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

September 2014: In My Reading Log

Among other books enjoyed in September were some standout novels that will be featured later this month, including Michael Crummey’s Sweetland and Magie Dominic’s Street Angel. There was also Diversiverse and the launch of RIP IX, and much musing on future Read-a-Thon choices. Award longlists began appearing (including the Toronto Book Award and the Giller Prize) and IFOA reading began in earnest (Nadia Bozak’s novels made a real impression). Below are some brief thoughts on some works read recently.

Richard van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed (1996)
Zarqua Nawaz’s Laughing All the Way to the Mosque (HarperCollins, 2014)
Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty (Penguin, 2007)

Lesser Blessed vanCampRichard van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed (1996)

“I had rewound the Outfield’s song ‘Baby, When You Talk to Me’ and got it ready so that when she answered, I would press ‘play’ and she’d hear it. Man, she just had to know how I felt. I also had Judas Priest on standby: ‘Turbo Lover’ was set to go, and if the conversation followed along, I had backup, too. Van Halen was locked, cocked and ready to rock.”

Larry is in love with Juliet. A member of the Dogrib nation, he thinks of her like a white caribou, whom he chooses to keep in his sights, beautifully alive. When Johnny Beck, a Metis, moves to Fort Simmer, a small northern town, alliances shift and possibilities present themselves. “It was okay, not much to do if you’re not into booze or sports. I mostly read and listened for stories.” Richard van Camp’s style not only captures the realistic grit of coming-of-age but affords room for the unexplained, a sense of mythic power which hovers beneath the seemingly mundane choices that the characters in his stories make (or fall into). The Lesser Blessed is a slim volume, but the characters stretch beyond its binding

Zarqua Nawaz’s Laughing All the Way to the Mosque (HarperCollins, 2014)

“Dear Reader, I’ve written this memoir so that one day, should you find yourself facing a pint-sized Muslim trying to save your soul, you will be armed with understanding of the other side. You will have all sorts of interesting knowledge to catch them off guard with, like ‘Isn’t there a prayer that you’re late for?’ or ‘As soon as you figure out the moon issue, I’ll listen to you,’ and the perennial ‘Exactly how clean are your genitals?’”Laughing Mosque Nawaz

Zarqa Nawaz has been accused of not knowing the difference between poking fun at Muslims and making fun of Islam, but although she may occasionally veer into the former camp, she steers clear of the latter. Laughing All the Way to the Mosque is well-paced and entertaining, also filled with useful observations as promised (for instance, hajj and fudge do rhyme but one actually is a religious requirement and the other the author eats as though it is a religious requirement). Tales about the filming of “Little Mosque on the Prairie” will interest all readers, although those who have seen some episodes of the CBC television series will be most keen. Most remarkable is the author’s conversational and inviting tone; a firm resolve to read just one chapter is bound to swell beyond that pagecount.

Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty (Penguin, 2007)

“You might admire my egg slicer collection. What is better than a sliced egg sandwich, eaten by someone named Sally at a luncheonette counter on a drizzly day in New York City?”

Kalman Principles UncertaintyMaira Kalman’s collections, which comprise the thing-y-ness of this volume, are fascinating. From postcards (of Hotel Celeste or Santa Lucia) to numbers on tags and tapes (all shapes, sizes and origins) and paper packets, from photographs of people she has walked behind to things that have fallen out of books.

The artwork is boldly coloured, dramatic strokes shaping a particular person or a view, sometimes more detailed bits, like a garbage receptacle in Paris or a pair of shoes. Be it a subway platform or a chocolate bar wrapper, there is an unmistakeable energy in these observations.

We are reminded to take in our surroundings attentively and ambitiously, whether a hat or a favourite aunt. Creatively, the volume inspires and urges a mood of reflection, but also leaves one with a strange sense of longing, perhaps for what cannot be collected on a page.

What has stood out for you in your recent reading?

Were you pleased with your bookish September?

What are you looking forward to reading next?


Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2012)

It seems perfect. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is not really a novel. And this is not really a review.

How Should Person Be Heti 2 It’s a collection of my collisions with understanding.

Opening sentence: “How should a person be?”
Subtitle: A Novel from Life

Off the page, there is an interview with Shelagh Rogers, “To Plot or Not to Plot?”

Sheila Heti talks about moments.

“But in the moments that haven’t existed yet, there are truths none of us can predict, and as an artist I want to be there for them, creating out of those moments. I haven’t been there yet, none of us have, it’s exciting, and it’s the unknown.”
Certain moments. Specific moments.

“It is in those future, untouched moments that I want my words to come into being.”

“At any time when you’re reading the book and you’re saying what is this book about you can just look at the title “Oh, it’s about how a person should be, or it’s the question of how a person should be”…in some sense the outline [of the book].

(I did that. It helped. But only sometimes.)

How Should Person Be Heti 3In an interview with Liz Hoggard in The Observer, Saturday 19 January 2013 she reminds us that “How should a person be?” is the question Moses answers for the Jews with the 10 commandments. If Sheila could give the answer, she’d be like Moses. But she has to accept she’s not.

From the book:

“I admired all the great personalities down through time, like Andy Warhol and Oscar Wilde. They seemed to be so perfectly themselves in every way.” (1-2)
And this:

“One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me.” (4)

But this is bigger than I thought.

“I know that personality is just an invention of the news media. I know that character exists from the outside alone. I know that inside the body there’s just temperature. So how do you build your soul?” (2)

And I’m not even sure about the characters, like Sheila, but also Margaux, because she exists in the book and out of the book too.

“In an hour Margaux’s going to come over and we’re going to have our usual conversation. Before I was twenty-five, I never had any friends, but the friends I have now interest me nonstop.” (3)

[Margaux Williamson (b. 1976) About the film.Watch the film. Yes, a film. And a brochure. "How to Act in Real Life." Because in 2012, Sheila Heti was the artist in resident at the Art Gallery of Ontario and did a live performance every Wednesday night in the museum's main atrium."]

How Should Person Be Heti 4This makes me wonder: what else interests Sheila Heti nonstop.

Here’s something: an interview with Mary Midgley. It’s here.

“The Financial Times praised her work as “commonsense philosophy of the highest order,” and she was characterised in The Guardian as “the most frightening philosopher in the country… the foremost scourge of scientific pretension.”

And here’s something else: an interview with Charlyne Yi, comedian (she was in the Judd Apatow film “Knocked Up” a few years ago, on screen for only about two minutes, but she was “mesmerizing and memorable”).

