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

December 2015, In My Bookbag

What I was not carrying in my bookbag this month: David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, Shauna Singh Baldwin’s The Tiger Claw and the third volume in G.R.R. Martin’s Ice and Fire series.

These hefty volumes stayied at home, but these slimmer books were travelling this month. And there was more to-ing and fro-ing this month than usual: nice to have good company.

David Hull Man Remembered Moon

Coach House Printing, 2015

First, David Hull’s novella, The Man Who Remembered the Moon. (It is published by Dumagrad Books: check out those rounded corners, perfect for readers and characters who must take care around sharp objects.)

Because it is such a short work, this story manages to straddle the line between two contrasting moods – playful and serious – and allows the reader to choose their preferred slant. (There is also a dash of romance in my interpretation of it.)

Were it longer, it might become something like Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which has whimsical touches but might intimidate readers with weighty volumes of multiple realities, dabbling in belief and scholarship and in quantum conundrums and conspiracies.

(It also brings to mind stories by Julio Cortazár, Italo Calvino, and David Mitchell. The shorter story included in this volume, “The One about the Ballard Fanatic” suggests that the author truly is enamoured with fiction which rewards passionate readers, and certainly passionate readers often become good writers.)

Nonetheless, one can explore big ideas without talking cats and little people. In fact, some readers might prefer the philosophical debates play out in a more familiar scene: patient and doctor in dialogue, set upon unravelling a mystery about life and the universe and everything. (Do you know where your towel is? Could you describe what a ‘towel’ is, if nobody else believed that a ‘towel’ existed, now or ever?)

One man can no longer see the moon in the sky and is engaged in conversation with another man who either cannot see the moon, or does not wish to admit he can see it.

Although this appears to be the only marker of the narrator’s lunacy, he cannot explain the absence (whether real or fabricated) to himself or to anyone else (both listeners are equally important and respond with a different set of questions).

It might be a story about poetry or psychiatry. Perhaps it’s about the loss of a celestial body or something indefinable. Maybe it’s about an object, else an idea.

“Several times a week one doctor or another hove towards my table and paused to regard me with a generally somewhat nauseous look, before asking for the book they needed. I understood their discomfort; it’s disquieting to observe someone you consider mad reading your books and scribbling feverish notes. Am I like that you wonder.”

Students and thinkers, dreamers and poets, lovers and losers: look down – at this book in your lap. Before you look up once more.

Tamaki Emiko SuperstarSomehow I missed Mariko Tamaki’s Emiko Superstar (illustrated by Steve Rolston), even though I have enjoyed many of her other stories, including Skim, (You) Set Me On Fire, and This One Summer. Nonetheless, it’s the perfect accompaniment for reading-on-the-go because it’s broken up into acts and scenes, so that you can read just a few pages at a time.

Emiko is like some of Mariko Tamaki’s other heroines, in that she is in-between, whether caught between conflicting aspects of her own identity or between differing sets of expectations or, more pragmatically, between life stages.

She is truly on the margins in some cases, particularly when she discovers the Factory, a hangout for artsy kids, complete with funky beer and scheduled performances in what is billed as the “Freak Show”. Unsure of the ‘rules’ in a place which exists to flout rules, she feels discombobulated but also inspired by this atmosphere.

One of her inspirations is a young woman who has a regular spot on the stage; this intense connection, which contains echoes of the relationship in (You) Set Me on Fire, encourages her to look for material to create a performance of her own. Her inexperience leads her to make choices which she later regrets, but unexpected possibilities also emerge along the way.

So her position on the margins actually encourages her to explore aspects of her own self, in a way which she wouldn’t have done if she had simply stayed on the couch that summer.

As in This One Summer, the adult characters in Emiko Superstar obviously have their own struggles, playing out off-stage (for the most part). So even though this is a coming-of-age story, and one which young readers would also appreciate (particularly Emiko’s character), the attention to detail in the story allows for the theme of shifting identities to layer.

Just because someone is old enough to hire a babysitter for their kid doesn’t mean that they don’t have some growing-up to do themselves. And it’s not as though the job of getting to know oneself is ever really done with.

