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

Steffie, Angel, Baby and More

When I was in high school, I read Fran Arrick’s Steffie Can’t Come Out to Play (1978) more than once.

I even wrote a book report on it in the ninth grade, when the assigned reading included J. Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet and Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners. (Wanted: female characters.)

Quite likely this story of a teenager on the streets was as credible on the subject of prostitution as Go Ask Alice was on the matter of drug use/addiction, but no matter: I inhaled the story.

Teen readers today can turn to stories like Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals and Martine Leavitt’s My Book of Life by Angel (2012): well-written, multi-layered, beautiful and challenging stories about the experiences of women and girls walking the street.

Book Life Angel Leavitt

Groundwood Books, 2012

Martine Leavitt explains that the characters in her novel are invented, but “inside my made-up story is much that is true”.

Some common experiences are outlined, but “[e]ach girl’s story is different”.

“Her man, the one who found her, lonesome,
said to his friends,
it’s the ones from good homes
who follow orders best –
it’s the ones from good famiies
who have the best social skills,
who have never learned how to fight -
they make the best money.”

That’s Serena, but it fits for Angel as well. The language is common and familiar and unsentimental, which brings the emotional resonance of the story to the fore.

And not that the more general topic isn’t harrowing and disturbing (abusive relationships and child prostitution), but The Book of Life by Angel plays out on the eastside of Vancouver, before Robert Pickton was arrested and charged.

Following the story, there is a list of the missing women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, collected in 2007, which reminds the reader that Angel’s experiences might be made-up but these experiences are certainly real.

“He said, Angel, do you love me?
Just do this for me, for us-
soon we’ll be taxpayers,
we’ll have the neighbours over, we’ll volunteer.
You with me, baby?”

Similar to Baby’s experience in Heather O’Neill’s novel, Angel finds an outlet in her writing. (She finds another kind of inspiration in the story, too, but to discuss that would reveal a significant spoiler.)

“I got my notebook
and figured out
when you want to write a poem
you don’t know where it might go.
It’s an act of faith to write a book of you,
to believe a poem
is something you could do.”

This aspect of her experience is one of the major reasons why this book is easy to recommend; the devastation and destruction has a counterpart.

There is no tidy, satin-bowed resolution, but Angel possesses a strength and determination which makes her story resonate beyond the page.

It is both a difficult story to read and a difficult story to set aside: well done, indeed.

Ellen Hopkins is well known for her YA novels, including Tricks (2009). (I recently read her Crank trilogy for the first time as well.)

Tricks Hopkins

Margaret K. McElderry Books
Simon & Schuster, 2009

With her characteristic verse style, the lines wrap mid-phrase, so that the reader is pulled from line to line, awaiting the pause but meantime reading on.

In this volume, another layer of interconnection adds to the desire to read on; one narrator’s segment is often hemmed with the next narrator’s through a shared image or emotion, a link which also adds momentum to the story.

Tricks considers the experiences of five teenagers: Cody, Eden, Ginger, Seth and Whitney. In a short interview, the author discusses the narrators’ stories briefly.

Each of the five teens has been forced into prostitution; the route has varied for each, but they have “chosen” this path as a means of survival.

With the variety of life experiences in their pasts (contrasting economic backgrounds, differing degrees of parental presence, settings ranging from rural to urban, complex webs of sibling/peer relationships), Ellen Hopkins makes it clear that there is no pattern.

The thread which links the story (beyond the experience of prostituion) is that the narratives intersect in Las Vegas.

“Skin Skin

Everywhere skin. Instead
of Sin City, they should
call this place Skin City.
Female skin. Male skin.
Something-in-between skin.”

It’s the perfect setting for Ellen Hopkins to explore not only this theme but a myriad of challenges which her characters must face in a city built on transience and  extravagence. But the focus remains, and readers can’t avoid the tragic elements of these narratives.

“Walt Was the First

There were others. Nameless.
Faceless. I figured out how to
close off my brain when they did

it to me, to withdraw into a dark
little room inside my head, where
I couldn’t see them. [...]“

The verse structure and the rotating narrative afford the author ample opportunity to disclose the personal pain and intimate experiences of her characters. For readers familiar with the subject matter, some aspects of the novel might come across as over-earnest testimony, but for readers approaching the subject freshly in fiction, Tricks is a solid introduction.

Despite their shared content, these authors’ styles are markedly different. Some readers will clearly prefer the matter-of-fact and starkly detailed approach that Ellen Hopkins takes, while others will be immediately drawn to Martine Leavitt’s sure-footed artistry.

I no longer have my copy of Steffie Can’t Come Out to Play, but suspect that it is somewhat less sophisticated than either Tricks or My Book of Life by Angel.

Prostitution on the page: books not just for grown-ups, not just about grown-ups.

“My Mother’s Dream” Alice Munro

Perhaps, like many of us, Alice Munro has read and fully inhabited a story filled with wonders only to be cheated with the last-line revelation that the guts of that story were nothing but a dream.

Love Good Woman MunroIn contrast, “My Mother’s Dream” subverts that expectation and begins with the dream, before shifting into reality.

But the narrative is not recounted by the dreamer. It is a dream once removed.

Are you thinking that surely the only thing more tiresome than hearing about someone else’s dream is hearing someone else talk about someone else’s dream?

Then consider that the story begins not only with a retelling of a retelling of a dream, but this is a dream rooted in events which actually occurred a lifetime ago.

