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

Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016): Second Variation

This is the second of three posts spiralling around the notes made while reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Each with ten parts. Thirty segments. As though my post is the aria and the thirty segments are the variations. In recognition of the importance which Bach’s Goldberg Variations holds in relationship to the novel.

Although Madeleine Thien has expressed this idea in several interviews, the “Canadian Notes and Queries” piece, an interview conducted by Brad de Roo, is particularly striking.

Here, she comments on the state of quiet: “The qu is sometimes not having the words, or having the words taken from you, for instance in a political climate when words begin to mean their opposite. I think listening is a state of being. You have to listen to know when you can add your voice to the fabric of sound and be heard.”

Madeleine Thien interviewed by Brad de Roo

Asked whether a novel is like a conversation, she replies: “Not every novel will work for every person, of course, but sometimes there’s a real chemistry. As a reader, I often feel I’m meeting another mind, and it’s exciting.”

Here are some of the points where the novel met my reader’s mind most memorably. On the question of language and words. Sometimes an overt mingling with the idea of expression. Sometimes the expression itself.

1

“Kai still said nothing. He reminded her of a cat with one paw raised, about to touch the ground, momentarily confused.”

2

“Would I still be the same person if I woke up in a different language and another existence?”

3

thien-do-not-say-we-have-nothing“She was as graceful and beautiful as a written word, but any word could be so easily erased.”

4

“What mattered was the here and now and not the life before, what mattered were the changeable things of today and tomorrow and not the ever, infinitely, unbearably unchanging yesterday.”

5

“Across the courtyard, I saw a miserable Christmas tree. It looked like someone had tried to strangle it with tinsel.”

6

“Her long braid touched the small of her back, a pressure like her mother’s hand guiding her through the invisible, ever-watching crowds.”

7

There were days in my life, he thought, that I passed over as though they were nothing and there are moments, seconds, when everything comes into focus.”

8

“How could a lie continue so long, and work its way into everything they touched?”

9

“It must have rained not long ago. The air felt renewed, the dawn light was the colour of pearls, unreal against the pavement.”

10

“Mathematics has taught me that a small thing can become a large thing very quickly, and also that a small thing never entirely disappears. Or, to put it another way, dividing by zero equals infinity: you can take nothing out of something an infinite number of times.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing might be a small book – one of a couple hundred in my stacks in last year’s reading – but it became a large thing very quickly.

Note: The first variation appeared here. The third variation will appear tomorrow.

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Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016): First Variation

This will be the first of three posts spiralling around notes made while reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

Each with ten parts. Thirty segments. As though my post is the aria and the thirty segments are the variations.

In recognition of the importance which Bach’s Goldberg Variations holds in relationship to the novel.

Although Madeleine Thien has expressed this idea in several interviews, the “Canadian Notes and Queries” piece, an interview conducted by Brad de Roo, is particularly striking.

“Bach’s Goldberg Variations was key. It taught me a great deal about counterpoint and structure and ambiguity and range. And Glenn Gould’s recordings of this music taught me about expression, time, desire.”

Madeleine Thien interviewed by Brad de Roo

Asked whether a novel is like a conversation, she replies: “Not every novel will work for every person, of course, but sometimes there’s a real chemistry. As a reader, I often feel I’m meeting another mind, and it’s exciting.”

Here are some of the points where the novel met my reader’s mind most memorably. On the question of music and silence.

1

“It was a time of chaos, of bombs and floods, when love songs streamed from the radios and wept down the streets. Music sustained weddings, births, rituals, work, marching, boredom, confrontation and death; music and stories, even in times like these, were a refuge, a passport, everywhere.”

2

“Was this what music was, was it time itself containing fractions of seconds, minutes, hours, and all the ages, all the generations? What was chronology and how did she fit into it? How had her father and mother escaped from time, and how could they ever come back?”

3

thien-do-not-say-we-have-nothing“She said, “The only life that matters is in your mind. The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book. Silence, too, is a kind of music. Silence will last.” In the west, in the dry wind of the Gansu Desert, Big Mother and Swirl had finally recovered Wen the Dreamer. He stared at the illusion before him and wept.”

4

“In jianpu notation, zero indicated a caesura, a pause or rest of indeterminate length. Did time that went uncounted, unrecorded, still qualify as time? If zero was both everything and nothing, did an empty life have exactly the same weight as a full life?”

5

“Paper flowers jumbled over the ground, paper carnations grew from the trees, though some had fallen and been mashed by the everlasting stream of bicycles. He heard their tinkling bells and also a music in his head, shaken loose, the Twelfth Goldberg Variation, two voices engaged in a slightly out-of-breath canon, like a knot that never got tied. He could still write music. The thought jolted him.”

6

“He had lived only half a life. Without intending to, he had silenced Zhuli. He remembered how much of himself he had poured into that Symphony No. 3. He could have left the papers in the trusses of the roof, he could have hidden them with the Book of Records. Why had he not done so? Why had he destroyed them with his own hands?”

7

“If Gould had been prevented from playing the piano for twenty years, what other form might his music have taken?”

8

“Many lives and many selves might exist, but that doesn’t render each variation false. I don’t believe so. If he were still alive, that is what I would tell him.”

9

“Noise from the ongoing demonstrations filled the room. Radio Beijing didn’t broadcast music anymore, instead the loudspeakers kept repeating the fact of martial law. He regretted all the radios he had ever built.”

10

“He wanted to find some way to cut all the wires, to hush all the voices, to broadcast stillness, quiet, on this city that was coming unmoored.”

More variations tomorrow….

Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future (2015)

The Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is essential reading.

TRC, 2015

TRC, 2015

As a component of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the TRC’s “mandate is to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian Residential Schools (IRS).”

The report is intended “to document the truth of survivors, families, communities and anyone personally affected by the IRS experience”, including “First Nations, Inuit and Métis former Indian Residential School students, their families, communities, the Churches, former school employees, Government and other Canadians”.

The summary document is available in full online (each part available in PDF here) or in a bound version. Volunteers have also organized to read the document aloud to ensure that those who cannot read the document have access.

It’s that important that these survivors’ accounts be witnessed. As one (non-aboriginal) listener describes it: “By listening to your story, my story can change. By listening to your story I can change.”

These are hard stories to hear. The definitions of the different kind of genocide are brought into focus immediately with even short excerpts from the survivors’ statements.

Like Victoria McIntosh’s description of  her experiences at the Fort Alexander, MB residential school, which taught her not to trust. “You learn not to cry anymore. You just get harder. And yeah, you learn to shut down.”

And the facts included are significant too, bringing another undeniable layer to the surface. For instance, in 1966, residential schools in Saskatchewan spent $694-$1193 per year and per student, whereas comparable child-welfare institutions in Canada spent $3300-$9855 per year and per child, and comparable residential care in the United States had a price-tag of $4500-$14059 per year and per child.

Many of these experiences have been recently explored in fiction and non-fiction, even graphic novels. From the well-known works of Richard Wagamese (particularly Indian Horse) and Joseph Boyden (Wenjack) to the classic tale Beatrice Culleton’s In Search of April Raintree (a legacy story, with more direct commentary on the Sixty’s Scoop flavour of genocide than direct commentary on the IRS system) to the graphic novels by David Alexander Robertson.

Even so, there are important elements which are not explored substantially elsewhere, which this volume brings into the light. For instance, an extension of the residential school system’s mandate was its officials’ impact on many aboriginal people’s marriages even after students had managed to survive the system.

