Molly Peacock’s Paradise, Piece by Piece (1998) reconstructs the poet’s life using fragments of memory and experience, in orderly lines of text. The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (2010) is a biography, sumptuously illustrated. Both books consider women’s work and creativity (among other things).
McClelland & Stewart, 2014
In many ways, Alphabetique feels like a union of these earlier works. It takes as its subject, the biography of the alphabet, but not just their familiar outward forms but their intimate under-sides, strikingly illustrated with a series of collages by Kara Kosaka.
Reaching beyond the author’s oeuvre, there are glimpses of Dr. Suess in the vein of “Big I, Little I, what begins with I?”
Here is part of Molly Peacock’s answer in Alphabetique:
“It was independence itself she helped her patients aim for, though Dr. I expressed this indirectly. She vowed to ease the irrational, inspire the irritable, illumine the ill, and lead them all into images of themselves, pictures they could draw internally. Dr. I thought all her patients were intrepid, even the timid ones. She understood that ichors of being flowed up and down the cores of every last one of them.”
These short narratives are playful (perhaps best enjoyed in short bursts of reading, so as they don’t become a blur of cleverness) but also acute observations of behaviour.
“U loved being useful. He was a guy who could clean an eavestrough of a Saturday morning and plough through handyman chores faster than a vacuum cleaner. He was neat, too. Always swept up the sawdust from the drill, wiped up the gunk from the old plumbing he coaxed into another year, and kept his beautiful wooden worktable oiled. The table was the pièce de résistance of his workshop off the garage, a utopia of neatly racked hardware and tools. It stood in the center, huge and ready as a canvas for the next project.”
These are not portraits conceived of in isolation, in some make-believe world that might be indexed in The Dictionary of Imagined Places. These letters inhabit a world that readers will immediately recognize and, possibly, relate to their own personal experiences.
“…her new heroines would be exceedingly vigorous and mature despite pesky ailments like heart trouble. She chose two. One came from the afterlife: Diana Vreeland (who mounted a dozen costume exhibits extraordinaires before her heart failed at eighty-six). Among the still living, she took as a heroine the spirited Diana Athill, celebrated editor and memoirist, keeping up her elucidating correspondence at ninety-six.”
(Not surprising to find contemplation of the creative life for female artists, feminism and the identification of heroines molding independent and spirited existences, when so much of Molly Peacock’s writing considers these themes.)
“Because both Diana A. and Diana V. advised the wearing of makeup in advanced age, X decided to make a short excursion of her own to an exclusive makeup counter, one of those exorbitant places that, to her, was both exhilarating and exhausting.”
Repetition and rhythm, delicacy and deliberation: Alphabetique can tickle and toy with readers’ expectations of prose, and that is largely because the work began as lyric rather than narrative. The author’s note explains the work’s transformation over time.
“The first notes of the tales began as poems. Then they transformed into stories, as if from space to time, with the radiant guidance of editor Lara Hinchberger. When the tales became formed in their imagery, CS Richardson, art director and author of the inspired abecedarian novel, The End of the Alphabet, stepped in with a brilliant layout. He then encouraged the visual poems of Kara Kosaka….”
But although the whimsical flavour lingers, strength lies at the heart of this work, inside its central core.
“T wasn’t a journalist, or a historian, or a meteorologist—she just recorded what happened in her diary. It was a self-portrait, really. Locked inside her central core. They’d have to chop her down to get at it.
Even if you’ve never wondered what the letter T’s diary might contain, Alphabetique might make you wonder why you’ve never wondered about wondering it before.
Weeks after reading these stories, a glance at the table of contents brings back their characters and arcs in a moment. (With “Flower Watching” and “Eskimos” I also required the aid of the characters’ names I’d noted.”)
These stories stood out, not only as independent narratives but, simultaneously, for the connections between them; as with Bronwen Wallace and Margaret Atwood collections, not all tales intertwine, only some and not necessarily all in a row, as Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence have done).
House of Anansi, 2014
The first story, also the title story, immediately grips the reader. Although a story rooted in stillness, there are jolts and jerks of motion which force the reader to sit upright.
This is highly appropriate given that the narrator’s existence is preoccupied with stillness. She has chronic health issues, because her spinal fluid is leaking and her brain has no suspension. A simple car ride holds the potential for excruciating pain, as the vehicle’s driver negotiates the bumps in the road.
