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!

Soon, more stories in the Alice Munro reading project with The View from Castle Rock. (Schedule here.)

In recent Canlit bookchat:
Tasmeen Jamal’s Where the Air is Sweet (2014)
Katja Rudolph’s Little Bastards in Springtime (2014)
Heather O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (2014)
Janine Alyson Young’s Hideout Hotel (2014)
Nadia Bozak’s Border Stories (2007, 2014)
Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings (2014)

This autumn, reading projects continue, including the Toronto Book Awards nominees, the year’s Giller longlist, the International Festival of Authors, and the Governor General’s Award shortlists. And I was reading along with the RIPIX group and Diversiverse.

Finally I finished Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers from the latest list CBC has compiled of good Canlit reading with Angela, squeezing in some backlisted fiction. (I’ve read 74/100 on the list so far.)

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!)

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I Spy: Walt and Mr. Jones

As much as these stories focus on solitary characters who observe, from the margins, they long for something else; Walt and Mr. Jones are ultimately preoccupied with relationships.

Goose Lane Editions, 2014

Goose Lane Editions, 2014

Margaret Sweatman’s Mr. Jones openly confronts duplicity.

“His life had been contrary, a series of duplications: two homes; a father who’d dominated and also abandoned him; heroic war service that was also the shame of his nation. He had no words for himself. He felt like an empty room without light, but for the borrowed light from his friends and the radiance of their ideals.”

And complexity.

“It took Emmett three days to fall asleep. All in one blow: Suzanne McCallum’s shoulders, John Norfield’s clavicle. Falling in love, loyal forever to that one glimpse of purity you see in somebody, that kind of love, he thought, is a question of instinct, a move you make before thinking, and it changes everything in a split second.”

But although Mr.Jones is about espionage, it’s set in the Cold War; the action can be sudden and dramatic, but it is couched in the solidity of everyday life, given time to reflect upon what is contained in a series of sleepless nights or a fleeting glimpse.

How to spot things changing in a single instant and what things to keep secret: these things can be learned. One can also learn how to see, how to look, how to be seen, and how not to be seen.

“‘And was anyone there? Besides me?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know how to look for those things.’
Suzanne didn’t really know either. But she would learn. Looking had become her domain. She had nowhere else to live.”

Just as Suzanne is searching, the setting is of little consequence in this novel, for the action is more often interior, the exterior providing a shell in which secrets can simmer.

“’You and I, we have a bond,’ Kimura said. ‘A friendship. Our origins are in secrecy.’”

This is not a Robert Ludlum thriller, but a slow-burning story. Readers feel the characters’ desire to connect through prose which leaves them on the margins; we read about love and passion, heightened conflict, but we feel isolated, solitary observers holding a bound tale in our hands.

“Sunlight struck their complicated faces, revealed them in their aloneness.”

But although alone, this is not an entirey painful state; the novel presents a meditative study of life as solitary refinement, rather than an overwhelmingly sad tale of marginal existence.

“Time was created to ease our pain. The cormorant suddenly opens and spreads its slate black wings, and lake water sprays like shattered crystals in the sun. Here is perfection.”

Russell Wangersky Walt

House of Anansi, 2014

Unlike Margaret Sweatman’s quiet, measured style, Russell Wangersky grabs readers by the scruff and yanks them into Walt’s character, somehow transforming the character-soaked novel into a page-turner.

Despite a stylistic contrast, however, Walt is as much of a solitary figure as Margaret Sweatman’s characters, and the duplicity in this novel feels more deliberate.

“I swear I’m not going to become one of those people who goes around talking to myself, dazzling my own constantly appreciative audience of one. I may do strange things, but I do them deliberately.”

The details really do matter to Walt; he is very attentive to detail and a skilled observer. He has learned to look in a way which some of the characters in Mr.Jones might envy. But, ironically, readers learn as much about Walt from his acts of observation as we learn about his subjects.

“Her name is Elizabeth, and she has a particular way of talking to you, every word distinct and placed down sharply with a click like Scrabble tiles, her hair piled up grey and precise, and she always looks at your chest, high up toward your shoulder and slightly off to one side, the left side, as if she’d been told that this was exactly the spot where your heart was, and if she looked at it hard enough, she’d be able to divine your true intentions right through the wall of your chest, right inside that lub-dubbing lump of muscle in there. Eyes staring straight through flesh and bone and muscle. Or something like that.”

For instance, the description of  Elizabeth is revealing, but primarily for what his degree of attentiveness — and the details he values enough to share — relays to us.

But it is not always about the details we can see which matter, but the details which might go unseen. Walt’s awareness includes his observations of his own behaviour, but that doesn’t mean that question readers might have will be answered.

“There’s a spot, right near one end, where someone smacked a beer bottle down hard enough on the wood to leave a little half-circle of dents. That probably would have been me.”

The violence in these two novels simmers beneath the surface of their narratives (more often than not). Often times, readers are left to intuit the significance of marks are left behind on various surfaces. In this matter, perspective is key.

“There’s a little shift that happens, and it happens all the time, in all kinds of circumstances. Like your eyes suddenly are working a different way, and you size everything up differently.”

How Walt sizes things up is directly related to how readers will size them up. “It’s smart to be as honest as you can — the best lies are packed full of truth.” Walt is packed full of truth.

Readers might use one of Walt’s observations to describe the pacing of the novel: “Momentum is powerful and cruel, and there’s not one single thing that can change it.” There is a sense of inevitability to the story as readers turn the pages.

There is some grimacing, some lip-curling: these are not comfortable places to inhabit. But once readers have begun to “watch” with Walt, it is hard to look away.

“You get addicted to the things you do really well. That’s just the way it is. Addicted to the things that have become second nature. Addicted to doing them in the same order, addicted to doing them right, especially if it just happens that you can do them easily, too.”

What contributes to the sense of being unsettled, however, are the relationships, fractured and broken, which litter these narratives.

Mr.Jones and Walt leave readers feeling simultaneously too-much-alone and too-much-in-company. It’s not entirely pleasant. But the skill in Margaret Sweatman’s and Russell Wangersky’s novels is remarkable.

Countdown: Magie Dominic and Ann-Marie MacDonald

With chapters named for the days of the week in Street Angel and with specific dates in a given week in Adult Onset, these two novels seem to make ideal reading companions.

Ultimately, much of literary fiction is preoccupied with time. Whether it is Molly Bloom’s day in James Joyce’s classic Ulysses or the week of contemporary romance in Rainbow Rowell’s novel Landline, the stuff of characters’ minutes and years is what keeps readers turning the pages even as it assists authors in organizing and presenting their stories.

Street Angel Dominic.

Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2014

Street Angel is part of Wilfrid Laurier’s Life Writing series, as is Magie Dominic’s work of non-fiction, The Queen of Peace Room, which chronicles an eight-day retreat spent with Catholic nuns, their days ordered by prayers and rituals.

This slim novel moves readers through time like a kaleidoscope, through the days of the week and through the years.

“From the very beginning of time to now, in the back seat of my father’s car, it took 600 million years for Newfoundland to rise from the ocean floor. How did I get from the beginning of time to my father’s Chevrolet with the chains on the bumper? Count it!”

