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

In My Reading Log

At the beginning of March, I was determined to keep my nose in a stack of backlisted books. Books like these are the kind that to keep my focus on my own shelves in this reading year.

Chad Pelley’s Every Little Thing (2013)
Pelley Every Little Thing“Every day, every hour, really, it was a new name and a new suite of scenarios that could’ve gone differently, so he could’ve been a hundred places other than prison.”

But Cohen Davies is not in those hundred other places and readers have to wait to learn how that happened. In the meantime, as readers will expect if they have read Chad Pelley’s first novel, Away from Everywhere, a romantic relationship is explored in detail (a Journey Prize anthology is read aloud in their courtship !) and many other significant relationships are credibly developed alongside. Mental health issues surface and the reality of the intertwined relationship between love and loss simmers beneath every character’s experiences. And, yet, the novel’s tone is consistently engaging: the subject is not a natural page-turner, but the novelist’s style roots the story in that territory, primarily through the use of reflection and memory. Cohen is on the other side of the dramatic events and readers are keen to imagine the view from that promontory, catching the odd glimpse as he pans across years to fill in the blanks. The language is straightforward and more often used to propel readers than to add sensory detail to a scene, although Cohen’s work with birds results in some aviary metaphors and add a degree of complexity to the language, as do some elements of the story which are also rooted in his workplace. A surprisingly gripping tale.

Gabrielle Roy’s Where Nests the Water Hen (1951)
Roy Water Hen“Deep within the Canadian province of Manitoba, remote in its melancholy region of lakes and wild waterfowl, there lies a tiny village barely noticeable amidst its skimpy fir trees.”

Roy’s second novel opens with this description as though to inform readers immediately that, despite any ensuing attachments to particular characters, Where Nests the Water Hen is about Portage des Prés, Water Hen country. But readers likely will become attached to the Tousignant family, its seemingly endless flow of children — enough to convince the government of the need of a school on their land – followed by a succession of school teachers. (The author  was the youngest in a family of eleven children.) And, so, it’s a little disorienting, after spending the bulk of the narrative in their company, to find oneself spending time with the Capuchin priest Father Joseph-Marie, in the novel’s final third. Nonetheless, the novel has clearly stated from title through opening that it is about a community and in many ways that was also true of Gabrielle Roy’s first novel, The Tin Flute, which explored the St. Henri neighbourhood of Montreal so evocatively. Water Hen country is described with tremendous fondness; the people and their relationships to the land are depicted with attention to detail and authenticity, and readers will be sorry to leave it behind. The stately tone of Gabrielle Roy’s prose is enduring and although the novel was written more than half a century ago, the story of Manitoba-past retains a certain charm.

Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family (1982)
Ondaatje Running in the Family“I can leave this table, walk ten yards out of the house, and be surrounded by versions of green. The most regal green being the tea bush which is regal also in its symmetrical efficient planting. Such precision would be jungle in five years if left alone. In the distance the tea pickers move, in another silence, like an army. The roads weave and whorl away — bright yellow under the grey sky. The sun, invisible, struggles up somewhere. This is the colour of landscape, this is the silence, that surrounded my parents’ marriage.”

When the author returns to Sri Lanka, to all that was there before he dreamed of marrying, having children and writing (paraphrasing), readers are tugged along in a personal exploration and journey. There is no formal itinerary and the description of a single room might require pages while the formal names for some places might reside only on the map at the beginning of the volume. Those readers seeking either a traditional travelogue or memoir will not be satisfied. And yet the sensory detail can immediately bring the experience of the landscape off the page for readers (I, for one, was completely smitten by the idea of polecats, who make an inconsequential appearance in the narrative but encouraged an online search) for this is not only a writer’s journey but a poet’s journey. In some ways, the volume reads in a fragmentary way, emphasized by the inclusion of several actual poems, but there is a broader reaching narrative arc — of return and departure and some early allusions (for instance, to his grandmother’s death by natural causes – flooding) — which makes for a more encompassing reading experience. Although an earlier work, and a work of non-fiction, readers who have enjoyed Michael Ondaatje’s later novels will recognize his delicate practice of darting towards and retreating from story, the circuitous knitting of characterization and setting alongside.

Sawako Ariyoshi’s The Doctor’s Wife (1966) Trans. Wakako Hironaka and Ann Siller Kostant (1984)
Ariyoshi Doctors Wife
“Otsugi’s gay laughter at her apology made Kae laugh as well. Then Otsugi spoke more softly. ‘I am called ‘Mother’ by you though you are not really my child. Yet I feel you are as dear to me as my own daughters. Our relationship has deep roots. It was probably decreed by fate.”

