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

Tricia Dower’s Becoming Lin (2016)

Reading Becoming Lin reminded me of discovering Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room and Marge Piercy’s Small Changes. Two unapologetically feminist novels which I felt had poured out of my own heart into some other writer’s story. I inhaled these books, and I felt the same sense of intense recognition and kindred-spirit-ness in Tricia Dower’s newest novel.

Caitlin Press, 2016

Caitlin Press, 2016

Lin’s story is not self-absorbed. In fact, she is deliberately reaching beyond her own experience, particularly in her efforts to support the pacifists fighting the Vietnam/American War and activists demanding accountability to the American electorate. She is actively stretching.

But nonetheless, it is a self-centred story, in the sense that Lin is overtly and passionately engaged in the struggle to discover and root herself. She is, as the title declares unabashedly, in the act of becoming, Becoming Lin.

“Everyone was always becoming and unbecoming,” declares Kathleen Winter’s Annabel.  And perhaps this is true, if one were to delve more deeply into the secondary characters’ experiences, but in Lin’s experience of her family, most people have become already; they have remained static since the act was complete.

When she looks to her mother, in particular, she finds no openness to change, and she struggles to locate it in herself as well. She recognizes a tendency towards a stagnancy, a fearful disengagement. “That would be me: stringent, orderly, rigid & obsessive. Thank you, Betty Wise.” She knows she will have a lot of work to overcome that inherited confinement.

This is an excerpt from her journal, entries from which appear at regular intervals throughout the narrative (consistently in italics). Even though I found the narrative more engaging reading, the journal excerpts in my copy were frequently flagged because they immediately rang true for me, recalled similar passages in my own diaries two or three decades following Lin’s entries, successfully encapsulated trends and shifts in her experiences with details and scenes.

One foot tucked under me, listening to the radiator hiss, sipping tea made w/dried mint from Grace’s garden. Still light enough to see snow falling from trees in soft wet clumps outside my office window. Supposed to be reading Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas for Interim. Got sidetracked by Room of One’s Own. It’s making me aspire to more than I should.”

Her diaries offer a concrete record of Lin’s experience of her early married life, which serves as a complement to the scenes of those days which Lin now recalls, with varying emotions. Having recently made the decision to separate from her husband, establishing a separate household with their young son, she is actively reflecting and reconsidering.

“A year ago Lin took a workshop based on Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy that introduced her to the idea that roles and scripts can rule your life. It transformed the way she saw herself.”

She’s feeling understandably disoriented.

“On the way home, Artie says, “You’re opening yourself to higher, nobler possibilities, to something larger than yourself.”
Is she? Feels more like she’s dangling her feet over the edge of her life.”

And her efforts to educate herself often reveal more uncertainties, more questions with pending answers, than resolutions.

“TUES MAR 8/66
I’m the only married student in Psych. He said it’s like losing yourself in a beautiful piece of music.”

Sometimes the sense of inertia is overwhelming. “Most days it’s so quiet she can hear the woods shiver.” Other times, the world seems to be moving too quickly for her to regain her footing. She seeks comfort and support, but finds challenge and discontent in places which she once associated with love and security.

Relived to be back. I don’t fit in Stony River anymore.”

One of the most satisfying aspects of the novel is the kind of female friendship which she discovers when she moves beyond the protective circle of her marriage. She begins to see possibilities which never existed for her before. “How do you know which idea of yourself is the true one?”

The language is often matter-of-fact and clean, but occasionally a metaphorical passage gleams. These are particular treats, carefully crafted and resonant.

“Sunlight stretches like smeared butter across the fertile landscape of corn and hay fields peppered with farmhouses, barns, silos, the occasional feedlot, apple orchard and huddle of oaks. If she rolls down her window, the smell of hay might yet change her mind.”

Lin is all about changing her mind. In all the best senses of the phrase. Whether she is driving down a road or sitting still, lost in thought. She is not a character who has gotten under my skin; it’s like she’s always been there.

“She pictures the future as prairie-flat and stretching out forever. They have only to keep going forward to find it and the selves they are becoming.”


Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People

It begins with something extraordinary.

“Almost a decade earlier, a man with a .45-70 Marlin hunting rifle walked through the front doors of Avalon Hills prep school. He didn’t know that he was about to become a living symbol of the age of white men shooting into crowds.”

House of Anansi. 2016

House of Anansi. 2016

Readers are immediately alerted to the idea of a threat which can burst into an everyday scene. Something as alarming as a man with a high-powered weapon, erupting into a school hallway, seeking revenge.

But there is another man, too, who tackles him, sparking a “graceless pas de deux of grappling, the gun discharged an aimless bullet”.

The gunman is not presented as inhuman. He has challenges; he faces some of them down in a more reasonable fashion, but others have brought him to the edge of violence, to this school hallway.

But when he sees Sadie in front of her locker, in the hallway, he consciously acknowledges that he is not a killer-of-children.

Although he might have been a killer-of-a-girlfriend, except he is interrupted.

First, by the presence of the girl, but then by George Woodbury, the prep-school science teacher who tackles him. In this scenario, George is a hero.

“He was a fixture in town. He remained the man from Woodbury Lake who’d saved the children.”

And the book is about The Best Kind of People. So readers will expect it to be about George.

“Say the words wealthy and Protestant and picture a family. That’s them, or close enough.”

And, it is. But now? It’s a decade later.

George’s role is about to change dramatically.

“No one saw it coming.”

Two plainclothes detectives and several uniformed officers come to the door.

Against a backdrop of flashes of red and blue through the open windows, “a light show for the symphony of cicadas”, George is cuffed in the foyer.

Sexual misconduct with four minors, attempted rape of a minor. The words didn’t make sense.”

And none of this is extraordinary.

The most unsettling bit of all – how ordinary it is.

How often is there a gap between what we expected and what transpired: it happens all the time.

True, the gap between the George Woodburys is a sizeable gap. One, devoted father, who tackled an armed gunman to the floor, while his daughter (yes, that girl in the hallway was his daughter – Sadie); the other, George Woodbury, accused rapist.

