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

“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.

“Silence” Alice Munro

In the story, it is Joan who prolongs the name “with a certain tone of celebration”.


But it’s easy to imagine that it is actually Alice Munro who is savouring every syllable as she draws it out in ink.


You can imagine her there, à la Winslet and DiCaprio, at the bow.

No, not Penelope there, but Juliet.

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

“On the short ferry ride from Buckley Bay to Denman Island, Juliet got out of her car and stood at the front of the boat, in the summer breeze.”

Our solitary heroine.

Once part of a pair, now a singleton, with her Romeo lost at sea.

The alignment of a “Juliet” with a “Penelope” in a story cycle whose first story features a heroine with an affinity for the Classics?

Allusions abound for readers of “Chance”, “Soon” and “Silence”.

In Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, a character explains the endurance of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” by saying that people want to remember what it was like to be young and in love.

Alice Munro chooses her characters’ names deliberately and carefully.

But here it feels as though readers are meant to remember what it was like to be once-young and no-longer-sure-it-was-love-anyway.

Readers’ expectations of a “Juliet” are challenged initially in “Chance” (although Juliet does act impulsively in that story, seeking out Eric in his home north of Vancouver).

And just as Romeo had been smitten by another young girl, Eric’s affections have been previously engaged, not only by his wife, but by another woman (whom readers become acquainted with in “Silence”).

But Juliet is still drawn to him, despite some off-putting moments and realizations. Even while she acknowledges some imperfections in the situation.

Eric’s independence (disinterest? unavailability? neglect?) appeals to Juliet strongly and immediately, as much as if Eric had been a Montague.

Juliet is put off by interdependence and need. (It’s interesting to consider whether this contributes to her disconnect with her mother, Sara, which readers observe in “Soon”; Sara’s flamboyance and individuality irks Juliet even as she criticizes what she perceives as weakness in her mother.)

From the man on the train in “Chance” to men that she meets years later, Juliet – who is desirable in Shakespeare’s play for her very Juliet-ness — wants to be wanted, but her conviction is muddled when the idea of wanting mingles with the idea of needing.

“She liked him, but his loneliness was so raw and his pursuit of her so desperate that she became alarmed.”

What is most remarkable are the differences between the classical heroines and their roles and actions in this trio of stories.

For instance, Penelope is not she-who-waits as she was in the traditional myths.

Here, Penelope travels like Odysseus, leaving loved ones behind, in Juliet’s case, waiting and wondering, though not weaving.

(But the way that Juliet speaks of her work on a television show does emphasize its repetitive nature, so perhaps it could be seen as reworking the same piece of cloth with each episode.)

Juliet conjures up a variety of scenarios for her daughter, who it turns out, has not been charmed by Circe or barricaded in a cave by a shepherd.

“Now she seldom mentioned Penelope, even to Christa. She had a boyfriend—that was what you called them now—who had never heard anything about her daughter.”

Nor has she disappeared underground, like another mythic figure whose allusions have fleetingly appeared in other Munro stories.

No, Juliet has set up house off the beaten path. In a small community perhaps much like the one which Penelope’s parents called home, though in  northern Canada, not southern.

And just as Juliet left them behind, Penelope’s choices have taken her to unexplored territory. (And interestingly enough, to a place of contradictions, a city in the wilderness, just as Juliet grew up in a house on the edge of town.)

“Penelope was not a phantom, she was safe, as far as anybody is safe, and she was probably as happy as anybody is happy. She had detached herself from Juliet and very likely from the memory of Juliet, and Juliet could not do better than to detach herself in turn.”

Juliet does not comfortably inhabit her role in this story, whether literally or figuratively detached. After Eric’s death, she becomes even more keenly aware of a sense of distance between her own experience of her life and the events unfolding around her which comprise that life.

“The storm, the recovery of the body, the burning on the beach—that was all like a pageant she had been compelled.”

It is interesting to consider the women who inhabit the margins of this pageant.

“It was Ailo who took charge—her Scandinavian blood, her upright carriage and flowing white hair, seeming to fit her naturally for the role of Widow of the Sea.”

Juliet seems to believe that another woman would actually be better suited to be Eric’s widow; she is not lover-enough, not Juliet-enough, to be the grieving mate left behind. (Ironically, her relationship with Eric formally begins when he is mourning his wife’s death and he is the mate left behind.)

And, quite possibly, given Eric’s propensity to wander (and, seemingly, to take up with other women as freely as Odysseus did on his travels), there is some truth to Juliet’s sense of remove from this relationship.

In “Silence”, Alice Munro offers readers something like Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, a Penelope with wanderlust and a living, breathing, aging Juliet.

Versions of versions, stories within stories: “Silence” ends with an homage to “Chance” and readers can imagine rereading many times to unearth new layers of understanding.

