Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans (2014)
Bond Street Books – Random House, 2014
It’s risky, fragmenting narration into a large number of voices, but it’s the perfect format for a novel about the experiences of newcomers to the United States, who can have an astonishing variety of experiences.
Readers might expect to face a disadvantage, being unable to attach to a particular character, but Cristina Henriquez balances the introduction of an expanse of characters, some of whom only present a single segment in the novel, with a core set which makes regular reappearances. The connection is slow to build, but particular narrative threads take root in readers and engage them more determinedly.
With a myriad of voices, the emphasis is on the specific experiences each person has. And, yet, there are moments in which broader statements are made as particular voices step out from the crowd.
“Sr. Rivera said, ‘But here? It’s safe, no?’
‘It’s not as safe as it used to be,’ my dad said.
‘But it’s safe,’ Sr. Rivera pressed, like he wanted to be reassured.
‘Yes,’ my dad said. ‘Compared to where any of us are from, it’s safe.’”
The belief that something else will be better has played a role in every character’s experience. This is particularly prominent in the scenes in this novel which focus on family life, fathers and mothers negotiating the stuff of everyday, from school registration to procuring and preparing food in a foreign culture. But even amidst such a variety of voices, from landlords to mushroom farmers, there are some similarities.
“Maybe it’s the instinct of every immigrant, born of necessity or of longing: Someplace else will be better than here. And the condition: if only I can get to that place.”
The core group of characters seems to focus on the experience of two teenagers, whose parents have come to the United States believing that it will provide greater safety for their families than their homelands offered.
Partly because the families are at different stages in the process of acclimatization and partly because the author strives to make characters’ voices distinct, the members of these two families have different perspectives on their lives, not only in terms of current living conditions but also regarding the possibility of a romantic relationship between the young people.
Beyond the everyday tensions surrounding their adjustment to new surroundings, these tensions are at the heart of the novel. The Book of Everyday Americans appears somewhat distanced, almost journalistic in its style initially, but as the colours in the kaleidoscopic view intensify, the events in the novel will carry a greater heft than readers will expect.
Second Story Press, 2014
Beth Goobie’s The First Principles of Dreaming (2014)
Beth Goobie has written novels for teens before and now turns her hand to a coming-of-age novel which exposes the complexity of a young woman’s shifting identity.
Mary-Eve Hamilton has already experienced some radical alterations in her understanding of her place in the world before readers meet her on the page.
“From that moment on, I knew my mother could not see me. The landscapes we inhabited were too different – what she saw was not what I saw; what surrounded her disdained and shut me out. By haunting her footsteps, I was able to catch occasional glimpses into her realm, but she wandered a part of the mind I could not enter; I stood on the edge of a world she had passed through to, a world I had been refused.”
Had Mary-Eve’s mother simply withdrawn, that would have been difficult enough, but her main source of communion is a religious fervour which distances her even further from her family and the wider community. The effect on Mary-Eve is dramatic and lasting.
Naming in this novel is crucial and Mary-Eve’s transformation into Jez (Jezebel) presents a swatch of conflict for readers, who understand her inner struggle to test and pass the limits she has felt upon her identity. Readers’ understanding grows as more information about the family’s experiences is revealed and challenges force Jez to grapple with questions about friendship, sexuality and faith, while testing the boundaries of her own self.
The style is intense and highly emotive, which reflects the heightened drama of Jez’s age and stage in life. This is emphasized by a series of dream-like passages which are almost overwhelming and work to depict the intensity of the transformation that she is experiencing.
The novel moves at a steady pace and culminates in a fervour of activity which is unexpected but, in hindsight, seems inevitable. Much of The First Principles of Dreaming is like a bad dream readers might want to shake, but it is a testament to the author’s skill that scenes perhaps-better-forgotten persist and linger in readers’ minds.
House of Anansi, 2014
Lynn Thomson’s Birding with Yeats (2014)
You can mark the places you have been birding on a map, but it is not only about the outer geography but the inner journey as well. Lynn Thomson describes this very well:
“For birdwatching is a place, not just an activity. It’s a place I knew I could go to in my mind when day-to-day life seemed overwhelming. I could remember seeing ducks bobbing on the frozen waters of the outer harbor, for example, and feeling my blood pressure drop. I saw that place in my boy as I watched him go out to heal his spirit.”
Her memoir wanders from talk of doing, to talk of being, and back and forth repeatedly. The passages about working in Ben McNally Books (a family business) nestle up against talk of parenting her son, Yeats, and musings upon bird sightings: it is all-of-a-piece.
The occasion for a memoir presents itself and Lynn Thomson is attentive.
“It felt like I was under notice from the universe to slow right down. It was time to stop doing all the most important things I’d taken for granted – work, writing, exercise, sleep – and figure out who I was once these aspects of my life were taken away. It was time to reconsider everything.”
Among other activities, birding takes on a new significance.
“I imagined that I felt the birds fly past us, felt the small rush of air and the pulse of their wings, but I know I didn’t. It had happened too quickly to feel such sensation. What I felt was this tremendous sense of belonging; that I belonged with these people and on this earth.”
Readers who are not birders will recognize this sense of communion and even if they locate it for themselves elsewhere, Lynn Thomson’s descriptions invite readers with varying degrees of interest in the avian kingdom to participate in her reconsideration of her middle years in Birding with Yeats.
Have you read any of these? Or, are they on your TBR list/stack?
It’s here. It’s here. It’s finally here! And we’ll be updating this post throughout the day (for the three of us). Thanks so much for stopping by.
Hour Nineteen: Update, BIP
Snack: There might be something sweet. Mixed with whiskey. This might mean things are winding up. More of a tendency towards napping as the sipping continues.
Mr. BIP looks like he’s thinking about video games, as he flips through the ebooks, looking for the perfect fit for a read at the end of a long reading day (translation: he won’t be reading anything else tonight).
Ella has finished Naomi Novik’s Will Supervillains Be on the Final? (192 pages). This is definitely her most productive read-a-thon yet (and her second time participating).
I’ve finished a novella by Veronia Roth called The Transfer, which explains the origins of Four and his choosing ceremony and initiation, coming before Divergent in the series (38 pages). It was a quick read and not on my list, which felt quite decadent. And I’ve read Locomotion, which Ella read earlier today (100 pages). I’m halfway through the Anne Frank book, but I’m not sure how realistic it is to think that I’ll finish it tonight, even if it’s mostly images. Still, trying!
This will be the last update until the wrap-up post. Thanks to all those who have come by to cheer and have created an air of community-feeling.
Soup brewed by Ella!
Hour Seventeen: Update, BIP (Why am I bothering to say this? Nobody else is volunteering to make updates at this point in the evening!)
Snack: We are just picking from various bits and pieces from the earlier snacks now, mainly looking for just enough sugar to get through the next few chapters!
Around 10 o’clock showers were had, to wash the work of reading (and cosplay: see below) off of us. And then we settled into true snacks, rather than the steady mini-grazes we’ve indulged in all day.
It’s a tricky time of night to read in comfortable places. We are tending towards the harder reading locations in the home to avoid the tendency to yawn.
Mr. BIP is finished a book begun before the read-a-thon, Kelley Armstrong’s Spellbound (92 pages count towards today’s totals); he’s going to choose a short story to read next.
Ella finished A Ribbon of Shining Steel by Julie Lawson, one of the Dear Canada series (104 pages count toward’s today’s totals). She’s reading Naomi Novik’s manga now.
I’ve finished Joel Thomas Hynes’ Say Nothing Saw Wood (63 pages), illustrated by Gerald L. Squires, an impressive gothic novella, which perhaps wasn’t the best late-night reading choice, but is certainly a memorable story (and beautifully packaged by Running the Goat). That’s the second of the two literary skinnies I’d hoped to read today. I think I”ll finish one more book, but I’m not sure whether it will be from the poetry stack, the YA books, or the art/photography choices.