Sadie attends school with these girls, the victims/accusers. One of them is the younger sister of Sadie’s good friend, Amanda. One of them. Because it is now a question of ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Whether an instinctive understanding of vulnerability or a contrary perversity fuelled by hormones, Sadie does not automatically assume her father is innocent. Wife (and mother), Joan, falls solidly into the role of loyal helpmeet and supporter. Andrew, the older son who has lived away from home for some time, puts his legal training to work and aims for neutrality, while following courtroom protocol to support his father’s case.

This is skillful plotting on Zoe Whittall’s part, allowing her to explore several positions on the spectrum, while the question of George’s guilt/innocence is examined, formally and informally. (And the pacing and language conspire so that every scene seems to probe into dark corners, creating the sense that, at any moment, someone could drag some torn bit of truth into the spotlight.)

As the story develops, this might have become a courtroom drama, but that’s not the intent of The Best Kind of People, in which the injured and the personal acts of betrayal/reparation which play out on the most intimate levels.

“She didn’t automatically trust anyone anymore. Trust was now something that required an extra beat, a moment of consideration.” (So many characters might have this thought: leaving it unattributed avoids spoilers.)

House of Anansi, 2009

House of Anansi, 2009

Whether or not there is adequate evidence to dismiss/exonerate/convict is less important than how the people closest to George respond to the evidence, how they cope in the absence of evidence, how they perceive the need for it for themselves and for others.

And how one lives their ordinary life, while all of these questions loom: that’s perhaps most important of all.

“They’d been back at school for one week. Their senior year in high school at Avalon prep had begun with aplomb. They were both in the accelerated stream, their sights set on prestigious universities, afternoons filled with student government meetings, sporting events, community volunteer hours, making out between the rows of woody ancient texts inhe school library. The week had been busy and thus ordinary. This was the last weekend that anything would feel normal until they were halfway through college.”

In this context, busy is equated with ordinary.

When one’s father/husband is arrested, time slows. There is nothing to do but wait. Wait for a verdict, wait for a resolution, wait for permission to move on.

Readers know from the beginning that this will happen, at least for Sadie. Even in this early passage, only one week after the arrest, readers are assured that things will eventually feel normal for Sadie. Just as they did after the gunman entered those school halls. Now she is in her senior year and nothing feels ordinary, but by the time she is halfway through college, she will feel that again.

What readers do not yet know is what happens in those two years, what transpires to restore a sense of normalcy in her life.

The Best Kind of People is preoccupied with that waiting period, although it does not chart the entire timeline.Throughout, there are small shifts in perception and understanding, and broader experiences of underlying issues (trust and acceptance, authority and betrayal, disregard and denial, consent and vulnerability, isolation and care-taking). So while the narrative displays the quotidien (who is sitting outside the neighbourhood coffee shop and the number of times someone gets high), the complexity brewing beneath is ever-in-motion.

Peripheral family members dart into and settle into spheres of influence, as the crisis unfolds: relationships bloom and recede in the face of pressure. In George’s absence, gaps between other characters narrow and widen, raising other questions about intimacy and loyalty. Members of Sadie’s boyfriend’s family are key in her struggle to reorient herself. Even the minor characters have agency (and opinions).

In her prior novel, Holding Still for as Long as Possible, Zoe Whittall’s character Billy observes: “The more strangers think they know who you are, the less you feel you know yourself. Or worse, you might believe them.”

This concept is at play in The Best Kind of People too: the line between knowing and believing will not hold still.

So many questions are raised in the narrative, about sexuality, agency, independence, identity, responsibility, compassion, respect, authenticity, and, of course, justice.

Very ordinary questions. Very hard questions.

August 2016, In My Bookbag

In which I discuss some of the skinny volumes, which have nestled into my bookbag.

(Meanwhile longer works, like Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber and Greg Iles’ The Bone Tree, were left at home.)

McKissack Best Shot in the WestPatricia and Fredrick McKissack’s Best Shot in the West tells the story of Nat Love, who was born into slavery in 1854 and became a renowned African-American cowboy.

The volume is arranged in a series of short tales, as though Nat Love has responded to a request to write his memoirs. In fact, his autobiography was published in 1907, The Life and Aventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick’. But it wasn’t illustrated by Randy Duburke!

The illustrations are in pale, watery tones and predominantly black-white-grey at first, as the story begins in Denver, Colorado in 1902, where Nat is working as a railway porter.

But when he begins to consciously remember the experiences of his earlier days, dating to childhood on a plantation in Davidson County, Tennessee, his memories are often boldy and brashly tinted.

There are only a few panels on each page, affording plenty of room for background figures and shading to establish scenes and atmosphere, and frequently entire pages contain only a single illustration.

There is some dialogue but the information is largely shared in textboxes of narrative which summarize not only his personal experiences but also general information relevant to the life of a man employed as a cattle driver and roper.

“Shortly after I joined Gallinger’s outfit, we got an order to move 2,500 head of three-year-old-steers to Dodge City. It was the largest drive I’d ever been a part of. We left with 40 men and two months of provisions.”

A contemporary of Bat Masterson and Billy the Kid, there is a lot of talk of adventure and outlaw life, and most of the scenes explored in detail here are rooted in tension or conflict, which makes for engaging reading.

If John Wayne is the only cowboy you know, the McKissacks’ graphic book is an excellent reminder that life in the Old West was colour-filled indeed.

(And, if you’re looking to really shake up your ideas of Cowboys’N’Indians, Thomas King’s novel Green Grass, Running Water is a fantastic – and oh-so funny – place to start!)

AlSuwaidi The DieselThani Al-Suwaidi’s The Diesel is a perfect candidate for several categories in this year’s BookRiot Reading Challenge.

It’s set in the Middle East, it features a transgender character, and it’s under 100 pages in length. (See challenge here.)

In an interview with al-Jazeera in 2004 (quoted in the introduction by W.M. Hutchins, who also translated the work from the Arabic), the author acknowledged that his novel had “shocked some readers with its frank portrayal of the behavior of homosexuals in the Arabian Gulf region but said that the novel’s theme is the effect of the petroleum age of a small community torn between two cultures”.

