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

Fresh bookishness!

So many books to talk about!

Some more stories in the Alice Munro reading project with Runaway concluding July 12th and The View from Castle Rock beginning July 19th. (Schedule here.)

Fortier WonderIn recent Canlit bookchat:
Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood (2012)
Shari LaPeña’s Happiness Economics (2011)
Nancy Lee’s The Age (2014)
Deryn Collier’s Bern Fortin Mysteries (2012; 2014)
Susie Moloney’s Things Withered (2013)
Dominique Fortier’s Wonder (2010; Trans. Sheila Fischman, 2014)
Elspeth Cameron’s Aunt Winnie (2013).

This summer, I’m re-reading some old favourites (including Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree and Jean Little’s Stand in the Wind, and I’m getting acquainted with the writing of some new-to-me authors (including Damon Galgut and Tom Rachman).

Amd I might read a few more from the latest list CBC has compiled of good Canlit reading. (I’ve read 74/100 so far.)

Coming this autumn, follow-up reading projects from 2013′s Toronto Book Awardsthe year’s Giller longlist, the International Festival of Authors, and various personal reading projects.

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!)

Quarterly Stories: Summer 2014

Coming Home van CampComing Home: Stories from the Northwest Territories (Enfield & Wizenty, 2012)

In the foreword, Richard Van Camp writes that this collection is a “testament to the beauty of the land, the communities and the people who choose to live here” and he welcomes readers to the works. The same words might be used as plumpy jacket copy, but they are indeed an accurate reflection of the contents, and the spirit of the work as a whole does serve as an invitation.

Contributors are of varied ages and ethnicities and writing backgrounds (from emerging writers and passionate scribblers to lifelong journalists and established writers) and this is reflected in the breadth of styles and themes. In one moment, I felt like I was reading “Readers’ Digest” and, in the next, “The Malahat Review”. Read over several days, this diversity was a pleasure, and those readers who prefer to read collections all-in-a-burst could simply leaf ahead if a contrasting style doesn’t suit.

Personal favouites include Christine Raves’ story “Dirty Rascal” and Jamesie Fournier’s “Children of the Strike”. Each delivered facts that I hadn’t known within the vehicle of an engrossing narrative. Raves’ dialogue and theme is immediately engaging with a light-handed sadness to the tale, which strikes a chord with anyone who has been swept up in something untoward and simultaneously awed and horrified by the resulting devastation. Fournier captures the gentle humour simmering beneath an incident in a serious political conflict so that even though it’s the only piece with footnotes, it reads with the momentum of a story.

Contents, Fiction:
Colin Henderson’s The Points, Jordan Carpenter’s Finding Home, Richard Van Camp’s Born a Girl, Marcus Jackson’s Angatkuq, Annelies Pool’s Celia’s Inner Anorexic, Cathy Jewison’s Haunted Hill Mine, Rebecca Aylward’s My Epiphany, Patti-Kay Hamilton’s Homecoming, Christine Raves’ Dirty Rascal, Shawn McCann’s The Long Gun

Contents, Non-Fiction:
AmberLee Kolson’s Lost, Brian Penney’s Ts’ankui Theda, The Kindness of the Lake, Karen McColl’s Beauty of the Butte, January Go’s For Us, Jamesie Fournier’s Children of the Strike, Jessie C. MacKenzie’s Where They Belong

Ramshackle Tabernacle MartinSamuel Thomas Martin’s This Ramshackle Tabernacle (Breakwater Books, 2010)

A camp counsellor in “Rosary” muses: “I want to feel relieved that Jaz is gone and that I don’t have to worry about her cutting herself anymore. But I do worry. I remember. I can’t get her out of my head. It’s like she’s walking behind me, staring at me. But when I turn, there is no one there.”

That’s what it’s like reading the stories in This Ramshackle Tabernacle. I want to be relieved that these characters are gone, caught in the pages behind me.

I don’t want to worry about them anymore. Floating in the water. With their dog in their arms. Fired from a summer job. Busking in the subway tunnels.

But Samuel Thomas Martin brings his characters off the page. Content-wise, the stories remind me of Michael Winter’s and David Adams’ Richards fiction. But stylistically Martin uses dialogue and a sharper prose style to pull readers into these tableaux. Vivid scenes and sensory details drop an anchor for the readers, even when the plots makeyou long for a motor to aid escape.

“I take the sweater from his huge hand and pull it over my head. It hangs off my bony shoulders. It’s loose everywhere save around the neck. But it’s warm and it smells like Jim. It reeks of fish too but that’s Jim’s smell: the smell of his boat. It’s as if I’ve put his skin on, as if I’m inside him. But it’s so warm.”

