So many books to talk about! Including what’s currently in my stacks and what I’m reading with this year’s reading about writing.
Spring is in the air: there’s talk of romance and new practices (and old ones too).
There’s talk of backlisted fiction, like Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe and Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl.
And new books, like Anjali Pathak’s The Indian Family Kitchen and Michelle Butler Hallett’s This Marlowe (coming soon).
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!)
From Amy Sedaris to Alicia Silverstone, celebrities have things to say about cooking and entertaining. Stanley Tucci talks Italian food and Tony Danza contributes to the conversation.
Grand Central Publishing, 2016
But Gwyneth Paltrow does not appear to be passing through the territory; she’s putting down some roots.
In 2011, she published My Father’s Daughter: Delicious, Easy Recipes Celebrating Family & Togetherness. In 2013, It’s All Good: Delicious, Easy Recipes That Will Make You Look Good and Feel Great.
Now, It’s All Easy: Delicious Weekday Recipes for the Super-Busy Home Cook.
Note the continued emphasis on deliciousness, but no more outward promises of celebration or feeling great: it’s understood.
Her third installment appears to build upon the foundations estalished in the earlier works, with a focus on clean-living and family-focussed meals, but with the intention of more completely satisfying devotees (who no longer have as much time for cooking as the earlier installments required) and/or drawing in new cooks who weren’t convinced they had time to celebrate or cook good things when the first two books came out.
With the advent of a third cookbook, I was too curious to resist.
And this was, ironically, due as much to Timothy Caulfield’s Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything? (subtitled When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash) as to her cookbooks, which I hadn’t leafed through yet.
When I did, I wasn’t sure there was room for me at this table. Let alone for my family. Everything in this cookbook is pretty and well-orchestrated, even when it’s presented as natural and spontaneous. The kids might be wearing sweatpants, and Gwyneth is in denim on the cover, but this is one classy set-up.
You know: just because someone is wearing distressed clothing and fleece doesn’t negate the fact that there’s a chandelier above the breakfast table, right?
The chapters are simply titled, often evoking a feeling or situation than truly describing the contents, so if you’re looking for “Something Sweet”, you’ll know to turn to page 223, but you will find all sorts of flavours under “In a Pinch”. (The other chapters are “First Thing”, “On the Go”, “Pick-Me-Ups”, “Cozy Evenings”, “Summer Nights”, “Unexpected Guests”, and “The Basics”.)
In the “Pantry” list, there were only a few items missing from our cupboards and drawers (four spices, three sauces, and some meat-related things), and not one recipe looked too complicated (though one bad crepe-making experience, twenty years ago, was enough to put me off making crepes for eternity, so even though her recipe looks simple, I shall remain a pancake-girl).
The emphasis on whole-foods ingredients, short lists of requirements, and the fact that she obviously enjoys a number of the same basics that our family enjoys: all of this combined to make me think that I could dress up my fleece.
One thing she loves, which is a huge hit in our family, too, is the spiralizer. I love veggie noodles, but I’ve always used them with sauces or as salads. Her Zucchini Cacio e Pepe is basically zucchini noodles, olive oil, black pepper, salt, and cheese. (See? Now you do want a spiralizer, don’t you?) That’s the kind of thing that fills plates around here, especially when it’s too hot to cook, although it doesn’t appear in her summer section, but under “In a Pinch”. (And we use ground nuts instead of parmesan.)
In her miso soup, she uses ramen noodles. But in her pho, she uses spiralized zucchini “noodles”. (She also uses chicken, but I do not.) But it simply hadn’t occurred to me to toss some veggie “noodles” in a soup. And, yet, why not?
Her version, not mine!
There are also some very simple drinks, which have become staples in our house on cool mornings. (Largely because we already enjoy some of the other drinks she includes, like the Coconut Latte and the Ginger and Lemon Tea.) The Ginger, Sesame and Almond Drink is fantastic for damp days, and I’m sure will be even more enjoyable when winter rolls around once more.
One of the best parts of the cookbook for our family, however, was the discovery of the Socca Pizzas, which are both vegan and gluten-free. That sounds dramatic, but because they only contain chickpea flour and olive oil and salt, along with whatever toppings you choose, it’s pretty simple. (In some recipes, she calls for larger quantities of things like oil and garlic, toppings and sauces, than some cookbooks do, but it suits our family’s taste perfectly.)
The base is used elsewhere in the book, as a platform for some other tasty bits, but since we’ve packed up the gluten in our kitchen, we have been looking for a pizza-like thing that wasn’t about what-was-missing and was all about what’s-there. This doesn’t seem like a gluten-free pizza crust, but something else entirely: it works perfectly for us.