Readers are introduced to Kae when she is a young girl, who admires the beauty and grace of the neighbour woman, Otsugi, who is the doctor’s wife. At the heart of Sawako Ariyoshi’s novel, however, are two doctors’ wives, and much of the readers’ engagement with the story is rooted in these women’s changing relationship over time. The prose is formal and measured with several short chapters devoted to the history between families/characters, developments which reverberate in their present day. Although there are some potentially emotive elements to the story as one doctor experiments with anesthetizing substances which will ultimately afford the opportunity to operate on women with breast cancer, the author’s style is clean and delicate; even when an overwhelmingly sorrowful event transpires, there is a veil between the reader and the story which serves to distance from what must have been an excruciating process. Yet there is no question that the emotions exist and the understated tone magnifies the intensity of the losses endured. In her other novels, too, Sawako Ariyoshi focuses on the voices of those who are often unjustly silenced; the female characters in The Doctor’s Wife present themselves dutifully and artfully but they certainly have a great deal to say.

But, having said that, it’s June, and I am indulging in a stack of new books, which currently sits alongside my stack of old familiars. More about these in the days to come.

First, how about you? Any of these in your stacks or on your shelves? What trends are holding sway in your reading life?

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailShare

“Messenger” Alice Munro

When I began rereading The View from Castle Rock, I stumbled. It had not been a favourite and my return was not an easy one.

View from Castle Rock US variationI wondered if this had something to do with my personal response to the idea of expecting words to hold losses. I had lost a friend recently and I was on the cusp of another loss. These were things that I was not prepared to put into words myself at the time, and I thought perhaps I was overwhelmed by the inadequacy of words under such circumstances.

So I set aside the reread, and I did not return for several months. I felt a shift in my response. At that point, I desperately wanted words to swell so that they could hold losses. So that entire lives and experiences could be preserved, in some fashion. But still I did not connect with these stories.

As much care as I took to examine and consider the author’s intent, as clearly as I understood her words, my actual experience of The View from Castle Rock remained something outside of my previous experience with Alice Munro’s writing.

“You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on. And the part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative. With these developments the two streams came close enough together that they seemed to me meant to flow in one channel, as they do in this book.”

And that is clear, is it not? More truth than is in many stories. More narrative than is in much of history. Two streams coming together.

So there we have it: The View from Castle Rock.

Had I met the work on those terms alone, as described by Alice Munro, I believe my response would have been different from the outset.

But there is the word “Stories” on the cover. And the classification as fiction. Which could have been a simple marketing decision.

This was pre-Nobel-Prize for Alice Munro. Her devoted followers would be expecting a collection of short stories. Two years prior to The View from Castle Rock‘s publication, confirmed fans bought and read Runaway (less history and more narrative, a single stream, no channel). Those readers would have been eager to receive another collection of short stories.

Perhaps it made sense fiscally to identify the work as fiction, which suggests more of a single stream than one channel comprised of two streams.

And perhaps having the word ‘Stories’ on the cover did not disrupt other readers’ expectations as it disrupted mine.

For instance, I am not bothered by the idea of fictionalized biographies, but I understand that they irritate some other readers.

Those other readers might prefer this work be identified as fiction. For a sentence like this one might not fit their understanding of biographical or historical writing:

“Now all these names I have been recording are joined to the living people in my mind, and to the lost kitchens, the polished nickel trim on the commodious presiding black stoves, the sour wooden drainboards that never quite dried, the yellow light of the coal-oil lamps.”

For Alice Munro was not there to personally inhabit all these lost kitchens, to smell the drainboards or read by the yellow-light of those oil lamps. Some might believe it would have been disingenuous to have the pieces in The View from Castle Rock be identified as anything other than Stories.

But, for me, I would have preferred that they be presented in some other way.

In a way which allowed them to inhabit their own space, separate from Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), Lives of Girls and Women (1971), Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974), Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), The Moons of Jupiter (1982), The Progress of Love (1986), Friend of My Youth (1990), Open Secrets (1994), The Love of a Good Woman (1998), Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Love, Marriage (2001), Runaway (2004), and Dear Life (2012).

For the works in The View from Castle Rock grow increasingly vivid as the years pass. The sensory detail is accentuated and the scenes are more evocatively sketched in the works which are more securely in the author’s reach, geographically and experientially, and the style of the later stories resonates more strongly with the other collections.

Alice Munro is certainly capable of pulling readers into other times and places wholly and completely in works of fiction, (consider: A Wilderness Station), so the fact that readers feel more distanced from the tales earlier in this collection than the later tales seems to reflect more of an autobiographical than fictional truth, to reflect more of the author’s personal relationships with her ancestors than her relationship as a fiction writer with her readers.  (Or, maybe that says more about me as a reader than it says about her as a writer, for reading and writing flow together too.)

I love the idea of exploring those lost kitchens, and I would have been more content to use Alice Munro’s words as a map through that territory without having a signpost to identify the stories along the way.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the final story in this collection. The other stories in this collection appear as follows: No AdvantagesThe View from Castle RockIllinois, The Wilds of Morris Township, Working for a Living, Fathers, Lying Under the Apple Tree, Hired Girl, The Ticket, Home, What Do You Want to Know For? Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next: discussion of 2009’s Too Much Happiness.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

Hollie Adams’ Things You’ve Inherited From Your Mother (2015)

Carrie’s mother died on Tuesday. The loss has fragmented her view of the world, dulled her senses (or is that the alcohol?) and sharpened her wit.