Cliff Jumping, Adrift, Shaver, Up out of the Water, Rosary, The Hammer, Eight-Ball, Becoming Maria, Crafty Old Dragon, Roulette, The Killing Tree, Shekinah

Andrea Routley’s Jane and the Whales (Caitlin Press, 2013)

Jane Whales RoutleyWhen readers meet Ray in the collection’s opening story, “Habitat”, he has just rushed indoors to fetch some weiners for a fox that he discovered had been rooting through the trash.

There are a number of clues here for readers; compassion is definitely at the heart of these stories, and they are often inspired not only by the four-legged, but also the winged and flippered.

But Ray’s compassion for the fox is rooted in his belief that the world should behave in a certain manner; the world he imagines is perfectly ordered, but the real world frequently rubs that image the wrong way.

First, he claps his hands at the creature, shouting and rushing, urging it to save itself, before he decides that at least the fox should have something decent to eat and he returns indoors to fetch the weiners.

By then, however, the “fox had already started up the trail by the clay cliffs that rose up at the end of the cul-de-sac”.

The slight delay in Ray’s well-intentioned response meant the fox didn’t get its belly filled and although he was doing his best, Ray has misjudged and the appetite has been left unsatisfied.

All of this happens, from trash strewn to weiners offered, in the story’s first paragraph, but an echo of these events plays out in the next dozen pages, as Ray tries to demonstrate his usefulness and willingness to his daughter, Lana, fifteen years old, and now coming over less reliably than her standard every-weekend visit.

But even as Ray reaches out, well-intentioned, he pushes. And soon it’s not just the fox, but also the guinea Pig (BubbleGum), and Lana too, whose habitats are altered/threatened.

Many of the other stories in the collection, like “Habitat”, focus on the areas of the world in which the wild presses up against the domestic, the natural world and its inhabitants getting cozy (be it in a tent or a vision, mysticism or imagination).

Ultimately the works are preoccupied with relationships, of all sorts and with a close-up view, also suggested by the striking cover image by Sandy Tweed. Whether from the perspective of teacher or student, guide or follower, the characters in Jane and the Whales sometimes reach out and sometimes retract, sometimes recoil and sometimes connect. It is a very satisfying debut.

Habitat, The Gone Batty Interpretation, Dog, Other People’s Houses, Art, Reflection Journal, Monsters, The Sign, The Things I Would Say, Jane and the Whales

Summer of the Canadian Short Story Reading

Write Reads is hosting this event, which runs from June 1 – September 1, 2014.

Summer Canadian Story 2014I learned about it last week via Consumed by Ink, and how could I resist: two of my favourite things, Canlit and short stories.

But the act of choosing is almost overwhelming. And of course there’s always the possibility of a theme within a theme. Haven’t I been meaning to focus on my own shelves, not the library’s new and shiny shelves? To read more Quebecois writers?

Rereading favourites? Single-author immersion projects? How about 2014 publications? Classics? Anthologies? Prizewinners? Genres? Linked collections? The Oberon series? The Journey Prize? New Canadian Library editions?

I’m nearly paralyzed by the act of narrowing a list, so I’ve resorted to CBC’s recent compilation of the 100 Best Canadian Songs Ever to calm my nerves.

With the likes of “Patio Lanterns” and “Sweet City Woman” playing, the reading hours appear to be endless ahead. And I can break this large problem into smaller portions. Beginning with a beginning.

Here’s what I read in June, before I realized there was a challenge:

Already in play for July:

  • Gilles Archambault’s In a Minor Key (Trans. David Lobdell)
  • Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock (a reread)

Paradise Elsewhere PageIn a Minor Key won the Governor General’s Award in 1987 for French-language Fiction. The stories are flash fiction, written before the term was commonly used, only a few sentences but very evocative.

The View from Castle Rock is the second-last in my Alice Munro project, which I began in 2011 and which involved a lot of rereading and two fresh reads, including 2012′s Dear Life. It’s not a collection of hers that I have considered a true favourite, but that might change with a reread.

Likely choices for July and August, because they are already lurking near the tops of the “next” stacks:

  • Kathy Page’s Paradise and Elsewhere (with blurbs by Amy Bloom, Sarah Waters, Caroline Adderson and Barbara Gowdy)
  • Mary Soderstrom’s Desire Lines (which comes in one of those beautiful Oberon Press packages)
  • Rabindranath Maharaj’s The Book of Ifs and Buts (because I adored The Amazing Absorbing Boy)
  • Lisa Bird-Wilson’s Just Pretending (great interview here)

Just Pretending Lisa Bird WilsonIn the Wings:

  • Douglas Glover’s Savage Love (longlisted for the Frank O’Connor award, along with Kathy Page and some of my faves from last year by Shaena Lambert, Susie Moloney, Cynthia Flood and Rosemary Nixon)
  • Lorna Goodison’s By Love Possessed (which I started last year and lost track of)
  • Austin Clarke’s Choosing His Coffin (because More was very good and I haven’t read another of his yet)
  • Rohinton Mistry’s Tales from Firozsha Baag (a reread)
  • Clark Blaise’s A North American Eduction (I’ve wanted to read something else, since I discovered The Meagre Tarmac on the 2011 Giller list)

Come on, why not join Write Reads in reading some Canadian short fiction this summer?

