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

August 2014, In My Notebook

I’ve been reading so fiercely this summer, that my notebook was sadly neglected, in favour of backs of envelopes, sticky-notes, and receipts.

Tin Flute Gabrielle RoyIt was actually back in June that I scribbled down this quote from Phyllis Theroux’s The Journal Keeper (2010), which I was inspired to pick up because I had been re-reading some of May Sarton’s journals. Have you read either writer’s work?

“I am beginning, by small degrees, to realize how one might eventually become enlightened – not as the result of ‘heavy lifting’ but by quietly reflecting, or coming upon an idea so integral that one is subtly, permanently, changed by it.

There is another note from Alice Walker’s The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers (2013) which contains her recommendation of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Nancy Turner Banks’ AIDS, Opium, Diamonds and Empire: The Deadly Virus of International Greed, and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

She says “these three books, read in this order, are a university course in history and present-day reality hard to obtain otherwise. Enjoy! Not because they’re easy to read. They’re not. They are deeply painful. The joy comes from their existence, since our only hope is knowing what is (and has been) going on.”

Alice Walker is one of my MRE (MustReadEverything) authors. Have you read her work too? Do you have a favourite? Do you agree with her assessment of these three recommended titles? I did really admire Isabel Wilkerson’s book.

A long green sticky-note outlines Gabrielle Roy’s oeuvre, which I plan to read for the Book Mine Set’s Canadian Book Challenge. Have you thought of joining or already signed up?

  • The Tin Flute (Bonheur d’occasion) (1945)
  • Where Nests the Water Hen (La Petite Poule d’Eau) (1950)
  • The Cashier (Alexandre Chenevert) (1954)
  • Street of Riches (Rue Deschambault) (1955)
  • The Hidden Mountain (La Montagne secrète) (1961)
  • The Road Past Altamont (La Route d’Altamont) (1966)
  • Windflower (La Rivière sans repos) (1970)
  • Enchanted Summer (Cet été qui chantait) (1972)
  • Garden in the Wind (Un jardin au bout du monde) (1975)
  • My Cow Bossie (Ma vache Bossie) (1976)
  • Children of My Heart (Ces Enfants de ma vie) (1977)
  • The Fragile Lights of Earth (Fragiles lumières de la terre) (1978)
  • Cliptail (Courte-Queue) (1979)
  • What Are You Lonely For, Eveline? (De quoi t’ennuies-tu, Eveline?) (1982)
  • Enchantment and Sorrow (La Détresse et l’enchantement) (1984)
  • The Tortoiseshell and the Pekinese (L’Espagnole et le Pékinoise) (1987)
  • My Dearest Sister: Letters to Bernadette, 1943-1970 (Ma chère petite soeur: Lettres a Bernadette) (1988)

New Jim Crow AlexanderTechnically, I only need to read 13 books to complete the challenge, but some of these are children’s books, so I figure that they should be bunched together, not expected to hold the same weight as the bulk of The Tin Flute, for instance. Have you read any of her work?

I’ve read 74 of the books on the 100 Novels List compiled by the CBC for Canada Day in July, so I’ve jotted down the titles of the remaining 26. All of them except two are already on my shelves, so I’ve been meaning to read them for years, but perhaps a list will get them read sooner rather than later. (Oh, haven’t I said THAT before.)

There are two collections remaining in my Alice Munro Reading Project so I’ve been jotting down a plan to finish reading them this year. But this month has not felt like a Munro-reading month. Which is strange. Most months (maybe even all months) do feel like Munro-reading months. But not this one. It feels like an Alistair MacLeod reading month. Would it be disloyal to consider a detour?

As the year winds down, I’m wondering how well I’ll do with finishing my Reading Bingo columns/lines/grids. I might yet finish the version with adult books, but I am draggingdraggingdragging with the YA game.

I’ve noted some possibilities in my notebook, like Jennifer Donnelley’s Revolution for a Book Set in Paris and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War for Classic YA. Except it’s not so much a problem of not thinking of something to read, more that I’m not reading as much YA as I expected to read.

But a Book with a Female Heroine? That’s easy. Of the nine I have read, all but one would have filled that square (I was aiming for the squares that seemed harder to fill). And then I only have to read a Book Set in the Future to fill a column. So, I’m not cashing in my cards yet.

How about you? What’s in your notebook lately? Any new authors/series you’re curious about? Reading plans or projects? A prize-list you’re smitten with? Recommendations from a writer whose books you enjoy?

David Adams Richards’ Crimes against My Brother (2014)

David Adams Richards has set many works in the Miramichi, beginning with his classic trilogy (Nights Below Station Street, Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace, and For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down), so that the landscape of New Brunswick has become a character in its own right in his fiction.

Doubleday - Random House of Canada, 2014

Doubleday – Random House of Canada, 2014

The cast of Crimes Against My Brother is wide indeed, and for readers unfamiliar with his earlier works, it is difficult to determine which characters are fixtures for devoted readers of his fiction and which are introduced here for the first time.

(This simultaneously made me want to read all of his novels, beginning at the beginning, and made me think that the community is almost too well-developed for me to inhabit it, even temporarily. I did not immediately settle into this story: it took time for me to warm enough to take off my coat and stay awhile.)

The jacket identifies Sydney Henderson as the protagonist of Mercy Among the Children and states that Annette Brideau is new to Richards’ fiction; one might have guessed otherwise, for Sydney’s role is limited (though influential) and Annette’s is as significant as the three boys who are at the heart of the story.