(Mind you, I don’t understand why a nonstick-pan is included in a cookbook which is all about health. But this is a cookbook for busy people, who don’t want to take the time to season a cast-iron pan, which doesn’t stick and isn’t linked to cancer-causing chemicals either.)
Now as to whether or not Gwyneth Paltrow Is “wrong about everything”? Timothy Caulfield’s book is fascinating, really. Like Azar Ansari, he is interested in the stats and trends, and he is curious about the relationship between proximity and influence, especially as it relates to culture. For instance, people feel closer to celebrities now that social media offers a different way to interact (or seemingly interact), and this has changed the dimensions that (some) celebrities have culturally.
It’s All Easy is not very prescriptive, although there is more narrative in the earlier books she has presented. She does deliberately address the matter of specific foods which she “cleansed” from her kitchen in earlier books, in an effort to regain her compromised health. But some of those foods, which do not make an appearance in earlier menus are included in this book, in moderation. (And all the recipes are clearly marked under their titles, if they are particularly suited to a style of eating, like vegan or gluten-free.)
In his analysis, Caulfield takes a common-sense approach, reminding readers that eating more fruit and vegetables and home-cooked food are just plain healthy choices and, when coupled with other healthy habits (like sufficient rest and exercise), folks will see improvements if they’ve fallen into other kinds of habits.
He has no argument with her there. He does question her decision to avoid some particular food groups, and her preference for organically-grown/raised foodstuffs; he cites some studies which show that differences she feels are significant are either not significant or not identifiable. And he has some broader questions, about why people are inclined to turn to celebrities for information about health and wellness in the first place.
But I’m not looking for advice from Gwyneth Paltrow. I am less concerned about whether she is buying organic zucchini and simply interested in the fact that she likes to spiralize hers into soups sometimes.
And because that’s true, I can set aside the fact that the beautiful photographs (of cityscapes and rural landscapes, of the movie-star and her family, of leaves and plants and growing things) don’t really have anything to do with my not-usually-photogenic (but quite-often-damn-tasty) kitchen/dinner table/life.
It’s All Easy is beautifully presented, meticulously organized and aesthetically pleasing. And it is readily adaptable for a messy, lived-in, dairy-free, meat-free kitchen.
In an interview about her bestselling debut, The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan states: “The best writing opens a person’s mind rather than closing it.”
Little, Brown and Co, 2016
Readers of Now and Again should pay attention, because her second novel is over 400 pages long and it is written to satisfy open-minded readers who also appreciate open-endings.
“Understanding people like ourselves is no great trick, but fiction can put us in someone else’s shoes and allow us to question our assumptions in a way that makes us better people. Mostly, doing the right thing starts with asking questions rather than blind obedience to dogma, and one of the things fiction does best is to ask questions.” (Interview with January Magazine, 2012)
It’s like she was already talking about Now and Again, which presents a story from twelve different perspectives. Each of these characters is bent on doing the right thing. Many of them are preoccupied with big questions, all of them with small ones (if only about their uncertainty how to handle the other people in their lives who are asking big ones).
And it’s about conflict, small ones (like differences of opinion about whether a blouse is suitable for office wear) and big ones (like war).
At first, there are two sets of characters: one on the home front and one on the battle front. But thematically the stories are linked from the start, with the character of Maggie Rayburn.
She was the character who first took hold for Charlotte Rogan when she began writing Now and Again. (She discusses the themes, characters, and motivation for writing in three short videos: the remainder of the quotes about crafting, which I’ve included, are drawn from these.)
Not only does Maggie figure most predominantly throughout the kaleidoscope of characters, but she inadvertently offers the-closest-thing-to-closure which Now and Again has on offer, by cinching a central theme from beginning to end, in a tight little circle that cannot be discussed in any greater detail without spoilers.
In the novel’s opening pages, Maggie is faced with a decision, whether to steal a top-secret file from the office she works in, at the munitions plant.
“She had [taken something that wasn’t hers], and now she had to do something with the evidence – evidence that was more like ammunition than she liked to think.” Immediately the parallels emerge, the ways in which an action can be as dangerous as a piece of artillery.”
Although a gripping and complex storyline, Maggie’s sole voice wouldn’t adequately explore the terrain that Charlotte Rogan is drawn to. “A single character is not capable of either knowing or expressing the truth.” She deliberately sought to include other voices in Now and Again. “The truth is not a single coherent thing.”