Joining The Book Mine Set’s Canadian Book Challenge

It’s that time of year again: time for the Canadian Book Challenge, which launches each July 1st on Canada Day.

Most of what I read is Canlit, but I am easily distracted by new and shiny books and I forget to make time to read the classics.

The first time I joined the challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set, I read (and reread) all of Ethel Wilson’s works, along with some books about her. This year I’m eyeing Gabrielle Roy’s works.

  • Canadian Book Challenge 8 Pic 3The Tin Flute (Bonheur d’occasion) (1945)
  • Where Nests the Water Hen (La Petite Poule d’Eau) (1950)
  • The Cashier (Alexandre Chenevert) (1954)
  • Street of Riches (Rue Deschambault) (1955)
  • The Hidden Mountain (La Montagne secrète) (1961)
  • The Road Past Altamont (La Route d’Altamont) (1966)
  • Windflower (La Rivière sans repos) (1970)
  • Enchanted Summer (Cet été qui chantait) (1972)
  • Garden in the Wind (Un jardin au bout du monde) (1975)
  • My Cow Bossie (Ma vache Bossie) (1976)
  • Children of My Heart (Ces Enfants de ma vie) (1977)
  • The Fragile Lights of Earth (Fragiles lumières de la terre) (1978)
  • Cliptail (Courte-Queue) (1979)
  • What Are You Lonely For, Eveline? (De quoi t’ennuies-tu, Eveline?) (1982)
  • Enchantment and Sorrow (La Détresse et l’enchantement) (1984)
  • The Tortoiseshell and the Pekinese (L’Espagnole et le Pékinoise) (1987)
  • My Dearest Sister: Letters to Bernadette, 1943-1970 (Ma chère petite soeur: Lettres a Bernadette) (1988)

I’ve read Windflower (about ten years ago) and Children of My Heart (when I was about 13 years old), but the rest will be fresh reads (and it’s been so long since I read these two, they might as well be fresh reads too).

Thanks to John for hosting this challenge every year, and I’m looking forward to seeing what other participants are reading.

It’s a very well-organized challenge and there is even a level for a single book. Tempted? Join here.

Is there some Canlit in your reading stack already? Do you have a favourite Gabrielle Roy novel?

“Powers” Alice Munro

Runaway readers cannot run away from the book after turning the final page. Instead, they have to burrow in.

Much like “Vandals” in 1994′s Open Secrets and the title story in 2012′s Dear Life, “Powers” is one of those closing stories that sends readers rushing back to the beginning.

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

So long that it can be divided into five parts – “Give Dante a Rest”, “Girl in a Middy”, “A Hole in the Head”, “A Square, A Circle, A Star”, and “Flies on A Windowsill” – this story is a challenge indeed.

Part of me expected there would be nine parts, one for each circle of hell (which have been recreated in Lego: clearly nobody told him to “give Dante a rest“). But instead, Alice Munro has chosen five segments.

The schoolgirl in me wonders if she is playing with Freytag’s theory, which classically applies to plays but can be applied to other literary forms, and would have been a fixture in the curriculum in Alice Munro’s day. (Versions of it are still taught today, though I’m not sure how often his name comes up.)

If Munro had this structure in mind, his traditional arc (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement) impacts the readers’ understanding of the story’s focal point.

One might have thought the climax of the story occurred with the revelation that a couple had run away together at the end of “Girl in a Middy”. It is certainly a surprise, though one ushered in with little pomp, right at the end of the segment.

But if one identifies the climax of the story as falling in the third “act”, one must choose a moment other than this one, something in “A Hole in the Head”. (Well, that seems like an obvious moment, doesn’t it,but in fact that hole already existed, or never existed, or still exists. In typical Munro-fashion, each of these scenarios seems possible.)

Perhaps the moment in which one woman realizes that the other is operating under the assumption that her lover is dead, the moment at which she chooses not to correct the misunderstanding, the moment at which she turns her back on her and leaves her there, isolated and confined.

Let’s say that this is the climax of the story, perfectly situated in the third segment, infusing it with all of those realizations and determinations and possibilities.