ThingsInheritedMotherHollieAdams

NeWest Press, 2015

Given the circumstances, the novel’s narrative tone is a quick slap to the face, heightened colour left behind in the shape of what has struck flesh.

Readers will most likely determine within a few pages whether or not they are drawn to the narrative. Which is not to say that they will find it comfortable (there is nothing comfortable about this story, which suits the theme perfectly). But many will relate to the spiralling and unravelling with which Carrie grapples.

“You may notice that time begins to speed up the days following your mother’s death blur together as if someone has thrown your life and copious amounts of red wine into a blender and hit ‘liquefy.’”

Carrie is directing her instructions and observations to the part of herself that seems to be standing apart from what she recognized as her life before and after, which is an accurate way of describing the way the world looks after a significant loss. The ‘you’ in the text might be a little disconcerting at times, but as with Doug Harris’ You Comma Idiot, the decision fits the work.

(Actually, her mother’s death is not the only disappointment, not the only source of regrets, in Carrie’s life: the gradual accumulation of “liquified” losses has left her beneath the surface, struggling to catch a breath. It’s true, isn’t it, that sometimes it takes a series of unhappinesses to allow us to recognize the root of sadness, which was so deeply embedded that it has become the status quo.)

“Wouldn’t human existence be exponentially easier if for every scenario, a set of words would flash before your eyes offering you just two choices? A fifty-fifty chance to do the right thing, every time.”

Hollie Adams takes this idea and runs with it, offering her characters and, in turn, her readers the opportunity to play with the possibilities. This is one of many devices which makes Things You’ve Inherited From Your Mother such a memorable reading experience.

“If you have begun dating your ex-husband’s doppelgänger and not realized it until your mother’s funeral, turn to page 886 where you will find a pier. Walk off it.”

Check out her site!

Hollie Adams

To the author’s and editor’s credit, the instances of these Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-styled decisions (who didn’t love those books, didn’t admire the simplicity they appeared to offer in terms of controlling one’s destiny?) are infrequent.

While Carrie’s tone could become overwhelming if the narrative didn’t have a variety of interruptions like these, their use is sparing, so that they do not become overwhelming either. (The pie chart and the lists were particularly fun for me, but as simple respite, each has another purpose as well.)

It’s unavoidable: Carrie is suffering and readers, too, would suffer with too much time in her company. And because grief has no borders and because there is no distance in the narrative itself (readers are completely immersed in her perspective), the only way to truly mitigate the impact is to keep the work short.

[Insert CYOA-styled moment: If you have a thorny and difficult narrator, and perhaps did not realize it until your manuscript was well under way, have the page numbering end at 168 and allow readers to walk off the pier into the sunset there.]

In such a controlled fashion, Carrie’s story is as often entertaining as it is disturbing. Even the chapter headings are amusing: “Get Your Groove Back (or Whatever You Had Before That Might Pass as a Groove – A Really Charming Rut, Maybe?)”.

But what makes them amusing is not so much a question of readers’ sympathy or empathy, but a matter of Carrie’s observations and intelligence. However disoriented and flailing she is right now, and regardless of the instances of poor judgement in her past that she chooses to share with readers the way, Carrie possesses a remarkable awareness and incisiveness.

This isn’t necessarily clear from Carrie herself (which makes sense given the circumstances) through the cloud of grief, but from the supplementary characters’ behaviours and observations, including her teenage daughter Kate.

“’Sorry, Mom only drinks Diet Mountain Dew or anything alcoholic. We have tap water if you want.’ You wonder what your daughter has the nerve to say when you’re not around.”

Click for details

Click for details

Kate is a smart and savvy young woman, who didn’t emerge fully-formed from the head of Zeus, so as naturally smart and savvy as Kate might be (even had she been left to her own devices from birth to the present-day), Kate’s sense of humour and ability to cope with the ground shifting beneath her feet reveals another aspect of Carrie’s person which is not immediately visible to readers at this particular juncture in her life but which must have informed her over time.

Things You’ve Inherited From Your Mother focusses on Carrie, but the broader use of characterization does as much to build readers’ understanding of Carrie as Carrie’s own narrative. Ultimately, however, it is Carrie’s voice which will linger for readers, as much as for the cringes and winces as for the giggles and snorts.

The prose remains buoyant even when the narrator is sinking. And the novel’s structure is tightly knit, so that the final words leave readers with an understanding that the simple fact that readers are holding this story in their hands demonstrates that Carrie’s means of coping with her grief were effective after all.

(This is a spoiler-free space, but I would love to tell you exactly why the ending was so fitting.)

Still not sure whether this debut novel is a match for your reading taste? Links to other TLC readers’ thoughts appear below (and thanks to the publisher and organizers for the opportunity to join in this discussion).