Not all of the characters in the novel seek this kind of complexity. “He liked watching the water smooth over it and imagining the whole mysterious world roiling beneath the surface, filled with creatures that would live and die without knowing a thing about Lyle’s world, just the way he wouldn’t know a thing about theirs.”
Some deliberately seek something quieter. “If he had had a life philosophy, it would have involved not complaining and blending in.”
Whereas others stand out by their very nature, others by circumstance. “It was as if he had crossed into a parallel universe and was searching for a way back. He had assumed the disconnection must have happened in Iraq, but now he realized he had been looking out the window all his life and only rarely making contact….”
Some deliberately protest the status quo. “Human beings were being trafficked for corporate interests right underneath everyone’s noses!”
Others debate the proper course of action/inaction:
“As she prayed, it occurred to her that prayer was the only thing worth doing, the only truly dgood thing, because all actions had unintended consequences, and because people who acted were always in the gravest danger of being wrong.
But so, of course, were people who prayed. Perhaps it was wrong to pray for particular people or results.”
What to do. What to not do. There are so many contradictions in this novel. One character’s solution is another character’s biggest problem. One character is presumed to be pursuing one course of action, but in fact is motivated by something else entirely and steering a bicycle in the opposite direction.
“It was disconcerting to be misunderstood. But how did a person tell his or her story exactly the way it was?”
Charlotte Rogan clearly states: “Truth and even reality are different for each one of us.”
But at least one of her characters would agree with her statement: “So the world will probably never be peaceful just the way it will never be just, but to not be motivated by idealism doesn’t make you more realistic, it makes you directionless.”
Now and Again is motivated by idealism, but ultimately readers are responsible for assembling their own understanding of its roots.
As the mid-year mark approaches, what is the state of your stack? Are you reading what you planned to read, or are you happy to have veered away from projects you’d expected to complete? Have you got some new reading projects in mind for the second half of 2016?
I’m still working to complete some left-unfinished and overly neglected reads and series, but lately I’ve been reading like a schoolgirl on holiday, picking up the next book in my stack and, along the way, picking up a bunch of books that were just on the ‘someday’ stack and then were suddenly desirable in a given moment.
Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers – The only remnant from my last In the Stacks photo. I’m considering a reread of Summer People when the weather gets hotter. Although I admire the kaleidoscopic view of the folks coping with wartime, at home and on the front, I miss the complete immersion into one or two characters’ experiences, which I remember loving about her writing.
Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend – I’ve resisted long enough. Now, I’m just too curious what all the fuss is about. Admittedly, the nature of the women’s friendship is immediately of interest. One woman disappears, the other wallows in memories: I do want to know more.
Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards – Oh, how I loved The Book of Ruth. And, I’ve read almost all of her novels since (except the one about a Madeleine). I’m curious how much this family story will differ from her debut family portrait.
Ian Hamilton’s The Scottish Banker of Surabaya – Summer gets me thinking about mysteries, and I’ve borrowed this on a whim from the library, but I’ve only read a hundred pages, and I’ve stalled. This would be my fifth Ava Lee mystery, but I might turn my attention to another series instead.
Karen Molson’s The Company of Crows – A first novel, with a lovely first sentence: “This grey lines fan out across the earthscape like a gigantic, tattered spiderweb.” She’s bookish, she’s thirteen, and she’s growing up in Laughing Willows Trailer Park. And there are crows. I don’t need to know more. This is one of those reading experiences, which I feel, almost immediately, is going to be a favourite.
Susan Philpott’s Dark Territory. Readers met Signy Shepherd in Blown Red, the first in a mystery series centred around The Line, an underground-railroad type of rescue operation for women threatened or attacked. The second in the series is just as compelling. (And some snowy bits make for nice contrast when reading in summer heat!) I’m spinning out the first half, because when I got halfway into the first volume, I simply couldn’t put it down until I had finished it.
Malcolm Sutton’s Job Shadowing – “As we hang on through each plausible yet impossible turn, the parllel worlds Malcolm Sutton effortlessly creates pull us ever closer to the underlying currents and desires that make the personal political, then twist back around to become deeply personal once again.” (So says Jacob Wren, who wrote Polyamorus Love Song) This isn’t exactly a comfortable read, but it sure gets me thinking!
Jill Sexsmith’s Somewhere a Long and Happy Life Probably Awaits You – I’ve annoyed everyone in hearing distance while reading this collection, constantly reading aloud “just this sentence”. (But there are so many awesome sentences. And paragraphs.) Maybe if I was reading in a burst, her style would wear on me, but parcelled out, over a couple of weeks, I have found them just wonderful.
