My IFOA Wednesdays are starting later than usual this year because I have been indulging in new books this summer. (You can check out my Summer Reading To-Do List, for all kinds of reading weather.)
But now that I’m looking at the calendar, there are dozens of books (new and backlisted) catching my attention.
Many of the authors who have appeared at events already this year and/or are scheduled to attend this October 22nd-November 1st have already made an appearance in my stacks.:
Harbourfront Authors 2015
Giles Blunt, Dionne Brand, Clark Blaise,
Lorna Crozier, Austin Clarke, Farzana Doctor,
Marina Endicott, Brian Francis, Lauren Groff,
Lawrence Hill, Helen Humphreys, Jeff Latosik,
Anne Michaels, Jordi Punti, Andrew Pyper,
Sabrina Ramnanan, Rosemary Sullivan, Ray Smith,
Karen Solie, Jillian Tamaki, Ayelet Tsabari, Miriam Toews,
Adrian Tomine, Jane Urquhart and Guy Vanderhaeghe.
Some of these have been recent reads, like Close to Hugh, Nothing Like Love, and The Wrong Cat.
Others have been particular favourites, like This One Summer and Love Enough.
But what a list like this does for me, more than anything, is give me the itch to make more lists, reading lists.
And because this year I am trying to read more backlisted books, those titles about which I keep saying “I’ve been meaning to read that for ages”, I am eyeing the works on my shelves by these authors which have gone too-long-unread.
Maybe this will be the season in which I finally make reading time for these other titles (often written earlier) by Canadian authors whose other works I’ve enjoyed.
Clark Blaise – Several times, A North American Education has gotten close to the top of my stacks, when I am looking for short fiction to add to my pile (but the newer titles often win out). Nonetheless, given how much I liked The Meagre Tarmac, I truly do hope to get to more of his stories soon.
Austin Clarke – Because he has published such a diverse list of works, including memoir and poetry, I have difficulty choosing which of his books I would like to read next. But because I did really enjoy More, I think that I would like to aim for fiction, probably the Toronto trilogy (also, obviously, set in Toronto), which begins with The Meeting Place.
Brian Francis – Fruit was such a charismatically-told story that I have worried for a long time that I wouldn’t enjoy another story of his as much. But, then, he started writing an advice column in Quill&Quire and I liked that as much as his blog on Caker Cooking, and I realized that if I could like these two things, which didn’t seem probable, I would probably love Natural Order as much as everyone else who’s read it seems to.
Lawrence Hill – Hearing him read from his memoir some years back at the Eden Mills Festival (long before The Book of Negroes) was what attracted me to this writer’s work, and I’ve collected his books ever since, but I’ve done a poor job of reading them. Any Known Blood is the one which most intrigues me, and that’s the one I’d like to read right now.
More Harbourfront Authors 2015
Helen Humphreys – Her AfterImage won me over, and I have enjoyed everything that I’ve read, and I’ve attended many readings, but I still have Leaving Earth and Wild Dogs left to read. I’ve heard good things about both of them, so why not?
Miriam Toews – The local feminist bookstore brought her Summer of My Amazing Luck to my attention when it was first published (her first novel) and I loved it. A few years back, I reread it. So why didn’t I reach for Irma Voth or Swing Low? I should do that, I know.
Jane Urquhart – So far, the book of hers that I loved the best was Sanctuary Line. Many people count Away as their favourite, but I just didn’t connect with it in the same way, even on re-reading. Both The Stone Carvers and The Underpainter have been recommended to me so many times, and by so many different readers, that I still feel a pull towards them, in hopes that I will love them as much as they did.
Guy Vanderhaeghe – Having enjoyed A Good Man so much more than I expected to, I immediately wanted to read everything else of his, and now that there is a new story collection, that is particularly inviting. But I still haven’t read The Englishman’s Boy and that’s the one I’m eyeing now.
And, then, there is the question of wanting to make time for particular rereads. Like Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces, Helen Humphreys’ The Lost Garden and Lorna Crozier’s The Garden Going on without Us.
And those individual books which have caught my eye that I have bought, often in a fit of must-have-ness but, then, have neglected horribly. Like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Anakana Schofield’s Malarky, Russell Smith’s Confidence, Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right to be Cold, Meg Wolitzer’s The Position, and Ronald Wright’s A Scientific Romance.
A favourite festival can provide the perfect reason to fill some gaps in one’s reading plans.
But it can also add demonstrably to one’s TBR and lead one to newer and shinier books.
For a list of the confirmed 2015 participants, check here. Which would you recommend?
There are many particpants whose works I haven’t discussed in this post, many first-time authors and writers from elsewhere: if there is one you would recommend, please let me know. As you can tell, I am in need of new and more complex reading projects!
Ins Choi’s play, Kim’s Convenience is already on my list of favourite reads for this year.
House of Anansi, 2015
I know, I know, it’s only August, but I am certain already (because it literally made me laugh out loud several times and then it made me cry).
It was first produced here in Toronto in 2011 as part of the Fringe festival, and then it toured across Canada, being performed in nine cities, including four runs at Soulpepper Theatre Company which were sold out.