In some ways, this interpretation shifts the focus from one character to another. Readers assume, privy to a woman’s diaries in “Give Dante a Rest” that the writer is the main character of the story. And from that first March 13, 1927 diary entry, that appears to be the case.

I used to have a feeling something really unusual would occur in my life, and it would be important to have recorded everything. Was that just a feeling?”

Perhaps it was just a feeling after all, and she has nothing unusual to tell.

But what of this other woman, on the fringes of the story, literally and figuratively.

We do not see her diaries, and her presence is not as immediately apparent at the beginning and end of this story, but perhaps she is the heart of the tale after all.

Perhaps readers should take a hint from Freytag’s arc, relocate the climax of the story, and rediscover a heroine in the process.

For you it is all the glory of getting into print. Forgive me if that strikes you as sarcastic. It is fine to be ambitious but what about other people?”

The question of ambition is fascinating indeed, for as is often the case, the person who accuses another of ambition is simultaneously lamenting their own lack of glory, their own thwarted ambitions.

In this case, our diary-keeper’s aspirations, for a true romance, have been dashed. Early on she suspected this disappointment was rooted in a lack of marriage proposals. Later, she realized an excess of proposals (one, in fact) could also destroy one’s hopes for happiness.

So it does seem likely, after all, that the woman in the background of the story, the woman whose betrayal is perfectly situated in the third act, is our heroine after all.

This story fits beautifully within the collection: “No place for anybody to hide if they ever had a notion of running away.” It’s easy to see the support group of runaways that could form from the pages of this fiction. (Because the end of this story brings readers around to the present, I am reminded particularly of “Passion”, which also covers a broad arc of time, although readers do not glimpse as much of the middle as is presented to us in “Powers”, along with the beginning and ending of those goings-on.)

Of course there is always a place to hide if one has such a notion, even if only in the pages of fiction.

Our heroine made a bid for anonymity, and we nearly missed her escape.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Runaway as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the last story in this collection. The others appeared here: Runaway, Change, Soon, Silence, Passion, Trespasses, Tricks, Powers

Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next up: The View from Castle Rock.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

“Tricks” Alice Munro

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

This story has long been my favourite in this collection, although I could not recall which of them it was, when I first approached my reread of Runaway.

When Stratford appeared in the first story, I thought maybe my favourite was coming. But, no, “Runaway” was pure sorrow. There was no glimmer of something else.

So I thought, because I knew that some of the stories were linked, that perhaps it would be the next, but no. Not until nearly the end.

But it was worth the wait. And I read it, even this second time, like a story in Ellery Queen, unable to look away. Because, despite my fondness for it, I could not remember how things turned out for Robin.

My memory of the story stalled at the point when she disembarks from the train, heads to the theatre for “As You Like It”. So when I got to that point on my reread, my pace picked up. I reminded myself that it must matter which play was chosen for that journey, that I should recall what I knew of the story, but that instant was not enough, and I, too, was tricked. Again.

Some of my favourite passages (acute descriptions, philosophical musings, and symbolic scenes) are below, along with some notes that I’ve written to some of the characters.

Please do not read on if you want to avoid general spoilers, for the kind of ending that this story has becomes clear in the lines below.

“Very different from the only other bachelor premises Robin was familiar with—Willard Greig’s, which seemed more like a forlorn encampment established casually in the middle of his dead parents’ furniture.”

Dear Willard Greig,
It’s very kind of you to come over to play cards with the girls. I bet that Joanne can be tiresome, she would probably be even snippier if you didn’t visit as often as you do. And playing games sure passes the time in the summer’s heat. The lights went out the other night in a storm and I learned to play dominoes, a variation called Sniff All Fives, and it’s all that I’ve wanted to do since. When I am home alone, as Joanne is when Robin goes out, perhaps I will simply take turns and play against myself. You would think I would win more that way, but I know from experience that it works out much the same. I bet you could have followed Shakespeare just fine if you’d ever seen one of his plays.
Kind regards.

“It was all spoiled in one day, in a couple of minutes, not by fits and starts, struggles, hopes and losses, in the long-drawn-out way that such things are more often spoiled. And if it’s true that things are usually spoiled, isn’t the quick way the easier way to bear?”

Dear Joanne,
It wasn’t kind of you to say that Robin smelled of vomit when she returned from Stratford. I’m not convinced that red wine and goulash together would smell that rank anyway, but it was uncalled for. However, I’m sure Robin looked all holier-than-thou when she traipsed off to Stratford all those years, dressed to the nines and quietly declaring her separateness that one day each summer, not just from you but the whole town. And it’s not fair about your asthma, that you cannot go outside in the winter and cannot be left alone at night. That would make anyone bitter and mean. But I bet when Robin stepped out to the store, you tried on that green skirt and imagined yourself in the theatre. And I bet you knew that Robin belonged somewhere else, you just couldn’t bear to think of it. And I’m sure you never knew that Willard only meant to be kind when he let you win at rummy.