Paul Quarrington’s King Leary – He’s positively offensive at times (much of the time, actually), but also wholly credible. This has been on my TBR for years, and now I’m enjoying just a couple of chapters each day: enough to make me smirk!
Tracy Barone’s Happy Family – Beginning with a highly dramatic opening scene in 1962, the story spills forth into other narratives and the author’s screen-writing experience is evident immediately. Readers need to be prepared to set aside perspectives almost as quickly as they’ve settled into them, but there is a strong promise of resolution as the story grows in complexity.
Frank Viva’s Sea Change – Unexpectedly funny, whereas the dark colour palette led me to expect a more sombre coming-of-age story. It’s perfect for summer reading, as the story of a boy sent to the Maritimes for a holiday, and I’ve stopped to read a passage aloud three times in just four short chapters. This bodes well!
How about you? How about your stack? How about your someday-stack?
A white elephant was historically bestowed as a burden which had the outward appearance of a gift; a courtier charged with its care and upkeep would have a beautiful creature to display, but the weight of the responsibility undeniable.
Freehand Books, 2016
In Catherine Cooper’s debut novel, the question of gifts and burdens permeates the lives of its characters.
At the heart of the novel are a married couple, Ann and Richard, and their child, Tor; each of these characters is presented in alternating close-third-person narratives.
Perspective is everything: just as an elephant can be a gift or a burden, a single event can be a blessing or a curse, a single person provoking inspiration or desperation.
As the novel progresses, perspectives shift; what appeared to be an act of giving up in despair becomes an act of escape in triumph, what seemed a scientific certainty becomes an element of faith.
Richard has long wanted to practice medicine in Africa, and his desire to influence others raises questions of culture and faith, tradition and belief. Seeking to impose dramatic changes on the residents of a Sierra Leone community immediately provokes questions of power and control, vulnerability and neediness.
Ironically, the visitors who are apparently motivated by a desire to provide aid, are tremendously needy indiviuals.
This is to be expected from Tor’s character, as a young child, but his parents relentlessly work to satisfy their own needs, under the guise of altruism, and leave behind a trail of devastation. In turn, Tor learns from these examples, and he, too, ranks personal convenience above compassion.
But whether the characters inhabit familiar or new territory, one theme echoes throughout the work: size does not equate with power. In the river of change, which these characters seek to cross, it’s young Tor who leaves the boldest rift in his wake.
“Tor kept hacking at the [trunk of the] mango tree, and when he was worn out, he went down to the river’s edge and sat by himself. He wondered what was wrong with him. He didn’t mean to do those things. He didn’t want to hurt Aminata. He just wanted to go home. How much time had he spent listening to his mother talk about the mould and Richard, and now that she seemed to be getting better, he felt like he was losing her.”
The small – from another perspective, the insignificant – can wield tremendous power.
Ann is decimated by the mould which flourishes in the walls of the house they inhabit. Despite her ongoing costly and exhaustive contracts for renovation, these tiny organisms thrive in an environment which drains and exhausts (even nauseates) Ann.
From spores to insects to rats, small creatures wreck considerable devastation. They also serve as convenient targets for larger people to blame, as the impetus for their unhappiness and dissatisfaction. And, as such, their movements, on the periphery of significant relationships, have a peculiar resonance with the characters.
“The most unforgivable example of this was when he [Jusuf, who worked in the house] scraped the mould off the walls, releasing the spores that now lived in her lungs and consumed her thoughts. But this was only one of many examples of his incompetence. A few days earlier she’d caught him feeding sugar water to the ants in the kitchen. When she’d confronted him, he’d said, ‘If we give them what they want, they will go away.’”
The breakdown of a body (and, as perspectives shift, its endurance) is considered throughout the work, and physical vulnerabilities contribute to (and, other times, erupt from) spiritual and intellectual breakdowns.
“He [Richard] watched for a while as the insect flapped its wings in wild futility, and when it finally stopped, he poked at it with a pencil to start it up again, reasoning that the best thing was for it to wear itself out quickly.”
This kind of detail is more important to White Elephant than setting, although one might expect otherwise in a novel which touches upon two regions as striking as Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.
Perhaps this is a deliberate decision not to engage with traditional CanLit’s emphasis on descriptions of the natural world, or perhaps it is a reflection of the characters’ perspectives: it could be argued that none of the three – neither Richard, nor Ann nor Tor – truly inhabits Sierra Leone.
It could also be argued that none of these characters truly inhabits their own self. They live at a distance from themselves, literally and figuratively.
