounded by fanciful lines.”

Class is certainly a consideration in Milk Fever.

But the novel’s over-arching preoccupation is the power which resides in every woman, the capacity for nourishment (within and without, for herself and for others), a capacity which can be intoxicating and overwhelming, liberating and, yes, revolutionary.

“Before, I was a mere servant watching from afar as the wet nurse suckled. Then I was part of her life, holding and changing babies, burping them, and rocking them to sleep.”

Céleste’s is not the novel’s only voice, however; excerpts of Armande’s diary add another dimension to the story.

(Céleste’s voice is firmly established before this narrative shifts on a plot point, but it’s unsurprising that the novel is not solely rooted in voice and character, given it opens in the tumult of 1787.)

Armande mourishes Céleste alongside her babies, but Milk Fever affords Céleste the opportunity to develop beyond her subserviant role as the story unfolds; she feeds and grows metaphorically. Indeed, the fact that Céleste  is the primary storyteller illustrates that fact.

But also important in the novel is the relationships the women have with Armande’s father, whose position is complex politically but his intentions are straightforward and kind. Céleste’s experiences with men have been characterized by as much darkness and fear as she finds in the tunnels beneath the Vivants’ home, but M. Vivant has something else to offer to Céleste and to the novel.

The oppressed may have limited opportunities for resistance but in the pages of Milk Fever, the women are fervent in their desire for change, even while the public sphere is slow to follow. Lissa Cowan’s novel is a pleasure to read. 

Carrianne K.Y. Leung’s The Wondrous Woo (2013)

It’s possible that the readers who will warm most fervently to The Wondrous Woo are those readers who feel a connection with a passage like this:

Wondrous Woo Leung

Inanna Publications, 2013

“The first episode had come after an incident at the Woolco cafeteria when I was ten. It was $1.44 day and we had been on a back-to-school shopping mission.”

(I had completely forgotten $1.44 days, but whoa, it returned in a burst. Along with that quintessential Woolco-smell.)

Or readers who can recite, along with Miramar Woo, the final lines of the final episode of “The Wonder Years”:

“I remember a place, a town a house like a lot of houses. A yard like a lot of yards, on a street like a lot of streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back … with wonder.”

(I discovered the series in syndication and watched it as loyally as I’d watched “Star Trek”, “The Love Boat”, and “Little House on the Prairie”: “The Wonder Years” was better. Obviously.)

But it’s also possible that readers will simply respond to the journey that Miramar takes in the pages of this novel, to the experiences which demand that she discover and unleash her inner super-hero.

A tragic event in her young life forces young Miramar to find a source of resilience.

Those around her seem to have coping mechanisms dropped in their laps, while she feels her loss and pain all the more keenly in her loneliness. And while those to whom she looks for comfort and reassurance are preoccupied, she must look elsewhere for women who exhibit the strength and courage she requires.

She watches and rewatches films found only in Chinatown: those with Cheng Pei-Pei, one of the first major female king fu stars, her legendary “Golden Swallow”, also known as “The Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick”, as well as Angela Mao Ying, Lily Li, Karina Wei-Yin Hung, and Michelle Yeoh.

(The landscape of Toronto does figure prominently; Miramar works at a community centre in the East End — I imagine it being on Queen East near Carlaw, and she travels the TTC — sometimes from Bloor all the way to Kennedy and then hopping on a bus, and she eventually lives and shops in the inimitable Kensington Market.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she also finds great comfort and support in books and reading. (In that sense, she reminded me of Katherine in Suzanne Sutherland’s When We Were Good, another terrific tale in feminist ink.)

“I had always been my most comfortable between the stacks,” she says. (Oh, yes!)

This does not allow Miramar to fully escape the inner eye, the sense of inhabiting the margins.

“I could try all I wanted to achieve the long silhouette of the slender girls, but I would always look more like one of the seven dwarves. I did not have much of a waist, my hips flared way out and my bum ended near my mid-thigh in the back. Nida called me womanly. I hated that. I wished I had a body like Debbie Harry in Blondie: bone-skinny, all edges and points, like she hadn’t eaten in a year.” (Oh, yes….)

She is still constantly aware of feeling awkward, and the relationships she establishes tentatively are not necessarily as supportive as she hopes they will be.