The narrator is navigating with care and caution as well. Her life has been transformed by illness, and there is motion even in the stillness, as her body works to adapt and, hopefully, heal.
But there are bursts of intrusion with as she emerges tentatively into the outside world, and these force readers to readjust their expectations. For as small as the narrator’s world is currently, her existence is not solely defined by her illness.
This exchange between her and her mother reveals some of the themes which resurface elsewhere in the collection.
“‘You know they have some Israeli food there – labneh and zatar.’ [The mother says.]
‘It’s Persian food.’
‘Labneh is Israeli food.’
‘No, it’s Middle Eastern food. Israelis eat it because their country is in the Middle East.’
‘I grew up eating labneh.’
‘Yes, and if the Jewish state had set up shop in Sweden, you’d have grown up eating lingonberries.’”
Questions of identity, voice and belonging,relationships between daughters and mothers (and one notable step-mother), the meaning of home, the intricacy of treaties (personal and political agreements), gaps between understanding, and food: these make multiple appearances in different stories, so those readers who enjoy a tightly curated collection will likely find Chez L’Arabe quite satisfying.
Mireille Silcoff’s use of figurative language is deliberate and spare. The sky might be the colour of overlooked veal. Trouble might slide over someone like water over a rock. The leaves of stippled white birches might shimmer. But more often a story simply considers the hot and dry places in America or the contents of a shop carefully itemized. The style is matter-of-fact, measured and, on occasion, distanced. Readers are not invited to inhabit the narratives completely, but they are made comfortable in their seats on the margins.
Readers who have enjoyed the works of Ayelet Tsabari, Sarah Selecky, Clark Blaise and Saleema Nawaz, will appreciate Mireille Silcofff’s debut collection.
Some favourite quotes:
That night she let Anne get under the covers with the book from the kitchen. In bed, Anne didn’t snuggle it like a teddy but arranged it open on her chest, as if her heart could absorb its pages. ‘I like it like this,’ Anne said as her stepmother turned out the bedside lamp. The book’s spine peaked over Anne’s small rib cage like the top of a little house. As long as it was there, Anne felt, there was nothing to be afraid of. (“Davina”)
If I had suffered an ever-widening gulf between me and my best destiny, I could now feel the gap coming together, almost by magnetic force. There are no meaningless coincidences, I thought. I had zero guilt about my pilfering. I was sure that everything that was happening – that had happened – was part of a pattern, that something was happening through me, and happening for a reason, and it felt enveloping enough to contain the whole Ojai night – the stars under my skin, the moon glowing from inside my rib cage. (“Appalachian Spring”)
“Even though the author was in North America doing readings and giving interviews, it felt almost cosmically coincidental that his voice would be in my kitchen that Sunday, as if the preoccupations of / my house and that of th world outside were finally on the same page.” (“Shalom Israel!”)
“Betrayal was a point of conversion, a crux, where the victim careens to clarity. That evening, Elsa went to sleep still a dupe. The following morning, she woke up knowing it.” (“Complimentarity”)
And, even though I recalled the final two stories only foggily, when I glanced at the TOC, the following passages brought the characters back sharply.
“I had a book that had built itself up in my mind as being some kind of portal. But now I’d spend mornings raking through the first drafts of first chapters, looking for a live coal, and every paragraph trailed into ash.” (“Flower Watching”)
“There are people who just add zero to the world, so fully impermeable are they in their skin, that barely anything goes in or out.” (“Eskimos”)
Contents: Chez l’arabe, Davina, Appalachian Spring, Champ de Mars, Shalom Israel!, Complimentarity, Flower Watching, Eskimos
My grandmother attended All Saints Church. Although I was not a devout child, I have many happy memories surrounding that small brick building: bazaars and bake sales, pancake suppers and holiday lunches.
None of my happy memories reside in the pews or at the altar, however; they are attached to the basement or the kitchen, the foyer or the parking lot.
And, similiarly, the characters in K.D. Miller’s All Saints are sketched in laundry rooms and city parks, in armchairs and rehab, more often in ordinary places than in the church proper.
What unites the characters is their membership in All Saints, but otherwise the connections betweem them range from loose to non-existent (with some notable exceptions) and their connections to the church itself are of varying intensities.
Some, however, are integrally connected to the institution, as leaders (of/within the congregation), whereas others are occasional attendees.