“Maybe the idea of surprise is part of what makes something funny, or what gets a reaction. At least when I’m an audience member, after you hear a joke so many times it’s not as funny because it loses its surprise or its twist. So I think funny has to do with surprise.”
In the Paris Review Interview by Thessaly La Force, she is asked to articulate the differences between you and alter-ego Sheila:

“I don’t think of it as an alter-ego, but yeah, I’ll try to explain how I experience it. Writing, for me, when I’m writing in the first-person, is like a form of acting. So as I’m writing, the character or self I’m writing about and my whole self—when I began the book—become entwined. It’s soon hard to tell them apart. The voice I’m trying to explore directs my own perceptions and thoughts. But that voice or character comes out of a part of me that exists already. But writing about it emphasizes those parts, while certain other, balancing parts lie dormant—and the ones I’m exploring become bigger, like in caricature. That sounds really orderly but I never realize it’s happening, because who is “the first person” becomes confused. Of course, this transformation happens very gradually over many years. Then, months after the book is done, all that falls away—the ways I was behaving and thinking while writing the book—and a different self from the original one is left, with the qualities I was emphasizing much less prominent than originally. But I’ve only realized after finishing this book that it happened with Ticknor and now with this book, too. During the times it was happening, I didn’t realize that was going on.”

How Should Person Be HetiAnd, on the topic of alter-ego and not alter-ego, Sheila Heti also plays Lenore Doolan in Leanne Shapton’s book, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry.

(I bought this book for a friend who retired from an ad agency a few years back. I thought she’d appreciate the idea of artifacts comprising a life. Later, I wondered it was exactly the wrong choice for such an occasion. I didn’t think about Sheila Heti at all when I bought the book.)

Sheila Heti’s novel, Ticknor, was released in 2005. The novel’s main characters are based on real people: William Hickling Prescott and George Ticknor, although the facts of their lives are altered. So says Wikipedia. More alter-ego talk. Or, not.

In her 2007 interview with Dave Hickey for The Believer, she noted, “Increasingly I’m less interested in writing about fictional people, because it seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story. I just — I can’t do it.” “It doesn’t make sense to me. And the complicated thing is, I like life so much. I love being among people, I love being in the world, and writing is the opposite of that.”

Life. Story. World. Writing.

” If you want to write from life, you can’t really write a story. People are always changing, and I think if we didn’t look the same day-to-day, and our self weren’t always in our body, would we even be the same?”
Interview, SHEILA HETI’S HYSTERICAL REALISM (Were these my caps or theirs? I can’t remember. But it seems caps-worthy.)

How should we talk about how we should be?

IFOASmallBadgeSheila Heti will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors to interview Karl Ove Knausgärd.

This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.

Next Wednesday, thoughts on another IFOA2014 author.

Alice Simpson’s Ballroom (2014)

The reader moves onto the floor with great excitement, turning the initial pages of a debut novel, heartbeat slightly accelerated, hopes and expectations heightened. It is a dance: this movement between reader and story. Alice Simpson’s Ballroom takes that connection seriously.

Ballroom (1)

HarperCollins, 2014

The very structure of the novel mirrors the movements on a dance floor of the ballroom, not in a competitive event in which a couple would remain in each other’s company for the entire event, but a public venue, one in which dancers must shift partners as time passes.

And, so, the focus of the narrative shifts, from partner to partner, from character to character. Readers must step quickly, move from one set of arms to another comfortably. Those readers who would prefer a broader, over-arching narrative arc — a single, devoted narrator/partner — may find these shifts frustrating, but a single voice would not suit a story which is rooted in constant movement. The form is a perfect reflection of the story.

Readers spend only a few pages with one character before the perspective shifts to another character, though the reader’s experiences with each character do intensify as, after being introduced and through repeated encounters, the reader can more completely understand the dance partners, as the everyday details are compounded by history and memories, though relayed with a light touch.

The author’s skill at depicting heavy subject matter with a gentle hand is remarkable. Indeed, one could view ballroom dancing as an art form which presents a distinct impression of decorum and beauty, an impressive veneer obscuring something else entirely which lurks beneath the surface. Partners may exhibit a well-rehearsed impression of passion and connection, even if the only harmonious element between them is their shared desire to dance well. In Ballroom, the characters are presented impeccably, and their steps accomplished and learned, but beneath the surface they embody many contradictions.

The glamour and intensity of dance partners mirrors the idea that every reader has a perfect book awaiting them, every dancer the perfect partner. A scan of the dance floor, might lead one to believe that there are some ideal partnerships gliding across the floor. But the majority of the dancers in Ballroom are as flawed and damaged as the rest of us. They may be more impeccably dressed and coiffed, but they are as often lonely and yearning, hesitant and fearful, as they are connected and thriving, assured and successful.

“She can’t explain or quite understand what it is that is special about dancing with Harry. When he opens his arms to her, he is so sure, the way he holds her, not too hard, not too soft. Like coming home. Where she belongs. The way he moves her. They are a part of the music. Their bodies fit together, move like one person. Perfect. The way a man and a woman must feel, she thinks, when they are in love. He makes her feel beautiful, too, like when he assures her that someday she will be good enough to be a professional dancer. Harry must know, because he is the best dancer, the best teacher, a girl could have, patient and gentle. She is lucky that he believes in her. That is how she feels outside his door.”

Harry has lived four floors above the Rodriguez family since before Maria was born, but when she grew old enough to begin taking dance lessons on Friday evenings, Harry’s dreams about/for her, and Maria’s dreams, too, crystallize and form a pattern like dance steps drawn across a tiled floor.

Alice Simpson

Alice Simpson

The characters in Ballroom do crave love, and sometimes romantic love, even though they often (like Maria) cannot clearly articulate what that means, neither to explain it or understand it. But ultimately what they crave is the sense of partnership that is an integral part of ballroom dancing.

The nature of true partnership is a theme which Alice Simpson’s work explores in a variety of situations. Characters in her debut reach out and retract, step forward and back; they may make mis-steps, but they recognize the value of taking a bow with a flourish. Individuals may, like Gabriel, be married, or like Sarah, have been married multiple times, but they do not inhabit the role of partner in these capacities; they step onto the ballroom floor hoping for a true connection there which they lack in their everyday lives.

Stylistically, Alice Simpson frames her work with a series of quotes from classic references on ballroom dancing, but notably the excerpts often apply to the study of relationships as well as they apply to dancing.