“She had something now to carry around with her all the time. She was aware of a shine on herself, on her body, on her voice and all her doings. It made her walk differently and smile for no reason and treat the patients with uncommon tenderness.”

Dear Alexander,
I do not believe your temperament suits a job which includes an element of customer service, although I am certain you are a valuable asset in the workshop.

“Now the real winter has set in and the lake is frozen over almost all the way to the breakwater. The ice is rough, in some places it looks as if big waves had been frozen in place.”

Dear Daniel,
Could you not have left a note on the door if you were going out?
Yours truly.

“Nothing faded for her, however repetitive this program might be. Her memories, and the embroidery on her memories, just kept wearing a deeper groove.
It is important that we have met.
Yes. Yes.”

Dear Robin,
I have that certain kind of seriousness too, which you’ve talked about, so I feel like I understand some things about you. And because of that, I agree that it probably was a good thing that he decided there would be no letters because I’ve read other stories in which the women were just as you thought, waiting and waiting and waiting, and worrying when a letter did not come. But, in hindsight, I bet you wish he hadn’t come up with that stupid idea. How differently things might have gone. What a different kind of spiral you might have admired. But for all your rationalizing, I think you must be furious. There’s a hint of that, near the end. But I wonder if the sequel to your story wouldn’t have revealed you to be more angry and bitter than Joanne ever was. For all the unfairness of the situation. And I wonder how many stories would need to be written before you could think of Daniel’s dilemma. After all, he had all the same sadnesses, but all that waiting and waiting and waiting for the woman who never came. And he was out the price of the train fare too.

“But she always loves the part of the story where he describes how the spiral unzips and the two strands float apart. He shows her how, with such grace, such appreciative hands. Each strand setting out on its appointed journey to double itself according to its own instructions.”

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

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

“Trespasses” Alice Munro

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

‘Trespass’ is a word that I associate with childhood more than most.

It slipped off my tongue every morning in school, after we sang “O Canada”, in a dutiful recitation of “The Lord’s Prayer”.

And there was always a sign warning against it when we explored the ravines and fields which bordered on more familiar spaces.

But it is a strangely adult term, so it’s ironic that it dropped out of my vocabulary as I grew older, just when I might have had greater call to consider it, employ it even.

In “Trespasses” young Lauren is the innocent in the tale; the adults have trespassed.

Not recently, but enduringly. Their trespasses resonate across the years, spiral into Lauren’s everyday life.

It’s ironic that Harry speaks of lurking tragedies in the lives of the town’s folks. For he is concealing a tragedy, several steps beyond simply ‘harboring’. And not only from friends and neighbours but from his daughter, Lauren, too.

“Harry kept a file full of ideas for books and was always on the lookout for life stories. Someone like Mr. Palagian—or even that fat tough-talking waitress, he said—could be harboring a contemporary tragedy or adventure which would make a best seller.”

And, despite his declaration that children should be told the truth, he draws lines and keeps some of that truth behind them, to himself.

“I could make up some kind of a lie to tell you, but I am going to tell you the truth. Because I believe that children should be told the truth.”

There are a lot of lines in Lauren’s life. Not only because she is at an awkward age, but because she is a newcomer to a small community.

She is growing up and realizing how quickly and dramatically one’s perspective on one’s own life can change, how the lines shift position with new understanding.

When she first arrived in town, she liked it, but now she is looking back (as so many of Alice Munro’s heroines do) and adjusting her perspective.

“Now it seemed to Lauren that all of that time had a false glow to it, a reckless silly sort of enthusiasm, that did not take any account of the weight of dailiness, or reality, that she had to carry around once school began and the paper started coming out and the weather changed.”

Within the sphere of this new critical understanding, Lauren draws lines and often inhabits the spaces beyond them.

“Her isolation at school was based on knowledge and experience, which, as she half knew, could look like innocence and priggishness.”

Which only makes her crave a sense of belonging even more.

“I know you can keep a secret, I know you keep our visits and talks and everything a secret. You’ll understand later. You’re a wonderful little girl. There.”

But even though Lauren is still only half-knowing things (each of us is, arguably, only half-knowing, I suppose), she is not a little girl.

This observation says more about its speaker than it reveals about Lauren. But Lauren is, at first, content to sip the cocoa and be that little girl. And, when she sits on the bed, her feet don’t even reach the floor. In some ways, she is still that little girl.

But not enduringly.

For all that Alice Munro is Queen of Stories about Women in Mid-life, caught between memory and reality, reassessing and reflecting, she captures the awkwardness of girlhood beautifully.