“Yes, he would have his own parish. Finally. But it would be creaky old All Saints which was tiny and getting tinier by the Sunday. He doubted the bishop actually thought he was going to revive the place with his innovative ideas and commanding presence. More likely, it was a relatively painless way of getting rid of them both. Five or so years of ministering to a dwindling congregation would serve to end his career. And his retirement would make it easy for the diocese to turn a cool eye on All Saints, with its empty pews and emptier collection plates.” (Still Dark)
The tone shifts. Sometimes characters express themselves in brusque snippets.
“Silence. Oh, right. You know how it’s going to be now, once you do go up. She’ll put your lunch down in front of you without a word, then sit across the table from you not eating. Not talking. For once. And you’ll try. Try a little joke. Call her one of the old names. Say, How about supper down at the Legion tonight? Save cooking? No dishes? Still nothing. So finally you’ll say, All right, what is it then? And she’ll be all tears, blubbering on about the jar of pickles or whatever the hell it was that you wouldn’t bring up. Except it’s not the jar of pickles. It’s never the bloody jar of pickles.” (Barney)
Other times, characters make phrase-soaked observations.
“And remember the way the venetian blinds sliced the afternoon sun into bright stripes along the living-room floor? And the way the handles of their two umbrellas, in that white ceramic stand by the door, used to lean away from each other to form a heart?” (What They Have)
Sometimes the prose is lyrical, poetic.
“The sight of her fellow rehab patients—pale as skinned potatoes, slack on one side like marionettes with half their strings cut. Does she look like that? She has to get out of here. She has to get home.” (Return)
Other times, it is perfunctory, simply serviceable.
“But since we have been writing to each other, since these letters—sent and received—have begun to punctuate my week, I have become so much more aware of what is around me. I pay attention to the taste of my food, to the different tones of my minders’ voices. I notice now if a wall needs repainting. I can’t say I exactly care, nor would I ever point it out to someone in authority. Nevertheless, I notice.” (October Song)
In every case, however, there is a sense of careful and deliberate construction; the words are draped across the narrative as delicately as a garment over the back of a chair.
“Drapes the sweater over the back and arranges it so the button at the neckline is centred. That’s important. It gives the garment a presence, a sense of awareness. And there is something sweetly composed about the curves of the fabric joining at the button.” (Still Dark)
These stories are exceptional. The tone of the collection balances the need for variety in style with the need for consistency which builds trust with the reader, between and within stories. And the drama is drawn from the everyday, as remarkable — and memorable — as that may be.
“We all survived. I guess that’s what’s so remarkable—the sheer normalcy of the lives we ended up living.” (Heroes)
Contents: Barney; Still Life; What They Have; Magnificat; Ecce Cor Meum; Kim’s Game; Return; October Song; Spare Change; Heroes
“Yes, June collects sadness. What would happen if no one remembered sadness? We’d walk around mutilated and mutilating and not know how we got there or have any remorse.”
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
Perhaps this is as true of the author, Dionne Brand, as it is of June in Love Enough, for characters in In Another Place, Not Here and What We All Long For seem to embody this quality as well.
Love Enough seems to simultaneously rail against this tendency and honour it. It is a mass of contradictions (as is love, itself): beautifully and hauntingly expressed.
Throughout the narrative, many characters come up against uncomfortable truths. They have believed something or someone to be true; instead, they have misunderstood.
“If you were to notice every small physical gesture of an individual person and if you observed those small gestures over the course of a year and a half, say, and if you were to lose that person you should be able to find that person. Like tracking the genome sequence, but the genome sequence of gestures. You should be able to find that person. You should.”
You should. You should be able to.
But the implication is that you cannot.
But, why not?
Perhaps we are tracking the wrong trail.
“As we all do, June had expected her own reflection in the lover’s face. Her reflection being a benign understanding. But the lover’s face, in the end, was fierce and foreign. It wasn’t the same person. Not someone June knew at all.”
A novel about the nature of love might be sprawling to afford the opportunity to contain all those unanswerable questions, but Dionne Brand is a poet. One expects precision of language and Love Enough exhibits this. A single sentence, for all its simplicity, may have been laboured on for hours. (Another contradiction.)
“The woman loves being loved, more than she loves. That the man loves her is more compelling than whether she loves him. But sometimes, as now, she is overwhelmed by this love and breaks off to the lake or to the red underwings of a black bird.”
Some of the statements seem also mythic in their universality. And the philosophical link between love and freedom (strikingly illustrated on the cover), connection and disconnection, is explored in layers. “To be lost or to be free.”