Magie Dominic’s works are somewhat like bookends, nearly a pair but each holding up its own end of stacked memories. Both are narratives characterized by a meditative tone coupled with a reliance upon evocative details to create mood and scene. But Street Angel perfectly captures entire decades in a handful of sentences.

“It’s 1957, 1958. Paul Anka and Ricky Nelson are on the radio. Pat Boone and “Love Letters in the Sand.” “Wake Up Little Susie.” The Asian flu is in China, Russia launches Sputnik, and Humphrey Bogart dies in Hollywood. Father Knows Best. The Blob. The Fly. The Thing That Couldn’t Die. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The Three Faces of Eve—Joanne Woodward goes completely berserk because she’s three people at once and loses her mind with a venetian blind in her hand. I will never forget The Three Faces of Eve, and I will never feel safe around a venetian blind for the rest of my life.”

It is so satisfying at the sentence level that readers, particularly those with a penchant for coming-of-age stories (coming-to-understanding-an-earlier-age, might be more accurate for The Queen of Peace Room), might find themselves flagging passages on every page (perhaps I should say every minute).

“Newfoundland is triangular, with unpredictable winters and sometimes violent winds. The west coast is an extension of North America. The east coast was once part of Africa. The continents collided, lava gushed forth, and Newfoundland was created—and with it a soil combination producing flowers found nowhere else on the face of the earth. The island is covered with mountains 300 million years old. This is exactly where I was born eleven years ago—on a 300-million-year-old triangle.”

While clearly one particular woman’s story, there are many aspects to her experience to which readers will respond as universals.

“There are two things I can’t get enough of: movies and snow. Movies change anything that’s going on in my mind, and snow changes the world around me. Snow transforming the town, icicles as tall as a house, and angel shapes in the snowbanks.”

Much of this story is difficult, however, even painful (which readers of Queen of the Peace Room will expect): “I’m trying to piece every shred of my life back together again—if there ever was a before.”

But ultimately it is a narrative infused with hope:

“I still have my slightly pigeon-toed feet and a tragic look on my face, and I still don’t know how to have a real conversation. It’s all followed me for all fifteen years of my life. But it doesn’t matter on the top of this hill, with its dark trees and sky, mountains folded around it like a body in sleep. The Beothuk walked here before me—there’s no doubt in my mind about that. And they probably prayed in thanksgiving for the sacred view. Smoked from their long wooden pipes.  Chanted in gratitude.”

There is a quiet humour to the narrative voice, which makes Street Angel a true pleasure to read. Which is no small feat because knitting together a shredded life must involve a few dropped stitches and some painful reworking of old patterns.

This excerpt from the narrative sums up Street Angel beautifully: “It’s a cup of hot tea and something homemade at the end of the day. And it’s everything in between.”

That “in between” is sometimes hard to swallow but the taste the meal leaves on your tongue is the sort which makes you want to invite all your friends to share a second helping.

Adult Onset MacDonald

Alfred A. Knopf, 2014

Magie Dominic’s Street Angel brought Ann-Marie MacDonald’s debut novel, Fall on My Knees, to mind many times: a Maritime setting, a glimpse of Lebanese culture, a troubled mother, a daughter who challenged a traditional set of expectations, Catholic upbringing, and painful childhood events which haunt adult life.

Adult Onset brushes against many of these themes as well, but with a starkly different setting (downtown Toronto, in the Annex) and a focus on older female characters.

It feels distinct from the author’s two other novels, and yet, as she states in an interview with Shelagh Rogers on CBC’s “The Next Chapter”, this new novel could be viewed as part of a trio which deals with a progression of issues which present themselves in a series of life stages, so that readers might also expect to meet Mary Rose (or MR,  “Mister”) as an extension of the experiences of younger female characters, like Madeleine and Frances.

Charismatic female narrators dominate Ann-Marie MacDonald’s fiction, and Mary Rose is no exception. Readers are in the grip of her perspective from the novel’s opening lines. And wholly and completely in her head as she navigates an ordinary day as wife and mother and children’s book writer, as she navigates an ordinary moment of trying to reply to an email from her father.

This should be a simple task but, in fact, it occupies her for a considerable amount of time, as she sorts through the layers of meaning and echoes of past experiences related to a few typed lines of text. The narrative vascillates between present and past, the drama primarily interior but surprisingly engaging.

Like Street Angel, this story has some very painful aspects. Mary Rose has suffered physical and emotional pain, a difficult medical condition and a difficult coming-of-age. (I wish that the young narrators could have been friends; I think they would have had much to discuss.)

“Rising, she felt the familiar capsule break in the pit of her stomach and the dark elixir seep into her bloodstream. Guilt. But why? Her Catholic upbringing had left her prone to attacks of it like recurring bouts of malaria in old soldiers. Maybe she’d been born with a low guilt threshold, the way people are born with green eyes or black hair. Or bone cysts.”

The link between guilt and sexuality is explored via the connection between emotional and physical pain in Mary Rose’s past (which seems to be ever-present).

“Sins you committed with your hand by touching yourself ‘down there.’ The constant pain in her arm was not only a punishment, it was a beacon of her badness. Throbbing red light of badness, its pulsations occupied the same frequency as sexual excitement. Best keep that sort of pain to oneself.”

Adult Onset slips between time easily, which is suprising in a work which appears so tightly delineated as to have each segment named for a sequential day in a single week of the narrator’s experience. This works primarily because readers are so thoroughly immersed in Mary Rose’s consciousness; because we are not obligated to pretend a degree of objectivity, we float between times easily, stumbling across the scars as she does.

“But when she looks directly at it, it vanishes. Slips her mind as though somewhere in her brain there is a sheer strip that interrupts the flow of neural goods and services. Like a scar.”

One particularly satisfying element of the novel is the sense of the story’s own physicality, largely through the use of metaphors surrounding physical injury; these paradoxically draw greater attention to the accompanying emotional damage which has been done. For instance, Mary Rose sits “immobilized as the air changed around them, thickened like a welt”. (I wish there had been more of this, to contribute to a sense of layered narrative.)

However, the standout element of Adult Onset is the storytelling rather than the crafting; Mary Rose’s character is credible (not always likeable, but all-the-more credible for that) and readers are compelled to explore her tale.

“Grafts leave scars on the skin, yes, but on bone too. Scars make you stronger, and they help tell a story; like striations in igneous rock, a story of eruptions and epochal inches. Her scars can take her home. Down to the bone, into the marrow, down among the stem cells where the stories germinate.”

Although I was preoccupied by the synergy between these tales (the organizational motif, the themes, the emphasis on the female experience, the sense of physicality, the vibrant settings, the charisma). the two novels are as different in as many ways as they are similar.

What resounds in both stories, however, is the idea of narrator as witness. Whether Street Angel‘s poignant macro/micro scene-setting (“The sixties happened in a matter of minutes. I know, because I was the one counting it.”) or Mary Rose’s overt comments on storytelling (“Pinhole aperture, like an old-fashioned camera. All she can do is try to bear witness. Writer, write thyself … “) these works chronicle women’s lives.

Across the minutes, across the years: whether you are #ReadingWomen or simply reading women, at least one of these novels will strike your reading fancy. (For what it’s worth, Street Angel is on my list of favouite reads for 2014.)