Simon Fay BulkSimon Fay’s Bulk is also about identity, but focussed on slightly older characters. The core of the novel is Barbara, a professional body-builder, who is considering some major changes in her life and, simultaneously, is unsettled by the changes that her husband is making in his own life.

Her husband, Stu, is substantially overweight, but is suddenly monitoring his portion size and talking about dieting; perhaps intuitively, Barbara understands that his enthusiasm for a new set of priorities is fuelled by a force which threatens their marital stability.

“He put as much work into my body as I did. Bodybuilding info wasn’t easy to come by back then. He’d have his trucker mates bringing back muscle magazines from Europe. Every now and again he’d surprise me by dragging a pile out from under his bed. We’d go through them like people go through interior decorating magazines. Oh wouldn’t it be nice to have shoulders like those, and, Oh I don’t like the shape of those biceps though. We made me together. Took a lot of patience and trust. Trust, that’s the main factor.”

Consider Barbara’s desire to have a baby (adding to the weight of her responsibilities) combined with Stu’s intention to shed pounds (lightening his burden and his dependence upon the generous serving sizes which Barbara prepares and procures for him): Bulk is rooted in conflict.

Nonetheless, it is not a weighty story stylistically. Simon Fay is concerned with making the pace of the narrative flow steadily and it is often humourous, although darkly funny. (I love the name of the pub: “The Cat Dragged Inn”.)

Barbara’s tone is self-deprecating and she is sharply observant and intelligent. The scenes she inhabits are filled with a surprising (to me, anyway) number of ‘arses’ (there’s a Euro for Barbara’s swear-jar from me), but the clear affection between her and Stu works to soften some of the rough edges (plot-wise, personality-wise). “Only with Stu am I the little spoon. I smile with the weight of his arm keeping me tight against him, his steady breath in my ear like a loving heartbeat.”

Bulk is not overly polished; the sentence structure can be rambunctious and in some ways, this may be a reflection of Barbara’s down-to-basics nature but there are a few grammatical errors which occasionally distract from the author’s talent for inhabiting a distinct and curious character. Nonetheless, if the ‘arses’ offend, the offense shan’t last long, for Simon Fay’s Bulk is under 150 pages long: the ultimate irony is that Barbara’s story isn’t bulky after all.

Gaiman Riddell Sleeper and the SpindleEven though Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle is also a slim volume, I wasn’t a very patient girl-reader, so if I had encountered it then, I would have been frustrated with the number of words in it. (However, were it a typical illustrated children’s book, there wouldn’t be enough of a story to take travelling with you as an adult in a bookbag.)

And even an impatient, young reader would have been begging for the next page with another illustration by Chris Riddell. (And I probably would have tried to colour them too, because they look like those fantastically detailed doodle kits that I used to love!)

For an adult reader, however, The Sleeper and the Spindle is an incredibly satisfying tale. There are many familiar tropes and if you were expected a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, you will not be disappointed.

But you might find the odd dwarf where you are not expecting to find one. And there is a most flagrant departure from the traditional, in the storyteller’s decision to have the woman counting the days to her marriage (unhappily: she does not care for being married) and determining to have a final adventure before hand (happily: she loves adventures).

There is a definite building in tension as the pages turn (less than 70, in total), and although the characterization is broad (there are no names, for instance, and that point is made directly), there are aspects to the development included here which are overlooked in the conventional tales.

“The old woman had not climbed the tallest tower in a dozen years. It was a laborious climb, and each step took its toll on her knees and on her hips. She walked up the curving stone stairwell; each small, shuffling step she took in agony. There were no railings there, nothing to make the steep steps easier. She leaned on her stick, sometimes, and then she kept climbing.”

The pacing is deliberate, and the prose style strives to feel both familiar and fresh (and succeeds overall). But much of the pleasure of the volume derives from the presention, in particular the semi-transparent cover overlay with the gold overtones (which continue throughout the story proper, both in illustrations and in the occasional few lines of text which accompany some drawings).

