Jon Chan Simpson invites readers into a world of “abductions, gunshots, commando dads, street-poet moms”, a world populated by gangs and kidnapping conspiracies.
“‘This thing – chinksta.’ She stumbled over the word, at first but pulled herself through it. ‘You’re worried this is all you got,’ she said. ‘This is all you got, and you’re not even sure it’s yours.'”
Chinkstar doesn’t offer readers a lot to hang onto: there is no security here, not for narrators and not for readers.
When a brother disappears, the foundations are that much shakier.
And not just any brother, but he was “King Kwong a.k.a, the Chink King a.k.a. Emperor Easty a.k.a. the Celestial Warrior a.k.a. Smash Hands a.k.a. Yellow Orang a.k.a. Swag Sapien a.k.a. Cloud Monkey a.k.a. the Iperial Monstar a.k.a. MC the Ape a.k.a. the Great Ape Himself, mashin muthafuckas like they’s made outta play-doh, stompin any haters, roaches running through lego”.
This is an upset, to say the least. But ironically, as prominent as he was as a character, his fame also increases the distance that readers experience, and the chaos which is left behind, in the wake of his absence, feels like a dislocation. This is not sentimental, it is surreal.
“In my world, blood stayed on the inside of people, but my world was changing, and as I caught myself in the doorframe I wondered if the whole thing had disappeared with Kwong.”
The novel is set in Red Deer, “a crapfest – box stores, obesity, volunteerism out of control”, “crowded parkades and abandoned sidewalks and blocks of yellow grass, all the visual stank…plus the real sourness from the dairy plant downtown”. Here, again, readers feel isolated and remote.
What sets Chinkstar apart is the stylized presentation of a performer who is looking for an audience, a young man who is seeking a place, a connection, something to call his own.
He is on stage, and the performance is unsettling, but his voice is commanding. “Normal was out the window.”
In A Life of One’s Own, Marion Milner deliberately tosses her ideas about herself out the window.
The process she undertakes unfolded decades ago, but the motivation remains recognizable. Published in 1935 and reprinted by Virago Press, in 1986, her quest will resonate with contemporary readers.
“But I had found that it was not so easy to know just what one’s self was. It was far easier to want what other people seemed to want and then imagine that the choice was one’s own.”
What does Marion Milner want? What does she find satisfying? Often is it not what she expects, not what she pursues. “If just looking could be so satisfying, why was I always striving to have things or to get things done.”
This is a central element of her exploration and over time she recognizes its importance. “The act of looking was somehow a force in itself which changed my whole being.”
She is preoccupied with observing patterns and she experiments with alternate methods and approaches. “I did learn very soon how to know the signs that would tell me when I was evading an unadmitted thought –worry, depression, headache, feeling of rush and over-busyness – but it took me much longer to learn ways of finding the thought that was causing the trouble.”
This is not riveting reading for a wide audience, but for a reflective reader, partiuclarly one who is similarly preoccupied by analytical thought and interested in psychology, Marion Milner’s ruminations are of interest. And because she is also preoccupied by the question of self-expression, the care taken to clearly express her thought-process and responses is notable, as is her willingness to accept contradictions and the need for ongoing investigation.
“I was as sure as that I was alive, that happiness not only needs no justification, but that it is also the only final test of whether what I am doing is right for me. Only of course happiness is not the same as pleasure, it includes the pain of losing as well as the pleasure of finding.”
Sometimes two books collide in one’s bedside table, but in this case I expected contrast and discovered that these two disparate books were both preoccupied with questions of identity.
One work of fiction and one of non-fiction, both works consider the ways in which one questions and tests the true nature of one’s own self.
Please welcome back ReaderWoman, who has bookchatted here before, as part of the House of Anansi 45 reading celebration of indie presses and bookshops. (You can search for her posts using the tag GuestPost.)
She has been reading (among other good things, which you can discover here) Blanche Howard’s posthumously published The Ice Maiden (available in e-copy via Bev Editions).
Take it away, ReaderWoman!
Bev Editions, 2015
Imagine travelling halfway around the globe and meeting up with a person having the same name as the protagonist in a book you wrote and are there to publicize. That is the situation Connie Brewster faces when she goes to England to attend a literary awards gala in London’s Guildhall.
The first chapter sent me to my bookshelves to eagerly pull out A Memoir of Friendship: The Letters Between Carol Shields and Blanche Howard. A green post-it flag took me to a page marked a few years back where Blanche writes:
“I’ve read Jack Hodgins’ Resurrection of Joseph Bourne, and can see why it won the GG’s award…it is brilliantly conceived, the characters are strong…What else -oh yes, Doris Lessing’s second sci-fi book, a re-read of Henry James’ The Ambassadors for my reading club, and now we’re looking at Ibsen’s A Doll’s House… You asked if I’d read any Proust…”
Howard’s latest is a cornucopia of titles and names and resources representing alternate realities.
Midway through The Ice Maiden, Connie has a discussion with her friend Hermione in which Hermione says:
“In this day and age films provide us with an alternate reality, don’t you agree? Not so much reality as a different canvass in which to frame reality.”
This theme of alternate realities and reality versus fiction will appear several times in the book and is always thought-provoking given the particular situation .
The writing process itself is a major undercurrent in the book. In the first chapter Connie is reminded by her own behaviour of some writerly advice she was given long ago: NEVER TRASH YOUR OWN WORK. The writing process and the personal connection to that process is deftly handled by Howard through the insertion of appropriate sections from Connie’s published book into this book by Blanche Howard which we are reading.
Connie describes,, for instance, a research adventure/experiment she and her agent engaged in to learn about wheelchairs and combines it with a passage from The Ice Maiden which begins: Every day Reginald’s seventeen-year old adopted son Angus comes home from school and takes him for a walk outdoors in his wheelchair. This episode is tied to an episode in Connie’s own life in which she is hospitalized and her agent assists her in getting from one ward to another to see her son. In this episode there is also another reference to the “alternate realities” theme: “But now they were living in the realm of reality rather than fiction and the stakes were much higher.”