“For a while, I was determined to make him love the feeling of cracking the spine of a book as much as I did.”

But despite the sorrowful nature of some events and the softer relational disappointments which follow, gradually Miramar rediscovers her own strength.

There are no grand illuminations, but a series of quiet acknowledgements and realizations, as the years pass, and a new set of challenges emerges (rooted in the past, completely credible but still tragedy upon tragedy).

“It was serious what [she] had said, and I did not have the energy to think about it. It meant that during our whole lives together, she had been trying to be happy, but failing, and lying to us all.” (The ‘she’ avoids a spoiler.)

A lifetime of lies: that’s quite a burden to uncover and bear, if only as a witness.

At such points, readers are grateful for Carrianne Leung’s uncluttered prose.

In the hands of another storyteller, such observations could easily be melodramatic and lose their intensity.

But Miramar too is a trained observer.

“Besides, Sociology intrigued me. People, clustered together, needing each other, hating each other, defining themselves in and out of groups – at last, I learned that there were many ways of making sense of this mess we called humankind.”

Myth Wondrous Woo CH16

She hasn’t only been watching the screen and studying the text. She has been observing in quite another way.

The style, too, suits the tales which preface chapters, like the one in the boxed excerpt to the right.

Concise and cleanly styled, these are the kinds of stories which bring Miramar back to herself.

These tales certainly added to my appreciation of Miramar’s journey (they reminded me of anthologies like Katrin Hyman Tchana’s Changing Woman and Her Sisters and The Serpent Slayer).

And they do set this coming-of-age story apart with a certain flare.

But ultimately the story is rooted in Miramar, and the greater the connection readers feel with her, the stronger their response to the novel will be.

The Wondrous Woo is the kind of tale that can bring out the super-hero in readers too.

(If you’re curious: you can read the first chapter here, on the author’s site.)

Was this debut novel on your reader’s radar? Or, are you scribbling down the title and author’s name now?

Kim Fu’s For Today I Am a Boy (2014)

For Today I Am a Boy is a very ordinary story, told in a gentle and quiet voice.

Kim Fu’s novel does not challenge vehemently, like Ghalib Islam’s brash debut or Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird.

“My father stood on the step and watched with me. It was the fall of my senior year. He held a mug of coffee, looking as slick as he did in the mornings — the comb marks in his gelled hair like rows in a cornfield, shirt and jacket freshly pressed.”

For Today I Am a Boy Fu

Harper Collins Publishers, 2014

Just because the narrative voice does not spiral and splinter –

Just because the narrative does not reflect back upon its self and its characters, with talk of mirrors and traps –

That does not mean that a book is not revolutionary.

The act of renaming is just that. “A word after a word after a word is power,” Margaret Atwood says.

There is our narrator, looking at his father, even the lines in his hair in straight, ordered lines.

We can see and feel the crisp edges of the fabric he wears, freshly ironed.

No, pressed.

Pressed and lined.

The father is, but the child is not. The child is not what the father imagined, desired, yearned for. A boy. Not boy enough.

“His very presence was an accusation, but a mild one; we’d both accepted certain limitations of mine by that point. I was not going to join the football team, and it was enough that I should admire them.”

And so there is tension even in that quiet scene. For there they stand, on the step, watching. Each of them not what the other desires, neither of them able to escape the constraints of social conditioning.

The tension has been there throughout. Alongside instructions. “You should try it. It’ll make a man out of you.” And declarations. “I make the rules, not you.”

Lines have been drawn. We readers are to take sides.

“Better to be one of us, better to be standing on this side than kneeling and weeping in the gravel while they leer, that was all my father wanted from me, to be one of them, to be a king.”

If a father wants a son to be a king, it implies that there is royalty in the family. And with pedigree comes responsibility.

“They carry China in their hearts and their lungs and eventually it kills them all. My father, on the other hand, died like a real man. A Western man. In a mine explosion.”

But of course there are no kings, although there is plenty of protocol. And of course the father’s father is not the only one fragmented, of “these purebred men”.

Our narrator is not in the procession; rather, surrounded by “the very picture of normality”, our narrator is alone.

“If I had to name this thing I was born with, I would’ve called it misery.”