“They weren’t old men really, his father and his uncle, but they seemed old because of how their life was. It was all in the past tense. And when they told him what he should do, he felt as it they were welcoming him to some petrified life. So he had separated himself from them, separated himself from the grim warmth around the counter at Bilan. He felt left.”
With such exacting prose, it’s ironic that chaos lurks beneath. Disorder. Happiness?
“And people with ordered lives always think that people whose lives are in disorder are looking for their kind of order. They think their kind of order is happiness, when their kind of order is gluttony and selfishness. And with all this order, June thinks, we are creating wreckage and disorder, piling it up like a midden.”
There lies a midden of emotions.
“Then is when she decided that you had to keep the noise of other people out of you. This is when she knew the only recourse was to watch and wait. Wait, because you can’t change people, you can only change yourself.”
With those you love, you must disconnect. And yet there is cost not only with the unfiltered noise of love, but also with the protective layer of silence.
“He’s disappeared into the elements of mayhem and randomness. They are indeed elements, June thinks, like iron or mercury. Of course June knows she’s being a little precious. She laughs at herself out loud. Right now she is probably an odd-looking woman in the coffee shop. She looks around and laughs again. Everybody in the coffee shop is odd-looking except those who have someone sitting across from them talking. Companionship makes you look sane.”
Is it even about love? Perhaps, something else? Perhaps survival.
“You have to survive people. You meet people and sometimes you have no control of that, and then it’s a simple matter of waiting them out.”
Sometimes the shortest sentences contain the greatest amount of confusion: “(No one thinks they’ve been loved enough.)”
What one character muses is true, too, of a novel like Love Enough. “It is hard if you really want to do it right.”
It’s very difficult to produce a tightly honed novel on a subject which suggests that any book considering the matter should be the length of Anna Karenina or Kristin Lavransdatter.
Dionne Brand makes it look easy.
No matter how dilgent one has been with one’s read-o-lutions, February is not the shortest month but the longest test.
If it had a chapter heading? In which all your good bookish intentions will flake away like paper splinters from the spine of a well-loved paperback.
And, yet, my February reading, one week in, remains in concert with my 2015 read-o-lutions. Part of that is due to the fact that I am still reading some of the same books. (Is that a good thing?)
Lewis Hyde’s The Gift (1979) and The Diaries of Dawn Powell settled into the stack on the first day of January. Just five or ten pages of Lewis Hyde’s book gives a reader something to chew on.
“In the beginning we have no choice but to accept what has come to us, hoping that the cinders some forest spirit saw fit to bestow may turn to gold when we have carried them back to the hearth.”
Under discussion is the source of the creative spirit, which inspires the artist to make the work and offer it to an audience, to keep the gift in motion. This fits with a more general discussion of what it mean to bestow a gift which was discussed in detail in the book’s first half, relying upon a variety of sources, from anthropological studies and fairy tales.
In The Gift‘s second half, Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman move to centre stage (but many other voices – Coleridge, Pinter, Sarton, Conrad,Angelou, Kundera – fill out the chorus). Readers settle into complex questions, like the consequences of the commercialization of art (in the context of which television shows should be in the time-slots opposite “Laverne and Shirley” and “Happy Days”).
Talk of Nielsen ratings in terms of allowing commodity art to “define and control our gifts” and exhaust the creative spirit is surprisingly relevant in an age where writers are forced to balance the need to “produce content” or “create art”.
The Gift is not light reading; Lewis Hyde’s classic has a chunk of pages devoted to bibliography, index and notes and the need to reread passages is pressing. And, yet, the book has less of a lecture-hall feel to it, more of a brandy-snifter-after-dinner-fireside-scene feel to it.
It landed on my TBR some years ago because Margaret Atwood recommended it (her Payback would make a terrific reading companion) and it is certainly a worthwhile read. Deep in Whitman territory, in the second-last chapter, there’s little question of my finishing, also little question that it would bear rereading immediately.
Every book in the rest of the stack is somehow related to a read-o-lution. Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna and Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero are there because I loved other books by them (The House of the Spirits and The Cat’s Table) but haven’t made time for many of their others (why not?).
Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True was a gift from a friend (soo many years ago that it’s hard to argue that I’m a good friend). It’s also probably the longest novel I’ll read this year. Not since Kristin Lavransdatter have I felt that a bookmark parked at 200 pages seemed like a lame effort on my part.
