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

Deni Ellis Béchard’s Into the Sun (2016)

Have you ever missed your stop on public transit because of a book?

House of Anansi, 2016

House of Anansi, 2016

Into the Sun is so gripping, from the start, that I travelled four stops past my own stop, before I even realized that I had missed it. (Then, I was so surprised, even disbelieving that I’d travelled so far beyond my destination, that I missed the next one too.)

The novel’s opening is indeed adrenalin-soaked, with an attack on a public building, which has welcomed the patronage of Westerners in the war-torn country of Aghanistan. Certainly there is a safe-room – and for good reason – but just how safe is a safe-room?

This sudden and heightened immersion reflects the experiences of newcomers to Kabul, immediately engaged in a life more brilliant, more engaging.

“All expats shared more than we liked to admit: a sense of addiction, an uncertainty about what we’d do if we went home, and a feeling of being awakened – our senses jolted into activity each time we went outside, perceiving every detail in the street. We felt close to the world’s brilliant core – not shielded, not squinting at screens.”

A couple dozen pages into the story, however, and the adrenalin fades. The compelling pace eases and readers are left to reconfigure, a novel of dering-do and bravado makes room for another kind of narrative.

Is this a story of adventure, or a contemplative work on the broader question of survival? Perhaps this is just what it’s like for new arrivals to Aghanistan, who might be struck initially by the violence and the urgency of life under these circumstances, then be stunned into something quieter, still alert but in a strange sort of limbo.

“Just by setting foot in Afghanistan, we have the authority we crave back home. Our journey is a story of the greatest human strength: leaving one’s domain and crossing the frontier into the territory of the other.”

Into the Sun is told from a number of perspectives, all newcomers to Kabal with one exception, a young resident whose only experience of life has been in wartime conditions. “Afghanistan stirs things up, and it takes them a while to figure out who they are here.”

One characteristic which all the narrators share is a sense of fractured identity, whether because they are pressed by matters of loyalty/betrayal, or because they carry a legacy of rootlessness (often due to family fractures, whether more or less visible to outsiders).

How does one define oneself when living a life of extremes?

“A man, Demetrie said, has got to live by his standards, even if it means seeming crazy. If you don’t, you end up hating yourself. People just do the same things and say the same things, and forget they said them yesterday. I woke up one day and was tired of listening to all that.”

The setting is described in a matter-of-fact tone. There is no hint of exoticism or romanticism: this is a difficult environment under the best of circumstances, but almost impossible in a state of siege. One coated with dust which has been determined to contain 60% fecal matter, partly because the contents of septic  tanks have been dumped nearby, have dried and blown back, and partly because of the open sewers in the environment.

“The mountains held in the emissions of traffic, generators, and construction, the demolition and mixing of concrete, as well as the smoke from wood, diesel, and kerosene. Also lacing the dust was the pulverized remains of the thousands of mortars that had rained down during the civil war, the depleted uranium bullets and armor-piercing rounds, the streets and buildings incinerated by American bombs.”

Nonetheless, there are poetic bursts. The land is as beautiful as it is dirty. “Outside his gate, the earth, cut by motorcycle tracks, looked like gills.” Even the philosophizing is described beautifully: “Once we have lived through violence, are we drawn back to it, like insects wandering into a world of artificial lights, tiny proximate suns, our ancient sense of navigation confounded, so that we proceed to circles until we annihilate ourselves?”

The language used figuratively usually embodies a sense of conflict, however, adding to the novel’s quiet tension. There is no mistaking that this is a place and time characterized by struggle, though not uniquely here and now, some native and some imported. “Even as a boy [in the United States], aiming a weapon had been automatic, as if every act of violence were inherited – a gesture repeated across centuries. Destroying his own life had felt like the only way out of it.”

This sense of timelessness plays out within and across characters’ experiences. “He’d noticed how – when he stopped moving forward and stayed too long in one place, when the future’s gravity lost its purchase – the past took hold. It was the sort of thing that would never have crossed his mind before his discharge.”

The past has a peculiar power for several characters, including a Japanese journalist, who becomes obsessed with unearthing the motivation surrounding a single act of violence. How the past takes hold in the present is of concern, but also the historical patterns of engagement: “…Americans were masters of not only nostalgia but also forgetting. The country they loved was a mirage from the past, a stylized memory bereft of history itself.”

Deni Ellis Béchard has proven himself interested in the interplay between past and present in previous works as well, including Cures for Hunger, which considers his childhood and coming-of-age in a family where his father was largely absent and had a history of committing robberies. His first novel, Vandal Love, also considers matters of identity and longing, amidst a struggle to establish roots in some unwelcoming territories across an expanse of time.

The overarching concern is not that different in Into the Sun: “What would a person not do for a future?”


The Fold’s 2016 Reading List (Part Three)

fold-bannerThe FOLD (The Festival of Literary Diversity) is an annual event, in Brampton (Ontario, Canada) dedicated to telling more stories, to having audiences connect with a wider variety of storytellers. You can check out their lineup of terrific writers and storytellers who were a part of the debut festival in May this year, here.

Chariandy SoucouyantEarlier in 2016, they posted a reading challenge, which I printed and dutifully began to read towards. (I’ve misplaced the link: sorry!)

  1. A book you’ve had for more than a year.
  2. A book outside of your ‘favourite genre’.
  3. A book you buy at an indie bookstore.
  4. A book by a person of a faith.
  5. A book by an aboriginal author.
  6. A book by a Canadian LGBTQ author.
  7. A book by a Canadian person of colour.
  8. A book by a FOLD 2016 author.

I’ve already discussed the first and last categories, Ernest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men (1983) and Farzana Doctor’s All Inclusive (2015), and the fourth, André Alexis’ Pastoral.

Today: a book outside of my favourite genre, N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms (2010) which is the second in her Inheritance fantasy cycle, and a book by a Canadian person of colour, David Chariandy’s Soucouyant (2007).

At first, Soucouyant appears to have a fantastical side too: “What do you do with a person who one day empties her mind into the sky?” (This is particularly the case when reading N.K. Jemisin’s series, in which Sky is an actual place.)