Pages Read since last update, 259
(Including Fresh reads 63; Books already begun 92; Kidlit/YA 104; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 0.)
Pages Read, TOTAL: 1447 (remember, this is for three of us!)
(Including Fresh reads xxx; Books already begun xxx; Kidlit/YA xxx; Re-reads xxx; Graphic novels xxx.)
Books Read since last update: 3
(Fresh reads 1; Books already begun 1; Kidlit/YA 1; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 0.)
Books Read, TOTAL: 12
(Fresh reads 4; Books already begun 3; Kidlit/YA 4; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 2.)
Participation Activities/Challenges, TOTAL: 4
Blogs visited: We’ve lost count now!
Ella channels Yotsuba for a mini-challenge.
Hour Thirteen: Update, BIP
Snack: Autumn vegetable soup with garden herbs (the ones which haven’t been nipped yet), made from scratch by Ella last night to maximize today’s reading time.
Mr. BIP has finished Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse (224 pages), which was a real treat apparently, and he is ready to choose another book, post-soup.
Ella finished volume 6 of Chew (156 pages), which was so good she had to read parts of it aloud, and she finished another book she had been reading before hand, Where Should I Sit at Lunch: The Ultimate Guide to Surviving the High School Years (by Harriet S. Mosatche and Karen Unger) in which she read 167 pages; she’s working on finishing another book in the Dear Canada series now.
I’ve finished Fred D’Aguiar’s novel, which was elegant and powerful, like Toni Morrison and Rashomon in a slow dance (138 pages). I also finished Martha Solomon’s (Ed.) One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories (84 pages), which is beautifully presented with honest and forthright commentary from a remarkably diverse set of contributors.
Pages Read since last update, 769
(Including Fresh reads 222; Books already begun 167; Kidlit/YA 224; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 156.)
Pages Read, TOTAL: 1188 (remember, this is for three of us!)
(Including Fresh reads 330; Books already begun 167; Kidlit/YA ; Re-reads 408; Graphic novels 283.)
Books Read since last update: 5
(Fresh reads 2; Books already begun 1; Kidlit/YA 1; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 1.)
Books Read, TOTAL: 9
(Fresh reads 3; Books already begun 1; Kidlit/YA 3; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 2.)
Participation Activities/Challenges, TOTAL: 4
Blogs visited: 39
Foccaccia for RATing!
Hour Nine: Update, BIP
Snack: Herb foccaccia with spiced, sauteed mushrooms.
Mr. BIP is still reading Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse (not counting pages until finished); it’s possible that there was a nap involved.
Ella finished Jacqueline Woodson’s Locomotion (100 pages), which Vasilly recommended; she’s reading John Layman’s Chew volume #6 (Illustrated by Rob Guillory): Space Cakes now.
I’m reading Fred D’Aguiar’s The Longest Memory (not counting pages until finished). It’s beautiful and painful; I will finish it before I choose something else, because the swaps in perspective make it a book-best-read-in-a-burst.
Pages Read since last update, 100
(Including Fresh reads 0; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 100; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 0.)
Pages Read, TOTAL: 419
(Including Fresh reads 108; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 184; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 127.)
Books Read since last update: 1
(Fresh reads 0; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 1; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 0.)
Books Read, TOTAL: 4
(Fresh reads 1; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 2; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 1.)
Participation Activities/Challenges, TOTAL: 3
Blogs visited: 32
Fuelling up for more reading and cheering!
Hour Six: Update, BIP
Snack: Veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, cabbage, onions), two variations on hummus, with Ying Ying’s smokey deli slices (a family fave).
Mr. BIP is reading Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse (not counting pages until finished).
Ella is reading Jacqueline Woodson’s Locomotion (not counting pages until finished).
I’m not sure what I’m going to read next from the stack (love the inbetween bit). Here’s a glimpse at the two books I finished since the last update:
Soraya Peerbaye’s Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names (108 pages) is reflective and evocative. Comparisons are sensorily rich, sometimes to tamarind and cardamon pods (an armonica, whales) and other times to penguins from the sea and veins (watermelon seeds spat, filigree). Scenes are as diverse as Mauritius and Antartica, with many interior landscapes of memory too. My favourite is the final long poem “Reading the Yamana-English Dictionary”, but it is hard to choose: this is a beautiful volume, which is likely to make my list of favourite reads for this year.
Mordecai Richler’s Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang (84 pages) puts this patriarch of Canlit’s family on the page and affords things-that-go-bump-in-the-night a gale of laughter as accompaniment; he was doing the Lemony Snickett thing years and years before. Although I did read this as a girl, I think I enjoyed it even more as an adult (“big person” who has lost her “child power”). We are passing this book around the family this read-a-thon, as we did last year with Mélanie Watt’s Scaredy Squirrel books for Dewey’s Autumn 2013. It’s hard to quell the giggles, and I’m looking forward to at least one more volume in the series today.
Pages Read since last update, 192
(Including Fresh reads 108; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 84; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 0.)
Pages Read, TOTAL: 319
(Including Fresh reads 108; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 84; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 127.)
Books Read since last update: 2
(Fresh reads 1; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 1; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 0.)
Books Read, TOTAL: 3
(Fresh reads 1; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 1; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 1.)
Participation Activities/Challenges, TOTAL: 3
Blogs visited: 19
#TeamCSLewis for drinking tea, although the day started with being #TeamTrollope
Hours One-Four: Update, BIP
Snack: Earl Grey tea with lemon loaf (from the Moosewood Dessert cookbook) baked into cupcakes
Mr. BIP has finished David Alexander Robertson 7 Generations (Illus. by Scott B. Henderson).
Ella hasn’t started to read yet, but at least she’s awake now. Soon she will be pulling from the stacks (more competition for choice volumes!).
I’ve read half of Soraya Peerbaye’s poetry collection (but I’m not counting the pages until I’ve finished).
Pages Read since last update, 127
(Including Fresh reads 0; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 0; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 127.)
Pages Read, TOTAL: 127
(Including Fresh reads 0; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 0; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 127.)
Books Read since last update: 1
(Fresh reads 0; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 0; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 1.)
Books Read, TOTAL: 1
(Fresh reads 0; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 0; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 1.)
Participation Activities/Challenges, TOTAL: 2
Blogs visited: 7
Hour One: Update, BIP
Beginning at 8am, there were three contented readers, with stacks of books.
Snack: Crumpets, with black currant jam from the farmers’ market, cups of Wychwood Barns’ Coffee.
You can click for details about the stack!
1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?
We are reading from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It’s a dull, damp autumn morning. The birds have been fed, our tame squirrel has her nuts, the leaves are still more than half-on the trees, and the books are stacked high.
2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?
Mr. BIP’s – David Alexander Robertson 7 Generations (Illus. by Scott B. Henderson)
Ella’s – She’s still sleeping.
Mine – Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse (Purple, shiny, scary, fun: what more could I want?!)
3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?
Mr. BIP’s – Crumpets (Because theyre dripping with pockety-goodnesses of jam: why not?)
Ella’s – *snores*
Mine – Crumpets (Rare treat that makes me think of childhood Enid Blyton stories about secret islands and adventures)
4) Tell us a little something about yourself!
We all love cooking (and eating!) as much as we love reading. Ella has been in the kitchen from the days when her sole skill was mixing, and she recently got her first kitchen knife. Mr BIP got his chef’s papers in another lifetime but now spends his days at a desk not a stove, though he still enjoys the creative side of the kitchen. I love reading recipe books and trying new dishes, though I’m a cook-who-measures rather than a cook-who-experiments.
5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?
We have all participated before, and we’re all trying something different today.