There is one aspect to the retelling which might strike some readers as particularly daring (given the Disney version which many of us know well), and in some ways it does seem striking indeed but, in another way, it is as though this is how the tale might just as well have been told (but there was some other version before hand). It manages to slant towards classical romance so that some particular elements of the story (e.g. courage, good will) shine brilliantly.

What have you been reading, while travelling or otherwise, in December?

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The Next Chapter makes introductions

One of my great pleasures is listening to Shelagh Rogers’ “The Next Chapter”, via podcast on the CBC.

Education Augie MerastyI particularly enjoy the interviews and discussions when I have already read the book being discussed (or I have read an earlier book by the author, but I have not yet read their latest), and many of the recent guests have recently appeared in my TBR stacks as well: Marina Endicott on November 23, Susin Nielsen on November 9Joan Clark on September 14, Austin Clarke on August 22Ann-Marie MacDonald on July 25, Griffin Ondaatje on June 10, Sabrina Ramnanan on May 18, Jennifer Quist on April 20.

But there are many times that this program has encouraged (sometimes I’d go so far as to say that the show has persuaded me) me to pick up a book.

Sometimes one that I didn’t necessarily think was something I would appreciate (like Candace Savage’s Geography of Bloodhere). They discuss the culture of nature, the nature of culture, and the intersection between and convinced me to spend time in Stegner, Butala and Vanderhaeghe country.

Or sometimes a book that I had thought I would find inaccessible (say Michael Crummey’s poetry, even though I had loved his fiction), here. Poetry is, he says, “still the writing that I love most”; it feels meditative and feeds him somehow. “So much of that urge to write…has been me wanting to make things hold still long enough to get them down.”

Often the show’s book panel, with a focus on a genre that I don’t necessarily read regularly, adds to my stack. (The most recent is the Children’s Summer Book Panel, here.) Did I say ‘often’? That pretty much always happens with the panels (the mystery one is brutal for my TBR).

And I love the series of remembrance episodes, like this one for Randy Boyagoda’s memories of Mavis Gallant, and this encore presentation of Shelagh Rogers’ last conversation with Farley Mowat.

Sometimes, too, an episode makes me want to reread (as with two books discussed by Robert Wiersema in this recent episode, and I’m not naming either, so that I don’t spoil the big reveal).

Or it brings out a layer of a work that I didn’t find on my own (as with a June 2015 episode which considered Lynne Crosbie’s latest).

But mostly I love the sound it makes when the recommended books land on my TBR:

David Carpenter’s The Education of Augie Merasty (2015), here
A residential-school memoir: poignant and matter-of-fact, authentic and piercing.

Up Ghost River Metatawabin(A great companion for this one would be Edmund Metatawabin’s Up Ghost River, written with Alexandra Shimo, which is also discussed on TNC, here.)

Steve Burrows’ A Siege of Bitterns (2014), here
The first in the Birder Murder series, introducing Dominic Jejeune. “Human tastes, he thought; a mystery far beyond the abilities of a simple policeman.”

Janet Marie Rogers’ Splitting the Heart, here
“This is medicine. The words are medicine. The poetry is medicine.” Writer, performer, drum-maker and teacher, she is Mohawk/ Tuscarora from Six Nations territory.

Sarah Ellis’ Outside In, which Michele Landsbeg recommends in the Summer Children’s Book Panel 2014, here

Joel Thomas Hynes’ Saw Nothing Saw Wood (2014), here
A riveting tale of Newfoundland strange-ness, in a particularly attractive package from Running the Goat

Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Exclamation Mark (2013) , Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, Michele Landsberg’s pick in the Summer Children’s Book Panel 2013, here
“He stood out from the very beginning.” And thus the tale of a dot and a line unfolds. It’s charming and spirited, and I immediately wanted to buy a dozen copies. Not only for the young ones in my life. But for everyone with whom I’ve ever had a conversation about punctuation. For everyone I know who has felt out-of-step, regardless of age and stage-of-life.

Sarah De Leeuw’s Geographies of a Lover (2012)
This is a raw, muscular way to write about female sexuality, something we don’t know how to do. Inspired in part by works of Judy Blume, Erica Jong, Elizabeth Smart, and Marian Engel, she “hoped to carve some new space”. It’s about loss, distance, and relationships that tremble and break.

