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

Quarterly Stories: Winter 2014

An excess of short stories in the later part of this year has led to a decision to return to the habit of more often devoting entire posts to collections rather than covering a variety in a single pass (last seen in Quarterly Stories: Autumn 2014)

Ellen Gilchrist Acts of God

Algonquin Books, 2014

Some of my favourite books of 2014 were collections, including K.D. Miller’s All Saints (2014), Mireille Silcoff’s Chez L’Arabe (2014), and Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress (2014), and chatter about those will appear in the coming weeks.

Along with the most recent collection of Journey Prize nominated stories (the 26th in the series, following the 25th), an assortment of Alice Munro’s stories, and some sojourns into magazines and literary journals, I have had a plethora of stories to enjoy.

My intention to resume regular reading of TNY’s fiction led to Tessa Hadley’s “One Saturday Morning” (in the August 25, 2014 issue of The New Yorker). I enjoyed London Train, but this is the first short fiction of hers which I have read; now I want to seek out a copy of Married Love and Other Stories.

For Carrie, “piano wasn’t the answer she’d hoped for, to what was unsolved in herself”. Set on a Saturday afternoon in the mid-1960s, she is ten years old, home practicing the piano while her parents are at Sainsbury’s, stocking up for a dinner party, when a family friend arrives at the door. Carrie ‘already’ ‘hardly knew’ the significance of that evening, which is laid out with the urgency of a Joyce Carol Oates suspenseful tale and the delicacy of an Alice Munro psychological puzzle. The story is short but the sensory detail rich (Carrie’s mother evokes wine, smoke, hot skin in a white dress that “smelled of ironing”).

Simialrly, the human race is endlessly complex and puzzling in Ellen Gilchrist’s Acts of Godher most recent collection,.

“Some people are heroes and some plot, some lie and cheat and steal, and some carry morbidly obese patients up six flights of stairs so they can be medevaced to hospitals and kept alive to eat another day. The human race. You have to love it and wish it well and not preach or think you have any reason to think you are better than anyone else.” (“High Water”)

Whether one must love it as is suggested here is uncertain, but it seems clear that Ellen Gilchrist loves the stories which arise from these twists and turns, these extremes and variations.

Using clear language and simple chronology, the straightforward and matter-of-fact tone might not suit every reader. This is not lyrical prose and ideas do not subtly infuse the stories; these stories are unadorned and their themes are presented boldly.

“Love is devotion. Love is the choice you make and how you keep on making it no matter what happens.” (“Jumping Off Bridges into Clean Water”)

Yet there is something winsome about this uncomplicated approach, something reassuring about being so openly directed by a tale-spinner, and the frequently twinned sense of amusement and resignation does make room for the reader to feel more than one thing at the same time, even when expectations are clearly defined.

He went out to his little house behind the kitchen and he lay down on his bed and went to sleep with all his clothes on because he was so tired he couldn’t take them off. Then he didn’t wake up and we don’t know what happens next because no one gets to find out about dying while they are alive. (“Hopedale, a History in Four Acts”)

Ellen Gilchrist’s Acts of God examines moments of cataclysm in the simplest of terms.

Simon Rich Spoiled Brats

Little, Brown and Company, 2014

Simon Rich’s Spoiled Brats (2014) feels as though someone has taken a manuscript and given it a good shake, dislodging readers’ expectations and creating a space in which anticipation is the status quo.

From the first story, readers are jolted by the unexpected proximity of two words: ‘wife’ and ‘cage’. (This makes me think of Andrew Kaufman’s The Tiny Wife but she was not caged, though it would have been, arguably, for her own protection, as time passed.)

Readers realize immediately that this is going to require some attention. And, before the end of the first story, I was wondering if it would require too much of me (a hammer is involved). But, again unexpectedly, the story does just what it needs to do to not only unsettle but to satisfy.

Not only are the unexpected bits substantive, which is to say that what happens in a story is not what one would predict, but the ways in which stories unfold are unusual too. Even, in fact, the characters one discovers along the way are not the usual fare.

For instance (and, yes, it’s true that Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius ushered in an over-populated era of characters named for their creators, but perhaps enough time has passed for me to find this novel once more), readers meet Simon Rich in that same “‘wife’ + ‘cage’” story.

“My eyes widen in horror. Simon Rich is Y2K’s ‘class clown’, a pudgy, hyperactive boy with some kind of undiagnosed emotional problem.”

This does not preclude the appearance of other Simon-Rich-dubbed characters in later stories. In fact, were the reader to read these stories in a burst, one might come to expect the unexpected, to begin to look for Simon Rich as younger readers once searched for Waldo. (But parsed out, the novelty remains intact.)