Mr. BIP – Often more about cheerleading than reading, he’s planning to turn the pages today, with a combination of graphic novels and novels, with an emphasis on powerful storytelling.
Ella – Often more about reading from the library, she’s concentrating more on books on the shelves at home and following up on some books friends and family have recommended.
Me – I’m focussing more on books that might be good read-a-thon-ing material, not necessarily what’s near the top of the TBR or what fits with reading challenges or other bookish plans.
Happy Reading to Everyone!
It’s possible that my favourite part of read-a-thon-ing lies in assembling the stacks. Perhaps not only possible. Perhaps probable.
It’s certain that my favourite part of assembling a stack of books lies in the dreaming. Last year I successfully completed a record amount of NOT reading on Dewey’s autumn weekend.
But I have allowed myself the pleasure of assembling not just one but several stacks of lovelies all the same.
Nonetheless, the rational part of me (and all parts of me present for read-a-thons heretofore) realizes that nearly twenty books is a completely unreasonable goal for a single day’s reading.
No matter how much food was prepared in advance or loads of laundry done on Friday instead.
So my goal is: 2 poetry books (not 6), 2 art books (not 5), 2 kids/YA books (not 4), and 2 skinny literary novels (not 3).
Sheree Fitch’s In This House Are Many Women
“Sheree Fitch’s refreshingly direct lyrics explore the harsh realities of women’s lives and the many kinds of shelter they create for themselves and give to each other. The title suite is peopled by battered wives, single mothers, women who are poor and perhaps homeless, and exhausted caregivers, with each woman speaking in her own voice.” (From the publisher’s page)
Brent MacLaine’s Athena Becomes a Swallow and Other Voices from the Odyssey
“Brent MacLaine’s elegant, capacious, and finely crafted collection, Athena Becomes a Swallow
, contains twenty-seven monologues spoken by characters who appear in Homer’s The Odyssey
. Adopting the voices of the minor characters, MacLaine offers a novel perspective on the epic events, demonstrating how the shine of the gods falls on the common folk as well.” (From the publisher’s page
Soraya Peerbaye’s Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names
“In this first collection, Soraya Peerbaye explores in exquisite detail the material and the ephemeral, from the intricacies of objects owned by her father, and the habits that animate them, to the landscape and residents of the Antarctic Peninsula.” (From the publisher’s page)
Tammy Armstrong’s The Scare in the Crow
“As Tammy Armstrong rode horseback on a one-month sojourn in Iceland, up rose the ley lines that crosshatched the landscape — ancient tracks rife with saga, myth, and human history. In this collection, her poems both respond to W.H. Auden’s poetic travelogue, Letters from Iceland, and evoke her raw relationship to the native natural world of North America.” (From the publisher’s page)
Claire Harris’ She
“She is a complex novel in poetry and prose poetry, crafted with visual form and eloquent language. Penelope-Marie Lancet, an immigrant from Trinidad who lives in Calgary, yearns for a child to the point of obsession.” (From the publisher’s page)
Pamela Mordecai’s Certifiable
“The rhythms and rhymes of the creole soundscape crackle through Certifiable. Mordecai’s deft hand wordplay flows through and beyond standard English and the creole continuum to reveal the characters in Certifiable and record their experiences.” (From the publisher’s page)
Menno Metselaar and Ruud van der Rol’s Anne Frank: Her Life in Words and Pictures (Trans. Arnold J. Pomerans)
“Produced in association with The Anne Frank House and filled with never-before-published snapshots, school pictures, and photos of the diary and the Secret Annex, this elegantly designed album is both a stand-alone introduction to Anne’s life and a photographic companion to a classic of Holocaust literature.” (From the publisher’s page)
Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral’s Chopsticks: A Novel
“Brilliant and lonely, Glory is drawn to an artistic new boy, Frank, who moves in next door. The farther she falls, the deeper she spirals into madness. Before long, Glory is unable to play anything but the song ‘Chopsticks.'” (From the publisher’s page)
Isabel Greenberg’s The Encyclopedia of Early Earth
“As intricate and richly imagined as the work of Chris Ware, and leavened with a dry wit that rivals Kate Beaton’s in Hark! A Vagrant, Isabel Greenberg’s debut will be a welcome addition to the thriving graphic novel genre.” (From the publisher’s page)
Chester Brown’s Paying for It: A Comic-strip Memoir about Being a John
“Paying for It was easily the most talked-about and controversial graphic novel of 2011, a critical success so innovative and complex that it received two rave reviews in the New York Times, and sold out of its first print run in just six months. Chester Brown’s eloquent, spare artwork stands out in this paperback edition.” (From the publisher’s page)
Martha Solomon’s (Ed.) One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories
“One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories is a groundbreaking collection that helps to end the silence surrounding abortion experiences and to combat the feelings of fear, shame, stigma, and isolation that many women face. By featuring over thirty women’s personal experiences and portraits, One Kind Word shifts the focus of the abortion debate towards creating a more open, honest, and compassionate dialogue about reproductive freedom in Canada.” (From the publisher’s page)
Mordecai Richler’s Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang
“Mordecai Richler is a funny man, a good writer, and everyone should go out tomorrow morning and beat his local bookseller into submission if he hasn’t got a nice plump display of books titled Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang…. It is ghastly and funny…an unbelievably believable unbelievable place with no artificial sweeteners or preservatives.”
–The New York Times Book Review (Quoted on the publisher’s page)
Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse
“A deliciously dark new offering from the award-winning author-illustrator of the OTTOLINE books.” (From the publisher’s page)
Jaqueline Woodson’s Locomotion
“Told entirely through Lonnie’s poetry, we see his heartbreak over his lost family, his thoughtful perspective on the world around him, and most of all his love for Lili and his determination to one day put at least half of their family back together. Jacqueline Woodson’s poignant story of love, loss, and hope is lyrically written and enormously accessible.” (From the publisher’s page)
Ivan E. Coyote’s One in Every Crowd
“Ivan E. Coyote is one of Canada’s best-loved storytellers; her honest, wry, plain-spoken tales of growing up in the Yukon and living out loud on the west coast have attracted readers and live audiences around the world. For many years, Ivan has performed in high schools, where her talks have inspired and galvanized many young people to embrace their own sense of self and to be proud of who they are. One in Every Crowd, Ivan’s eighth book with Arsenal Pulp Press, is her first specifically for queer youth.” (From the publisher’s page)
Really Skinny Literary Works
Fred D’Aguiar’s The Longest Memory
“Written in taut, poetic language, THE LONGEST MEMORY is set on a Virginian plantation in the 19th century, and tells the tragic story of a rebellious, fiercely intelligent young slave who breaks all the rules: in learning to read and write, in falling in love with a white girl, the daughter of his owner, and, finally, in trying to escape and join her in the free North. For his attempt to flee, he is whipped to death in front of his family, and this brutal event is the pivot around which the story evolves.” (From the publisher’s page)
Kim Thúy’s Man
“Following on the Giller Prize-nominated and Governor General’s Literary Award-winning success of Ru, Kim Thúy’s latest novel is a triumph of poetic beauty and a moving meditation on how love and food are inextricably entwined. ” (From the publisher’s page)
Joel Thomas Hynes’ Say Nothing Saw Wood
“Joel Thomas Hynes’s stunning exploration of guilt and remorse, of love and regret, received raves as an award-winning stage play; this is the novella that inspired the play, available in print at last. Hynes’s pitch-perfect ear for voice and his remarkable sense of dramatic cadence combine to form a story of great power and ultimately great humanity. This is Newfoundland gothic at its best.” (From the publisher’s page)
So, you can see how this went from a completely unreasonable list to a nearly completely unreasonable list.
Because however skinny, someone who read less than 100 pages in the last read-a-thon shouldn’t be eyeing 8 books for the day, no matter how skinny.
But then again, enjoying a day of read-a-thon-ing isn’t about the “shoulds”, is it.