Carrie Snyder’s Girl Runner (2014)

As a fan of Carrie Snyder’s The Juliet Stories, I was wriggling in my seat over the mere idea of Girl Runner. But then the anxiety crept in: there would be no Juliet, and perhaps much of the magic was hers. Just as the same river can’t be stepped in twice, an author cannot retell a favourite story.

House of Anansi, 2014

House of Anansi, 2014

And then Girl Runner was shortlistedfor the 2014 Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, a nod which increased my excitement and my anxiety.

The other volumes nominated for that particular award are certainly accomplished. Andre Alexis’ Pastoral is incisive and exacting. K.D. Miller’s All Saints exhibits a delicate balance throughout  the linked collection of stories, which is difficult to sustain (this was true, too, of The Juliet Stories). The layered storytelling in Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist is simply exquisite. And Miriam Toews’ novels are characterized by strong and engaging women’s voices with Yoli’s exceptionally striking because it deliberates upon a woman’s desire to take her own life in All My Puny Sorrows (this claimed the prize).

Girl Runner offers, however, a winning combination of story and character. Not only the grit and sweat of sport and the pursuit of perfection as in Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage or Elizabeth Ruth’s Matadora. Nor the cool rhythmic slip between historical and contemporary times so often evident in Jane Urquhart’s fiction. Not just the total immersion in a female voice which might not be entirely reliable, as with Catherine Bush’s Accusation or Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Nor the kaleidoscopic view of life from near-beginning to near-end like Christina Schwarz’s The Edge of the Earth or Hilary Scharper’s Perdita. But something of all of these.

Thematically, the idea of getting acquainted with Aganetha Smart via memories from her life, which spanned the better part of the twentieth century, immediately appealed.

Stylistically, the transitions between the past and present narratives chronicling Aganetha’s experiences are handled brilliantly.

Sometimes they are seamless, the rush between times mirroring that moment when a runner truly hits her stride, that sense of simultaneous weightlessness and solidity, as each step propels. And sometimes they are abrupt, like the rush of stopping, the breathlessness of shifting into a different state.

So at the end of one segment, Aganetha recalls an earlier run, euphoric and empowered. “I know I can’t be spent.”

And, then, the next segment begins: “We’ve come to the blue car: nondescript, wouldn’t stand out in police alerts. The young man, Max, is opening a rear door, and the girl wheels my chair nearer. I say, Are we going somewhere?”

This is tremendously satisfying, and the prose is carefully constructed to more generally echo Aganetha’s state of being as well.

In her youth, she speaks directly, pointedly. She is emboldened.

In her later years, she moves as others wish her to move. And although she speaks with the same directness, she no longer possesses the same sense of agency, and this is reflected not only in the nuts-and-bolts breakdown of individual scenes, but in a slightly-meandery and more distanced tone. Aganetha is no longer on the track; she is sitting on the sidelines.

But if readers were expecting a quiet, reflective read, they have forgotten that Aganetha is still a runner at heart.

For all the calm that exists when a runner reaches her stride, her heart is pumping and her feet are pounding. Very near the beginning of Girl Runner, readers are informed that this is no dreamy slice-of-life story but one with a plot, a mystery.

Here it is: the signal that the race is underway.

“Lies. Let me count the ways.
There is the lie of omission, the lie of avoidance, the lie outright, the boast, the tiny indulgence or fudging, the sly miscalculation, the rounding up or down, there is flattery, and the little white lie, and there is the bold sweep, the lie of epic proportions with a million smaller lies to underpin it, there are the muddling lies that confuse or confound, the lie of distraction, the lie that knows it will be caught out, the cold-blooded lie and the quick-witted lie and the lie made in terror and haste, the lie that must lie and lie again to cover its tracks, and, of course, there is the lie that fools even the liar, who knows not what he or she propagates.
That last one is the most dangerous of all, for it can trick almost everyone. It can come to look like the truth.
And so I think of another lie. The lie of my own choosing, that lives with me yet, and without me. The lie that protects. That shelters. That builds its fragile hiding place of love.”

Fragility and protection, strength and duplicity, true-self and under-self: Girl Runner does not detour around contradictions.

“There is absence, and there is vanishing, and these are not the same thing at all.”

Maybe these are the sort of imaginings which float in the author’s mind when she is running, when she is creating the space in which the ideas will emerge, caught between cascades of motion and moments of stillness. (She describes her writing process in this piece for CBC Canada Writes.)

“The appearance of perfection does not interest me. It is the illumination of near-disaster beside which we all teeter, at all times, that interests me. It is laughing in the face of what might have been, and what is not.” (It might sound as though this is lifted from the article cited in the paragraph above, but all of these quotes are from the novel.)

This teetering is at the heart of Girl Runner and adds substantial heft to the narrative. Aganetha is a fully credible and expansive character because even when she is still, she is in motion. She is still reevalating, examining, considering, deliberating. She is active, even when she appears confined. She is still running her race.

““I think I would run even if I knew I would never win another race again. It’s weird. I can’t explain it. It’s like something I can’t turn off.'”

Here’s hoping that Carrie Snyder feels the same way — about running, perhaps, but most definitely about storytelling. I don’t want her to turn it off. I’m adding her to my list of MRE authors.

In the Balance: Will Starling and Punishment

Crimes of the past lurk beneath the stories in Ian Weir’s Will Starling and Linden MacIntyre’s Punishment and the main characters lurch towards and stumble into confrontations and altercations with life-long repercussions.

Goose Lane Editions, 2014

Goose Lane Editions, 2014

These are both dark tales, but Ian Weir’s novel is literally and figuratively so: “And every step I had taken since had been nothing but one step deeper into Night.” His descriptions are shaded and designed to make readers uneasy.

“Imagine a room constructed especially for Old Bones, according to his own meticulous specifications, and where – of all the rooms in the world – he should be most completely at his ease. A long low cellar with a square lantern hanging from a central beam, and sunlight cringing in through narrow windows, set high up, at ground level. Sunlight itself is sullied here, and lingers wretched and reeking. There are specimens along one wall, and a fireplace opposite with a pot for boiling the bones – a great copper cauldron, such as trolls might gather round at some unspeakable feast – although these are not the elements you notice first. First you are assailed by the stench, which is staggering, even by London standards.”

Despite the unpleasant nature of his tale, our guide in Will Starling is asking readers to trust him. (I cannot resist quoting at length from the novel because the the atmosphere is deliciously unsettling and the voice outstandingly drawn and sustained.)

“But I ask you now to trust me – or rather, I ask you again. I have researched these events, drawing wherever possible upon eye-witness reports. I have ferreted out such Facts as may be found, for that’s how you must begin, as any Man of Science knows – marshalling your Facts and then constructing upon them a scaffolding of Theory. Assembling it with exquisite care, timber by timber, joist by joist, until you have an edifice that will stand – and thus you have Truth, or as close to Truth as we may glimpse through the boiling fog of this world. “

But is he trustworthy? His preoccupation with Truth is laudable, but another tale-teller might say something else. Indeed, does.

“His name is Starling. He is described as a youth of diminutive stature, a known thief and blackguard who scavenged the battlefields of Europe during the late war against Corporal Bonaparte. Latterly he has served to assist a surgeon in Cripplegate, in the course of which occupation he has had cause closely to collaborate with the unholy gentlemen of the Resurrection Trade.”

Yet Starling is not the only potentially-disreputable character.