What struck me about the story was just how credible it felt. These characters could have been pulled straight out of the convenience store and stuck to the page.
““It is a Korean story; it is an immigrant story, sure—but at the core of it, it has to do with family and the differences in values of two generations that is a kind of universally appealing theme,” Ins Choi says. (Interview here.)
This quality is evident, too, in Subway Stations of the Cross, but more in terms of the illustrations than the text.
Guno Park’s drawings pf subway travellers are so realistic that on a reread of the book, I actually checked the drawings of the Toronto subway to see if he had caught me riding (no, he did not).
Nonetheless, the inspiration for Subway Stations of the Cross is indeed drawn directly from Toronto again, following the author’s encounter with a homeless man, on a park bench downtown.
“The man spoke about the Hebrew alphabet, European flags, Greek and Norse mythology, biblical UFO’s, Nimrod, giants, fallen angels, and the return of Christ. Initially dismissing him as a crazy man, I soon realized that he was an angel or a prophet of God.”
Traditionally, the stations of the cross are representations of the fourteen scenes in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, but obviously there is a play on ‘stations’ in this work. Faithful Christians have often sought ways to meditate upon these scenes in other places, and make literal or spiritual pilgrimages.
Both author and illustrator grew up at the same church, Toronto Korean Bethel Church. As such, it is not surprising that some of the content of the poems is overtly religious.
Detail, See below
“A baby in a manger
Maybe a bit stranger
Maybe a baby in a manger in danger
For this baby in a manger
Will be of great danger
To those sitting on their hills
Eating their fills
With their Jacks and their Jills
Till they’re ill in their bellies and their tills fill with bills.
Because this baby in a manger
is a changer
He’s a rearranger…”
The text is such that it clearly has a more dramatic effect when performed, but even reading silently, one can get a feel for the delivery, with the line breaks and page layout. (There are some images from the show here, along with a video of the author discussing his early writing years, process and the inspiration for SSotC.) Sometimes this seems impossible, as with a set of four lines which repeats five times, but even then, juxtaposed with a particular image, there is another layer of interplay – between illustration and text – for readers to enjoy.
Beyond the openly religious pieces, many address human themes like forgiveness and loss, so the work will appeal to a wide variety of readers.
“…Cuz it’s for you
Forgiveness is for them
But forgiving is for you
From what you are to what you do
From forgiven to forgiving
Cuz it’s for you”
There are even some pop culture references, as in “1980s Sitcom Song”:
“Do you remember watching The Cosby Show
and feeling that moment when Rudy no longer was cute?” […]
“Did you see the one where Mr. T. did a cameo on Diff’rent Strokes?
He was so cool with his mohawk,
he was a man no one dared provoke.”
Throughout, there is a quiet and bold focus on community, even amongst those groups who might not identify as such (for instance, the TTC riders passing through – or boarding on or exiting at – Pape Station).
There is a sense that we are all in this together. The decision to present it as an accordian book perfectly reflects the sense of interconnectedness which simmers beneath the author’s pieces. (Relationships are key to the success of Kim’s Convenience, too.) You can also watch a short video which gives a sense of the book’s construction here.
And there is so much more to unfold….
Who gives a care
Solitaire ye the way of the Lord
Repair ye the way of the Lord”
The illustrations fill any gap which might exist as a result of transforming a spoken-word piece to a two-dimensional product. (You can catch a glimpse into the feel of the production in this video.)
It is simply a beautiful book. And apparently there are no plans at this time to reprint, so if you are keen, you should buy soon.
As was the case with her first novel, Gilaine Mitchell’s follow-up is set in the small town of Stirling.
In her debut, Film Society, a group of women meet to watch their favourite films in the red brick house at the end of Anne Street.
One of the characters in Film Society, Del, works at the Sears Catalogue Store but aspires to be a documentary-film maker, and she receives some advice about the ‘real world': “Sometimes nothing happens … But sometimes, something remarkable happens.”
Gilaine Mitchell seeks both to capture the ordinary and to point out the remarkable elements in it.
Stirling feels immediately recognizable to me; I grew up in an ordinary small town much like it. This is how it is described in The Breaking Words.:
“A quaint old town that can even lay claim to great theatre, now that the building has been restored and attracts across and directors from Toronto and Stratford. It’s a simple enough town with a few restaurants, Stedman’s department store, speciality shops, and five churches as well as a Jehovah’s Witness Hall, all of them spread along the main streets. There are apartment buildings in the west end, and one behind the liquor store in the north end, not far from the legion and the lumberyard. The tallest structure is the water tower, painted light green, which is near the cemetery.”
And if I still lived there, I would likely still think of the department store as Stedmans long after it had become something else.
That’s where Natha is at in her life; the Stedman’s isn’t a Stedman’s anymore and the people she knew when she was younger are changed as well.
But in the interim, the changes have gone largely unnoticed. Either in a quiet, slippery way. Or in a more deliberate – push it into a dark recess of memory – way.
“It’s the mind that separates us, makes one person different from the next. The body is only the carrier, the wheels on which our thoughts travel.”