The work concludes with a Ballroom Bibliography, but the author is clearly just as fascinated by the dances between partners off the ballroom floor; she is preoccupied by the footwork of human relationships, and Ballroom will perhaps appeal more to readers who have an interest in human mis-steps than in perfectly executed dance routines.

Ballroom is stylistically deft and structurally impressive, but the reader might be uncomfortable with the reality which lurks beneath the beautiful presentation. Alice Simpson is not inviting the reader to attend a performance and admire from a distance; the reader must take to the floor and might well be as breathless from a broken heart as from an invigorating number.

Thanks to TLC for inviting me to participate in this book tour. If you’d like to consider other readers’ opinions of the book, check out the following:

Click for details

Click for details

Wednesday, September 10th: Tutu’s Two Cents
Thursday, September 11th: she treads softly
Monday, September 15th: Kritters Ramblings
Tuesday, September 16th: BookNAround
Wednesday, September 17th: I’d Rather Be At The Beach
Thursday, September 18th: Walking With Nora
Friday, September 19th: Not in Jersey
Tuesday, September 23rd: Drey’s Library
Friday, September 26th: Books, Books Everywhere
Monday, September 29th: Book Loving Hippo
Wednesday, October 1st: Book by Book
Friday, October 3rd: Stephany Writes
Monday, October 6th: Consuming Culture
Wednesday, October 8th: Reads for Pleasure
Wednesday, October 8th: Ms. Nose in a Book
Thursday, October 9th: bookchickdi

Broken: Careers, Contracts, Society

Each of these novels considers a shattered state of being, whether the devastation plays out through the cycle of addiction or societal breakdown or international conflicts. The characters employ a variety of coping mechanisms and the authors’ styles are diverse; Elizabeth Renzetti’s Based on a True Story, Edan Lepucki’s California and Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking make for a fascinating trio.

Elizabeth Renzetti’s Based on a True Story (House of Anansi, 2014)

Based True Story Renzetti

House of Anansi, 2014

Augusta Price’s career is no longer thriving. She was recently invited to the panel discussion “Type-A Personalities: The Evolution of the Vampire Medical Drama”, based on her “iconic role” as Dr. Helen Mount in “The Blood Bank”. Augusta once volleyed this offer into the trash. But freshly returned from rehab, with her options dwindling, she digs through the bin and reconsiders.

“The blanket of tequila had slipped away, and she felt as naked and miserable as she ever had. How in God’s name did people cope with these emotions all the time.”

Most immediately disturbing is that she has heard that Kenneth Deller is publishing a book. The most recent article written about Augusta was titled “Washed-Up Tales from a Soap Flake”, penned (but not titled) by Frances, whose work as a journalist claims a share of the narrative in Based on a True Story.  What Augusta shared with Frances was one version of the truth, but Augusta is concerned that Kenneth’s printed version of the truth might hit the press before she is prepared to deal with the fallout.

“Eventually everything comes back to bite you in the arse,” she said. “Even the things that used to kiss it.”

The bulk of Based on a True Story is devoted to considering the unraveling and reweaving of the stories people tell, to each other and to themselves. Frances, too, is reconsidering her perspective on her own career and romance, and perhaps recognizes a kindred spirit in Augusta, who is at another stage in life, seemingly years apart from either romance or motherhood, but still trying to make sense of both.

“Why on earth do people write them [books]? I’ll tell you why. […] To win. So your side of the story can win. Because they last forever, those fuckers. Longer than movies. Longer than music. Much, much longer than love.”

Elizabeth Renzetti’s novel is rooted in Augusta’s voice, flamboyant and bold. Because she feels the threat of being exposed so acutely, she remains a character to whom readers can relate. She might have crossed the line into caricature if she did not acknowledge the cracks in the veneer of her carefully constructed “true” story.  But, as it is, readers will accompany her, just as Frances does, on her quest to rewrite the truth.

* Companion Reads: Louisa McCormack’s Six Weeks to Toxic, Edward Riche’s Easy to Like

Little, Brown and Company, 2014

Little, Brown and Company, 2014

Edan Lepucki’s California (Little, Brown and Company, 2014)

Cal and Frida are living off the grid when readers meet them. The world as it exists today is broken and Cal and Frida live in relative isolation, so there is little for the readers to glean about explanations or conditions elsewhere. The novel is preoccupied with the young couple’s experiences, so the idea that there are other living conditions is irrelevant, at least as the novel begins.

“Frida had always been fascinated by the Communities, the secret life behind their walls, their riches and beauty all conjecture. In the first couple of years after they opened, Frida had conjectured a lot. L.A. was a festering wound, but just a few miles away men and women slept peacefully on canopied beds in large rooms in large houses.”

California is structured initially with a loose flow between the two narrative voices and their tendency to wander in time. There is a lot of time to simply ruminate and remember, and readers come to understand more about both characters as they contemplate their pasts, with a sense of formlessness both to their lives and futures. But this is considerable potential for plot, not only because of the unanswered questions which remain (for characters and readers alike) but also because a pattern of secrecy takes root.

“Frida hadn’t told Cal about the coyote, and she wasn’t planning to. She deserved another secret from him. It evened the score.”

Soon the structure shifts from seemingly casual forays into the past to a more linear focus on the future. Readers are swept up in a cascade of events which unfold as Cal and Frida attempt to negotiate possible connections with other individuals who are also living outside the Communities; California becomes less about character and more about action and the element of secrecy which develops between Cal and Frida is mesmerizing in the context of a plot-soaked tale.

Nonetheless, Edan Lepucki’s narrative remains loosely constructed. Readers are likely to expect a taut narrative style after key plot developments are revealed, but inconsistencies disrupt the page-turning potential. On one page, a bra is stuffed into a duffel bag; a few pages later, it is hanging over a carriage rail. On one page, a woman is described as being eight months pregnant and too uncomfortable to sleep well; a couple of pages later, she is described as being in her third trimester with the baby’s acrobatics keeping her awake nights. (Repetition and contradiction can be used to reveal character and emphasize significant details, but that does not appear to be the case here.)

California falls somewhere between a highly (and imperfectly) detailed, character-soaked novel and a compelling plot-driven drama. Colson Whitehead’s Zone One might be more likely to appeal to readers looking for the former whereas Jean Hegland’s Into the Forest, could satisfy readers seeking the latter. And, yet, there is an element of enchantment about California, perhaps rooted in the love story between Cal and Frida which first draws readers’ attention in the novel’s opening pages. Even readers who would rather have had the novel settle more solidly into one style or the other are likely to find it entertaining and engaging.