Tuesday, May 5th: The Discerning Reader
Wednesday, May 6th: BookNAround
Monday, May 11th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Tuesday, May 12th: Book Loving Hippo
Friday, May 15th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Tuesday, May 19th: Books and Bindings
Tuesday, May 19th: Sarah Reads Too Much
Wednesday, May 20th: Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Thursday, May 21th: A Dream Within a Dream

“What Do You Want to Know For?” Alice Munro

And, “Who Do You Think You Are?”

McClelland & Stewart, 2006

McClelland & Stewart, 2006

As readers approach the final tale in this collection, it seems appropriate to have it titled with a question.

Whatever might be resolved in the effort of creating a narrative in which to secure one’s ancestors, one could not help but have as many new questions at the end of the project as one had at the beginning.

The collection began as a quest, for understanding or for inclusion, for identification or imagination. But there is no resolution that the author can create. Ultimately she must live the resolution.

The closest the young Alice can get to concluding this work is to have the page count halt, so that the book can continue to pose the questions long after she has put down her pen.

“What does it matter to me?” (“The View from Castle Rock”)

“A life in the bush, away from the towns, on the edge of the farms—how could it be managed?” (“Working for a Living”)

“You see the Lord’s purpose?” (Home)

The gap between the lived experience and the ancestral record on the pages of The View from Castle Rock is vast.

Just as the series of physiographical maps of Southern Ontario by Lyman Chapman and Donald Putnam must representationally record the landscape on a flat piece of paper, just as a mammogram records an eruption in the landscape of Alice’s body, these records only hint at the reality which lurks beneath their surfaces.

“There was a lump deep in my left breast, which neither my doctor nor I had been able to feel. We still could not feel it. My doctor said that it was shown on the mammogram to be about the size of a pea.”

In the body, on the land:

“The ice has staged its conquests and retreats here several times, withdrawing for the last time about fifteen thousand years ago.
Quite recently, you might say. Quite recently now that I have got used to a certain way of reckoning history.”

How one reckons, history or experience, changes too. “So you have to keep checking, taking in the changes, seeing things while they last.”

If one continues to pose questions, one ‘s perspective continually shifts. But, of course, not everyone is the questioning sort.

“It is difficult to make such requests in reference libraries because you will often be asked what it is, exactly, that you want to know, and what do you want to know it for?”

In fact, those who question would appear to be in the minority.

“And wondering about olden days—what used to be here, what happened there, why, why?—was as sure a way to make yourself stand out as any.”

Which is why the questioners often seek one another out. Why they connect.

“Do you think they put any oil in that lamp?” the younger Alice asks her husband.

And, just as I am reading her question, I am asking the same question in my own mind. (One might say that is because I have read this collection before. Perhaps that’s true, but that was almost ten years ago. It’s simply the question which seems natural to me to ask.)

And she answers, in a fashion.

“He knows at once what I am talking about. He says that he has wondered the same thing.”

Did you?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the second-last story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Messenger”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

TGIF: In the workplace, on the page (2 of 4)

A new Friday fugue, running through this month, considering the ways in which our working lives appear on the pages of novels and short stories.

Wasn’t I just talking about novels set in bookstores? Yup, in last Friday’s post (here). Gabrielle Zevin’s book fits perfectly on that shelf.

McPoems

Arsenal Pulp, 2009

But if you’re more about music than books, but weren’t into the life of a Justin-Bieber-esque celebrity, perhaps a peek into the life of a retired opera singer will suit you (Lydia Perović’s Incidental Music).

And if you’re looking for snacks, certainly there is no shortage of fiction written about various aspects of the food-service industry (from Jaspreet Singh’s Chef to Abi Liebegott’s waitressing work The IHOP Papers).

But I don’t know of another book like Billeh Nickerson’s McPoems. (This is the first of his books that I discovered, but I have enjoyed Artificial Cherry and Impact: The Titanic Poems too.) Maybe you think you’re not a “poetry person” but I bet you will love this poetry.

Billeh Nickerson’s McPoems (2009)
“Flush twice:
it’s a long way to the kitchen.”
“Your Favourite Washroom Graffiti”

More than three years after a first reading, I happily reread McPoems to refresh my memory. The walk-in freezer and the drive-through window, frying and cashing, from French fries that spell out words to cannibalistic birds: Billeh Nickerson’s poems provoke an emotional response as quickly as the smell of those golden fries once sparked my appetite. If a book of poems about the experience of working in fast-food seems unlikely to satisfy, a copy of McPoems is guaranteed to make you rethink.

AJ Fikry

Viking, 2014

Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (2014)
“Knife. Flatten. Stack.
And yet… He had spent hours with the man over the last half-dozen years. They had only ever discussed books but what, in this life, is more personal than books?
Knife. Flatten. Stack.”

Of course readers have an affinity for stories about bookstore owners, but although Gabrielle Zevin does capture both the tedium and the charm of such work, A.J.’s story turns out to be as much about caring for human beings as it is about curating his shop and its contents. As opinionated as he is well-read, he is a solitary and independent character forced to reach beyond his comfort level in his working and beyond, which results in some unexpected reading choices (among other changes). The author’s style is uncluttered and the story told in broad strokes, as befits an experienced YA author, but bookish readers will happily forgive any perceived weaknesses, for the tale is as book-soaked as can be. Not only is it a gentle, warmly told story, but it might well add several other titles to your TBR list.