Another level of the unexpected is evident in the possibility of a character in one story reappearing in another (a character not named Simon Rich, in this case). Herein lies the key to the most successful comic writers, who reward their listeners/viewers/readers for paying attention to earlier details in the set/show/collection, for the clever ones are invited to laugh twice as hard.

And sometimes Simon Rich does fully inhabit the role of a comic writer. With “Guy Walks into a Bar”, for instance, he openly sets up for a joke, prepares readers for a laugh. So, on the first page, readers meet a man who asked for a wish from a hard-of-hearing genie in the men’s room, but rather than ‘world peace’ is granted a room filled with geese. Though the story revolves around the bartender who was granted a “12-inch pianist” (you can figure it out).

Spoiled Brats will find a spot on the shelf next to short works by Miranda July and B.J. Novak; its plainspeak could earn it a place next to Ellen Gilchrist’s collection, but beyond the context of this discussion these two collections would make unlikely bedfellows.

What about you: have you been reading short stories lately?
Do you have any collections nearing the top of your TBR?

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December 2014: In My Reading Log

Through Woods CarrollEmily Carroll’s Through the Woods (2014)

Comprised of five long and two short works, these tales are peopled with losses and lonelinesses. Hues of red, black and white dominate the volume, with other colours used sparingly for contrast. Panel use is unpredictable, with images sometimes boxed but often sprawling and dripping across pages, so that a ghost’s song in “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold” meanders without boundaries or the edges of small talk are lost across borders of panels with the majority of words left for guessing in “The Nesting Place”.

Deliciously scary, these gothic tales invite rereading and sharing: whatever Emily Carroll writes and draws next is bound to satisfy those who enjoy beauty and horror in their storytelling.

Fred D’Aguiar’s The Longest Memory (1994)

Daguiar Longest MemoryFred D’Aguiar’s works landed on my TBR thanks to a Writers & Company interview with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC. (You can listen online or subscribe via podcast. If you already know this series and have other favourites which are like it, please let me know what else you enjoy listening to, as these programs are consistently a highlight of my week.)

The British-Guyanese poet, novelist and playwright won the Whitbread First Novel Award for The Longest Memory, though the interview focussed on his most recent novel, Children of Paradise.

The Longest Memory is elegant and powerful, like Beloved and Rashomon in a slow dance. In only 138 pages, a series of perspectives present a kaleidoscopic version of events which lead to a tragic outcome, which is tremendously disturbing despite the reader’s fleeting acquaintance with the victim and family.

The voice in each segment is distinct and resonant, and even when the connection to the broader story is not immediately evident, the gradual comprehension settles effortlessly as the reader turns the pages and uncovers not only the details surrounding the actual event but the historical context and interconnections which bring yet another dimension to the tale of loss.

Hannah Pittard’s Reunion (2014)

Reunion Hannah PittardLike the central characters in Meg Mitchell Moore’s The Arrivals and Jennifer Close’s The Smart One, Kate has returned home. Not for the same reasons as in these other stories, but with the same sense of failure. Kate is not an immediately sympathetic character and, yet, she is aware of her short-comings: “I wanted to start the day a better person, but now I’ll have to put it off until tomorrow.”

She is painfully aware that she has not made the right decisions: “I think maybe I didn’t get the instruction book. Other people make it look easy.” In fact, she has made some blatant errors, both in her career as a scriptwriter and in her marriage.

”’You didn’t learn anything from his bad habits?’
I did! What I learned was this: It’s easy. It’s so fucking easy. It’s disgusting how easy it is. Until it isn’t. Until you need a notepad or an email just to keep the lies organized.”

Hannah Pittard’s Reunion is a well-organized smorgasbord of lies and Kate is a credible witness to and designer of her own destruction.

Her intelligence and sense of awareness do ultimately pull readers to her side, and we yearn for a happier ending for her than she might write for herself.

Citizen Claudia RankineClaudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014)

This collection of essays and poetry also includes an assembly of visuals which complement the works brilliantly. These are as varied as an image of Caroline Wozniacki with towels stuffed in top and shorts at a tennis match to imitate Serena Williams, and a tableau of woodcut-styled letters which spell out Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most coloured when I am thrown against a sharp white background” and grow increasingly smudged as one’s eyes travel down the page.

Claudia Rankine references works from James Baldwin’s fiction to David Hammons’ mixed media works to YouTube videos; readers should expect to be not only engaged but educated and enraged, which is what much of Graywolf’s catalogue achieves.

Is December’s reading busy or stalled for you? What book in your recent reading log are you itching to recommend?

Telling Father’s Story: A Novel and a Memoir

Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed and Maurice Mierau’s Detachment: An Adoption Memoir are a perfect pair.

Mountains Echoed Hosseini

Penguin Random House, 2014

And the Mountains Echoed begins with a story, told by a father to his son and his daughter.