Are you read-a-thon-ing this weekend? Have you made a reasonable list?
In 1992, Jevrem lived through the siege of Sarajevo and Katja Rudolph’s novel considers the impact of such trauma, which extends far beyond national borders. He develops fervent opinions and beliefs based on his early experiences and the events witnessed in his family, ensuing losses and severences.
“What was wrong with all the fucking stupid, sobbing, bullshitting adults? Making wars, then wailing about the dead children. They were ridiculous, absurd. They made me sick.”
Jevrem is at the heart of this debut novel, but the character who truly leaps off the page is his grandmother. Perhaps that is partly because readers view her through Jevrem’s perspective: a heroine across the ages, wholly admired although her history seems to taunt Jevrem in his teen years, when the lines between resistance and revolution, genocide and war become blurred.
“You see, if you were a partisan in World War Two, lived in the forest for years, kicked the shit out of the Nazi and Italian invaders, you’d be the definition of good too, it doesn’t matter what you did with the rest of your life. How can anyone compete with that shit? Our war was just a bunch of maniacs killing each other, and people in faraway places watching and making the decisions.”
What does it mean when a child “has” a war to call his own? What develops alongside the realization that one has no control over such dramatic events? When one realizes that families have not only experienced great losses but have perpetrated actions against other family members on opposing sides of a conflict? What becomes of those “sides” when the residents inhabit other territories? Do divisions cross into other borders, or do new conflicts emerge which require that battlelines be redrawn?
In 1997, the action shifts to Toronto, where Jevrem struggles with questions of identity like any other teenager, but without a convenient national affiliation. He draws his own borders.
“We call ourselves The Bastards of Yugoslavia, as a joke. We like the word bastard. It’s got a ring to it, and has a lot of different meanings. It’s what the nationalists who took over our country called us, the offspring of women in mixed marriages. They meant it as an insult, but we feel proud. It’s why we’re here, together, in this flat, endless city next to an abnormally large lake. They didn’t want us back home, not really, in all their new separate little cleaned-up countries, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia. And Bosnia, split completely in half, Croats and Muslims on one side, Serbs on the other. Where were we beautiful mongrels meant to fit?”
One striking element of Little Bastards in Springtime is the use of parallel settings, the detailed descriptions of Toronto (with specific roadways and corners named, so that one can imagine riding in the car and walking the streets with Jevrem) and Sarajevo.
“At night, a wash of lights like jewels filled the valley, and the river reflected moonlight when it was in the mood. Even the crappy parts were beautiful, because of the grandeur of our geography, Papa said, with hills and mountains on three sides, always visible no matter where you look, the frame to the picture. When I was little, delicious smells pulled you into bakeries and fishmongers and restaurants and the kitchens of friends’ mothers. Hookah, ćevapćići, pizza, burek. The bazaars, markets, souks had everything in them from all the countries of the world.”
What sets Katja Rudolph’s debut novel apart, however, is the commitment to complexity. Jevrem’s rage flourishes on the page, unchecked, and because the novel is rooted in his perspective, the only glimpse readers have of another perspective is via his interactions with secondary characters, often those who inhabit positions of judgement.
“‘Rebels and delinquents and even nihilists,’ she continues, ‘are fierce moralists, contrary to popular understanding. They see what’s wrong with the world and react with their own forms of outrage.’”
Readers understand through Jevrem’s eyes that Little Bastards in Springtime is an expression of outrage.
And, as Molly Ivins says, “What you need is sustained outrage…there’s far too much unthinking respect given to authority.”
Books like Katja Rudolph’s Little Bastards in Springtime challenge unthinking.
Gordon Henderson’s Man in the Shadows (2014)
“As he helped her into the carriage, Agnes Macdonald whispered demurely, “I can lean on no other arm like yours.” Macdonald sat back contentedly and called out to the driver, “Buckley, take us to the office.”
It would have been simple, the man across the street thought, lifting the collar of his old grey coat. A flick of the blade and a slit throat. So easy. But the time wasn’t right. Not yet.”
A fictionalized account of the early years of Canadian history, opening on the day of Confederation, July 1, 1867, has the makings of a thriller. Not only are citizens divided on the matter of whether unity is the best option, but the threat of American incursions is still real and pressing. Then, add an assassination into the mix, and the stakes are raised.
At the end of the novel, Gordon Henderson discusses “What’s True and What’s Not” but many readers will already be familiar with the assassination of D’Arcy McGee, a murder which remains unsolved. So a scene that like quoted above is credible during this time, given that John A. MacDonald is emerging as a national leader and warring interests abound.
The novel revolves around a figure on the margins of these events, however, which is most entertaining for the reader, who longs for a variety of tableaux. Thomas O’Dea is an Irish-Catholic immigrant, a “very promising young man pulling himself up from the dirty streets”, who brushes elbows with the prime minister through his work as an assistant and his employer’s patronage of the various drinking establishments which John A. also frequents.
The O’Dea family, from the other side of the river, offers readers a satisfying contrast in a tale chiefly preoccupied with the doings of lawmakers and moneyed lawbreakers who are seeking shifts in power to increase their own wealth and influence. Nonetheless this is a plotty novel, and one preoccupied with the targets of the man in the shadows, so the surrounding characters needn’t extend beyond the page.
The most intriguing element of Gordon Henderson’s novel is the dance between history and fiction. Readers who enjoy that kind of interplay will appreciate the fact that the author’s notes appear at the end of Man in the Shadows, so that they can imagine which of the characters have been invented and which have been borrowed and tease out the possibilities related to their roles in the assassination plots which dissenters have hatched.
Doubleday – Random House of Canada, 2014
Tom Rachman’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (2014)
Tooly Zylberberg has a bookstore that will make bookish folk twitch with envy. Located strategically nearby Hay-on-Wye (but not strategically enough to ensure profitability beyond the literary festival dates), readers meet her in a comfortable bookish scene, contemporary but feeling out-of-time because of the mass of old books.
And Tooly is not the only bookish character; just as readers would expect from the striking cover image, books proliferate in Tom Rachman’s novel.
‘Books,’ he said, ‘are like mushrooms. They grow when you are not looking. Books increase by rule of compound interest: one interest leads to another interest, and this compounds into third. Next, you have so much interest there is no space in closet.'”
The bookstore setting, however, operates as more of a bookend. In the following segments, the action shifts more often to the past, and readers get acquainted with a younger Tooly, who has varying degrees of understanding about the great powers which rise and fall in her young life.
The exact nature of her relationships with an eclectic group of characters is unclear for much of the novel, but what is clear are the personalities, vividly drawn and dynamic. In the novel as a whole, Tooly is clearly the main character, but within each segment, certain characters step forward to meet the reader, just as Humphrey describes, blurring the line between hero and extra.
“Only one form of book did Humphrey disdain: made-up stories. The world was far more fascinating than anyone could imagine. In made-up stories, he contended, life narrowed into a single tale with a single protagonist, which only encouraged self-regard. In real life, there was no protagonist. ‘Whose story? Is this my story, with my start and finish, and you are supporting character? Or this is your story, Tooly, and I am extra? Or does story belong to your grandmother? Or your great-grandson, maybe? And this is all just preface?’”
In some ways, Tooly’s bookstore story is just preface. But it also sets the tone for the novel. Settings and times shift, but the real drama in the novel is rooted with the idea of home and how one leaves, returns, and stays in one. For much of the story, Tooly is too young to affect her own arrivals and departures, which adds to the novel’s sense of mystery.
“Being young was so unfair, and you couldn’t leave. That was the difference between childhood and adulthood: children couldn’t go; grown-ups could.”
But readers expecting a dramatic reveal as the timelines begin to connect will be disappointed; as is so often the case, what is truly surprising is not necessarily the reality of a situation but how long it can take one to recognize that reality.