Specifically that sense of being so completely and utterly powerless, struck dumb by not inhabiting that later which is promised, overtly and tacitly by the grown-ups in her life, the later in which she will understand everything.

“She was so sick of these burrs that she wanted to beat her hands and yell out loud, but she knew that the only thing she could do was just sit and wait.”

Perhaps, when they all get home, she will don Eileen’s wedding dress and set the veil ablaze.

In the meantime, she sits behind the line, understanding on the other side.

Not realizing just how much company she has in that position.

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

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

“Passion” Alice Munro

Like Alva in “Sunday Afternoons” and Edie in “How I Met My Husband”, Grace is a young woman with a summer job.

But even within the context of this transitory existence and experience, she settles into a routine, steadfast and predictable.

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

Soon, Grace is spending her summer Sundays with the Travers family as reliably as Liza spent summer Saturdays with Ladner in “Vandals”.

But there is an element of disappointment for Grace in this situation, even though (perhaps, because?) it is an enviable position for a young woman of her age and class to inhabit in those times.

Grace comes from a place in which she read James Thurber in The Anthology of American Humor, whereas the Travers matriarch has reread Anna Karenina so many times that she can compare how differently she felt about each of the characters in each of her rereads.

She would not have foreseen Maury’s interest in her. And he, in turn, did not foresee her frustration with “Father of the Bride”. This unexpected, seemingly inexplicable conflict, foreshadows more lasting heartbreak.

“She could not explain or quite understand that it wasn’t altogether jealousy she felt, it was rage. And not because she couldn’t shop like that or dress like that. It was because that was what girls were supposed to be like.”

Grace is incensed by Elizabeth Taylor in that role, with her wheedling and demanding, and she does not dismiss it as a comedy as Maury does. She takes personal offense.

“That was what men – people, everybody – thought they should be like. Beautiful, treasured, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl should be, to be fallen in love with.”

And, yet, ironically, Maury does fall in love with Grace.

And Grace falls in love too. But with Mrs. Travers – an alterative to Elizabeth Taylor it would seem – not with Maury.

In contrast, Maury is not smitten with the image of womanhood that his mother displays.

“It’s okay though – they can get her straightened around easy now, with drugs. They’ve got terrific drugs.”

Are we all-that-far from the days of treating women for hysteria? It’s hard to suss out the dimensions of Mrs. Travers’ despair, but it is integrally connected with her being a woman, and her treatment regiment reflects this.

So if Mrs. Travers is what a woman should be like, if she provides the alternate-reality for “Father of the Bride” viewers, and if Grace seeks to emulate her position, Grace is set on the path for disappointment (and, possibly, a prescription).

Throughout “Passion”, there is a sense that something unpleasant is lurking. Readers soon understand why Grace is preoccupied with these past events, why she has taken to the backroads of the Ottawa Valley to see if she can locate the Travers’ summer house, many years later. For, ultimately, things take a turn.

It is not unlike the tale of another couple making a stop at the bootlegger’s (“Spaceships Have Landed”), stepping outside the realm of acceptability and into something other.

And, as Grace traverses this territory, she comes to understand something she had not struck upon before. And, even years later, she is haunted by decisions made that summer.

“She had thought she was serious, but now she saw that she’d been trying to impress him with these answers, trying to show herself as worldly as he was, and in the middle of that she had come on this rock-bottom truth.”

This recalls the May Sarton quote about layers of concealment and the truth which lies beneath. “It always comes down to the same necessity; go deep enough and there is a bedrock of truth, however hard.”

However hard, Alice Munro navigates the backroads of women’s hearts, striking the bedrock with a solid blow, as  readers struggle to regain their footing.

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

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

June 2014, In My Stacks

Steven Galloway’s new novel The Confabulist reminds me that I have yet to read his other works. Earlier this year, I started reading The Cellist of Sarajevo (because it was chosen as Toronto’s One Book for 2014) and I have Ascension and Finnie Walsh at hand too, but The Confabulist is about magic and that intrigues me.

Confabulist GallowayIt reminds me of hot July afternoons spent with Robertson Davies’ Deptford trilogy as a teenager (the magic was my favourite part). And, on the subject of magic in Canlit, has anyone read Michael Redhill’s Saving Houdini or Marty Chan’s Erich Weisz Chronicles?

I’ve read some of Aislinn Hunter’s poems in the past, but I’m keen on the idea of her second novel, which will be published this autumn, The World Before Us (her first was Stay), so I’ve gathered some more stories and poems with that in mind. Peepshow with Views of the Interior is particularly irresistible and I can’t stop recommending it, but it is The Possible Past (isn’t that a great title?) which is in my stacks right now.