Inanna Publications, 2012

Inanna Publications, 2012

Lydia Perović’s Incidental Music (2012)
“When he was gone she placed his folder on top of the urgent pile. The urgent pile was now several folders tall. She was about to check her voicemail when the phone chirped again. ‘Good morning, Jennifer Moreland’s office.’”

From part-time work in academia to more-than-full-time as a campaign worker, from a day filled with chatter about renos and heritage buildings to memories of a professional career as an opera singer: Incidental Music incorporates women’s working lives alongside talk of politics and relationships, exploring dedication and devotion in causes and couples. The story is Toronto-soaked and routes and neighbourhoods are immediately recognizable for those familiar with the area, but the broader themes of meaningful work and connections ensure that readers who do not call Toronto home will still find a place to inhabit in the narrative.

Swap the hamburgers for donuts and change the script on the telephone and I can relate to these workplaces too.

How about you? Do you want to see your workplaces on the page? Or do you get enough of that in your working life?

Susin Nielsen’s We Are All Made of Molecules (2015)

Henry K. Larsen — star of Susin Nielsen’s last novel — was a savvy young fellow: “I know I can’t change my stupid red hair or my stupid freckles. But I can lower my freak flag.”

Nielsen Molecules

Tundra Books, 2015

In contrast, Stewart — star of her most recent novel — flies his freak flag high. Higher than high.

If you were to query him about it, he would probably — and happily — provide details regarding altitude and wind direction.

(And if you were actually laughing up your sleeve when you asked, he likely wouldn’t notice, or he might offer you a tissue.)

Henry could have given Stewart some pointers about the (regrettable but realistic) need for a certain kind of conformity.

(And, it’s true that some of Susin Nielsen’s characters do wander from book to book.)

But both boys struggle in a wake of a loss which would shake the foundations of any young person, change their definitions of highs and lows.

Nielsen excels at stirring the pot and plucking out problems for her young heroes and heroines.

Ambrose and Violet (who starred in Word Nerd and Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom, Henry and Stewart: all have their share of difficulties. but because this is kidlit their endings remain hopeful. And because it’s kidlit-à-la-Susin-Nielsen, these endings are neither sugar-coated nor incredible.

In Stewart’s world, pre-Molecules, he was an essential corner of a triangle.

“We had been like an equilateral triangle. Mom was the base that held up the whole structure. When we lost her, the other two sides just collapsed in on each other.”

When We Are All Made of Molecules opens, that shape is changing.

“For a long time he was Sad Dad twenty-four-seven, and I was Sad Stewart twenty-four-seven, and together we were Sad Squared, and it was just a big black hole of sadness.”

Now geometrically speaking, the figure includes Stewart and his dad, but also the woman Leonard has been dating, Caroline, who is also Ashley’s mom.

But if Stewart and his dad were Sad Squared, then Ashley and her mom (who have been facing their own adjustments, their own sadness) make the situation Squared Squared.

Tundra Books, 2008

Tundra Books, 2008

(This which exhausts my mathematical ability. Stewart: help?)

Understandably, neither young person is entirely pleased with their parent dating the other parent; Stewart’s perspective is somewhat more analytical (he can rationalize his father’s interest) but neither is pleased with the adults’ decision to live together.

“Clearly my mother is delusional. Leonard is a huge step down. In fact, as far as I can tell, the only thing he has over my dad is that he is not gay—which I guess is a biggie, but still. There are a lot of not gay men out there, so why on earth did my mom go for this one?”

Ashley isn’t fond of Leonard, nor is she fond of Leonard’s “midget-egghead-freakazoid” son (that’s Stewart, whom she calls Spewart).

“‘Right now, as I’m talking to you, you’re probably picking up a few Stewart molecules and vice versa.’
She slapped her hand over her mouth. ‘Gross!’
‘I don’t think it’s gross. I think it’s kind of beautiful. Everything, and everyone, is interconnected.’”

But not everybody is as resistant to Stewart’s flag-waving charms.

“’What is the chemical formula for the molecules in candy?’
‘I don’t know,’ she replied.
“’Carbon-Holmium-Cobalt-Lanthanum-Tellurium.’ She looked at me blankly till I wrote down the elements’ symbols on the front of my notebook. ‘CHoCoLaTe!'”

(This is a spoiler-free space, so I won’t identify the speaker, but I will say that she giggled. And also, I really want a purple T-shirt which says “ALWAYS BE YOURSELF. UNLESS YOU CAN BE A UNICORN. THEN ALWAYS BE A UNICORN”.)

And new living arrangements and social stresses (for Stewart is adjusting to public school too, now that he no longer lives close enough to the school for gifted kids that he used to attend, and Ashley is adjusting to having Spewart in her grade) are not the only problems that these two kids face.