The story of these blood-brothers, however, is actually more about the lack of brotherhood between them. (And as the story spins out, a lack of connection in a broader sense as well.)

“So the idea of being blood brothers had unravelled, it seemed, without Ian or Harold or Evan doing anything to unravel it. Not an ill intent had been formed to make ill intent blossom. Not a hard feeling existed before hard feelings swept them all—and none of them believed in anything but themselves.”

Ill intent or hard feelings, a lack of brotherhood or a lack of belief: the storyteller’s voice does not make clear pronouncements.

This is not a world of black and white, but one of endless shades of grey, increasingly so as the story develops and the lifeblood begins to fade, not only for many individuals but for the land itself.

“Like Ian and Evan, he believed Lonnie Sullivan was the cause of his trouble. But if truth be known, Lonnie had really done nothing to them; for each of them in their own way had had many opportunities to escape, to say no. And yet, now each of them was plagued by this man—and each of them, while disbelieving in the Divine, had in fact attributed much divinity to this man who they all secretly feared.”

It is not even simple to lay blame on the corporations who might be said to embody evil, foreign-owned businesses which have moved into the region to strip it of its resources, for they are staffed by Miramichi men and other woodsmen.

“Mr. Ticks was from Maine. He was a woodsman, like many here. And he was a good woodsman—and he walked the cut in his heavy boots, and with a knapsack to have lunch—and soon he realized what Helinkiscor was planning for the wood—and within eleven months he was disturbed by what was happening.”

The personal devastation is echoed in the environmental devastation and a sense of hopelessness pervades the narrative.

“’You are in despair,’ Annette said. ‘Yes, I have heard of men falling into that—despair.’”

At times the story appears to be relentlessly grim, but whereas the brotherhood of one group of boys disintegrates, another flourishes.

“Pint was so skinny his socks would fall off his feet, so Liam made small pins to hang from his shorts, and attached thread from these pins to his socks. Pint and Frazer were five, Gordon was six, and Dan and Brad were eight. These were his friends from those summers long, long ago. Brad and Dan were the ones who helped him search the dump for old computers, and Brad was the boy who helped him with his bicycle.”

It is clear from the opening pages that Crimes against My Brother intends to explore deeply resonant psychological and philosophical questions, and this continues throughout. One character declares: “I need only to forgive and in turn be forgiven. And if that was the case, none of us would ever need a psychiatrist—would we?”

It is appropriate for such a challenging work to be presented in a questioning perspective, in the voice of a writer who can openly question the way in which the story is presented and received.

“And something else bothered him. Is this part of the main or secondary story? I have not decided. Perhaps it is part of both—but it fits with a logic that is beyond us all.”

But this voice of indecision is not immediately engaging. Like Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao and Sean Michaels’ Us Conductors, David Adams Richards’ new novel requires that readers adjust their pace to the rhythm and style of the storyteller.

Sentence structure, vocabulary, the density of the prose: each element reflects characterization and setting and demands a certain receptivity on the part of readers, for this dense prose cannot be rushed.

And, yet, there is one aspect of the story which seems more akin to a page-turner than a moral conundrum.

 “’It is a burning question,’ Markus Paul said to his mentor and friend, John Delano, in the snowy cold winter of 1995. ‘And the burning question is this: how does a man slip and hit his head on a dry floor when his body is found two body lengths away from the narrow bench he supposedly hit? What I am saying is, he couldn’t have fallen like that. If anything, the body should be facing the other way—if he hit the bench like the report says.’”

This character obviously appears in one of Richards’ earlier novels, and when he appears in the narrative, it’s tempting to pull Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul from the shelf to see if it contains any clues about this investigation, which has considerable import for the lives of the characters in Crimes against My Brother.

Ultimately, however, readers will not discover a tidy resolution, either within or between novels, for these novel’s characters. It is unlikely that readers will agree on even the basic tenets of the story, for there is an argument for its being saturated with despair and sorrow and an argument for it being redolent with resilience and redemption.

Although unlikely to attract new readers to David Adams Richards’ fiction, Crimes Against My Brother is a rich and challenging work and the burning questions raised are worthy indeed, if unanswerable.

IFOASmallBadgeDavid Adams Richards will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.

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

Next Wednesday, thoughts on Shani Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab.

Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao (2014)

The dedication to Padma Viswanathan’s second novel: For the lost, and for the living.

Random House of Canada, 2014

Therein, the reader haa a clue, for The Ever After of Ashwin Rao is equally preoccupied with losing and living.

The novel opens in 2004, on the precipice of the trial which was to address the 1985 fatal bombing of Flight Air India following its departure from Vancouver.

Ashwin Rao lost his sister and her two children on that flight, and almost twenty years later the loss is still fresh.

In her 2013 book of poetry, Children of Air India: Un/Authorized Exhibits and Interjections, Renée Sarojini Saklikar introduces readers to the subject like this:

“This is a lament for children, dead, and dead again in representations. Released.

This is a series of transgressions: to name other people’s dead, to imagine them.
This a dirge for the world. This is a tall tale. This is saga, for a nation.
This is about lies. This is about truth.

Another version of this introduction exists.
It has been redacted.”

Speaking directly to readers, the poet immediately draws attention to the central issues which revolve around this disaster: loss and grief, witnessing and enduring, denial and betrayal. The collection makes a poignant companion to Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao.

Ashwin Rao is a psychologist, but being able to rhyme off the stages of grief does not lessen the difficulty of living through them. And he lives them every day. Not only in his own person, but in his work collecting and documenting the experiences of families who are still grappling with the loss also.