Before Tooly (and readers) can return to the idyllic bookstore, she must catch up with her past before it slips out of her reach. And a journey, however long, can’t help but be satisfying when it begins and ends in a bookstore.
Scribner – Simon & Schuster, 2014
Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (2014)
All the Light We Can See is paradoxically soaked with darkness. Partly this is simply a question of timing.
“It was hard to live through the early 1940s in France and not have the war be the center from which the rest of your life spiraled.”
But even beyond the war, there is a looming threat on the horizon. As young Werner comes of age, for instance, possibilities become increasingly eclipsed.
“Even now Werner can hear a mechanical drumbeat thudding in the distance, first shift going down in the elevators as the owl shift comes up – all those boys with tired eyes and soot-stained faces rising in the elevators to meet the sun – and for a moment he apprehends a huge and terrible presence looming just beyond the morning.”
And for Marie-Laure, blinded as a girl, darkness is a backdrop of her life, but Anthony Doerr’s writing capitalizes on the sensory details available to young Marie-Laure and her presence is the novel’s most consistently bright element.
“The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment, is nothing like the real intersection. The real one presents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance: in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.”
Anthony Doerr’s setting is inherently rich, geographically and politically. In combination, his prose style, phrases upon phrases and generous descriptive detail, could strike some readers as overwriting. But the characters are created with an equal abundance of detail, and readers who connect with them will recognize a synergy between these aspects of the novel and find it hard to imagine it having been written in any other way.
Have you read any of these? Or, are they on your TBR list/stack?
Like Sharon Butala in Perfection of the Morning (1994) and Candace Savage in The Geography of Blood (2012), Theresa Kishkan explores the relationship between landscape and memory.
Goose Lane Editions, 2011
The essays in Mnemonic are titled in two ways, first with the Latin name for a tree and, second, with a reference to an element of her personal experience, as though these are vitally intertwined.
In Quercus garryana Fire, she describes a scene which recreates for readers the ways in which she has, since girlhood, absorbed the natural world around her, a scene which will resonate even for mostly-indoor readers:
“…I’d recline in the grass, ants tickling my bare legs, and read Nancy Drew adventures. I longed for a life so exciting – where treasure might turn up in a hollow tree or under a bridge; where villains might be thwarted by polite requests; where a girl would rise from a shaking up by an escaped convict, straighten her stocking seams, and drive away in her roadster for the next case. I was absorbing the dry heat, pollens, and odours as I read, my body resting on golden grass that flattened beneath my weight, satin to the touch.”
The author adeptly recreates scenes which invite readers to remember experiences from their own childhoods, immersing reader and writer alike in a time which came before, which is both distant and ever-present.
“Growing up, I remember the elderly couples at work in their gardens, tending neat English borders of perennials, trees pruned within an inch of their lives, watched by a cocker spaniel or Jack Russell. These couples were kind to children whose baseballs landed in their backyards. And there were also the widows. Invited into their houses, I was filled with the sense that time had stopped.”
Musing upon the passage of time in Mnemonic, a work unabashedly preoccupied with the mysteries of memory is to be expected. But the inclusionary tone and the author’s willingness to share elements of her process of rediscovery build emotional resonance throughout the work.
“I would think, Entire lives have been lived in these houses, and would be filled with something like sadness, but not quite. Later the word nostalgia settled into my lexicon with such ease that I knew I had been waiting all my life for it.”
As the author reflects upon more recent years, the preoccupations shift slightly, but the focus remains the same: “How much am I remembering, how much is dreaming?”
Similarly, there is room amongst the trees for consideration of other elements of the natural world, but the plants remain at centre stage.
“Predators, tricksters, comics, monogamists, careful parents, scavengers, demiurges, shape-shifters, opportunists, acrobats on the high currents of air, practitioners of song. If I am honest, I must confess that ravens are almost as influential to my sense of music as the other singers I have learned to love.”
Its meditative style is almost tangible, perhaps even contagious, so that readers who have settled into Mnemonic may find themselves turning pages ever-more slowly, taking time to look around and reach back, imagining what could serve as a mnemonic for other lives filled with other memories.
Each of the novels below is, in the right reader’s hands, a pageturner. Each of the authors will also appear at this year’s IFOA. Whether you attend, or read, or both: enjoy!
Random House of Canada, 2014
Linda Holeman’s The Devil on Her Tongue (2014)
The heart of Linda Holeman’s novel is Diamantina and readers who respond to her will thoroughly enjoy this character-driven tale of a woman’s life in 18th-century Portugal. She is a resilient character, who persists in the belief that there is something better ahead and strives for it relentlessl
“While other girls were playing with bits of yarn and little wooden figures made by their grandfathers, I was learning my mother’s secrets. I felt her recipes and spells sewing themselves under my skin with tiny, careful stitches.”
In a world governed and controlled by men, Diamantina’s position is vulnerable, despite her intelligence and skills; as in Cynthia Lamb’s Brigid’s Charge and Ami McKay’s The Birth House, the heritage of women’s knowledge is valued and feared, depending upon the observer’s perspective.
Diamantina faces many obstacles and occasionally she creates some for herself. But her tie with her mother is fundamentally powerful and a continuing source of strength for her.
“My way was the only option open to a woman without father or husband or any family to provide for her. At least one who wished to eat, and keep herself and her strange, silent mother alive. And maybe, one day, leave.”
Linda Holeman’s novel is structured to correspond with major changes in Diamantina’s life. This sometimes results in abrupt scenic changes, but that is true, too, of life. “There are moments when one thing ends and another begins. My life here was finished.” The novel covers the bulk of a lifetime and Diamantina’s experiences are dramatic throughout.
Linda Holeman’s The Devil on Her Tongue is bound to appeal to fans of Philippa Gregory’s novels, which also focus on the ways in which women seized or capitalized upon power in societies structured to limit their access to it. Readers who require more than a connection to character, accustomed to the artistry of writers like Mary Novik, Pauline Holdstock and Nancy Richler who also work in a historical context, might long for a little more. But Diamantina is embroiled in a great deal of excitement as the years pass, and readers who grow fond of her character will find the novel a quiet pageturner.
Quercus Books, 2009
Peter May’s The Blackhouse (2009) and The Lewis Man (2012)
Often it is a stretch when one notes that the setting of a novel is a character in its own right, but this is true of Peter May’s trilogy, set off the coast of Scotland, on the Isle of Lewis. And not just geographically, but historically speaking as well.
“Lews Castle was just there, as if it had always been there. You accepted it, the same way you accepted the cliffs that ringed the Butt, or the fabulous beaches at Scarista and Luskentyre.”
The setting of The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man is remarkable, imbuing the stories with a remarkable atmosphere and weight which complement them beautifully.
“Fin knew the road well, in all seasons, and had never ceased to marvel at how the interminable acres of featureless peatbog could change by the month, the day, or even the minute. The dead straw colour of winter, the carpets of tiny white spring flowers, the dazzling purples of summer. To their right the sky had blackened, and rain was falling somewhere in the hinterland. To their left the sky was almost clear, summer sunlight falling across the land, and they could see in the distance the pale outline of the mountains of Harris. Fin had forgotten how big the sky was here.”
Fin has returned to the island in the wake of a tragedy; he has resisted for years and his reasons confront him almost immediately upon his arrival.
“‘This is home. It’s where you come when you’ve nowhere else to go. Whether or not I stay…well, that remains to be seen.’”
Readers who are not drawn in by the landscape could find Fin enough of a draw. As in the launch of Mankell’s and Nesbo’s crime novels in cool territories, Peter May’s hero is a loner when readers meet him, absorbed by grief and suspended from all familiar ties. He is searching for truths, which is a complicated process to begin with but one made more so by a chain of events which leads him into confrontations he had hoped to avoid.