(It is difficult to imagine a story from which the reader is more determinedly distanced. Many of Munro’s stories feel as though they are spun in a whirlpool, some pulled in a zigzag, but this feels like a set of concentric circles, those diagrams from high-school science class, with a nucleus in the middle.)

The narrator was an infant when the real-life events unfolded in 1945; she is retelling the events of her mother’s dream.

She appears to be the heroine of the tale and the tale-spinner; at times, she appears to be omniscient, even “remembering” her feelings in her mother’s womb.

And, yet, she indicates a disastisfaction with the story’s ending. Her “lofty and tender notion of romance” left her wanting a different outcome.

What a dilemma for the reader, who must reach for the authority greater than the dream-speaker, the voice which could have directed the events therein differently.

The reader, then, is left disoriented and uncertain.

But the narrator has it worse, for she was nearly dead.

“I don’t believe that I was dead, or that I came back from the dead, but I do think that I was at a distance, from which I might or might not have come back. I think that the outcome was not certain and that will was involved. It was up to me, I mean, to go one way or the other.”

This question of agency, of control: it’s difficult to grasp the layers. How can our narrator have chosen life over death but she is unable to write a more romantic ending for her character?

Nonetheless, she informs the reader, ages and ages hence, that the narrator made a choice. And, perhaps even more significantly, she overtly attaches a meaning to that choice.

“I believe that it was only at the moment when I decided to come back, when I gave up the fight against my mother (which must have been a fight for something like her total surrender) and when in fact I chose survival over victory (death would have been victory), that I took on my female nature.”

Here, in the final story in this collection, the reader must consider the quintessential “female nature”, debate the value of the love of a good woman. Whether in a dream, or in life.

Is death the only victory ever possible? Must survival always require another’s surrender? Is love a matter of prostration, as posited in “Jakarta”? Or a matter of grudges as in “A Progress of Love”?

“My Mother’s Dream” prompts so many questions, including the reason for locating the retelling at this particular juncture of time. Why does the narrator retell these events now? Does the narrator so fully inhabit her mother’s perspective that she truly understands an observation like this one:

“What is it about an infant’s crying that makes it so powerful, able to break down the order you depend on, inside and outside of yourself? It is like a storm—insistent, theatrical, yet in a way pure and uncontrived. It is reproachful rather than supplicating—it comes out of a rage that can’t be dealt with, a birthright rage free of love and pity, ready to crush your brains inside your skull.”

Or is the narrator motivated for reasons just beyond the reader’s scope? Does she have a fresh understanding of that breakdown in order, that theatrical storm?

Many questions, yes. But not such a dilemma for the reader after all, for Alice Munro is the dream-speaker, pulling up the blanket of snow around the reader’s shoulders.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the final story in the collection of the same name. Other stories in this collection: The Love of a Good WomanJakartaCortes IslandSave the ReaperThe Children StayRich as Stink; and Before the Change. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014)

Within pages, the bookish will find a niche to inhabit in Rebecca Mead’s book, in much the same way that the author has inhabited the pages of Middlemarch.

Middlemarch Rebecca Mead

Bond Street Books – Doubleday, 2014

Perhaps not in exactly the same way, for as the author posits, that particularly profound experience might be rooted for the reader in one book alone.

She has returned to Middlemarch more often than any other book, approximately every five years, since she was a teenager.

“I chose Middlemarch – or Middlemarch chose me – and I cannot imagine life without it,” she proclaims.

And, yet, she acknowledges that her husband would name Proust’s cycle and a friend would choose David Copperfield and another friend would say The Portrait of a Lady.

Because sometimes a single book takes hold in a peculiarly intimate and resonant way.

And it’s not just about a single book, but also about a single reader.

And the match between them.

“My Middlemarch is not the same as anyone else’s Middlemarch; it is not even the same as my Middlemarch of twenty-five years ago. […] But we each have our own internal version of the book, with lines remembered and resonances felt.”

This is something personal, intimate even at times. But there is, too, a broader bookishness here that will appeal to bookish readers, even those who are not particularly fond of Middlemarch.

Because Rebecca Mead’s book is not just a love letter to George Eliot’s Middlemarch but also a love letter to reading.

“I wanted to recover the sense of intellectual and emotional immersion in books that I had known as a younger reader, before my attention was fractured by the exigencies of being a journalist. I wanted to go back to being a reader.”

And, even more specifically, Rebecca Mead explores the joys of re-reading.

   ”But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.
This kind of book becomes part of our own experience, and part of our own endurance. It might lead us back to the library in midlife, looking for something that eluded us before.”

This kind of experience is chronicled in the writings of other bookish women. Wendy Lesser devotes herself to the subject of re-reading in Nothing Remains the Same, and Ali Smith and Susan Sontag and Margaret Drabble (among others) have written about the experience. But never mind that the subject has been considered before, because for the bookish, reading more about re-reading is never dull.

So My Life in Middlemarch is not only about being bookish, but about the shifting dynamic between a single reader and multiple rereadings, which means becoming better acquainted not only with the specific book but also the specific reader: more about Middlemarch and more about Rebecca Mead.

For readers who are familiar with Middlemarch, this process is of specific interest, for the content of the novel and the author’s biography are considered in some detail.

Enough detail for those who have not read the novel to find their feet in the discussion (I have read it, but only once, and more than twenty years ago) and enough to spoil the outcome (in later chapters, at least).