“We can start wherever you like. People often want to talk first about the early days, when you found out about the bomb. I would like to know that, as a sort of baseline. And more about your family.”

Often his own personal connection with the crash is unremarked upon in these interviews, but he is struggling.

“Daily life depended on the suppression of a person’s worst fears. Bereavement kicked open the doors to let the demons swell, stretch their tongues, show their fiery eyes.”

A series of questions remains unanswered as his work continues:

“How long till the vanished became invisible?”

“How many generations does it take to achieve fluency in the language of grief?”

“The past has as few certainties as the present. Who knew?”

Ashwin does not articulate these all-in-a-row, but they surface throughout the story. It is as though the novel is immersed in them, even before they are identified. His grief is almost overwhelming; it has deep roots and is seemingly endless.

“I am a man thrice-struck by lightning. The first strike, the pogroms, came close. The second, the bombing, struck home. Somehow I’d expected the third to come soon after and to kill me. Why think that way? It’s lightning—nothing personal, even if I seemed to attract it. I waited seventeen years. Finally, the third bolt had struck, but at a distance. It didn’t kill me, but it deadened me, for about fourteen months.”

But these are the questions The Ever After of Ashwin Rao is made to explore, not resolve. Padma Viswanathan’s style is perfect for such ruminations.

Her prose allows the reader to settle in, like an easy chair. There is a sit-by-the-fire feel to the story, like than inThomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Maria  Dueñas’ The Time In Between (Trans. Daniel Hahn, 2011), and Rumer Godden’s In this House of BredeThese are novels which feature characters who are pressed inwards by events which have knocked them off-kilter, forced them to reconsider and redefine essential elements of life.

This is a prose style that cannot be rushed. In as much as it reflects Ashwin’s state of mind, it must unfold in its own way. Just as Ashwin has withdrawn, Padma Viswanathan’s novel requires that the reader reach out.

“I started to pull away from my work, which was all I had. No close friends, no family. No work. No love. Limbo. Drift. And then I got word of the trial, and bought a ticket to Canada. You know the rest, dear reader. Deadened and then galvanized. This was the work of the third strike.”

There are aspects of this situation that Ashwin is not prepared to confront, at times not even prepared to identify, not only for the reader but for his own protection. “I, too, may have a linearity problem, and must admit now to a small detail I have so far failed to include in this narrative.”

Just as he retraces his steps, and slips between times, the reader gradually assembles an understanding of Ashwin Rao; this is neither seamless nor complete.

The process of his resurfacing appears to be instigated by his interactions with a family he interviews. (His encounter reminds me a little of Nora’s with the Shahid family in The Woman Upstairs, which also deals with loss, but of a different sort.) This connection simultaneously invites interaction and remarks upon the futility of truly connecting.

“It struck him as marvellous and frightening how little we can know of the lives of others, even the closest, hours and hours in each day when they are out of our sight and we are out of their minds, leaving them to wander in mind and spirit to lonely places.”

He marvels at the capacity of the Irish people who received the mourners and the seekers in the days following the crash.

“But in a place where everyone had tragedy mapped on the palms of their hands, where every family tree was torn by civil war or emigration, famine or sudden squalls at sea, here, they knew how to address themselves to death.”

He struggles to address himself to death. And this sort of struggle is the stuff of fiction and poetry. There are nearly twenty books cited as important to Padma Viswanathan in her research too, as well as several articles; a reader can find any number of ways into the story, but they all lead to unending songs of loss.

Renée Sarojini Saklikar’s Children of Air India: Un/Authorized Exhibits and Interjections adopts this struggle too:

“Count: eighty-two under the age of thirteen.
Before breath, and after, what lies underwater,
one unending song — June 23, 1985.”

Nonetheless, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao leaves the reader with quite another feeling, emerging from this harrowing place, yes, but something beautiful and resonant.

August 2014, In My Bookbag

On a commute during which I know I’ll have trouble concentrating, I pluck one of the mysteries from the stack.

Blackhouse Peter May

Quercus, 2009; 2014

I’ve been discovering Peter May, Jeffrey Deaver, and Robert Galbraith this month.

Beginning with The Black House, The Bone Collector, and The Cuckoo’s Calling. Respectively.

And followed by The Lewis Man, The Skin Collector, and The Silkworm.

I didn’t intend them to be read in pairs (actually the Peter May titles are part of a trilogy), but they make a terrific combination.

They have complementary styles and varying emphasis on setting, plot, and character (also respectively).

In more contemplative moments and moods, I might reach for Brick magazine, #93 with Mavis Gallant’s handwriting on the inner front flap.

There is also an interview with Aleksandar Hemon with Eleanor Wachtel, a conversation between Madeleine Thien and Obi Nwakanma, poems by Sharon Olds and an article I’m currently reading, about E.M. Forster by Damon Galgut, whose latest novel considers the novelist too.

Standing in a line somewhere, I could browse a catalogue of interest, for instance the latest from Caitlin Press (a gift for landlovers, Pacific Coasters, feminists, and poets or the July/August issue of Quill & Quire. Sometimes I start making a TBR list from a catalogue and it ends up being a copy of the catalogue’s index because every single book looks interesting. The fall titles from both Caitlin Press and Q&Q are like that for me.

I like carrying this issue of Q&Q around because it has Carrie Snyder’s smiling face on the cover; I so loved Hair Hat, and then The Juliet Stories, and I guess I’ve been secretly waiting for her to appear on the cover of my favourite magazines for years because when the issue arrived in my mailbox I actually crowed in excitement. (The cover story is written by Stacey May Fowles, another fine author, of Be Good and Infidelity, among other works: good company.) No, I do not make a habit of crowing.