“Father never felt more present to Abdullah, more vibrant, revealed, more truthful, than when he told his stories, as though the tales were pinholes into his opaque, inscrutable world.”

Abdullah recognizes his father as being at ease and in his natural state of being when he is telling stories, but he does not fully comprehend the ramifications of this truth until later in life. Fortunately, And the Mountains Echoed affords readers that perspective, offering a variety of perspectives across time and space.

At the heart of the novel is the quest for love, the kind of love expressed by Shuja, the dog that Abdullah’s sister, Pari, loves completely and unflinchingly.

“He avoided everyone in Shadbagh but Pari. It was for Pari that Shuja lost all composure. His love for her was vast and unclouded. She was his universe. In the mornings, when he saw Pari stepping out of the house, Shuja sprang up, and his entire body shivered. The stump of his mutilated tail wagged wildly, and he tap-danced like he was treading on hot coal. He pranced happy circles around her. All day the dog shadowed Pari, sniffing at her heels, and at night, when they parted ways, he lay outside the door, forlorn, waiting for morning.”

And, yet, the book is equally preoccupied with the other side of love too. “I know now that some people feel unhappiness the way others love: privately, intensely, and without recourse.”

Khaled Hosseini’s third novel is a powerful and resonant tale, and the myriad of voices allows that power to gather and swell until readers feel the story pressing inwards from all directions.

This recent novel does shares some traits with the author’s incredibly successful debut, The Kite Runner, particularly the need to reconcile past events with present reality and a haunting sense of loss which isn’t fully understood by children who inhabit it without comprehension.

And the Mountains Echoed is a more complex work, however, both in terms of the thematic echoes throughout the work and in terms of the breadth and depth of issues explored. Readers who enjoy a solid immersion in a single narrative perspective might prefer Khaled Hosseini’s earlier work more, but those who appreciate layered storytelling will find his latest novel to be a more intensely satisfying story.

Detachment Mierau

Freehand Books, 2014

Maurice Mierau’s Detachment: An Adoption Memoir is a story told by a father about his relationship to fatherhood and with his two sons.

The first chapter is “Shrinking” and if you chuckle softly at the discovery that it begins in a therapist’s office, you will likely enjoy Maurice Mierau’s writing style.

He does present a lot of difficult emotional material in the work, and events in which many aspects of his own self were also shrinking (e.g. confidence and identity and hopefulness) are discussed at length, which makes for challenging reading, but he is writing at a distance; he has taken a step back to allow for some reflection, some acceptance and, yes, even some amusement.

He and his wife adopted two boys from Ukraine in 2005, when the brothers were five and three years old. Perhaps it is not unusual for new parents to reflect upon their own family history when embarking on raising a family, but adopting young children from the country whose violent past is at the root of your own father’s detachment requires serious contemplation.

Although Maurice Mierau’s personal explorations are tremendously engaging (largely because of the sense that he is willing to expose his vulnerability, unchecked), his own father’s wartime experiences/ — which are mostly shared with the author indirectly, in a familial context — add a considerable heft to the work. Nowhere is the language more spare, more controlled, which only adds to the emotional weight of these scenes.

Family history takes on a fresh importance as the effects of past conflicts and horrifying losses continue to reverberate in later generations. Raw emotion and heart-stopping discoveries make this a demanding story to read, but what sets the work apart is not only the substance but the author’s detachment.

This is facilitated, too, by the sense of being immersed in evaluative processes, not only the therapeutic scenes but the bureaucratic aspects of adoption overseas. And, furthermore, by the fact that more of the narrative plays out in Ukraine (either in the recent past or the distant past) than “at home”, which sets the stage for a different kind of ‘detachment’.

Although the scenes in Winnipeg are solidly sketched too, the sense of being in limbo, inhabiting a series of temporary rooms, simply waiting for the events on the next stage of their lives to unfold, is palpable. Because the voice is consistent and authentic, this seems to accommodate rather than isolate readers. Paradoxically, the journey might feel more inclusive for readers, who are truly distanced from the events, than it may have felt for some of the participants who inhabited them.

While the quality might make for some interpersonal challenges, it is just what a writer needs to produce a resonant memoir: Detachment.

Barry Dempster’s The Outside World (2014)

The Tedley family is at the centre of the world for the teenage narrator of Barry Dempster’s novel.

Outside World Dempster“How easy for a bungalow and a Texaco station to become the entire world.”

This is Scarborough. This is 1966. But this is not a staid and predictable universe as readers soon realize.