But not too much detail to eclipse the universal experience of the ways in which reading can transform and inform a life.

It also contains a good amount of information about the author as her experiences compare to and contrast with the experiences of the author and characters of Middlemarch.

“A book may not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book.”

For instance, readers learn that when Rebecca Mead revisited Middlemarch after she had become a stepmother herself, she found herself thinking about the author’s and characters’ experiences of mothering/step-mothering differently, the experiences reflecting and refracting, illuminating and creating layers of understanding that she had not discovered previously, about herself and about the novel and its creator.

Rebecca Mead’s readings of this novel across the years mark her own coming-of-age. Returning to them, she writes, is one of the means she has of “connecting with the child I was before I had ever heard of a writer called George Eliot”.

Over time, she attaches a different value to different parts of the characters’ experiences, considering “all our loves, realized or otherwise — all our alternative plots — go to make us who we are, and become part of what we make”.

All of our loves, bookish and otherwise. My Life in Middlemarch provides a haven for the bookish.

Cecil Foster’s Independence (2014)

Desmond has returned to the island because the prime minister has asked those who went abroad to help rebuild the nation, now that it has gained its independence.

Cecil Foster Independence

Harper Collins Publishers, 2014

Cecil Foster’s experience is not unlike Desmond’s, but Independence is rooted in the story of a boy who has known only the island as his home.

His own Africa, as his grandmother’s friend describes it:

“‘See me, I quite happy and contented to spend my last few remaining years here in this the land of my birth. I love it here. This is my own Africa.”

The grandmothers are of vital importance in this story.

They have an enviable degree of independence:

“Mrs. Smith declared that Mrs. King and Grandmother did not know how lucky they were to be both the women and the men in their own homes and not have to depend on anybody for anything or beg anybody to do this or that to make their own house look good.”

But the grandmothers also have an increased level of responsibility.

Thirteen-year-old Christopher’s mother is one of those who went abroad, but one of those who has not returned. Nor has Mrs. King’s daughter returned to raise her daughter, Stephanie.

Sure, “there is now a place on the island for all the talents we keep sending abroad” but many have not returned and Christopher’s talents are just beginning to reveal themselves; he is still preparing for his own independence.

In particular, he has a talent for cricket, which not only means something on the field, but beyond.

“This is fun and games, but it is also part of our nation building. This is part of the bigger picture now we are an independent people. All of these things are part of the spirit we will be exhibiting tomorrow. […] practicing a culture that aims for excellence itself.”

This is one means by which Christopher can gain independence while participating in something as grand as nation-building.

“From the way the men eye me on the field, and how they are starting to talk with me, I can feel I am more than coming into my own.”

Thematically, however, the idea of independence echoes throughout the narrative.

Take the broader question of the responsibility that absent fathers and mothers have, to their offspring and their nation, which is raised in more than one family.

Consider the question of workers’ reliance on the seasonal employment of sugar cane growers and overseas employers.

Or contemplate the solidityof community ties and support mechanisms and the fluidity of dependency as these systems change.

(The economic networks between women are particularly fascinating, not only between the grandmothers but the wider community of women.)

And, yet, as pervasive as these networks of independence and interdependence are, Cecil Foster’s novel contains a microcosmic view as well: ”Christophier Diego belongs to Stephanie Arland and the two o’ them were destined to be one”.

Therein lies the heart of this story, which settles onto the page like a long, easy spooling of breath.

The storyteller’s voice is confident and resonant, and not only the use of language but the sensory detail are essential in story-building.

“I like the fresh smell of the sawdust. Its fragrance always reminds me of something new. It reminds me of the start of sugar cane season, when the smell of fresh bagasse from the factory is first on the air. It is like the good times when I go mashing trash with the boys from the area, searching among the leaves in the sugar cane fields for any canes left behind after harvesting. We would suck so much cane, our bellies would be too full for dinner.”

The atmosphere, the thematic parallels and some synchronous shifts make an orchestra out of a quiet story of a boy’s broadening experience. And although there are gaps in Christopher’s understanding (appropriate to his age), he is a reflective and dynamic character, so it is a pleasure to dwell in the moments of his becoming.

“In these changing times, every last person on this island has to step out on his or her own and make a life.”

If the story is like the long slow release of breath held, it ends with the anticipation of a bigger breath.

Christopher holds his future in his hands, and there is no doubt that he will breathe life into it after the reader turns the final page of Independence.

Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things (2014)

Like Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, Alice Hoffman’s novel begins from a place of belonging.

Museum Extraordinary Hoffman

Scribner – Simon & Schuster, 2014

Coralie is a professional mermaid in early twentieth-century Coney Island, who grows up with the Wolfman and various other characters who seem to step from the pages of fairy tales.

Her father is the founder of the museum, the curator, the Professor, and holder of many other titles which will not be revealed here.

But this is the world which Coralie knows, as she learns to hold her breath for longer periods and becomes adept at fulfilling onlookers’ expectations of mermaids.

It is a world which, in 1911, is coping with great change, but where better to seek the means of transformation than here.

“The Museum of Extraordinary Things was a true museum, a place of edification, wherein natural curiosities were displayed along with human marvels. Now, however, they needed more, and, when more could not be found, it must be invented. If there was anyone who might be able to succeed in such an act of trickery, it was  the Professor, who had been a magician in France, quite famous in his time, known for acts of wonder so astounding they had made people doubt their own eyes. He understood that not only could a man’s eyes mislead him but his mind could deceive him as well.”