Q&Q’s fall preview is always exciting, and this issue contains a focus on Goose Lane as well, who published one of my favourite novels of this reading year, Tamai Kobayahi’s Prairie Ostrich.

But The Walrus is a favourite in my bookbag too and the September issue just arrived on Monday, with an article by one of my favourite writers, Michael Crummey, “The Circus Comes to Charlottetown”, on the “accidental birth of a nation”. But even when I don’t think an article in this mag is going to interest me, it nearly always does.

Just Pretending Lisa Bird Wilson

Coteau Books, 2013

Looking for short works like this essay, I also might read one of the short stories in Lisa Bird-Wilson’s Just Pretending. They are usually between 8 and 12 pages long, perfect for my average commute. And the collection fits with my Summer of the Canadian Short Story reading; I wonder how the other participants are doing. This will be the tenth collection of Canadian stories that I’ve finished since June 1st  but although I am reading two others I think Just Pretending might be the only one that I finish this month.

Or even shorter? Maybe one of the poems in Janet Marie Rogers’ Splitting the Heart, her debut collection, which was described as throbbing “with the vitality of a Native drum” and wailing “with a warrior’s wisdom”. I was intrigued by this collection because it comes with a CD and ten tracks, which reminded me of Leanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love, which I read and loved earlier this year.

Or maybe I’m craving pictures as might as either words or music, so I might read a few pages of Max Brooks’ The Harlem Hellfighters, a graphic depiction about the experiences of the 369th Infantry Regiment, an African American unit in WWI, and the discrimination its members experienced at “home” and abroad, war zones over here and over there.

Maureen Corrigan brought the book onto my reading radar and because I can’t recall her having reviewed another graphic story, I was immediately curious and now I see why she found it so powerful; I usually read about 20 pages and then set it aside for a spell. Essential reading. And Canaan White’s illustrations are mesmerizing.

How about you? What’s in your bookbag? Or what’s holding your attention these days?

Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk (2014)

One might say that Medicine Walk is a novel about the disconnect between a father and a son.

Medicine Walk Wagamese

McClelland & Stewart, 2014

“Eldon Starlight. Franklin Starlight. Four blunt syllables conjuring nothing. When he appeared the kid would watch him and whisper his name under his breath, waiting for a hook to emerge, a nail he could hang context on, but he remained a stranger on the fringes of his life.”

One might say that it is a story about the disconnect between the son and the other boys.

“He was the only Indian kid and they didn’t trust him. He didn’t hold out much trust for them either. They were mostly town kids who’d never gutted a deer or cut a dying heifer out of a tangle of barbed wire. They lived for games and play and talk, and the kid was used to being talked to and treated like a man.”

And one might say that it is about the disconnect between that father and the land, between those boys and the land.

“It was opening your eyes on a misty early summer morning to see the sun as a smudge of pale orange above the teeth of the trees with the taste of coming rain in his mouth and the smell of camp coffee, rope, gun powder, and horses. It was the feel of the land at his back when he slept and the hearty, moist promise of it rising from everything. It was the feeling of the hackles rising slowly on the back of your neck when there was a bear yards away in the bush and the catch in the throat at the sudden explosion of an eagle from a tree. It was also the feel of water from a mountain spring. Ice like light splashed over your face. The old man brought him to all of that.”

But while Medicine Walk is about all of these things, the heart of the novel resides in passages like this, which reveal that it is as much a novel about connection as disconnection.

In itself, this passage about connection is powerful. But within the passage, stark moments of simple beauty are almost overwhelming.

There are no games played with vocabulary or sentence structure, but the use of the words ‘teeth’ and ‘light’, combined with a few sensory details bring this scene to readers in an inescapably bold sweep of emotion.

Many aspects of this story are painful. The father’s experiences with the war are particularly brutal, in an up-close and suddenly life-changing way.

‘The war became the knowledge that life can strip you raw, that some holes are never filled, some gaps not chinked, some chill winds relentless in their pitch and yowl.”

And there are agonizing long-spun-out brutalities here too.

“’Well, whisky keeps things away that some people don’t want around neither. Like dreams, recollections, wishes, other people sometimes.’ The old man turned on the stool and set the milk pail down on the floor between his feet. ‘Things get busted sometimes. When they happen in the world you can fix ’em most times. But when they happen inside a person they’re harder to mend.’”

But there are moments of great beauty too.

“Then he said that she brung him to life. Said he was movin’ through his life by recollection until she come along and showed him how to look at things again.
“ ‘I got bigger on accounta her.’ That’s what he said. ‘I got made better.”

There is respite. Kindness. Resilience.

“Stories were his wound. When he came to think of them it wasn’t for the glimmer of worlds spun out of darkness and firelight, it was for the sudden holes life can sometimes fall into.”

This makes it sound like a deliberately constructed exchange, and that’s not entirely untrue. There is a sense of balance to Medicine Walk, a deliberate movement, though as often backwards as forwards.

But the twinned intensities are not joined hand-in-hand like schoolchildren. Even if one might draw out the extreme emotions in the story like a diagram in high-school English class, with a fulcrum between polarities, Medicine Walk does not feel like a novel which can be broken down, piece by piece, into components.

It feels pervasively sad, and pervasively beautiful, all at the same time, and all the way through.