“It appeared he gravitated as well to a loose confederation of housebreakers and head-breakers – cracksmen and rampsmen, in the parlance of the trade – amongst whom he continued to find considerable scope for his old pig-sticking skills.”

Surely our “Wery Umble” is better than a pig-sticker for a narrator.

But even he admits that circumstances can change a man.

“And, looking back, I scarcely know that boy – the Will Starling who left the ale-house and set off alone towards Islington, with all the deadly resolve of Titus Ratsbane himself. I can watch him in my mind; I look down on him in fearful wonderment.”

Looking down on him, watching in his mind, Starling recreates the scenes in a lively tone.

“And there I’ve done it, haven’t I? Your Wery Umble has performed wonders of his own, entering the heart of another man and intuiting his innermost thoughts and secrets – down to the hunger he was feeling, and the conversation he had shared with his late sister three years before I was born.”

The sensory detail is rich as the description of the Old Bones room reveals. But the narrative does not require patience, for there is conflict embedded in the story and evident even in light touches throughout.

“Janet’s house leaned forwards, its second storey looming partway across the narrow lane, as if intending belligerence to the house on the other side. The opposing structure leaned towards it with equivalent intent, and thus the two of them faced one another like two muskoxen bent on settling the issue of dominance over the herd.”

But  though told with a light touch, Will Starling remains a dark story. “This is where the tale grows wild. We will need dark nights and thunderstorms as we proceed; howling winds, and hearts afire with unspeakable yearnings. But upon my oath and upon my soul: what I am telling you is true.”

Random House Canada, 2014

Random House Canada, 2014

One might say that hearts are afire with unspeakable yearnings in Linden MacIntyre’s Punishment as well, though the setting is contemporary and the prose is straight-forward and well-lit.

Nonetheless, both tales are preoccupied with the idea of what can happen in a moment (what stems from it immediately and what festers over a lifetime).

Punishment conisiders what happens when you do not hesitate in taking an action.

“I was getting ready to go to bed but I let her in—one of those moments I’ll spend the rest of my life thinking about. One tiny little action—you step aside, hold the door open, she walks in and, you don’t know it yet, but the rest of your life just flew out through that same open door.”

But also what happens when you do hesitate.

“How often have I wielded a baton against a man who believed that by brute force he could gain control of some small aspect of his life or, in extreme cases, an institution by disabling or killing me? The prison system taught me that the margin between life and death is frequently as narrow as a hesitation.”

It raises the question of what happens when you insert yourself into the story.

“From the television came a sudden jarring crash and a flash from somewhere off-screen. The commentary grew more urgent. Coalition forces had landed in the distant desert, were advancing on the silent city. The moment and tomorrow fused. Everything and nothing happening at once. The unseen future now implacable, unthinkable, inevitable.”

And, also, what happens when you step back from the narrative.

“How can absence make a sound, or make a presence felt? On second thought, I feel a lot of absences.”

Ultimately it is a tale which considers how we cope with confrontation. (This is a long quote from a relatively minor character, but it not only reveals the novel’s tone but brushes against some thematic content without spoilers.)

“I’ve been a cop all over this great country. To be honest, this town is probably the biggest place I’ve ever worked. Mostly little rural places, mostly out west. Places no bigger than where you’re living, down the shore. Houses few and far between. One of the first things you learn, when you get to one of those little detachments is that in every case, without exception, you find out that, say, 60 percent of the police work is generated by a handful of individuals, like this Strickland. In many cases there’s one fuckin guy […] lived alone, young, smarter than the average bear, did time, figures the rules are for everybody but him. No respect for the law or the officer. Constantly … I mean constantly finding ways to fuck the system, whether its petty theft, taxes, fishin’ or huntin’ out of season, speeding, dope, bootlegging, sexual perversions. You name it and this guy will be into it. And fearless! Loves nothing better than to provoke an officer into a confrontation. Never anything interesting, just some clawing, tearing, rolling-in-the-mud bullshit to get you all sore and dirty. And next morning you’re serving the cocksucker toast and jam in the lockup and he’s all smiles before he charges you with assault.”

And it examines how we cope in the wake of confrontation.

“The names rolled through my head: Kingston, Joyceville, Millhaven, Collins Bay. Once proud, lovely place names now appropriated by the purpose they’ve obtained. Penitence and punishment. The false promise of redemption.”

Although the novel explores some heavy issues, its tone is more about plotting than philosophizing, as though the novelist listened to his main character’s advice: “Come on, Tony, I said to myself. Enough with the navel gazing.”

With its casual tone and page-turning pace, Punishment is a novel with wide-appeal, one which brushes against darkness without immersing readers in discomfort, whereas Will Starling drags readers into cellars and cells, even rubs their noses in the stench of it all, declaring itself a Wery Umble work of quality glimpsed through that boiling fog.

Belonging: M.G. Vassanji, Michael Winter and Alan Doyle

It’s a familar theme in the Canadian landscape of letters, and it was also the topic of Adrienne Clarkson’s recent Massey Lecture. “What does it mean to belong? And how do we belong? Who do we belong to?” These are the central ideas discussed in the series and they are at the heart of these three works of non-fiction as well.

Home Kariakoo Vassanji

Doubleday Canada, 2014

M.G. Vassanji’s And Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa is written in the same engaging and personable tone which readers have come to expect from the author’s fiction. The shape of the work is structurally more organic, however; it feels like having a series of conversations (in contrast with, say, the more formal Masseys) about the experiences which he has had, revisiting the lands he lived in as a boy.

Primarily the focus is on Dar es Salaam and Kariakoo, but the author wanders, literally, and readers become acquainted with a variety of places. The focus is primarily on the past, but the past as viewed from the present, an ever-changing thing.

The cover of the book, for instance, raises some interesting questions. It is a beautiful image. And,yet, what does one make of that beauty when one reads and learns more about it. “This, then, is the slave road, planted periodically with mango groves where the caravans rested.” It is no less beautiful. But that beauty is complicated by a bloody and painful history.

In combination with the author’s curiosity and reflective tone, this focus on questions increases readers’ engagement.

So, yes, it is a personal story: “Surely everyone inhabits his own space within a city, a space crowded by its characters and coloured by its stories.”

But it is also a reader’s story: “The shelves of Bgoya’s bookstore have fattened recently, the titles are fascinating. I can recall the dusty wooden skeletons of only a few years ago. Where else would one see Soyinka’s take on the new Africa, so abundantly displayed? Or a study of Ebrahim Hussein, the nation’s iconice modern playwright, who suddenly went silent? Or the full set of the gritty urban novels of the Kenyan Meja Mwangi? A history of Dar es Salaam, a dictionary of Nyakyusa?”

And an observer’s story: “In the white settler world of Kenya, described in many books, most famously by Elspeth Huxley, Beryl Bainbrdge, and Isak Dinesen, and romanticized by Hollywood and British television, the Asians hardly existed if at all.”

The story of a writer concerned with filling a gap where the record has omitted stories: “Who tells our stories, he said, who tells about what we have been through? This exhibit was an attempt to do just that .But there was a telling irony to it in the fact that more than half of the Asians had already gone away by the time it opened, taking their untold stories with them.”