He speaks of depicting “a world heading for a collision, a world that many in the Gulf region have worked to conceal”.

He’s referring, Hutchins explains, not only to sexual “desire and a rebellion against dichotomous, patriarchal gender assignments, but also to popular culture, superstitions and magic”.

There are scenes in the novel which unfold in the mosque, but there are many others which take place outside, which have a strange disorienting sense of unfolding elsewhere, in an untethered place, which feels familiar but is removed from the everyday. (The book might also count in BookRiot’s challenge for one which considers religion.)

Majid Nur al-Din states that the structure is “deliberately disjointed to present the contemporary Arab experience in a portrait that reflects a self that is split between an image of the past and an image of the consumer-oriented present”.

When he becomes The Diesel, when he makes people dance and seemingly escape the confines of their less satisfying lives, simultaneously cloying and draining, he appears to contain and offer an irresistible alternative to joyless living.

Dr. Fatima Ahmad Khalifa explains that Thani Al-Suwaidi “personifies place and breathes his spirit into it so that place, time, history, and the character constitute a single whole that is agitated and alarmed by what happens”.

For me, this novella reads like poetry. At the sentence-level, there are some beautiful passages which often require rereading, and as W.M. Hutchins knows the text intimately, I suspect this is a reflection of the original narrative.

One has the sense of being removed from what is known, dangled from some aerial structure by the toes, one’s fingertips never quite brushing the surface of what’s unfolding on the page below. It’s not a comfortable feeling; rather, a curious one.

What are you slipping into your bookbag this week?

The Inseparables, Tobacco Wars, I’m Still Here

Having stories narrated by – or assembled via – a number of voices is a popular way of  world-building. Each of the following books plays with this technique, allowing different perspectives to combine and create a more credible space for readers to inhabit.

Just as in Meg Wolitzer’s The Position, the matriarch in Stuart Nadler’s The Inseparables has published a book which provokes acclaim and shame. If Henrietta were not in financial straits, she would never have agreed to the reissue. She originally intended the novel is an act of rebellion, a “winking insult” to those women of her mother’s generation for whom the teapot had become “the family coat of arms”, but they worshipped her (and the volume’s explicit diagrams) instead. Now, years later, she has become a hero when she intended to be a rebel.

Little Brown and Company - Hachette, 2016

Little Brown and Company – Hachette, 2016

In Henrietta’s The Inseparables, the teapot is thrown through a windshield. In Stuart Nadler’s The Inseparables, Henrietta becomes a teapot lady: a widow, broke and lonely, who carries her anxiety “like another limb”. She seeks a “recurrence of mothering…perfect antidote to widowhood”.

Meanwhile, her daughter, Oona, feels the house is “less like a home and more like a gloomy, light-starved storiage locker”. She is a powerhouse as a surgeon, but struggles with the roles of daughter, wife, mother, and teapot wielder.

Oona’s teenaged daughter, Lydia, is coping with her parents’ divorce and a scandal of her own. A digital image circulated without her consent results in her expulsion and she begins to recreate her identity even while those of the women around her continue to unravel.

“Wasn’t this what mothers and daughter did? Erase, as they aged, the boundary between parent and child and become something close to friends? Or was this the exact oppostie of what to do?” But The Inseparables isn’t exactly about mother-daughter relationships.

Marriage is “habit, maybe” or “rhythm”, a “drumbeat going and going and then stopping”. And it’s not exactly about marriage either.

“Death is the only good subject, Henrietta. As a writer, you should know that.” While those digital images of Lydia will never perish, all the other characters in The Inseparables exist ephemerally, readers glimpsing them in the act of disassembling and reassembling, flailing in the direction of stability. The success of this narrative depends upon readers’ connections to the three women’s characters, acceptance of their credibility and the patterns exhibited across the generations.

Constructed scenically, with an abundance of dialogue, Stuart Nadler’s prose really moves. But whereas The Position allows for some ruminating and reflecting, a soft light cast into dark corners, chaos is caught in the glare of The Inseparables.

Readers have clearly emerged in a post-shattered world, everyone and everything is in motion, but if readers are not fully invested in the characters, it all plays out on the other side of the glass. We are not inseparable; we are not immortal; but, neither are we moved.

Companion Reads: Meg Wolitzer’s The Position, Elizabeth Crane’s We Only Knew So Much, and Meg Mitchell Moore’s The Arrivals.

*** *** ***

Seesequasis Tobacco Wars

Quattro Books, 2010

Paul Seesequasis’  is the fifteenth in Quattro Books’ Novella series, although it reads more like poetry than prose.

“In the beginning there was only a bear.”

And that is true of Tobacco Wars, too, but then there is Pocahontas.

“Pocahontas says nothing but watches as sack after sack of tobacco is carried up the plank of toiling backbones of sweating workers in the October sun and then passed down into the hold of the over-laden vessel.”

There she is, on the dock of Jamestown. This image is offered shortly after her marriage to John Rolfe, but readers glimpsed her earlier on, although always in the context of her position on the margins of white, “civilized” society.

Readers do not see Pocahontas in her original element, but then, neither do the history books record that part of her reality.

Never mind, for as striking a character as she is, there is another who claims centre stage in Tobacco Wars: Bear Woman.

She was there in the beginning, remember? “Bear Woman spits, her phlegm-addled missile sends an uproarious orange iridescent flame ball high into the night sky.”

Bear Woman is relentlessly alive and present in the narrative, simultaneously a devourer and a creator. Her segments are lush and sweeping, so that the formality and pretense of the parallel narrative is even more striking.

Nonetheless, Bear Woman’s scenes are skillfully intertwined with the later historical scenes, so that the prose swells beyond the conventional boundaries of fact and fiction, myth and history lumbering through the pages.

Companion Reads: Vivek Shraya’s She of the Mountains, Jordan Abel’s Injun, Katherena Vermette’s North End Love Songs,

*** *** ***

Grand Central - Hachette, 2016

Grand Central – Hachette, 2016

Clélie Avit’s debut novel, I’m Still Here, is available in English translation from the French by Lucy Foster.