Companion Reads: Steven King’s Under the Dome, Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers

Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking (HarperCollins, 2014)

Undertaking Magee

HarperCollins, 2014

Katharina and Peter do not have a typical courtship. It is, indeed, an undertaking to arrange their official union; they marry during WWII in a sort of proxy service, before they have even met, but wartime requires creative problem-solving.

The process, however, places curious demands not only on the couple but on the family members watching the drama unfold. Both Katharina and Peter struggle to convey their commitment to those who expect the process of getting married to take a different shape.

“She closed her bedroom door and pushed against it, locking out her parents. She was twenty-two years of age. A married woman. When would they accept that and stop calling her girl? He had to come back to take her away from them, because she couldn’t bear it any longer. Being their daughter. The good girl.”

Audrey Magee’s language is simple and her style uncluttered. This is wartime and neither the grim scenes which Peter inhabits nor the fraught emotions which Katharina experiences on the homefront are belaboured. The pacing of the story is remarkably quick, urged onwards with scenic writing and adept use of dialogue. Readers who might habitually avoid wartime novels would likely find this one exceptional for its accessibility.

Readers who require their characters be likeable, however, might face more of a challenge. One reason is demonstrated in this brief quote from a letter Katharina has sent to Peter:

PPS I hope that you are not having an affair with some Russian woman. Natasha here is a little dull to look at, but I am sure there are others who are prettier. You wouldn’t, would you? ”

Peter is much more accepting than some readers, for given what he has recently endured (and readers are aware as it has been presented in his alternating portions of the narrative), it is at least laughable, if not insulting, that he be accused of a dalliance while he is struggling to survive. (To be fair, Peter has not shared any of his experiences with Katharina, seemingly to protect her, so perhaps she could not be expected to reprioritize her concerns.)

The Undertaking does consider war on the front and on the homefront. Like Marghanita Laski’s To Bed with Grand Music, some of Katharina’s experiences are less commonly shared on the page than the battle scenes one associates with wartime fiction; but though it carries a weight, the homefront is not at the heart of the novel, as it is in Laski’s or in Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers.

“The sky was a chalky orange, a mixture of fire and dust. She could see the planes, little black dots waltzing over houses and shops, over people; swirling and twisting around each other in a dance of incongruous beauty. She closed the window, shutters and curtains, sat down on the chair beside Johannes’ bed and pulled the blanket over her shoulders and chest, her feet against her brother’s hand, her hands over her womb.”

Katharina’s concerns are those which unfold within four walls and Peter’s are those which unfold without; the novel’s ultimate concern is the collision between those realities and how that affects their relationship. It is, unequivocally, an undertaking.

Companion Reads: Lilian Nattal’s The River Midnight, Paulette Jiles’ Enemy Women

Have you read any of these? Or, are they on your TBR stack/list?

Diversiverse 2014 – Reading more diversely

Diversiverse2014Of course I made a reading list.

Then, I saw Vasilly’s list. (You probably already know where this is heading.)

Her list has many temptations on it, including some of my favourites.

But I have been looking for a reason to read the rest of Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series since I read the first volume as part of the spring 2012 Dewey’s Read-A-Thon.

And when I was pulling them from the shelves, I realized that the shelves of kidlit and YA at home are not very diverse. On the outside, these shelves are the most colourful in the house; on the inside, the main characters and authors’ jacket photos are whitewhitewhite.

Which got me thinking that I should read more Diversiverse books for younger readers. In general, yes, but for this event in particular.

Wandering Son(I guess I’ve done so before, because I read and loved Hiromi Goto’s Darkest Light for the first Diversiverse – it’s the sequel to her Half World  but I didn’t think of them as books for teens.)

So, after all that, I ended up with a different list.

(You knew that was coming, right?)

Shimura Takako’s Wandering Son (Fantagraphics, 2011) “You should have been born a girl.” Nitori Shuichi felt this the first time that he put on a dress, but hearing it expressed in another’s voice adds to his conviction. Soon this fifth grade student realizes just how vitally important it is to have supportive friends who recognize and accept this truth as well. Shimura Takako’s Bud Not Buddystyle is gentle and the drawings are primarily focussed on faces and bodies with a few scenic panels to set the stage at school or home, which suits a tale devoted to inner questioning and truthtelling.

The narrator of Christopher Paul Curtis’ Bud, Not Buddy (1999) is one year older than Kenny in the author’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, but Bud is every bit as entertaining and savvy. Some of my favourite parts of the novel are the excerpts from Bud’s Rules and Things lists, like number 83: “If a Adult Tells You Not to Worry, and You Weren’t Worried Before, You Better Hurry Up and Start ‘Cause You’re Already Running Late”. Not just entertaining, mind you. Readers learn about the foster care system, the Great Depression, Hooverville (the cardboard jungle or shantytown on the fringes of Flint, Michigan) and meet Deza Malone (who will feature in a later novel called The Mighty Miss Malone).

Kazu Kibuishi’s The Stonekeeper  (2008) introduces readers to two near-orphans (they make the best heroines, don’t they?), Emily and Navin. This sister and younger brother soon find themselves in unfamiliar territory, emphasizing that family bonds are the only securities in life. Their circle of supporters soon widens, however, and a web of allies (some appearing from unlikely directions) broadens the cast and the story’s complexity. The art straddles the line between cutesy and striking, and Emily shows tremendous courage in the face of her fear. The question of the ways in which we trust/distrust our inner voice(s) will clearly take on a more dramatic importance as the series unfolds. And, yet, the book is surprisingly satisfying on its own, which a particularly great ending, which embodies the volume’s uncertainty without sacrificing a sense of promise.Stonekeepers Curse

Kazu Kibuishi’s The Stonekeeper’s Curse (2009) ends on a cliff-hanger, but readers who have come to the series late will have outsmarted the creators and gathered the remaining volumes. There is less of a sense of tangible discovery in this second volume, as friendships intensify and alliances are secured, and the plot contains even more action than the introductory volume. There is a great rooftop scene and there are few phrases as exciting for fantasy readers to hear as “pilot the house” (unless it is “port town”, which should conjure up images of the canteen in “Star Wars”). Even so, the emphasis remains on characters and relationships. “Not everybody wants to be a hero,” says one. And the reply? “But they should.” Whether or not readers agree with that pronouncement, Emily’s reluctant heroism is the stuff of good fiction.