The action in The Breaking Words is wholly interior; what makes one character different form the next are their thoughts. Often these are shared indirectly with readers, but there are generous swaths of dialogue, which also inform readers and quicken the pace of the novel.
“It feels off track to be reading this, her mind taking over, linking to other thoughts, breaking the flow of where she was going, loosening her from her own life. That’s the way it was when she was young reading Plath and Woolf and Nin in Jules’s house, immersed in literary lives in other worlds while she was living with a drunk mother and fucking the bookstore owner in a small, rural town.”
Natha is not that young woman anymore, but that person still lingers in her mind. And although many years beyond her Plath-loving phase, she realizes that she still has to figure out some things. Things which she thought she would have figured out by now.
‘She could write now, make a journal entry if she had a journal. Saturday, June seventh. Too hard to be in a bad mood when the lilacs are in bloom and your husband, happy in post-coital bliss with someone else, is cleaning the windows and leaving you alone to be in whatever mood you’re in. If only you could decide what mood that is. Not gritty enough, poetic enough, not interesting. Always this search for words, the energy of Plath and Nin, but everything comes out of her in plain, dull language and she has always envied those who could record the words as though their lives depended on doing so. To be so interested in your own life, how is that done?”
What she needs to do is become interested in her own life once more. But that is tricky. Because things haven’t turned out as she planned.
Natha didn’t imagine that her future self would be in a good mood because her husband was happy in post-coital bliss with someone else. There are a lot of aspects of her life which require compromise, facts which require smothering of emotions that she does not want to acknowledge.
The novel opens with a discussion of financial adultery, a division of her earnings which she keeps secret from her husband, and The Breaking Words is filled with this kind of duplicity. However, as the story progresses, and Natha’s determination grows, she seeks to change the scenery in her life.
“It would be a silent film, Natha thinks as she remembers the previous summer as a series of long, hot days, sifting into one another, a blanket of the unknown sheathing her, protecting her, demanding that she let go. The woman in her head has all but disappeared; she hadn’t heard her so much as experienced her as a memory. Natha no longer feels there is something outside of herself, something narrating her steps, lending meaning to the objects in her house.”
Gilaine Mitchell’s narrative is uncluttered stylistically. Sensory and scenic detail is conveyed in a matter-of-fact manner. “First, there is the conversation and the drinks. Then there is the bed. The smells. The sounds.” This affords the opportunity to explore intimate encounters and dysfunctional relationships without burdening the prose with either excess or sentimentality.
Like the town of Stirling, Natha’s realizations are likely familiar to many mid-life readers, who will respond with reconition and understanding to the quiet but profound – and, yes, remarkable – changes that she makes in her ordinary life.
When I was in the tenth grade, nothing about technology intimidated me. I signed up for classes in high school which taught binary and how to write simple programs, and my first full-time job was working with a woman who could program in COBOL.
Goose Lane Editions, 2015
So I knew how to instruct a machine to print an entire sheet with my name on it, which involved some sort of “goto” command and line numbers, and I was a great support leaning over the shoulder of my co-worker, while she wrote the code for the program that I would later put to use.
Since then, my relationship with technology has been characterized by ambivalence.
Recently I inherited a cell phone from another family member, and I love it so much that I think I might name it.
Simultaneously, I am frustrated by the knowledge that without this in-house guide/escort through the digital world, I could never keep this device functioning on a daily basis.
I used to be the family member who knew how to program the VCR, but now I struggle to comprehend basic concepts like cloud-sharing and wi-fi.
The world is changing so quickly that often I don’t even have the vocabulary to articulate what it is that I do not know.
This kind of rapid change is at the core of Peter Nowak’s Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.
First, however, he orients readers in the present-day. He defines terms in accessible, clear language, he provides a context, and he summarizes complex movements/events concisely.
Consider, this passage:
“In 1965, chemist and businessman Gordon Moore observed that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit had doubled every year since it was invented in 1958. He estimated the trend would continue for at least another decade. He was right in his basic evaluation but wildly wrong, in a good way, about the time frame. His observation became Moore’s Law and has expanded into a golden rule that governs pretty much all of technology. Generally speaking, it posits that the performance and power of just about all forms of technology double every two years or so, yet prices stay the same or decline. This is largely why everything from computers to phones gets more powerful, cheaper, or both every year. It’s also why that flat-panel TV you bought for thousands of dollars a few years ago is worth practically nothing today. Moore later cofounded Silicon Valley stalwart Intel, which has kept his theory alive and moving.”
Not only context (a couple of setences about the past) but also relevance: readers might let all the details wash over them until they reach that observation (technological devices get more powerful and less expensive every year) and then choose to go back and allow the specifics to fall into place. Every reader will recognize the phenomenon, whether or not they were aware of Gordon Moore.
(I was so impressed by this, that I excitedly asked my resident-digital-advisor if he knew about Moore’s Law which, to me, felt like when you discover a new word that perfectly describes the way you’ve been feeling about something, but which you could not properly articulate. He squinted as though it was some sort of trick question and outlined the law in detail, in a sentence which ended in a question-mark, even though it was a statement, because he clearly could not believe that I would be talking about THAT Moore’s Law, which every cell-phone-loving individual knows and understands.)