The narrative is split between Elsa and Thibault. Else has been in a coma for five months, following an accident hiking on the glaciers. Thibault’s brother occupies a room in the same hospital, while he recovers from an accident.

Elsa is, obviously, isolated. She is conscious but silent, unable to move. “I deliberately remove myself for the rest of their conversation. I’m elsewhere. Rambling, almost delirious, alone with my thoughts. It’s enough to make you lose your mind, spending all your time talking to yourself. But listening to other people talk about you introduces even more chaos.”

Thibault wishes for solitude. “I spend so much time with them, the misery weighs me down. It’s like I’m a sponge, soaking it up.” He finds relief in Elsa’s room, sitting with her in silence, talking to her as though she can hear.

Occasionally the perspective of another visitor or friend introduces a new dynamic. “‘Everyone has a heart, Thibault. But it’s what they do with it that counts. Yours was in a thousand pieces after Cindy. And now it’s in a million pieces since the accident. You’re telling yourself that if there was something you could do to wake this girl up it might help you to gather a few of the pieces. You just need to forgive yourself for having negative thoughts about your brother.’”

The language is uncomplicated, with only an occasional metaphor. (Like, “The hospital turns over and over in my head, like clothes in a washing machine.”)

And although there is the potential to enlarge Elsa’s perceptions, it rarely happens. “My sister’s voice, brimming with lust and hormones as she recounts stories of her love life, is sickly red velvet. My mother is a sort of purple leather, trying to seem shiny and robust, but cracking and weakened all over, like a well-used handbag. This consultant is as cold and unrefined as a steel construction girder.”

The bulk of the narrative is preoccupied with the fact Elsa’s days on life-support are numbered and Thibault’s pleas are of no consequence. Every day, she tries again to awaken, to show signs of life to those evaluating her chances of survival. Every day, Thibault gives her a kiss. It’s an old story, but this time Sleeping Beauty can still think inside her coffin.

Have you read any of these? Is one of them already on your TBR? Have you been reading other mythic narratives or works in translation?

Maisie Hurley and “The Native Voice”

One woman, one newspaper: The Native Voice is a story with relevance far beyond any existing borders, as well as a work of importance for local historians in what is now called British Columbia, Canada.

Jameison Native Voice

Caitlin Press, 2016

Eric Jamieson’s book is of fundamental interest to any reader concerned with the interplay between aboriginal cultures and the powers-that-be, to any reader seeking to be informed about historical events and patterns and their relationship to present-day concerns.

Subtitled The Story of How Maisie Hurley and Canada’s First Aboriginal Newspaper Changed a Nation, The Native Voice makes an excellent companion to Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian (2012), which covers hundreds of years and summarizes policies and trends succinctly.

Eric Jamieson’s prose style is designed to invite readers with little or no experience with the issues at hand to get acquainted, not only with the issues but with the people whose lives spiralled around them. Although it contains more than 600 footnotes, the reader’s progress is not slowed until one chooses to check the source information.

He begins with Maisie’s family background, reaching back into Welsh history and considering her position of privilege, which afforded her the opportunity to employ the advantages she enjoyed in order to serve the disadvantaged. Her mother provided a key example in terms of being driven by noblesse oblige, and was particularly concerned with matters related to suffrage. Some members of the family were otherwise engaged (for instance, one Scotsman’s absorption by a hunt for lost treasure), but Maisie was committed to justice.

“The Native Voice” newspaper represents this struggle for justice throughout its publication. A key figure in this effort was Alfred Adams, who straddled the white and aboriginal worlds, a Haida man educated at Metlakatla, an Anglican residential school. He led the efforts to organize the natives into The Native Brotherhood in order to address universal concerns in the community, including the needs for better schooling, increased rights for land required to practice traditional work and activiites (e.g. hunting, fishing, timber, and trapping), expansion of reserve territories, and effective means of relaying concerns to government officials.

Historically, it has been an elaborate dance for native leaders to authentically represent the needs of the communities without alienating the government representatives, who were quick to view natives who had objections to the status quo as agitators and trouble-makers. Furthermore, it was difficult to address grievances without addressing the core issue of Aboriginal Title, and government officials were not prepared to discuss this.

The early days of The Native Brotherhood reveal these tendencies clearly and the quotes from publications and presentations offer historical details while still affording readers the opportunity to observe that these same issues are still being addressed today, these concerns still of vital importance for native communities (still unresolved by government officials).

Another of Maisie’s key friendships was with August Jack Khatsahlano (Xats’alanexw), the hereditary chief of the Squamish people, a medicine man and spirit dancer. He, too, played a significant role in the efforts to integrate/assimilate/differentiate, and participated in debates within the community surrounding enfranchisement/sovereignty.

He respected Maisie Hurley’s efforts to unite the native groups and educate those who were removed from the front-lines (both within and outside of the community). In 1946, the struggle was already well under way, and the need for a united response ever greater. “Through our Native Voice we will continue to the best of our ability to bind closer together the many tribes whom we represent into that solid Native Voice, a voice that will work for the advancement of our own common native welfare.”

The Native Brotherhood gained substantial influence as time passed, and goals and posibilities shifted as government policies were amended. Even major matters like enfranchisement which were once resisted as efforts towards assimilation were later viewed as a privilege sought after and desired: opinions and stances altered dramatically.

Even within the group there were dramatic fractures, including the protest by the Native Sisterhood who argued that they were being discriminated against within their own community, the female members not being accorded the same voting rights as the male members of the Native Brotherhood.

The broader debate of whether the discrimation experienced by Native Americans differed from that experienced by First Nations natives also caused some conflict. And not all communities were members of the Brotherhood (some were unable to contribute the fees and others were further removed geographically or more committed to relationships with white comunities) and opinions of members were sometimes at odds, the issues being of considerable complexity.

Nonetheless, the Native Brotherhood was a prominent organized body and when it was excluded from talks with government officials in 1955, “The Native Voice” played a key role in questioning this decision. Having clearly established itself as “the voice of the Native Brotherhood of BC in action which in turn is the voice for all the natives in B.C.”, when that voice was ignored or dismissed by government officials, this indicated a matter of grave concern.