But, in fact, there is an unfortunately banal explanation. “The word is old and has been used in medical contexts for over two thousand years to describe many types of unusual or incomprehensible behavior. Today, the word is most often connected with illnesses associated with aging, so much so that the terms ‘early onset’ and ‘presenile’ are applied when cases arise in people barely forty years old.”

Everyone knows the word. Everyone knows what the younger son is facing, after he returns home to care for his mother. But of course this is not the whole story. “They does always tell the biggest stories in book.”

Delving into a fresher understanding of his parents’ lives, he probes into darkened corners. “There were mildewed explanations for why they shouldn’t ever get along. An African and South Asian, both born in the Caribbean and the descendants of slaves and indentured workers, they had each been raised to believe that only the only had ruined the great fortune that they should have enjoyed in the New World.”

Soucouyant is characterized by a watery landscape on- and off-the-page. Talk of mildew laps against more concrete imagery.

“For a long time, I never understood what ever could possess my parents to live here. This lonely cul-de-sac in the midst of a good neighbourhood,’ this difficult place that none of our neighbours would ever have settled for. It could have been the great lake, of course. That mirage of steel and pastels stretching out to the very horizon of the world, that inland sea inspiring all sorts of reckless imaginings.”

Jemisin The Broken KingdomsTalk of possession, too. “Do you know what it’s like to be around someone who’s eternally sad? It drains you. It sucks your life.” (In the quote above, as well.)

This is a short novel, just as his mother’s is a short life. “Man can’t take care of you. Friends, husbands, sons, they all the same. They does leave you.”

It is the story of those who have been left. Yes, a sad and draining story. But one beautifully told.

N.K, Jemisin’s novel The Broken Kingdoms is also relentlessly sad, but Oree’s character is dynamic and tenacious.

“My parents named me Oree. Like the cry of the south-eastern weeper-bird. Have you heard it? It seems to sob as it calls, ore, gasp, ore, gasp. Most Maroneh girls are named for such sorrowful things. It oculd be worse; the boys are named for vengeance. Depressing, isn’t it? That sort of thing is why I left.”

Although the second in the Inheritance Trilogy, readers could approach The Broken Kingdoms as a standalone. The events of the first volume, The Ten Thousand Kingdoms unfolded a long time ago, and they are recounted succinctly, which serves as a solid refresher/introduction.

N.K. Jemisin deliberately situates readers in time and space, primarily through their relationship with Oree, which is key to this novel.

“These days, our world has two great continents, but once there were three: High North, Senm, and the Maroland. Maro was the smallest of the three but was also the most magnificent, with trees that stretched a thousand feet into the air, flowers and birds found nowhere else, and waterfalls so huge that it was said you could feel their spray on the other side of the world.
The hundred clans of my people – called just ‘Maro’ then, not ‘Maroneh’ – were plentiful and powerful.”

In fact, Oree’s understanding of events undergoes a dramatic shift as The Broken Kingdoms unfolds. So readers who began at the beginning will be more profoundly affected by her realization/discovery, but her awe and surprise is enough for readers who did not know (or had forgotten) an alternative version.

Ultimately, the novel is as much about patterns of behavior in our own time (and historically) and space. The trials which Oree faces are ripped from the headlines in readers’ experiences.

“How many nations and races have the Arameri wipedout of existence?’ I demanded. ‘How many heretics have been executed, how many families slaughtered? How many poor people have been beaten to death by Order-Keepers for the crime of not knowing our place?'”

The novel’s pace is relentless and after a short grounding in Oree’s experience, there is a single death and then there are many. The Broken Kingdoms, unlike readers’ reality, has a resolution. Oree’s tale needs telling and a tale-telling needs listeners.

“Then listen. That’s the most important thing any historian can do.”

Both The Broken Kingdoms and Soucouyant endeavour to tell the stories of those whose versions are often shelved in the appendices, laid out in the cul de sacs on a crumbling lakeshore.

Compelling stories.

Are there books in your stacks which would fit any of these categories?

Katherena Vermette’s The Break (2016)

“My Stella, girls get attacked everywhere.” Stella’s Kookom — her grandmother — states her truth blnntly. She has lived it, is living it, has survived it and is surviving it. Although, as Lou says: “We have all been broken in one way or another.”

House of Anansi, 2016

House of Anansi, 2016

The Break is more than one woman’s story. But at the heart of it is one incident of violence, which reverberates across the generations. “[T]hey just all look alike. Cheryl, Rain, Stella, Paul, Lou, and Emily too. The girl looks just like them all.”

The Break also refers to a border in the landscape, which also retains a psychological and social edge. Stella believes that she has moved beyond the perimeter, that she is now living in an area which is safer for indigenous women, though only a few blocks away. (The same landscape is explored in the author’s 2013 collection, North End Love Songs, which won the 2013 Governor General’s Award for Poetry.)

“Kookom laughs but not unkindly. ‘It’s just different there, my Stella. Just different, or they hide it. It just looks different, but bad stuff happens everywhere.’’

When Stella witnesses an act of violence from her window, it echoes throughout the experiences of the women in her family. It serves as the impetus for reconnecting with her family in the present, but simultaneously brings remembrances of past fractures to the fore.

Even in company, many of the women feel alone. Sometimes the silence, that which is not discussed and not known, is as much of a burden as what is felt and observed directly.

“Stella never did find out who he was. Or why any of it had happened at all. There were big, blank spaces where all the answers should be. Stella never knew.”

There are breaks in communication, breaks in tradition, breaks in matriarchal support systems: it is not only the landscape which has dividing lines, but thought patterns and behaviours.

“In the dream, the Break is land like any other land, just a place covered with snow. The sky is clear, the stars are bright and blinking, and the moon is full and bright. She can see all its dents and curves, and the light that reflects back somehow feels as warm as fire. The wind is the winter kind, huge and overpowering in her ears. It’s all she hears but it doesn’t make her cold. Stella walks on and knows she can take this path all the way north. She can go until she reaches the end of the city where she will see the sky and snow stretch out full and empty.”