“Down the one side was a tangle of lilacs, un-pruned and ramshackle, old and uncared for, scraping against the side of the house, and there was only one bloom. It sat high at the point farthest from the house. A small dab of colour. It made the house more sullen, bleaker, and the kid wanted to pluck it and carry it somewhere where it would not feel alone, save it maybe, in a jar in the sunlight, and he felt the tears come until the old man walked back and put his arm around him and they made their way back to the barn where they’d left the horses.”

Medicine Walk feels like Richard Wagamese plucked that dab of colour and held it in his hands until it soaked into his skin, un-pruned and ramshackle, out from the land and into the being.

It feels like he plucked it and saved it at the same time.

It feels impossibly right.

IFOASmallBadgeRichard Wagamese will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.

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

Next Wednesday, thoughts on David Adams Richards’ Crimes Against My Brother.

Sean Michaels’ Us Conductors (2014)

Sean Michaels’ prose invites readers to participate in the relationship between sound and shape through the simple but beautiful language of Us Conductors.

Us Conductors Michaels

Random House of Canada, 2014

His images are simple and fresh, and they are momentarily disorienting – as beautiful things can be.

“I didn’t laugh but you did, a laugh like a tumbling kite.”

That is Lev Sergeyvich Termen who does not laugh. But simply because he appears to be still does not mean there isn’t a current racing through his body when he sees this kite, this dragonfly aloft.

“When it was your turn, you played Mendelssohn. Your bow was a dragonfly. I felt my heart skimmed, skimmed, skimmed.”

Lev has long been fascinated by passion one step removed, an expression of tremendous beauty that is not-quite graspable. His proximity to the intensity changes him, as fascinations often do.

“Professor Vasilyev must have recognized my fascination, because one holiday he let me take a vacuum tube home. I kept it wrapped in butcher paper, strolling with it in my jacket pocket, one hand resting over it, and in my mind’s eye it was an emerald.”

Sometimes the element of sound is also tactile in its presentation: “For thirty-eight days the rails went clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack and then we reached the sea and things got much worse.”

Other times a rhythm infuses the prose with a more subtle energy. “They counted us. They counted us again.”

(And although sound is the sense which pervades this novel, other sensory details enrich the reader’s understanding of the breadth of settings and experiences explored. As when one character is observed “cracking crabs’ terracotta shells with his bare hands, sopping crabmeat in butter”.)

Us Conductors is not only preoccupied by the ways in which the human body can shape and release sound, but also the ways in which it conducts energy, electricity.

“You let your fascination express itself as stillness, steady stillness, like a lake gone smooth. Your violin sat in its case, near the points of your shoes. Only the corners of your lips showed your sparking heart.”

Readers are introduced to stillness and sparking via the secrets of the theremin and its inventor.

“This is the secret of the theremin, after all: your body is a conductor.”

The theremin might not be as well known as a violin, but its unforgettable sound makes up for its low-profile in the world of musical instruments.

“The sound of the theremin is simply pure electric current. It is the hymn of lightning as it hides in its cloud. The song never strains or falters; it persists, stays, keeps, lasts, lingers. It will never abandon you.

In that regard, it is better than any of us.”

In a novel preoccupied with sound, the corollary of silence is accorded a special status as well.

“There is a simple pause, like the one in Chopin’s op. 28, no. 7, a pause like the passing of autumn into winter, a pause like other pauses I have known, before Red locks the door.”

Not only is stillness relevant in the novel in terms of plot, representing the spaces in which action pauses, but in characterization too.

“She loved my intelligence, my confidence, the pencil I carried in my shirt pocket. She loved the quiet she saw in me.”

This stillness is exhibited in elements of the novel’s setting as well, particularly in the circumstances under which the narrative is being assembled but elsewhere too.

“A depression does not show itself instantly. The banks had not been replaced with soup kitchens. The clock towers had not stopped. But there were more men sitting in the streets, on stoops and curbs, even on that icy Tuesday. Like in the days after the Revolution settled, in Leningrad, weather seemed less important. People walked in the rain. They shivered in the sun. They scanned newsstands’ newspaper headlines with fragile faces, awaiting disaster.”

Historical figures inhabit Us Conductors alongside the main character:

“I taught Somerset Maugham about magnets and Sergei Eisenstein about rust. I served black tea and gingerbread to Maurice Martenot, inventor of the brilliant but capricious Ondes Martenot organ. He asked for salt and pepper. Schillinger lectured on aesthetics and harmony.”

But Sean Michael’s includes a declaration of lies in the author’s note: “This book is a work of fiction. It is full of distortions, elisions, omissions, and lies.”

This declaration is necessary (and the inclusion of resource materials useful) but readers of Us Conductors will respond viscerally to this work nonetheless. This creation of another version of what has already been, the artistry which emerges when one forgets the history and creates something new with parts of what has been before, is quite remarkable.

“I felt then what I have felt many times since. It is the moment you forget the electricity, the conducting metals and skipping electrons, the tubes and wires and fundamental principles, standing with hands in pockets you forget these things and for a hot, proud instant you think it is you who did this, who made the tubes glow, you clever mouse.”

Sean Michaels: clever mouse: rememberer of theremins.

August 2014, In My Stacks

This summer is a record-reading summer; the weather has been brilliantly cooperative and I have read more this summer than, well, possibly ever in a summer before.

Perhaps not since girlhood days, when it was all about what time the library would open, whether I would have to wait until the afternoon.

August StacksEven if August is not as lovely, I am still hopeful about the stacks. I’ve actually just finished Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light. It was recommended in one of Nancy Pearl’s podcasts as a novel which provokes good discussions, and now I understand why. Have you read her before?