As Coralie grows, however, she reaches beyond the tank. Her father has the idea that she could be the stuff of legend, be the strange and wondrous creature that has been spotted by New York City residents swimming in the Hudson River.

And, in time, that transformation is complete, if only in Coralie’s mind, which is where deceptions live.

“She was exactly what she had pretended to be on those nights when she waded into the Hudson, a monster and a monster’s daughter.”

The narrative is splintered into four layers, the inner voices of Coralie and Eddie (in italics), and matching broader narrative perspectives for each of these character’s experiences alongside (so that readers never forget that tales are being spun).

Eddie Cohen survived the pogroms as a boy with his father in the Ukraine; they needed to be magicians of a sort too. (In the following passage, he describes the experience directly.)

“On the night our village burned, when my father and I lay together in the grass, with owls swooping above us, our stomachs rumbling with hunger, I was not more than five or six. And yet this was when I began to view him as a coward. Side by side we were, a coward and a coward’s son.”

And he, like Coralie, inhabits the margins of society, as a newcomer to New York City, who must find work as a boy, alongside his father, who is a tailor working in the garment industry.

In time, however, Eddie leaves work in the factory behind and begins working the streets, developing a reputation for finding those who have been lost, working for another kind of Professor. (In this passage, the storyteller presents Eddie’s thoughts.)

“He wondered if every criminal saw himself as the hero of his own story, and if every thankless son was convinced he’d been mistreated by his father. Nothing was constant, he understood that now.”

What is real? What is constant? What can be trusted? The reader can participate in the question-and-answer of these calls in a unique way, both inhabiting and observing the characters’ experiences.

“Whatever was witnessed in the real world was unknowable in real time. It was the eye of the camera that captured the world as it truly was. For this reason photography was not only Eddie’s profession, it was his calling.”

Both Eddie and Coralie, too, reach for ways of knowing. They question what they once believed to have been true. They find new ways to inhabit the fringes, the spaces they have held dear.  ”Every miracle would be called into question.” They wonder at – and doubt – the stuff of miracles.

The novel transports readers to both the wild spaces of New York City and the city streets; there is a recommended reading section at the back which suggests that a great deal of research went into the Coney Island scenes, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and the photographer’s and swimmer’s experiences of this world.

Alice Hoffman is not so much a stylist as a storyteller in this volume. There are some beautiful bits of prose. (“My curiosity became a stone in my shoe.) But just as with her last novel, The Dovekeepers, the story is of primary importance.

“He should have gone back to Brooklyn, to address the matters of his own life and interests, returning for Coralie. Instead he took up his old post on the corner of Sixty-second Street. Something had taken hold of him, the urge to make things right.”

The Museum of Extraordinary Things is a fairy tale, with justice restored and a something-like-happy ending.

 

Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale (2014)

Fairy tales began as stories for adults. “They were the television and pornography of their day, the life-lightening trash of preliterate peoples,” says John Updike.

Bengtsson Fairy Tale

Translated (Danish) Charlotte Barslund
Other Press, 2014

Distraction and entertainment, but years later edification and morality: the words ‘fairy tale’ mean different things in different times, to different listeners and readers.

Readers of Jonas T. Bengtsson’s novel might consider Maria Tatar’s observation, that “fairy tales are as much about conflict and violence as about enchantment and happily-ever-after endings”.

A Fairy Tale contains all of these elements, but it seems to delight in subverting expectations. There is, for instance, a locked room, but Bluebeard is nowhere near that scene. And there is also magic, but it transforms furniture not princesses.

But most disturbing of all is that evil is not always punished and, indeed, walks free, in the streets.

That is how the novel begins: “I’ve just turned six when Olaf Palme is shot.” This murder is seemingly random and senseless; it comes out of nowhere, and the crime remains unsolved even today.

A swell of emotion surrounds this event in a young boy’s memories; his father sobs openly at the news of the politician’s death in 1986 (he had been Sweden’s Prime Minister) in front of his son and announces that the two of them will likely have to move house again.

There are many ways in which readers could view this incident as a loss of innocence for this young boy. Perhaps something recognized in that moment: his first realization that a parent can be vulnerable. Maybe an understanding only acknowledged later: that his father is capable of an unexpected depth of feeling and response to violence.

As meaningful as this short scene may be, however, it lasts only a couple of pages, and readers are pulled into the daily life of this young boy and his father, who lead an itinerant and unconventional life, a duo skirting the margins and seemingly glorying in the freedom that such a lifestyle suggests.

“Every night my dad tells me a little more of the same fairy tale. The story about the King and the Prince who no longer have a home.”

As the storyteller, the father creates both King and Prince (and, in time, the villains). As the listener, the boy simply receives his father’s tales and views the world aslant.

“I explore the house in stockinged feet, a new room every day. I find one full of stuffed animals, dogs and cats, beavers and squirrels. Animals with bared teeth, all of them facing whoever enters the room. They stare at me until I leave. In another room there’s only a single stuffed bison with its head facing the wall as if it’s ashamed. It’s much bigger than the doors and windows, the house must have been built around it.”