Because government officials believed that a marriage to someone outside residential school system would encourage a now “civilized” student to revert to “uncivilized” ways, they made marriage part of the process of leaving the residential school system to further support an assimilationist policy.

Such marriages were not only encouraged but arranged, well into into the 1930s, and officials made efforts to block “unsuitable” marriages as well.

(Elsewhere in the document, readers are reminded that it is important to make a distinction between the process of becoming civilized and the price paid for being colonized.)

This like many other facts could have been lost along the way. Between 1936 and 1944, there were at least 200,000 Indian Affairs files destroyed. This practice must have been common enough to have been preserved in the remaining records.

Another element which is not often represented in other works about the experiences of residential school survivors is the rebellion which occurred at the community level.

Apparently it was not uncommon for parents of an entire community or region to refuse to return their children to school when the abhorent conditions were shared with their elders (children who dared to speak, adults to dared to believe and to risk rebelling).

For example, there were 75 students from the Blood Reserve in Alberta who were held back by family members, kept at home, kept from returning to the school. In other instance, in the 1960s, a group of Edmonton students blocked entry to a school dormitory at night to protect the residents therein from abuse.

Also not often discussed were other voices of dissent, which included members of staff who dared to speak out against policies and procedures. Although originally (the IRS system began in the 19th century – there is a lengthy historical study included in the report) the staff was primarily religious and governmental in nature, as generations passed, many graduates chose to remain at the schools. By 1994, out of 360 staff members working in Saskatchewan schools, 220 were of aboriginal ancestry.

Even early on, however, there were members of the staff who did not engage in the abusive and exploitative practices typical of the system. Some members not only eschewed the operating principles, but they even spoke up for the rights of the aboriginals. For instance, Hugh McKay (superintendent of a Presbyterian missionary) criticized the federal government for not having implemented its Treaty promises and for failing to alleviate the hunger crisis on the Prairies. And William Duncan (an Anglican missionary in Metlakatla British Columbia) advised the Tsimshian how to advance their arguments in favour of aboriginal title.

These incidents appear uncommon; in contrast, one of the document’s appendices includes a list of the staff members who were charged with criminal offences for some of the actions they committed against students in the schools, with a summary of each sentencing.

Nonetheless, recognising and recording this kind of rebellious behaviour would not have served the purposes of the IRS system, so it seems possible that there may have been other instances of rebellion – both without and within the aboriginal communities – which have been lost to the purging of files.

This discovery process is important. Even a single reader can act as a witness.bCurious? You can read it for yourself here.

Or, perhaps you’ve already read it? Or have it on your TBR?

Zadie Smith’s Swing Time (2016)

In the first musical number in the classic RKO comedy film “Swing Time”, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance with grace and finesse; towards the end of the number, they even leap across the fence-like borders which circle the floor.

zadie-smith-swing-time

Hamish Hamilton – PRH, 2016

Astaire and Rogers barely seem to touch the floor, but in Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, even the dancing characters spend more time stumbling across barriers than cascading across them, even tripping across the everyday.

Zadie Smith offers readers the necessary details to add an additional dimension to their reading of the novel, so we needn’t be familiar with the film.

Swing Time functions adequately as a story of female friendship and a mother-daughter tale even without giving the film a second glance.

But taking it in context, with the film cast as a backdrop like a childhood memory, the novel becomes brilliantly complex, each subplot multi-dimensional.

Readers who are willing to take a closer look will be rewarded substantially.

“Look closer at that Cotton Club, she said, there is the Harlem Renaissance. Look: here are Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. Look closer at Gone with the Wind: here is the N.A.A.C.P. But at the time my mother’s political and literary ideas did not interest me as much as arms and legs, as rhythm and song, as the red silk of Mammy’s underskirt or the unhinged pitch of Prissy’s voice.”

The narrator’s mother urges her daughter to take a closer look, but she remains disinterested. Nor has the narrator ever visited her mother’s family home in St. Catherine, Jamaica.

But perhaps ‘never’ and ‘endless’ are not so far removed as they might seem. “For me the film had no beginning or end, and this was not an unpleasant sensation, just a mysterious one, as if time itself had expanded to make space for this infinite parade of tribes.”

Despite all the re-viewings of “Swing Time” however, the narrator’s memory of the film is incomplete. And as often as she and her friend Tracey watch these dance numbers, they do not interpret them the same way either.

Tracey, for instance, is quite offended by the narrator’s fondness of the video “Stormy Weather”, which Tracey feels unfairly and unkindly excludes white people. “We wouldn’t like that, would we?” Tracey demands. And our narrator is left “going over and over this curious lecture in my mind, wondering what she could have meant by the word ‘we’.” Because of course all of the other videos which the girls watch could be described as having unfairly and unkindly excluded black people. Yet, Tracey dreams of being Ginger Rogers, even though she’s clearly on the other side of the colour line.

Perhaps Tracey imagines another version of herself who might be as successful, and as included, as worthy of belonging, as Ginger Rogers. A shadow version perhaps. Just as the narrator remarks upon the three shadowed figures in the “Bojangles of Harlem” number (a tribute/mockery performed in blackface).

Readers are urged from the novel’s opening pages to look out for shadows. “I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance – the opposite. A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

The narrator’s experience of herself as a kind of shadow is echoed in her experience working for a white dancer who seems to have achieved the kind of success that her friend Tracey dreamed of having for herself. “But why should she get to take everything, have everything, do everything, be everyone, in all places, at all times?”

This sense of being excluded is explored in other aspects of the story too (notably when the narrator travels to Africa, for work).

“At this Lamin laughed, heavily sarcastic, and Hawa’s cousin replied sharply to Lamin in Wolof – or perhaps it was Mandinka – and Lamin back to Musa, and back again, while I stood there, smiling the awkward idiot grimace of the untranslated.

And of course one cannot discuss exclusion without considering powerlessness

“Did all friendships – all relations – involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power? Did it extend to peoples and nations or was it a thing that happened only between individuals? What did my father give my mother – and vice versa? What did Mr. Booth and I give each other? What did I give Tracey? What did Tracey give me?”

And, perhaps more to the point, the nature of power and control.  “There can’t be no understanding between you and me any more! You’re part of a different system now. People like you think you can control everything.”

The illusiveness of power. The quiet nagging of being unfairly judged. “The power she has over me is the same as it has always been, judgment, and it goes beyond words.”

Zadie Smith’s Swing Time is an invitation to look closer. To peer at the barriers and decipher a means of crossing or dismantling or settling alongside.

“And so we got something like the truth, quite like it, but not exactly.”

Is this one on your TBR? Have you read Zadie Smith before?

Aravind Adiga’s Selection Day (2017)

Mumbai remains an important character in Aravind Adiga’s fiction, but the main character in Selection Day is something else: cricket.

Scribner -S&S, 2016

Scribner -S&S, 2016

In fact, in the “Glossary of Cricket Terms” in the novel, he writes: “India: A country said to have two real religions – cinema and cricket.”

Not to worry if you don’t know a thing about cricket because the glossary appears at the back of the book.

The story is accessible without any specialized knowledge: “…cricket, two spectacularly talented slumboys, what could go wrong?”

Apparently it was inevitable (the novel about cricket, not what could go wrong with two talented slumboys).