There are two rereads in the stack shown to the left, including Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree, which I began on my Canlit read-a-thon weekend. I have been reading a few pages before bed, I was afraid it wouldn’t hold up across the decades, but it is just as wonderful as I remember it being.

The other planned reread is Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace but the presence of three other sizable books in the stack might edge it out.

It is such a favourite though, and my rereads of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood and The Handmaid’s Tale have all been so rewarding that I’d like to make a habit of it.

One book I know I will finish is Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute, which is my first read for the 8th Canadian Book Challenge, hosted by the Book Mine Set. Did you watch the mini-series on television years ago? I think I’ve confused it with the Plouffe family stories, but I enjoyed them both. The novel has the same feel and although the style is old-fashioned, it reads easily and the scenes are vibrant and the characters believable.

Many of the books in the stacks around here this month are inspired by upcoming autumn bookishness, principally the International Festival of Authors. This Wednesday marked the first of my annual IFOA feature posts, considering Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist.

Among the other attendees are Michael Winter, Esther Freud, and Tom Rachman.

(There are so many really, but these are the titles that caught my interest just now, pictured alongside)

Michael Winter’s book landed on the stack because I’ve heard so many good things about The Life and Death of Donna Whalen but, more recently, because I’ve read Debra Komar’s The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, a non-fiction exploration of a hundred-year-old miscarriage of justice. Michael Winter’s notes about his decision to present the research he had done into Donna Whalen’s case as fiction add a fascinating slant to the work.

Esther Freud is one of those authors whose books I’ve convinced myself I’ll enjoy, so I pick up her books second-hand when they pop up. But I’ve yet to try one. Do you have a favourite?

I’ve never read Rachman before but the cover of this one is irresistible: SO bookish. As are the first few pages. And it sounds like a pageturner, which is perfect for this time of year.

Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See, is reputed to be a pageturner as well. I’ve only read the first part, and I love the talk of miniatures and certainly, in wartime, there is plenty of tension and anticipation.

Serafim and ClaireAnother novel of another time in the stack is Mark Lavorato’s Serafim and Claire, which is set in the 1920s. It reminds me a little of Richard Wright’s Clara Callan (for the letters and sisters) and Helen Humphreys’ Afterimage (for the period photography).

I’m also keen to read Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers and Francine Prose’s short stories too; they are two of the three Giller Prize judges this season.

(The third is Justin Carpenter, whose Other People’s Money is in another stack here too. Do you have a favourite of his?)

I’ve enjoyed a few other books by Francine Prose, including her non-fiction Reading Like a Writer, which is responsible for the scads of Chekov on my bookshelves, but I’m not familiar with the works of either Baldwin (quite an oversight, but I seem to collect her diligently and then choose slimmer volumes from the shelves instead) or Carpenter.

And speaking of the Giller Prize, I expect to see two of the books I’ve just finished on prizelists this autumn: Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings (simply wonderful but, then, I loved Touch, too) and Nadia Bozak’s El Niño, the second in her Border Trilogy.

If you follow the Giller Prize, you can see the covers of all the books which are eligible for this year’s award on their Pinterest Page. I thought I’d been reading a lot of Canlit this year, but when I started counting how many on their page I’d read, that number seemed pretty small. Mind you, a good number of them have yet to be published, in that late-August-through-September blur of new titles that we all know so well.

But it’s not all serious reading in my stacks. I’ve also just started two new manga series (Fruits Basket and Are You Alice?) and have picked up a stack of several graphic novels from the library — not that there can’t be serious stories in these forms, but these are for fun.

Since I finished Deryn Collier’s most recent in the Bern Fortin series, I haven’t started another mystery series, but I’m definitely craving another with the same focus on characterization and complexity of structure. I think of reading mysteries in the summer but, fortunately, I am in the mood for them year round. Have you been reading any mysteries recently?

What’s most exciting to you in your stacks these days? And what would you pull out of my stacks first, whether to read it yourself or to press upon me?

Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist (2014)

It doesn’t get much more obvious than stacking these truths on the book jacket: there it is.

Confabulist Galloway

Knopf Canada, 2014

The Confabulist
Steven Galloway

For even though the noun more commonly associated with ‘confabulate’ is ‘confabulation’, what is most important here is not the story itself but the voice behind the story: the confabulist.

Readers are directed to attend to the storyteller, whose fiction has been critically acclaimed, long- and short-listed for a number of awards, and selected for Toronto’s One Book program in 2014 (The Cellist of Sarajevo): Steven Galloway, the confabulist.

Looking beyond the novelist, the next most obvious candidate is Martin Strauss, whose voice opens the novel, speaking directly to readers in the first person.

But in a novel preoccupied by the relationship between reality and illusion, between memory and invention, between distraction and subterfuge, readers must be cautious. Confabulists in the mirror may be nearer than they appear.

‘Confabulate’ is defined by the OED as “fabricate imaginary experiences as compensation for the loss of memory” and Martin’s doctor explains the phenomenon to him soon after readers meet him on the page.

So readers know that this man — whose brain will no longer store and process memories like most people but, instead, “will invent new memories” — is bound to present more questions than answers.

But Martin has a solution. “Perhaps if I write things down, I can create a story for myself that, through rereading, will become a sort of new reality as my ability to distinguish between illusion and substance worsens.”

At first glance, this seems reasonable. But readers must recall that Martin’s condition was present when the diagnosis was shared.

This means that readers must also question the point of entry for the confabulist, whether or not the question of the narrator as confabulist is, itself, a confabulation.

There is great potential to ravel and unravel these philosophical questions for those readers who enjoy such puzzles. In fact, Martin’s solution of creating a story actively engages readers in the process.