Time and place are significant in this novel, but the story urges readers to reach beyond. This is not simply one girl’s story, but one story which must be viewed within a framework of misappropriation and abuse, a systemic devaluing and disempowering. And, yet, paradoxically, the pain is experienced at the personal level, so it is also a story about individual sorrows and losses.

“It wasn’t a night out anymore. It was a timeline. Her mom wasn’t a person anymore. She was a story. And it all didn’t matter anyway. When Stella knew everything she knew the details weren’t even all that important – it was what it meant that mattered. It meant that it was all her mom’s fault. All her mom’s fault. Her mom was dead and it was all her own fault.
For a long time, that was all that really mattered.”

The Break‘s narrative moves in a circular fashion, as though the author is passing a treasure amongst the characters. As the pages turn, the voices become a chorus, as in Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Penelopiad, a resonant call for justice. (A pattern to the voices emerges as more details are understood about the act of violence.)

Even before readers can easily distinguish between the representatives of the generations – draw the matrilineal lines – the pattern begins to emerge. The Break is about a family, but the boundaries of that family spread beyond the walls of a handful of houses.

“She thinks of each time, every instance. One by one. It’s really the past. Not even hers. Just stories that really belong to other people but were somehow passed to her for safekeeping, for her to know, forever. Incidents. Situations. They roll by in her head, factual and unemotional. Things she’s seen, things her cousins told her, things her mom and Anuty Cher told her and her, Lou and Paul, when they were little kids, all those big and small half-stories that make up life. A pattern, she thinks of the word – like something that makes something else. Pattern. All those little things, those warnings to be careful, those teachings of what not to do.”

There are deeply ingrained patterns of alliance and betrayal too. The police, for instance, have more often sheltered (even housed) the perpetrators of violence against women like Stella than they have held them accountable and penalized them for their transgressions. “It is a random thought but it lingers a little too long. This isn’t the first time she has wondered if she really knows him and what he could be capable of, if she can even imagine.”

The perpetration of abusive and devastating cycles also leads to relentless anger and addiction. Nonetheless, despite the horrors, the overwhelming tenor of The Break is resilience and endurance. There is a note of pleading, but also a clear insistence.

“That’s what her look would have been called. Stern. Tommy knows that look well. His aunts all have it, his mom too, when she wants to, but this woman is also so beautiful. The kind of woman who doesn’t know she’s beautiful or dooesn’t care, who is always serious and doesn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks of her. The kind that intimidates the hell out of him.”

There is something preserved at the core of these women. “They are all like this, not their real selves anymore, more like shadows, turned inside out.”

They have survived. They will survive.

September 2016, In My Stacks

Compared to August, this is going to be an exceptionally busy reading month. And these stacks don’t even include the lists of prize-list nominees and IFOA attendees, whose books are also cluttering every flat surface at home.

september-2016-tbr-libraryGreg Iles’ The Bone Tree – Having finished Natchez Burning in August, I was suprised to find that no time elapses between that book and this. In fact, The Bone Tree begins within an hour of the ending of Natchez Burning, but offers another perspective to its resolution. The narrative is stuffed with detail and there is a broad cast of characters, but the plotting is tight and the characterization is solid: the story pulls me onwards.

André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs – This book comes highly recommended from every corner – family and friends and prizelist-jury members – but I’ve been scarred by Watership Down and Where the Red Fern Grows. It barely matters that I’ve recently read A (such skinny and clever little volume published by BookThug, a new favourite publisher of mine) and Pastoral, which is the first in the cycle of five books, in which Fifteen Dogs is the second. Fortunately, Steph (of Bella’s Bookshelves) and I are reading together so we can pass each other tissues as required.

Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie – Last month I officially signed up for The Book Mine Set’s Tenth Canadian Book Challenge, and to add another layer to the challenge, I’m going to read 13 books by indigenous authors. (Here are 13 of my favourites which have inspired my choice of theme.) My first read for the challenge was Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls (named for the shapes of the uniform hair cuts which church officials gave to the children yanked into government residential schools). If Birdie is this good, I’m in for a treat.

Jane Smiley’s Early Warning – Even though this year I’m supposed to be finishing series which I’ve left unfinished, I’ve started a few new ones as well, in an effort to prove to myself that I can start and finish them in short order. This is the second volume in a series which Danielle (of A Work in Progress) and I are sharing. The first volume captured her more immediately, which is just the kind of encouragement one needs sometimes, to settle properly into a story. By now I’m fully invested in the family’s story, which is told with one chapter devoted to each of one hundred years.

Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees – I think it was Sharlene (of Real Life Reading) whose raves about this one first caught my attention, but it’s hard to squeeze a thick book like this one into the stacks, so it’s taken me awhile. By now, Yanagihara has another chunkster to tempt me, but I don’t think I’ll get to A Little Life this month.

Robert Wiersema’s Walk Like a Man – Even though I thought I was a Springsteen fan, I realize now that I’ve read the first few chapters of Robert Wiersema’s memoir that I just listened to Springsteen a lot. Nonetheless, I felt strongly enough about some of his songs, that I am throughly enjoying this collection of pieces. It begins with a brief biography of The Boss, just enough to situate readers who don’t already have their factsheets memorized, then shifts into a series of shorter essays named for specific songs which makes for a great playlist of course. Most mornings, I read and listen to one track: it’s great.

Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist – Even though this was on my TBR list, I’d completely forgotten about it until Jaclyn (of Literary Treats) was raving about his newest book. But it’s the link with writing which cinched the deal for me, along with her assurances that it was her funniest book of that reading year. Not only is this the Month-of-Fifteen-Dogs, but none of the other books in my stack here are exactly happy stories (though the Springsteen collection isn’t as tough as the rest – get it?): I’m counting on this one to lighten the mood.

Care to comment on how my use-the-library-less project is going?

september-2016-shelvesRiel Nason’s All the Things We Leave Behind – Last month, I finally read The Town that Drowned, which I really enjoyed. All the Things We Leave Behind is her follow-up, which unfolds a few years later in the same region. Brian Francis describes it as “full of heart, honesty and beauty”. If it’s even half as enchanting, I’ll be taking a lot of notes.