One of the most impressive illustrations of the digital revolution, which readers will readily respond to, is the discussion of the movment from analog photography in the 1820s through to the present day (at the end of 2011, 2.5 billion people had digital cameras). It is difficult to cover almost two hundred years of change in a few paragraphs, and keep the material not only interesting (rather than a string of names and dates) and accessible, but present it in an engaging manner.
My notes from the early pages of Peter Nowak’s book include definitions of GDP and a reference to the animated movie WALL-E, the acronym MIPS and Justin Bieber’s name. The pop culture references abound and add another layer of accessibility for readers. There is some scientific and economic discussion, but alongside the bacterial and the political, there is talk of the musical and vampiric elements of modern life. It might not be surprising to find references made to Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek, but Britney Spears and Anne Rice are here too.
In the book’s second half, my notes are more commonly an indiviual’s name followed by a brief description (for instance, Tor Nørretranders: science journalist and author). Much of what is discussed in later chapters seems to move beyond what is common to my own everyday life, as reflected by the increased number of details that I have recorded.
But in fact these later chapters do discuss matters which impact my everyday life: privacy, food production, neuroscience, genetic engineering, altruism, faith and globalization.
Sometimes this still surprises me. Because back in my days of learning binary, technology was something separate from my daily life; it was relevant when I was sitting in the classroom, but the VIC-20 on the living-room floor was for playing Gorf, Jupiter Lander and Garden Wars.
Now, whether or not I consciously articulate the thought that technology is with me in my daily life, it most certainly is, as it is for all of us, whether or not we can see the gears turning (whether or not the concept of ‘gears’ has any relevance to the workings of today’s tools).
Peter Nowak’s Humans 3.0 serves as an excellent reminder of this for me, but my resident escort through the digital world found it a good read as well. (He found discussions like the intersection between the age of the smartphone and Buddhism more interesting than the talk of Moore’s Law, however.)
Those with a specialized area of interest which is briefly discussed in the book might find it less satisfying than other readers. For instance, the amount of reading that I have done about genetic engineering in the food supply leaves me questioning the author’s warm embrace of technological advances in this field. But Peter Nowak does not hide his bias; technology has made him prosperous and gratitude can sometimes outweigh scepticism, and readers are acquainted with this from the start.
A variety of sources are consulted, from “American Sociological Review” and “New England Journal of Medicine” to “The Guardian” and “Slate”. There are a lot of digital citations, but also a lot of author interviews, which suggests many hours of conversation behind this relatively slim volume. And the chapter epigraphs are drawn from exceptionally diverse sources, from Proverbs to Steve Jobs, from Dilbert to David Lee Roth.
Peter Nowak slows the rate of change in text, so that readers with a variety of technological experience can travel at a pace they find comfortable, even while performance and power multiply at high speed; I read more fiction than non-fiction, but I found Humans 3.0 as compelling as many novels.
On the list of 10 Perfect Alice Munro sentences, recently selected by CBC, this is the first: “Every year, when you’re a child, you become a different person.”
It begs the question, “When does one stop becoming somebody new every year?”
Perhaps after an event like the incident described in this story, which isn’t shared with readers until the story is almost over.
Just as the other person involved leaves the question of her repentance right to the last minute, when she is literally on her death-bed.
Marlene’s trip to Guelph, to execute the dying woman’s final instructions, is one of my favourite parts of this story. (If I was still a child I would have been ten different people since the time when I called Guelph home, but I still love it there.)
“The directions were not very clear but I was told that it was on a big hill and I could find it from anywhere in the heart of town.
Of course that was not true, though I could see it from almost anywhere. A collection of delicate spires rising from four fine towers. A beautiful building where I had expected only a grand one. It was grand too, of course, a grand dominating cathedral for such a relatively small city (though someone told me later it was not actually a cathedral).”
Marlene skipped the stairs, went around the side as did the women in front of her
The basilica really is a “grand dominating” building, and you can see by the many beautiful photos on Wikipedia
that not only was Marlene’s observation correct (that you can see the building from almost anywhere downtown), but you can see its towers from a good ways off.
Marlene, however, only had one destination in the town. She needed to speak to someone, a particular man, who would/could play a role in easing a young-woman-grown-old’s guilt. When she cannot locate the gentleman, she has to make a decision, whether to stay overnight or to return to Toronto (whether to remain in the past or to return to her present).
This decision is more difficult than it might seem, partly because it is not as simple as it seems either. This is not a matter of an errand, but a matter of restoration and reparation, and not just for one woman but for two.
“Was I not tempted, during all this palaver? Not once? You’d think that I might break open, be wise to break open, glimpsing that vast though tricky forgiveness. But no. It’s not for me. What’s done is done. Flocks of angels, tears of blood, notwithstanding.”
It’s ironic that Marlene and Charlene were considered twins as girls but then worked hard to catalogue their differences, details like which girl tanned and which girl freckled in the sun.
Divisions were vitally important, because the incident revolves around the perception of seemingly insurmountable differences between young girls.