“I still wonder if this memory is real or false, if it’s me or everyone else who’s wrong. […] Is this illusion or substance? What does it mean if this moment never happened?”

What role does having an audience play in terms of establishing or confirming validity? If readers participate in Martin’s tale, through the act of reading and co-imagining, does that add substance to the experiences described? Does that make The Confabulist more or less real?

But for readers who are not interested in such musings, there is considerable pleasure to be found in Martin’s confabulations (both real and imagined from his perspective, all of them imagined from Steven Galloway’s perspective).

There is as much suspense in this tale as history, and it can be viewed as a page-turner or a work of polished artistry. (Or, perhaps one of those is an illusion.) Martin Strauss’ recounting of the life of Harry Houdini is gripping and propulsive.

“The whole world knows me as the man who killed Harry Houdini, the most famous person on the planet. His story is complicated, though most of it is widely known. What no one knows, save for myself and one other person who likely died long ago, is that I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice.”

It’s possible to completely forget the possibility that this is fabricated (which is certainly is at some level, although Steven Galloway cites some of his sources in the author’s notes at the end of the novel).

The presence of a number of historical figures besides Houdini himself adds substantially to the story’s credibility; it is easier to believe this accounting when the Romanov family and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle make appearances on the page. The settings are rich, though sketched in broad strokes, the language is straightforward and uncluttered, the dialogue is deftly interwoven with the exposition necessary to develop the plot, and the sense of the tale’s veracity swells.

But Houdini himself is an elusive character and as he rises in prominence, his capacity to wield significant influence increases along with his celebrity. Above all, Harry Houdini is a performer, an entertainer.

“At times he didn’t know what parts of him were real and what parts of him had been made up in order to become Harry Houdini.” He is a master of illusion. “Effect, method, misdirection, reconstruction. For me, they explain everything.”

One could say the same of a novelist. Steven Galloway, too, is a skillful illusionist. He pleats two tiers of a narrative, one the first-person voice of Martin Strauss and the other the third-person experience of Harry Houdini, but behind the curtain he is working his own kind of magic.

“A memory isn’t a finished product, it’s a work in progress. We think that our minds are like a library—the right book is there somewhere if you can find it. A
whole story will then unfold with you as the narrator. But our memory changes, evolves, erases. Moments disappear and are replaced and combined.”

The most remarkable element of this novel is not that it contains a multitude of illusions, but that it, itself, is an illusion. One might argue that the same could be said of any novel, but what sets this work apart is the author’s attention to a taut and delicate construction, the slow unravelling of voice twinned with the gradual lift of the curtain so that readers can catch a glimpse of the inner workings.

We readers are immediately engaged and bear some responsibility for creating this illusion, too, as we replace and combine our own memories of reading Steven Galloway’s confabulation.

IFOASmallBadgeSteven Galloway will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.

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

Next Wednesday, thoughts on Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk.

This One Summer: A True Favourite

These sentences are dappled across a two-page spread of Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer (2014), as though they are wafts of milkweed ink:

This One Summer Tamaki.

House of Anansi, 2014

“The first time I ever saw a milkweed was on the beach at Awago. I thought they were magic pods. I thought that if we ate them, the fluff would make us grow wings. So Windy and me picked like hundreds of them. A whole knapsack. We were going to mix them with ice cream and milk and coconut.”

The plants are drawn from mid-stem up, their leaves and stems detailed and scored with dark lines and texture, the fluff barely-there, side-stroked wisps of near-nothing. There is a sense of wonder and possibility there, which mirrors the innocent plans and musings of a younger Rose and Windy.

On the next page, the story slips back into panels. They are neatly drawn and squared, but just slightly askew, like images from a scrapbook of photographs with those old fashioned corners that required licking and sticking to hold the image.

“Then my mom found the knapsack and she told us milkweed is really poisonous.”

It isn’t even about whether or not it is poisonous; what matters is that something beautiful was declared to be other-than-expected, the possibilities squelched by contradictions.

In another book, this realization might have slipped into anti-grown-up-ness. (And perhaps justifiably so, for Rose certainly has her hands full this one summer, coping with her parents’ problems, just as she is at her most-between, when she is keenly craving stability and security.)

But although they do not inhabit the story’s core, the parents in this book are fully integrated into the story and their own characters are well enough established to hint at other narratives orbiting the story of Rose’s summer without a full-on collision.

This passage immediately leads into one of my favourite scenes, in which Rose is sitting at the table reading a book while her mother French braids her hair. In the final panel, after the braid is tied off and her hair has been smoothed down, Rose looks up from her seated position and asks her mother if she’s planning to go down to the beach with the girls. The mother’s face is beyond the panel, but her arms drape across Rose’s shoulders, her wrists limp and her hands dangling below Rose’s neck. Rose grasps her wrists and waits for the answer.

Rose is somewhere between hand-holding and braiding her own hair. She is still looking up at her mother, but on the verge of understanding that her mother’s decision to stay indoors really has nothing to do with Rose but with matters about which Rose has been unaware. (This is yet to happen, because this scene is early on, but it is in the wings.)

On the surface, This One Summer is about a single summer, in which certain matters which were either tremendously fuzzy or completely out-of-view begin to have edges and emerge from the sidelines where grown-ups live.

It is simultaneously about the glorious and seemingly unending days of summer-somewhere-away, somewhere barely touched by rest-of-the-year concerns, and about that time of life when adulthood, too, seemed impossibly far away, but was inevitably approaching.