What have you been reading that would fit into a Diversiverse reading list?

Have you read any of these? Are there others that you think I should add to yet another list?

Nadia Bozak’s Borders

Excerpt from reading journal:

Orphan Love BozakNadia Bozak is the reason that I have copies of the three books in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy on my shelves. Books that I never planned to read, but I came across the idea that the works were somehow connected with her novels Orphan Love and El Niño. And, so, the TBR grew.

And to begin with, if indeed there is a beginning to this process, I have a copy of El Niño because of its relationship to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.

This is how it happens: one book leads to another, and so on and so on. I copied a page from Aislinn Hunter’s A Peepshow with Views of the Interior because El Niño was already in my stack when I read this bit:

“Books communicate. This is one of their functions. They move ideas from one consciousness to another. But the reader is never passive in this. They can stop reading and look up. They can, as a friend once did with Coetzee’s Disgrace, become enraged at a turn of events and throw the book into a lake. In this way reading is sometimes an act of creation. What the author presents and what we glean from it forming a new kind of knowledge.”

Within this Continuity of Books (if you haven’t read Julio Cortázar’s “Continuity of Parks”, in Blow-up and Other Stories, it’s terrific), I imagined Nadia Bozak as that friend, her copy of Disgrace the same edition as mine, a trade paperback its spine like-new but pages yellowed, dodging the flies above a Northern Lake before ker-splatting, hovering on the surface for just a moment before sinking.

I imagine her clicking her pen against her cheekbone, that moment of impact before scribbling a few images and ideas in a notebook, thoughts which would fester into not only a novel but a cycle of books whose stories have slipped from their writers’ consciousnesses into her own. The guts of Orphan Love and El Niño are indeed acts of creation, a new kind of knowledge, raw and visceral.

“Woke up wet and in dirt and in a world that smelled so ripe, like rain. And it reeked of home that way, that soaking cold soil, worse than any kind of old piss or nicotine fingers. Iron on tongue, the taste of hate on the brain, in the buds. Like this, then, I opened my eyes and saw that I was still deep inside the northern bush, so cold and wet and always with that stink like fresh bloody birth. So here was me, just Bozak, like I thought I’d always wanted, though for so long I’d imagined being alone would also mean being with Slava O’Right. But alone I was. That was how it worked out, me running off into the bush like some kind of mad trapper.”

These worlds, Northern Ontario in Orphan Love and the southwestern desert in El Niño, are ripe and fresh with stink. The sensory details are evocative and soaked with the ethos of predator and prey. I feel a little like a wingless reader, pursued by a writer whose story I want to escape but am compelled to continue reading.

“Her side is numb where the texture of the earth has been stamped into her furless flesh. The hill and valley are as quiet and still as she; any bits of life have been consumed by the bald birds waiting above her. Inside the great grey cactus, baby birds — now orphaned — cheep-cheep, pecking at each other. The strongest of them will bite its brothers and sisters until they are gone and then itself tumble, wingless, from the nest.”

Bozak El NinoThe borders in these stories are liquid and shifting, and even the name of the Oro Desert El Niño offers another border, an ‘r’ surrounded by ‘o’s in this imagined place. And, yet, as surprisingly loose as the borders seem to be, characters are increasingly confined as plots unfold, conflicted and under attack. With or without parental ties, characters are adrift and searching, caught in a maze.

“The wall was closing in. It was really going to plug up the border’s ratholes, burn out its nests of boys, forcing them to find a way out of the south by some other channel, route, or maze, of which little boys with not enough to eat can always find many. Juan said again that it was coming time to quit while they were ahead.”

The elements in Nadia Bozak’s writing are characters in their own right, and they insist on their own borders. Readers suffer a barrage of strikes, forced to absorb the onslaught from the sidelines (through two characters in the first novel and three characters in the second).

“Rain had the world by the throat, forcing it to choke down its cold and raw goodness, driving ponds and rivers to fill and flow, swelling lakes until they burst their ancient seams. And the world, it just stood there and took it.”

The effect is overwhelming, simultaneously overload and deprivation. These are not comfortable stories to read. Not only are the settings extreme and inhospitable, the characters strained and struggling, but structurally, the reader stretches back and forth between times (and voices, in El Niño).

“Like Marianne, the Tribal is dried out and wrinkled. It’s the same car she drove down to Matchstick some ten years before and together they have grown old here. Honey folds herself inside the squat driver’s seat, pushed back as far as it will go. She and Marianne are way too tall for women; Keith considers them both a little too thin. But down here Marianne became that tough kind of skinny, held together with sinew and unsnappable bone.”

There, in the joins between sinew and unsnappable bone, readers are twisted and pressed. So much of what happens is horrid and relentlessly demanding. Orphan Love is exhausting, my shoulders and back all-a-throb from the paddling through the backwaters of Northern Ontario and ugliness of the world. And El Niño is infuriating (the anger I remember feeling at the end of Disgrace seems pale in comparison) , to the point that I might have tossed it into a lake if one was within throwing distance.

But here’s the thing: the second book truly upset me. Aspects of El Niño make me want to beg Nadia Bozak for a rewrite. I want to ask her why she had to tell the story that way. The ‘why’ pleading and accusatory. But I know it’s a fruitless question. She wrote the story because these are true stories, such is the world we inhabit. Maybe she hated writing the parts of the story that I hated reading. I imagine her throwing down her pen at the end writing the last chapter like I threw down the book when I finished reading.

In the context of that story, in the process of pleading for something other, I am desperate for change, desperate to make the story different.

When books take readers to places that hurt, readers can stop reading and look up.

They can become enraged. And that desire for a new story is a catalyst for change.

IFOASmallBadgeNadia Bozak 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.

Heather O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (2014)

When a passage on page two is just breathtakingly powerful, readers’ expectations soar. It seems impossible to imagine reading beyond this passage without stopping to reread, or not reading it aloud to a friend sitting alongside, or not tapping the stranger sitting next to you, pointing and saying “Check this out”.

Girl Saturday Night ONeill

HarperCollins, 2014

  “We were all descended from orphans in Québec. Before I’d dropped out of high school, I remembered reading about how ships full of girls were sent from Paris to New France to marry the inhabitants. They stepped off the boat with puke on their dresses and stood on the docks, waiting to be chosen.
They were pregnant before they even had a chance to unpack their bags. They didn’t want this. They didn’t want to populate this horrible land that was snow and rocks and skinny wolves. They spoke to their children through gritted teeth. That’s where the Québec accent came from. The nation crawled out from between their legs.”