“The Milfords, the Remingtons, the Burrs and the Costellos all had their own twisted warps, but no other family on the block had a Lissy to contend with, or a father whose bad moods could be so charismatic, or a mother who was pretty much under a house arrest of her own devising. Not one of the other families on Arizona Avenue had an eyeless, pinheaded snowman with an invisible mouthful of kisses.”

And those are the known challenges. Soon, things get complicated.

“I was beginning to wonder if the world really spun, or whether it flipped every now and again, a somersault. Head-over-heels. One day my feet were flat on the ground, the next I was hanging from the ceiling like a bat.”

And, more complicated than that.

“Mr. Milford died the next day. Neighbours gathered along the front walk like people at a parade, bowing their heads as the ambulance guys wheeled the body away. Our second ambulance in less than a week. We were a universe falling apart.”

This is familiar territory for coming-of-age novels; a young boy stressed by the needs of parents whose own needs eclipse their capacity to care for their children.

What sets The Outside World apart is the relentless immersion in a freshly teenaged boy’s perspective; it is difficult to sustain that voice through a novel, and to simultaneously prescribe a sense of urgency to a situation when the dimensions of the situation are not thoroughly understood by the narrator who is struggling to bear its weight.

Furthermore, the relationships with all family members (his parents, his grandmother and Lissy) are also consistently and credibly drawn, often challenging and often dissatisfying but never wholly despairing, which is more a reflection of the narrator’s stage in life than of a more objective reality.

And, finally, the novel is the perfect length for the tale Barry Dempster sets out to tell; the story is poised between growing and complete awareness and the author maintains a delicate balance throughout. It is an act of grace.

Poets penning novels: one of my favourite things. Michael Crummey. Aislinn Hunter. Michael Ondaatje. Alison Pick. Now, I’m off to discover Barry Dempster’s poetry.

Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) and The Silkworm (2014)

Readers are introduced to Cormoran Strike in a moment of need. His.

Cuckoos Calling Galbraith “A double fee. Strike’s conscience, once firm and inelastic, had been weakened by repeated blows of fate; this was the knockout punch. His baser self was already gamboling off into the realms of happy speculation: a month’s work would give him enough to pay off the temp and some of the rent arrears; two months, the more pressing debts…three months, a chunk of the overdraft gone…four months….” (TCC)

Strike is an ordinary investigator who wants to make a living; he sets aside his instinct to turn down a case — based on the unlikelihood that he will unearth anything new that the other investigators have not previously discovered — accepts the double fee and, eventually, solves the mystery. This is the stuff that crime novels are made of.

But a successful crime series is based on readers’ ongoing investment in a character.

Robert Galbraith’s description of London adds to readers’ understanding of Cormoran Strike as well.

“This was the hour when he found London most lovable; the working day over, her pub windows were warm and jewel-like, her streets thrummed with life, and the indefatigable permanence of her aged buildings, softened by the street lights, became strangely reassuring. We have seen plenty like you, they seemed to murmur soothingly, as he limped along Oxford Street carrying a boxed-up camp bed. Seven and a half million hearts were beating in close proximity in this heaving old city, and many, after all, would be aching far worse than his. Walking wearily past closing shops, while the heavens turned indigo above him, Strike found solace in vastness and anonymity.” (TCC)

Ditched, aching, and alone, he is a sympathetic character. He stops short of pitiful because he is capable professionally, a skilled and sensitive observer, and he consistently operates according to a strict code of honour.

Robert Galbraith’s storytelling affords a degree of layering; passages which are descriptive in nature can also serve to illuminate aspects of character, and thematic elements in regards to the case sometimes echo in the lives of main and recurring series’ characters as well.

Stylistically, the prose is dotted with abrupt and unusual descriptors and bursts of figurative detail. Sometimes this is effective and evocative. (“She looked away from him, drawing hard on her Rothman’s; when her mouth puckered into hard little lines around the cigarette, it looked like a cat’s anus.”) Other times, say with “chrysoberyl eyes” or a “frozen moment of mutual mortification”, there is a degree of awkwardness. (TCC)

Silkworm GalbraithOverall, the writing may seem overly wordy by readers accustomed to leaner prose in mystery novels. Rather than simply express Cormoran’s feelings about a recurring secondary character in The Silkworm via his repeated rescheduling of a meeting, his response is explained and explored. And rather than allowing readers to gather their own impressions of a character from the scenes, in which their dialogue is particularly revealing, declarative statements abound.

“Experience had taught Strike that there was a certain type of woman to whom he was unusually attractive. Their common characteristics were intelligence and the flickering intensity of badly wired lamps. They were often attractive and usually, as his very oldest friend Dave Polworth liked to put it, ‘total fucking flakes.’ Precisely what it was about him that attracted the type, Strike had never taken the time to consider, although Polworth, a man of many pithy theories, took the view that such women (‘nervy, overbred’) were subconsciously looking for what he called ‘carthorse blood.’” (TS)

Readers have had ample opportunity to draw their own conclusions about Cormoran’s encounters with women to whom he is “unusually attractive”. If Dave Polworth, “very oldest friend”, was a pivotal character, this description could be important as much in revealing his worldview as an observation about either the women or Cormoran.