M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia – This is a slimmer volume than many of his novels and, containing some notebook entries and long swaths of dialogue, it seems like a book which will read quickly. “New memories in new bodies. New lives. That’s the ideal, though we are still far from it. The body may break and wobble: memory develop a crack or hole. In the leaked memory syndrome, or Nostalgia, thoughts burrow from a previous life into the conscious mind, threatening to pull the sufferer into an internal abyss.”

Christie Blatchford’s Life Sentence – Drawing on 40 years of working as a court reporter, this seems certain to be a riveting read. Particularly given her unadorned prose and journalistic experience. Athough I haven’t read a lot of true crime, this volume intrigues me greatly.

Jared Young’s Into the Current – The premise of this debut novel interests me, but I’m even more keen having spotted it on the shelves of Bakka Bookstore, when I thought it was realist story-telling. “Strapped into his seat thousands of feet above the merciless Earth, time suddenly stops, the wreckage of the plane freezes in place, and Daniel discovers what ti means to have your life flash before your eyes. Transporting himself into the past and re-experiencing his memories in real time – but helpless to change the present – he plunges into the detritus of his all-but-concluded life.”

Olive Senior’s The Pain Tree – For a change, I’ve read more of this author’s poetry and short fiction than I have of her novels. The Pain Tree has been underway for many years and I’m eager to revisit the landscape of her stories.

Darren Greer’s Advocate – It’s been a long time since I read (and loved!) Still Life with June. In between, I read Strange Ghosts, a collection of essays, but I’m eager to return to his longer fiction. “With wit and emotional depth, Greer describes the formation of one boy’s social conscience and takes us to a resolution that is truly satisfying.”

Melanie Mah’s The Sweetest One – There was a huge stack of these on the counter of “Another Story” when I was in there last week, signed. How can you resist her debut? “Now in her final year of high school, Chrysler – though smart, strong-willed, and longing for change – is debilitated by fear. Fear that she’s unlovable; that, like the other residents of Spring Hill, she’s doomed to live a scripted life; that Trina, if she’s still alive, may never return; that the same thing that killed her siblings will also kill Chrysler.”

Are any of these on your TBR stacks? Have you already read one/some? If you were going to choose just one to read right now, which would it be? What are you looking forward to reading this month?

The Fold’s 2016 Reading List (Part Two)

The FOLD (The Festival of Literary Diversity) is an annual event, in Brampton (Ontario, Canada) dedicated to telling more stories, to having audiences connect with a wider variety of storytellers. You can check out their lineup of terrific writers and storytellers who were a part of the debut festival in May this year, here.

Alexis PastoralEarlier in 2016, they posted a reading challenge, which I printed and dutifully began to read towards. (I’ve misplaced the link: sorry!)

  1. A book you’ve had for more than a year.
  2. A book outside of your ‘favourite genre’.
  3. A book you buy at an indie bookstore.
  4. A book by a person of a faith.
  5. A book by an aboriginal author.
  6. A book by a Canadian LGBTQ author.
  7. A book by a Canadian person of colour.
  8. A book by a FOLD 2016 author.

I’ve already discussed the first and last categories: Ernest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men (1983) and Farzana Doctor’s All Inclusive (2015).

Today I’m discussing the fourth, focussing on the perspective of a character immersed in a life of faith, Father Christopher Pennant, assigned to the parish of Barrow, Ontario.

One could legitimately misread the back cover of Pastoral, which describes Barrow as not “sleepily bucolic” but “sheepily bucolic”. But while the four-legged do play a prominent role in André Alexis’ drama, flora and fauna are important in general, so one needn’t see Father Pennant as the simple shepherd.

“The lives of shepherds in pastoral literature are not depicted realistically, and pastoral literature doesn’t have the swift forward movement of conventional fiction: what shapes such literature is absence. In pastorals of past centuries, what’s absent is often the city; the country (unrealistically) is cleaner; safer; more innocent.”

Whether destiny or divinity, this passage appeared in Alice Mattison’s The Kite and the String, which was rubbing covers with André Alexis’ novel in my stack.

Perfect timing. Which, although he had anticipated a city-assignment, is how Father Pennant appears to feel about Barrow upon arriving.

“Just outside of Barrow – and all around it – there were fields, silos, barns and farmhouses. Coming in by bus, Father Pennant was so enchanted by the land, by the thistles and yellowish reeds at the side of the road, that he asked the driver to let him off at the sign that said ‘Welcome to Barrow’ so he could walk into town, suitcase and all, on the warm April day that was his first in his new parish.”

Moments later, he is offered a loaf of freshly baked bread, directly from the hands of the town baker; he doesn’t hesitate to inform him of the cost, however, tugging both walker and reader back to reality. (Yes, you are probably supposed to be thinking ‘loaves and fishes’ here, too.)

Although one could argue for the role of one certain sheep as central, or for Father Pennant himself, the community of Barrow is at the heart of this novel.

“The farmhouse looked to be sturdy, though it smelled of wood that had rotted. The barn was ready to collapse on itself, as if a great hand had pressed down on it and burst its roof. Decades previously, the Stephenses had planted apple trees in a modest, ordered grove: thirty trees in tight rows, five by six. At a distance from the apple trees there were other trees (willows, birches and maples), tall, yellowed grasses, thistles, buttercups and an unexpected clump of purple lilac bushes that intoxicated with their perfume. A brook, a tributary of the Thames, ran across the property: narrow, four feet across, its waters clear as glass, its banks low and rounded to an overhang in places. In and around the brook: turtles, frogs and small fish that swam like living slivers of birch bark. Beyond the brook, a wide, open field, alive with grasshoppers, crickets and mice.”

This excerpt is long but serves to illustrate that some of Barrow and its environs is more idealistic than realistic, but André Alexis also observes the rot and the disrepair. The terms used are often note-worthy (consider that “great hand” pressing “down” from above) and the details matter.

How much they matter remains to be seen, however, for Pastoral is only the first work in the author’s Quincunx, a cycle of five stories. (The second, Fifteen Dogs, is an apologue. The third, Hidden Keys, will be published in the autumn of 2016.) One suspects that the themes in Pastoral will resonate in later works in the cycle, just as is the case across this single novel of five parts.