Throughout, Eric Jamieson manages to sketch Maisie’s character in simple human terms, her relationships with key native figures but also her relationships with her sons and other men who were significant in her life, romantically and professionally and, eventually, her struggles with ill-health. Ultimately, however, in The Native Voice she is remembered for her work for justice, in service of a simple belief:

“All the Indians want is what is theirs. They don’t want to assimilate. They are wonderful people with magnificent traditions of their own.”

Although of course the many native leaders and community members are at the heart of this story, Eric Jamieson records the contributions of Maisie Hurley in such a way that she is a strong and valued supporter, respectful and determined to work to correct injustices, advantaged but not overpowering.

Jay Hosking’s Three Years with the Rat (2016)

If a story’s beginning looks at its reflection in a room made of mirrors, does it see its own beginning-self reflected back? Or is the reflection actually the story’s ending?

Hosking Three Years with the Rat

Hamish Hamilton, 2016

This is the kind of question that I can imagine keeps Jay Hosking up late at night. The characters in Three Years with the Rat are similarly preoccupied.

Consider the friend who asks the narrator of the novel “Beginning of the end or end of the beginning?”

Of course, he’s actually asking about the young man’s relationship with his girlfriend, Nicole. Which is strained and waning. But it’s important overall: where things start, where they stop, and the amount of time which elapses between starting and stopping.

Circularity is humming throughout the novel. Wide arcs connect characters and timeframes, memories and geography. However, just as with the question posed above, readers can rely upon solid characterization and an investment in a handful of voices to pull them through the narrative.

Structurally, readers can rely upon the calendar to root them as well. The novel is divided into August, September, October, November and December.

But, wait: it’s not that simple. The August section contains, for instance, 2008 and 2007 and 2006. In fact, each of the months contains glimpses of these three years. From ending to beginning, from 2008 back to 2006.

Readers might want to draw a straight line for the chronology of months, to join these parts of the story, to feel something concrete beneath the narrative. (I imagine this line drawn in thick, water-proof, black, chisel-tipped magic marker.)

But they also would have to draw other connections., so the 2006 segment of the December chapter near the end of the book, could be connected to the 2006 segment of the August chapter, which is near the beginning. (I imagine these lines drawn with those skinny little markers you buy at art stores, in a variety of bright colours.)

And so on, and so on. Except, not so much so-on-and-so-on. Because the essential element of this novel is disconnection, not connection. Readers no sooner settle into a month and year, which is scenically drawn and filled with emotional and sensory detail, when their attention to directed to another layer in the reflection.

While the plotting is tight and solid (readers could read all the 2006 sections together, for instance, instead of moving through the pages sequentially), nothing else feels firm here.

The characters are young and searching, students in university, inhabiting laboratories and bars with equal dedication. Questions outnumber answers in both scenarios.

“Man up or suck it up, Danger. Commit to something or stop your maudlin pity party. You can make your choice or you can have it taken away from you again.”

When and how to act: this is an underlying concern, both at the everyday and ordinary level (whether to keep a job which is clearly dissatisfying) and the bizarre and extraordinary (whether to travel through time).

And, then, there is the matter of sorting out what one can trust and what is possible (whether a relationship brings out the best in you), from what is illusory and inconceivable (whether you can control the subjective nature of time to move yourself through your past-present-future).

Early in the novel, a mystery is presented. “There was something in it, not a lie exactly but not the truth. He had faltered. He knew something about Grace but he didn’t think it would help me.”

When Grace disappears (and, later, her boyfriend, John, disappears), the narrator begins by asking the kinds of questions you think one would ask if someone disappears.

But before page 100, readers understand that there is another set of questions which must be addressed.

“Just imagine you could be the past and the present and the future you, all at the same time,” she said. “Imagine you had full access. Imagine you knew everything was going to work out, or even if it wasn’t going to work out, at least you’d be ready for that’s coming. The things you could tell yourself.”

This is Grace speaking. Readers understand that her disappearance is not the average girl-goes-missing story.

Furthermore, Grace is not an average girl. She is above-average smart. But she understands that readers (and some other characters) do not engage with the world in the same way she does.

She takes time to explain her studies to her brother and uses language that readers can understand.

“If objective time is a one-dimensional arrow, maybe subjective time is a two-dimensional wave. Or a three-dimensional spiral. Maybe clocks are only measuring that movement in one dimension, its length, but our brains are sensing our depth and width through time.”

Here, you can begin to see that diagram of the novel’s structure (the one I was drawing with magic markers above, fat and skinny lines, dark and bright colours) pointing and waving and spiralling.

(The jacket compares this novel to Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. This makes sense: I think of the pages in that book in which the narrative takes place in the margins, the way that the actual story gets displaced, forcing readers to read blank pages and grapple with a shape that is constantly shifting, a story that loses its centre before it begins. But it seems to have a closer resemblance to a book like Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am, which also plays with science-y ideas and time in particular, but is truly concerned with connections between people and the question of absence and presence. Or Benjamin Constable’s The Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa, which is also about a disappearance, but less sciencey and is more about securing a relationship by solving a series of puzzles and following clues left behind.)

But not-so-science-y readers need not fear. Those who are super curious could turn to Claudia Hammond’s 2012 work, Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception, and delve into the psychology and neuroscience that simmer beneath the novel’s surface.

Yet, Three Years with the Rat is ulimately about relationships, and not just the relationship between one’s subjective and objective experiences of time, but family and love relationships.

Ultimately it is about whether or not we can connect in those relationships, whether acts which resulted in our disconnecting from ourselves (painful things, haunting things, puzzling things) mean that we are left unable to draw lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Whether, as the years pass (or, as we force them to pass or to un-pass, whether we move backwards or forwards) we can thrive (or, survive).

“Oblivion is the annihilation of the self. Grace was looking for the opposite, a way to remove everything but the self.”

How do we make ourselves? What happens when all that is left is the un-making?

Is there a way to get back to the beginning, when the ending is just too much?

Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls (2002)

Sometimes I buy books for the stories on their pages; sometimes I buy them for the stories between the pages.

Alexie Porcupines and China DollsMy copy of Porcupines and China Dolls was purchased second-hand at the Trinity College booksale more than ten years ago.