It’s the story of a man who questions the rights of a storyteller: “: It is easy for me, in the comfort of my situation in North America, to condemn the nation’s reliance on foreign aid. To which I answer that leaving a place does not sever one’s ties to it, one’s feeling of concern and belonging. We are tied to our schools, our universities, our families even when we’ve left them – then why not to the place of our childhood, of our memories? Surely a returnee has some claim to the land which formed him – which is not in some godforsaken corner of the globe but in the centre of his imagination. And surely distance lends objectivity, allows one to see a place as the world sees it.

And a storyteller’s responsibility: “What risks do I take, who simply watch and listen?”

On many levels, readers can become engaged with this meditation on home, as a personal story and a human story. “But the African night is unforgettable; it sits forever on your heart.” The story of a man whose heart bears the weight of Africa, just as each of us bears the weight (be it a pleasure or burden to carry) of home on our hearts.

Into Blizzard Michael Winter.

Doubleday Canada, 2014

The epigraphs of Michael Winter’s Into the Blizzard suggest that this work, too, gathers its power from a combination of personal and historical sources.

The words of Major Arthur Raley, General Henry de Beauvoid de Lisle, and F. Scott Fitzgerald also suggest that the author will create a space alongside the historical record for fictional truth, affording the opportunity for personal reminiscence to mingle with the official record, for memories to share a page with facts.

“When I was a kid my grandfather sent us comics from England, wrapped in a roll of butcher’s paper. This was my first mail. I carefully tore off the postage stamps and soaked the scrap in a glass of water overnight. Then I slipped the stamps from the paper and dried them on a windowsill so that I could later insert them, with the lick of a glue hinge, into my stamp collector’s book. And this is what I am doing here, collecting a gallery of individual scenes that matter to me, into a scrapbook of what I think has survived of an antique war.”

Along the way, the author poses some difficult questions to readers, some lines of inquiry subtle (as is more often the case in And Home Was Kariakoo) and others direct.

“How does the past ambush us? How can we be accurate about what happened, how can we be true to it?”

Philosophical truths and observations are explored within the context of the experiences of Newfoundlanders in WWI.

“The spirit of the individual does not good in war. It is not one army against another; here is a third element involved in the machinery of war: the turning of men into the machine, and the functioning of that machinery.”

Often, expectations are subverted, not only for the author in his research and travels, but this is part of a broader legacy of disappointment and suprise.

“Richard Cramm, who wrote the first history of the regiment, says this of the Newfoundlanders at Gallipoli: ‘The soldiers had come expecting to find in war a life of excitement. They found it, on the contrary, duller than the most dreary spells of lonely existence in the back woods of their own island. The heat, the hard work, the flies, the thirst.’”

And, yet, the emphasis is on what is shared, across time and space. Not only in terms of the individuals’ experiences in wartime: “Newfoundlanders like to mythologize their losses, but everyone suffers. There is no massive difference.” But also in a humanistic sphere of experience: “Under the soil everything is holding hands and never dies.

Like M.G. Vassanji’s memoir, Michael Winter’s Into the Blizzard also includes a extensive endnotes, and suggestions for further reading and online resources. Into the Blizzard, however, offers an array of images, artwork and photographs on the endpapers and between the sections of the book, including a map which indicates the “Trail of the Caribou”, the Newfoundland Regiment’s key places and dates between 1914-18.

In contrast, Alan Doyle’s Where I Belong is a personal memoir and, yet, even it is rooted in a wider community — although much smaller than East Africa and the regiments engaged in conflict during the Great War, that of Petty Harboour.

Doyle Where I Belong

Doubleday Canada, 2014

“The houses back then in Petty Harbour, and most every house in Newfoundland, actually, were made of wood – clapboard on the outside. The way most North American lumberyards manufactured clapboard was with one smooth, sanded side and the other rough – full of cracks and splinters and grooves. The rough side was meant to face inward, while the smooth, finished side was supposed to face out. But us Newfoundlanders, being unique in our ways and far more practical than most, would often nail the clapboard rough side out because paint would stick to it better. Come to think of it, that’s the way most Newfoundland houses and Newfoundlanders themselves are built: rough side out.”

The sense of community comes through vividly and readers will feel as though they could walk into Petty Harbour and navigate, even say hello to a few of the residents, who must be as vibrant in real life as they are on the page.

“For most of my young life, there were two convenience stores in Petty Harbour. At different times a third or even fourth one came and went, but mainly there was one on the Catholic side and one on the Protestant side. The Protestant store was run by the Weir family, and it was called Herbie’s. We Catholics had Harbour Grocery, or Maureen’s, as we all knew it.”

Perhaps readers from Petty Harbour or Newfoundland beyond would find this dull reading, but for readers “from away”, it’s interesting to compare and contrast impressions from afar with Alan Doyle’s experiences growing up there (the work only covers his years until Great Big Sea’s earliest big-city shows).

“You know the tourism myth of the Newfoundland kitchen party and how everyone thinks we Newfoundlanders just sit around a big kitchen, drinking and playing music almost every other night, like it’s all a perfect postcard? Well, it was never a postcard for me. It was my reality. It’s how I grew up. It’s everything I knew.”

Certainly readers will find a great deal of Newfoundland “flavour” in this memoir, and sometimes it does feel a little like a tourist brochure.

“During certain weeks in the Newfoundland summer, millions upon millions of small fish called capelin washed ashore in Petty Harbour and the nearby coastal towns. Capelin look pretty much like sardines, but bigger. You can catch them from a boat in larger nets, as you might codfish or any other schooling groundfish, but the real fun was that magical time of year when you didn’t have to fish for them at all. All you had to do was collect them as they rolled ashore.”

But, ultimately, for all that readers might be increasingly aware of their visitors’ status (for needing an explanation of capelin perhaps), the intent of the work is to welcome readers.

And on this level, Where I Belong definitely succeeds. Alan Doyle is a storyteller and his voice on the page is just as it is in interviews and performances: warm, authentic and often humourous.

Even a caption on a photography can make readers chuckle: “Here I am, Montreal Canadiens colours ablaze, trying my best to be the centre of attention at a gathering of high school friends at a cabin. I’m sure I was thinking, ‘I bet that girl on the couch to my left is super impressed by this bar chord.’”

Each of these works considers different layers of belonging — M.G. Vassanji’s And Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa, Michael Winter’s Into the Blizzard and Alan Doyle’s Where I Belong – and even those readers who prefer fiction will find themselves engaged in these tales on multiple levels.

Partitions: Neverhome (2014) and Between Clay and Dust (2012),

Neverhome is set in the years of the American Civil War and narrated by a fledgling letter-writer. She has survived the conflict and adopted this strange chore of authoring.

Neverhome Laird Hunt

Little, Brown and Company, 2014

“When I’d eaten up my given share of a day I’d take up my pen to write Bartholomew. I had never written him or anyone else a letter before those days in my life and I did not much like the look of what I found I had to say. I have improved some at writing since as you can be the judge, but I was slow at my writing back then and using my pen to make words that would still mean something after traveling so many miles seemed a strange chore.”

The fact that writing is a new activity for her creates the opportunity for Laird Hunt to experiment with voice and tone in Neverhome, so that one character is described as quiet and “gone all autumn-apple-colored”. This is sometimes pleasing, sometimes a little awkward, and sometimes both, as with this description of another character: had she “been a well you could have dropped a stone down her throat and not heard any echo”.