Instead, passages like these, while they contribute to displaying the storyteller’s voice and the series’ tone, might snarl up those readers who are expecting a quintessentially sleek mystery style and simultaneously also put off those readers who are accustomed to wordy literary novels but do not require/appreciate expository statements about characterization.

Nonetheless, and despite the fact that I don’t believe I fit into the group Dave Polworth describes, I do find Cormoran Strike an unusually attractive character. Readers who enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling and who are interested in the publishing industry likely will find The Silkworm even more satisfying from an entertainment perspective. Even though the flourishes (such as the chapter epigraphs from classic English revenge plays) and the prose style might not tickle my fancy, Cormoran’s character has a solid pull (whether carthorse like or not).

Mark Lavorato’s Serafim and Claire (2014)      

Mark Lavorato’s debut novel is aptly titled as the novel is equally divided between these two characters, a young woman who dances on stage and a young man who takes photographs on the streets. Through them, readers experience Montreal of the 1920s, from vaudeville to fascism, and women’s rights to French/English tensions.

Serafim and Claire

House of Anansi, 2014

Serafim discovers, early on, that he and his friend have a penchant for the candid shot, which sets them apart from the studio photographers. This is revealing, not only of Serafim’s perspective on the world, but also Mark Lavorato’s. The idea of capturing a moment, perhaps not the most obvious but certainly the most meaningful, is at the heart of Serafim and Claire.

“The gentleman certainly thought the approach unconventional, but he took it to be the way things were done in Portugal. Serafim and Álvaro shot a myriad of exposures, but agreed that the best shot was taken when the girl was participating in a scavenger hunt. The two young men were crouched down next to her as she searched a massive planter. Tiptoeing up and reaching inside, the young girl patted around in the underbrush, and just as she found something, she turned her head in excitement. Serafim and Álvaro captured the moment perfectly.”

Serafim is always striving to capture that which cannot be captured, which could also describe the work of a novelist. Perhaps this is why, although the novel opens with Claire, Serafim’s character seems to infuse the story, despite their shared status as central figures.

“It is a contemplative look, seemingly tight-lipped beneath the man’s bushy moustache. His eyes gleam moist. It is as if he is trying to communicate something to the photographer. Something where words will almost certainly fall short. Or already have.”

Words do not fall short in Serafim and Claire. If anything, some passages are ambitious about capturing context and background for readers unfamiliar with the time and place. Nonetheless, when this occurs, there is a consistent relationship to an aspect of the narrative so if somewhat long-winded, it is not gratuitous information. For instance, this explanation of the importance of Lionel Groulx in Quebec is followed by a connection drawn to Serafim’s work at a protest:

“Lionel Groulx, an activist, Catholic priest, and historian, was immensely popular with French Canadians at the time, and was also a firm proponent of corporatism, which he believed would one day replace class struggle with class co-operation, an idea shared with Mussolini. Fascists, and indeed the majority of Montrealers, were not exactly great sympathizers of leftist causes or ideologies like anarchism, so the turnout of protesters to rally against the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti was a rather meagre one. It was so unimpressive, in fact, that Serafim had only snapped a few exposures throughout, and when he developed them, he couldn’t find a single frame worth sending to Álvaro, who was used to seeing things of a much more dramatic and glamorous nature.”

Both Serafim and Claire experience frustrations with recognition in their chosen art form; the question of popularity versus artistry is raised and it is often difficult for these two to spot the line between opportunity and exploitation. When their paths finally cross, both are pressed and stretched by circumstances, and they are urged into a plan which seems to promise all the greatness that dedication and determination did not achieve.

The rhythmic format of the novel, alternating voices separated by a description of one of Serafim’s photographs which reflects a relevant reality in the narrative (sometimes directly, sometimes subtly), creates a quiet momentum, but the story’s dynamic remains subdued until the characters meet and their plan begins to unfold. Even then, the narrative is rooted primarily in character, secondarily in action. Serafim and Claire will satisfy readers who crave immersion in another time and place, particularly those with an affection for Montreal.

Khanh Ha’s The Demon Who Peddled Longing (2014)

The Demon Who Peddled Longing is rich with the kind of sensory experience that translates into a reader’s complete immersion into another time and place, allowing them to fully inhabit a 19-year-old boy’s experience in Vietnam.

Khanh Ha’s Flesh, a visceral and harrowing read, serves as a brilliant companion for his new novel. The phrase ‘body of work’ is particularly appropriate to use in discussing these books, for they share a preoccupation with natural and organic detail.