Because he does not attend school, even the spaces that the boy inhabits on a temporary basis are fully inhabited. He knows them in detail. And accepts details that an adult might question. Of one early dwelling, he notes: “The building must have shifted since it was built; it has stretched and twisted, yawned and coughed.” Later, of another building, he observes: “The outside of the house doesn’t match the rooms inside. ”

And, yet, the narrative shifts through 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1996, and 1999. The Prince no longer simply observes in silence but he begins asking questions: “I got an explanation, disjointed and child friendly. The rest is just fragments, words I’ve heard through doors left ajar.”

First he is too young, but then old enough to realize that he is missing explanations, and then he is old enough to pursue separate lines of questioning independently and, finally, he is of an age to tell his own fairy tale.

When he was a boy, he noticed: “My dad eats olives from the bag and spits out the stones. If we get lost, we can use them to retrace our steps.”

As a man, the Prince retraces his steps, by following his father’s path, assembling a narrative that challenges and subverts readers’ expectations in many ways.

The main character of Kate Atkinson’s novel Life after Life remarks that she was an avid reader of fairy tales when she was a girl, putting “great faith not so much in the happy ending as in the restoration of justice to the world”.

Jonas Bergtsson’s novel is this kind of tale, enchanting and horrifying.

“Before the Change” Alice Munro

The story begins with conflict, the televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon. But “Before the Change” considers other conflicts, closer to home, closer to the heart.

Love Good Woman Munro“What is that expression? It’s as if he’s got a list of offenses both remembered and anticipated and he’s letting it be known how his patience can be tried by what you know you do wrong but also by what you don’t even suspect.”

Ironic, that. Because quite likely her father does find his patience tried by things that she doesn’t realize she does wrong. Perhaps something as simple as how she arrives home for a visit, how she emerges from the car, how she greets him and Mrs. Barrie.

But she certainly knows that she has done specific things about which her father knows nothing. And he, too, certainly has done many things about which she knew nothing.

These matters, however, are not the immediate and direct source of conflict in the story. They are perhaps not even the impetus for the story, which is structured as a set of letters that she writes to the man who is no longer her fiancé.

On one level, the story is about the conflict between the ex-lovers (she and R, or Robin). But, on another level, the conflict is rooted more deeply, in the sense of having fundamentally disappointed — failed, even — by not having been what a young woman is expected to be.

Indeed, the first poem quoted in the story is from  Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children (1907); the narrator has not consumed bits of string, but has suffered agonies, as the poem concludes by saying (although that part lurks, unquoted).

The other poems referenced (“Sir Patrick Spens”, “The Twa Corbies” ……) all consider mortality or include a death or condemn specific behaviours. (And other women have failed, too, perhaps even her mother, who died in childbirth, but who rests as a presence at the margins of the story.)

Tension abounds: a reference to a hero in the stuggle for the Greek war of independence, talk of a disagreement between seventh-century monks, people brush past each other in silence, steer conversations into safer territory, and there are even anticipated conflicts that do not materialize.

Her father and her ex, for instance, had gotten along rather well, but she had anticipated strain:

“But in fact you got along pretty well together. You had a discussion about some great conflict between different orders of monks in the seventh century, wasn’t that it? The row those monks had was about how they should shave their heads.”

But beneath the surface, a conflict which is only imagined fractures the lovers’ relationship. A conflict rooted in misbehaviour, disapproval and censure.

“They could bring you up before a committee that might judge you were morally unfit. Morally unfit for the job of teaching young ministers. You could be judged to have a bad character. And even supposing this did not happen, that you did not lose your job but were only reprimanded, or were not even reprimanded, you would never be promoted; there would be a stain on your record.”

These expectations and denials, these directions and prohibitions, these customs and laws: what has been in the past challenges what might yet be, but often tradition holds sway nonetheless.

“Change the law, change the person. Yet we don’t want everything—not the whole story—to be dictated from outside. We don’t want what we are, all we are, to be concocted that way.
Who is this “we” I’m talking about?”

 Ultimately her father is a stolid representative of rigidity but, in fact, he is — free of the context of his relationship with his daughter — undeniably progressive in some ways.

“Money, hopes, love letters—all such things can be tossed off into the air and come down changed, come down all light and free of context.”

A presidential debate airs and viewers simply turn off the television. A rejected lover sends a letter. Onlookers and participants come down changed.

What do you think about this story? What details impressed you? What other stories did it recall?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the seventh story in the collection of the same name. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next week: “My Mother’s Dream”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

Ellen Hopkins’ Crank Trilogy

How fully can an author inhabit an addict’s world and still spin a story coherent enough to engage the teen reader?

Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster Books), 2004

Margaret K. McElderry Books
(Simon & Schuster Books), 2004

In the 1970′s, kids might have turned to the anonymously penned Go Ask Alice (1971), which was billed as an actual diary, but was actually fiction.

Or Hubert Selby Jr’s Requiem for a Dream (1978), which considers a broader spectrum of addiction.

Twenty years later, readers could try on that life via Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993) or Melvin Burgess’ Smack (1996), which was titled Junk in some countries.

Another couple of decades afterwards and Ellen Hopkins’ trilogy (which launched in 2004) is the go-to series on the subject.

Stylistically, the books have solved the problem of verisimilitude by adopting the brevity and untraditional style of Selby Jr’s work and combining it with the intimacy of a diary in the form of the narrator’s poetry.

Yup, that’s right: a series of books about substance abuse written in verse.

Unexpected, perhaps. And, yet, it makes sense.

Kristina’s poetry provides a shape to the story of her coming-of-age and addiction which uniquely suits it.