Infinite Riches is a Virago read (but I’m better at collecting them than reading them) and the short story collection in my stack. Next week there will be talk of five contemporary collections I’ve read recently, but I’m in the mood for some classic stories these days.
Where Nests the Water Hen is part of my Gabrielle Roy project (but I’ve only read The Tim Flute so far). It’s one of those books that’s been in the mix for months, slipping in and out of the current stack. Part One is the perfect length to read in a single sitting, whereas the novel’s second part comprises the bulk of the volume (followed by a shorter third part), so I keep reading the first part, setting it aside and then losing track of the story and beginning again. But that happens to you too, sometimes, right? I know that I must read beyond the first part in a single sitting, even just a single page.
M.C.Higgins the Great is one of my 20-something books; it’s been on my shelves, neglected, for more than 20 years. Since then, I’ve read some other books by Virginia Hamilton but I’m fine with having waited so long to meet M.C. because his story, of a mountain in the process of being levelled to satisfy corporate interests, feels just as timely today as it would have done when the book first landed on my shelves.
Toni Morrison is one of my MRE authors but The Bluest Eye is one that I’ve read before, so it appears in the stack as part of my desire to reread favourites this year. (Swann was the first.)
And Amphibian was bought new, but then I read a few hundred other books instead (why do I do this?). Phin is a terrific character and the tone of the story reminds of my Susin Nielsen’s writing (especially The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, for Phin, too, is seeing a doctor).
What is in your stack these days? How is your reading year so far?
Sarah Ellis’ Outside In is her seventeenth novel for young readers, and readers who discover her through this unusual work will undoubtedly be keen to investigate her backlist.
Groundwood Books, 2014
The cover captures the hint of mystery which lurks beneath the story, for Lynn encounters Blossom and immediately questions present themselves.
“Either this extremely ordinary-looking person in a school uniform was a nutbar, or the world had become like one of those fantasy trilogies that Shakti liked to read and which were Lynn’s least favourite books. Maybe this person was a glurb and she had an amulet that had to be restored to the true Druid princess or some such, and wouldn’t it just be Lynn’s luck if it turns out by some horrible cosmic joke that the world was really like that. She would have to go and lie down in the tundra somewhere and just give up.”
There are some humourous touches like that, too, as Lynn tries to make sense of what she is seeing. And, along the way, some social commentary. How does one define real in a world which is dominated by the virtual?
“Did Blossom and her family really exist? Lynn experienced a wave of doubt as she glanced around before running her key across the metal screen at the edge of the reservoir. No Phone. No email. No street address. Did Blossom even have a last name? For Pete’s sake, it would be easier to confirm that Celia’s guinea pigs, stars of their own YouTube movies, existed.”
Blossom doesn’t leave a trail behind her which is easy for Lynn to spot and contemporary readers will face the same challenges following her breadcrumbs. Is she a fantastic creature of sorts? Or does she just live her life in a way which seems fantastic to onlookers living in a mainstream existence complete with pets on YouTube?
“We reorder things. We collect recycling and take it back to where it is useful. We pull up weeds and put them in the compost where they turn into dirt to grow more things. And something we just fancy things up.”
These are not fantastic concepts to be sure. But there is some complex thinking behind these everyday save-the-Earth aspects of the story.
““The game’s not worth the candle.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s from card games from long ago. The chances of winning are not worth the cost of burning a candle to light the game.”
And along the way, a number of valuable issues are raised. Out of context, these quotes could suggest that the book is preachy, but that’s not the case.
“But there are so many things in the world already. Did you know that there is a billion square feet of self-storage in America? That’s a billion square feet of stuff that nobody is using. There are already enough things without making new ones. We can just use what we’ve got. Fix it and use it. All this racing around earning and shopping and saving. It’s all just dancing for doughnuts.”
There is perhaps an overly-wholesome feel to some of the story’s language (‘nutbar’ and ‘for Pete’s sake’ hearken to the 1950s kids’ books I grew up reading) but the talk of candles and games is embedded solidly in story. Outside In fits perfectly within this Friday Fugue: A Fainter Footprint. And as an introduction to this critically acclaimed author’s works, it is an impressive ambassador.
Other Posts in this Friday Fugue: Clotilde Dusoulier’s The French Market Cookbook (2013); Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg: 200 Inspired Vegetable Recipes (2013); Mark Bittman’s VB6 (2013); Miriam Sorrell’s Mouthwatering Vegan (2013); Two books on carbon footprint in your kitchen.