But when readers respond passionately to a work so early, there is an immediate concern that perhaps that level of accomplishment cannot be sustained.

When it comes to Heather O’Neill’s use of language, it is consistently powerful and beautiful throughout her second novel.

This is evident in short metaphoric bursts and in other sweeping descriptive statements. Her description of the Montreal setting is another fine example and indeed it is impossible to imagine the novel unfolding anywhere else.

“Dreaming too big was the cause of much horror on Boulevard Saint-Laurent. The street was filled with people whose dreams had gone bust. It wasn’t always drugs and bad childhoods that brought them this low. It was ambition. There was a whole group of fallen Icaruses sitting under the blazing fluorescent lights at the soup kitchen. Their jackets were half blown off by the fall. They had the complexions of clowns whose cigars had just exploded.”

These descriptions can contain a sensory weight, another dimension of possibility, that might remain static in another writer’s hands.

“There were horses on one of the girls’ T-shirts. If you put your ear up against her chest, you could hear them galloping. I was here on Rue Saint-Catherine that the most beautiful kisses in the world were grown.”

Heather O’Neill’s prose is remarkably lyrical, uncomplicated but impressive. Readers who appreciate beautiful prose, like that of Anne Michaels with a dash of the unexpected as in Karen Russell’s, will likely find themselves flagging multiple passages, regularly rereading and admiring phrases and paragraphs.

But whether the novel truly succeeds with readers depends upon a connection to character. The language alone is not enough to ferry readers through a narrative preoccupied with insecurity and near-misery.

Readers are immersed in simultaneous connection and disconnection and varied states between; there is constant conflict, in the shape of collisions and separations which threaten (and sometimes achieve) disruption or decimation.

This is certainly true of the core relationship, between siblings Nouschka and Nicolas, who are immovable, riding down the middle of the novel’s street.

  “I suppose there was something a bit freakish about our relationship. We hadn’t changed the way we acted very much at all since we were seven.
Nicolas got on his bicycle and rode next to me. We rode our bicycles in the middle of the street. The cars behind us kept honking at us to tell us to move out of the way. But we didn’t move. We still owned that street.”

But it is also true about provincial relationships, for considerable conflict is building regarding whether Quebec will separate from Canada.

“Other countries had declarations of independence written by men with white wigs and tailcoats and buckled shoes. Ours was written by men with bell-bottoms and sideburns and tinted sunglasses and enormous butterfly collars.”

This is uncomfortable territory, and relationships of all kinds are strained and fractured. Although in some ways The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is a love story, that does not guarantee a happy ending for either characters or readers.

“Love is like this small room where a child brings you to show you all their treasures. First the child shows you all the new toys that are bright and shiny and top of the line. But then she shows you all the stuff that has ended up at the bottom of the trunk.”

As in Lullabies for Little Criminals, however, there is a respite offered through art.

“Writers looked for secrets that had never been mined. Every writer has to invent their own magical language, in order to describe the indescribable. They might seem to be writing in French, English or Spanish, but really they were writing in the language of butterflies, crows and hanged men.”

Much of this story is difficult and painful, but there is something redemptive about the storyteller’s approach which eases readers’ discomfort. Readers who require a sense of steady progression and likeable characters will perhaps prefer another day of the week. But readers who appreciated the harsh beauty of Lullabies for Little Criminals will fervently admire The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.

IFOASmallBadgeHeather O’Neill 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.

September 2014, In My Notebook (Giveaway too!)

Check out this giveaway opportunity for Philippa Gregory’s new novel about lady-in-waiting Margaret Pole’s unique view of King Henry VIII’s stratospheric rise to power in Tudor England.

Gregory Kings Curse

Simon & Schuster, 2014

This corresponds with the lists in my notebook which detail the books in her series. The first that I read was (oh, horrorors!) actually the third volume in The Cousins’ War series.

That didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of it, but I have yet to go back to fill in the gaps so that I can enjoy her latest, The King’s Curse, which is the sixth volume. (There is a chapter excerpt here.)

The Cousins’ War:

  • The White Queen (2008)
  • The Red Queen (2010)
  • The Lady of the Rivers (2011)
  • The Kingmaker’s Daughter (2012)
  • The White Princess (32013)
  • The King’s Curse (2014)

Philippa Gregory has a habit of pulling the women of history onto centre stage and making their stories. She has also written The Wideacre Trilogy (Wideacre, The Favored Child, Meridon) and The Tudor Court series.

The Tudor Court:

  • The Constant Princess (2005)
  • The Other Boleyn Girl (2001)
  • The Boleyn Inheritance (2006)
  • The Queen’s Fool (2003)
  • The Virgin’s Lover (2004)
  • The Other Queen (2008)

Givewaway Details: There are two opportunties via Simon & Schuster Canada.

First, for two tickets to the Philippa Gregory event. Leave a comment with your full name and indicating your interest in attending the Al Green Theatre in the Miles Nadal JCC in Toronto Ontario on Monday, September 22, 2014 at 7pm.

Next, for a copy of The King’s Curse. Leave a comment indicating your interest in winning the hardcover novel. If you win, you will need to provide me with your name and address. (Canadian residents only.)

If you are interested in both the pair of tickets and the book, please indicate this in your comment.

Entries will be received until midnight (EST) September 18, 2014 and I will email winners on September 19, 2014.

Also in my notebook for September?

Rawi Hage Film Cockroach

Film inspired by Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach

Notes about “The Underground”, a short film based on Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach.

Its World Premiere was last night, part of TIFF’s Short Cuts Canada, and it plays again today in Toronto (Friday, Sept 12 at 2:45 pm at Scotiabank 10)

“A visceral portrayal of an Iranian man’s struggle to fit into Western culture, The Underground is a new short film by critically acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Michelle Latimer, which is set to have its World Premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

Araz, an Iranian refugee in Canada, experiences North American life by imagining himself as a cockroach. Having fought to escape the warzone he once called home, and destined for a fresh start, Araz arrives in Canada to find that North American life is not what he had dreamed of. In a struggle to overcome poverty and isolation, he turns inward in hopes of experiencing the life that eludes him.