In an interview with Economic Times conducted by Charmy Harikrishnan (September 2, 2106, here), the author exclaims: “How can you not write about cricket in India today? It’s colossal, it’s everywhere.”

But Aravind Adiga did not determine to write a predictable novel on the subject. “Like the master-servant relationship in India that I explored in The White Tiger, cricket is so big that it’s almost invisible. We don’t question or interrogate cricket enough in this country.”

He intends to take a closer look. Nothing is as simple as it seems, and he is a big proponent of reexamining, rethinking and relearning.

“This was a truth about life he had never forgotten, even after he had left the village and come by train to the big city. Only recently, Ramnath, his neighbor in the slum, observing that poor Muslims were becoming revolutionaries in Egypt and Syria and kicking out their governments and presidents, had whispered: ‘Maybe the same thing will happen in India, eh?’ Mohan Kumar had smirked. ‘Here, we can’t even see our chains.’”

Even though this is a novel about cricket, a coming-of-age novel, a story about the bonds between fathers and sons and brothers, it is – perhaps above all – a novel about living between desires (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively).

“Radha could see there was no hope for his brother, who seemed to desire men at one moment and women at another, and lived in between his two desires, like a hunted animal – an animal which had finally run to their father for protection.”

For, in theory, sport is rooted in the simplest of principles. No matter where the game is played.

“A brick wall stands in Bowral, New South Wales. Once upon a time, a boy appeared before the wall and threw a tennis ball at it. It bounced back; so he hit it with his wooden bat. He kept on doing this and kept on doing this until he became Sir Donald Bradman, the world’s greatest batsman.”

So many larger questions circle around a story about games: failure and excellence, competition and rivalry, winning and losing, rules and expectations. And everything between. “Every man must martyr himself to something: but we have martyred ourselves to this mediocrity.”

As readers will expect – if familiar with his earlier works, which also cast a light on dark corners – there are many humourous moments in the story.

“Are you thinking of shaving? I can see in our eyes that you are thinking of shaving.”
“No, Appa.”
“A boy mustn’t shave until he’s…”
“Twenty-one.”
“Why must a boy not shave till he’s….?”
“Hormones.”
“What are not good for….”
“Cricketers.”

Dialogue is realistic, scenes are sketched vividly, characters are bold and dramatic: the functionality of a screenplay melds with the artistry of literary phrasing and shaping.

But perhaps Selection Day is not what some readers would expect from an Indian novel.

“Oh, I do read Indian novels sometimes. But you know, Ms. Rupinder, what we Indians want in literature, at least the kind written in English, is not literature at all, but flattery. We want to see ourselves depicted as soulful, sensitive, profound, valorous, wounded, tolerant, and funny beings. All that Jhumpa Lahiri stuff. But the truth is, we are absolutely nothing of that kind. What are we, then, Ms. Rupinder? We are animals of the jungle, who will eat our neighbor’s children in five minutes, and our own in ten. Keep this in mind before you do any business in this country.”

Maybe readers looking for all “that Jhumpa Lahiri” stuff might not appreciate the “animals of the jungle” slant, but surely the storytellers’ bookshelf has room for both kinds of stories.

“Unlearning is the most important thing you have to do when writing about anything in India because so much absolutely useless information is dumped on us from birth. Whether it is regional prejudices — south Indians do this, north Indians do that — or political prejudices, or for that matter worthless notions about sports, we are taught from childhood to accept stereotypes over the truth.” (Economic Times interview, also cited above)

Whether or not it is a true story, and whether or not there is a win, Selection Day plays out as a rich and satisfying story.

In My Reading Log, December 2016

Once again, my idea of reading more non-fiction this year didn’t materialize. During Non-Fiction November, so many people were actually reading books that I have been meaning to read but I picked up a novel or collection instead. Nonetheless, I’ve squeezed in a few.

jula-shaw-memory-illusionJulia Shaw’s The Memory Illusion (2016)

Memory is plagued by “biological flaws, perceptual errors, contamination, attentional biases, overconfidence and confabulation” but The Memory Illusion helps us to gain an understanding of “the circus that is our perceived reality”.

Although the cover seems to suggest a volume that tends towards self-help, Dr. Julia Shaw is a scientist; although quick to excuse readers who eschew indepth explorations, she isn’t afraid to go into detail. (She explicitly offers readers a pass on the chapter about brain biology, but it is both fascinating and accessible for not-so-science-y readers.)

There are also substantial resources in the back of the volume, for those who wish to pursue the subject, but The Memory Illusion is satisfying as a standalone. And even without text-boxes and bullet-point lists, readers can grasp some key ideas to make changes to daily routines if so desired.

For instance, we are reminded that we need to be paying attention to create memories (“sleep is crucial for consolidation and strengthening of those memories”). Also, the brain is not equipped to multi-task (each task takes longer in the end, so keep that in mind as you’re working through – or across – your to-do list).

Readers can also learn to modify our expectations of others: “Emotional memories have no special protected places in our brains – they are just like all other memories. Understanding this can make us more considerate of the memory errors of others, can inform our approach to the investigation of criminal offences, and can help us empathise with survivors of extreme situations.”

And, why? “Rich false memories exist, whether we want them to or not.”

But forget the extreme situations, even in an everyday sense our memories are “hopelessly fragile, impossibly inaccurate”.

We can be fooled by them just as we are surprised by errant first impressions; we not only misjudge, we misremember. Because “our memories can have inbuilt flaws as a result of the ways our perceptions can be fooled – by visual illusions, our level of arousal, and even from having a poor grasp on the seemingly intuitive ability to sense time”. No matter how complex, concepts like ‘flashbulb memories’ and ‘recollection rejection’ are clearly explained.

Usually there is a breakdown of the related elements, which are explained individually as well. For instance, in the segment about memory hacking, the term is defined, as well as the related elements, the pieces of the memory puzzle that can allow false memories to happen (including a lack of scepticism, assumptions about ‘symptoms’, presumptions of guilt, scientific illiteracy, and one’s presumption of certain ‘truths’).

Here we have not only a matter of observations and studies, but some theorizing as well. For instance, readers are introduced to the concept of fuzzy trace theory, which “proposes that memory illusions are possible because each of our experiences is storied as multiple fragments, and these fragments can be recombined in ways that never actually happened”.

Best read in small but regular bursts to absorb the concepts, The Memory Illusion is certainly informative if not memorable (which is all my fault, of course).

forster-aspects-of-the-novelE.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927)

As a series of lectures, E.M. Forster draws appropriately on the works with which his listeners would have been most familiar. And, of course, he has his favourites.

“The final test of a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, and of anything else which we cannot define.”

He loves the Russian novelists, Tolstoy in particular.

“After one has read War and Peace for a bit, great chords begin to sound, and we cannot say exactly what struck them. They do not arise from the story, though Tolstoy is quite as interested in what comes next as Scott, and quite as sincere as Bennett. They do not come from the episodes nor yet from the characters. They come from the immense area of Russia, over which episodes and characters have been scattered, from the sum total or bridges and frozen rivers, forests, roads, gardens, fields, which accumulate grandeur and sonority after we have passed them.”

But above all, he loves fiction. “And that is why novels, even when they are about wicked people, can solace us: they suggest a more comprehensible and thus a more manageable human race, they give us the illusion of perspicacity and of power.”

And he discusses specific aspects of creation in detail. Well-known are his observations about flat and round characters. (“The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat.”) His definitions of story and plot. (“‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.”) And endings. (“Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up.”)