Alice Mattison’s assertion, that the significant absence in a pastoral is the city, is correct in Pastoral. But there are other absences as well, including a significant loss for Father Barrow himself and the community at large. At least one other character also experiences a significant loss, which leaves a space where faith once resided. (This is true of one character literally and of another character metaphorically.)

In many ways, Barrow does seem cleaner and safer, even more innocent than other communities. But Father Pennant observes not only miracles in Barrow, but sins too. Yes, real miracles. And real transgressions.  So Pastoral might well lack conventional forward movement, but there are archetypal battles too.

“The town of Barrow, which she knew as well as she knew her lover’s body, was vivid in the sunlight, like a bauble of itself.”

How we root ourselves (also, how we rot): it matters. What is genuine and what is mere decoration: it matters, too.

And sometimes we find more warmth and strength outdoors than in a pew. Father Pennant shares the page with a devoted atheist and perhaps the spontaneous eruption of the river is meant to evoke pagan springs on mythic islands. “For a moment, the outside smelled of toast and honey, while inside there was the odour of bleach and coffee.”

Readers might find themselves longing for a slice of untoasted Barrow bread with their cup of coffee. Not the bread handed to Father Pennant upon his arrival. Loaves shaped by women in the community. In the shape of a red-letter (but, this time, not an ‘A’, although A’s and Z’s matter here, too).

“The centre of Barrow bread was where the coconut and raisins (dyed red) were baked in the form of an X above which there was a circle. That is, when one cut a slice of the loaf, it was meant to look as if a red skull and crossbones were in the slice’s centre. Though this required some skill to do well, virtually every woman in Barrow could make Barrow bread and make it very well indeed.”

For in the meantime, André Alexis’ leaves readers to imagine that ‘X’. Each point potentially a story. The nexus in the middle a fifth point. A quincunx.

But if Pastoral is only a single tip of that ‘X’, there is a circle above: a continuum of stories within which all arms of the X can join.

In this context, Pastoral is merely chapter and verse. The faithful will test the binding.

Sun-Mi Hwang’s The Dog Who Dared to Dream (2016)

Sun-Mi Hwang’s The Hen Who Believed She Could Fly was a runaway bestseller for its Korean author, who had previously published more than 50 books and was surprised to find her work such a phenomenon, not only in Korea but beyond.

Abacus - Hachette, 2016

Abacus – Hachette, 2016

The Dog Who Dared to Dream is poised to experience a similar success, building on the model of a tenacious and determined heroine, who is facing and overcoming challenging odds. (The English translation is by Chi-Young Kim.)

If Oprah’s original bookclub was still on offer, both Sprout and Scraggly would fit her bill for heroines! There would be merchandising galore, everything from badges to buttons, collars to clothing.

In interview regarding the success of Sprout’s story, Sun-Mi Hwang commented on the trends in different responses to her fable-like story, from Korean readers and readers living elsewhere.

“People whom I met in Korea asked questions that are directly related to the book’s content, such as if there was any actual model that I had in mind for the lead character when I began the book project or how valuable it is for me compared with my other publications,” she said during a recent interview with ‘The Korea Times’ in Seoul.” (Interview with “The Korea Times”, October 2015)

One could imagine these questions being transposed to reader’s wonderment about whether Scraggly the dog’s character was related to someone in the author’s experience (her father influenced Sprout’s story and character development apparently).

“Meanwhile, Hwang said, the book seemed to have served as the world’s window to Korea, as many foreign readers are not too familiar with Korean society. During her book tours, she said that foreign readers focused on questions about whether the journey of the hen, Sprout, into the wild was her way of encouraging people to overcome the social and cultural restrictions of the Korean society.”

The Dog Who Dared to Dream contains eighteen-chapters, each short and written in spare prose. Readers meet Scraggly at birth and although some other family members (four-legged and two-legged) are significant at the start, it is truly Scraggly’s story as the tale unfolds.

At times, it is inescapably a story about a dog, particularly when Scraggly recognizes a barrier which is only a barrier to those without hands, only paws (say, for instance, a chain with a collar attached, which a human could simply undo to face a challenge without that restriction).

At other times, it is possible to forget that the main character is a dog, because the emotions are universal (for example, the desire to help a family member who is being threatened).

On occasion, the emotions are described in such human terms that the reader is caught between these perspectives as, for instance, when Scraggly bursts into tears. For my reading taste, I would prefer whimpers or yelps, but it’s also true that in the scenes where this situation arises, I am momentarily more concerned about what’s happening to (or near) our heroine than I am about the author’s word choices.

Those readers who would dismiss this tale as being about “just animals” aren’t going to get that far with the story anyway, and those readers who truly want to inhabit Scraggly’s POV aren’t likely to set it aside because of semantics.

There are similarities to tales by Gabrielle Roy, Doris Lessing, and May Sarton who have also told stories from the perspective of furred and winged friends, which are also illustrated (here the illustrations are by Nomoko), and Sun-Mi Hwang’s new novel will undoubtedly find many new fans.

Have you read a story about the four-legged or the winged lately? Would you be a member of Scraggly’s or Sprout’s fan clubs?

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XI (RIPXI) 2016

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XI takes place from September 1st, 2016 through October 31st, 2016.


Abigail Larson’s original artwork for RIP XI 2016

There are only two expectations if you want to participate with us:
1. Have fun reading (and watching*).
2. Share that fun with others.

Sign-ups are here, on Stainless Steel Droppings.

Reading, Watching, and, new this year, Playing.*

Mystery. Suspense. Thriller.Dark Fantasy. Gothic. Horror. Supernatural.

The event has run on the same general principles from the beginning, although gradually widening to incorporate other RIP-themed fun as the years have passed. Please visit Carl’s page for more details. 

Even back in 2010, I was watching movies as part of the celebrations, but this year I also want to try the newest category, Peril in Play, so that I can lay out some games on the table between the stacks of books.

MisterBIP is going to love this because we usually play a game on Sundays anyway, and now he will have an excuse to suggest new creepy-spooky games to add to our (very small but much-adored) collection.

For Peril of theShort Story, I’m beginning with Ladies of Fantasy: Two Centuries of Sinister Stories by the Gentle Sex (Ed. Seon Manley and Gogo Lewis).