It’s not hard to see how this thinking comes about, and there is a timelessness to the girls’ consideration of difference. Children bully like this still. Adults bully like this too.
Some of the divisions that Munro’s readers discover on the pages of this story seem familiar. “The town we lived in was too small to have residential divisions that amounted to anything, but I suppose that as far as there were divisions, that house was right on the boundary between decent and fairly dilapidated.”
Girls who grew up on the margins of town and country appear frequently in the author’s short stories and there are other kinds of borders and boundaries discussed as well.
One charming detail, which arouses many childhood memories for me, too, is the matter of leaf houses.
“That is, I raked up and carried armloads of leaves fallen from the maple tree that held the swing, and I dumped and arranged these leaves into a house plan.”
How distressing for the young-Marlene, when a girl destroys the borders of her rooms, obliterates the carefully laid piles of “furniture” and “walls”. (It also used to drive me crazy when other children wanted to put the furnishings in my FisherPrice village in the wrong places. In play, at least, one should be able to construct as one sees fit, with one’s own toys, er leaves.)
This story offers one of the most convincing (and disturbing) portrayals of pre-teen girls, but presents it in such a way that readers can’t help but empathize with the characters. The kind of vulnerability described is one which is felt at various stages of life, perhaps interminably.
“But it was partly that the time was coming very soon when all this would be over, the routines would be broken up, and we would be fetched by our parents to resume our old lives, and the counsellors would go back to being ordinary people, not even teachers. We were living in a stage set about to be dismantled, and with it all the friendships, enmities, rivalries that had flourished in the last two weeks. Who could believe it had been only two weeks?”
A different person every fall. A different person every few days. And when, really, does this end? Or, does it?
“It’s strange how distant and unimportant that seemed, only a starting point. As anything in childhood appeared to me then. Because of the journey I had made since, the achievement of adulthood. Safety.”
How safe have Marlene and Charlene been since adulthood, really? Well, they are alive, if only just barely. Is it perhaps more a question of their having declared themselves “safe”. Of their having made a decision to think of themselves in that way.
“The whole business probably took no more than two minutes. Three? Or a minute and a half?”
Every minute and a half, you become a new person?
Sometimes. Always. Never.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the eighth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Wood”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
Over the summer, I have been reading a lot of magazines. With some magazines, I “subscribe-incessently-and-renew-unthinkingly” and, with others, I practice the “when-I’m-in-the-mood-to-browse-the-newsstand” method. Both of these purchasing methods result in a tremendous backlog of reading for me, because I’m curious about so many things that the stacks quickly become impossible to manage.
(For instance, when I pulled the stack of most-recent magazines off the shelf at the beginning of the summer, I discovered another stack nearby, with issues from 2012 and 2013, which looked as though they had been happily living somewhere unusual for quite awhile, before I moved them to the general vicinity of the magazine bookshelf, long enough ago to have forgotten all about it before this summer.)
Complicating this matter is my habit of travelling with books on a regular basis. Only for “taking-a-trip travel” do I think of packing magazines (this doesn’t make sense, I know). So this summer I have been slipping a magazine into my bookbag nearly everyday, for “just-getting-from-A-to-B travel”.
Currently, the magazine in my travelling-stack is “The New Quarterly”, the issue with an interview with Diane Schoemperlen in it, which arrived a couple of weeks ago. I will read this piece first, because she is one of my MRE authors, but there are many enticing reading choices therein.
Speaking of new habits, I have been working more poetry into my stacks this year, too. Keith Inman’s The War Poems: Screaming at Heaven is the most recent addition to my stack.
His title recalls Siegfried Sassoon’s War Poems, published in 1919. But Keith Inman’s verses stretch back to what he identifies as the Wars of Dependence (1812-1887). The next two sections of poems include A Republic Monarchy (1889-1953) and Armed Peace (1954 to 2014). Both the terminology and the divisions reveal a Canadian slant to the collection.
This Canadian flavour most noticeably appears in the epigraphs which precede each poem. So, for instance, the poem “Aromatic Wood” contains the following beneath its title: “1918: at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month war to end war is ratified into peace; over a milion have died; Spanish Flu kills 50 million; Rulers are asassinated, voted out, resign, abdicate; British women get the vote; a group of artists in Toronto meet to form the Algonquin School“.
This poem actually presents the scene of a grandfather’s illness, with family members asking for some of his belongings, including violins. The domestic conflict surrounding the family inheritance stands in contrast to the million who have died in a global conflict; a treaty is signed on Armistice Day, but the family members remain angry and dissatisfied. “‘We live small lives,’ he said, / before returning to his straight-back chair”.
Also adding to my poetry project is K.I. Press’s Exquisite Monsters, which caught my attention because I discovered her Types of Canadian Women some years ago. It includes an erasure poem based on a passage from Susanna Moodie which includes the ‘c’ word. “Family Tree” reveals the score to be “Birds: 1 Bees: 0″. And “Mrs. Berlin Wall Cleans Her Guillotine Collection”. But, there’s more.
The last segment of the collection, titled “Exquisite Monster”, appears in “interchangeable parts”:
“Create new monsters by flipping one panel at a time.
Mutate the monsters with your own annotations.