In this form, raw emotions are stated clearly and succinctly, in a way which might have seemed wooden and blunt in straight prose.

And the restlessness and disjointedness, which might have distanced readers from the narrator in a full-length prose work on this subject, is presented in smaller portions.

Readers can absorb Kristina’s experiences at whatever pace is comfortable for them. At times, a hundred pages of this story reads like a dozen pages; at other times, readers will want to read only a dozen pages at one sitting.

The author speaks about her own experience, which led to her writing these books, here. ”The story was bigger than my family and my daughter.”

And, ultimately, her motive in writing is to connect with readers who share in this struggle. “No matter what they’re experiencing, they’re not alone in these issues.”

One aspect of the verse which counteracts the heavily emotive content of the story is the occasional use of concrete verse (or shape poems).

The way that specific words and concepts align or intersect offers a distraction in some cases (which might not be every reader’s response, depending on their emotional involvement in the story) and directs emphasis in others.

For the most part, however, the verse falls down the pages in uneven columns, holding the same ragged shape whether it considers the details of Kristina’s shifts at the convenience store or her latest high.

“How, no matter

how hard

Kristina

fought her, Bree
was stronger, brighter,
better equipped to deal
with a world where
everything moved at light
speed, everyone mired
in ego. Where ‘everyday’

Glass Hopkins

Margaret K. McElderry Books

(Simon & Schuster Books), 2007

became

another word
for making love with

the monster.”

The verses are titled, but they usually stem directly from the content so there is no sense of disruption, as with “Leigh Has Put On a Few Pounds

And it suits her almost
as much as shedding several
suits me. (You’d be surprised
how much weight you can
lose in two weeks when you
barely eat enough to keep
a very small rodent alive.)”

Readers are solidly in Kristina’s/Bree’s perspective here:

“I don’t see myself that way at all.
Open-minded, yes. A druggie, sometimes.
An unwed teen mother, for sure. But
a sleep-around? No way. Never.”

And this continues throughout the second volume in the series, Glass. (There are no quotes drawn from the second novel, so that there are no spoilers either.)

Sometimes this is overwhelming, but the language is unsentimental.

“That phrase again. Everyone
cares for me. They just don’t
know how to love me.”

The form lends itself to the highly dramatic content.

“Don’t you get it, Mom? I really don’t
give a shit if I die. What,
exactly is there to live for?”

In the third volume of the series, however, there are three narrative voices: Hunter Seth Haskins,
Autumn Rose Shepherd, and Summer Lily Kenwood.

Each of these characters has a relationship with addiction as well.

(Warning: do not go looking for information about this book if you do not want to encounter spoilers for the series.)

Fallout Hopkins

Margaret K. McElderry Books
(Simon & Schuster Books), 2010

As one narrator observes:

“It’s just so hard to feel good,
you know?
I do know. And
more than that, it’s just
so incredibly hard to feel.”

Even in a different voice, addiction remains a monster:

“They don’t call it
the monster for
nothing. It chews
people up, spits ‘em
out, often unsalvageable.”

It alters people beyond recognition:

“The girl
captured there, staring back at me,
is someone I don’t recognize.”

And tough questions loom that much larger when additions cloud the waters.

Once again, shape poems make the odd appearance. In one poem shaped like question mark, for instance, a cluster of words which forms the period says:

“Who are you really,
and do I love
that person too?”

Although the series begins and continues solidly in Kristina’s voice for more than a thousand pages, there is enough of a secondary cast that many themes can be included even beyond Kristina’s direct experience.

Sexuality, family conflict, rape, teen pregnancy, divorce, abuse and betrayal (whether within or alongside the matter of addiction): Ellen Hopkins’ trilogy doesn’t sidle up to serious subjects, it heads straight for them at a run.

Have you read either her YA novels or her adult fiction? Or, do you plan to?

Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Series

At the beginning of the novel, where an epigraph might appear, is a note from the author, explaing that Uglies was shaped by a series of email exchanges between Scott Westerfeld and author Ted Chiang about his story “Liking What You See: A Documentary”.

At the end of Ted Chiang’s collection Stories of Your Life, the author explains that he was inspired by a study conducted by psychologists, who “left” a college application in an airport and discovered that people were more likely to mail in the “forgotten” application if the photo included was of an attractive person.

One story inspired by another; one story nests within another.

This is true not only when it comes to the reasons that authors write, but readers experience a similar sense of weaving with Westerfeld’s series.

It has swelled to four volumes (as well as two graphic novels, a handbook, and a book of essays), and introduces an assembly cast which sprawls and burrows as readers turn the pages.

Westerfeld Uglies Set Vertical

Simon & Schuster – Simon Pulse, 2011

The actual epigraph to the first part of Uglies is from Yang Yuan” “Is it not good to make society full of beautiful people?”

This is not a new question. In Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam series, Glenn is startled by the faces he sees when Crake takes him out of the Compounds for the first time:

“Asymmmetries, deformities: the faces here were a far cry from the regularity of the Compounds. There were even bad teeth. He was gawking.”

In Uglies (2005), Tally explains it like this, as she looks out at New Pretty Town:

“There was a certain kind of beauty, a prettiness that everyone could see. Big eyes and full lips like a kid’s; smooth, clear skin; symmetrical features; and a thousand other little clues. Somewhere in the backs of their minds, people were always looking for these markers. No one could help seeing them, no matter how they were brought up. A million years of evolution had made it part of the human brain.”