It’s an old-fashioned collection that’s been on my shelf since I was a girl and I’ve not yet read it cover-to-cover. The first story is by E. Nesbit, who also apparently wrote horror stories as well as the gentle fantasies shelved with the children’s classics.

For Peril of the Screen, MisterBIP and I aim to watch 13 horror films together each season, but it feels a little too bright and warm outdoors to begin just yet. Whenever we have made a list, we have scurried in exactly the opposite direction of all our good intentions, so whimsy will dictate here.

For Peril the First, I’ve looked back at my lists from previous events to see what books I’d hoped to read that I didn’t complete. Much of my reading this year has been devoted to filling some gaps, finishing books that have stumped me in the past, reading on with series I’ve enjoyed, and finally following up on recommendations from reading friends.

Most of my past RIP plans were rooted here too, so I’m not going to make a new list, rather look to good ideas on older lists, and then allow for some whimsy along with the excitement of a new publishing season to build some stacks as the weeks pass.

I’m especially keen to see where works by favourite authors (even some of my MRE MustReadEverything authors) might fit thematically). Maybe this is when I will finally restart and finish, at last, Toni Morrison’s Beloved?

And all year I’ve been reading on in series which have languished unfinished for too long; I’ve even finished some! Two series that I’m ready to complete are Kelley Armstrong’s final in the Nadia-Stafford-assassin series (Wild Justice) and the final in her Women of the Otherworld (13). Are there series volumes figuring in your RIP reading this year?

I’ve also been wanting to carry on with Jackson Brodie as well, but I’ve been eyeing Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? for so long now, that I wonder if I won’t need to begin again with Case Histories. Perhaps watching the BBC episodes which corespond with the first two volumes would suffice: thoughts?

As for stories that I’ve waited a long time to read, my first official read for this year’s RIP is George Elliott Clarke’s George & Rue, which retells the story of a bludgeoning and a hanging from 1949 New Brunswick, Canada.

Previously, I’ve read his Execution Poems, a set of verses which also consider this murder, and his Whylah Falls, which is preoccupied with another sort of passion. Clarke’s exuberance spills across the page of whatever stories he tells and this one, though difficult, is just as beautiful (but, yes, brutal) as the other works of his which I’ve read.

Next in the stack is Steven Price’s By Gaslight, which was published at the end of August. A novel of “darker selves”, unfolding in a “city of fog and darkness” about “notorious thief Edward Shade [who] exists only as a ghost, a fabled con, a thief of other men’s futures – a man of smoke”. It’s being compared to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which works to draw me in, but it also reminds me of Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx, a book that I struggled to finish for another year’s RIP.

And there is a mystery near the top of the stack: The Hanging by Lotte and Søren Hammer. (My copy is translated by Ebba Segerberg. What a shame to have to look to the copyright page to find this crucial piece of information: why isn’t her name on the cover or, at least, the cover page?(

This duo is new-to-me but I’m predisposed in their favour because I’ve recently read and enjoyed another Danish duo’s collaborations, the Nina Borg mysteries (The Considerate Killer is the most recent). There is now at least one other volume available in English translation: anyone read their work yet?

Are you joining or have you joined this event? If so, what are you most looking forward to for this year’s celebrations?

If not, are you reading something creepy-spooky in the wings? Either way, woudl you care to recommend a sinister tale for my stack?

Adwoa Badoe’s Aluta (2016)

“I was never sure exactly what I wanted. I guess I wanted to be popular, and beautiful, and smart, and in love,” Charlotte observes.

Groundwood Books, 2016

Groundwood Books, 2016

She comes from Kibi, Eastern Region, Ghana, where some believe the women to be beautiful but cantankerous. Now Charlotte is eighteen years old, at school, and encountering a wider, more complex world.

“I was particularly thrilled to get into Achimota. All my life I had seen students pass back and forth along the pathways of the school, and I couldn’t wait to be one of them. I wanted to escape my home and my parents’ tyranny to reside with other girls. I wanted to experience those adventures I had read about in Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series.”

What kind of adventures? “Books, degrees, clothes, boys and now religion. Everything was competing for our attention.”

(I was more of a Famous Five reader than a Malory Towers gal, but I understand their popularity. And, well beyond Blyton: who doesn’t love boarding school stories? Other than actual boarding school students, apparently.)

Adwoa Badoe succinctly situates readers in the dorm life in Achimota School, but she also captures Kumasi city night life.

Charlotte covers her insecurities and quietly marvels at the rapid accumulation of new experiences. “I marveled at how he could use the word fuck like a sort of garnish on his frustrations.”

She is easily impressed and flattered, particulary by Dr. Ampem, who teaches politics and invites her to attend a select group for evening political discussions.

“He reminded me of the Nigerian novelist, Wole Soyinka – brilliant and handsome. His best features were his bright eyes which crinkled easily with humor. Laughing eyes.”

Charlotte does inhabit a politicized world, having grown up with her father’s commentary about everything from queues to a schoolmate’s abuse by government representatives in the workplace.

She has lived through four coup d’états, the most recent a particularly violent one, which brought Jerry Rawlings and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council to power.

(Previously Dr. Nkrumah’s government was ousted on February 24, 1966 ; Colonel Acheampong booted Dr Busia’s Progress Party on January 13, 1972; General Acheampong and General Utuka were executed on June 4, 1979.)

But in 1981, Charlotte becomes wholly immersed in politics: from manifestos to megaphones, from protest marches to half-burnt bodies and executions.

As readers consider Ghana’s political spectrum alongside Charlotte, big questions arise. Is a leader a messiah or a tyrant? (Or, both, depending on one’s personal status in the wake of the chaos.) Is grassroots politics a force for positive change? Or are people simply stirring up the working-class to manipulate them and hijack their power? (Or, both.)

“The revolution had come home to me.” Conflicts intensify and relationships which appeared to be tinged with political significance become embroiled in political change and they adopt life-and-death importance.

Given the history of unrest, members of  different generations and different levels of privilege have different perspectives on the events which Charlotte experiences.