This style is most effective when it embraces and enhances the work’s themes. For instance, after she is wounded, the narrator writes that the “flesh of my arm crept each day closer and closer together” and she compares this to “two ragged companies didn’t know yet they were fighting for the same side”.

The novel is immersed in the language of conflict, so that even a gentle story of a childhood remembrance is punctuated by artillery.

“When I was young, my mother liked to start one story and finish it off with another. Hansel and Gretel would end with Rumpelstiltskin, and the Snow Queen with Mother Hen. I didn’t know if she did this to investigate my state of interest or awakeness or because she thought the old tales had gotten played out and she wanted to freshen them up. Sometimes she would put three or four together. Tie them into a bundle and let loose the whole shooting match.”

Regardless of this mother’s intentions, Laird Hunt clearly does intend to bundle together some old themes, put them together and let loose.

Going off to war and returning home, setting aside convention and allowing your instinct to sail forth, love and loss, devotion and betrayal: Neverhome is an old story in a new skin, all its parts oiled and polished and ready to fire.

Like Laird Hunt’s narrative, Musharaff Ali Farooqi’s style is stark and plain; it is as though these two tales, preoccupied with borders, have put as few words as possible on the page, to draw clear attention to the letters on either side of the books’ bindings.

Both novels are about conflicts within borders, conflicts which result in borders being redefined (literally or metaphorically).

But Between Clay and Dust is not only about the partitioning of Pakistan but also about a conflict within the akhara, not only about national identities but personal ties as well.

Between Clay and Dust Farooqi

Freehand Books, 2014

“‘How simple Ustad Ramzi made it look.’
‘It is not without reason that he is the Ustad-e-Zaman.’
‘Just wait until Tamami becomes Ustad-e-Zaman,’ one of Tamami’s friends casually remarked.
Everyone in the akhara became silent when the words were uttered. Tamami’s friend realized his indiscretion and became quiet.”

The disruption of tradition creates many opportunities for conflict and meditation. Readers who are introduced to this conflict when it is burgeoning have had little experience with the tone set over many years by Ustad Ramzi, but they are engaged with the story in anticipation of dramatic change, so they share in misunderstandings like that of Tamami’s friend.

Indeed, much of the emotional heft of this story rests in misunderstandings and missed connections, in severences that might have been avoided.

“Tamami realized they had mistaken Ustad Ramzi’s embrace for a grappling lock. Ustad Ramzi also regarded the trainees with a surprised look.
Come see Ustad Ramzi and Tamami fight!’”

Two wrestlers in a lock could easily be mistaken for sharing an embrace, particularly out of context. Those embroiled in the conflict are less likely to miss the cues, but those on the margins are ever-shfting, uncertain as to the nature of what they are observing.

“That the ties between them could be so easily severed – and that there would be no attempt at a rapprochement… was something [he] could neither understand nor bear.” [This passage has been edited to avoid spoilers.]

Breaks in relationships, between men and between nations, lead to meditations on broader concerns about community and peace, leadership and balance.

“Did the essence of art not lie in creating a delicate harmony between strength and the opposing force? Did it not lie in keeping power bridled?”

Musharaff Ali Farooqi poses questions like this, but he does not present answers in plain-spoken prose. Instead the characters in his narrative ponder and press at their uncertainties, but there is no resolution.

“Ustad Ramzi no longer knew if it was grief he wanted to share or some guilt which he wished to confess to lighten his heart’s burden before her.”

What does one do in the wake of a tremendous loss, and how does one manage their own participation in the circumstances which led to it? How much sorrow must be borne alone and can some be eased in company? To what extent does one’s identity rest solely in contrast to a force with which one has long struggled?

Although the questions are often posed directly on the page in Between Clay and Dust, questions bubble beneath the surface of Neverhome as well. Both narratives are relatively short and one imagines many longer drafts having been painfully reduced to boil down these tales to their essentials.

Upon finishing, each book may leave readers with the sense of burden which follows the reading of stories about war and conflict, but without the declarative tone that sometimes accompanies such stories; these works also embody a sense of much-to-discuss, which does not lessen the weight of their stories but it does sway the balance towards hope and away from despair.

Under-represented at the table, holding their own on the page

Stop Saul CurtisNeither small-scale farmers nor low-income communities have been invited to the table to make food policy on a global scale.

The Stop illuminates this reality in matter-of-fact and unsentimental language, presenting facts both from a bird’s-eye-view and a grassroots perspective.

Readers are acquainted with some alarming information on an international scale. For instance, “in debt and unable to pay their creditors, more than 200,000 farmers in rural India have killed themselves since 1997”: a painful reality indeed.

The statistics hit close to home for Canadian readers as well. The “poorest one-fifth of Canadians—like many of those who use The Stop and other food banks—have a ‘sixty percent greater rate of two or more chronic health conditions; more than three times the rate of bronchitis’ and ‘nearly double the rate of arthritis or rheumatism’. This same cohort has a ‘358% higher rate of disability’ as well as ‘128% more mental and behavioural disorders; 95% more ulcers; 63% more chronic conditions; and 33% more circulatory conditions’.

The scale of this work is occasionally overwhelming. This is perhaps unavoidable, given the girth of the topic, but the authors balance the macro and the micro carefully.

So herein readers discover a brief history of La Via Campesina, which was founded in 1993 by farmers from four continents). We learn about Toronto FoodShare, which was founded in 1985 and was an early adopter of “food systems” thinking— looking at food as part of an integrated whole. And, we learn about Stop 103 in one particular Toronto neighbourhood, Symington Place in Davenport West. And that leads us to The Stop and Nick Saul’s involvement with the organization, which began more than a decade ago.

Stories of individual volunteers and dedicated justice workers bring heart to the narrative and Nick Saul‘s and Andrea Curtis‘ work is not only informative, but also surprisingly engaging.

The Stop is designed to appeal to readers with an interest in social justice, community and, certainly, food: it succeeds on many levels indeed.

***

Poverty is a primary concern in Up Ghost River as well.

Up Ghost River Metatawabin

Alfred A. Knopf, 2014

The systematic underprivileging of native peoples in their homelands is at the heart of the diffculties that Edmund Metatawabin describes facing in his memoir.

“Had I been born in a different body with a different history, I might have gone to the police. I could have reported him and stopped it. Maybe he would have gone to jail. I knew from the radio news that that’s what the wemistikoshiw did. But I wasn’t wemistikoshiw. Our stories were different.”

But because he was not wemistikoshiw, his story begins differently too, with residential school.

This was not an optional experience. “‘‘And it’s not just Father Lavois who says the kids must go,’ Mama said. ‘It’s the Hudson’s Bay store manager. It’s the nuns. It’s everyone.’”

Residential school, and segregation from loved ones and cultural traditions, integrally and fundamentally changed this young boy, from the moment of his arrival.

“Most of the new boys were bigger than me, but I was a little taller, too, so when we went to line up to get our new numbers and new uniforms, my number was 15 out of 130. I looked at the number on the collar of my shirt. I didn’t want it. I just wanted to be Ed.”

No longer Ed, but rather Number 15, he quickly learned the skills required to survive the devastating policies and procedures which governed these institutions. And yet surving and enduring is a world apart from growing and thriving.