This part which does not fit. We readers choose this side, because For Today I Am a Boy is immersed in a single, immediately sympathetic voice.

Not weak. Not delicate. And we know this. Because how vibrant and alive are the scenes in which nobody else is watching, the scenes in which nobody else is home. When there is no need to pretend.

“My mother said it was related to growing; my father said it was a sign of weakness, of a delicate constitution. Some people, he said, mostly women, got sick whenever they were needed, when there was work to be done—vague, mild illnesses that let them continue to do things they enjoyed, like lying under fresh, cool sheets and complaining. ‘Sick in their heads,’ he said.”

But although a single voice is at the heart of the novel, there is a chorus of sisters: the narrator’s — and, so, the novel’s — saving grace.

In particular, the oldest sister Adele reveals an open door. She shows her siblings how to walk through such constructs. (Or, arguably, to turn away from them, shut them even, find another path.)

She said, “Do you remember when we would pretend to be Adele?”
“Yes. You got tired of it first.”
“I didn’t get tired of it. I just … Being me wasn’t all that different. And it was more fun.”
The wind whipped her hair into my cheek. “Lucky you,” I said.

And in an effort to reconnect with an absent sister, there is room to recreate and revision. The act of curating a life, in photographs, illuminates the possibility of creating a self and, more importantly, allowing a denied self to emerge.

“At first I sent her pictures of the lit cross on the mountain, the steps of my apartment building, the Old Port, the café and the Japanese restaurant where I worked. Then they were of my salt-eaten boots, a kettle I’d found on the street, an old sweater of hers that I still wore to bed…”

There are small attempts at transformation and some of these are depicted in the novel’s spare, mostly functional and clearly deliberate but occasionally luminous, prose.

“I walked for an hour to get home through the October slush, that first, strange snow that doesn’t quite take.”

And other possibilities are viewed through other open doors as the landscape shifts from small-town Ontario to campus life in Montreal.

“Textbooks and college-course packs on queer theory and gender theory, books of memoir and poetry with heady, academic subtitles, political tracts—they were defined by these things, it was their hobby, their subject of scholarly study, their political fight.” 

Finally, the ultimate possibility:

“Did you think … you were the only one?” he said.

Belonging.

“And I still didn’t believe them — you couldn’t just rename yourself, you couldn’t tear down the skyline and rebuild and think there wouldn’t be consequences.”

Gentle yet fierce: a quiet revolution.

Greg Kearney’s The Desperates (2013)

In the beginning, Joel gets a new job. It’s a moment that might be filled with potential, promise. He could be the figure on the cover of the novel, leaping into the air.

Alternatively, Joel could be that figure on the cover and be plummeting to the earth, about to land – hard. Or, he could be suspended between the two states.

There are three characters at the heart of The Desperates: Joel, Edmund (whom Joel is about to meet on a telephone call in his new job), and Teresa (Joel’s mother).

Joel is working in Toronto, working as much to overcome his sense of failure as actually working.

Edmund is wallowing in Toronto, in the wake of his lover’s death (which wasn’t exactly recent, but might as well have been).

Teresa is dying in Kenora and has been trying to conceal the worst of that from her more sensitive son, Joel, but her days are numbered.

There is a spectrum there, an arc: a leap becomes a fall, the living plummet towards death. And if all of that sounds painful, that’s because it is.

Times are hard, but the characters’ arcs intersect: new possibilities emerge. Take Edmund, an older man who, after meeting Joel, feels suddenly and brilliantly renewed.

Desperates Kearney

Cormorant Books, 2013

“For once, his loneliness does not strike him as quaint, some small household imperfect that can be easily sidestepped, like a gouge in a floorboard. He is punctuated by his loneliness. He has learned all he can learn from austerity. It’s officially Time for Fun.”

That bit, loneliness like a gouge in the floorboard is nice, isn’t it.

There is more of that in Greg Kearney’s prose. Not in excess: an occasional flourish.

“Edmund thrills to the kid’s face. It’s a fist of a face, wind-burned and blunt, with small, spiteful grey eyes and a tight, angled mouth, like a hasty hem.”

Mostly the story takes root in character and voice, which unfold naturally.