This intricate weaving of themes and the movement between the two novels and life is not always apparent on the first reading (and not seeing it does not detract from the reading at all) but makes itself clearer in a second reading and feels like a series of epiphanies or firecracker showers in the brain.
Early in the book, Connie makes an observation about publicity which reveals her ambivalence about that part of a writing career: “This need to transform oneself into someone others can get a handle on was, she supposed, the downside of fame.”
It is because of her writing career that Connie and her family are in England. It is partly because of a mention in her book of the Alberta tar sands project but also because Graham works for oil interests that two things happen to Connie, one known and exhilarating and one unknown and life-altering.
Relationships are the most interesting aspect of this novel for me and there are a plethora of them to consider as you might expect: Connie and her husband Graham (8 years older); Connie and Graham and their adult children Percy (Persephone) and Eliot (named after T.S.); Connie and her mother Cora; Connie and her agent Lucille Goodwin;Graham and Lucille; Graham and Cora; Graham and Hermione Fancourt (a biographer and an environmentalist) who introduces herself as “born a muggle [but] Hogwarts changed that.”; Connie and Peter Vancleigh (also a writer and a “Sir” and a homosexual); Connie and Angus. J. Watson (a person with the same name as the protagonist of Connie’s book).
All of these relationships are interesting and fraught with tension either for those inside the relationship or for those close to the persons or both!
From the beginning, when Graham forgets to include Lucille in Connie’s thank you speech at an award ceremony, to the end when he withholds a royalty cheque left by Lucille for Connie, we sense Connie’s unrest. When Graham thinks Hermione desires him and finds out that she wants to discuss Jevons Paradox and relate it to his employment by and support of Big Oil, we feel relieved. This is another seamless connection with the environmental topics included in both Connie’s novel and Howard’s novel. Hermione has asthma and is particularly interested in deteriorating air quality!
There are two minor threads in the novel which are of more than passing interest. The environmental issue is connected with Graham as indicated above. The second interesting minor thread is that of native heritage and identity which is confined to Connie’s novel but a connection can be drawn with Connie’s personal struggle to possess her own self.
This last book by Blanche Howard is a reader’s feast, so rich in so many ways.
There are allusions galore: artistic, geographic, historical, literary, mythical, and political. Beginning with Persephone and Cora as characters and a gathering at London’s Guildhall then continuing with writers such as Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Patrick White, A.S. Byatt and Charles Dickens.
The list goes on to include T. S. Eliot, Jackson Pollock, William James, Colm Toibin, Pat Barker, Marion Engel, John D. Rockefeller, Dylan Thomas, Ian McEwan, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and the Mona Lisa!
These references alone provide readers great pleasure by acting as a wonderful reminder of pages and people to revisit.
A rich posthumous gift which will be read again many times by this reader.
Have you read Blanche Howard’s writing previously?
Does this sound like a novel that belongs on your TBR?
The ReLit Awards, founded by Kenneth J. Harvey, are considered Canada’s “pre-eminent literary prize recognizing independent presses” (taken from the prize’s website, where you will also find longlists and shortlists: lots of good reading).
Serving today, a plateful of the 2013 Short Fiction winner (Ian Rogers’ Every House Is Haunted) with side-servings of Alex Leslie’s stories and Ronna Bloom’s poems in Cloudy with a Fire in the Basement and Tracie’s Revenge by Wade Bell.
The hand reaching to straighten the sampler on the cover of Every House Is Haunted isn’t blood-covered or wizened. And the sampler, despite its ominous declaration is traditional and nicely framed.
But it is soiled slightly, off-kilter, and the wall behind it is grimy and unkempt. There is something slightly bent, and then there is the talk of haunting of course.
Appearances matter in these stories, whether speaking of their packaging of their contents. For just as long as it takes to unearth the reality beneath.
(Though from a marketing perspective, Every House is Haunted is consistently well-presented. Each section of stories is named for a portion of a house – The Vestibule, The Library, The Attic, The Den, and The Cellar – and introduced with a double-page spread of an atmospheric image which suits the setting, creating a sense of momentum even without a section for staircases.)
And that is where a large part of the enjoyment of these stories rests, in the delightful upset of readers’ expectations.
“There are haunted places in the world. Dark places. Shunned places. Forgotten places. All existing in reality and every bit as tangible and accessible as the house next door. Sometimes it is the house next door.” (From “Cabin D”)
For the scenes are often not only recognizable but familiar. A windowless facade that might be just a bar, but it’s not the kind of bar you frequent. A roll-top desk in a university office, but it’s in the Demonology Department. Telling stories around the campfire, except the listeners are also characters in a horror story that is about to unfold.
“Consciousness retuned in what Joe thought was a very cinematic fade-in of details. First everything was blurry and wavering, like the dissolve before a flashback. Then they gradually became clearer, details filling in, shaped taking on sharper, more definite forms, until he got a complete picture of his surroundings.
He was in a movie theatre.
Of a sort.”
(From “Deleted Scenes”)
One feature of Ian Rogers’ style which adds to credibility and a sense of familiarity is the use of dialogue and swiftly executed exposition. The narrative is punctuated with bursts of conversation, stories broken into short scenes and vivid episodes, and paragraphs fragmented into purposeful phrases. There is a sense of movement throughout the prose. (That is at work in the passage quoted above as well.)
“‘So I got the job?’ Wendy said.
‘Your qualifications check out, and you said you like books. That’s enough for now.”
This is completely absurd, Wendy thought. But when Vanners reached across the table and offered his hand, she shook it. It was a job, after all. And if she didn’t like it, she could always quite. Right?”
The characters do not always behave in a likeable manner, but they are sketched in such a way that readers are willing to invest in short order (often through the characters’ relationships to others, drawing on human universals). Even the characters which are not human. (Like I said, it’s all very normal. Until it isn’t.)
In the Acknowledgements, Ian Rogers explains that these stories span the time from his first sale (“The Tattletail”) to his most recently sold (“Aces”), representing his “evolution as a writer” across six years of storytelling. The stories vary substantially, in length and depth, in voice and style, but the collection is consistently entertaining.