Doodle on the monster-verso backsides.
The book is alive and meant to be broken.
Do not tell the librarian.”
I did not tell anybody. I just quietly tore the panels (which appear at roughly the same levels as the splits in the cover image, so that the pages of this segment are divided into three parallel and even panels, interchangeable indeed.
The last of the skinny items in my bookbag this week is Hilma Wolitzer’s The Company of Writers. Her work has an inviting tone and her stalwart feminism simmers beneath her prose. She is as likely to recommend a female writer’s work as an example of a particular technique as a male writer’s, but she is more likely to recommend writers from the United States than from other countries. Much of the work is focussed on the question of whether and how writers need company, in particular the workshop experience, but there are chapters on everything from writing dialogue to keeping a notebook too. (I am always adding to my books about writing: let me know if you have a particular favourite!)
And, what about you? What’s in your bookbag these days? Are you packing to travel too?
Like Anne Tyler, the only plot that Marina Endicott has is the passage of time. The events in her novels are ordinary happenings, but there is a delicious sense of unspooling when one falls into one of her narratives.
Doubleday Canada, 2015
Close to Hugh is structured over a week’s time and each day is observed from a variety of perspectives, fracturing the narrative like a day is splintered into hours.
Language, from vocabulary to style, clearly differentiates each voice in the novel.
More than one generation is represented, each credible and distinct: from Della’s searching but buoyant tone to L’s hard kernels of observation to Orion’s drifing and poetic style.
Here is a peek into Della’s thoughts:
“drive sickening quickening heart does a loon dive
brain shrunken to a walnut pain in the chest
mystery why he stayed so long: inertia?
no we are soulmates”
(Her segments immediately stand out, when one flips through the book. And the e-book is formatted in such a way to allow readers to adjust their display at the start so that Della’s line-breaks appear properly throughout.)
And here is Hugh:
“Ivy. What the hell was he thinking? He is incapable of anything, any relationship beyond the surly bond with Newell, the snarled strands of obligation to Della, the loose truth of Ruth. Ivy must have been drunk, to nod. Even his name is hard to say: Hugh Argylle, no turning-post in the middle. He called himself Hugo Argylle for a while, in university, but then it started to sound like Hugh Gargoyle. He’s pathetic! He always has been!
But still, quietly, his heart is singing.”
And it is, obviously, Hugh who is at the heart of the novel.
Or, perhaps that should be you are at the heart of the novel.
For the fact that Hugh sounds like ‘you’ creates many opportunities to play with words and understanding.
Puns and wordplay have a dramatic presence in the work.
This is on display from the start, with “Oh, the Hughmanity” on Monday’s title page, and in the direct expression within and surrounding Hugh’s character in particular.
But the entire novel is infused with this spirit. More than a week after I finished reading this book, I was brushing my teeth when I realized that I had completely missed another layer to the punning around. For not only does Marina Endicott play with this on the page, but with the ideas simmering beneath and while I had recognized one aspect of this pun – as it is rooted in one of the significant happenings in Hugh’s life – I had overlooked another layer.
(Isn’t that the best kind of book? The kind that follows you around in your life long after you have finished reading?)
The playfulness sometimes continues on in the characters’ minds as well, as this passage about L reveals: “In twenty minutes this shift will be over, this shit shift, the shifting shittiness that is work, but this is not nearly as bad as other shit would be. Nevaeh’s not in and neither is Savaya so that makes it boring, and too busy, and here’s another fat ass with slumping blood sugar and yes indeedy the one with all the icing, ha ha, you are cute and witty, sir! Thank you for the thirty-cent tip!”
Despite the tight time-frame, there is a great sense of expansiveness as the focus shifts between characters, like a spotlight wandering across a stage.
This is deliberate, my talk of play-acting, for the author has a background in theatre, and it plays a role in Close to Hugh too.
“What a lovely thing acting is, theatre is. Playing at life so well that we believe, we do believe.”
When put like this, it doesn’t not seem all that different from the work of a novelist, who seeks to convince readers that what’s on the page is real, just as an actor seeks an audience to believe what’s on the stage.
But of course there are differences. Just as there are between the theatre and Hugh’s work with art in his gallery, static and motionless.
Nonetheless, on the page Marina Endicott does capture a variety of motions: mostly downward, although the novel feels more like a spiral than a plunge.
“The good visits are worse than the bad visits. Hugh can’t do this any longer, come to this room and watch her dying.
He lets his head fall onto the clean sheet beside her head, to rest with her.”
Hugh has – and you have – had this experience before, this need to watch the unmoving. In Hugh’s case, he has moved his mother into a nursing home. The pressures he faces in his everyday life are immediately recognizable; readers can relate easily. “He’s tired of rain and basements and responsibility.” (Just as one half-expects to meet Anne Tyler’s characters in Baltimore, one can imagine meeting Marina Endicott’s characters in the wider world too.)
The ordinary stuff of everyday life clearly inspires Marina Endicott. “You just don’t want to know, that’s all. Hugh doesn’t want to know either.”
And, yet, one reads on.