Do you have a favourite amongst this cycle of stories? If you could request a fourth, what would you like (or expect) it to contain? Do characters and situations in these stories recall other Munro stories as you read? If this story was a reread for you, what (if anything) did you remember of your earlier reading?

Finally, if you haven’t read this story, is there another collection of stories in your stack currently?

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 fourth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Passion”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

June 2014, In My Bookbag

I’m slipping a variety of reading into my bookbag this month.

It depends on my mood, when I’m travelling to and fro, and how much time I know I will have to spend on a bus or train, or whether it will be calm or chaotic.

Tricksters Hat BantockNick Bantock’s The Trickster’s Hat: A Mischievous Apprenticeship in Creativity has some terrific exercises and prompts; some require some than a pen and a notebook but many of them call for just that, so this small volume is a fine travel companion. (And isn’t that a grand subtitle?)

Heather O’Neill’s second novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, makes for good company. The language is rich; the story has the same emotional intensity of her debut, Lullabies for Little Criminals, so I find it perfect for short commutes because part of me is tempted to read it in bursts, but another part of me wants this to last until she writes another.

Girl Saturday Night ONeillParticularly when travelling by train in southwestern Ontario, there are still a few glimpses of woodland. Theresa Kishkan’s trees in Mnemonic are west-coast Canadian trees but some of them are familiar nonetheless, and her musings on memory and experience are engaging and evocative. This might be on my list of favourites for this year: a beautiful read.

Mnemonic KishkanThe first of the volumes in Benjamin Lefebvre’s L.M. Montgomery readers, A Life in Print, is a heavy volume to lug about, but there are 80 pieces from which to choose, so for LMM fans, this is a delight to peruse in a variety of reading moods. It reminds me, too, that I have yet to revisit the unedited versions of LMM’s journals; the edited version are ATFs, so I am looking forward simply to more of what I previously loved discovering therein.

Two short story collections are also rotating in my bag: Janine Alyson Young’s Hideout Hotel and Andrea Routley’s Jane and the Whales.

Jane Whales Routley

Both debut collections by Caitlin Press, these stories are woman-soaked, with astute observations and tight dialogue working to invite the reader to read “just one more”.

Young Hideout Hotel

Monday brought this year’s summer reading from Walrus Magazine, which include “Part of the Main” by Mark Callanan, “Brute” by Jessica Grant, “Care and Feeding of the Amish” by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, “Ultrasound” by Stephen Marche, and “Watching the Cop Show in Bed” by Alexandra Oliver. If there was a category for Mag found Most Often in My Bookbag, The Walrus would win, flippers down.

What’s been travelling with you recently?

Polly Dugan’s So Much a Part of You (2014)

Though each segment could be read as a standalone, each is So Much a Part of the Landscape that Polly Dugan’s work is best read all-in-a-burst.

So Much a Part of You Dugan

Little Brown & Company, 2014

More trust is required on the reader’s part than, say, with Carrie Snyder’s more prominently linked The Juliet Stories or Elise Juska’s The Blessings.

But nor are the links as subtle as in, say, Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, in which the tales cross hundreds of years but revolve around the act of reading.

So Much a Part of You focuses on a core group of characters, the concerns of the collection swelling outwards like ripples in a pond, but with the core remaining distinct.

In fact, the only gap appears to be between the first story, which focuses on a single character from an earlier generation, and the remainder of the tales which concentrate on interconnected contemporary characters.

But this gap is actually not a gap and here is where the reader’s trust is required; the circle is cinched with the final story, in a quietly satisfying “ahhh” moment, with a subtle thematic link that could not have been predicted but which is surprisingly satisfying.

The majority of the stories are preoccupied with relationships, with the dramatic ebb and flow of affections. The characters are frequently young (the youngest is in the first tale) and struggling with issues of identity, or somewhat older but facing circumstances which challenge aspects of their identity which once seemed immovable.

The prose is straightforward and the use of figurative language is minimal. The stories are scenic, set out with a journalist’s attention to detail, with only the occasional simile to add to the reader’s sensory experience of characters’ key realizations.

“He smells like booze, something harder beneath the beer. She knows it well. And more – laundry detergent, shampoo, and himself. His sunny, earthy smell of boy makes her feel empty and reckless. His scent is like a plateful of something she wants to cut up and shovel in by the forkful until she’s stuffed.”

Polly Dugan  makes deft use of detail from the 80′s music references, to sobbing in the theatre during “Against All Odds”, the radio in Chris’ mother’s car playing Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain”, the pearls against Audrrey’s clavicle, ad the Olivers’ farm at the end of a dirt road lane with soybean fields on both sides.