Ronna Bloom’s Cloudy with a Fire in the Basement reminds me of the first time I read Jan Zwicky’s Songs to Relinquish the Earth.
Part of that is likely to do with the similarly earthy feel of their covers, which look as though they’d feel ridged or bumpy if you were to run a fingertip across their surfaces.
But part of it, too, is that I felt the same warring sense of want-to-gobble and must-savour as I turned the pages.
From the first poem’s playful tone in which the freakish collide with the mundane (is it a real circus with elephants, or are those strap-hangers at the end of a busy workday), I was hooked.
There was a discussion online recently amongst readers who remembered having kept notebooks of favourite lines and verses and poems when they were younger.
By the time I got to “Swim”, I wanted to start one of those notebooks again.
(That’s the second poem, which begins like this:
“The threads of you
like ink secreted and dissolving
I can’t hold them
and whatever octopus sent out this ink
is floating away too….”)
But by the time I got to “You Write the Poem”, I knew it would be too much writing.
(It would be like the first Adrienne Rich collection, the first Denise Levertov collection, the first Marge Piercy collection, that I borrowed from the library, from which I typed out so many poems that the pages stacked up like a novella.)
And yet I wanted to make note of stanzas like this:
“You take your shoes and socks off
in the middle of the painting.
You have no idea.
You disrobe like a hardboiledegg,
Ronna Bloom writes about her neighbourhood cafe and about glimpses of the sacred in the everyday, about watching television and isolated moments of being.
“The Coast is a Road” is one of the longer stories in Alex Leslie‘s collection, People Who Disappear.
Not that it takes more a few pages for readers to understand the situation.
Not that I will be able to forget the final scene of the story. Not for months, perhaps not years. Perhaps not ever.
This took me by surprise (and I do like to be surprised by stories) because the bulk of the work immerses readers in a sense of the fleeting.
And because readers are on the look-out for disappearing acts, this feels appropriate.
It is often beautifully expressed, so even though uncomfortable and uneasy, with this loose feeling, a sense of being somewhat unhinged, the story affords rooom for readers to admire the journey.
“Trees flicker by like a film reel in grey and green, and the highway sweeps under the wheels until it is a faint line of colour like no other colour, a faint vein on the underside of the sky’s skin, and we drive farther and farther away.”
(Isn’t that lovely? Not only the film reel, which also incorporates an element of distance but simultaneously includes readers, for even this character feels like an observer of the landscape through which the car moves. But also the twinned sense of motion and confinement, with the highway sweeping and the vein beneath the skin – rather than speaking of the blood which must be pulsing or flowing or at least, pooling within.)
Despite the focus on the transitory, however, there is a strong sense of place in the story, and the paradoxical intimacy of discovering and treasuring the familiar in the unfamiliar.
“It rains through the first three days we spend driving the road between Tofino And Ucluelet, drinking coffee thick as paint in cafes warm as nests, walking in and out of shops to finger sea-glass necklaces and dry our hair, wondering where all the people went and when we’ll see some whales, as if they will swim onto the sidewalk in front of us out of the dark blue air.”
The acknowledgement of the impossible lurks beneath the surface of the story, this idea of whales on sidewalks, even as certain truths are acknowledged, painfully.
“I feel something inside me tear slowly away from itself. You are nothing I can keep.”
Though perhaps not in the ways readers will expect, the story does end with a disappearing act. One which I would like to forget.
“But you need to keep moving, need the long pulls of stories, the possibility of a landscape of immediate things.”
There is a delicacy to the emotional intensity of this story, a deftness to exploration of that which lurks on the underside. It makes me want to read more about people who disappear.
The title story in Tracie’s Revenge and Other Stories by Wade Bell is immediately engaging. “She was pinch-mouthed, somewhat paranoid and – or, at least, as she’d often been told – completely inconsiderate of anyone’s feelings except, at times, those of her son, aged four.”
The protagonist has no intentions of cozying up to the reader; she is simply ‘she’, not even ‘Tracie’ for several pages.
She doesn’t answer the telephone and she tosses the cat off the porch.
If indeed she does sometimes consider her son’s feelings, she doesn’t intervene when she hears the boy banging his head outside against the metal frame of the screen door.
But she does acknowledge that she should take him to see a doctor, about the head-banging and about his limited vocabulary and near-mutism.
It’s clear to the reader that Tracie’s life is complicated: there are creditors calling, claiming that Gene hasn’t made the required payments, and then a man shows up at the house with a rifle.
The complications are not itemized for the reader; they are on display, all their sharp edges and gashes.
The dialogue is credible, and as the story wraps up, the reader is left with a curious sense of motion without resolution.
It is strangely satisfying despite the all-too-human contradictions and unanswered questions which linger in the reader’s mind.
I’m looking forward to this year’s longlists: how about you? What indie press stories have you been reading? Do you look to the ReLit Award lists for recommendations?
Diversiverse, hosted by Booklust, is scheduled for October 4th through the 17th. It only requires that you read a single book by a POC writer and post about it during the event.
If you don’t have a book in mind, here are some of my favourites; one of them might intrigue you. (And, then, below, I imagine that Diversiverse lasts two months, not two weeks, and I make reading lists of the many possibilities that appeal to me right now, today, knowing that I will probably choose something else entirely!)
Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye
Virginia Hamilton’s M.C. Higgins, the Great
Suzette Mayr’s Moon Honey
Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate
These are slim works, which can be read in an afternoon. Toni Morrison’s is a painfully beautiful coming-of-age. Virginia Hamilton’s is a strangely inspiring children’s classic. Suzette Mayr’s story of a young woman is bizarre and entertaining. Laura Esquivel’s is a warm and sensual tale, complete with recipes.