Cottage life is captured so perfectly that it feels like there are grains of sand trickling out of the binding, and it’s a relief that the book has one of those waxy softcovers, because otherwise it would surely curl from the dampness of those early cottage mornings.

The drawings, the layouts, the ratio of text-to-image, the narrative pacing, the dialogue, the characterization, the setting: every component combines seamlessly with the whole to create a winsome and soul-satisfying tale.

This is one of my favourites this reading year, and I expect I will reread it every summer (possibly every winter too). In fact, I might just reread it now, this (one) summer.

June/July 2014, In My Reading Log

Days and days throughout this July have contained book after book after book: a swell of print.

From graphic novels (revisiting the Game of Thrones saga in this medium) to short stories (lots of those!), from memoirs (I’ve just finished Zarqa Nawaz’s Laughing All the Way to the Mosque) to bestsellers (I’ve just started Tom Rachman’s latest), even a mini Canlit read-a-thon.

There will lots of full-length reviews next month but here are a few words about some recent discoveries:

Abel Place Scraps

Talonbooks, 2014

Jordan Abel’s the place of scraps (2014)
Dedicated to the Indigenous peoples of North America, the place of scraps juxtaposes poetry and visual art with excerpts from Marius Barbeau’s “classic” anthropological study Totem Poles.

Text and black and white photographs collide. A full set of paragraphs on one page is presented on the following page with only select words evident, suggesting a new meaning. The ‘his’ of history appears like a settler’s declarative statement upon arrival in a homeland.

Sometimes only the punctuation remains, and readers must wonder at the decision, for instance, to include the indigenous language only in parentheses in Barbeau’s work.

Curators and collectors claimed articles as small as beads and as large as totem poles, often in the name of preservation not extermination, and Jordan Abel invites readers to reconsider elements of this his-torical process and its legacy for today’s descendants.


Three O’Clock Press, 2014

Lily Poritz Miller’s The Newcomers (2014)
“Across from the field when Mr. Wolfson had taken Libka lived the widow Sharon Krinsky and her daughter, Fanny, who worked as a seamstress in a local mill. They occupied the second floor of the tenement house that Mrs. Krinsky owned, and she spent most of her time looking out of the window. On the night when Mr. Wolfson pulled up in the field and turned off his engine, she watched the activity in the car through her binoculars, highlighted by a street lamp.”

Carrying on from In a Pale Blue Light, reading The Newcomers feels somewhat like turning to a Galsworthy novel, as though the family saga might unfold endlessly. But with a dash of the Sydney Taylor All-of-a-Kind Family series, for the focus is on the children in the family and the action eventually shifts from South Africa to the United States.

In this volume, the second, the focus is the daughter, Libka, whom readers have followed since her father’s death at the beginning of the first volume, through her school years and graduation. But just as the quote reveals, there is a wider ensemble cast, and readers are as likely to get details about her mother’s work in the laundry as about parked cars and untoward behaviour.

The covers, too, hint at the voice and themes; their cool colours and charcoal lines suggest that these stories are told from a distance, when passions have cooled, and both language and preoccupations are soft and controlled, neither stark nor highly emotive.

Time Out Shaw

Second Story Press, 2014

These stories reward the patient reader with a solid connection to characters followed across time and space and a desire to continue with the story in as-yet-unpublished volumes.

Liane Shaw’s Time Out: A teacher’s year of reading, fighting, and four-letter words (2014)
“Social workers, teachers, doctors, parents, principals – so many adults in the lives of these kids. It reminds me of an old joke: how many adults does it take to screw up a kid?”

My girlhood copy of A Circle of Children is off-colour and worn; I reread Mary MacCracken’s books about her years working with “troubled kids” as often I reread my favourite Lois Duncan novels; Time Out bears some similarity as the emphasis is on emotional connection (and disconnection) between teacher and students more so than academics.

But Liane Shaw did not pursue this career. “It seems I have just agreed to a job that I don’t want to do,” she writes. But over the course of the year, “these” kids become “her” kids. Her elementary school room is both a refuge and a prison, for the bullies and the bullied, but with a course in crisis management, she survives (they do too).

There is just enough of her personal life shared for readers to understand the bleed-over of a committed teacher’s care-taking and compassion, and there is just enough detail overall to add depth to the cursory treatment of a single academic year.

The balance between broad-strokes and specifics is deftly handled and the author’s voice is warm, sometimes witty and sometimes tender, and her delivery is assured.

Cushion in the Road Walker

The New Press, 2013

Alice Walker’s The Cushion in the Road (2013)
“A writer’s heart, a poet’s heart, an artist’s heart, a musician’s heart is always breaking. It is through that broken window that we see the world; more mysterious, beloved, insane, and precious for the sparkling and jagged edges of the smaller enclosure we have escaped.”

The subtitle reveals the breadth of content covered in this collection of essays: Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way. Palestine, the Drug War, the importance of napping, compassion, subsistence farming, justice: the subject matter is broad.

“I would be remiss, as an elder of the planet, to remain silent at this point about some of the ways to deal with this period of emotional, psychological, ideological, and financial instability,” she writes, with conversations about the instability alongside conversations about the impossible.

People like Howard Zinn, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Frieda and Diego, and Edwidge Danticat (and their work) appear in the pages with commentary, and the essays certainly lengthened my lists of books to read and films to watch and places to visit.

Sometimes inspiring and always informative, this collection is best enjoyed in short bursts, for though the wordcounts are sometimes slim, the girth of the ideas herein is substantial indeed: food for thought.

How about you? What has caught your attention recently?

Have you been indulging in bookishness?