“If I am one hundred percent totally honest, I sometimes long for the olden days, when we were all just little dorks. Things are so much more complicated now.”

Tundra Books, 2012

Tundra Books, 2012

Stewart outwardly faces more challenges than Ashley (who keeps her freak flag in the closet, if she even has one) but he soon finds his niche.

“And Mathletes is just about the best thing that has ever happened to me. I fit in with Phoebe Schmidt, Walter Krasinski, George Hung, Oscar Bautista, Clark Fowler, and Aryama Daliwal. On Wednesday, we had our first actual competition against a high school on the west side called Trafalgar. Even though they had this one kid named Farley who was almost as good at math as I am, we won easily.”

(Committed Nielsen fans will recognize Phoebe and Farley, and those are not the only cameos in We Are All Made of Molecules, a device which hoists the whole beautiful and interconnected theme to the top of the flagpole.)

But Ashley faces a challenge which she could not have predicted, related to a romantic interest which develops between her and a new guy at school. Even she would probably like to return to some earlier time, when things were less complicated, than deal with the expectations which pile on her as the pages turn.

“The thing is: he’s so perfect in every other way. And usually he is very sweet to me. Maybe I can change the not-so-nice stuff over time. Men change for the better thanks to the love of a good woman all the time in the movies, so why not in real life?”

So, yes, there are some serious issues in this new work by Susin Nielsen. The characters she depicts are just slightly older than those she has spent time with in the past, and, as such, the issues they must confront are that much more complex.

But there is a good bit of humour in the work as well, which affords readers some relief as Stewart and Ashley learn to cope with the challenges they face.

“’But I’m not gay. Or lesbian, or bi, or transatlantic.’
Sam smirked. ‘I think you mean transgender.'”

Stewart and Ashley have some sharp edges when We Are All Made of Molecules begins, fitting for the straight-lines and squares and rectangles (or, should that be hexagons and octagons? no spoilers here!) they inhabit when readers meet them. But the contents swell and those edges are smoothed until they settle into a suitably Susin-Nielsen-esque ending: satisfying but not saccharine.

Susin Nielsen designs a freak flag like nobody else: bold and proud. Nuthin’ half-mast about it.

Sam Maggs’ The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy (2015)

Fangirls Guide Galaxy

Quirk Books, 2015

She understands that fangirls can be marginalized and unwelcome in the nerd community, and despite recent strides and growing visibility, Sam Maggs couldn’t find a book like this one, so she wrote it.

“Being a geek girl is the best thing ever and here are all the ways you can do more nerdy things that are awesome and don’t ever apologize for it because you are the best person out there and I’m so proud of you and you’re beautiful.”

That’s the message, in one spirited on-and-on sentence fuelled by fangirlness.

Beginning with a playful discussion of the kinds of geeks who might find a place between these pages, the book immediately invites readers to get comfortable with their inner fangirl.

Maybe you don’t want to be a Bookwalker (someone who reads and THEN watches epsiodes of “Game of Thrones” on HBO, as opposed to those who set aside the books and simply enjoy the show).

But maybe you DO want to know where to start watching another TV because you have always yearned to be a Whedonite.

These questions (and more) are answered directly by the author. Want to know the differences between Twitter and Tumblr? Or, how to survive a convention? (Complete with descriptions of some of the larger events in North America.) Trying to pack your Cosplay Emergency Booster Pack? (Don’t forget your safety pins and contact lens solution.) Looking for new sources of fanfic? (Or use the grid provided as inspiration to write your own.)

Scattered throughout are short interviews with a number of prominent fangirls, who also answer a set of salient questions.

Jill Patozzi, for instance, defines being a fangirl: ““We’re all fans of something, but being a fangirl means you’re willing to show it, unabashedly and with great vigor.”

And Tara Platt gives advice to fangirls: ““Be willing to put forth your best version of yourself and don’t let anyone else’s interpretation of who they think you are get in the way of you being you.”

But The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy is not just about how to identify and behave; perhaps the most valuable part of the book is that which guides fangirls in misbehaving, in breaking through the stereotypical expectations which threaten to silence fangirls everywhere.

From discussion of the myths of feminism that need busting to lists of recommendations on where to find kick-ass heroines in various media (fictional and otherwise), the Aim to Misbehave section of the book has plenty to offer (especially in conjunction with the general resources, community and online, offered throughout).

Whether your inner fangirl wants to brush up on her acronyms or whether you want to gift a beloved fangirl with a nod of recognition that you understand her kind, Sam Maggs’ book is fun and informative.

“Home” Alice Munro

McClelland & Stewart, 2006

McClelland & Stewart, 2006

Alice’s father has remarried, and Irlma has made many changes in the house.

“Irlma is a stout and rosy woman, with tinted butterscotch curls, brown eyes in which there is still a sparkle, a look of emotional readiness, of being always on the brink of hilarity. Or on the brink of impatience flaring into outrage.”