“I was sick of spending my life in the shadows…. When all you know is the darkest side of human nature, you start to find the darkness in yourself. And that’s a scary thing.”
Both novels are preoccupied with the past in a memorable and striking manner and, as with the best crime fiction, explanations are rooted in complicated personal relationships, often troubled always credible.
Grand Central Publishing, 2104
Jeffery Deaver’s The Bone Collector (1997) and The Skin Collector (2014)
Lincoln Rhyme is a criminalist, a renaissance man.
“He’s got to know botany, geology, ballistics, medicine, chemistry, literature, engineering. If he knows facts—that ash with a high strontium content probably came from a highway flare, that faca is Portuguese for “knife,” that Ethiopian diners use no utensils and eat with their right hands exclusively, that a slug with five land-and-groove rifling marks, right twist, could not have been fired by a Colt pistol—if he knows these things he may just make the connection that places an unsub at the crime scene.”
He’s also got a lot of time on his hands these days.
“When you lie on your back frozen in place month after month after month, time slows to near-death.”
Brought back into action for a particularly grievous case in The Bone Collector, Rhyme pairs with a young officer who acts as his legs and eyes in the field (reluctantly, at first, but committedly in the end), Amie Sachs.
The Skin Collector is the eleventh book in the Lincoln Rhyme series but the connection with The Bone Collector (to specify would be spoiler-ish) might convince other readers to skip ahead; there are references to the resolutions of the interim cases and relationships have evolved over that time, but the number of spoilers is limited considering the number of years which have passed.
These are longer- and wordier-than-usual mysteries. There is a lot of detail, often emphasizing character relationships and setting as well as the expected procedural elements, so the chase sprawls across many chapters and tension runs at a steady pace rather than suddenly heightening or easing. But even when the details are specific, they often address universals, so a love of New York City expands into broader urban experiences that a variety of readers will recognize.
“Finally it was safe, [the antagonist] figured, to get to the surface. Chest aching, coughing shallowly, he climbed through another access door into the basement of a Midtown office building. It was one of those scuffed limestone functionaries of architecture, three-quarters of a century old, possibly more. Ten, twelve stories high, with dimly lit, jerky elevators that prompted you to bless yourself before you stepped inside.”
Perhaps because Lincoln Rhyme is not able to physically attend crime scenes in person, Jeffery Deaver’s attention to scenic detail is remarkable in these novels, though the volume of material may deter readers who prefer mysteries drawn in broader strokes, told in more succinct prose. The murders are described in exacting detail and specific elements are likely to remain with sensitive readers for some time, but anyone who volunteers to read books with titles like these will not only forgive their storyteller but also share his fascination with the macabre sides of animal (human included) nature.
Linda Holeman, Peter May and Jeffery Deaver will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.
This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.
Next Wednesday, thoughts on another IFOA2014 author.
Partly because I am addicted to reading lists and partly because I have discovered many of my favourite writers because their names appeared on various literary prizelists (long or short or eligible), I look forward to this time of year, in hopes of discovering new favourites.
ECW Press, 2013
When I see the name of a favourite writer appear on the list, I am ridiculously pleased.
A little squeal when I learned that Carrie Snyder had been nominated for the Writers’ Trust Award because I so admired The Juliet Stories and Hair Hat. A wriggle in the seat when I spotted Dominique Fortier’s Wonder , nominated for Sheila Fischman’s translation, on the GG list. Rapid claps for Jennifer Lovegrove’s The Way We Walk on the Giller longlist. A big smile upon seeing Sweetland appear on the GG list.
But then I am disappointed when a favourite book doesn’t appear on the lists.
Because I was so swept away by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s All the Broken Things (2014), Dennison Smith’s The Eye of the Day (2014), Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk (2014), and Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings (2014), I check the lists repeatedly, convinced I have simply overlooked their names.
I look, too, for Nadia Bozak’s Border novels because they were so striking, even though I am still smarting from the experience of reading them. (Orphan Love would not have been eligible obviously, as it was published in 2007, though it is the first in the trilogy.)
And I make reading lists of reading lists, determined to finish the shortlists before winners’ names are announced.
Toronto Book Award 2014
✔Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky (RHC)
Charlotte Gray ‘s The Massey Murder: A Maid, her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country (HC)
✔Carrianne K.Y. Leung’s The Wondrous Woo (Inanna)
Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis’s The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement (RHC)
✔Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts (RHC)
Thoughts: From Shyam Selvadurai’s bookstore scenes, to Carrianne K.Y. Leung’s transit rides, to Anthony De Sa’s rooftops, the Toronto-ness of these three novels recommends them readily for the award. The Massey Murder and The Stop are both on my shelves, but being non-fiction they haven’t lunged into my TBR stacks. I can’t decide which to read first, so I suppose it will come down to whether, in the moment, I want a thrill or a snack.
Giller Prize 2014 Shortlist:
David Bezmozgis’s The Betrayers (HC)
Frances Itani’s Tell (HC)
✔Sean Michaels’ Us Conductors (RHC)
✔Heather O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (HC)
✔Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows (RHC)
✔Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao (RHC)
Giller Prize 2014 Longlist:
✔Arjun Basu’s Waiting for the Man (ECW)
Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations (HC)
✔Jennifer Lovegrove’s Watch How We Walk (ECW)
✔Shani Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab (RHC)
✔Kathy Page’s Paradise and Elsewhere (Biblioasis)
Claire Holden Rothman’s My October (PBC)
Thoughts: Although I absolutely loved David Bezmozgis’s Natasha and Other Stories, I did not feel as impassioned about The Free World, a novel that I admired more than loved; I’ve had a copy of The Betrayers for awhile now, but it keeps getting shuffled into the stack every time it nears the top (despite my fondness for other broken plate fiction). But because the other three works that I have yet to read are of equal interest, I will likely pluck it out of the stack next, rather than settle the ‘tie’ between the other three in my reader’s mind.
Governor General’s Award for Fiction in English
✔ Michael Crummey’s Sweetland (RHC)
Bill Gaston’s Juliet Was a Surprise (PBC)
Claire Holden Rothman’s My October (PBC)
Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle (HC)
Joan Thomas’ The Opening Sky (RHC)
Thoughts: Because Sweetland is one of my favourite reads of the year, it’s tempting to set aside the reading of the remainder of the shortlist so that I can focus on hoping for the one novel I’ve read on it so far; Michael Crummey’s work is always of great interest to me (he is on my MustReadEverything list of authors) and I find myself wanting the narrator of the novel to win this prize, to even out the losses he endured, as much as I want Michael Crummey’s writing to be recognized. But Thomas King is on my MRE list too, and I’ve been eyeing Bill Gaston’s fiction and Joan Thomas’ debut for ages. Because I’ve read so few of these titles, this list piques my curiosity.