“Dot told the priest that their mother wasn’t herself, but Ann believed that her mother had never been herself before then, and that brief breach in the seemingly impenetrable wall that had always stood between them helped Ann to let go of years of bitterness and pain.”
As such, letters are used to bridge gaps, from ‘home’ and ‘away’. Throughout the novel, this is used effectively, particularly to capture whether a threat perceived by a character is realistic (or inflated).
The letters in the epilogue, however, seem to be included to offer an echo of something-like-closure (you can imagine, with three damaged and struggling characters, that there isn’t any true closure awaiting a reader of such a story – no spoiler, right?).
They provide a voice to characters who only exist at a distance for both readers and characters, but these are characters who have not been afforded an independent voice in the narrative so far; this does serve as a reminder that beyond the preoccupations of three family members, many other lives unspool (for better or worse), but to conclude the story in such a manner seems a concession to convention.
Readers who have endured more than 300 pages in the company of Ann and Richard and Tor, smothered by their insular and angsty perspectives, could have accepted nothing-even-remotely-like-closure on the final pages.
Although being in close quarters with these characters is uncomfortable, White Elephant is not without its lighter moments. There are many scenes in which the overwhelming emotion is anger or fear, in which tension is palpable, but readers can catch a glimpse of a comic element, as the behaviour of the characters approaches a ridiculous level of self-absorption.
It’s particularly amusing, for instance, to have Richard lament the fact that Ann has left his book out in the rain, so that “he would have to wait until he got back to Canada to find out what had become of the main character, although it had seemed obvious for some time that he was planning to off himself, a conclusion Richard had started to look forward to as the man became increasingly whiny and fanatical”.
None of the characters in White Elephant would define themselves as whiny or fanatical, but any one of them exhibits characteristics which could be interpreted that way, depending on one’s perspective.
Ultimately Catherine Cooper’s novel reminds readers that one person’s burdensome elephant is another person’s beloved companion. Ann and Richard and Tor feel their lives pulling downwards at every joint. They cannot bear the weight of their own selves, even though they desperately want to slough them off.
Celine and Julie are negotating the borders of girlhood, wandering back and forth across dotted lines and territories both more and less available to them as the years pass.
They trade L.M. Montgomery’s girlhood classics for “Law and Order” and Our Bodies, Ourselves, while readers follow in their footsteps in narratives which alternately focus on one girl, then the other.
Double Teenage is divided into four parts (delightful wordplay in their naming, alluding to some of the novel’s themes and motifs), the first three presented chronologically and the last restarting the numbering and taking a more objective view.
It’s as though the final section of the work is taking measurements and performing calculations based on some of the sensory and cultural details shared in the narratives of the girls’ growing years, studies and analyses taking over where the imagery and emotions left off. (There are some lovely bits early on, like, “I carry you around in my mind like it’s a pocket.”)
In the novel’s early pages, readers have an eye on the girls’ experiences, which Joni Murphy presents in such a way that, even if readers have not grown up in a small town, near the U.S./Mexico border, some aspects are familiar (for instance, classic novels, and TV shows with hundreds of episodes).
“The books were classic girl fiction: Alice in Wonderland and Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon and all the Little House books and Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. As if she had been there, Celine’s mother spoke about prairie fires and scarlet fevers, initiation rituals and torrential downpours, family betrayals and corset-induced fainting spells. Her voice moved like a wagon. It moved like feet in leather moccasins padding through dust and starvation. Her voice lost children to fever.”
Celine’s mother reads aloud, often stories that she thinks might ease her daughter’s passage through girlhood. But other than the Little House books, which are clearly tales of survival against the elements (filled with natural disasters and the trials of pioneer life), these stories feature girls who learn that care-giving is the ultimate achievement.
The men and boys they meet? On the page and in the world? Their stories are epic, only pretending to hold little substance; they are inherently worthwhile. “He told the myth of his family like a flat but colorful film.”
Not until they are older, starring in their own features, do Celine and Julie begin to tell stories in their own voices. “At eighteen they finally felt like performers rather than audience.”
Not until they are older, do they recognize that the risks they face are an integral part of the narratives they inhabit, the stories told about their kind.
“They modeled new lives. Both Celine and Julie put deserts behind them, convincing themselves it was just a corrupted cowboy land – a myth world cast in violet light – which they were now safely out of. The real world felt brutal, yes, but also so beautifully visible, and they were finally in it.”
Double Teenage considers the desire to consume stories, to transform experiences into types, dreams into expectations. “The people in the auditorium, classmates and teachers, trafficked in this material. They refined, packaged, traded, cut, and consumed these kind of ideas.”