Demon Who Peddled Longing Khanh Ha

Underground Voices, 2014

In many ways the ordinary and innocuous details which fill Nam’s everyday life are as significant as the story’s more dramatic events and interactions.

A reader will be as likely to recall the scenes filled with moonshine rice liquor and blowfish in batter, as the episodes of intimacy and violence. (If you are curious about the novel’s storyline and themes, please visit the publisher’s site or this interview with Teddy Rose, which also provides glimpses of the author’s influences and process).

The tastes (from snakehead fish to hot pepper sauce) and sounds (from the clanking of keys and a dog barking to the wind rustling and flute playing); what is smelled (from the dark damp earth to the ooze of infected tissue) and what is touched (from boils lanced on a loved one’s back to mushrooms cut and fried): all of these details add to the reader’s understanding of Nam’s experience.

Perhaps no sense is more integrally rooted in the story than the sights which are often both beautiful and harsh in the same instance. But whereas the tragic elements of experience seemed to engulf all other aspects of life in Flesh (likely deterring those readers who do not want to explore difficult subject matter in fiction), there is a solid foundation of beauty in this work.

The cajeput forest with tiny white blossoms on the trees, the yellow and green pulses of fireflies, and the fields of sawgrass and bulrush: Vietnam is a beautiful country, one too rarely represented on the page.

As was the case with Flesh, The Demon Who Peddled Longing welcomes readers who seek – rather than have experience – of this time and place. The work’s themes emphasize the human experience, and this offers an excess of opportunities for the reader to connect with Nam and recognize common elements with his personal experience.

Nam learns to find his way on the plain, just as readers learn the terrain as well. “Now he could tell the coming and going of rains by colors in the sky. An evening red, a morning grey and they’d have all-day fair weather for hauling fish.”

Sometimes the descriptive passages in Khanh Ha’s prose literally embed the human experience in the wider organic world, as when, for instance, Nam views pockmarks on the water from a light rain, water as skin, rain as touch. (See, there’s that inclination towards the visceral, never far below the surface.)

Khanh Ha Author Photo 2014

Author Photo, 2014

The border between the worlds in this author’s prose is thin. Conversations take place on gravestones, and mortality is always at arm’s length or within one’s grasp. The chronicle of a character’s experience in the context of human experience can be displayed in a catalogue of objects as varied as a pistol or a fishing net, a banana leaf or an explosive pack, a frying pan or a machete.

Pain is tangible, presented to the reader in pus-filled boils, an injured leg, a shark bite, kidnapped girls or a leper colony. The setting is water-soaked, with its riverside markets and  riverboats, creating the impression of a narrative which weeps.  And, yet, this sensation does not threaten to overwhelm the reader, as it sometimes did in Flesh (which is not to say it was inauthentic or gratuitous, rather realistic and deliberately spare) but rather the balance is slanted differently.

The dialogue in The Demon Who Peddled Longing has a very different feel than the dialogue had in Flesh; here, it emerges as a natural part of the text. This stylistic decision might put off readers who prefer the formality of indented and marked phrases, but it feels organic and natural and it perfectly suits and enhances this story. The variation between direct and indirect dialogue also offers the reader variety and displays the importance placed on storytelling and personal narrative.

“He told me every night he goes out and away from the hamlet as far as he can, until his ears can no longer pick up any sound, human and dogs, from the hamlet. He did get lost sometimes though. Told me when that happened he had to rely on his nose to smell the wind, even use his tongue to test the wind to find his way back.”

What can one do, with only one’s tongue, no sounds and no words to offer direction? What can one do with silence, in silence? Both Khanh Ha and Nam can do a lot, with stillness, with only slim threads of connections between the senses.

A character muses that he can teach a myna bird to speak the words that he does not dare to speak; a reader muses that she could recognize a spot of Knahn Ha’s prose by putting her tongue to the page.

Virtual Author Book Tours

Click to read Teddy Rose’s interview with the author

The Demon Who Peddled Longing straddles the individual and the human experience and explores the fragile connection between states of being. A head can be all-too-easily separated from the body, in this world and in this author’s work, and life all-too-quickly snuffed out, as its forces wax and wane through infection and disease, pleasure and passion, mortality and murder.

Writers like Khanh Ha take the reader into ordinary and glorious places.

 

Diane Cook’s Man V. Nature (2014)

As readers will guess from the title, Diane Cook’s collection of stories has an archetypal reach.

Man Nature Cook

HarperCollins, 2014

These are stories that one can imagine discussing at length in creative writing classes, stories that could nestle into the curricula of English courses which study contemporary American fiction.