IFOA2014 Reading (partial list)
Kamal Al-Solaylee, Linwood Barclay, Renné Benoit,
David Bergen, David Bezmozgis, Jared Bland,
Joseph Boyden, Nadia Bozak, Dionne Brand,
Catherine Bush, Claire Cameron, Michael Crummey,
Nick Cutter, Jeffery Deaver, Farzana Doctor,
Emma Donoghue, Krista Foss, Steven Galloway,
Sheila Heti, Linda Holeman, Aislinn Hunter,
Ghalib Islam, Frances Itani, Andrew Kaufman,
Thomas King, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, Laila Lalami,
Yan Li, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Lee Maracle,
Peter May, Eimear McBride, Mark Medley,
K.D. Miller, Lorrie Moore,
Shani Mootoo, Susin Nielsen, Grace O’Connell,
Heather O’Neill, Carol Off, Katrina Onstad,
Kathy Page, Alison Pick, Tom Rachman,
David Adams Richards, Ray Robertson,
Claire Holden Rothman, Karen Russell,
Diane Schoemperlen, Johanna Skibsrud, Carrie Snyder,
Ania Szado, Lynn Thomson, Kim Thúy,
Miriam Toews, Christos Tsiolkas, Colm Tóibín,
Rebecca Upjohn, Priscila Uppal, Richard Wagamese,
Russell Wangersky, Sarah Waters, Ruby Wiebe,
Kathleen Winter, Alissa York, Alexi Zentner
Thoughts: The IFOA is my favourite literary event of the year. In recent years, I have been much more excited about the Canadian authors and less invested in the international appearances, but this year I am really looking forward to seeing Christos Tsiolkas, Colm Tóibín and Sarah Waters (who is also on my MRE list of authors). And oh my, hasn’t it been forever since Diane Schoemperlen had a new book? (She’s on that MRE list too.) And how much did I love Annabel? Enough to buy Kathleen Winter’s Boundless in hardcover at Toronto’s Word on the Street last month. And even though I think the event with Susin Nielsen is intended to be for young readers, I would love to attend it too. It looks to be another great year at IFOA; I’m counting the days.
Rogers Writers’ Trust Shortlist
André Alexis’ Pastoral (Coach House Books)
K.D. Miller’s All Saints (Biblioasis)
✔Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist (RHC)
Carrie Snyder’s Girl Runner (House of Anansi)
✔Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows (RHC)
Thoughts: Girl Runner is the novel on this list which I am most excited to read (see my gush-y Spelling It Out post about The Juliet Stories), but I have been collecting André Alexis’ books for years and yet have only read short pieces (from Beauty & Sadness), so I’m looking forward to Pastoral too. Even though I’ve enjoyed other collections from Biblioasis (like Nancy Jo Cullen‘s and Cynthia Flood‘s), I wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of K.D.Miller’s collection, but I thought the first story was unputdownable (as the best character-driven tales can be), so I’m looking forward to it as well. I really loved the layering in Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist and Miriam Toews’ writing consistently impresses me with her skillful handling of difficult themes the voice of All My Puny Sorrows is beautifully drawn. I anticipate being torn when it comes to choosing a favourite here.
If you could give an award to one book you’ve recently finished reading, to which book would you grant it?
Are any of your favourite writers/books on the lists here?
Are you watching any awards lists this season?
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (2013)
“Naxalbari is an inspiration. It’s an impetus for change.”
One brother in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel is a member of the Naxalbari movement, Udayan. His involvement with the far-left radical Communist group in Calcutta vitally impacts the entire family, even Subhash, who leaves for the United States in the late 1960s.
“You’re the other side of me, Subhash. It’s without you that I’m nothing. Don’t go.
It was the only time he’d admitted such a thing. He’d said it with love in his voice. With need.”
The Lowland is a highly emotive work, considering political and familial relationships of great intensity, but the tone is staid and controlled.
Instead, Jhumpa Lahiri uses landscape to express some of that intensity.
“The following day she’d walked with her father to campus to see torn branches scattered on the quadrangle, streets green with leaves. They found a thick tree that had fallen, the tangled roots exposed. They saw the drenched ground that had given way. The tree seemed more overwhelming when it lay on the ground. Its proportions frightening, once it no longer lived.”
Whether India or America, the sense of place is important in this novel. Characters connect as much to landscape as to each other.
“He wanted to tell her that he had been waiting all his life to find Rhode Island. That it was here, in this minute but majestic corner of the world, that he could breathe.”
In fact, sometimes the connection to landscape is more immediately recognizable than emotional ties. And the land endures in unexpected ways.
“She was unprepared for the landscape to be so altered. For there to be no trace of that evening, forty autumns ago.”
The setting of this novel is expansive, both in terms of time and place, and the author works to infuse a similar sense of timelessness in the prose.
“It was in English that the past was unilateral; in Bengali, the word for yesterday, kal, was also the word for tomorrow. In Bengali one needed an adjective, or relied on the tense of a verb, to distinguish what had already happened from what would be.”
The first and last sections of the novel employ a distinct voice, which emphasizes the idea that this story considers the specific experiences of a single family but it is, also, a representation of a broader, sweeping story. Readers not only have the sense that the story has happened, is happening and will happen, but that is has/is/will repeatedly, as part of the human experience.
Throughout The Lowland, there are striking moments of beauty, recognizable to loyal readers of Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction. These are most evident around the question of setting, sometimes predominantly in her use of language (a shoreline receding, “resting calmly like a thin brown snake upon the water”) and other times in her use of detail:
“Once more the leaves of the trees lost their chlorophyll, replaced by the shades he had left behind: vivid hues of cayenne and turmeric and ginger pounded fresh every morning in the kitchen, to season the food his mother prepared.”
Her prose has a unique rhythm that can seem distancing and dry in one reading mood, precise and deliberate in another. Not all readers will respond with equal enthusiasm and even devoted Lahiri readers might find themselves varyingly responsive to her work. Nonetheless, The Lowland is skillfully crafted, its characters memorable and its themes resonant.
Tasmeen Jamal’s Where the Air is Sweet (2014)
When Idi Adim expelled 80,000 South Asians from Uganda in 1972, many families were forced to leave the region in short order, amid upheaval and violence.
Tasmeen Jamal’s novel opens with a window upon that time, but then readers are cast back to 1921, putting down roots in Uganda along with the characters who come to call that territory home.
Where the Air is Sweet takes readers by the hand affording them the opportunity to explore attentively and exhaustively. The following descriptive passage offers a glimpse of the author’s capacity to balance the macro and micro scales of change and flux, detail and expanse.
“Mumtaz has never walked through a tea estate. She looks down at the leaves. Each one is a different shade of green. The new, young ones, some of them still rolled up, are bright green, their leaves almost transparent. The older ones are darker and thicker, some glowing and healthy, some beginning to dry out. Many of the leaves have brown spots on them, and some of their edges are uneven. From the road, the tea estates are a rolling sea of uniform green. At times, Mumtaz has been struck by their lush beauty, particularly when the clouds are dark and varied and threatening, leaving her with a sensation that the earth is overwhelmingly fertile. But most of the time, Mumtaz hardly notices them; the endless green impresses her no more than the endless blue of the sky. But up close, the tea leaves fascinate her, draw her in.”
Mumtaz is at the heart of the novel and the dramatic scene which opens the novel sustains a quiet tension throughout, as the arc of the story curves and eventually knits together.
Readers require more of an interest in interpersonal relations than political, however, as the characters respond to the unrest in different and curious ways. Differing approaches to valuing and protecting stability are presented when chaos erupts. Identities shift as required. Risks outweigh pleasures and safe havens create their own stresses and strains.
Where the Air is Sweet is a remarkable debut which presents endless tea leaves and skies alongside close-ups of one family’s struggle to create a home amidst shifting borders.
McClelland & Stewart, 2014
Krista Foss’ Smoke River (2014)
The question of belonging is at the heart of this debut novel, which presents a wide cast of characters who are struggling to cultivate and nurture their roots and interconnections.
“Divisions stripe their people like plaid. There are those who belong to the other tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy – Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca, Onondaga, Tuscarora – among them some who resent the Mohawks’ pre-eminence, their persistent activism, their nationalism. There are those who follow the old longhouse religion and buy their groceries and play bingo beside all variety of Catholics, Protestants, Pentecostals, evangelicals, and atheists. Within their own faith are those who believe an oral version of the Great Law that prohibits war and violence, and those who follow a written version, which interprets resistance as using whatever means necessary.”
Krista Foss’ use of language is primarily uncomplicated, but occasionally an image bursts forth. A man is jaundiced like a stewpot chicken or a woman wears her tiredness like a heavy coat: readers have the sense that a narrative immersed in a single character’s perspective would allow the author’s focus to shift from plot to voice.