In other poetry reading, I thoroughly enjoyed the second volume of Mary Oliver’s Collected Poems and it inspired me to pull some earlier collections to peruse. I felt very adventurous choosing the second volume of collected poems and leaving the first volume on the shelf, but perhaps too adventurous, for I still feel the need to fill the gap.

Perhaps there’s a clue here, as to why I can’t seem to finish reading so many of the series I’ve started over the years? I’ve just started rereading Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, intending to catch up with the series. But I have Brad Smith, Walter Mosley, and the graphic novel Morning Glories tempting me to begin new series instead.

Rethinking and reconsidering my fondness for May Sarton took me back to the first of her journals that I read: Journal of a Solitude. I’m not sure if this will amount to a reread, but I am enjoying it on occasional evenings. Does it make you anxious, when you have let a favourite author’s works sit for a spell, that perhaps you won’t enjoy them as much when you return?

Esi Edugyan’s new book, a slim volume of non-fiction, Dreaming of Elsewhere, urged me to pull her first novel (before Half-Blood Blues) off the shelf: The Second Life of Samuel Tyne. I like collecting the New Face of Fiction titles, so I have had this on my shelf since its publication but this isn’t the first time I’ve pulled it off the shelf and then lost track of my intentions.

Behind on my Terry Fallis reading, I haven’t decided whether to continue where The Best Laid Plans finished off, or whether to jump ahead to the stand alone, No Relation. Another novel with a writer both on and behind the page is Shani Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways like a Crab. And because I so adored Cereus Blooms at Night, I am especially anxious to read this one. But because I love reading on a theme, I’ve pulled Michael Chabon’s The Wonder Boys and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel (which would be a reread) off the shelf as well.

I like reading first novels (most recently, Arjun Basu’s Waiting for the Man), but Krista Foss’ Smoke River would have caught my attention anyway. Not only does it combine themes that I am interested in (aboriginal land rights, social justice, family conflicts) but it’s got a quote from Lisa Moore (one of my MRE authors) on the cover.

Since my Seriously, Kidlit project, I have made a point of incorporating some children’s books and YA in each reading month. Soon I’ll have more to say about that, but this month I am planning to read Alice Childress’ A Hero Ain’t Nuthin’ but a Sandwich amongst others. I’m curious to see how the story compares to Ellenn Hopkins’ books about addiction.

Having recently finished Divergent, you’d think I’d be keen to read on in that series, but I really do seem to be better at beginning things than finishing them (and maybe reading it after The Hunger Games was not the best timing: what do you think?).

What books are pulling your attention into the stacks these days? Have you read any of these, or are they in your stacks too?

Megan Abbott’s The Fever (2014)

Paradoxically, the phenomenon in The Fever has a chilling effect on characters and readers alike.

The girls fall to the ground, one after the next; they writhe and tensions rise but blood is chilled.

Abbott Fever

Little Brown & Company, 2014

“As Deenie walked out, a coolness began to sink into her. The feeling that something was wrong with Lise, but the wrongness was large and without reference.”

What Deenie observes is something new and frightening. (For readers of a certain age, it is impossible to meet a character named Deenie and not think of Judy Blume’s novel of the same name: isn’t it? It’s an apt allusion for a novel preoccupied with the trials of coming-of-age.)

“She’d seen Lise with a hangover, with mono. She’d seen girlfriends throw up behind the loading dock after football games and faint in gym class, their bodies loaded with diet pills and cigarettes. She’d seen Gabby black out in the girls’ room after she gave blood. But those times never felt like this.”

Megan Abbott has explored the mindscape of a teenage girl before too, in The End of Everything. Deenie Nash is a believable character, inhabiting an age of extremes.

“You spend a long time waiting for life to start – the past year or two filled with all these firsts, everything new and terrifying and significant – and then it does start and you realize it isn’t what you’d expected, or asked for.”

But Megan Abbott also presents material from the perspective of Deenie’s brother, who is slightly older than Deenie, and their father, Tom.

Tom’s perspective introduces a different kind of discomfort for readers who might long for a more experienced evaluation than Deenie’s. This allows readers to take a step back from the teen-drama-soaked point-of-view and more broadly consider the risks posed in this situation.

In some ways, Tom operates as an EveryParent. “Sometimes it felt like parenting amounted to a series of questionable decisions, one after another. “

But emotions run high for characters of all ages in this novel; Tom’s sense of helplessness adds to the sense of overwhelming distress.

Ultimately, these events are disturbing because they are rooted in universal fears, largely in the unknown.

“When you thought about your body, about how much of it you couldn’t even see, it was no wonder it could all go wrong. All those tender nerves, sudden pulses. Who knew.”

And, beyond the physical risk, there are the psychological tremors which resonate with readers, as the characters struggle to accept the unfathomable.