The language in Up Ghost River is succinct and unsentimental. And, yet, the content is highly emotive. What bridges the gap between these contrary states is a scenic style cultivated and sustained by Edmund Metatawabin and Alexandra Shimo.

Those who would prefer to read about the subject in an more formal style might not appreciate the long passages of dialogue and vividly set scenes, but Up Ghost River includes enough spoken word and sensory detail to draw readers into the story. The narrative drive is intense and well-paced.

For those readers who are familiar with stories of other Saint-Annes’ survivors and the horrors inherent in the residential school system, the violence and suffering described herein will not be new information, but the author’s voice and personality (and his later role as chief) bring a particular slant to the chronicle.

The memoir also extends far enough to include details surrounding the charges which were ultimately laid against some of school staff members.

“Sister Anna Wesley was charged with five counts of assault, three counts of assault causing bodily harm and five counts of administering a noxious substance with intent to aggrieve or annoy, which is how the prosecution charged her with her favourite punishment – forcing the kids to eat their own vomit.”

Most important, however, is that Edmund Metatawabin’s story is available to be read and heard and understood.

“There is no concept of justice in Cree culture. The nearest word is kintohpatatin, which loosely translates to ‘you’ve been listened to’. But kintohpatatin is richer than justice – really it means you’ve been listened to by someone compassionate and fair, and your needs will be taken seriously. We had peacemakers before we had judges, whose responsibility was to listen to all those affected by the crime: the victim, the offender and their relatives.”

Even a single listener can work towards redressing an injustice. Even a single reader. And Up Ghost River not only affords readers that opportunity, but ends on a note of promise.

***

One Kind Word Three OClock

Three O’Clock Press, 2014

Until Joan Rivers introduced the subject, nobody had talked about abortion on television. She had told the same joke many times, always referring to a friend who’d had 14 appendectomies, because she couldn’t even say the word. (This is discussed in a 2010 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air in June 2010, rebroadcast following her death in 2014.)

In the same interview, she discussed recently listening to a recording of her early work with her daughter , and musing at how it seemed so quaint to contrast what was provocative then with what is challenging now.

And, yet, more than 40 years after Roe v. Wade, a book like One Kind Word (edited by Martha Solomon with photographs by Kathryn Palmateer) still faces challenges.

Sure, major publishers will back works penned by feminists these days, but books of photography about dogs swimming underwater definitely outnumber the copies of One Kind Word in print.

Presented here are portraits and statements by more than thirty Canadian women who have had abortions. It is a slim volume which you are unlikely to find stacked on the national booksellers’ displays, but what it lacks in girth it makes up for in gumption.

These women’s stories range from a few words to a few paragraphs in length, from detailed descriptions of events which informed their decisions to simple, declarative statements.

Some of the women are public figures you might recognize if you follow Canadian politics, others are private individuals you might not recognize if you met them on the street.

In summary, they evidence the reality that women of all kinds make this choice; whatever myths one could have believed would be challenged by this array of portraits and narratives.

Copies of this work, in paperback and epub, are available direct from Three O’Clock Press. While I passionately believe in supporting indie booksellers in the community, buying direct from a feminist press not only gets you great books but it works directly towards publishing more great books.

Kim Thúy’s Mãn (2013)

In discussing the different kinds of love which the Vietnamese language distinguishes between, Kim Thúy’s Ru lists thích, which means “to love by taste”.

Man Kim Thuy

Random House Canada, 2014

(One may also love without being in love (thuong), love passionately (yêu), love ecstatically (), love blindly (mù quáng), or love gratefully (tình nghīa) and it’s impossible “quite simply to love, to love without one’s head”.)

The concept of thích will be particularly relevant to readers who come to Mãn on the heels of Ru, for the author’s new novel is preoccupied with the relationship between love and food.

And, yes, language. For it is a fine line between creating an identity and creating a meal, and words are essential ingredients in both instances.

Mãn’s name means ‘perfect fulfillment’ and just as there are many kinds of love there are many ways in which one can be fulfilled (and, conversely, in which one can yearn for what is missing).

In one sense, she is gifted with an ability to fulfill the needs and desires of others in a fundamentally powerful way.

She does this within the context of a serviceable but passionless marriage, but her loneliness might bring readers to tears as readily as her cooking overwhelms this visitor.

“One of the men came from Rạch Giá, a coastal town where a meal-in-a-bowl – a poached fish with vermicelli, embellished with shrimp eggs and caramelized pork – had been invented. Tears ran down his cheeks when I sprinkled his bowl with a small spoonful of pickled garlic. Eating that soup, he murmured that he had tasted his land, the land where he’d grown up, where he was loved.”

In many ways Mãn, too, remains a visitor, caught between worlds. She is relatively new to Montreal and recognizes there are many sacrifices behind her arrival, affording her success in the restaurant business. She is acutely aware of the sacrifices that others have made for her success (but, as the novel progresses, readers understand that she, too, has made sacrifices).

“She would have preferred to stay in Cà Mau with her friends, embroidering tablecloths for export. Her aunt, though, had persuaded her parents that they must relinquish their life that held no promise, sacrifice their own generation so the next one could be educated. And so Bach found herself in a factory that made electronic scoreboards. She soldered circuits with ease because her fingers had already been trained to fill space with a needle, stitch by stitch.”

This passage is taken from the page entitled “Embroidery”, which is significant for its attention to detail. Whether stitches or circuits or bits of pickled garlic, the intricacies are vitally important pieces of a whole in Kim Thúy’s fiction.

Mãn is struck by matters of scale. She muses: “How had Richard Serra imagined that rust-coved steel was sensual? How does a person transport a work of art twenty times bigger than my kitchen? How does a person think so big?”

Similarly, one imagines Kim Thúy marvelling at the verbosity of an Ann-Marie MacDonald or Rohinton Mistry novel. Both Ru and Mãn are slim volumes which create the impression of deliberately and delicately chosen words strung together, extravagant prose poems rather than spare novellas.

(Presumably the same attention to detail was required on the translator’s part; Sheila Fischman’s award-winning translations from French-language works are widely acclaimed, and her work with Dominique Fortier’s Wonder landed it on my list of favourite reads for this year.)

A preoccupation with human appetites, for love and for cake, makes Kim Thúy’s Mãn’s a sensual read in the same vein as Laura Esquival’s Like Water for Chocolate and Isabelle Allende’s Aphrodite.

“My Vietnamese-style banana cake was delicious, but it looked frightening, sturdy and uncouth as it was. In no time, Philippe softened it with foamy caramel made from raw cane sugar. Thus he married East and West, as with the cake with whole bananas fitted into baguette dough soaked in coconut milk and cow’s milk. Five hours’ baking at a low temperature forced the bread to play a protective role for the fruit as the bananas slowly delivered up the sugar in their flesh. Anyone lucky enough to taste that cake freshly baked could see, when cutting it, the crimson of the bananas embarrassed at being caught in the act.”

But while bananas might well be embarrassed in Mãn’s kitchen, emotions are tightly controlled in Kim Thúy’s narrative. The value she places on order and construct is remarkable indeed.

And, in turn, the most memorable part of this work is a relationship which cannot be discussed without spoilers but which “constructed a new universe” for Mãn.