Deeply disturbed by how ethnic assimilation remains at the root of so many humanitarian disasters, Writer/Director Michelle Latimer was fascinated by the prevalence of the cockroach as a symbol in genocidal propaganda, spanning multiple time periods, geographic regions and cultures.

“This story illuminates how the persistent notion of a human underclass impacts our humanity”, says Latimer.  “Informed by my Indigenous heritage and inspired by Rawi Hage’s courageous novel, I wanted to challenge and address this idea, while further exploring the issues of identity, loss of language, and assimilation.”

The Underground was Produced by Tara Woodbury and Kerry Swanson, and Executive Produced by Paula Devonshire and Danis Goulet with support from the National Screen Institute’s Drama Prize Program.”

Summer Canadian Story 2014

Hosted by Write Reads

And more scribblings?

A list of the short story collections that I read which fit into the Summer of the Canadian Short Story challenge:
David Helwig and Sandra Martin’s edited collection 84: Best Canadian Short Stories,
Samuel Thomas Martin’s This Ramshackle Tabernacle,
Richard van Camp’s edited collection Coming Home,
Andrea Routley’s Jane and the Whales,
Janine Alyson Young’s Hideout Hotel,
Alice Munro’s Runaway,
Gilles Archambault’s In a Minor Key,
Kathy Page’s Paradise and Elsewhere, and
Mary Sodertrom’s Desire Lines.

I dabbled in others, but I didn’t even get to pull Lorna Goodison’s By Love Possessed, Austin Clarke’s Choosing His Coffin or Clark Blaise’s A North American Education off the shelves. As usual, the list which seems to matter more is the list of books remaining, the stories which I still hope to read in 2014.

And last, but certainly not least, my list of possibles for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril IX, hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. Sign-ups here.
The event focuses on the following kinds of stories:
RIP IX Challenge

Hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings

Dark Fantasy

Or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above.

That is what embodies the stories, written and visual, that we celebrate with the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril event.”

And, there are two simple rules:

1. Have fun reading (and watching).
2. Share that fun with others.

You can sign up here. And then you will have a list in your notebook too. Although of course my list has more to do with dreams than reality. I figure I’ll read about 6 or 8 titles and maybe 2 or 3 of them will be from these lists. I am a moody reader, and the titles which appealed to me when I made these lists might not be the ones which insist on being read when I actually sit down with a book in hand.

Ordinary Wolf Girl

Anyone else thinking “GingerSnaps”?

Creepy Canlit for Grown-ups
Kelley Armstrong’s Visions (second in Cainsville series, following Omens)
Todd Babiak’s Come, Barbarians
Linwood Barclay’s No Time for Goodbye and Safe House
Joey Comeau’s The Summer is Ended and We Are Not Yet Saved
Nick Cutter’s forthcoming novel, The Deep
A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife
Matthew Heti’s The City Still Breathing
Emily Pohl-Weary’s Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl
Andrew Pyper’s The Guardians
Michael Rowe’s Enter, Night
Robin Spano’s Dead Politician Society
Russell Wangersky’s Walt
Michael Winter’s The Death of Donna Whalen

Group R.I.P. Read
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House

Creepy Canlit for Teens
Kelley Armstrong’s Sea of Shadows (Age of Legends #1)
Leah Bobet’s Above
Erin Bow’s Plain Kate, Sorrow’s Knot
Charles de Lint’s Under My Skin (Wildlings #1)
Maggie de Vries’ Rabbit Ears
Hopkinson, Nalo Sister Mine
Evan Munday’s The Dead Kid Detective Agency, Dial M for Morna
Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavour (Viktor Frankenstein #1)
Shane Peacock’s Eye of the Crow (Boy Sherlock Holmes #1)
Edeet Ravel’s Held
The Seven Series, an interconnected set of seven mysteries
Drew Hayden Taylor’s The Night Wanderer
Richard Scrimger’s Zomboy

ow about you? What bookish notes have you been making lately in your notebook?

Have you read any of the books discussed here? Are some on your TBR?

Debra Komar’s The Lynching of Peter Wheeler (2014)

Debra Komar creates a narrative which manages to straddle the line between scholarly analysis and page-turner, relying upon court records, newspapers, and other historical documentation to gather evidence surrounding the murder of 14-year-old Annie Kempton in Bear River, Nova Scotia in 1896.

Lynching Wheeler

Goose Lane Editions, 2014

“This book looks back so we can see ourselves more clearly now,” the author explains.

“David Milgaard, William Mullins-Johnson, Anthony Hanemaayer, Steven Truscott, Kyle Unger, Romeo Philion, Guy Paul Morin — a tragic litany of wrongful convictions plague the Canadian justice system, men falsely accused of murder and caged for decades for crimes they did not commit. Their faces form a dire and haunting portrait of a legal system fraught with injustice, bias, and all-too-human error. We sit equally transfixed and paralyzed by their nightmarish tales of agony and salvation. The nation’s news cameras focus on these exonerated men but only by widening the lens to include Peter Wheeler does a clearer picture emerge. More than a century on, it appears we are none the wiser when it comes to understanding how wrongful convictions occur.”

Along the way, in pursuit of understanding how Peter Wheeler was sentenced to death for this crime despite solid evidence of his innocence, many subjects of historical relevance are explored.

Debra Komar considers the practices of newspaper reporters (the ways in which a thirst for salacious detail overrode traditional constraints), policing and the crime fighting ethos (with an emphasis on prevention and collaring drunks), the synchronicity of this crime’s proximity to the London papers’ reporting of Jack the Ripper’s exploits (which influenced the aforementioned members of the community and the community-at-large) and the question of forensic science in regards to this case.

About 50 pages into the work, the proverbial tide turns against Peter Wheeler. A teenage girl’s testimony raises doubts as to the veracity of Peter Wheeler’s original statement. Debra Komar’s description of the scene serves as an example of the way in which she infuses trial transcripts with personality and emotion.

“The Morine girl swore Annie never asked her to stay that evening or any other. Under questioning, Grace was defiant, wielding all the petulance and indignation afforded a teenage girl accused of something she did not do.”

The author blatantly addresses the racism which also fuelled the fire lit beneath Peter Wheeler.

“In 1896 Canada was unfathomably, unrecognizably racist. The country, a mere twenty-eight years old, had already weathered a turbulent and troubled history. During their formative years, the Maritime provinces had witnessed the expulsion of the Acadians and the systematic denigration of its First Nations peoples. Many had known slavery to be legal in their lifetime. Halifax, the region’s capital and one of the principal gateways to the New World, funnelled an endless stream of cultures, creeds, and languages through its port and expelled them into the less than welcoming arms of those eking out a living in the lands and waters beyond. Clashes verging on race wars were inevitable.”