“…what was really bothering her… was the realization that you can’t stop bad things from happening to other people, other things. And that would be hard forever. He’d never quite gotten used to it himself.”

The Fever focuses on a perfect pairing: the escalated emotions and extremes of being a teenager and the heightened tension and paranoia which accompanies a seemingly-contagious illness.

Megan Abbott’s style is deliberately clean and her background writing noir fiction shines through. Her tone is functional and poised-to-alarm-at-any-moment, and readers can relax in her capable storytelling hands.

The Fever is a well-written page-turner; however, the resolution provides the potential to add an additional layer to the story (as does one element of the story which does not ultimately figure in the resolution but does act as an interesting diversion), but this is not a novel which invites rereading.

Megan Abbott’s fear-soaked story does not inhabit the more analytical space that novels like Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down or Emily Schultz’s The Blondes occupy; the social pressures that female characters experience do play a pivotal role, but The Fever does not veer into layered commentary.

Smart and solid storytelling, The Fever engages and entertains; it deserves a place on summer reading lists and the shelves of readers who enjoy crime fiction with a focus on characterization.

Have you read her fiction before? Or, is this on your reading list?

Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood (2012)

“The ‘geography’ in question is the Cypress Hills, a broken rise of land that straddles the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, just north of Havre, Montana,” the author explains.* 

“The country is a complete knockout for anyone who enjoys the romance of the Earth’s history or who is susceptible to the wild, windblown beauty of natural prairie.  I was head over heels in an instant and knew I’d have a story to tell.”*

Geography of Blood Savage

Greystone Books, 2012

And this geography, this story, is a bloody one.

It is not the version of the wild west that is taught to schoolchildren and celebrated by tourists.

The story which Candace Savage unearths has much deeper roots.

(The portion quoted above is from a conversation about the process of writing the work, and these extracts are starred; quotes from the work itself are unmarked. Details below.)

As a storyteller, she does not take hold of the root and give a sharp tug.

She considers her surroundings, loosens the surrounding soil, and studies the extremities.

She acknowledges the reach, the inconnections and complexities, and explores the possibilities by wriggling a little.

“What if the hills weren’t really an uncharted wilderness before the Europeans showed up?”

This is a question for which we have an answer, for of course it was not an uncharted wilderness but a homeland. But that answer does not fit with the mythologizing of the frontier.

“What if there was more to indigenous prairie cultures than whooping and war clubs?”

This, too, is a question with an answer which directly challenges the myth of the Wild West.

“What if it wasn’t the Metis (as Stegner claims) who stripped these hills of wildlife, bringing their own way of life to an end?”

Stegner? That’s Wallace Stegner, the American writer, whose boyhood home was in Eastend, on the southeastern edge of the hills. The Stegners’ home is still there and operates as an artists’ residence, which is what initially drew Candace Savage and her partner, Keith Bell, to the town.

“At the time, I certainly didn’t anticipate that Wallace Stegner would be a companion through the early stages of my explorations or that I would end up daring to spar with him.”*

And spar she does, though perhaps it’s not a fair fight; Stegner only battles with words he has linked in the past.

But if the sparring isn’t fair, Stegner’s accounting is unfair as well.

“What I found in his writings was a classic–you could even say canonical–account of western settlement. Nobody from Stegner’s generation recounted that history with more passion or grace than he did in Wolf Willow, his reflection on his own Eastend years. I’m the descendant of generations of prairie “pioneers” myself, so I have a very personal stake in that history. In the end, the standard framing of the settlement story, as presented by Stegner and others, left me feeling troubled.  Actually, make that mad.”*

But not only angry. A barrage of emotions awaited Candace Savage as she began to unearth the other versions of this old story. “These memories make us ashamed, angry, bewildered, regretful, curious, eager to understand. I know I felt all those things.”*

Ultimately, Candace Savage does not pull up this tale by the roots. She gets her hands dirty, and you can feel the grit beneath the nail, and the acknowledgement of deeper recesses and gashes beyond. But this is an open-ended exploration.

“If the incomer and Aboriginal communities ever do begin to talk sincerely about how the West was won, we are going to have a lot of painful ground to cover.”

A Geography of Blood is the beginning of a conversation.

Not a one-sided one either. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. No longer.

“Home Truth by Dudley Patterson, Apache elder, 1996
Wisdom sits in places.
It’s like water that never dries up.
You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you?
Well, you also need to drink from place.
You must remember everything about them.
You must learn their names.
You must remember what happened at them long ago.
You must think about it and keep on thinking about it.
Then your mind will become smoother and smoother.
Then you will see danger before it happens.”

* These excerpts come from a conversation which appears on Candace Savage’s website , following the publication of The Geography of Blood.