But people are not born pretty; they are made pretty. And there are not only pretties, but new pretties, middle pretties and late pretties. (As well as uglies and littlies.)

“Tally thought of Peris, and tried to remember the way he used to look back when he was Nose. Somehow, she couldn’t recall his ugly face anymore. As if those few minutes of seeing him pretty had wiped out a lifetime of memories. All she could see now was pretty Peris, those eyes, that smile.”

And as readers might expect, questions arise. And the question of the motivation for and the mechanics of maintaining this pretty world leads to still more questions.

“’I wonder why they never come back,’ Shay said. ‘Just to visit.’
Tally swallowed. ‘Because we’re so ugly, Skinny, that’s why.’”

And those questions lead to conflict, internal and external, from the series’ opening pages; the pacing of these books is relentless.

“Tally had spent the last four years staring at the skyline of New Pretty Town, thinking it was the most beautiful sight in the world, but she didn’t think so anymore.”

Plot-wise, read in one-go, this series takes a toll on readers who are accustomed to peaks and valleys in fiction.

From the moment Tally takes to her hoverboard, the pace of this series is set to high-speed, which is sure to appeal to younger readers who might otherwise find books of this length a challenge.

But what makes this series appealing for adult readers who enjoy a good story are the complex characterizations.

(My step-daughter and I agreed that there was no single character we felt we were meant to adopt as a favourite, and when we tried to predict what the author intended to do in later books in the series, we found we could make arguments in favour of contradictory possibilities, largely because characters’ motivations were in flux with circumstances changing quickly for them.)

The heart of the conflict is consistent throughout the series, but the cast and settings shift as the story unfolds.

As readers might expect, the second volume, Pretties (2005), takes us inside the pretties’ perspective.

(But to avoid spoilers, all the quotes which follow will be limited to pronouns rather than names, so that the shifts in narrative voice remain unclear: in a world like this, inherently divisive, not every character will survive.)

“Like her old sweater, she’d remembered ugliness all wrong: [his] face was much worse than her mental image of the Smokies. His crooked smile, his dull eyes, the way his sweating skin carried angry red marks where the mask had pressed against it….”

Identity, belonging, security: thematically,  Scott Westerfeld’s page-turners take on some serious subjects.

“With everything so perfect, reality seemed somehow fragile, as if the slightest interruption could imperil her pretty future. The bed beneath her, Komachi Mansion, and even the city around her – all of it felt as tenuous as a soap bubble, shivering and empty.”

Tension is inherent, at the individual level as the narrative inhabits a variety of experiences, and at the societal level, as understanding grows.

“It felt as if every time she took a step forward into her new life, something sucked her back toward ugly days.”

And even the tension is not straight-forward. In Specials (2006), the story grows even more complex.

Characters with whom some readers will have developed sympathies in earlier books now live very different lives.

Westerfeld Uglies Set Horizontal

Simon & Schuster – Simon Pulse, 2011

“She could see her future now, a clear path with no more reversals or confusions. She’d fought being ugly and she’d fought being pretty, but that was all over – she just wanted to be special from now on.”

And readers are beginning to piece together the ways in which this imagined world might fit with the world readers currently inhabit. (Diego and Londinium: some of the settings offer clues, but no clear answers.)

“Biological warfare had been one of the Rusties’ more brilliant ideas: engineering bacteria and viruses to kill each other. It was about the stupidest kind of weapon you could make, because once the bugs were finished with your enemies, they usually came for you. In fact, the whole Rusty culture had been undone by one artificial oil-eating bacterium.”

The epigraph to part three of Specials is from Pearl S. Buck, introducing a segment titled “Unmaking War”: “One faces the future with one’s past.”

In wartime, the action intensifies and broadens in this volume; characters resurface unexpectedly and some alliances are severed while others begin anew.

But while this continues in Extras (2007), the focus there shifts to a perspective which recasts some of the major events and relationships in the previous novels.

The earlier books contain romantic entanglements and triangles, intact and fractured friendships, but the final book concentrates more on one individual’s experience and one specific relationship.

“She wondered if that was why [he] had come up with Radical Honesty. If you never lied, you’d never feel this trickle of dread in your stomach, the worry of being unmasked.”

Ambition and peer pressure (and honour and betrayal) play out in personal and political arenas, and the hover-board action continues.

“Sometimes it’s fun to change yourself. But I wanted to see what it was like without lies. How a relationship works when you can’t hide anything.”

Readers who want to slow the pace have the option of dwelling on philosophical matters.

“Once you’d told yourself a story enough times, it was so easy to keep on believing it.”

Having spent almost a year on the New York Times bestseller list, and now translated into twenty-seven languages, Scott Westerfeld’s series obviously holds tremendous appeal for a wide variety of readers. 

But it does not only reside in backpacks and on bedside tables, it makes an appearance in school classrooms as well; Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series entertains, but it also raises unanswerable questions and invites readers of all ages to take them seriously.

Have you read any of Scott Westerfeld’s books?

Being a Good Girl

The word ‘goodish’ entered my vocabulary thanks to an observation that Carol Shields makes of two female friends in The Republic of Love. (General increased usage of -ish also ensued.)

“They love the word ‘goodish,’ as in goodish sunsets, goodish travel bargains, goodish men.”

The title and cover of Suzanne Sutherland’s When We Were Good brought that to mind immediately. I’m not sure that was intentional, but certainly the handholding brings bonds between young women to mind.