Her background in forensics provides useful information. For instance, readers learn that the techniques used to determine time of death in 1896 are based in the same three principles today, which are known as the Mortis sisters: Algor Mortis, Livor Mortis, and Rigor Mortis (temperature, lividity, and muscle rigidity).  She also explains that the “potential of fingerprints in criminal investigations was widely recognized but poorly understood” as another factor which contributed to the unjust prosecution of Peter Wheeler.

And, perhaps most impressively, based on the transcripts and testimony, she re-constructs a timeline which was deliberately presented in such a disorderly fashion as to obscure the fact that much evidence was provided to vindicate Peter Wheeler of this charge.

The narrative is interspersed with a number of illustrations including hand-drawn maps provided to the coroner during inquest, archival photos of Bear River, and artists’ renderings of participants in the trial. It is followed with twenty pages of references in the endnotes, predominantly newspaper articles with frequent nods to the trial transcripts.

Although The Lynching of Peter Wheeler could have been written in a dry, officious tone based on the documentary evidence, Debra Komar presents her findings in a consistently engaging style. History lovers and readers of crime fiction are both likely to be satisfied with the results.

Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings (2014)

Like his first novel, Touch, The Lobster Kings showcases Alexi Zentner’s penchant for storytelling.

Knopf Canada, 2014

Knopf Canada, 2014

Readers who learn that this novel is a retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy “King Lear” might expect the tale to distance readers, with the original story centuries old and memories of stilted readings in school or black-and-white films working against its relevance.

There is perhaps a sense of out-of-time-ness for the story, the setting a small fishing village, its island setting further removing the events from the recognizable for contemporary urban readers. Nonetheless, although the setting is a vitally important element of the story, vividly drawn and sensorily rich, the themes transfer readily to this modern retelling.

The territories of fishers in a world which has recognized too late the value of sustainable food production make a thriving conflict not only credible but inevitable.

“‘’What do you think, Cordelia?’ he said as he hauled open the door of the diner. He paused, glancing in the diner to make sure everybody was paying attention, and then looked back at Rena and me, his voice loud enough to carry both inside and out. ‘We’ll encourage the James Harbor boys to get out of our waters, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll go to war.’’”

The storyteller’s voice is assured and the device openly acknowledged, which adds a playful tone to the work, this modern Cordelia an updated version of the character insisting on her rightful place on the boat.

“Cordelia. Straight out of Shakespeare, and god thank my mother for exerting at least a small amount of restraint on Daddy for the rest of the children. Cordelia. The name was my father’s idea of a joke. We were the Kings, and so he’d give me the name of the king’s favourite daughter, the one banished but true. When I finally read the play, my junior year in high school, I went up to my father in a huff, pointing out that the play ended with me dead.”

The Kings family is haunted by loss. The backdrop of tragedy echoes Shakespeare’s story delicately but deliberately. Brumfitt Kings’ paintings bring that off-the-page so convincingly that readers will be inclined to look up the works online.

“The series probably wouldn’t have been considered so important if the dates and the events hadn’t lined up so neatly with Brumfitt’s own life: his oldest son died at the age of ten, in December of 1739, his boat overturned in a storm, his body broken against the rocks. The first Kings boy taken by the sea.”

(In the same way that I, as a young girl, longed for my favourite storybooks to be made into films – before I realized that that would only be satisfied if I was making the film based on my own interpretation of the story – I long to see Brumfitt Kings’ paintings on canvas. I, like the tourists in the novel, would travel to Loosewood Island to see the vantage points depicted in the artworks I would have found in galleries around the world; I would dream of discovering a treasure chest with his lost works inside.)

The novel is told from Cordelia’s vantage point. Although unflaggingly loyal to her father, she is not quite the blindly devoted daughter of Shakespeare’s play; an experience in Cordelia King’s younger years has allowed her to view her father not only as her father but as a man stressed and strained by the demands of life. (This scene of her realization haunts me still.) This perspective on his humanity affords her a degree of objectivity which allows her to be as dutiful as her namesake without crossing the line into too-good-to-be-true.

This kind of subtle machination is what makes the mythic elements of the novel work so well too. In some respects this is simply elemental. It is not a stretch, for instance, for readers to accept that a fishing family would have an almost sacred connection to the water.

“I like to think of it as something else, something mythical and primal, like the sea just pulls at me and will never let me go. We’re connected to the earth and the earth is connected to the sea, and once you’ve had a taste of the ocean—if you’re a true child of the ocean—nothing can keep you away.”

But Alexi Zentner takes readers across a line, affords them the opportunity to imagine beyond the ordinary. These instances have a sensory basis – characters are generally practical, sometime even scientifically-minded – but they contain possibilities.

“My favourite picture of Brumfitt’s wife is probably Marriage Bed. It’s dated from the first year of their marriage. Brumfitt’s wife’s hair is splayed down her naked back, the sheets billowing and creased around her lower body, leaving an amorphous shape below her waist that Daddy thinks looks like a mermaid’s tail. I’m not sure that I agree with Daddy, but there is something else in the picture that makes me think of the selkie myth instead: pushed partially under the table is a stool, and on the stool is what appears to be a coat made of sealskin. Maybe Brumfitt stole her skin, but loved her enough to offer it back. And maybe she loved him enough that she didn’t take it up, loved him enough that she refused the gift of her skin returned, loved him enough that she let him keep her skin, let him keep her bound to Loosewood Island, bound to Brumfitt Kings.”

The extraordinary is invited to take its place in the tableau, perhaps not in the foreground (the skin is on a stool, pushed partially under the table) but alongside the everyday.

What is most remarkable about this novel is the balance between its moving parts; the setting, the characterization (not only of Cordelia but the supporting cast as well), and the story (divided into five parts just as “King Lear” was written in five acts, but feeling all-of-a-piece) are consistently well-drawn. What makes it succeed as a whole is the confidence and style of the storyteller’s voice.

The Lobster Kings is a tremendously satisfying read, which will particularly please readers who enjoy retellings (Jane Smiley’s Thousand Acres and Priscila Uppal’s To Whom it May Concern, among others) but it is a novel worthy of being read in its own right: a tale of Kings.

IFOASmallBadgeAlexi Zentner 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.