Perhaps because he is inwardly uncomfortable with the shift or perhaps because he is truly concerned that the young Alice will return to the house with a set of expectations and disapprove, her father makes motions to include her in the changes.

She, however, is less troubled than he might have guessed. (Or, is she?)

“And I don’t tell him that I am not sure now whether I love any place, and that it seems to me it was myself that I loved here—some self that I have finished with, and none too soon.”

These are not the changes with which she believes she is concerned. She inhabits these spaces differently now.

  “In the car I sit beside him holding the can and we follow slowly that old, usual route—Spencer Street, Church Street, Wexford Street, Ladysmith Street—to the hospital. The town, unlike the house, stays very much the same—nobody is renovating or changing it. Nevertheless it has changed for me. I have written about it and used it up. Here are more or less the same banks and hardware and grocery stores and the barbershop and the Town Hall tower, but all their secret, plentiful messages for me have drained away.
Not for my father. He has lived here and nowhere else. He has not escaped things by such use.”

The changes her father charts are drawn from another perspective, one which she views as more rooted than her own.

She has transformed these places, these people, in fiction. And not only transformed them, altered them, but consumed them somehow.

This is different from the kind of change observed in her old home: superficial changes which she imagines or understands to have been instigated by (and executed by) Irlma, rather than her father.

“The books that used to lie under beds and on tables all over the house have been corralled by Irlma, chased and squeezed into this front-room bookcase, glass doors shut upon them.”

How is this different from the kind of change that the young Alice observes while her father is driving?

Through writing, something is consumed. Not shut away, behind a door, but simply no longer.

And, yet, there are changes which she did observe, unexpected and inexplicable.

She is startled by her father’s response to Joe Thoms when they go to check on him. (In turn, they both seem surprised by his recent declaration of sobriety, which readers, too, receive as surprising news, given Irlma’s comments about his consumption habits.)

Joe has found religion and is eager to share his enthusiasm.

‘You see the Lord’s purpose?’
‘Oh Joe,’ says my father with a sigh. ‘Joe, I think all that’s a lot of hogwash.’
I am surprised at this, because my father is usually a man of great diplomacy, of kind evasions. He has always spoken to me, almost warningly, about the need to fit in, not to rile people.”

The young Alice has embraced elements of this philosophy as well. She too has spoken up, during this visit, when once she would have remained silent.

“I feel obliged to say, ‘Oh, that’s just the way people talk about Indians,’ and Irlma—immediately sniffing out some high-mindedness or superiority—says that what people say about the Indians has a lot of truth to it, never mind.”

Yes, nevermind. Because these are not the kinds of changes with which “Home” is preoccupied.

When her father is seen by Dr. Parakulan, other kinds of change move to centre stage.

“When I come here I usually stay from Friday night until Sunday night, no longer, and now that I have stayed on into the next week something about my life seems to have slipped out of control. I don’t feel so sure that it is just a visit. The buses that run from place to place no longer seem so surely to connect with me.”

In the wings lurks a change which the Alice of this present day will need to transform on the page.

She will need to use this up. To escape.

Put it between the covers, if not behind glass.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the tenth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “What Do You Want to Know For?”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

TGIF: In the workplace, on the page (1 of 4)

A new Friday fugue, running through this month, considering the ways in which our working lives appear on the pages of novels and short stories.

Some of my favourite novels spend a good amount of time considering the good amount of time that we spend in our workplaces.

Joshua Ferris’ And Then We Came to the End and Rob Payne’s Working Class Zero take readers inside office life.

Corey Redekop’s Shelf Monkey and Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps are set in bookstores.

(I’ve worked in both environments and although I wasn’t reading about them when they were paying my rent, I enjoyed revisiting those worlds on the page.)

In these three novels, the workers also take their cues from clients and customers, whether in a law office, an ad agency or a taxi cab.

Rieger Divorce Papers

Crown Publishers, 2014

Susan Rieger’s The Divorce Papers (2014)
“What is it about this divorce that’s getting to you? As I recall, you defended a child murderer without blinking.”

Sophie Diehl’s boss poses this question to her in a memo dated May 21, 1999.

The novel is entirely rooted in office and legal documents, and Sophie is the protagonist, who is more comfortable with alleged criminals than angry spouses, but she is asked to take a divorce case and settlement negotiations are underway.

The playful pink cover does not mitigate the bitter and relentlessly sad story of a marriage unravelling; the legal files contain copies of letters penned by other family members, and the emotional impact is felt keenly despite the distance introduced by the documentation.

The colour does perhaps reflect Sophie’s naivete, but without the sometimes-silly and occasionally-shallow (who isn’t?) banter with her girlfriend in emails and the complexities of her dating life, The Divorce Papers would be a sombre read indeed.

Pacing is steady, but not compelling: it is a matter of “due process”, and characters are solidly developed, so that one can set it aside for periods of time until the craving for the epistolary form strikes again.