But there is no nestling in these stories; these tales are simmered in dramatic tension. They are characterized by a tangible physicality, the author as equally skilled in depicting visceral sexuality as acts of brutality.

These are difficult stories to read, but the same elements which make them challenging also make them compelling. Particularly when it comes to unravelling motivation, the narratives pose a variety of questions, and readers who enjoy psychological drama will find these tales irresistible.

“Each game has rules, and we make them complicated.”

The stories’ complications provoke a variety of responses, and readers are more likely to be repelled and saddened than reassured or satisfied. But if the primary purpose of art is to upset the balance, to inspire debate and discussion, to create a space for new possibilities? Then Diane Cook’s stories are essential reading.

Even when it comes to archetypal images, however, these stories are not straightforward. They pose questions. They do not offer resolution.

In one story, the forest represents the unknown, but later in that story the question is raised as to whether the unknown is something towards which the main character should run or whether she should run away.

Perhaps it’s not even about the forest. Setting aside tales of breadcrumbs and wolves dressed in granny’s nightgown, perhaps there are deeper concerns.

“The woods aren’t dangerous.”
“The woods are what’s in them….”

Even without the context of the story to complicate these statements, which are drawn from a different story than that quoted above, these sentences are fascinating. Readers who have to grapple with the questions of sanctuary and exile, restoration and devastation, mortality and morality which haunt this particular story have much more to consider.

Consider these lines from yet another story:

“Everything is man versus this and man versus that…man versus everything. It’s me. It’s you. It’s us. It’s in us. It’s in….”

What’s in them. What’s in us.

Sometimes the layering between stories is subtle like this; readers partaking in the stories over the course of several weeks might miss the details which knit the collection together.

But the general preoccupations of the stories and the characters who inhabit them appear as echoes throughout the pages.

In one story, an older woman muses: “As the manual often states, this is my future. And it’s the only one I get.” And, in another tale, a young woman observes: “Freshman year starts, and somehow everyone is someone else, someone older, someone interested in the faraway future life.”

These broad-reaching themes, like identity and the human preoccupation with meaning, underscore the collection as a whole.

“Is there any difference between us beyond a few letters in our names?” Perhaps we are not all that different. “We were becoming like other kids. And it was so easy. Just a series of steps.”

But the steps that Diane Cook’s characters take are often unpalatable, distasteful, disturbing. What saves readers from being overwhelmed by the content is the author’s precise and spare language. Despite the stories’ physicality, there is remarkably little sensory detail.The prose style is clean and stark, with only a smattering of dialogue and a few choice images to colour the texts.

Illness sweeps a man into bed, solitary people are like floats in a parade, a man tastes like a warm olive, and a sound settles like leaves in a lap. But overall, these stories are preoccupied with grand events presented in the simplest terms.

Man V. Nature: it’s me, it’s you, it’s us, it’s in us.

And, yes, that’s disturbing. As it should be.

Click for details

Click for details

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to participate in this event. For other readers’ opinions, check out these sites:

October 15th: Book Hooked Blog
October 16th: The Book Binder’s Daughter
October 20th: The Well-Read Redhead
October 21st: BoundbyWords
October 22nd: A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall
October 23rd: Svetlana’s Reads and Views
October 28th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
October 29th: Shelf Notes
October 30th: Luxury Reading
November 3rd: Patricia’s Wisdom
November 4th: Bibliosue
November 6th: Inner Workings of the Female Mind
November 7th: guiltless reading

Have you been reading short stories lately? Was this collection on your TBR list, or, have you scribbled it down now?

In Cainsville: A Giveaway

The second volume in Kelley Armstrong’s Cainsville series is an enticing follow-up to Omens.

Random House Canada, 2014

Random House Canada, 2014

Those who have read the Otherworld series will recall that the earliest novels concentrated on Elena’s character and here, too, in her return to Cainsville, the main character remains consistent.

Olivia Taylor-Jones is now seeing both omens and visions. You might think it’s “…wonderful to see warnings and signs. But it’s not. For every ounce it makes your life easier, it makes it a pound harder.”

Like Omens, the series’ second installment begins with a vivid and dramatic scene, which not only engages readers’ attentions immediately but also displays Olivia’s character.

She, like many of Kelley Armstrong’s heroines, is ntelligent and responsive,  curious and dynamic. When faced with something horrifying, she is suitably horrified, but she does not simply observe, she takes action (or, at least, acknowledges when she wishes that she had not been too overwhelmed to do so).

Another character recognizes and remarks that Olivia is “a smart girl”, so smart that “you’ll figure it out as soon as you admit there’s something to be figured out. About me. About Cainsville.”

Because there is something to figure out about Cainsville. It is only hinted at in Omens, which takes its time (nearly five-hundred pages) introducing the settting and characters, and Visions does not offer full explanations either.