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple
Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling
Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring
Thomas King’s Green Grass Running Water
Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For
Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance
Rabindranath Maharaj’s The Amazing Absorbing Boy
These will take you a little more time, perhaps a long afternoon. (A few afternoons for Rohinton Mistry maybe, but it reads much faster than its page count would suggest.) An epistolary novel, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple can be read over and over and still satisfy. Octavia Butler’s is suitably disturbing and compelling. Nalo Hopkinson’s debut is entertaining speculative fiction. Thomas King’s classic is laugh-out-loud funny and cover-your-mouth sad: perfect. Dionne Brand’s novel is character-driven and a love letter to Toronto. Rohinton Mistry’s doorstopper is a real pageturner. Rabindranath Maharaj’s novel is, well, completely absorbing and a charming coming-of-age tale.
Pasha Malla’s People Park
Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony
Larissa Lai’s When Fox Is a Thousand
These three require a little more attention. Pasha Malla yanks readers out of the present-day and disorients them just long enough to tell a good story set in an alternative Montreal. Wayson Choy’s debut is lyrical and touching, the crafting as remarkable as the story. And Larissa Lai is a fantastic storyteller, who engages your imagination throughout.
Possibilities for a CanLit Reading List:
Jen Sookfong Lee’s The End of East
Rabindranath Maharaj’s The Lagahoo’s Apprentice, Homer in Flight and A Perfect Pledge
Austin Clarke’s The Meeting Point
Esi Edugyan’s The Second Life of Samuel Tyne
Shashi Bhat’s The Family Took Shape
Lawrence Hill’s Any Known Blood
Corinna Chong’s Belinda’s Rings
Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe
Randy Boyagoda’s Beggar’s Feast
Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters
As you can tell, before I even got through half the shelves, I already had a stack of CanLit unreasonably large from which to choose. Some of these are by MRE Authors and others are debut novels.
Possibilities for a World Reading List:
Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar and Meridian
Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune
Chinua Achebe’s No Longer At East
Bessie Head’s A Question of Power
Mayse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem
Gloria Naylor’s The Men of Brewster Place
Ernesto Quiñonez’s Bodega Dreams
Bernardine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots
Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and others
Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching
Louise Erdrich’s Tracks
Gish Jen’s Who’s Irish?
Zadie Smith’s On Beauty
Some of these (like Zadie Smith’s novel) have been on my shelves for ages (and I HAD to have it in hardcover too) but others are more recent additions (like Chinua Achebe’s novel, as I just read his classic Things Fall Apart earlier this year).
The thing about making lists like this is that they are great for generating more enthusiasm — immediately all I want to do is sit down and read ALL THE BOOKS right now — but it’s also very much about my mood in the moment.
I have a sneaking suspicion that I will end up choosing something I haven’t even pulled off the shelves today.
What about you? (Sign-ups are here, if you haven’t yet joined.)
For the past couple of weeks, I have been listening to Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce on my daily walks.
I was walking in full summer, listening to descriptions of winter in Moose Factory in Northern Ontario.
The clusters of cloud in the story were from the exhaust of snowmobiles in February; the clusters I was seeing were above the maple trees far over my head, the cat-tails lush and the marsh birds chittering.
The early chapters are short, allowing readers (and listeners) to get comfortable with Uncle Will and Niece Annie. He is in the “dreaming world” and she is in the “waking world”; he is in a coma in the Moose Factory hospital and Annie is sitting by his bedside.
Joseph Boyden’s prose is rhythmic, particulary in Will’s voice. “You know I was a bush pilot. The best. But the best have to crash. And I’ve crashed a plane, me. Three times. I need to explain this all to you.”
It’s clear from the start that Will’s journey has been long and hard; he knows a number of ways to enjoy a glass of rye.
Annie’s youthfulness makes her story thinner, her realizations just dipping below the surface, but as she becomes more committed to sitting with her uncle, her story deepens as well. It is not until she is driven to speak her story aloud that she reflects upon the experiences differently, steps back into that river to reconsider where she has travelled.
The emphasis on storytelling is appropriate for a writer who feels an affinity with his native roots (his heritage is Irish and Scottish and Anishnaabe); 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).
As single stories, the narratives are interesting, but viewed as elements of a much broader tale, delicately layered, there is an unexpected power here. The ways in which the two narratives dip and bow, brushing into each other’s territories, is mesmerizing. There is an inherent conflict which resides in a tale focussing on two opposing states. There are times in which Annie voluntarily enters the “dreaming world” for a time and, correspondingly, times in which Will darts towards the “waking world”.
But the most compelling element of the novel is where the worlds collide. (The cultural parallels are obvious when you step outside the story but while immersed in the characters’ lives, less so.) And, so, we are forced to consider that what appears to be in conflict is simply a matter of perspective.
The audiobook is just over 15 hours of listening, with performances by James Jenner and Ali Ahn, and I kept the book on my bedside table. When I had finished listening, I reread the final chapters because I wanted to see how things had aligned in print. (This was on a bench in a city park, not walking the trails.) Near the end, there is some slipping in and out of consciousness and I wanted to make sure that I was paying attention to all the possibilities. (There is some repetition in the structure as the novel unfolds, but the narrative does sprawl across time and space, and some of these reminders are helpful.)
Often, I think that I prefer the written word, but in this case, I think I enjoyed this story more on audio; the narration forced me to take time with each character’s perspective and some passages which seem a little trite or glib in print sound sincere to my ears when delivered by the actors. (Both characters are reflecting on some painful elements of their pasts: it makes sense there would be some profound statements.) And the final scene? Just right.
This wasn’t the only time I spent in James Bay recently. I also picked up a copy of the Justice League United: Justice League Canada (written by Jeff Lemire and illustrated by Mike McKone) which I enjoyed on the porch with a cup of coffee (hot, for the first time in awhile).
I am not well-informed as to the ins and outs of the Justice League; it was Lemire’s involvement with the project that caught my attention (his Essex County and Sweet Tooth works being favourites). So clearly I am not the target audience for this series.
More often on Saturday mornings, I was watching Scooby Doo not superheroes, and my experience of devotion to the genre begins and ends with Underdog. (But I did *love* Underdog, if enthusiasm counts.) So I am untroubled by whether returning characters behave credibly, unaware of their status within the superhero hierarchy, and my feathers are unruffled if any element does not suit the franchise overall.
