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

Weekend Sampling: ReLit (Week Two)

You might remember that I’ve been sampling books from Indie presses that have been shortlisted for this year’s ReLit Awards. Not just novels, but short stories, even poetry (which is adventurous for me). For a month of Sundays (at least), I’m Buried in ReLit Print.

Last weekend’s samples? (You can check them out here.)
The provocative title story in There is No OtherJonathan Papernick (Exile).
Darryl Joel Berger’s story  “Big Head” in Punishing Ugly Children (Killick).
And ten sharp and sassy poems from Dani Couture‘s Sweet (Pedlar).

But let’s not read in the past. Let’s get right to this weekend’s samples.

The Find, Kathy Page (McArthur &Co)

Sample: First 42 pages of the novel. (Yes, 42: towel, anyone?*)

First sentence: Scott woke just after four.

What stands out about this novel’s beginning is the bare bones style of the prose.

Sorry: couldn’t resist punning on Anna Silowski’s profession (she curates a prestigious palaeontological museum), but there is some truth to it. There is a matter-of-fact-ness to the writing that announces itself the moment you begin to read. Even from that succinct opening sentence.

At first I thought this was fantastic because it brings you into the events of the first chapter with a solidity that secures your interest in reading further. Then, in the third chapter, when there is a need to explain something more personal in nature, I wasn’t sure if it worked.

But I’ve realized that it suits Anna. Whether it’s the hint of a mostly-buried skeleton in the woods, or whether it’s the reasons a relationship didn’t work out, she would approach it analytically; it’s easy to imagine her making mental notes in columns to deduce how she feels about something.

And although the prose is simple, it’s not barren. Even in that first paragraph, the “blackness outside had a fierce, violet tinge”.

Thematically, it’s easy to imagine the possibilities stemming from the idea of digging in the ground to find a truth about the past. (And I love stories that tangibly link the idea of rebuilding the past to understand the present, as in Claudia Casper’s debut novel, The Reconstruction.)

But there is another layer to this novel that is particularly intriguing.

Anna and her brother Vik have a complex relationship, rooted in the fact that their father suffered from a disease which is hereditary. As this disease manifests in middle-age and they have not been tested for it yet, they do not know if they have the disease themselves, and this twinned sense of isolation and intimacy that they share makes for a curious tension.

I really don’t know which I’m more keen to discover, more about Anna’s find, or to understand more about her relationship with Vik; it was difficult to set aside the novel and stick with the sample.

You Know Who You Are, Ian Williams (Wolsak &Wynn)

Sample: The first section of poems “Look at You”

First epigraph: You can’t go thinking you are better than other people just because you can learn poems. who do you think you are?
(From Alice Munro’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”)

Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent a bit of time flipping through this collection, but it really feels all-of-a-piece, in a sense that I don’t always get when I read poetry (which I do rarely, so if I can do it, so can you, that’s who I think we are).

The V-shaped torso near the end recalls one of the early poems I read for this sample, “V” (which focuses on five words: vicarious, vacillate, virgin, vandalize, and visceral).

The cubes in a later poem appear in the poem “Mistake”, and they decorate the title pages that divide the collection (and, well, the cover too, obviously).

There are ‘you’s and ‘I’s and ‘us’s sprinkled throughout. People say things. People don’t say things.

For me, speaking as an inexperienced poetry reader, some collections feel like quilts, many beautiful bits sewn together, side-by-side, sometimes a pattern overlaid that you can see from a distance.

I’m not saying that this collection doesn’t have elements of that experience for me when I’m reading it, but the more pressing sense is that of a bed made, layered sheets and blankets, each laid atop the one below, together making something like a refuge.

A refuge from vulnerability and loneliness, disconnection and insecurity: someplace where you might be able to start figuring out who you are.

[Edited to add that I finished this collection: favourite poems include “You Know Who You Are”, “Buffering: A Sonnet”, and “Gone”.]

I’m a Registered Nurse Not a Whore,Anne Perdue (Insomniac)

Sample: Title story (which ended on page 42: coincidence?*)

First sentence: “A hair dryer’ll fix it,” said Stu — stepping forward to inspect the situation after Eugene told the guy from Premier Appliances that he had to pay for the damages to the floor.

And the hair dryer does fix it, which you’ll be pleased to know. Some elements of this story are tightly resolved. The heat of the dryer works on the soft pine floorboards and the dents are eased out of the wood.

But not everything in life can be fixed with a hair dryer. (Although an argument might be made for toothpaste or soda, which seem alarmingly useful in most unexpected ways having nothing to do with teeth or consumption: Stu might know about that too, as he’s had to do without a lot of things and it’s made him resourceful.)

And the dynamics between Stu and Eugene (and, though differently, with Tim, the third man working on Mrs. Wilkinson’s kitchen) are strained and, at times, outright confrontational, long before (and after) the delivery guy dents that floor, and Stu smooths out the situation (simultaneously ruffling Eugene’s feathers).

I know: that was a bit much to try to explain. Anne Perdue does it much better. Mostly using dialogue and brief exchanges and observations that develop character both sharply (in the moment) and gradually (across the series of exchanges she depicts). It’s deliberately scenic.

At first, there isn’t much to hang onto. Eugene is a contractor, Stu and Tim work for him, and nobody is very happy. The other characters aren’t particularly happy either. Vanessa, she of the line that gives the story and the collection its unforgettable name. Mrs. Wilkinson, who doesn’t seem to mind her kitchen in disarray but harbours a deeper sadness.  The woman with the nicotine-coloured hair.

But as the story develops, it’s clear that there is nothing clear about their unhappinesses. And that it’s not all about despair. There are some very beautiful moments, too. Not glitteringly beautiful, but warmingly beautiful. And it all feels very real. And the reader’s investment in character builds.

And, yes, that does make it a little sadder. Because that hair dryer trick doesn’t work on people and some of the characters suffer damages that can’t be repaired with small electrics.

And it’s sadder because Anne Perdue tells it very well.

What have you been sampling lately?

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