As skillfully crafted as a fine dessert, with “words that were hardly ever spoken, such as ‘my angel,’ which became exclusively mine”, this love story is molded and tended and it thrives and flourishes.

Whether readers are fulfilled depends upon their appetites, but they surely will recognize the artistry at work.

Nick Cutter’s The Deep (2015)

Nick Cutter’s debut, The Troop, was one of those books about which I was truly ambivalent, literally thunking the book down after a haunting and visceral scene and snatching it up again because I simply had to know what was going to happen next. I recommended it widely to friends (it’s possible that I think you’re a sissy if I haven’t already nagged you to read it) and twitched at the mere sight of The Deep when it settled into the stack of new books.

Gallery Books  Simon & Schuster, 2014

Gallery Books
Simon & Schuster, 2015

What he does so well is what has landed Stephen King’s books at the top of so many bestseller lists; he takes all-too-human characters, places them in ordinary stressful situations that quickly morph into extraordinary situations, and forces us to watch them behave in an all-too-human way, as often disgusting and horrifying as the stuff of newspaper headlines and research studies.

These are universal fears, tightly controlled and examined in the confines of fiction, but seemingly limitless in our consciousness.

In The Deep, Nick Cutter focusses on the unknown. Specifically, this translates into a work which is set beneath the waves.

“Our government has spent thirty million dollars on space exploration, and less than 1 percent of that to explore the world underneath us right now. But it’s just as unknown. You’ll be entering another world, really and truly.”

More generally, The Deep is about the power of the imagination to create a world in the dark. Yes, that’s right. “Darkness fell like a guillotine blade.”

Most readers will understand, at the very least through a childhood memory, a fear of the dark. But in The Deep, this darkness is not only literal. It is also metaphorical, for these are dark times.

When readers meet Luke, it “wasn’t exactly the apocalypse…just something awful that was happening.” And it is also psychological.

As in The Troop, the most terrifying scenes in The Deep, for characters and readers alike, are those rooted in psychological wanderings, be they errant or adventurous, frightening or inspiring. “The blood comes out of you in funny, nontraditional places,” warns Luke’s guide, as they head below.

The author’s dabbling in metaphor makes rare appearances, whether below or above the surface. “The Trieste shivered. The walls seemed to expand like a pair of lungs inhaling a slow, contented breath. The station settled and there came, suddenly, a persistent silence – a creeping, secretive silence that carried down every tunnel.” Something is described as being a “drab working color – the color you’d get if you scraped a billion…thumbprints off of dirty window panes and collected them into a ball”.

But ultimately, these stories work not because of any single element’s functioning, neither the language nor the structure, neither the characterization nor the setting; Nick Cutter’s narratives succeed because they connect with readers’ deepest fears at a visceral level, and all of these elements come together to bolster those fears.

Use evocative language if you like: “The tunnels seemed to be lengthening with a sly stretch and pull. They were narrowing, too, their ceilings lowering. The station’s geometries were shifting subtly.”

Or, get to the point: “What the hell was that?”

Nick Cutter’s stories take you into dark places. And perhaps, if you’re walking barefoot, you’ll be able to recognize the terrain and steer yourself clear. But with every step, you’ll have to think about what you’re stepping in, and Nick Cutter won’t let you forget for a moment just how awful it is.

January 2015, In My Bookbag

Isn’t there something satisfying about beginning to read someone’s published diaries in a January, when those diaries begin in some other long-ago January?

Dawn Powell’s diaries have been on my shelves for more than a decade but suddenly, in this January, I felt compelled to begin reading them.

Diaries Dawn PowellIt sat beside other diaries (including Sylvia Plath’s and Sophia Tolstoy’s) but the pose on the cover of this volume, the cat in arms, drew me into New York City of the 1920’s and, now, 1931.

The city and her acquaintances offer considerable inspiration, but the writing life is not an easy one for Dawn Powell, and she faces many disappointments alongside her successes.

“As a class, writers are only nice in their early stages. At the semi-success period they are either asses or envious sons of bitches. April 14, 1931

Another reader would possibly find greater meaning in the talk of other NYC writers, but I do enjoy the entries a great deal without that context. And I appreciate her commentary on writing.

She is ever-industrious and discussion of her decisions to pursue/decline various potential contracts is fascinating.

Although she is observing the publishing world more than eighty years ago, her observations are still relevant.

“To convince others of our faith in ourselves as artists is pure salesmanship and in no sense part of an honest artist’s equipment. March 9, 1931

She is deeply in love with her husband, but their relationship is complicated and she feels an intense pressure to earn from her writing, which leads to some intriguing comments.

“Women seem to me the greatest opportunists, the most unscrupulous artists in the world – they turn any genius they have into money without a pang – whereas the man artist, supporting his family by distortions of his genius, never ceases to bemoan his lost ideal. June 22, 1931

A diary is perfect commute-reading, in that it can be enjoyed in the briefest moments (some of these entries are only a few lines long), but this volume is a hefty one, and when I am looking for a slimmer volume to slip into my bookbag, I have selected Jean Burden’s Journey Toward Poetry instead.

She, too, considers the differences between female and male artists and, specifically, the reviewing world’s reception of female poets. One excoriating review that she mentions specifically was one which singled out May Sarton’s work, which reminds me that one of the reasons I was keen to read this odd little once-upon-a-time-library-discard was its blurb by May Sarton.

Although she did not achieve the kind of success that May Sarton did, Jean Burden’s name remains attached to an annual poetry lecture at an Amercian university; she published two volumes and she was a poetry journal editor for much of her life.

Jean Burden’s experiences as an editor and (later) a teacher, will be of greatest interest to those with an interest in writing (of any sort, though she does focus on poetry) and she illustrates the process of writing one particular poem with a series of photographs of the various scribblings (one on the back of a receipt, for instance) that, ultimately, came together in verse.

Jean Burden Poetry(For those fascinated by the writing process, this never gets boring, as one continues to expect that a secret will be revealed at any moment — though ultimately it remains as mysterious a process as ever.)

The poet Mary Swann is at the heart of Carol Shield’s Swann, another volume travelling with me this month. Although she scribbled her poems in pencil and hid them beneath the kitchen linoleum because her husband disapproved of her bookishness, the unassuming poet Mary Swann has become the subject of a convention. Swann presents a series of characters, each of whom has a vested interest in Mary Swann’s works, which may (or may not) soon be “discovered” by poetry lovers everywhere.

This is the fourth or fifth time that I’ve read this novel, but I haven’t reread any of this favourite author’s works for more than 10 years now, so I am particularly interested to see what I find here. In some ways, I am a little anxious about re-entering this territory: what if I do not adore the book as much as I once did? But so far, about halfway into the novel and getting reacquainted with Rose Hindmarch, librarian (yes, of course), it feels just as I remember earlier rereads feeling: deeply and wholly satisfying.

My pocketbook copy is yellowed through and through (even the cover), and the print is tiny (I doubt that I commented on that when I last reread Swann), but I am happy to slip it into my bag in any reading mood.

So far my reading year is characteristically home-based (every year I swear that I will read more books from my own shelves: you too?) and my choices eccelectic (I haven’t even made a list yet: what’s wrong with me?) and I notice that I am missing a volume of short stories in my stack, but January’s bookbag is good company these days.

How is your reading month so far? What books are you carrying around with you today/of late?