When we Were Good Sutherland

Sumach Press – Three O’Clock Press, 2013

And readers are intended to reflect upon the Bloor Street Viaduct, which features in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, a novel which Katherine is studying at school.

(It not only appears in class discussions but as part of the Toronto landscape in which Suzanne Sutherland’s novel unfolds.)

The simple bookishness of this debut novel is one reason readers will respond immediately. For instance, when Katherine’s grandmother dies, she finds comfort in reading her grandmother’s favourite stories.

“In four days I read almost everything Alice Munro had ever written. She was Grandma’s favourite; her short stories were these perfect little pearl worlds that lured me out of my own head for the few hours that I gave myself over to them completely. I fell asleep more than once face down in Grandma’s old hardcover copy of Munro’s Selected Stories, long after the words had stopped making sense.”

But Katherine does not only find comfort in books, connection and a sense of safety. She also finds herself there. “The book was an amulet, it was my protector. It was sacred, it was holy.”

Though not exclusively in books, also in music (and how this took me back to those years). Katherine experiences music profoundly in a solitary context.

“I shut off every part of me but my ears, trying to let the pure sound take me over. The hairs on my arms stood on end. That kind of radical honesty, the ability to completely be yourself through your art, was something I knew I’d never be capable of. I cried until the album was over.”

But when she meets Marie, she is introduced to new bands and begins to attend live shows regularly, and those experiences are terrifically exciting and overwhelming for a variety of reasons.

The intensity of her teenage years is depicted authentically and unsentimentally. Nonetheless, Katherine is clearly having a tough year. “I was starting to wonder if I’d already run through my tear quota for the year. And it was only the beginning of February.”

But the story is not unremittingly bleak, far from it. The credible dialogue, the pacing of the prose, the variety of characters, the light-touch on heavy-subjects: all of this invites readers to spend time with the story.

And, oh, I want to avoid spoiler territory, but can’t help but say that there is a most wonderfully satisfying ending. Quintessential goodishness.

That is true, too, of Elizabeth Stewart’s Blue Gold, although the subject matter is markedly different; questions of identity and complications uniquely rooted in girls’ coming-of-age are also prominent in the three narratives herein.

Blue Gold Stewart

Annick Press, 2014

The focus shifts from North America and Fiona, to Africa and Sylvie, to Asia and Laiping.

In Laiping’s narrative, chronicling her experience of being a “factory girl” in Shenzeng, the question of being “good” is overtly addressed.

“A good daughter obeys her parents. You must stay and learn to tolerate the work,” she is told.

And Laiping – like the other girls in these stories – does strive to be “good”.

“She lifted her knees higher than usual during marching exercises, and worked with extra concentration—ignoring Bohai at her side—so grateful was she to Miss Lau and Miss Jang, and to Steve Chen.”

But the challenges she faces are overwhelming. She cannot fit everybody’s expectations of a “good” girl.

Each of the girl’s must cope with the idea of failing to conform with these expectations, even when the circumstances eliminate the possibility that they can be “good”.

“In a way, it was funny. But then her heart sank. What if her parents found out? She wished she could be the type of girl who didn’t care, but she wasn’t—and [Fiona] did.”

And although the penalties for being “bad” are different for each girl, the constant threat and vulnerability is something that they share and each struggles to respond to situations in which they feel powerless.

Slyvie’s experiences after fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo, inhabiting a refugee camp, are most egregious. This is presented in vague terms initially.

“But nobody talked about what tragedies they had endured there. It was taken for granted that everyone in the camp had lost someone they loved—a child, a spouse, sometimes a whole family. Talking about it was too painful. It seemed to Sylvie that everyone here was waiting for pain to end and for life to begin again.”

But Sylvie shares more of her story when an aid worker gains her trust and in time readers hear those details too. This is difficult to read about, but readers are shielded because neither Sylvie nor her listener dare to delve too deeply into the young girl’s memories at that time (and, indeed, there are aspects of Sylvie’s experience which are not disclosed until near the end of the novel).

Sylvie’s narrative is vitally important because it provides the anchor for the other girls’ stories.

Her homeland is the region which is being mined for “the blue-black nuggets of columbite-tantalite ore that was plentiful in the high-lands surrounding their valley…blue gold”.

The coltan is shipped to factories like the one in which Laiping works and is a vital component in the cell phones which play a significant role in fuelling the cyber-bullying which Fiona faces.

The link between the narratives is evident within a few chapters of the novel, but the threads are not overtly tied until specific plot events unfold and, even then, the web is not tightly drawn.

This is appropriate because although the connections are undeniably true, these are not ties which are immediately evident. (A short video here sketches the connections.)

Certainly cell-phone users in Canada do not generally contemplate the fact that the current methods of production of mobile devices is wrecking havoc with human rights and environmental stewardship; the connection exists but it appears amorphous, and the narrative links are present but subtle as well. (At the back of the book, readers can learn more about the facts behind the girls’ stories, and there are recommended books and resources listed.)

Thematically, these works have more in common than readers might expect. From conflict with parents and questions about sexuality to death and murder, from dislocation and injustice to rape and assault, from suicide to depression: throughout it all, these girls try to be good.

Katherine, Fiona, Sylvie and Laiping embody stories that many readers of all ages will find compelling.

Is either of these books on your TBR list? Have you encountered any serious subjects in your kidlit reading lately?