But even I can recognize that introducing an aboriginal superhero to the pantheon is breaking fresh ground. And there is more than one woman in the story too, whereas I only remember Wonder Woman (I did love her, but she was not a cartoon, she was real, like the Bionic Woman was real).
In all, I found the comic entertaining and I briefly considered hunting up some other Justice League stories, but then settled into the rest of my stack, content.
“It is August now, towards the end, and the weather can no longer be trusted. All summer it has been very hot. So hot that the gardens have died and the hay has not grown and the surface wells have dried to dampened mud.”
Now that I have finished my Alice Munro reading, I have pulled Alistair MacLeod’s Island from the shelf. I have never read this collection straight through, but perhaps that is what I will do now. Having opened in the middle to “The Closing Down of Summer”, which is haunting and beautiful.
I am reading on the porch, and the goldenrod is blooming and garish in the back of the yard, supervised by the seemingly superior sunflowers on one side (the other side is dominated by spring flowers, the mint and the lilac, so quiet these days, although recently a new hibiscus has taken hold).
“We are lying now in the ember of smmer’s heat and in the stillness of its time.”
With the talk of the waves and the beach, this story does feel like a Cape Breton tale but, more than that, it is a story of earth and mud and clay.
Alistair MacLeod’s story fits, beautifully and painfully, with my reading of the waking and dreaming worlds, with reading of heroes and dig sites, stories of epic battles and endurance.
This has been a good summer for me.
What about you?
This isn’t necessarily a story that you will know.
Penguin Books, 1993
And nor are you expected to.
“We all know how history comes down to us, which stories, which versions tend to be passed on.”
But here, in Free Enterprise, in a novel, we might find another version of truth.
As Jessamyn West writes: “Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.”
So it’s possible that readers will find things in Michelle Cliff’s novel that reality has obscured.
“The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere in between. It usually does.”
But even there, the narrator wonders whether anyone will have heard these women’s stories:
“In years to come, will anyone have heard them – our voices?”
Mary Ellen Pleasant’s story – her voice – might not be as readily recognizable as, say, John Brown’s.
And yet she played a vital role in his abolitionist activities. In fact, when he was arrested after the Harper’s Ferry incident, a note from her was found in his pocket.
The offer of her additional support was signed M.E.P. but the initials were misread as W.E.P. so she was not officially implicated in the events, although her involvement was well-known in the day, as was her work with the Underground Railroad.
The roots of resistance run deep, and Cliff’s prose is poetic, creating a mythic air to the story which reaches back in time.
“We wanted to avoid bloodshed, which bloodshed was becoming inevitable with our growing realization that these Englishmen did not simply wish to visit us, to ‘discover’ us, as they put it. They wanted to own us, and the islands, tame the landscape to their purposes, tame even the slopes of Kilauea. Now what would Pele have done about that? We had to save them from themselves, and us from them.”
Art plays a vital role in revolution.
“I was grateful that the artist had portrayed it thus, indicating the horror of the thing aslant, by these few members, and a reminder of their confinement, the irons which would take them down. It got to me, all right.”
But too often these fighters are left out of the history books, lost even to memory.
“I am drawn back into my own peculiar past. I look out over the blackness of the water, and find myself not on the high seas, heading for the Vineyard in 1874, but see a girl, as clear as day, a young woman, participant at Chatham, captivating. You. Listening to Mary Shadd Carey urge us on in the colored schoolhouse where so much of the planning took place. You in your mannish overalls, your face darkened, but you could not hide your eyes. Where are you now, Annie?”
Free Enterprise is a slim novel, made heavy with meaning.
Beginning: Was it like this before? A slow start, a growing realization that these characters are not trying to be likeable, only to be believable?
Doubleday Canada, 2015
Pip (short for Purity) seems rather like a middle-aged woman in a young woman’s skin, so many worries and an overwhelming sense of disappointment.
She only has three friends left, and I’m not sure that I’d volunteer to be her fourth (but I do admire the effort she makes to bake the perfect cake).
Nor do I find that Andreas’s story is making me want to pick up the book in the evenings either.
But as Zoë Heller says: “In any event, sympathy, or likeability, is an overrated quality in fiction…. Since when did you start going to fiction to seek out people you like? If that’s what you’re looking for, go to a bloody cocktail party.”
Fitting. As so far, the only place that I find reading this enjoyable, is my local pub, with a beer in a frosted glass and companionable folks at the tables nearby (and, yes, it’s air-conditioned, and that absence of that luxury in my other reading sessions might be impacting my enjoyment of, well, everything).
Page 100: No, it wasn’t like this before, with The Corrections and Freedom.
Previously I have become quickly and dramatically immersed in his novels.
So I wonder if perhaps this isn’t a sign that Purity is a book “out of time” for me.
Should I set it aside, focus instead on my reread of Alias Grace?
[I think about this for a few days, but then decide that it’s now or never. There is a lot of talk about this novel right now, and if I wait, and stumble upon a spoiler, the decision will be made for me. I am still waiting to forget who the “suitable boy” is in Vikram Seth’s doorstopper of the same name.]
While deciding, I dipped into Jonathan Franzen’s collections of essays, looking for clues.
The first in Farther Away, is titled “Pain Won’t Kill You”, in which readers learn this: “To go through a life painlessly is not to have lived.”
Something tells me that the next hundred pages of Purity might be difficult too.
But despite the story’s painful elements, I recognize that Jonathan Franzen is well-read.
And I appreciate the sign-posts he offers along the way. Like when Andreas’s mother, Katya, says: “Enough with the Hamletizing.”
(And perhaps it was handy to have Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace at hand: “One father leads to another.”)
So I know to pay attention, watch for the spectre. “’What would you say,’ the ghost said, ‘if I told you I’m your father?'”
(You will have to read it – or some other reader’s thoughts on it – if you want to know the boy’s answer.)
But either way, what lies ahead will be disturbing, because “childhood was a sense-defying brainf*ck”.
It is hard to move ahead with a story, when the chances are that your narrator will be “still a wanting four-year-old, still betrayed by shit that had happened to [his/her] brain before [she/he] had a self that remembered”.