It’s not only material which is treated in this matter-of-fact manner. What else is refined, packaged, traded, cut, and consumed?
Celine and Julie have so many questions, seemingly endless questions when they are girls, when they expect to feel aswim, and later even more questions, but the potential to give voice to them is diminished. It’s as though these questions should not be asked, as though the asking of them violates a code.
“Who do dead bodies belong to? Who do women’s bodies belong to? Are women beings or objects? Is there something between?”
Joni Murphy’s narrative straddles the line between a character-driven story and a treatise to be discussed, something living and breathing and something only understood from afar. There is more than one way to look at it, more than one valid formula.
“What grips their insides is knowledge of their value, their worthlessness. They flee because, in their world, existence hinges on a litany of imperatives. Be pretty, charm, adapt to threat. The lessons might be summarizde as Be good or else.”
What happens when “or else” is the only answer?
In the middle of her long, incense-soaked wedding ceremony, Lara Kulicz amuses herself by creating a philosopher’s alphabet, assigning a name to each letter of the alphabet, identifying X for Xenophon just when the priest declares the couple “man and wife”.
In much the same way, Domnia Radulescu incorporates light-hearted elements and subplots which offer readers relief from the novel’s central theme – the devastating effects of the 1982 Bosnian War.
As with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, a friendship is a key component of the novel, and this is a friendship viewed from a distance too. Their friendship – like every other aspect of their lives – is fundamentally shaped by the genocidal war surrounding them, and readers are preoccupied more with the absences of the women in each other’s lives than their presences, more with their feelings of separation and alienation than union and intimacy.
Twelve – Hachette, 2016
Katja Rudolph’s Little Bastards in Springtime would make a great reading companion, exploring the aftermath of this conflict from the perspective of a young man, Jevrem, who also survives the conflict, but is forced to draw and redraw his own borders in the aftermath.
“We call ourselves The Bastards of Yugoslavia, as a joke. We like the word bastard. It’s got a ring to it, and has a lot of different meanings. It’s what the nationalists who took over our country called us, the offspring of women in mixed marriages. They meant it as an insult, but we feel proud. It’s why we’re here, together, in this flat, endless city next to an abnormally large lake. They didn’t want us back home, not really, in all their new separate little cleaned-up countries, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia. And Bosnia, split completely in half, Croats and Muslims on one side, Serbs on the other. Where were we beautiful mongrels meant to fit?”
There are many Bastards of Yugoslavia, beautiful mongrels, whose stories have not been told, but Domnica Radulescu’s Country of Red Azaleas brings forth one such story.
Both Lara and Marija are untethered. One of them is ostensibly more protected, able to ruminate on this sense of dislocation: “We spoke Serbian again and the many consonants of my native language soothed my burning mouth, my parched throat, my devastated soul. I need a break from English, from America, from idiomatic expressions and mannerisms.” The other is more overtly vulnerable, in the thick of the conflict: “But a boot kicking you in your stomach is always real and you can’t mistake it for not real. And you can’t mistake the dead bodies strewn next to you for the images flickering on the walls of a cave.”
The settings are significant as representations of the characters’ choices (and reactions, for there are not always true choices): Belgrade and Washington DC. From the Ferhadja Mosque to the Hirshhorn Sculpture, the details matter; but the symbolic importance of the point of confluence, in Belgrade, where the Danube and Sava rivers meet, is perhaps most important of all.
Domnica Radulescu’s style is spare and her language uncomplicated, perhaps deliberately, in light of the horrific details which underpin the story, from the Srebrenica massacres to the mass rapes and NATO bombings.
These devastating events play out alongside other losses (e.g. divorce, custody, adultery), tragedies broad and narrow, rooted in a “shiny web of lies and a second life of illicit encounters”. This particular conflict perfectly reflects the reality of broader identities resulting in intimate betrayals, “lives of halves”, a “missed heartbeat”.
Occasionally there is an emotive burst (Sarajevo described as a “delicious secret” and an experience as a “volcano of sorrow”) but the language is simple. The structure is chronological, with half the book covering a broader swath of time (1980 – 2003) and the second half covering only 2003 and 2004. The narrative voice is first-person, consistent and direct.
Ultimately the novel’s success lies in characterization, but this is a difficult connection to forge because of the element of distance inherent in the key relationships. Domnica Radulescu uses the motif of audience and performance to allow the reader to settle into a seat from which they can view at a distance.
Lara is named for the heroine of Doctor Zhivago, a story better known via the film version than the book, an American interpretation better known than the Russian original.