The majority of the stories are narrated by a female character, and the girls and women in the collection behave credibly (not always likeably, but believably); they are sometimes flimsy and fuzzy, losing themselves in the pursuit of a romantic relationship, and sometimes determinedly independent.

“By their last night together, Caitlin thought she loved him. She felt like a rock he’d taken and carved something out of. She was a different person from the one she’d been a week ago.”

The male characters’ vulnerabilities are also explored, and the storyteller’s voice is consistent throughout, so that a sense of unity in the collection is maintained, despite the regular shifts in character and perspective and, as the collection proceeds, time.

As the years pass, the characters’ preoccupations grow more complex, reflecting a variety of experiences (often revolving around a loss or a perceived loss). “He feels the fatigue of having aged, as though he has undergone a crash course in the business of growing older.”

Polly Dugan’s style is gently probing; singly, the stories in So Much a Part of You might not have the same emotional resonance with readers but, in combination, the characters take hold.

In much the same way that writers like Jami Attenberg and Meg Mitchell Moore can catch a reader’s heart unawares, Polly Dugan’s stories are tender explorations of love and loss.

Is this collection on your stack? Or, do you have a favourite collection of linked stories?

Shari LaPeña’s Happiness Economics (2011)

The next time someone says to me that funny books are always disappointing because they’re funny-dumb, I’ll be pointing them to this novel: it’s funny-smart.

Brindle and Glass, 2011

Happiness Economics opens with Will Thorne struggling with the idea of being a poet in a world which does not value poets.

Except that in Shari LaPeña’s second novel, the economic theme isn’t as heavy-handed as the language that I’ve used in that sentence.

“It was a crazy, mixed-up world, a world that took economic forecasters seriously — see everyone hang on his wife’s every word! — and sports figures, and movie stars.”

Poets deserve to be taken seriously, Will believes. Or, more accurately, Will thinks.  Believes is a strong word for someone who spends an inordinate amount of time disbelieving.

“Would it be ennui today or despair?”

Will’s world is not as concrete as his wife’s.

Judy Thorne writes books too, books about investing, instant best-sellers written in a “chatty, informative, accessible” style, but she can measure her success in dollars and cents, in television appearances, in phone calls with influential contacts.

There is no outward measure of Will’s success.

He is an engaged father (mostly, except when we forgets to let the kids in for lunch because the ennui/despair is too overwhelming) and he has written some good poetry.

But there’s no Governor General’s Award to show for it. And when he proposed to Judy that he receive a wage for his childcare responsibilities, she made a counter-offer, a significantly lower figure.

And “[s]he had all her expertise as an economist behind her while he’d only had an article in Chatelaine.”

But even Judy — as great as she presents on camera — has concerns, even before the events of 2008 which seriously threatened her professional identity.

She is particularly concerned about her children, Alex and Zoe. (And these are not like sitcom kids: they are wholly believable.)

“They had everything. She didn’t know what to do about it, so most of the time she simply kept working and telling herself that they should be happy — they had everything.”

And, yet, her family is unhappy, her children in their tween/teen years struggling in the same way that Will is (although the kids are preoccupied with their own concerns and aren’t aware of the parallels).

Zoe “vaguely wished to be a pop star — she watched all the Idol shows — but she didn’t know anything about music, and now it seemed almost too late”.

Even at 12 years old, Zoe keeps her pop-star ambitions to herself, recognizing that artsy dreams are fragile, whereas Alex broadcasts his desire to be a police officer, a detective.

“‘Right,’ said Zoe. ‘There’s a fitness test, you know.’”

Catch a glimpse of the realistic dialogue there, also all the unstated eye-rolling: Zoe is at that age.

But, there is some truth beneath Zoe’s defensive barb; both Will and Judy are unsure whether the amount of sweets that Alex is eating will create a problem for him.

When tension at home increases — because there is conflict between Will and Judy, particularly as each feels their identity rocked by external events and internal fears — Alex reaches for a candy bar.

All of the characters in this novel have their own ways of coping with what lurks beneath the surfaces of their lives.

Sometimes the struggle is visible, even to casual onlookers; sometimes the veneer is solid.

Sometimes the choices appear minor, as in whether Zoe should be allowed to attend a Shopping Party for a class-mate’s birthday.

Rarely the issues are approached openly, philosophically: “When…does the end justify the means? And how do you measure the externalities, the collateral damage? What is life but the continuous exercise of moral choice?”

For that is the delight of this novel; after you have finished reading, it’s clear that the author has deliberately layered the theme throughout, but the reader is simply engaged in the story.

What is truly an obstacle, whether to progress or happiness? What does it mean if we, individually or nationally, decline to participate in a measure of well-being which values war over housing starts?