It is hard to have hope.
Page 200: And, yet, there is something about the voice behind this story that keeps me turning the pages.
The prose is dense, and sometimes it feels like I am caught on a spread for a half hour. (Admittedly this might be because I have not wanted to read this book at home lately. Sometimes it ends up at the bottom of the stack, untouched, for a few days.)
But there is something about the quality of the detail, the observing eye, which intrigues me.
And this new character, Leila Helou, from the Denver Independent? I’m curious.
“With whiskey, the capillary bloom was more diffusely rosy than with gin and less purple than with wine. Every university dinner party was a study in blooms.”
But the overarching tone is exclusionary, even when an invitation is issued. “‘He tells me a lot, sister. I’m still first among nobodies. Don’t you be forgetting that.'”
Every gesture of conciliation feels hesitant, if not outright hostile.
Page 300: The broadening cast of character is softening the edges of this story, but it is still a disturbing read.
“Apparently pity and betrayal were related.” There are a lot of different names which all describe feelings-that-I-would-rather-not-be-having, when in the company of these characters.
Page 400: It’s true that life is filled with inherently contradictory truths. And that’s not Jonathan Franzen’s fault.
“Don’t talk to me about hatred if you haven’t been married. Only love, only empathy and identification and compassion, can root another person in your heart so deeply that there’s no escaping your hatred of her, not ever; especially not when the thing you hate most about her is her capacity to be hurt by you. The love persists and the hatred with it. Even hating your own heart is no relief. I don’t think I’d ever hated her more than I did for exposing herself to the shame of my refusing to speak in Leonard’s voice.”
He is a believable character; I believe that this is his true version of events.
That his marriage has become something hard and brutal.
“She moved on while I stayed stuck. I have to hand it to her: I feel checkmated.”
Page 500: But that doesn’t make this comfortable reading.
And even though I am reading the last half of this novel (from the point at which Leila’s character extends the canvas) more quickly than the first half, I will be relieved to finish this story.
(Because I must finish it, now: there are things that I want to know. Really.)
“The people who’d bequeathed a broken world to her were shouting at each other viciously. Jason sighed and took her hand. She held it tightly. It had to be possible to do better than her parents, but she wasn’t sure she would. Only when the skies opened again, the rain from the immense dark western ocean pounding on the car roof, the sound of love drowning out the other sound, did she believe that she might.”
Ending: If a character in this story can only believe in something “better” when there is a storm pounding all around here, something is really wrong.
But, then, the alternative?
It never raining hard enough to block out the ugliness?
That doesn’t warm the heart either.
What I’m left with, is a nagging and burning feeling that there is no resolution.
This, on its own, is a quality that I appreciate in fiction. As with Alice Munro’s stories, I like having more questions than answers when I have turned a book’s final page. But in the company of these characters, I feel even more alone.
This could be the intent. There is no doubt in my mind that Jonathan Franzen writes with intent. That he has inhabited these characters and spent time in their skins.
Purity does not feel shaped or crafted in the way that a tale like this might (with its complicated relationships nipping and darting in the dark, beyond a reader’s scope). In “On Autobiographical Fiction”, Franzen explains that a “writer has to begin somewhere, but where exactly he or she begins is almost random”.
This feels true. But some of the details in the chaos feel dazzlingly deliberate. (For instance, the dual use of ‘Purity’ in the story – one representing a person and the other a thing – and that’s character’s nickname ‘Pip’ with all the Great Expectations involved with that allusion.)
And here again is that contradictory swell. In the same essay Jonathan Franzen writes: “I will note in advance that much of the struggle consisted—as I think it always will for writers fully engaged with the problem of the novel—in overcoming shame, guilt, and depression.”
Which if one extrapolates to the present-day, presents readers with the ultimate contradiction: Purity filled with and motivated by shame and guilt and depression.
No wonder this is hard.
It is hard to have hope.
You and your books have been a real downer lately. It’s not me, it’s you.
This was not in the stack. If it had been, I would have known that sadness awaited.
True, I stacked them there. But “disturbing and yet deeply moving” on the back cover did not prepare me for what was to come.
“Blood and brain tissue were splattered as far as the large elm trees standing more than twenty-five feet away, but his dark blue suit with matching light-blue shirt, silk vest, and tie remained undisturbed and immaculate. He was forty-seven years old.”
This was from the third book in a row which pulled me into dark territory
It wasn’t clear in the beginning, because the first instance of it was a children’s book, an ostensibly light-hearted story.
But, yes, the story opened in 1914. Fair warning, you say, and I agree: that’s on me. And, so, two sons go off to war. The first a stalwart and determined young man, who enlists straight-away. The second a gentle soul who writes poetry, who enlists only after a great deal of soul-searching.
And I believed that I was prepared. This classic tale was published almost a hundred years ago, and it’s well known that its author was devastated by The Great War; I knew it would not be easy reading. But I believed that I remembered the outcome; I thought the eager-to-enlist son died, but it was the poet.
It would have been sad either way, of course. Families and sweethearts left behind and, oh, this tugged at me something fierce: a dog who will not leave the train station, because his beloved companion has left on a train and has not, yet, returned. He cries and cries and then, one night, he howls. Still, he will not leave.
And, this? This was my lighter read.
The other in my stack was a contemporary novel which has lingered on my shelves for ages, by an author whose works I admire tremendously. I heard her read from it more than a decade ago, at the Eden Mills Festival, and I remember sitting on the hillside, laughing out loud at some of the bitterly funny parts, in this story about a mother whose son is on trial for murdering an elderly couple, while the mother is coping with a recent diagnosis of breast cancer.
You might think that I was warned here, too, despite those sharply funny bits. But besides the fact that the writing is top-notch, you would think that, if this is where the story begins (did I mention that her husband left her recently, for another woman?), it has to get better.
A stack of books like my recent reading could turn any reader into a Scaredy Squirrel.
And, yet, sometimes, in life it does not get better.
And in this novel, it gets worse.
It gets as bad as it can get.
The body count rises and for the last twenty pages I was past sobbing, turning the pages like an automaton.