She imposes the perspective she learned from Hollywood on everyone she encounters, one man her Marlboro Man and another a mix of Clark Gable and Omar Sharif. She recognizes the tilt of a woman’s chin to be the same angle as Ingrid Bergman’s in the final scene of “Casablanca”.
Both these references include strong relational plots but ultimately their stories are shaped by war, just as in Country of Red Azaleas.
It’s with a subtle touch, but Nadia Bozak solidly roots the reader in time and place.
House of Anansi, 2016
This is not an easy task, because Shell only grows to the age of seventeen in Thirteen Shells — across thirteen stories, and childhood is inherently rootless.
So the details noted must be those within a child’s reach, displayed without context, but generously, so that readers can inflate their understanding. Her use of language is most often straight-forward, only occasionally poetic (like snow with “wet, melty flakes the size of teabags”).
Consider this observation in “Please Don’t Pass Me By”: “Dad and Kremski shake their heads and talk a lot about the USA. The words they use are long and sticky: fundamentalist, hegemony, ideology. ‘Imagine if Ronald Reagan actually gets in?'”
Key concepts are undefined, vague and amorphous, and readers are left to imagine a time in which that election’s outcome was still unthinkable for left-wing voters (who are now asking the same question about Donald Tr*mp).
A political awareness simmers beneath Thirteen Shells, primarily via Shell’s parents, but the bulk of the narrative is preoccupied with a young girl’s everyday life (parents moving closer to the periphery as the years pass and pages turn).
In “Snow Tire”, Shell observes different details as an older girl (fashion and other consumer goods) and although she hasn’t yet begun to make some of the value judgements that an adult observer might make, sometimes there is room for readers to peek between the lines:
“Vicki’s mum starts doing things like raking the leaves and walking slowly up to the store to get small bags of chips, or she picks Vicki up from school and walks back with her and Shell. She goes from the white jeans to a new pair of stonewash that don’t show her underwear lines and she cuts her hair so it’s feathery like Princess Di’s. And then, more and more, when Clarke is at work, a black Trans Am is parked in the drive.”
Often, Nadia Bozak simply captures Shell’s childish misunderstandings, but she leaves them untouched and unexplained, so that readers can reach for another understanding, if so inclined.
“Shell should learn to be Muslim: gentle and polite and pleasing to adults. Girl Muslims must be super pretty if Marmoon is and he’s a boy, and they probably don’t lie or steal or dig holes in the backyard with their dads. Shell checked, but none of the makeup in her shoebox would turn her skin darker, so instead she lies out in the sun and brushes her teeth extra hard so they look white against her deepening tan.” (“Fair Trade”)
Shell’s growth can be charted by birthdays and other marks on the wall/page, but also by the kinds of details which take on a new prominence in the stories, like her appreciation of Patti Smith, The Clash, Talking Heads, and Sonic Youth in “Hole in the Wall”.
“It’s good to be in the immensity of Sam’s and with a sense of purpose. She heads for Rock and fills her arms with so many tapes she might not have enough money to pay for them.”
So, here she is old enough to want to go to Sam the Record Man, but not old enough to recognize the restrictions of an adult’s entertainment budget, but sometimes her growth is more deliberately indicated:
“Suddenly Shell’s eyes surge with tears. Because she loves Mum so much and Dad and even Valery, with her chocolate chicken and caramel eyes, and she loves Maček too – of course she does! – but with those words she knows she’ll have to leave here – the cool bed sheets that smell like Nivea and the rap of Maček’s sturdy, steady hammer. She’ll have to go someplace where the library has more books and the essays she writes can be longer and harder and so beautiful and in a way Somerset can’t ever understand. And she’ll have to go soon. A world lives out there. She’s already seventeen.” (“New Roof”)
Similarly, sometimes the passage of time is more deliberately charted, as when particular elements in earlier stories reappear in later ones, with a fresh outlook and new level of comprehension.
Gaps in the story are handed deftly, so that readers can fill in the spaces which remained unexplained for the children who were unmoored by dramatic changes.
Her friend Vicki articulates one of the work’s central themes: home (which also surfaces in Nadia Bozak’s prior works, like Orphan Love and El Nino) Vicki says: “I miss you, Shell. And when I have a dream that’s set in a house, it’s always yours.”
A conversation with her friend Wendy not only reveals aspects the girls’ personalities, but also a plot development which occurred off-stage (I’m not saying which story this comes from, to avoid a spoiler about when Wendy might have an occasion to wonder about this).
“When they’re checking out library books, Shell says to Wendy, ‘Oh, you like Judy Blume. You ever read Tiger Eyes?”