“’NkwaseasƐ – nonsense!’ said my dad. ‘To think your studies have been halted so you can sweep around places for which people have been hired to clean. Imagine a stupid claim that we are unable to move our most important cash crop to the ports. Tweaa! So much foolishness in one country! We might as well bring back the colonizers!’

This passage illustrates the natural inclusion of Ghanaian vocabulary, and also the context offered, so that the glossary at the end of the novel is a bonus rather than a necessity (as was the case with her previous novel, Between Sisters).

The sensory detail provided does root readers in time and place, and allows readers to fully visualize some scenes: the plaintain chips, peppers and yam, BBC’s “Voice of Africa”, Diana Ross and Lionel Richie “Endless Love”, rubber tire shoes, a red and yellow and green necktie, Haua koko (corn porridge spiced with chili and sweetened with sugar), a yellow rose worn behind one ear, and a purring BMW.

Like Between SistersAluta is rooted in the experience of a young woman, against a background of instability, forced to gather internal strength and conviction in challenging times.

Charlotte is strong-willed and spirited, forward-looking and inspired: her next chapter would be just as interesting as Aluta.

The Fold’s 2016 Reading List (Part One)

The FOLD (The Festival of Literary Diversity) is an annual event, in Brampton (Ontario, Canada) dedicated to telling more stories, to having audiences connect with a wider variety of storytellers. You can check out their lineup of terrific writers and storytellers who were a part of the debut festival in May this year, here.

Gaines Gathering of Old MenEarlier in 2016, they posted a reading challenge, which I printed and dutifully began to read towards. (I’ve misplaced the link: sorry!)

Here are the categories:

  1. A book you’ve had for more than a year.
  2. A book outside of your ‘favourite genre’.
  3. A book you buy at an indie bookstore.
  4. A book by a person of a faith.
  5. A book by an aboriginal author.
  6. A book by a Canadian LGBTQ author.
  7. A book by a Canadian person of colour.
  8. A book by a FOLD 2016 author.

I’ve divided the challenge into parts, so here is my discussion of the first and last categories:
1. Ernest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men (1983) and 8. Farzana Doctor’s All Inclusive (2015).

My copy of Ernest J. Gaines’ novel landed on my shelf thanks to Aarti. But I do a much better job of collecting books than I do of reading them, once they are comfortably ensconced on the home shelves, so this book sat unread for about four years.

Nonetheless, she’d sold me on the idea of it being told from multiple perspectives and I pulled it off to read this summer.

It’s a deliberately disorienting tale in some ways. There has been a shooting and the authorities have not yet arrived. “The rest of the people said pretty much the same. One claimed he did it, then another one; one, then another one.”

Everyone takes responsibility for the crime, including the man who fired the shot. They are united in their stand, many of them looking back to past experiences of silence and inaction and determined to resist and stand tall in this instance.

This isn’t to say that the community is without divisions, without its own tensions. “Mathu was one of the blue-black Singaleese niggers. Always bragged about not having no white man’s blood in his veins. He looked down on all the rest of us who had some, and the more you had, the more he looked down on you. I was brown-skinned – my grandpa white, my grandma Indian and black, and both my parents black; so he didn’t look down on me quite as much as he did some others, like Jacob, or Cherry, or the Jejeune brothers. With Clabber and Rooster, he just shook his head. Rooster was yellow, with nappy black hair; Clabber was milk white, with nappy white har. Mathu just shook his head when he saw either one of them.”

But as the narrative slips through a number of narrators, it becomes clear that the story is less about the details than it might have seemed at first. As different men offer different accounts of the shooting – different motivations and responses – readers recognize that each of these character’s experiences could have filled a book. Each of them has had experiences which might have brought them to shoot this man. But the fact is, that only one man pulled the trigger.

“’I’m stating facts,’ Tucker said. “Facts. ‘Cause this is the day of reckonding, and I will speak the truth, withut fear, if it mean I have to spend the rest of my life in jail.’
Mapes grunted –a grunt that said you might.”

Mapes is charged with determining the outcome. He is aware, from the start, that the shooting did not play out as described. But he inhabits this territory, recognizes the heritage of injustice which now sways in the balance alongside this single act of violence.

Farzana Doctor All InclusiveHe listens to each account patiently and determinedly.

“You never liked any of us. Looking at us as if we’re a breed below you. But we’re not, Candy. We’re all made of the same bone, the same blood, the same skin. Our folks had a break mine didn’t, that’s all.”

It’s difficult to find common ground, both in the description of this event and in acknowledging the importance of historic injustices and balancing their perpetration against a desire to move forward and mend fences.

A Gathering of Old Men is a riveting tale, easily read in a single sitting but complex enough to support many rereadings.

Farzana Doctor’s novel, too, reads very quickly and easily. The tension revolving around Ameera’s job at an all-inclusive Mexican resort keeps the readers’ interest from the start in All Inclusive.

Ameera is a swinger who has established the habit of hooking up with willing couples on their last booked night, to capitalize on their interest with minimal risk of her employers catching wind of her activities.

Not only is she still discovering things about her sexuality, ordering materials on the internet which help her understand that others share her desires, but she is also uncovering even more basic layers of her identity, working to establish contact with her father, who has not been a part of her life.

All of this becomes pressingly important when rumours of her involvement with resort guests reach her employers (also based in Canada) And, just as she tries to curtail her activities, she meets someone who might be able to assist with her search for her father. While some opportunities are restricted, others flourish.

The narrative is divided between Ameera and Azeez, whom readers meet in Canada, when he falls into bed with a young woman on the day before he plans to return to India.

Initially, Azeez’s portion of the story contains less inherent tension. This is partly because readers have met him in the past, where events have already played out, so there is no tension surrounding the question of what will happen. Instead, a casual exploration of what has happened, which only becomes clear about 75 pages into the novel.

But Azeez’s story is not uncomplicated. In many ways he, too, is left with central questions surrounding his own identity, even though he is older than Ameera when the bulk of the narrative unfolds. He, too, struggles to connect, tries to find ways to relate meaningfully even though he often feels isolated and alone. In time, his struggles eclipse Ameera’s.