When I set the book aside, I realized you might be up to something, beside-stack-of-books.
I started eyeing you from a different perspective. It was too hot to read anyway, one of those nights when you wish your body would not touch the mattress because it’s just so hot, hot, hot. Everywhere, hot. Inescapable.
I saw the short story collection there too, the one with ‘happiness’ in the title, but the only story remaining to reread in it was the least-funny story in it. Lots of people die in it too. And before they die? They are very UNhappy.
And there was another reread there, too, about a nineteenth-century woman convicted of murdering her employer and a housekeeper.
I knew not to pick up either of those.
The most recent arrival was a slim Canadian classic, which had been nominated for Canada Reads several years back, a work in translation with a reputation for being difficult reading.
And even though I am spoiler-phobic normally, I was anxious about this volume, so I started with the afterword. That’s where the blood and brain tissue came in, a description of the author’s suicide scene.
“Now I’m suddenly afraid that I’ll never get out, that all the doors are closed forever. My own future is a throbbing pain. I’m haunted not be passive melancholy but by rage, a rage that is mad, absolute, sudden, almost without an object!”
Dear Bedside Table — I know what you’re up to.
Is it too much? Or, just enough. What am I to make of this final story in my Alice Munro reading project. (I read her last collection, Dear Life, in 2012.)
While rereading Too Much Happiness, I was constantly aware of the references to being happy, to happiness, in the stories.
Straight away, in the first, Maggie asks Dorre “Is everything all right with you? I mean in your marriage? You’re happy?” and Doree doesn’t hestitate in saying ‘yes’.
But of course her studious determination not to hesitate reveals the charade. Which begs the question: does answering ‘yes’ also require a charade.
Women in these stories are happy when there is “nice weather or flowers in bloom or the smell of a bakery”, when they shed their day’s work at home and make the “last dash to the door, through the dark and the wind and the cold rain”. A young mother is “happy with her year-old son”. A man is happy that another woman’s child remembered him from a previous visit.
A child “is so happy she has cramps in her stomach”, then becomes “less stricken with adoration, though entirely happy”. A man who has killed two children believes that he is in communication with them, and reports that they are fine, “[r]eally happy and smart”.
A son refuses his father’s advice, claming that he was “very happy with the job he had now, and was making good money, or soon would be, as he got promoted”. Later, he lets “go of that stupid self stuff ” and says that since “I realized this I’ve been happy”.
A woman scorned imagined her ex hearing about “how pretty she looked, how sexy and happy, how she was simply bowling over all the men”; perhaps he would lament his choice “once he saw her happy and glamorous and in command rather than moping and suicidal”.
The woman scorning is “embarrassed to think how readily she had played the younger woman, the happy home wrecker, the lissome, laughing, tripping ingenue”.
A dying woman learns that an old friend has published a book: “How excited and happy I was to see your name in Maclean’s magazine.” Her nurse has a “soft happy voice”.
A dying man “sat propped up on his pillows and looked for all the world as if he was happy. Happy just to close his eyes and let her talk, then open his eyes and find her there, like a chocolate bunny on Easter morning. And then with his eyes open follow every twitch of her candy lips and sway of her sumptuous bottom.” Musings upon whether his wife and his mother were motivated by his happiness, and the ways in which they did/did not look happy in its pursuit, are also considered.
A man who is not in love with a woman urges her to return to where she has been living (apart from him), because “she should be happy where her friends were waiting for her”. A young man imagines being an omnibus boy but is warned that perhaps he “would not always be happy calling out the stations”. And he replies: “Why not? It’s very useful. It’s always necessary.”
Happiness can be ordered. “I order you, order you to be happy for me.”
Happiness can be arranged. “My heart will never heal. But I have something good to tell you, something happy. I am to be married in the spring.”
“Too Much Happiness” is about a woman who is a mathematician and a novelist. Readers much assume that because she resides in the title story, that there are clues to be found in her life about happiness.
“She had never heard of sines or cosines, but by substituting the chord of an arc for the sine, and by the lucky chance that in small angles these almost coincide, she was able to break into this new and delightful language.
She was not very surprised then, though intensely happy.
Such discoveries would happen. Mathematics was a natural gift, like the northern lights. It was not mixed up with anything else in the world, not with papers, prizes, colleagues, and diplomas.”
But in looking to this story for thoughts on happiness, readers are troubled.
And, so, I reread it yet again.
In the meantime, I found all sorts of talk of happiness in my other reading. In Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce, Annie is wondering at the fact that she has found happiness in the big city, the last place she would have expected to find it. (I am unsure whether the author is teasing her/us; her story is as-yet unfinished.)
In L.M. Montgomery’s journals, she writes: “Perfect happiness I have never had – never will have. Yet there have been, after all many wonderful and exquisite hours in my life.” [March 13, 1921]
I was revisiting her journals alongside a reading of her last Anne novel, Rilla of Ingleside. There is not a lot of happiness in that story of the home-front during Great War. “I could hear Jem’s whistle and Walter’s yodel, and the twin’s laughter, and for just a few blessed minutes I forgot about the guns on the western front, and had a little false, sweet happiness.”
This got me thinking about sadness, and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. “Also in Raissa, city of sadness, there was an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence.”
Which made me think that perhaps my questioning should take a more direct approach, so I picked up Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home, whose subtitle appears instructional: “kiss more, jump more, abandon a project, read Samuel Johnson, and my other experiements in the practice of everyday life”.
Therein, I discover a trove of quotations on the subject, scattered throughout like sprinkles left behind on the plate once-filled with Christmas cookies.
“Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.”
John Stuart Mill
“Happiness is not achieved by the conscious pursuit of happiness; it is generally the by-product of other activities.”
“Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.”
“The idea of happiness is surely the sun at the centre of our conceptual planetary system—and has proved just as hard to look at directly.”
“The important question is not, what will yield to man a few scattered pleasures, but what will render his life happy on the whole amount.”
Most of the men in Alice Munro’s stories seem to be as preoccupied by happiness as the women, whether it is in scattered moments or all-encompassing. But when her characters consciously pursue happiness, it only seems to work out if readers don’t peer too closely. And those who look directly at the sun are often, yes, burned for their daring.