But in Aspects of the Novel there is more to discover: much more detail on each aspect, including some lengthy quotes from the works he’s chosen to explore.

“The characters arrive when evoked, but full of the spirit of mutiny. For they have these numerous parallels with people like ourselves, they try to live their own lives and are consequently often engaged in treason against the main scheme of the book. They ‘run away’, they ‘get out of hand’; they are creations inside a creation, and often inharmonious towards it; if they are given complete freedom they kick the book to pieces, and if they are kept too sternly in check they revenge themselves by dying, and destroy it by intestinal decay.”

Of course there’s always more to discover when one goes to the source, rather than relying on the excerpts most often quoted.

rajiv-surendra-elephants-backyardRajiv Surendra’s Elephants in the Backyard (2016)

One of the highlights of Rajiv Surendra’s memoir is his recounting of his visit to India.

“I was greeted with the wild chaos, disorder, and craziness in which India seemed to function perfectly well. My first major challenge: I had to cross the street. Having just arrived in Pondicherry, the air, thick with moisture and heat, exuded a kind of primeval energy that had a strangely calming effect on me. Even the light seemed different here. I was fueled by a sense of adventure, my feet now planted in a completely new world.”

Previously, he was your typical Scarborough kid. (Which makes him easy to relate to and, for those who know him from “Mean Girls” it’s probably reassuring that he was just a normal kid, before he was famous and all.)

“In sixth grade it was Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. When it was warm enough outdoors, my best friend, a Trinidadian kid named Reshad, would meet me every day after school and we’d set off on our horses (bikes) with swords (plastic) strapped to our backs, traveling the countryside (suburban Scarborough, made up of cookie-cutter-type subdivisions) looking for battles that needed our help (these were completely made-up and usually took place in an obliging park or field).”

He visits India as research (not so much into his own heritage, which might have been another kind of story:; he has decided that the role in the film “Life of Pi” is destined to be his and he seeks to understand the character in more detail.

Having first learned of the role from a camera-man on another set, he is struck by the similiarites between him and Pi, most remarkably that both boys grew up with a zoo nearby. (There are no notable exchanges with tigers here, however.) He pursues the role vigorously.

The replies that he receives from Yann Martel – who makes it clear that he is not part of the production process and has no influence over casting – are interspersed with Rajiv Surendra’s own experiences.

“I too was in a sort of nowhere place with regards to a firm cultural identity. No, I could not confidently say that I was only Canadian. And now, in India, I felt completely unworthy of calling myself Tamil when I couldn’t even speak the language or cross the damn street.”

Because he is so young, this question of identity is the main aspect of the work likely to appeal to readers who are older than he is. And this question of identity does develop even beyond ethnicity. (Spoiler: “Kissing this boy, without thinking at all, broke the spell.”) Readers younger than he might be equally impressed by other stories, like the one about the groundhog who gets inside one of the buildings in the Pioneer Village, where his acting skills are put to use between more glamourous roles.

Is any one of these on your TBR? Which do  you think you’d be most likely to enjoy?

Have you been reading non-fiction this month? Any recommendations?

Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (2016)

“There was virtually no aspect of twentieth-century defense technology that had not been touched by the hands and minds of female mathematicians.”

HarperCollins, 2016

HarperCollins, 2016

That might not come up in math class at school, but it’s evident on every page of Hidden Figures.

“What I wanted was for them to have the grand, sweeping narrative that they deserved, the kind of American history that belongs to the Wright Brothers and the astronauts, to Alexander Hamilton and Martin Luther King Jr. Not told as a separate history, but as a part of the story we all know. Not at the margins, but at the very center, the protagonists of the drama. And not just because they are black, or because they are women, but because they are part of the American epic.”

From the 1950, the golden age of aeronautics – when “America existed in the urgent present” – to 1960s space-age America, Margot Lee Shetterly works to solve for ‘x’, to fill in the scholarly blanks where these women deserve to appear. “Their goal wasn’t to stand out because of their differences it was to fit in because of their talent.”

This is non-fiction with a rich and compelling narrative style. Readers who more often choose to read fiction will readily settle into this volume, both language and pacing crafted with intention and deliberation.

This is an exciting time and the light-handed use of metaphors assists in creating an atmosphere filled with possibility. So, for instance, government buildings are “as full as a pod ripe with peas” and men in canvas jumpsuits are hovering like “pollinating insects” as they move from plane to plane.

Margot Lee Shetterly has a knack for creating atmosphere and for summarizing social movements which span significant swaths of time.

In this era, women “struggled to find the balance between spending time with her children at home and spending time for them, for her family at a job” (today, too, many women will find it easy to relate to this).

They faced discrimination at a variety of levels. “Women…had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations”.

But the women of West Computing in Virginia were the only black professionals at the laboratory “not exactly excluded, but not quite included either”. Even after Executive Order 8802 some were more equal than others.

These women were “racial synecdoches”, who were “keenly aware that the interactions that individual blacks had with whites could have implications for the entire black community”.

margot-lee-shetterly-ap-photo-by-aran-shetterly

Click image for author’s website

From the beginning, the author is clear about her decision to use terms which might be “discordant to modern ears” (including Negro, Colored, Indian and Girls), as part of her effort to remain true to the time period and to the voices of the individuals represented in the story.

She does not hesitate to expose inequity, though neither does she dwell upon it. (This volume explores the content which I longed for in Natalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls  which seemed to avoid consideration of deeply rooted prejudices and injustices.)

For instance, in only a few paragraphs, Shetterly’s description of one woman’s request for directions to the bathroom succinctly reveals the racism which continued to flourish, even in a seeminly inclusive environment. “In the moment when the white women laughed at her, Mary had been demoted from professional mathematician to a second-class human being, reminded that she was a black girl whose piss wasn’t good enough for the white pot.”

Her skill with summarizing social trends does not come at the expense of details. Margot Lee Shetterly has a wealth of statistics and specifics to offer as well.

Data is shared in a context which invites readers to make connections between social trends and the experiences of specific women whose lives are considered in greater detail on the pages of Hidden Figures. So, for example, it is interesting to note that one of the women discussed earned an annual salary of $2000; but the significance grows when readers learn that the average monthly wage for a black woman at the time was $96.

Similarly, details about the efforts to alleviate the housing crisis which arose in the wake of the industry’s rapid expansion are also revealing. In 1945, five out of ten people in southeastern VA worked for the U.S. government, either directly or indirectly. The housing development in the East End of Newport News contained 5200 prefabricated demountable homes. Of these, 4000 were in Copeland Park for whites and designated for whites and 1200 were in Newsome Park and designated for blacks. The percentages are significant, but perhaps even more relevant is the explicit reality of segregation.

Not-so-science-y readers need not be concerned that the material will be inaccessible. There are technical aspects to the material of course. So, readers learn that the formula for Area Rule predicts the correct ratio of the area of a crosssection of a plane’s wing to the area of the crosssection of the body. They also learn that the press called this the Marilyn Monroe effect or the wasp-waisted effect, which offers yet another point of accessibility to aid in readers’ understanding of the importance of the point where a plane’s wings connected to the fuselage.

Ultimately, however, all this talk of transonic planes and turbulence is a bonus. If readers simply grasp the fact that this information was meaningful for the women whose lives are considered in Hidden Figures, that’s the underlying idea of importance. “Together they shared the secret language of pericynthion altitudes and/ orbital planes and lunar equators.” This community not only existed but flourished.