Because of a handful of folded sheets tucked inside the back cover (although, yes, I was freshly in love with Thomas King’s writing and on the lookout for other aboriginal authors).

Some correspondence between a potential reviewer and two different publishers, an inner-office memo, a copy of a very positive review of the book which appeared online in a regional newspaper, and the reviewer’s handwritten notes.

For the price of $5, could I understand why a reviewer who was writing for an Anglican church publication was so eager to get a copy of this book, which explores the abusive practices of the residential schools staffed by the Anglican church?

The horrors, general and specific, perpetrated upon residential-school students are now well-documented.

But the publication of Porcupines and China Dolls falls after Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen but before Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse.

The sociopolitical impact of the residential school system didn’t/doesn’t commonly appear on the pages of literary novels; I wouldn’t have thought that discussion of the abuse perpetrated by church officials would have commonly appeared in Anglican church publications either.

Whether or not the reviewer did ultimately cover Robert Arthur Alexie’s book remains uncertain. Her notes stop with a remark for page 68: “getting monotonous”.

Admittedly, it was. Monotonous, I mean. So many nights spent drinking. Men in the bar, taking women home, where they drink more. They wake up hurting, pry themselves through the day, head back to the bar.

Beyond page 68, the binding of this hardcover feels tight; it’s hard to imagine that anyone read beyond, until I did.

Which is a shame. Because the root of the monotony, the tedium, the horror of inescapable memories isn’t yet clear at that point in the story.

“He wished he could shoot all his dreams.
You can.
Just put the gun in your mouth ‘n pull ‘a fuckin’ trigger.
Who’re you?
Silence. Are you the devil? Silence.  Are you my dreams? Silence. Oh well, c’mon. Let’s get it over with! Do your best!
They did and they came smelling of hopelessness, despair and death. They came with big, fat hairy hands and false promises.”

If she had read just twice as many pages, she would have caught a glimmer of the weight that threatens to crush James Nathan and Jake Noland.

The bulk of the novel is scenic in construction. Long passages of dialogue, ordinary settings, packed with quotidien detail: readers quickly develop a sense of the rhythm of everyday life in the community.

This aspect of Robert Arthur Alexie’s novel reads quickly and easily. Even the heavy back-and-forth in the inner-and-outer dialogue (in the quote above)  is not overwhelming, because the voice is as often deprecating and funny as it is heartbreaking. (This reminds me of Thomas King’s ability to twin humour with sorrow. Although I never actually laughed aloud while reading this novel. More wry grins.)

The portions of the novel which describe the children’s experiences of residential school life – in particular their transformations into porcupines (the boys, with their super-short haircuts) and china dolls (the girls, with their uniform bobs) – are short and deliberate.

And when the men admit what they endured as students, it seems almost inconsequential.

“How many more?”
“At least one,” he said quietly.
She knew what he meant. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I talked about it when I  was in treatment, but never to you or anyone else.”
“You’re not alone,” she said. “You’ll never be alone.”

She knew what he meant – even though he is her husband and this is the first she has heard of this – because she knows this story. It doesn’t require any nouns to members of the community, who have heard this story countless times (though not as many times as it could have been told).

When the story is ultimately told, readers do not endure the details. Even then, it is offered in summary.

“Chief David then grew twenty feet and held himself like a Warrior of Old. He spoke of his days in the hostel and of a man named Tom Kinney. He spoke of trust, honour and respect. He spoke of distrust, dishonour and disrespect. He spoke of little boys and little girls in the hostel. He spoke of porcupines and china dolls. He spoke of late-night visit and long hallways. He spoke of dark rooms and dark dorms.”

And it is offered in the form of small diary-like entries which open the chapters, chronicling the life of an old wolf, worn and tired by the act of survival.

But even if you already know the story of the residential school system, have read and heard other stories by survivors already, there is something remarkable about Robert Arthur Alexie’s novel.

“So our People haven’t drummed for a hundred years?”
“Las’ time ‘ey drummed was 1965 when Chief Francis died. Always liked drum dancin’ . Be good if someone brought it back.” He paused. “Our language will be gone in ‘nother generation. Once ‘at goes we’ll have nothing’.” We’ll be jus’ ‘nother bunch ‘a Indians.

To say anything more would spoil the story, but because this is only halfway through the novel, and because there is a lot to endure before-hand, I will say that, yes, there is drumming.

But, there is still half a book left to read. And although there are still dreams of suicide and death, there are other kinds of dreams, too. After the truth is told.

“They dreamed of three Warriors standing above slain demons, dreams and nightmares like great Warriors of Old covered with blood, sweat, guts, tears and pride.”

Dear Anglican-Reviewer who was stuck on page 68: You should have read on. But, then, perhaps you were expecting some other ending.

Canadian Book Challenge (10th Edition): Indigenous Writers

Even though the challenge officially begins on July 1 — and ends on the last day of the following June — it’s not too late to join The Book Mine Set’s Canadian Books Challenge.

This year is the tenth event, and John has calculated thousands of books reviewed for past challenges he’s hosted. This time, my challenge will be to read 13 books by indigenous authors.

Rather than share my reading list, which will change throughout the coming months anyway, I’m going to share 13 books by indigenous authors that I would recommend if someone else was undertaking this specific challenge.

These would be my choices for that imagined reader’s challenge:

Beatrice Culleton Mosionier’s The Search for April Raintree (1983)
Perhaps teachers in Canadian schools look to this novel about two Métis sisters as American teachers look to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The prose is spare and accessible and the story is told in the simplest terms, but resonates deeply. (This was the first book I read by an indigenous writer.)

Fur Queen HighwayThomas King’s Green Grass Running Water (1993)
Athough now it is commonly used in classrooms, too, I read this one (my second by an indigenous writer) before it caught the attention of prize-list juries and scholars, so I wasn’t intimidated by the string of accolades. That was lucky, because I just thought it was wickedly smart and funny, and all the acclaim didn’t get in the way of my pulling it off the shelf. Just try it: it’s terrific! (Truth and Bright Water is great too and The Inconvenient Indian is page-turning non-fiction.)

Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach (2000)
Lisamarie’s voice is incredible: you just can’t stop reading, even when things get ugly. I’ve lost track of the number of people to whom I’ve recommended this novel. Sixteen years later, the only element I remember clearly is that she seemed to leap off the page. Such a vibrant character! I remember also being struck by this sense of the ethereal being a part of reality in a way which seemed both wondrous and strange to me, as it did in Banana Yoshimoto’s fiction. It’s time for a reread obviously! (She is a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations.)

Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998)
It opens with a breathtaking scene. Such a rush! But there is so much quiet and deliberate beauty which follows in this novel. It was one of my favourites in that reading year, and it is one of those books which I wanted to reread as soon as I had finished.

Leanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love (2013)
These short pieces are striking and beautiful. You will be inclined to gobble, because they are accessible and inviting. But they are also powerful and are best enjoyed in a number of sittings rather than all-in-a-gulp. She landed in my stack because I was listening to an interview with Shelagh Rogers and Thomas King on “The Next Chapter”, and he praised her work highly. (She is of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg ancestry and is a member of Alderville First Nation.)

Lee Maracle’s Bent Box (2000)
One of the first aboriginal writers to be published in Canada in the 1970s and, since, one of the most prolific aboriginal writers (according to Theytus Press), Lee Maracle’s poetry serves as an excellent introduction to her work. The longest, most dense works are in the second section, which includes poems to/about Mister Mandela, Sojourner Truth, Leonard Peltier and considering injustice in Palestine, Nicaragua, El Salvedor and Chile. (Maracle is of Salish and Cree ancestry, and she is a member of the Sto:loh Nation.)

David A. Groulx’s Under God’s Pale Bones (2010)
When I heard him read at an evening event at the International Festival of Authors, I knew this book was a must-read. These are seering and vital verses which dig deeply beneath the skin to those pale bones. Even though at times the rage is palpable, the same intensity is accorded to beauty. There is much to marvel at here, on the page. So many reminders of what’s worth marvelling at, off the page.

Under Gods Pale Bones GroulxRichard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk (2014)
Although his Indian Horse is a common starting point (it’s shorter and there’s hockey), this is my favourite. It is a reconciliation story on a personal plane (between a father and a son) but one which is so layered and complex that it has much to offer on the matter of reconciliation in a broader sense as well. Although quietly told, it becomes something of a page-turner as the tale unfolds.

Richard van Camp’s Godless but Loyal to Heaven (2012)
This collection landed the author on my MustReadEverything list. The first story still keeps me up at night on occasion, when it flits back into my mind during those dark and lonely hours between three and four in the morning. But as overwhelming as that tale’s power is (based on a traditonal tale, but brought into contemporary times), it’s the stories about ordinary people rather than mythic powers which draw me back to his work.

Edmund Metatawabin’s Up Ghost River (with Alexandra Shimo, 2014)
The language in Up Ghost River is succinct and unsentimental. And, yet, the content is highly emotive. What bridges the gap between these contrary states is a scenic style, as the authors describe Number 15’s experiences in residential school (as Edmund was renamed, to obliterate his family identity).

Jordan Abel’s the place of scraps (2014)
When I was a little girl, I marvelled at the beautiful totem poles in the foyer at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. They were the first things I visited (but, to be fair, not out of true recognition of their beauty or significance, but because they stood between me and the dinosaur gallery, which I both loved and feared, as I got closer and closer to the T-Rex). Jordan Abel’s volume of poetry changed the view for me lastingly and profoundly. His work also made me less afraid of poetry. (I dealt with the T-Rex on my own.)

Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce (2008)
I came to this novel after reading The Orenda, which I did not love as much as many other readers did. And, at first, neither of the alternating voices in Through Black Spruce engaged me either. But, then I began to recognize connections that I missed in the shorter segments. Will is telling his story to his niece from the “dreaming world” and Annie is telling her story to her uncle from the “waking world”, and the process of telling pulls each of the storytellers closer to another dimension (suiting their different needs and positions). It’s quite remarkable.

TenthCanadianBookChallengeDavid Alexander Robertson’s Seven Generations comic series (Stones/Scars/Ends-Begins/The Pact)
Illustrated by Scott B. Henderson, this series is a great option for classroom-use, but also serves as a solid introduction for many of themes explored in greater detail in the longer works listed above. Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story draws specific attention to the Canadian government’s attempts to formalize the process of devastating the core identifty of native children by removing them from their families and traditions.

As for my own reading choices for the challenge reading, those 13 choices?

There are some gaps in my reading, including other works by writers whose previous works I’ve enjoyed (like David A. Groulx’s poems and Lee Maracle’s writing).

And I’ve got two MustReadEverything authors on this list, but I haven’t actually read everything yet (Thonas King and Richard van Camp).

And there are even some non-fiction volumes on my TBR which would fit this challenge (as well as my continued reading of/listening to the summary report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission).

To begin, however: talk, tomorrow, of Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls. And, then, the challenge will officially be underway!

Have you been reading any indigenous authors? Are you participating in the Canadian Books Challenge too?

“Wasn’t my life supposed to be rock and roll?”

Rockstar or not, Nicola Harwood’s Flight Instructions for the Commitment Impaired is a bold and absorbing memoir. At times her style is plain and functional, at other times it is poetic and intricate – even captivating, her voice consistently displayed centre-stage.

Harwood Flight Instructions

Caitlin Press, 2016

“No such thing as one true love, just the one sent hurtling against the door, catching your breath like a fly ball but not your words as you flirt outrageously and wonder how she could have fumbled that great line.
No one true love, but a whole lot of small lies told over dinner, draped over a restless urgency that threatens to bend the forks.”

While extended passages of figurative prose might be overwhelming, these poetic bursts are layered between matter-of-fact and often scenic segments, so readers have plenty to secure them to the narrative proper.

For instance, the following passage offers a solid complement to the “true love” musing (which is longer than what is quoted above).