All of these things are true and not-true. And, yet, there is a certain kind of happiness to be found in reading a good story.
Did you find this final story in the collection to be satisfying? If you could have rearranged the tales, would you have saved this one for the end?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the final story in this collection, also the final story in my reading project. The other stories in this collection were discussed as follows: Dimensions, Fiction, Wenlock Edge, Deep-Holes, Free Radicals, Face, Some Women, Child’s Play, and Wood. (Links to the stories in the other collections appear here.)
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
The majority of my reading time this year has been devoted to the books which have been living for years, though neglected, on my own bookshelves. In May and June, I had a planned rebellion, and I enjoyed a great number of new books. But now I have returned to my own shelves once more.
Anchee Min’s Red Azalea (1993)
“Falling in love is so powerful that it makes you forget about almost everything else, even making revolution. Instead of wanting to struggle and destroy things, you want to find peace and to celebrate living. Because the Party knows that people in love are no longer completely under its control, its leaders have always been deeply fearful of love.”
When Anchee Min left China in 1984, she tried to write her memoir, but it wasn’t until her knowledge of English improved that she was able to put this story to paper. She required a new language to share her experiences. A language which represented the freedom that she had, at last, found.
Because she is looking into the past, in writing Red Azalea, the structure of the novel is primarily chronological, beginning with her childhood (she was born in 1957), but with some slippery bits; sometimes, her recollections pull her into musings and reflections, and the story waits until she has relayed this only-later-understood information.
This adds a sense of urgency to the story, as though there is still something unfolding, even though it is only her present-day understanding and thinking (meaning present-day at the time of her writing) which is still in flux.
There is also an undercurrent of tension simply due to the historical events, the restraints and cruelties she endured during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Nonetheless, what is most impressive about this story is neither this sense of urgency or the underlying tension, but readers’ growing awareness of a poet who is observing a time of great change. This is intensifed, further, by her love for another young woman in the camp. (This book has also completely changed my feelings about mosquito nets.)
Suzette Mayr’s Moon Honey (1995)
Carmen was a young white girl before she was a young black girl. She was having (lots of) sex with her boyfriend Griffin in both skins. She likes that he knew her when she was white, because as she moves out of school and into the working world, as she collects new experiences like trading cards, the people who know her have always known her to be black.
And of course that comes with many suppositions and prejudices, which Carmen can cite rigorously because she used to possess and promote many of them as a privileged white girl with perfect blonde hair and all the best shades of lipstick.
So those who meet Carmen later in her life only see one side of her. And sometimes all they see is the colour of her skin. Moon Honey is an ideal vehicle to explore the complicated territory of racism, and Suzette Mayr’s penchant for transformative tales (see Venous Hum) was solidly afoot even in this first novel.
Carmen’s transformation unfolds in standard text, but the novel is punctuated with italicized passages detailing other dramatic changes which characters experience.
But just as remarkable are the glimpses into characters’ pasts, so that even the seemingly unsympathetic characters are shown a degree of understanding that readers might not have afforded them based on first impressions.
So that readers, too, can allow their ideas about the story to transform.
Gabrielle Roy’s The Hidden Mountain (1961; Trans. 1962 Henry Binsse)
“Now I’m practically in the Yukon. The world is vast; life a thing incredible, unforeseen. All is new. I have come back to life.”
When he shows his art to a new friend met in Paris, Pierre’s work has the power to transport.
Gabrielle Roy’s writing, too, depicts a strong sense of place which invites readers into new territories.
Her fifth novel not only spends a significant amount of time in northern lands, but also in France.
Pierre’s drawing is represented as hard work; it is more like mountain-climbing which requires serious exertion than day-dreaming which comes naturally and easily. In many ways, it is a quiet meditative novel.
“The death of the present is nothing; it is the loss of the future within oneself that is heart-rending.”
But there are sharper moments too, including the winter Pierre spends with a trapper in the north, and these visceral passages ensure that readers do not forgot that a mountain, hidden or otherwise, may have a beautiful peak but has a solid and impressive foundation beneath as well.
Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True (1998)
“Was that the night that triggered it- set into motion whatever had blossomed in Thomas’s brain? Biochemistry, biogenetics: none of the articles I’d read – none of the experts I’d listened to – had ever been able to explain why Thomas had gotten the disease and I hadn’t. Had we given it to him – my mother and Ray and me?” (762)
Readers who discovered his work with the Oprah-lauded debut, She’s Come Undone, will find many of the same qualities in Dominick’s story. Both stories feel as though they are told to you in a basement room, a sheltered and warm space but one which seems to demand an excess of afghans all the same.
You, as listener, sink into a couch, and when you reach up to have your tumbler filled with another finger of rum, you realize you’ve sunk deeper than you could have if there’d been any spring left in the cushions.
Wally Lamb likes to get down to details and his dialogue (inner and outer) is plentiful and wordy, and this story of twin brothers is painfully insular and sorrow-soaked: you can’t help but feel a little claustrophobic.
Every kind of loss that a person can experience makes an appearance in the novel and often it is reflected in another aspect of the story as well (which suits a story about twins).
Abuse and miscarriage, rape and betrayal, illness and alienation: all told in a tone which invites readers to hunker down, settle in.
And, after a few hundred pages, a second narrative emerges and alternates with the story paper: a translation of some family papers which adds another dimension to Dominick and Thomas’ experience with schizophrenia.
The plot is as compelling as one found in a Jodi Picoult novel but the prose is neither streamlined nor polished, so that the artistry seems to add only bulk instead of flare.
In some ways, this can be explained as one can explain The Goldfinch’s style and length: the product of a burdened and searching narrator.
But I fell a little in love with at least one of Donna Tartt’s characters, and perhaps that kind of connection is necessary for a work like this to afford a reader the opportunity to cosy into uncomfortable lodgings.
So far all the good reading on my own shelves has encouraged me to stick with this change in habits.
Have you been changing reading habits lately? Willingly or otherwise?