“For too long history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies.”

Margot Lee Shettley’s Hidden Figures is both informative and inspiring: an overt invitation to rethink and relearn.

Thank you to HarperCollins and TLC Tours for the invitation to read and discuss this work.

Want to read more? Other participants include:

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December 6th: Broken Teepee
December 7th: Ms. Nose in a Book
December 8th: Dwell in Possibility
December 9th: G. Jacks Writes
December 12th: Lit and Life
December 13th: As I turn the pages
December 15th: Reading Lark
December 16th: Art @ Home
December 19th: Leigh Kramer
December 20th: Emerald City Book Review
December 21st: Bibliotica
December 22nd: Helen’s Book Blog
December 23rd: Based on a True Story

All Those Who Are Missing: New 2016 Novels

Many writers suggest that a motivation for telling stories is to set things in order, to make sense of what seems senseless. Little wonder that so many novels are preoccupied with loss and absence, abandonment and grief.

In Melanie Mah’s The Sweetest One, Chris (Chrysler) Wong thinks maybe she’s cursed. Readers don’t understand, at first, why. And she’s not prepared to share the details right away either.

But it’s clear, by the way her thoughts circle back to key questions, that things have gone wrong. There aren’t as many teenagers in the house as there once were.

Melanie Mah Sweetest One

Cormorant Books, 2016

“Ghosts and rebirth and heaven, oh my. What happens to us when we die? What I want is for the spirits of the people we love to remain on earth, not in a haunting, horrible way but in a way that they can see what  you’re up to sometimes and still exist and not be nothing. Maybe they could give you signs of their presence – flicker lights or play significant songs on the radio. Maybe but probably not. What if the only way we live on is in the memory of others?”

These questions haunt the narrative but, in the beginning, readers are invited to get acquainted with Chris and her siblings.

“And where each of us had our little obsessions – Stef with the outdoors and our family; Gene with girls, art, and basketball; Trina with boys, clothes, and music; and me with reading and being weird – all Reggie had as outside interests were the dictionary and advanced science texts, and he probably only read those for academic benefit.”

Other weird girls who are similarly obsessed reading will almost immediately find her relatable and credible.

“I’m reading The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. If I knew an Illustrated Man, he’d tell me stories with his skin. He’d fill me up with words, pictures, ideas, everything exotic, so I wouldn’t have to leave.”

But she doesn’t know an Illustrated Man. And it seems unlikely that she’s going to meet one in her home town. Nor is she likely to venture beyond those borders, because of the curse. Her anger with one sibling who dared to do so permeates the story (inextricably bound with with her love). But that’s not entirely fair.

“Okay, one, you can’t fulfill all of a person’s needs and, two, you can’t compete with the world. We live in Buttfuck, Alberta. The smallest towns ever. There are six billion people out there, two hundred countries. Can you see why she’d wanna take a look?”

The dialogue is straightforward and ordinary, matter-of-fact pondering of big questions between teenagers (the grown-ups are on the periphery of the story, vitally important forces, influential even while broken, but Chris is at the heart of The Sweetest One): the kind of questions one keeps asking as a grown-up (if one dares to admit there are no solid answers, that is).

“Probably the thing I like best about my dad is his stories. First thing I’m gonna do if I become a writer is publish them.”

Much of the novel’s exploration of loss is secured in the silence and absence of key family figures, even more so than in Chris’ (and Conrad’s – that’s him up there, talking about wanting to reach beyond the known) deliberate explorations.

This is an understated novel, which offers readers some respite from what might otherwise be an exhaustingly sorrow-soaked tale. As with Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, readers are rooted in the aftermath, concerned with the effects experience by those left behind in the wake of trauma. There are also similarities with Riel Nason’s latest, All the Things We Leave Behind, which also looks for understanding in the past but is ultimately preoccupied with negotiating the present-day.

robert-olen-butler-perfume-river

Grove Atlantic, 2016

This is also true in Robert Olen Butler’s Perfume River. Characters here, too, are negotiating the present (to varying degrees of success) but the past resurfaces often and insistently.

One particularly impressive aspect of Perfume River is the way that, structurally, the story weaves between times. It feels untethered and organic, but requires skill and crafting on the author’s part. A scene transforms, subtly (for readers) but sensationally (for participants): time slips.

This is not disorienting for readers, because the characters (however troubled, and in the aftermath of war that trouble can be intense, even devastating) have a kind of self-awareness which keeps the story rooted for those watching it unfold.

“And all of this suddenly sounds crazy to him. Crazy that he still gives a goddamn about his father’s regard. Crazy that he’d even fantasize about saying something that risks his wife’s love. Crazy that his obsession over the first man he killed—with such mitigating circumstances—should have renewed itself all these decades later. Crazy to think that the twenty-three-year-old in 1968 has anything whatsoever to do with the man he is in 2015. And this last thought instantly seems crazy to him the other way round as well, that the twenty-three-year-old should have anything but a deep connection to the seventy-year-old. He is a historian, after all.”

He is a historian, and also a son, just as aware of the gaps between meaning in family relationships as of those in the historical record.

“Peggy says, ‘He wanted to name you William Junior, you know.’
This is not the first time he’s heard this either.
‘He loved you that much,’ she says.
What Robert wants is to avoid arguing with his mother on this night. However, he says, ‘What he wanted was his firstborn son to be just like him.’
She brightens. ‘You see?’
He has said this to her as if to disprove his father’s love. But he realizes she hears it as a demonstration of that love.”

emily-saso-weather-inside

Freehand Books, 2016

Avery is monitoring the conditions of her father’s love too, in Emily Saso’s The Weather Inside.

You can imagine her drawing shapes in the air in front of a green screen, pulling faces to represent something distasteful moving in, like a cold front (or a frozen dessert).

“I met Gloria a dozen years ago, at my father’s funeral. She was the sweet thing clinging onto my uncle’s arm. Blonde curls stacked like vanilla cookies. Cerise CoverGirl lips. Caramel tan. Teeth white as whipped cream. Bubblegum pink sports coat with shoulder pads thick as pound cake slices. Compared to the vanilla civil servants I was acclimatized to, Gloria was a strawberry sundae.”

On Avery’s wall is a poster of a painting by Lawren Harris (“Snow”) but even more significantly, she is seeing snow. In July.

Everywhere around her, there is loss. Her mother is “layering filo pastry into a pan, the sheets as translucent as ghosts”.

Despite all of this, she tries to climb out from beneath the accumulation.

“Normal Starting now.
Watch Battlestar Galactica, season two, episode two: Valley of Darkness. Shave legs. Do fifteen sit-ups and seven push-ups. Overpluck eyebrows.”

Some things appear to be miraculous and have explanations. There is coloured snow – green, pink, red and orange – in Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska, which is caused by algae.

But her father’s death has no explanation. No satisfactory explanation. His absence seems inexplicable.

And, yet, Avery’s voice is often wry and humourous, occasionally penetrating and astute (the scenes about her breakup with her boyfriend and the commentary on organized religion are especially sharp and savvy).

“I stay down here, on the floor, for hours. Fascianting. From this vantage point I see everything that’s trapped in my stupid Ikea throw rug. Dust and hair wound up in its modern swirls and bold concentric circles. I breathe in the air at this level….”

Avery’s perspective from down below makes it hard to breathe at times, for the snow is falling gently in the background throughout.