Fallis No Relation

McClelland & Stewart, 2014

Terry Fallis’ No Relation (2014)
“So, you’re not quite ready. You haven’t quite outgrown this writing thing. The sand is running through the family hourglass, but there’s still time yet. Take a few more weeks, take a month, and you may feel differently at the end.”

Earnest Hemmingway, with an extra ‘a’ and ‘m’ to set him apart from Ernest Hemingway, struggles to assert himself on the literary scene and in the landscape of his life.

When the novel opens, he has lost his job, his girlfriend, and his wallet. The process of getting his license replaced should be the easiest element to fix, but even it results in an event which goes viral online once caught on video.

Fans of The Best Laid Plans will recognize the blend of credible characters and gentle humour.

If the tone is slightly over-“earnest” at times, that’s easily forgiven because the novel’s core idea (the importance of balancing one’s true identity and vocation with the burden of others’ expectations) is so integral to human happiness.

Terry Fallis’ fiction reminds readers to look for the humour in the darker moments. Canlit need not always be grim.

Carnival Rawi Hage

House of Anansi, 2012

Rawi Hage’s Carnival (2012)
“I can always tell by the strip of cars and lanterns in front of the Bolero who is inside. Some of the spiders always sit together and eat at the same time; they regulate their lives around the filling of their bellies and the smoking of their cigarettes. Then there is us, the flies, who come and go at all hours.”

Fly is a restless and solitary narrator who drives a taxi cab to pay for his rent (owed for both car and apartment) and food and a little besides; he is a wanderer, an observer, a dreamer.

Some aspects of his story are simply quotidian details (his fares on an evening, what he eats when he gets home), other aspects include memories and imaginings (brushes with the fantastic, visions of past and future).

Fly’s voice weights these equally, so the story veers sharply between these elements. The spiders camp at designated taxi stands; the flies drive around to find fares.

There is much to be learned of the culture of drivers in this novel (e.g. the political machinations within the professions, the varied approaches to shift-work, the night-time repair shop) for Fly is an excellent observer.

Have you read any of these? Do you enjoy fiction which allows the workplace to take centre stage?

“The Ticket” Alice Munro

The title of this story suggests a journey, travel and a destination. But the story itself focuses on the precursors to such events: the preparations and anticipation.

McClelland & Stewart, 2006

McClelland & Stewart, 2006

Nonetheless, “The Ticket” is preoccupied with the concept of movement, shifting position, moving from one zone to another (or, not).

There are delineations, and characters are aware of the lines drawn, eager to maintain traditional territories.

This might be interpreted literally.

“People were sure to spot you if you were noticed in a part of town where you had no particular reason to be.”

Or metaphorically, in terms of society’s expectations and the limited possibilities existing, particularly for women, the roles they could naturally inhabit.

“Henrietta was not an unusual woman of her time but she was an unusual woman in that town.”

But the narrator herself is of an age where she is preparing to cross a line.

This is true geographically, as she readies herself for marriage in British Columbia, leaving her parents behind in their Ontario farmhouse.

But it is true in another sense as well, which she considers as she cleans the old house, polishes the worn and tends to the broken.

“Such efforts kept a line in place, between respectable striving and raggedy defeat. And I cared the more for this the closer I came to being a deserter.”

Even while she is viewing herself as a deserter, however, her understanding of the world (and what awaits her in it) is rooted in her experiences at home.

What she knows of and expects from married life is what she has viewed within the context of worn linoleum.

“I had three marriages to study, fairly close-up, in this early part of my life. My parents’ marriage—I suppose you might say that it was the most close-up, but in a way it was the most mysterious and remote, because of my childish difficulty in thinking of my parents as having any connection but the one they had through myself.”

Her perspective dictates the lines she draws between the members of the three married couples she has observed, and sometimes, as with her parents, she is incapable of standing outside those lines. Even though, in one instance (that of her grandparents’ marriage), she isn’t actually in the diagram.

Regardless, she has only viewed one married couple in which affection seemed to play a role.  “My father commented to me, some time after Uncle Cyril’s death, that Uncle Cyril and Aunt Charlie had been truly fond of each other […] such a condition was rare.”

These lines, these ties, these binds: some are more intractable than others. “I meant to hang on to him and to my family as well. I thought that I would be bound up with them always, as long as I lived, and that he could not shame or argue me away from them.”

This question of lines that push and pull, talk of departures and entrances: this is at the heart of “The Ticket”.

Aunt Charlie is concerned that the young Alice might have drawn a line, envisioned her trajectory, purchased a ticket for a journey that will not suit her in the way she hopes/expects.

“Aunt Charlie’s eyes had gone pale with alarm at what she’d just said. And at what she still had to say, with more emphasis, though her lips were trembling. ‘It might not be just the right ticket for you.'”

Readers who are aware that Alice Munro’s first marriage did not endure will recognize that Aunt Charlie’s concerns had some validity.

But once one has purchased a ticket, it takes a remarkable fortitude to step out of the queue and retrace one’s steps.

Worn linoleum is familiar but pales next to a freshly waxed floor.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the ninth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Home”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.