Nonetheless, Smoke River is preoccupied with the battle over a plot of land, which is integrally connected to broader questions of identity for a number of characters in a southwestern-Ontario tobacco country. The intersection of the sacred and the profitable creates an abundance of material: conflict grows and pages turn. The fundamental question of what (and who) is of value lurks beneath.
“Native women were tossed from cars like fast-food wrappers; their bones were plucked clean by coyotes and vultures; they disappeared with nothing left but poster pictures and the water-drip torture of hope.”
Smoke River’s characters are well-developed and readers are afforded the opportunity to inhabit all sides of the issues via their rotating perspectives; Krista Foss presents a solid narrative which leaves room for complications and complexities.
Have you read any of these? Or, are they on your TBR stack or list?
“Bad coffee can only keep you company for so long at four a.m. in a bus depot.”
Caitlin Press, 2014
All of the characters in Janine Alyson Young’s debut collection seem as though they would immediately recognize the truth of that. They all seem to have a spot of the drifter in them, even if they seem to be set in one place for the duration of a particular story.
But, then, one does not have to have been in a bus depot at 4am to understand that bad anything, not only bad coffee, isn’t much company in the wee hours of the morning.
(I can understand that, and I’ve never been in a bus depot past midnight, and I’m not sure a donut shop at 6am is the same.)
There is, however, something worn and lonely about these women and, yet, other aspects of their experience (for instance, their curiosity, their determination) cannot be discounted.
The sisters in the opening story work on a ranch in Australia, one as a comber and the other as a shearer. The scant workplace details are fascinating, but the focus in the story is on relationships, between the sexes and between siblings and between parents and children.
“For once I reckon I’m the better-looking one even though I’m shorter and my face is rounder. We’ve got the same beer-coloured hair and tiny teeth, but everyone could always tell us apart.”
The descriptions situate the characters in recognizable surroundings. And often the details revolving around character and setting reveal important dependencies (or independencies, as the case may be).
“There’s a line of ants above the dresser. They weren’t there yesterday. This sort of thing is our problem now.”
Although of varying ages, the main characters here are determining alliances and looking for places and people in the world that they can trust.
“Most of the girls we grew up with have kids and boyfriends they think are deadbeats. If I had to put my money on any of them, I’d choose their men. The guys might be bad, but at least they don’t pretend otherwise.”
Much of the action is internal, and the dialogue (inner and outer) verges on the mundane, as the characters wrestle with quotidian decisions, which seem large at the individual level but which are recognizable human struggles between love and loss, petty when viewed in the wider context of a full lifetime of connecting and disconnecting.
“Sometimes she thinks about leaving Jonah, or at least what it would look like to leave. He wouldn’t be surprised. Or maybe he would. She used to worry about him. He was gone so much, for so long. If he called one day to announce he wasn’t coming back, she wouldn’t be shocked.”
The setting is of vital importance to each of the stories in Hideout Hotel. Although not often overtly named, there is a clear understanding of place, often transmitted to readers through a collection of details which conspire to create an idea without resorting to map coordinates.
“There were huskies all over the place. I bent down and patted them as I passed. They were panting and tufts of hair came off on my fingers, even though the sun wasn’t hot, just high up there and endless.”
Sometimes the sense of place is openly named, and the attention paid to sketching the scene is more about the human community than the landscape and its natural inhabitants.
“The village, as it was called, was the grocery store, a café, a movie rental place, some kitschy hippy stores that were only open in the tourist months and a cold beer and wine. There was a pub, small restaurant and other grocery store on the other side of the island by the marina but that was about it.”
One remarkable aspect of this collection is the tendency to vacillate between the bleak and the possible without bold identifiers. Sometimes the narrators are openly challenged in some way; an aspect of their life has been turned inside out and upsidedown, and they are struggling to fin their way out of a seemingly grim place.
“These sorts of days always strike me as dishonest. Everything is extroverted all of a sudden. I want to know what was so bad about the winter. I want to know why we should all be happy that the flowers are out. I don’t understand what’s so great about the flowers. There’s no soul to spring; everything is thin and bland and weak.”
And, yet, even when the situation is sorrow-soaked and the burden of disappointment heavy, the weight of these stories settles lightly upon readers. Like the couch on the cover, it might not be polished, not even slightly pretty, but there is comfort to be had there nonetheless.
Contents: Bushfire, Greyhound Special, Once It Breaks, Sung Spit Part One, Sung Spit Part Two
Kathy Page’s Paradise and Elsewhere (2014)
Ranging in length from a few to many pages, these stories consider familiar and fresh landscapes. As comfortable in the mythic as in the concrete, Kathy Page gives readers’ expectations a good shake.
Twins die and trees live. Kissing is forbidden and thievery is encouraged. Strangers are intimates and sisters are strangers.
“A generation of greedy travelers, living in the last days and wanting to see it all, the world as onion, layer on layer going back beneath today’s crisp, dry skin.”
Readers travel through these tales, peeling back their skins, peering beneath sometimes greedily but sometimes reluctantly.
Some of the events chronicled are harshly disturbing, some are gently subversive. The storyteller’s voice is consistently assured and seductive.
Contents: G’Ming, Lak-ha, Of Paradise, The Ancient Siddanese, Low Tide, My Beautiful Wife, We the Trees, Clients, Lambing, Woodsmoke, I like to Look, Saving Grace, The Kissing Disease, My Fees
Mary Soderstrom’s Desire Lines (2013)
Divided into three parts (Substrata, The View from Here, and The Forces of the Earth), these twelve stories explore the fundamental layers of relating, the unanticipated trajectory, the joins and dead ends of life’s journey.
“I’m an archivist,” says one character, so “I know the value of documents and the excitement of finding a window on the past through someone’s handwriting”.
Readers might imagine Mary Soderstrom’s approach to writing to be similar. The stories are frequently preoccupied with the past viewed through a fresh lens, a narrow window on a wider landscape.
Lust and circumcision, volcanoes and mines, injuries and near-misses: Desire Lines considers the many ways in which wanting intersects with losing.
Heightened emotion is harnessed in prose which is clear and precise, and though nearly always bloodless, these stories will leave marks on their readers.
Contents: Ancient Faults, On the Prelude to the Wedding of the Plants, Underground, Wrong Address, Trepidation of the Spheres, The Ugly Baby, Blood Rites, Russian Olives, Bass Line, Open Window, Madame Pele Is Not Amused, Leaving
House of Anansi, 2014 (Astoria Imprint)
A.L. Kennedy’s All the Rage (2014)
“Making readers happy is not a bad thing. Readers like screwing and manoeuvres.”
There’s a little of both in All the Rage, but more quiet contemplation of what makes relationships tick and what makes them go still.
The action is mostly internal and the tone measured, the language straightforward though sometimes stylized, humour simmering beneath. Sometimes descriptions pull readers into the story with sensory detail – the stitching on a tea towel or crushed biscuit beneath a shoe – but the prose is clean and uncomplicated.
Often a phrase or sentence commands attention, begging for a sticky note or flag, although the writing appears effortless. “Unsolicited early conversations made her tetchy as a maiden aunt facing down a squirrel.” (from “The Practice of Mercy”) “The real experience of love is of having unreasonably lost all shelter.” (from “Baby Blue”) “He didn’t want to hit her, he simply couldn’t shake his desperation to leave her marked.” (from “All the Rage”)
A.L. Kennedy has an eye for the moments that matter and whether one of these comprises the bulk of a story or a string of them is assembled to recreate a broader arc, readers are struck by the heavy emotional weight of love and loss.
Contents:Late in Life, Baby Blue, Because It’s a Wednesday, These Small Pieces, The Practice of Mercy, Knocked, All the Rage, Takes You Home, The Effects of Good Government on the City, Run Catch Run, A Thing Unheard-of, This Man