“We slide out of now into then, into our twenties, those heady days of late-night sex and all-day exhaustion; idealistic, co-dependent lesbian unions fueled by drugs, softball, and Adrienne Rich. Unions such as this one, that didn’t stand a chance in hell. And while we are fucking and laughing we are ever so delicately examining the threads of our story. The hopes, the illusions, the disappointments. How young and stupid we were then. How old and stupid we are now.”

Nicola Harwood doesn’t come off as “old and stupid” on the page, however, but spirited and dynamic, open-minded and open-hearted.

She appears to be enchanted by language but also recognizes its shortcomings, including the thorny question of definition, particularly when it comes to one’s identity.

“From dyke to queer to butch to transgender to gender queer to gender fluid to bi-gender, tri-gender, pan-gender and non-binary girly faggot femme boy (not cis-boy!) – identity is like snow. It lies beneath language, fails between words, melts on your tongue.”

The question of commitment is at the heart of the memoir, as the title suggests. “Non-monogamy is a complicated, hyphenated word, which translated into dog language means: don’t fence me in.”

But not only romantic relationships but other kinds of relationships are also explored, both enduring and fleeting. “My writing magazines always have a page devoted to the latest award winners, and I read their achievements with bitterness. Recently I am more interested in stories of failure, especially spectacular failures. The zeppelins of relationships.”

Where does one put down roots? How does one nurture existing ties while accommodating change and growth. “Family. Like Aquarius and her jar of water it pours constantly from every source. For some it is the wine of life while for others it is the hopeless sense of drowning in a sticky mess not entirely of our own creation but somehow, intrinsically, our own. Drowning in our own blood.”

She and her partner – called Lover – establish a relationship with Ant, whose own family has “some queer corners not fully exposed to light”, whose own sexuality was a work in progress. Though a long-time resident of a group home, he gradually establishes a relationship with this couple, who open their home to him after many months of supervised contact although the relationship remains dynamic and complicated.

“If this is the new millennium, this cacophony of race, language, sex and gender, mothers, daughters, sons and sons who are daughters, neighbours and friends. If this is what family will look like in the new millennium, bring it on.”

Nicola Harwood’s writing feels honest and no-holds-barred, like Jowita Bydlowska’s Drunk Mom and Priscila Uppal’s Projection, but it has a flair which makes it read like fiction.

If this is what queer feminist memoir will look like in Caitlin Press’ catalogue, bring it on.

Crazy for CanLit: Making MORE Lists (2016)

All published in the season which would make them eligible for this year’s Giller Prize, the kaleidoscope of covers for 2016 is now available on Pinterest, a text-based collection here.

They had me at list-making, but also there are prizes, for lucky list-makers (rules, here). The URLs below link to my review here, on BuriedInPrint.

My first list for this year was based on the titles on this year’s Crazy for Canlit List which I’ve read, which I can recommend.

This list is based on the titles which are on my TBR list because I’ve read and enjoyed another of that author’s work.

Twenty-three = one for each year of the Giller Prize.

Andre Alexis DespairAndre Alexis’ Hidden Keys (Coach House Books)
Because his short stories were strangely captivating and this new cycle is such an interesting exploration

Kelley Armstrong’s Betrayals (Random House Canada)
Because the first two volumes, Omens and Visions, were so intriguing

Linwood Barclay’s Far From True (Doubleday Canada)
Because reading  A Tap on the Window made me want to read ten more of his novels

George Elliott Clarke’s The Motorcyclist (HarperCollins)
Because I don’t even have words for how much I loved Whylah Falls

Whylah FallsEmma Donoghue’s The Wonder (HarperCollins)
Because even though I didn’t love Room, I did love Kissing the Witch

Terry Fallis’ Poles Apart (McClelland & Stewart)
Because he’s made me smile before, say with No Relation

Darren Greer’s Advocate (Cormorant)
Because his novel Still Life with June is a real favourite

Ian Hamilton’s Princeling of Nanjing (House of Anansi)
Because there is muh to enjoy about Ava Lee’s adventures, as with The Water Rat of Wanchai

Happiness Economics Shari LapenaMaureen Jennings’ Dead Ground in Between  (McClelland & Stewart)
Because her early Murdoch mysteries were satisfying from many angles

Shari LaPeña’s The Couple Next Door (Doubleday)
Because I love a good thriller and Economic Happiness was just great

Kathy Page’s The Two of Us (Biblioasis)
Because the stories in Paradise and Elsewhere were fascinating

House of Anansi, 2013

House of Anansi, 2013

Chad Pelley’s Four-Letter Words (Breakwater Books)
Because his first two novels engaged me from the start, Every Little Thing and Away from Everywhere

Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Simon & Schuster)
Because despite full-hearted resistance, I was totally drawn into The Truth about Luck

David Adams Richards’ Principals to Live By (Doubleday)
Because even when I try to stop reading his sad stories, I keep reading another, like Crimes Against My Brother

Edward Riche’s Today I Learned It Was You (House of Anansi)
Because he made me smile with Easy to Like

Floating Dead ThanhNicholas Ruddock’s Night Ambulance (Breakwater Books)
Because The Parabolist kept me turning pages

John Steffler’s Geman Mills (Gaspereau)
Because The Afterlife of George Cartwright was so fine

Yasuko Thanh’s Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains (Hamish Hamilton)
Because her debut short story collection, Floating like the Dead, was very accomplished

Richard Van Camp’s Night Moves (Enfield & Wizenty)
Because he’s one of my MRE Authors, beginning with Godless But Loyal to Heaven

Great Plains Publications - Enfield & Wizenty, 2012

Great Plains Publications – Enfield & Wizenty, 2012

M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia (Doubleday)
Because from No New Land to And Home Was Kariakoo, he tells such good stories

Russell Wangersky’s The Path of Most Resistance (House of Anansi)
Because I still remember some of the stories in Whirl Away

Richard B. Wright’s Nightfall (Simon & Schuster)
Because Clara Callan is an ATF and Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard stood out

Alissa York’s The Naturalist (Random House Canada)
Because Fauna was one of my favourite books of that reading year

McClelland & Stewart, 1991

McClelland & Stewart, 1991

Next time: another list, a shorter one, on Pinterest, with a surprise theme.

Are you Crazy For Canlit? What’s on YOUR list?