Cary Fagan’s Mr. Zinger’s Hat, Illustrated by DušanPetričić (2012) Ken Setterigton’s pick in the Holiday Children’s Book Panel 2012
Jack Hodgins Passion for Narrative“Every day after school, Leo took his ball into the courtyard. He threw the ball high into the air. It would hit the brick wall and bounce back, and Leo would try to catch it.” The art of storytelling can be just as repetitive as playing catch with the wall. But as every ball player knows, the trajectory is unpredictable when the corner of a brick is struck. A story can take an expected and exhilaring turn as well, whether inspired by its creator or by the responsiveness of the listener/reader. Back and forth. Around and around. The dance of story.

Amanda Lang’s The Power of Why (2012)
We are 98% creative at the age of five; curiosity shouldn’t be a problem. But we lose how to ask the question “why”, and we need to be more innovative. “Think like a four-year-old and don’t worry if you get a question wrong, just keep asking “why”.

Jack Hodgins’ Master of Happy Endings (2012) Part of the Masterclass Series
“I don’t believe in endings. Stories have to come to some kind of end, but I always feel at the end that it’s only a tentative ending.”

The dates here may be an indication of the publication date, but the great thing about having interviews like this archived is that, if your TBR list is as long as mine, it doesn’t really matter whether the book being discussed is current or not.

Because “The Next Chapter” is one of my favouite book programs, I am more up-to-date with its episodes than I am with most of my listening, but also I don’t mind listening to older episodes of bookish podcasts, because I am that-much-more likely to find the book at hand, either on my own shelves or on a public library’s.

How about you? Do you have favourite book programs?

Confined: Margaret Atwood and Claudine Dumont

“If prison isn’t prison, the outside world has no meaning!” So says Aurora to Charmaine in Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Heart Goes Last.

Atwood Heart Goes Last

McClelland & Stewart, 2015 (Penguin Random House)

It dates back, the CanLit icon’s interest in imprisonment, a preoccupation with the idea of lives which are lived inside and lives which are lived outside.

In The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), Offred observes: “As long as we do this, butter our skin to keep it soft, we can believe that we will some day get out, that we will be touched again, in love or desire.” She, like many women in that novel, has private ceremonies which sustain her while she is “inside”, longing to be “outside”.

Grace Marks, too, in Alias Grace (1996) is imprisoned: “Outside, the seasons changed, but all I knew of it was the difference in the light that shone through the small barred window, which was too high on the wall for me to see out of it; and the air that would come in, bringing the scents and odours of all I was missing.”

But inside and outside are not necessarily distinct. Simon Jordan comes to the prison to listen to Grace Marks speak of the events which led to her conviction for the murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in 1843 Upper Canada.

Simon has his freedom in a sense which Grace does not, and yet he feels confined in other ways: “Does his mother really believe that he can be charmed by such a vision of himself – married to Faith Cartwright and imprisoned in an armchair by the fire, frozen in a kind of paralyzed stupor, with his dear wife winding him up gradually in coloured silk threads like a cocoon, or like a fly snarled in the web of a spider?”

This is true, too, for the characters in Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last.

Charmaine and Stan are living in their car, when they hear about a program which requires that they live in a prison for one month and have freedom for another, alternating mechanically between inside and outside and offering a stability that they lack in their current daily life.

It is a novel about prison. Yes.

“The main deal is the prison. Prisons used to be about punishment, and then reform and penitence, and then keeping dangerous offenders inside. Then, for quite a few decades, they were about crowd control – penning up the young, aggressive, marginalized guys to keep them off the streets. And then, when they started to be run as private businesses, they were about the profit margins for the prepackaged jail-meal suppliers, and the hired guards and so forth.”

But it’s not necessarily about prisons built with bricks and mortar.

Just as Simon (in Alias Grace) believed himself at risk with his mother’s expectations and demands, Charmaine and Stan face unexpected (undefined) risks too.

FAtwood Alias Graceor instance, what happens when one person lies so often and so substantially to another person that the truth is no longer recognizable.