These are big questions. But in the course of reading Shari LaPeña’s novel, the reader simply hopes that someone will honk for the poet who is standing at the side of the parkway with a sign that reads “Honk if you love poetry.”

A novel that is wholly entertaining  – there are some laugh-out-loud moments and countless smirky grins — and still leaves you with lots to think about? That’s good stuff.

A wholly entertaining novel that leaves you with something to believe in? That’s grand.

PS If it adds to the value of the book in your reader’s mind, Happiness Economics won the Stephen Leacock Medal for being hilarious.

“Soon” Alice Munro

Readers who were left with an abundance of questions after reading “Chance” might turn to “Soon” believing that some will be answered.

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

But Juliet’s reappearance holds no promises of resolution; there are just as many new musings unaddressed.

Most prominent are the questions outwardly posed at the end of the story: “When Sara had said, soon I’ll see Juliet, Juliet had found no reply. Could it not have been managed? Why should it have been so difficult?”

It’s possible that part of the answer rests with Juliet’s fundamental understanding of her place in the world, particularly regarding her identity as the daughter of Sam and Sara.

“And the truth was that she saw herself—she saw herself and Sam and Sara, but particularly herself and Sam—as superior in their own way to everybody around them.”

In “Chance”  it is unclear why Juliet pursued a teaching career and a study of the classics; “Soon” does address this question, even as it raises additional questions about the nature of Juliet’s understanding of relationships.

Her parents, Sam and Sara, “lived in a curious but not unhappy isolation, though her father was a popular schoolteacher. Partly they were cut off by Sara’s heart trouble, but also by their subscribing to magazines nobody around them read, listening to programs on the national radio network, which nobody around them listened to. By Sara’s making her own clothes—sometimes ineptly—from Vogue patterns, instead of Butterick. Even by the way they preserved some impression of youth instead of thickening and slouching like the parents of Juliet’s schoolfellows.”

The story opens with Juliet buying a print of a Marc Chagall painting for her parents. “I and the Village” brings them to her mind, which is an interesting thought when one considers the other painting discussed in the story, Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”.

Sam’s (and Sara’s?) taste in art was not acceptable in these environs. “It had been the subject of nervous jokes years ago on the occasion when they had the other teachers to supper.” But Juliet chooses to pursue a career in the classics even though she recognizes the marginal role her parents inhabit in the community. (And even though she purchases a print of a modern work of art for her parents, the Chagall is relocated to the attic.)

The family’s marginalization is literal as well as metaphoric. “Light from the last streetlight in town now fell across Juliet’s bed.” (But perhaps Juliet blames this discord on Sara and her ineptly sewn Vogue outfits.)

Like Rose, Juliet inhabits the fringe. As she takes the train home again, the landscape is lush and thriving, but it assaults Juliet’s vision. She seems openly offended by her roots.

“The hardwood trees were humped over the far edge of the fields, making blue-black caves of shade, and the crops and the meadows in front of them, under the hard sunlight, were gold and green. Vigorous young wheat and barley and corn and beans—fairly blistering your eyes.”

Her visit is further tarnished by the presence of Irene, who is helping out with Sara, who is not what Juliet expected to find.

“Irene was a mother, too. She had a boy three years old and a daughter just under two. Their names were Trevor and Tracy. Their father had been killed last summer in an accident at the chicken barn where he worked. She herself was three years younger than Juliet—twenty-two.”

Irene’s character offers another perspective on Juliet’s home life. (Or, perhaps Irene gives voice to some of Juliet’s judgements, which she is unwilling to own?)

“Irene’s flickering pale eyes, indirect but measuring looks, competent hands. Her vigilance, in which there was something that couldn’t quite be called contempt.”

As does an encounter with a school chum, faced with Juliet and her defiantly-born-out-of-wedlock child, Penelope.

“He appraised her, covertly, perhaps he saw her now as a woman displaying the fruits of a boldly sexual life. Juliet, of all people. The gawk, the scholar.”

Years later, when Juliet discovers a letter in which she described these days to Eric, she is uncomfortable.

“When she read the letter, Juliet winced, as anybody does on discovering the preserved and disconcerting voice of some past fabricated self.”

But as those experiences are unfolding, she is even more uncomfortable with Sara’s exposure of a different perspective on the dynamics of this home, of her marriage to Juliet’s father.

“’You know I don’t mean it if I ever say mean things about Daddy. I know he loves me. He’s just unhappy.’”

Has Juliet never recognized that Sara might have had her own unhappinesses, her own grievances, her own disappointments?

Juliet, at twenty-five years old, is freshly struggling with difficult situations, incapable of managing the simplest answer.

Readers must wonder if she will find her voice in the next story, or whether the questions will continue to accumulate.

What do you think about Juliet? What does “Soon” add to your “Chance” understanding of her character?

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 third story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Silence”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.