Dialogue and scene: readers perch on the margins, observe as the characters discover and re-discover truths (and deceptions) about themselves and those around them.

“His mother’s endless, only slightly cruel curiosity about life’s small phenomena: this was something he [Joel] took for granted until he moved to the city. Not everyone takes an interest like his mother does; many people prefer to overlook the little curios of a given day.”

This isn’t a pronouncement. No glowing epiphany. Joel has gone back to Kenora to see how his mom is doing, and they’re just having an everyday kind of chat after they have watched “Out of Africa” together – again.

When he notices this small detail (and it is funny, too, because of the specific curios they discuss), it rests there, so the reader can settle into this ordinary intimacy, which is so profoundly threatened by his mother’s rapid physical decline.

Teresa, ironically, is the most lively character of the bunch in some ways. “Better to be a vengeful person who finishes what she starts than to be a radiant person who doesn’t do anything,” she says, taking careful and deliberate aim at a long-time enemy in Kenora.

You would think Terea is the character who makes this observation: “Sure,just fold me up and tuck me away like last summer’s lawn chair. As it should be.” But she is not.

Teresa has had her share of difficulties in the town, however. “‘I told you about Teresa’s son, Joel,’ Monty says to his wife in a sympathetic whisper. ‘There’s some concern that he is a homosexual and also not sanitary and a layabout. We’ve all been praying hard for him.’”

And there, in that paragraph, is a hint of what is truly remarkable about The Desperates. Yes, it is a heartbreaking story in many ways. But it is also hilarious, face-twistingly funny.

Perhaps if Joel had been unsanitary and a layabout but, at least, heterosexual, concerned townspeople might not have felt the need to pray.

Perhaps if he had simply been a homosexual, but a sanitary one and an ambitious one (also, perhaps, ambitious about being sanitary), everyone could have relaxed, prayed less often, or less vehemently.

But the fact remains that the characters are all long strings of adjectives that don’t always (or even ‘often’) meet their own or others’ expectations.

And, somehow, Greg Kearney makes that fundamentally okay, not only for them, but for readers as well.

Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird (2014)

Girl Cave Rose. Prince Dark Mirror. Crow Cellar Ring.

One has the sense that Helen Oyeyemi thinks in threes.

Also that she views the world through a slightly skewed lens.

Boy Snow Bird Oyeyemi

Hamish Hamilton – Penguin, 2014

But Boy, Snow, Bird is not simply a random collection of resonant images and ideas; the book is named for a trio of women, whose voices are vitally important to the reader’s experience of this story.

Add the family name Whitman to the mix and it’s clear that the reader is meant to bring a certain knowledge of Snow to the tale.

And, yet, Helen Oyeyemi’s story feels more like a game of telephone with “Snow White” than a retelling of the tale.

There is something eerily familiar to the story, but most impressive is where the tale diverges from the reader’s vague (and possibly Disney-fied) expectations. For Boy, Snow, Bird is not a typical fairy tale.

Take Mme d’Aulnoy’s traditional tale for example. (This is a long excerpt, but directly relevant to Helen Oyeyemi’s novel, from which one can quote very litte without risking spoilers.)

Once upon a time there lived the daughter of a king, who was so beautiful that there was nothing quite so beautiful on earth; and because she was so beautiful, she was called Beauty with the Golden Hair, for her hair was finer than gold, and marvellously wondrously blonde, all curly, and fell to her feet. She was always covered by her wavy hair, and clothes embroidered with diamonds and pearls, so that you could not look on her without loving her.*

There is a blonde, pale-skinned beauty in Boy, Snow, Bird. And there is a mirror. There are secrets which are kept in dark places. Questions are posed. But Helen Oyeyemi’s marvellously wondrously blonde girl is not what the reader expects. Nor is beauty. Nor goodness.

“This way my mother’s alive, she’s dead, she’s whatever she deserves to be on that particular day.”

It can be like this – alive, dead, changing – in a single moment. And the question of identity is an integral part of this novel. What one is and what one deserves to be: how those states might not be just yet can be transformed, with a spell, with intent.

“I also went up half a shoe size, which pleased me because it was another bridge burned between me and the rat catcher. Come into town, rat catcher, come looking for your daughter, come holding a pair of the shoes she left. Say to everyone who’ll listen: ‘If the shoes fit, she’s mine.’”