“chicken, eggs / milk, cheese, yogurt / grapes, raisins
everything on this list becomes something else
everything that is becomes something else”
In interview with Harriet Gilbert, when meeting to discuss her landmark work The Country Girls as part of the BBC’s World Book Club, Edna O’Brien speaks about the relationship in that novel between a young woman and a married man referred to as Mr. Gentleman.
Little, Brown and Company, 2015
Given the autobiographical nature of The Country Girls, one member of the book club asked whether there was a “real” Mr. Gentleman.
Edna O’Brien explained that many people who lived in the same neighbourhood felt that they knew exactly who Mr. Gentleman was, but that, in fact, they were wrong. (Isn’t this a lovely way of not answering and answering the question?)
“You can write better about the people that you don’t marry,” she comments. (She then amends her statement, saying that it is only half true.)
The same observation could be made of “The Love Object”; one can imagine calling that character, the love object, Mr. Gentleman, too.
This collection of 31 stories is named for one of the stories published in Edna O’Brien’s first collection, The Love Object, in 1968.
Since then, the author’s reputation has grown substantially and she has become tremendously influential. In fact, as John Banville describes, in the introduction to this collection, she has played a pivotal role in the literary scene.
“No one before her, not even Kate O’Brien or Mary Lavin, had managed to portray in fiction an utterly convincing female sensibility. It is not so much the figuring of the female characters themselves that is so striking in these stories, but the way in which their author catches in the web of her artistry something of the essence of womanhood itself.”
Everything has to go in, she explains, in discussion with the BBC reading group, until there is only nakedness. Perhaps this, then, is the essence to which John Banville refers.
“The Love Object” is a dense read in which the information is shared entirely from the perspective of the not-love-object, with only a smattering of dialogue to break the consistency. (Having heard Edna O’Brien read passages from The Country Girls as part of this archived BBC broadcast, it is easy to catch the cadence of her words in her prose.)
“From then on it was seldom possible to meet at night. He made afternoon dates and at very short notice. Any night he did stay, he arrived with a travel bag containing toothbrush, clothes brush, and a few things a man might need for an overnight, loveless stay in a provinicial hotel. I expect she packed it. I thought, How ridiculous. I felt no pity for her. In fact, the mention of her name – it was Helen – made me angry. He said it very harmlessly.”
The sentences vary in length, perfectly conveying the emotion therein. Statements made are matter-of-fact and brusque, but nonetheless highly emotive.
She often uses a single detail where another author might require a string of adjectives to convey. (Ironically, in the following example, that single detail is of the not-Connor-girls’ accent.)
“The Connor girls were not beauties but they were distinguished and they talked in an accent that made everyone else’s seem flat and sprawling, like some familiar estuary or a puddle in a field.”
Even though I am not familiar enough with U.K. accents to be able to replicate a flat and sprawling one, even in my mind, I can immediately understand an accent like a puddle (which is presumably what mine would be like, at least in comparison to the Connor girls.)
As with the stories of Alice Munro, many of the stories in this collection of Edna O’Brien’s works are preoccupied with disappointment and sorrow.
But not exclusively. Consider this passage from the end of “The Love Object”, which does mention happiness:
“I suppose you wonder why I torment myself like this with details of his presence, but I need it, I cannot let go of him now, because if I did, all our happiness and my subsequent pain – I cannot vouch for his – will all have been nothing, and nothing is a dreadful thing to hold on to.”
That happiness, however, is in the context of torment and need and pain and something dreadful. The story is beautifully written, but the mood upon finishing is bittersweet, at best.
When asked about a comment she once made to the French newspaper, Liberation — “Happy people don’t write” — Edna O’Brien maintained that she believes this is true. A normal and happy and sane person does not put themself through the rigours of a writer’s life; Proust, for example, was mad, she declared.
And, certainly, there is considerable unhappiness in this collection. Within and alongside many stories about love. (And loneliness.And devastation. And betrayal. And…. )
- “Only love makes one notice a thing like that, love, that bulwark between life and death. Love, she thought, is like nature but in reverse; first it fruits, then it flowers, then it seems to wither, then it goes deep, deep down into its burrow, where no one sees it, where it is lost from sight and ultimately people die with that secret buried inside their seeds.” (“Long Distance”)
- “Not to go to you is to precipitate the dark and yet I hesitate. It is not that I do not crave the light. Rather, it is the certainty of the eventual dark.” (“Manhattan Medley”)
- “It was not love and it was not hate but something for which there is no name, because to name it would be to deprive it of its truth.” (“Old Wounds”)
- “By such choices we gradually become exiles, until at last we are quite alone.” (“The Connor Girls”)
What makes these stories not only bearable but laudable, sometimes even triumphant, is a quality that simmers beneath even the more sorrowful and regretful tales in the collection.
This anecdote works towards explaining this quality. Edna O’Brien had been earning a guniea a week for reading manuscripts for Ian Hamilton when he offered her a 50 quid advance to write a novel. In interview, she explains that she spent the money immediately, buying things for her two children and “to please the man I was married to, I bought a sewing machine, whch I have never used.” The audience laughs and she adds “I never intended to.”