Has your reading been preoccupied with absence or loss lately? If you were going to recommend a book on the theme, do you have any favourites?

Telling Stories: Five 2016 Novels

It’s not all “Reader, I married him” but plenty of contemporary novels are preoccupied by the idea of storytelling, and often one voice does speak to us directly even now.

khair-just-another-jihadi-jane

Periscope Books, 2016

In Tabish Khair’s Just Another Jihadi Jane, the storyteller’s direct address appears regularly and spiritedly.

“Yes, well, if you insist, I shall take another cup of coffee. Did I tell you that despite all the Islamic sisterhood on display in Hejjiye’s orphanage, we were divided into groups that bickered over how to brew our coffee and tea? We never agreed on just one way to make it.”

The story begins when the girls are young, with recollections of their meeting, which each girl remembers differently; dissent figures from the start.

The novel is rooted solidly in women’s experiences. The direct address is to a male listener, however. (The novelist, another storyteller.)

“Even you observed me on the sly. No, don’t get flustered. There is probably nothing wrong with noticing a woman. Who knows? I guess it depends on what is in the man’s heart. I did not point this out to accuse you; I just wanted you to know that I know. I know that men notice me.”

This adds a playful note to a novel which is preoccupied with more serious themes, including the nature and extent of fanaticism. (This is not an observation of one of the girls, but of a teacher, Mrs. Chatterjee.)

“I used to find her ludicrous. I don’t know why, now. I mean, she was fanatical about her poetry, but then I was fanatical about my religion, as were my Abba and Mohammad and all my mosque friends. She was an extreme admirer of her Romantic notion of poetry, in the same way that Wahhabis are extremist admirers of their notion of Islam. How could I see the fanaticism in her absolute love for Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley and find it ludicrous, but take my own fanaticism so seriously, so unconditionally?”

Also serious, also unconditional, is a profound and relentless desire (and quest for) change. This sets Ameena apart, not only from others (as described in the following passage) but from the storyteller as well.

“That perhaps was the difference between her and Mohammad. Mohammad had exactly the same opinions and sometimes even the same words. But the words did not leave him bitter and restless; they left him feeling good and righteous. Again and again. Ameena would conclude by lamenting her inability to do anything to change the world.”

Always, there is the pull of tradition. The concern that despite a yearning for change, convention will triumph.

“Was this how I was going to end, another version of my Ammi? Was that all I could do with my life in this world, where there was so much that called out to be done? Was all my reading and piety to end in a kitchen, denying the role that a woman of true faith had to play in this life, of which all of us, men in their ways, women in theirs, would have to submit a full account to Allah?”

It’s clear throughout just how much variation there is amongst any given group of followers. Even readers unfamiliar with the religion can grasp that there are as many differences as similarities, as in the storyteller’s recollections of an Eid Millan enjoyed in London.

“I had not grown up in a family that celebrated festivals in what you might call a ‘cultural manner’. With a few token exceptions for the sake of my Ammi, we had observed them in a kind of bare, denuded style. (Salafist, you say? Well, maybe, if you want to give it a tag.)”

But despite the desire to categorize, to classify, this remains one woman’s story.

“You smile. But you are a man. I don’t know if you believe in God or don’t, let alone the extent of your faith, but trust me, no man, not one Muslim man, no matter how believing, how faithful, how orthodox, has to face a third of the difficulties that orthodox Muslim women encounter in the West.”

Kalyana_cover.indd

Second Story Press, 2016

Rajni Mala Khelawan’s Kalyana is also preoccupied with women’s experiences in the world.

Given that it is set in Fiji, readers might expect postcard-styled images. “I could hear the sage blow the conch shell in the distance, and the water wash up against the seawall, and the pundit blow on his bansuri, and the frogs croaking in the stillness of night. I heard the strum of an enormous sitar, and the quiet hum of the harmonica, and the howls of the wind, and the echo of a charmer’s flute.”

But in Kalyana, this description is followed by a scene of devastating cruelty.

This kind of scene is infrequent in the novel, but there is an undercurrent of disrespect and prejudice (although our narrator is privileged, as a lighter-skinned girl in a racialised society, so she escapes much of this).

“Unlike many of the Indians in our village, I had chestnut hair, lightly tanned skin, and light brown eyes. My mother would proudly declare to relatives and guests that I looked just like my father.”

Looking like her white father is an advantage in this society, but she craves connection in his absence.

Her mother, too, looks beyond her known territory for inspiration, finding the news of women in North America (burning their bras, protesting unequal treatment) particularly heartening.

“I remember now the delight in my mother’s eyes, delight at the thought that women everywhere were capturing opportunities, making waves, taking stands.”

Kalyana does not recognise the significance of these events for her mother when she is a girl, only understands later. At the time, however, she finds inspiration elsewhere – somewhere readers know well; her love of the library and the books therein is deep and lasting.

“At first, I only chose the books that were wanted by others, but later I sought out those books that were unwanted and unread. I thought that they also deserved to see the world outside this library.”

Although a powerful message exists at the heart of the novel, Kalyana is sometimes over-earnest in its pursuit of it. Attentive readers could have recognized the mother’s delight if it had been shown in a scene (rather than explained in a recollection as above) and would not require additional hand-holding.

Nonetheless, in a political climate which seems to emphasize divisiveness and discrimination, perhaps such concepts need to be spelled out more clearly after all:

“For there was a greater truth: every life, regardless of skin color, place of origin, birth rights, status, and, yes, gender, was entwined with pain and suffering. There was no escaping it. But if we tried to stand tall amidst the chaos and to contemplate, looking inward, we could perhaps learn the lessons and look beyond into a brighter future.”

willis-crosstalk

Penguin Random House – Del Rey, 2016

Whether brighter or not, Connie Willis’ Crosstalk is preoccupied with the future as well, particularly the ways in which technological advancements have impacted communication and identity, the breathless dance between information and curation.

“Baying hounds and shouting mobs all blurred together into a dull roar, the individual voices impossible to identify in the general din. But she could hear every single voice, even though there were now scores of them, railing at her at once, talking over one another.”

Laurence Scott’s musings in The Four-Dimensional Human resound: how does being plugged-in change us, reshape us?

It becomes overwhelming for Briddey. “They poured over her, a torrent of inchoate thoughts and emotions.” And, yet, she is tempted to undergo a medical procedure which invites still more “data”, a procedure pitched to couples as a means of gaining greater intimacy.

Full-fledged emotional contact is the goal, but the process is not streamlined.

“’Those initial, sporadic contacts may be felt by only one of the partners,’ Dr. Verrick was saying, ‘and they can take a variety of forms – a momentary awarenss of your partner’s presence or a feeling of being touched or a sense of happiness. Or more negative sensations. Fear or a prickling of the spine or a sense of being intruded on.'”

And, then again, procedures do not always occur as planned. And, as anyone who’s watched “True Blood” (or read Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series) knows, telepathy is not uncomplicated either.

“People always think being telepathic would be like some cute romantic comedy where you could find out secrets and use them to get what you want. Or find out what your enemies are up to.” You can hear the “BUT” there. Connie Willis is preoccupiedy by that “BUT”.

She is also concerned with the way in which ideas are transmitted across time. Readers of her Hugo/Nebula-winning novel Doomsday Book will recall Kivrin’s difficulties with communication (both within and between time periods), and how she, too, appears to be hearing voices, when she is actually recording and transmitting her experiences of time travel so that her co-workers can learn from her experiences.