Though, arguably, understanding is an even more important theme, even though there is as much about distance and dissonance as there is about connection and compassion.

“This doesn’t feel like my life, if feels like somebody else’s. I’m standing here holding somebody else’s life for them, trying to keep it steady while it bobs up and down like a ferocious balloon. Make this little girl let me go – I don’t know if I want her. Can’t I start over?”

What ultimately appears to preoccupy the author are the challenges, the walls that exist, and the ways in which one might peer above or beyond them.

“One day soon a wall will come up between us, and I won’t be able to follow her behind it.”

This volume does not possess the lyricism of Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch and Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, or the sense of layered construction in Joytsna Sreenivasan’s And Laughter Fell from the Sky and Tanith Lee’s White as Snow.

But Helen Oyeyemi’s style is distinctive, bold and challenging. From peroxide to rat-catching, from “Good Housekeeping” to Frederick Douglass: Boy, Snow, Bird casts a new light in dark corners.

So it’s not so much that Helen Oyeyemi looks through a slighly skewed lens at the world, but that she offers the reader the chance to do so. And isn’t that just what art is meant to do.

Have you read this novel? Or, do you plan to? Or, perhaps you’ve read another of hers?

*Quoted from Marina Warner’s consideration of the story in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (1994)

Nick Cutter’s The Troop (2014)

A Stephen King blurb. And, it’s declared: a novel of terror. Nick Cutter’s readers know what they’re in for.

Nick Cutter Troop

And, if there was any doubt, little clues speckle the first few chapters.

Readers are “waiting for unknown wickedness”.

There are shadows coalescing into permanence and logs groaning. There is a sheet of insects cloying and a hand settling on a shoulder like a claw. Sunlight is glinting off braces, and a ball of snakes is hissing.

Images are dangled for effect, and we are to think of something being like a disembodied head in a sideshow oracle, or moving with the shamble of a disoriented bear, or smelling like the syrupy foulness in the bottom of a trash can.

These are isolated details which accrue and contribute to the story’s chill. But more powerful are the strings of details which swell.

The images of power, for instance, whether it is the smashing of a radio and the chaotic sparking mess of it, or the ordinary descriptions of fuses and cables, or the sensory details of green fuzz on old batteries or the taste of sucking on the metal.

But all of this is the tissue, and what sets this novel apart, what moves the fluids through its veins, is the troop: five boys who met as Beavers, moved up the ranks, and are now ready for an independent hike.

The diligent training of Scoutmaster Tim has informed Ephraim, Kent, Max, Newton and Shelley about a variety of wilderness and survival skills, but not even  42-year-old doctorTim Reeves is prepared for the threat on Falstaff Island. 

That’s where it unfolds: 15 kilometres off the northern point of Prince Edward Island, on a landmass 10.4km in circumference, in three parts and 50 chapters.

The island, which is normally uninhabited (the troop knows this because it’s familiar territory and readers know this because the National Resources Canada Geographical Survey Report is included as one of the supplementary “documents” which dapple the narrative), is naturally protected, naturally isolated (the troop master intended the former, but the boys experience the latter).

It is a familiar place and the terrain and flora and fauna are recognizable. Which is what makes good horror stories so frightening, when the known collides with the unknown and unknowable.

Consider the following observations, seemingly innocuous.

“Medical instruments were often just precision variations of the same tools handymen used.”

“There are those who say the best scientists occupy that dangerous headspace teetering at the edge of madness.”

“But that’s people. People care too much. They love at all costs. And so they pay the ultimate price.”

Each of these statements could have resulted in a narrative very different from The Troop. Perhaps a DIY guide. Or a college student’s term paper. Or a Joyce Carol Oates short story.

But in Nick Cutter’s narrative, the mechanics are solid, the storyteller’s voice is dedicated and unflinching, and the story relentless and captivating. It is the whole package.

The Troop is a truly engaging and gut-wrenching tale; even if readers can hardly stomach it, they will feel driven to gobble it up.

Companion Reads:
Emily Schultz’ The Blondes (2012)
Lawrence Hill’s Blood (2013)
Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down (2004)