I imagine that she still has that sewing machine, tucked in the corner of an upstairs room, as a weight, a reminder of what she was not going to do (and simultaneously, just as she can answer a question without directly answering, her declaration of what she is going to do instead).
For the greater weight comes with her true intentions, those which she did plan to pursue.
It is this sense, this directedness, this possessedness, that draws me to her prose.
This is the first of Edna O’Brien’s works which I have read: I intend to read many more.
The Birthday Lunch is the sort of novel in which a woman stands at a casement window and drinks a cup of tea, enjoying a private view of a cherry tree and an herb garden.
It is a “quiet novel” and, yet, a story which is ultimately about the primary importance of words.
(As Margaret Atwood writes: “A word after a word after a word is power.” And Lee Maracle’s recent interview with Shelagh Rogers on “The Next Chapter” considers this at some length, with her novel Celia’s Song putting this principle to work too.)
As such, it is highly appropriate that The Birthday Lunch is precisely and deliberately constructed.
It feels as though each word has been selected and polished before being placed into its sentence.
Despite this sense of orderliness and propriety, the core of the novel is the extraordinary, a collision with the unexpected.
As carefully as one might construct one’s existence, a single event can throw everything off kilter.
One of the characters in the story, Laverne, has taken pains to recreate a particular painting she saw in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
She has systematically reconstructed the rooms in “Woman and Child in an Interior”, “functional” and “spare” rooms that “welcomed the light”, so that she can live in a painting. From tiles to pillows, Laverne creates a haven in the home she shares with her sister, Lily.
Laverne’s retreat takes on a peculiar significance because of the tension between her and Lily’s husband; in fact, Hal and Lily are responsible for half the expenses accumulated for the renovation, but Laverne never invites Hal to see these rooms. (Lily tells him that he would only think them “dreary” and “strange” anyhow.)
It is a point of contention, but given the tension in their relationship, it is a thin layer of the conflict which recedes in importance against the backdrop of their more immediate concerns, for instance, with whom (and how) Lily will be spending her birthday.
Symbolically, however, this painting plays out for readers throughout the novel in many ways. Most obviously, the novel mirrors the painting’s attention to detail, the possibility of various perspectives (one could peer into this space from more than one direction), and a relationship being of primary importance against an uncluttered background.
(Perhaps even more obviously, the painting appears inside the backflap of the novel, and a detail from it appears inside the front flap: the inner elements of the book design by Terri Nimmo are beautiful, beyond the stock photographs of the cake and cherries.)
Pieter de Hooch’s artwork and the artist’s preoccupations impact the novel more subtly as well. For instance, Hal is concerned with the capacity of next-door neighbours to see into a particular window, if the curtains are not drawn, with what they might see (and, in turn, with what they see of the neighbours). Given the importance of the light cast by the windows in this painting, readers cannot pass by a window in Joan Clark’s novel without taking another look.
This particular aspect of the novel reminds me of Carol Shields’ short story, “Windows”, and more generally, The Birthday Lunch resonates with novels like Carol Shields’ Unless and Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault, in which ordinary people bear extraordinary burdens and, along the way, consider the question of being “good-ish”.
Even the supporting characters evoke these preoccupations. In fact, readers learn a lot about Corrie Spears, but even more about the main characters in the novel, from her perspective. (The name Corrie immediately recalls the Alice Munro story named for its heroine of that name, and there is something about her matter-of-fact maner and forthright spirit which seems to fit here too.)
And Corrie, too, embodies the importance of words, insisting on speaking out in her way (by signing an affidavit stipulating the details about what she has witnessed).
The multiple perspectives in the novel underscore the idea that each of us has their own version of narrative truth The lens though which we view the world informs every word we speak (and every act of silence).
At an accident scene, for instance, there is great attention paid to point-of-view. Some details are obscured from particular vantage points, others clearly observed, and timing — the matter of arrivals and departures – is pivotal too.
Sometimes what is not said is just as important as what is said. Hal, for instance, displays his sensitivity to the dynamics in relationships to readers, in a scene in which he recognizes a business opportunity, but he determines that that would be best shelved for a time, revisited some other day. He remains quiet. (Which is doubly interesting because Corrie observes that Hal is oblivious to how one-sided his conversations with Corrie are.)
Lily and Hal’s daughter, Claudia, too, remains silent at a memorable juncture in this story, but this is not intentional. She has intended to relay one particular piece of information to her married lover but realizes, after their phone call has ended, that the one thing she had intended to share remains unspoken. Arguably, however, she did not truly want to break that silence.
In speaking about her novel An Audience of Chairs, Joan Clark states: “One of the things I was interested in was exploring the idea of family pride, which was abundant in my family.” It may be that the impulse to remain silent which impacts The Birthday Lunch is rooted here, too.
What each of us chooses to express, and how and when we choose to express it: this is at the heart of Joan Clark’s The Birthday Lunch.
She has written more than a dozen books (for young adults and adults), been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, received the Marian Engel Award, and was named to the Order of Canada. Yet, this is the first of her novels that I have read. What a tremendous pleasure.
Companion Reads: Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (2013) and Joan Thomas’ The Opening Sky (2014)