In Crosstalk, however, characters want to hear voices (even when it’s arguably poor judgement) and don’t want to hear them (unless circumstances are viewed as perfect).

“I got to thinking about Joan of Arc’s hearing voices and decided to see if ther were any other saints who did. They were – Saint Augustine and Saint Brendan the Navigator and your very own Saint Brigid and Saint Patrick.”

Connie Willis, suitably, arranges Crosstalk so that it is nearly entirely presented in dialogue or direct observation, and although it does feel a little too formal at times to be believable office banter, the pace of the novel moves more quickly than its girth might suggest. The idea is certainly relevant, raising all of the right kinds of questions.

It’s a paradign shift, all right. In the wrong direction.”

Or, is it? Even Briddey finds refuge in the stacks.

“And we’re safe from the voices, Briddey thought, looking around at the book-lined walls. Even though she knew it was the readers’ thoughts and not the books that screened them, she felt even safer here than she had in the Reading Room.”

ali-stared-night-city

Periscope Books, 2016

In Bakhtiyar Ali’s I Stared at the Night of the City (Trans. Kareem Abdulrahman), storytelling is not necessarily a safe haven.

“I am an honest person, and so you should know from the start that my intentions are not honourable. I, of course, know where to begin and where to go next, but you know nothing of this – and that gives me infinite delight.”

Isn’t that interesting: honest but not honourable? Readers are immediately off-kilter: “Do not treat me as a virtuous storyteller.”

At first, I wondered if this cover illustration suited the story; I was expecting something bold and starkly outlined, a pair of characters at the forefront of an adventure, the setting a formless backdrop.

In fact, there is a sense of being overwhelmed, almost immediately. “God alone knew how many stories were born and perished in my head every day.”

Then, I recognized the wave pattern behind the figures and forms. “This book, which begins simply with Magellan’s story, is in fact more intricate, more multi-dimensional and more interlinked than might at first appear.”

The chapter headings situate readers, in terms of voice (or time, or place) but there are so many things going on that it’s a rush of activity.

“Don’t forget that our book is full of digressions, of untimely questions that force us to retreat to our rooms, lock the doors and mull them over by the dim light of a candle.”

I Stared at the Night of the City is more Tristram Shandy than Alexandre Dumas, more Rabih Alameddine than Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Readers must be prepared to make an investment. And, even so, they will sometimes fall short. “What kind of readers are you? Are you impatient and shortsighted, or do you just forget things from one chapter to the next?”

The storytellers will, however, guide readers as often as they chastise them. “You shouldn’t assume that these are the fictitious feelings of a man not normally interested in poetry but using it now to describe feelings that cannot be put into ordinary words. These were truths I lived with, and witnessed.”

But this is not necessarily an advantage, for readers must recall the declarations made earlier (in those other chapters which may have been forgotten as readers turned the pages).

Musings upon Kurdish identity, the “blood and dreams” of a failed revolution, the difficulties transitioning from life as a mercenary to living as a lover, a bricklayer’s building of “secret shelters and dark prisons”, the weaving of carpets: I Started at the Night of the City situates the reader at the centre of a narrative whirlwind.

sarah-moss-tidal-zone

Granta Books, 2016

Sarah Moss’ The Tidal Zone is also openly preoccupied with the importance of storytelling, considering how we construct the narratives of our lives, what shape specific events take against a back drop of everyday details.

  “Stories have endings; that’s why we tell them, for reassurance that there is meaning in our lives. But like a diagnosis, a story can become a prison, a straight road mapped out by the people who went before. Stories are not the truth.
Begin with brokenness. Begin again. We are not all, not only, the characters written by our ancestors.”

Adam is preoccupied with ancestry, with the past as it impacts the present which is still being written. He is looking for explanations for what endures and what is lost.

Mixed with the talk of his everyday life as a stay-at-home father of two girls, are glimpses of the life of an artist whose work is connected with the devastation and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in WWII.

“Suddenly, but not really. There is always a beginning.”

When he traces the events which led to the bombing of Coventry, it’s clear that the losses were not entirely unexpected. Some key personnel could have predicted them, could have informed ordinary people who might have made different decisions in light of the raids.

Similarly, when Adam and Emma’s eldest daughter collapses on the field at school and stops breathing for a spell, one can see elements of risk when one looks back. But, when assembled, do they create a story? And whose story?

“It is normal for children to die. Look at Syria, at Palestine, at Eritrea and Somalia. Look at the tidelines of beaches in Italy and Greece. Look, while we are on the subject, at certain parts of Chicago and Los Angeles. The nurses’ world, the hospital version of normality, is true and what most of us here and now regard as ordinary life is a lie.”

Is there a narrative to be recognized, studied, understood? There is a certain appeal to that idea. But, it depends upon the details in the story.

“We all believe in patterns we do not see. We are all following magic ravens, even when we are lost. Otherwise, there would be no story.”

Whether or not we want a story often depends upon the outcomes. What about this one: “Once upon a time, her body made a mistake and ended itself.”

That’s one ending. And hasn’t it already been said that there is always a beginning? So there must also be an ending. “Fiction is the enemy of history. Fiction makes us believe in structure, in beginnings and middles and endings, in tragedy and comedy.”

Unless there is neither a beginning nor an ending. Only magic ravens which look like beginnings and endings and middles.

Have you been reading any books that talk back to you directly? Or in which storytelling plays a major role?

Which of these do you think you’d be most likely to enjoy?

Quarterly Stories: Winter 2016

This month, I’m wholly enjoying the stories in the Short Story Advent Calendar (edited by Michael Hingston and designed by Natalie Olsen). The variety of the boxed set is fantastic, especially if you’re looking for “new” short story writers to follow, but I generally read collections of works by a single author.

clea-young-teardownSo many of the situations in the stories in Clea Young’s Teardown (2016) feel familiar from the beginning, as though we have already witnessed them (if not participated in them). And because they feel so natural, it’s less as though we are invited to join as readers, and more like we have stumbled into them, as though into a memory.

But the interesting part is that the stories do not settle into the familiar. In many instances, the characters therein are swept up in change (e.g. adjusting to a new living space or a pregnancy, with new roles too).

The dialogue is credible and the stories move quickly – just like changes and adjustments – the daily kind, the momentous kind – in our lives. They are set in or near places of transition (e.g. parking lots, the ruins of a cabin).

“’Everything’s changed so fast. At the park today, leaves were coming down, honestly these yellow leaves were…I could cover my entire face with one, which he loved.’ Alannah nods at the baby, who sits in the middle of the kitchen looking up at his mother, a string of drool connecting his chin to the grimy linoleum. ‘What kind of tree would that be anyway?’”

They remind us that, in the time it takes to read a short story, one’s entire idea about something really important can shift 180 degrees.

Contents: Teardown, Split, Dock Day, Chaperone, Juvenile, Lamb, Congratulations & Regrets, New World, Desperado, Ursa Minor, Firestorm, What Are You Good At, What Do You Like to Do?

van-camp-angel-wing-splash-patternRichard Van Camp’s Godless But Loyal to Heaven, hooked me on his work, made him a MustReadEverything author for me, but his first collection, Angel Wing Splash Pattern (2001), introduces readers to a number of characters who reappear in those later stories.