But all Wendy wants to know about is how Shell’s dad doesn’t live with her anymore. Is it true strangers pay rent to live in Shell’s old bedroom while Shell sleeps in the basement like a hobbit?
Relationships are at the heart of Thirteen Shells. Her parents are vivid and multi-dimensional characters (whose identities become increasingly coloured as time passes), and her friendships undergo many changes as well.
But Shell also has important relationships with books, from Judy Blume to Noam Chomsky: her reading taste changes as she grows. “Sometimes she walks and reads at the same time, or reads in class, a paperback hidden inside her textbook.”
See, if you didn’t already like Shell, now you do, right? You want to get to know her, don’t you?
Ian Colford’s work has been shortlisted for the Journey Prize, and his first published work was a collection of stories. It’s no surprise that he can write succinctly and put a short form to work.
Freehand Books, 2016
In 2012, he published his first novel, The Crimes of Hector Tomás, which honed his skill with building tension and transforming the ordinary events of a life into elements of extraordinary importance in a work more than 400 pages long.
His novella, Perfect World, seems to combine the strengths of his earlier works, with spare prose and snapshot glimpses of a life presented in such a way that readers are more compelled to turn the pages even as the main character’s company becomes harder to bear.
“There is, however, an expression in his father’s eyes when he speaks of his mother that Tom doesn’t like, that he wants to challenge and wipe out – a mournful, canine acceptance of yet one more thing that is beyond comprehension.”
Tom Brackett is thirteen years old when readers meet him, a resident of Black River, comprised of 50 families and 6 churches along the highway. In short order, an event both commonplace and disturbing, results in his being sent to live with his grandmother, outside Liverpool on the South Shore.
From there, readers follow his experience as the years pass, his “warped vision of what passes for normal”, both from within and without.
As a youngster, Tom is most keenly aware of the pressures from without, his realisation that “…this is his family. He can’t escape them. Even if he got on a bus this afternoon and didn’t get off for a week, or a month, or a year. Each moment he would be reminded, simply by the act of running, of what he was running from.”
Characters from inside and outside the family are tightly drawn, as Tom grows from boyhood into “marriage, mortgaged, a father”. Often the characterization settles in simple details, like the way someone drives, or the way in which clothing hangs from (or clings to) someone’s body.
This is deft handling, but it is the way in which time and motion are negotiated in the book which is truly remarkable.
The passage of time and its relationship with memory is even more complex in narrative than it is in life.
Even while Tom is a teenager and recognising his grandmother’s neurological decline — first, laughing with her about her temporary confusion about his identity, then moving beyond laughter into something darker — he is aware that his own confusion lurks beneath the surface of his consciousness.
Not even Tom can “be sure if the images that come to mind are the product of memory or imagination.” But Perfect World is Tom’s story, and readers experience it alongside him, affirming and allowing his confusion to pass for normal, whether memories or fantasies.
Partly because this basic distinction is unreliable for Tom, his experience of time is altered as well (and, hence, the reader’s experience of time).
Some chapters are very short but manage to feel lengthy and heavy; others are longer, but more scenic in nature, and sometimes “Tom imagines them frozen forever in these expectant poses”.
The reader tiptoes and darts through the glimpses into Tom’s life, moments frozen and thawed, sometimes observing that the “almost ceremonial caution with which he navigates his way around the stones littering the lawn resembles the slow progress of a man wading through deep water”.
Other times, the tempo contrasts. “As he draws near to her his heart lurches to a stop, then stutters back into motion like some wounded engine.”
In some chapters, time is elastic and, in others, taut: “Having her with him is what he’s referring to, the mingling of past and present to create something that is neither.
Frequently there is a rhythm to the events, but one which the reader feels second-hand, slightly discomfited though solidly invested inTom’s experience.
“What he wants is distraction, an end to the questions. He leads her upstairs to the bedroom, but even as he buries himself in her, he cannot erase from his mind the face in the mirror, nor shut his ears to the beating of wings.”
Tom is forever in motion, seeking a balance which seems just out of reach, even when he brushes against stability and comfort.
“Part of him doesn’t care, part of him cares deeply. Both are dangerous. How will he ever learn to steer between the two?”
This kind of steering is prominent in the world of Canadian letters, from classics like Timothy Findley’s Headhunter to contemporary works like Lauren B. Davis’ The Stubborn Season and Barry Dempster’s Outside World ( as well as international bestsellers like Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Now You See Her, Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, and Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True).
Ian Colford’s vision is deliberate and focussed, Tom’s unravelling all-the-more compelling against the backdrop of exacting and meticulous construction.