What if someone has been “[l]eading her astray for motives different from the ones you’re supposed to have when you lead someone astray.”

What does it mean when a deception has another layer like this, when one person expects a certain kind of deception but then learns that there are new depths to the fabrication.

And what does it mean when the deception to directly related to matters of desire?

What if you can’t trust the inside or the outside, and what if you can no longer recognize the boundaries?

What if the distinctions are all in your own mind, in your own self?

“Charmaine, Charmaine, whispers the small voice in her head. You are such a fraud.
So are you, she tells it.”

See, it gets complicated. Quickly and surprisingly.

To the point where one character wonders: “How bad are things when you can get nostalgic about living in your car?”

The main character in Claudine Dumont’s Captive (2013; Translated by David Scott Hamilton 2015) is also confined.

And she could probably relate to that last Atwood quote, because there is a point at which she seems nostalgic for being in an alcholic haze, head pounding and consciousness flickering.

In the novel’s first four pages, sudden violence leads to her imprisonment. At first, readers wonder whether perhaps she is simply confined in a burst of alcoholism, a symptom of the “empty box” of her life.

Claudine Dumont Captive

House of Anansi, 2015

Right away, she shares her dreams of an elevator failing, a mechanism giving way to a plunging crash. Even she wonders if she is hallucinating or dreaming, when she hears a noise in the hall and two men are in her room, the events which lead to her captivity. “Fragility is too dangerous. It doesn’t take much before others start testing their talent for causing pain.”

Ironically, reading Captive leaves one feeling simultaneously as though there is not even time to take a single breath AND as though there is nothing but time and that breathing is the only thing that matters anymore.

Having previously translated Nelly Arcan’s final novel, Paradis, clef en main, David Scott Hamilton has experience with bold and raw prose; the pacing of Captive is relentless, breathless, fragmented and piercing.

“A fog of fragments of ice soaked in alcohol. I’m not dreaming. There are two men in my room. Dressed in black. Wearing masks. Armed. The one behind me is still holding my wrists.”

First impressions: one is overwhelmed by the sense of heavily punctuated prose, which seems to puncture the pages of this sleek Arachnide volume (one of the recent titles in House of Anansi’s translation series). Captive is all about story, told in the present-tense: insistent and brutal. One does not even have time to take a drink.

But, later, one is struck by the idea that nothing is as it seems; it is not simple and it is not direct. Captive is rooted in ideas, designed to make readers’ minds spin on the question of the varied vulnerabilities in our lives, and the risk of a philosophical collision between authenticity and fabrication. One has all the time in the world to sit and discuss, opening bottles of wine to lazily fuel the debates.

The lines between outside and inside are blurred in Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last and Claudine Dumont’s Captive. (And it’s not all because of the alcohol!)

And the question of what we desire? That is the blurriest bit of all. Oh, how we get caught in that web. Every one of us.

November 2015, In My Notebook

A couple of summers ago, I reread all Beverly Cleary’s Ramona stories. My notebook from that summer would have listed all the later Ramona books I’d missed, along with some favourite quotes and scenes as I reread my favourites.

Oh, how I loved Ramona when I was eight years old. (Turns out she is nearly as appealing now.) The later volumes were published long after my initial membership in the Ramona fan club. I never realized that the series had continued.

Fifteen and NotebookMany times, I simply stopped reading series because the main character matured past the point of being interesting. Anne got married. Jo got married. Emily got married. If Ramona gets married, we haven’t read about it yet.

The heroines of some of Beverly Cleary’s other books were much closer to marriage, although still comfortably in the land of uncertainty.

They still had things to tell me about things which I needed to know. At least I thought they did, at the time.

And in my notebook, I have made some notes on these ideas, gleaned from a reread of Fifteen, which was originally published in 1956.

Here are some of the things which a girl needs as a prelude to living happily ever after: cashmere sweaters, rides in convertibles, bobby pins. Also, deep pore cleanser and Rosy Rapture lipstick and polish.

This will adequately prepare you to sip cokes at the counter of Nibley’s Confectionery and Soda Fountain. You may even meet a “perfectly nice boy”.