Here we meet Torchy for the first time; he has experienced a great loss, and we also meet a young girl, Stephanie, who has a great need: “Mermaids” captures so many feelings. “It was such a pretty night for sin.” “They forgot about God and anytime men forget about God, He reminds them that He’s still there. That’s why he brought AIDS. Because we forgot.” “And I would rather unleash fire than have fire unleash me.” “I’ll be your sister, Torchy, if you’ll be my brother.”  In many ways, this story feels like a cornerstone of his work, although it is raw and unpolished (which suits Torchy, actually).

This is not the only story which captures the roaring and weeping of a coming-of-age tale.

“Something had changed about his room. It was still a mess, with his CDs and tapes piled all over the place. He had posters up of Morrissey, The Cure and The Smiths. There were also pictures of Bat Girl all over the place with loving attention on her latex ass. His laundry basket was overflowing and my porno mags were fanned out all over his floor. What the hell? There were bullet holes in the walls!”

From bullet holes to porno mags, power and vulnerability are sometimes at the forefront of the stories and other times inhabit the dark shadows in the corners. “The fender was a splash parade of flapping dragonflies, mosquito pepper and a dislocated sparrow wing.”

There is a poetic undertone as well, and occasionally it swells to the surface of the prose without abandoning the matter-of-fact tone and plainspeak. Life for the members of the Dogrib Nation who inhabit these stories  and live in and around Fort Simmer (Fort Smith in real life) is sometimes violent and hard and sometimes beautiful and sensual.

“The good thing about it being minus 45 degrees is that the sunrise is spectacular. It’s a Physics 30 orgasm. The light from the sun, which is low to the horizon, hits the ice-fog which hangs over this little northern town and you have rarefaction, refraction and some fancy light that makes you ache. Too bad you can’t enjoy it without your cheeks splitting, it’s that cold. And you would not bleed blood, either. You would bleed purple purple steam.”

TenthCanadianBookChallenge

Richard Van Camp’s collection also counts towards the 13 works by indigenous writers I’ve decided to read for the 10th annual Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set. The others I’ve read in recent months include Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls (2002), Paul Seesequasis’ Tobacco Wars (2010), the comics anthology Moonshot (2015), edited by Hope Nicholson, Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat (2008) and Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie (2016).

Contents: Mermaids, Let’s Beat the Shit Out of Herman Rosko!, Why Ravens Smile to Little Old Ladies as They Walk By, the uranium leaking from port radium and rayrock mines is killing us, The Night Charles Bukowski Died, Sky Burial, Snow White Nothing for Milles, My Fifth Step, How I Saved Christmas

coupland-bit-rotThe title of Douglas Coupland’s Bit Rot (2016) is pulled from the world of digital archiving: the way in which digital files can spontaneously and rapidly decompose.

This aligns with the feeling that Douglas Coupland has had since Richard van Camp was writing the stories for Angel Wing Splash Pattern; since 2000, Coupland has felt aware of his capacity to “shed older and weaker neurons and connections and create and enhance new and unexpected ones”.

It’s disorienting, this idea that “we are now always going to be living in the future”. But writing can provide a kind of anchor. “The novel made us individuals. The Internet makes us units. Write as fast as you can. Blog like crazy. Vlog your brains out. Be unique. Be the best you can be.”

He does discuss technology and media, floating an idea for an app like Grindr and Tinder but for politics, which he calls Wonkr, and musing on corporate services. “Good Wi-Fi is good business. High-speed internet keeps your country from being second-rate. Overcharging for speed – or crippling speed under the aegis of pseudo-capitalism – is simply stupid.” (“iF-iW eerF?”)

He also considers older tech, like the propensity towards of ads for mood-altering drugs on television (“New Moods”) and takes a store sign as inspiration in “Bulk Memory”.

Because it’s not always about technology. “Unclassy” considers his experience of talking about class in a suburban Shanghai Internet router factory, which leads him to create the term “blank-collar workers”. And “McWage” looks back briefly to his novels Generation X and The Gum Thief; it considers the inequity of minimum wage policies today.

Often longer titles are assigned to works of fiction, like “The End of the Golden Age of Payphones”, “Superman and the Kryptonite Martinis”, “The Short, Brutal Life of the Channel Three News Team” and “Bartholomew Is Right There at the Dawn of Language”. (But not always: consider, “Temp” and “361”.)

In a pilot script, “George Washington’s Extreme Makeover”, we have Instagram-sized snippets in a Grexit Blog-post styled IQ. Then, toss in some images too. And the promotional material for an app called “Yoo”.

Not all of the pieces appear to be polished. Some seem like stories written over an afternoon, reread the next day and submitted to their intended readers. This brings to mind “Nine Readers” which questions why so many individuals are clamouring to be heard, online in particular, when what they have to say isn’t unique (which also introduces the question of whether being unique matters or is even possible).

Sometimes the tone seems a little glib, other times it seems to be simple but profound. Consider this from “The Ones That Got Away”: “There’s always that pallel universe out there, featuring a much richer version of yourself taunting the you in this universe for goofing up. But then that parallel universe version of you probably missed out of somethin else and is probably lonely and miserable and wishes they were you. The universe seems to be very good at equalling things out that way.”

Contents: 65 pieces, beginning with “Vietnam” and ending with “An App Called Yoo”

joan-lane-you-call-this-homeThe stories in Joan Lane’s You Call This Home (2016) were written in the early fifties but the manuscripts were not discovered until 2008.

Many times, while reading, I was reminded of Willa Cather’s short stories (and her novel, Song of the Lark).

I do wonder what was on Joan Lane’s bookshelves (maybe some Edith Wharton or some Elizabeth Taylor?) but certainly not short stories which focussed on the lives of women who lived on the farm-side of town on the Canadian Prairies. Those, she had to write.

The external setting, however, is less important than the emotional landscape the characters inhabit.

“All her life she had been saying goodbye, to friends going away to school, to university, to jobs, to marriage and new homes, until it seemed that only she remained. Now it was her turn.”

Many of her characters are young women, but she also captures a young girl’s view of a too-quickly-changing world (in the wake of her sister’s illness): astute and sensitive-without-being-overly-sentimental.

“I adored her [her mother’s] playing. Maybe someday I’d play like that too – she said I had a ‘good ear’ because I could already pick out melodies. But only in the key of C; maybe it was in the other, not-so-good ear which would some day unlock the mystery of the black keys.”

And she does venture into the male psyche as well, exploring the idea of threatened/unrealised artistic potential, which some other characters grapple with as well. “Patrick threw down his brush. He couldn’t paint today. It had been the same yesterday and the day before.”

Sometimes the external setting gets a nod, too: “The street was silent. In the wintry dark the old houses rested dark and formless. The shadows joined hands, washing the snow blue, softening the tall, ungainly woman who walked with jerky movements, her head thrust forward and tilted to one side.”

And there are some lovely turns of phrase. “Her head pecked, birdlike, to consult her watch.” A woman is described as a “faded brown leaf”. “She fixed her gaze on the jewel-toned wine.” An olive in a cocktail “rolled and winked derisively”. (There are more musical instruments than alcoholic beverages in this collection, despite what this selection of quotes might lead you to believe.)

Contents: The Winter I Composed Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, A Sheltered Life, The Echoing Night, An Old-Fashioned Custom, Everything Is Music, Journey Into Solitude, The Snows of Yesteryear, You Call This Home

What short works have been in your stack of late? Do you have a regular favourite source of them beyond collections?

If you haven’t read any of these, which of these do you think you would enjoy the most?