What is explored more fully here, however, is Olivia’s character, as well the dynamics between her and other characters (some of whom are present in Omens and one new individual who plays a substantial role in this second volume).

Olivia’s strength and determination are consistent with other Armstrong heroines, like Elena (whom readers met in Bitten and Broken), but Olivia is a more polished and privileged woman, the sort who is as likely to attend high-class evening events with the who’s-who crowd as she is likely to break into a seemingly-abandoned rural home to rescue a cat.

What these characters share, however, is a sense of rootlessness and a desire to belong; they resemble the young heroines in so many children’s stories, actual-orphans or near-orphans, but girls-all-grown-up, explorers and dragon-slayers who yearn for connection and a true “home”. In the meantime, they satisfy their needs in other ways.

“My first taste of a drug I’d never forget. No merry-go-rounds for me. I wanted roller coasters. I wanted go-carts and snow sleds. Faster. Higher.”

But these characters are multi-dimensional, and although they are often depicted as courageous fighters, presented in contrast to more traditionally feminine heroines, they are equally capable of turning sexist expectations against those who prefer their heroines weak and mild.  (“Basically, I did a dead-on impersonation of a helpless blond kitten.”)

Given that the novel is rooted in Olivia’s experiences, it’s unsurprising to find that other characters do possess the kind of information that Olivia seeks: at least, more information, if not complete information.

“That’s what she [not Olivia] felt most of all. That it didn’t belong in Cainsville. This was no ordinary town. She’d always known that. As for exactly what its peculiarities hid, she’d been raised not to question, and she didn’t. Her soul rested quietest that way.”

This kind of subtle layering to the idea of there being more to unearth adds to the novel’s tension, so that even while substantial time is spent developing character, readers are pulled into the broader sense of mystery in the story too.

But Kelley Armstrong readers will find the same dedication to carefully structured action scenes, short and long, which characterize her other fiction.

Sometimes these are quietly unsettling. (“I could see him outside, but the reflection of the lights against the glass made him seem to disappear as he walked. Not vanish or fade, but blend into his surroundings.”)

Other times, they are boldly adrenaline-soaked. (“Our earlier chase had been a playful game of hide-and-seek. This was a hunt.”)

As prominent as characterization is in these novels, Kelley Armstrong’s stories are true page-turners. For those readers looking for more detail about these stories, the publisher’s summary is here, along with links to earlier works, but the spoiler-phobic reader should steer away, for the blurb for Visions describes situations which reveal the outcome of Omens and some key developments in the second volume.

As such, it would be possible to read Visions as a standalone novel, because the events in the series’ first volume are skillfully summarized in a seemingly-casual way and offered on an as-needed basis, but given the attention to characterization, the story will not resonate as strongly with readers who are unfamiliar with the deeper issues which preoccupy Olivia’s character.

But dedicated Kelley Armstrong readers wouldn’t think of missing Omens anyway; they would be more likely to reread a copy of it than to skip past it.

If you would like to be entered in a draw for a copy of Visions, please read on for the relevant details.

Giveaway Details: Kelley Armstrong’s novel Visions is published in hardcover by Random House Canada and this opportunity to win a copy requires that you reside in Canada; if you win the copy, you will need to share your mailing address with me.

Please leave a comment as an entry which includes some bookchat, about Visions or another of her works, or elaborate on your interest in this particular book/author. (If you wish to comment but not be entered for the giveaway, simply say so, and I will withhold your name from the draw.)

Entries will be received until midnight (EST) Friday October 31, 2014 and I will email the winner.

 

Literary Kismet: The Tin Flute and Man in the Shadows

Once a week when he was in Montreal, Conor walked along St. Catherine Street to dine at the St. Lawrence Hotel. In a freshly pressed suit, starched shirt and perfectly tied cravat, he was the picture of sophistication. He even sported a new walking stick. He would often bring a newspaper to give himself cover while he watched others. He studied the placement of the cutlery and when and how it should be used.

Man Shadows Henderson

HarperCollins, 2014

Gordon Henderson, Man in the Shadows (2014)

Once a week, preferably on Saturday, he would walk up St. Catherine Street, go to the Palace or the Princess theatre, then have a classy meal in a west-end restaurant. Afterwards he would go back to the obscurity of his suburb, light-footed, whistling, happy, as if he had received confirmation of his secret ambitions. […] Just as he needed to wear soft, expensive materials, he also needed to mingle with the crowd to taste to the full his self-confidence, his refusal to sacrifice what he felt to be rare in himself, setting him off from others.

Tin Flute Gabrielle Roy

1945; McClelland & Stewart, 1989

Gabrielle Roy, The Tin Flute (1945)