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

My mini-Canlit-read-a-thon on Canada Day, 2014 (II)

Choosing a stack based on whimsy rather than duty urged me to binge on these books with enthusiasm. The afternoon heat was held at bay by good stories and an assortment of drinks (often rum with some sort of fruit juice, from tangerine to strawberry, lemon to cherry). And without any pressing engagements, it was easy to dismiss the events which threatened to interfere with turning pages in bulk.

CanadaDayCanlitReadAThonSmallFabric draped to one side to keep the sun out made it feel more like a cottage than a porch, and with the exception of one neighbour’s over-exuberant experiments with a leaf-blower and another neighbour’s full-blown addiction to air-conditioning (it starts in April, I swear), it was a most peaceful scene.

Though not as serene perhaps as cottage life in Jean Little’s Stand in the Wind. This was one of my favourite books of hers as a child, but I haven’t reread it as an adult.

Like Janie in One to Grow On, however, the girls in Stand in the Wind are bookish and contemplative. They have no problem filling time on a rainy day at the cottage. But Martha, as much as she is a reader, is also an extroverted child, eager to attend camp for the first time and devastated when an injury results in her having to stay home. She conceives of a plan to make her own camp but is disappointed yet again when the two girls who are coming to visit are not inclined in that direction (for different reasons).

Jean Little’s style is slightly old-fashioned and over-earnest, with the innocence characteristic of Elizabeth Enright and Sydney Taylor, and for good reason, as this novel was first published in 1975. Families are of paramount importance and largely sources of support and nurturing; someone might be in a bad temper, but there are so serious “social issues” and the challenges to be overcome are signifcant (for example, triumphing over fears and learning to spend time with different personality types) but not overwhelming.

As a girl, I wouldn’t have thought twice about the two youngest boys being aboriginal, adopted and brought into the family as a pair of brothers to join the pair of sisters. Now I realize that such a practice is an extension of Canada’s residential school system, an attempt to dilute indigenous culture, cloaked in good intentions. But the boys’ heritage is mentioned only in passing, and the focus is consistently on the girls; their large family would have been astonishing to me as an only child with or without native heritage.

“Once I asked mother why we didn’t have more money for things like that [records], things we don’t really need but still want, and she said she had given me a sister and two brothers instead. She asked me which one I wanted her to trade in.”

Beauty plus Pity Kevin ChongThe stories in Gilles Archambault’s In a Minor Key, which are translated by David Lobdell, are sometimes only a few sentences long. And, yet, just as readers marvel at the capacity of Alice Munro to put the stuff-of-novels into a single short story, readers might marvel at Archambault’s ability to evoke a fascinating situation in just a few lines.

Following my usual rule of reading only a single story by an author on a given day, I wouldn’t finish this book until the end of the year. So I’m reading two or three pages at a time, meaning at least that many stories in a single sitting. They are frequently constructed around relationships, which affords the reader the opportunity to fill in the gaps with experiences both on- and off-the-page, as Archambault strikes familiar chords and invites the reader to let thoughts wander. Sometimes there is a shock-ending, but often not.

“Tell me, do you think the people who live in that house on the hill are happy? They spend only a few weeks of the year up there, throwing lavish parties for an ever-increasing number of guests. They hardly spare a glance for the sea spread out at their feet. When I see the long line of cars climging the steep road to their place, I find myself feeling sorry for those poor creatures in their unfortunate plight. They will never have the leisure to discover the vacuity of their own existence.”

Kevin Chong’s Beauty Plus Pity is Malcolm’s story. “Everything I saw reminded me of them, and every reminder felt barbed. Now, a year later, I’m writing this not so much to have a permanent record, but simply to remember, to stir the memories I do have, before they clot and dry in my head.”

Beauty plus Pity, Love plus Loss, Humour plus Heartbreak. At times, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. “Seamus Henry was a critically acclaimed but commercially unrecognized novelist whose one book, Eye [I] Chart, was written using only the letters on the eye-exam chart at his doctor’s office.” At times, it is barbed, just as Malcolm said.

Kevin Chong’s style is predominantly based in dialogue, which he uses tremendously effectively, for character development and plot pacing (though, to be clear, there is not a lot of external movement beyond Malcolm’s auditions as an aspiring male model, so the momentum is often spiral in nature). The perspective is consistent and credible, and although in hindsight it seems a story that should feel insular and cloying, it is a pleasure to read, even though the echo of loss resounds after the final pages have been turned.

I read Richard van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed in a single sitting; he is one of my MustReadEverything authors, and this is the book of his that I  bought the day after I finished Godless But Loyal to Heaven, but somehow I’ve read it almost a year later. (This is why I should pull random books from my shelves more often, right?) An intensely vivid coming-of-age story, this puts the North and the lives of Dogrib youth on centre stage; I’ll have more to say about this at a later date.

Debra Komar’s The Lynching of Peter Wheeler is the fresh read which I spun out the longest (I tend to read non-fiction more slowly.) The story at its heart is more than a hundred years old, a young man convicted of commiting a murder based not on evidence but on the colour of his skin and his birthplace, but the story is still relevant and the author’s work in forensic anthropology turns this historical narrative into a pageturner. I was browsing in a room filled of fiction, and Deborah Komar’s book just happened to be in a stack of new arrivals near the door, but if I had another weekend like this to read, I would make a point of adding some more non-fiction.

Some drama and more kidlit would be nice, too, but that’s starting to sound like a week-long event, isn’t it. And it’s starting to sound like list-making, which I do adore, but that’s not what the weekend was about.

Have you had a long bookish weekend lately? If you could have one next weekend, what would you put in your stack? Or where would you browse to make up your stack of whimsy?

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4 comments to My mini-Canlit-read-a-thon on Canada Day, 2014 (II)

  • I loved Elizabeth Enright as a child, so I must seek out Stand in the Wind, and I must get to Richard van Camp!

    If I had this weekend free, I’d likely finish up A Possible Madness by Frank MacDonald. He was at Read by the Sea (readbythesea.ca) in neighbouring River John earlier this month and I think there’s probably a line behind me at the library for this. And then I’d get to Bear which finally arrived this week, after I was 6 months on the ‘reserve’ list.

    When I don’t have library books, I can browse a little more on my own shelves but for now . . .

    • ReadByTheSea must have been lovely and it’s great to see enough support for a literary festival to be going strong after 15 years. I hope you enjoyed Claire Cameron’s novel; it reads quickly for sure.

  • Hi BIP : I must admit I dont know a lot of these CanLit titles but I better get a ‘crackin’. Speaking of nonfiction via your Lynching book, have you ever read The Curve of Time by M.Wylie? I’m sure you have being Canadian and all. I read it earlier this year on my husband’s request. My thoughts on it are at http://www.thecuecard.com/node/797. Meanwhile if I had long bookish weekend, I’d like to polish off the Robert Galbraith mystery (since it’s summer) The Silkworm which I’m almost done with. cheers.

    • Thanks for the recommendation, Susan; no, I’ve not read it, not even heard of it (that I recall, anyway) and it does sound like a perfect summer read. If I don’t get to it this summer, I’ve got a note in my calendar to consider it for next summer!

      I’ve got 100 pages left to read in the first Robert Galbriath mystery, then I’m on to The Silkworm myself; I quite like his character and am curious to see if there are any substantial differences between the first and second volumes in the series.

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