One of the most satisfying elements of the novel is the detail offered about Ameera’s work in the resort, which plants her in a space which is neither ‘home’ nor ‘away’. The relationships with her co-workers are fascinating, as well as the complicated relationships between the workers whose famiies live locally, those who have come from abroad to work in the resort, and the resort’s administration.

Who is restricted and who thrives: this aspect of the novel is not heavy-handed but still manages to reveal some core truths about privilege. Or, as Gil says in A Gathering of Old Men, some truths about who got a break and who didn’t.

All Inclusive is a romp of a read, which manages to take some serious issues and pack them into the corners of the narrative-stuffed suitcase.

Ultimately both of these novels are about finding a way to stand up for who you are, to own all the various parts of yourself and insist upon their worth, regardless of the risk attached. Regardless of the outcome.

Which books could you use for these elements of the FOLD’s challenge?

Kate Taylor’s Serial Monogamy (2016)

“My books aren’t romances per se; they don’t even necessarily feature happy endings any more, they just conclude with hopeful moments that allow the reader to decide whether widows have the strength to go on or divorced dads find love for a second time.”

And there is nothing romantic about the idea of serial monogamy. One cannot focus on the episodes of falling-in-love without being aware of the falling-out-of-love episodes sandwiched between them.

Doubleday Canada, 2016

Doubleday Canada, 2016

So, here, Sharon is discussing her own novels at the beginning of Serial Monogamy, but readers already know about her cancer diagnossis and are wondering ahead as to whether Kate Taylor’s novel will have a happy ending.

And, yet, romance is not the point of this novel. Neither the ending, nor its happiness.

But, rather, the series of episodes, the act of the sequence.

Sharon has a new writing gig which brings this to the forefront of the novel. In a bid to revitalize print newspaper, she has been contracted for a serialization, a series of pieces about Charles Dickens.

Known for the resounding success of his serialized novels, Dickens seems the perfect choice for her subject. Nonetheless, Sharon has just discovered that her husband, a professor, has entered a relationship with one of his students, and he has determined to leave his marriage to pursue a life with this younger woman.

So Sharon is suddenly less enamoured with Dickens as a successful writer and more interested in Nelly Ternan, the woman with whom Dickens betrayed his wife (Catherine).

When readers meet Sharon, however, she fully inhabits the role of wife and mother (to two young girls). She is not Nelly, here; rather, she is Catherine. But it’s Nelly’s voice she inhabits on the page for the serialization.

And, no, this isn’t what the newspaper editors were expecting. Anymore than Sharon was expecting to learn that Al was cheating. Expectations and reality: it’s the gap between which is so often problematic. In all kinds of relationships.

As she moves through her cancer treatment and negotiates her shifting identity (Al leaves but returns to care for her during treatment), Sharon is bolstered by her writing. It heals her in a way which she finds difficult to describe, provides something essential which she currently lacks.

Writing the serial and inhabiting the role of mistress on the page brings new levels of understanding regarding her marriage, but also to the complicated machinations of the pursuer and pursued, beyond the context of a marriage.

(Kate Taylor calls out Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman and Lillian Nayder’s The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth as key sources for her writing. Readers of Serial Monogamy will be intrigued enough to want to follow up, but need not. This work stands alone.)

In fact, as she works through the sequence of pieces, she inhabits all the roles. As their writer, she knows each character intimately and understands their motivations. This is an act of compassion on the page.

As such, there is a delicious sense of twinned control and chaos in the work. Readers are aware from the start that the novel will be preoccupied with unravelling. First, Sharon’s marriage is severed and Al moves out. Then, the first serial installment puts Nelly and her mother on a train, which goes off the tracks.

There are many parallels between the installments (and the present-day segments quickly adopt a rhythm which makes them seem to be installments as well). Many, as with the first, are subtle but immediately recognizable. (Charles was on the train, part of the derailment, but he moves off-stage almost immediately, just as Al is part of the narrative immediately, but at a distance.)

Underneath, there is a consistent sense of tension and uncertainty.

“Looks unsafe,” agreed her husband.
“But just imagine the view if you did manage it,” Mr. Dickens encouraged.

Here, in the Dickens installment, the characters are discussing the view from a damaged staircase in the Conisbrough Castle, but this scene follows one in the present-day, in which Sharon and her husband take their daughters to the the Scarborough Bluffs, approach the edge and marvel at the view beneath.

Later, when Nelly asks Charles Dickens about the progress he is making on his French novel, he speaks of his challenges.

“Yes, and also that we can’t fully know other people. We only know ourselves. He is a man who has been imprisoned. That is all we can see of him.”

Not only does this theme suit Serial Monogamy as a whole, but the scene follows one in the present-day in which Sharon remembers glimpsing Al at a party and, just for a moment, not recognizing him as her husband, but seeing him as a stranger.

“I felt so torn between my two duties: Did you ever suffer those moments where your husband seemed to pull you away from your children?” Here, Nelly is pondering Charles’ desire that she leave her children behind to travel to America with him, and this parallels Sharon’s sense of being pulled between her writing and Al’s desire that she dedicate more of herself to their marriage and less to her work.

“Marriage, in my experience, is full of conversations you never manage to finish.”

If conversations remain unfinished, Kate Taylor is acutely aware of the importance of leaving some stories unfinished as well. She directly refers to the tales in the Arabian Nights in which Scheherazade leaves her tale incomplete to save her life (the King must spare her in order to hear the end of the tale the following evening).

Storytelling (Scheherazade’s, Charles Dickens’, Sharon’s, Kate Taylor’s) is of vital importance. Stories keep the world in order. When life is disorderly, stories can write things back into their proper places. (Or, at least, manageable places.) Just as Scheherazade saves her life by telling stories, Sharon has hope that she can save her life by writing them. But her narrative ends when the serial ends, so Sharon’s story is ultimately unfinished as well.

Charles Dickens plays at retelling part of the Arabian Nights to Nelly, and Sharon plays at retelling Dickens’ experience of love with his wife and his mistress. The 19th-century and 21st-century narratives are equally engaging and tumble together like folks caught in a train wreck, “like gumdrops at the bottom of a paper bag”.

Perhaps that is the point, then. And not only the act of the sequence. But the art of the sequence.