This boy will be “tall enough”, friendly, and he will have a driver’s license. Maybe he will also be tanned and be able to borrow his father’s car.

There are risks and dangers everywhere, however. “I don’t want you riding around in a car with some strange boy,” Jane’s mother declares.

Fifteen is just the sort of story in which mothers declare and exclaim. The sort of book in which fathers mention the banns when their daughter is invited to the movies.

The Teen Corner in the newspaper (likely a radical idea) advises girls to inquire after a boy’s interests. That’s easy enough for Jane, who always aims to be friendly and interested in other people.

But what is a mystery for 15-year-old Jane is the finer mystery: how can she be sophisticated enough to capture and maintain the interest of a “perfectly nice boy”?

She wants to be a sophisticated young woman with a dinner date. She knows what to do with a lipstick brush and she skips her lunch. And he s the nicest boy, “full of fun”.

But when Stan Crandall picks her up, he is driving the delivery truck that he uses for his part-time job and, even so, Jane is the less sophisticated of the two.

Stan has suggested a Chinese restaurant in the city and she doesn’t know what to order or how to eat it. Stan’s friend makes jokes about flied lice (which must have passed as humour for many of 1956’s Fifteen readers).

But it’s Jane who might not be sophisticated enough to keep the interest of a boy who “has a purpose” and who is capable of ordering something other than a hamburger.

Jane lives on Blossom Street and Stan lives on Poppy Lane. When I reread books like Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen, I find a part of my younger self there on Cleary Street.

It is no longer a landscape that I dream of inhabiting, but it is familiar territory all the same.

‘Tis the Season…for Mosquitoes

So, it’s past the middle of November, so I’m surprised to find myself surrounded by so many mosquitoes.

LIW Mosquitoes Silver LakeFirst in the fifth volume of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series, On the Shores of Silver Lake.

Living so close to the land, the other residents are regularly brushing elbows (and paws and wings and other appendages) with the Ingalls family.

There is a bear where Ma is expecting to find a cow (don’t worry: the cow is fine).

There are wolves in a den which everyone thought was abandoned.

Of course, Jack the brindle bull dog, who loyally follows the wagon, until he is too old to walk behind.

And, oh yes, so many grasshoppers. And, then, so many grasshopper eggs. Which leads, obviously, to many more grasshoppers.

So, it only makes sense to find mosquitoes there. (The grasshoppers had their own chapter too, also illustrated by Garth Williams.)

When I was a girl, I reread my favourite volumes of this series regularly. My favourite was always The Long Winter, after I was old enough to read them all, but my longest-time favourite would have been Little House in the Big Woods, because for some years I only read the volumes with the larger print (the first four, technically, but I never liked Farmer Boy, because it was not about a Farmer Girl).

War Child MosquitoesAs an older reader, I wonder how I crawled over the assumptions about ethnicity and gender roles which I likely read without questioning at the time. Ma declares that the “only good Indian is a dead Indian” and even though Pa has picked out a couple who pass muster with him, they are clearly exceptional in his mind.

Nonetheless, I intend to finish the series. Way back in my girlhood reading years, I learned the habit of leaving series unfinished, and I am trying to make good on some of those as an adult reader.

For even though I loved Laura’s propensity for mischief when I was younger, I had no patience with her when she got older, capable of all the same chores that Ma could do…and then she began to eye Almanzo. Even so, The First Four Years: here I come.

(This is part of a more extensive project; this past summer, I also finally finished the last volume of the Anne books, which I had avoided for many years. Another summer, I finished the Sydney Taylor All-of-a-Kind-Family series. And then there was the Ramona series (the later volumes were published after I was reading Ramona regularly). And Little Women (again, gals got married and their lives became less interesting for me). And The Borrowers too.)

The only series that I actually finished reading when I was a girl was – oh, never mind, I didn’t ever finish one. (When I was in high school, I finally got around to finishing one, I think.)

But I get distracted. Something new comes out, and then I am compelled to read it instead.

Which is what happened with Michel Chikawanine’s Child Soldier (written with Jessica Dee Humphreys and illustrated by Claudia Dávila).

An ad for one of his speaking engagements got my attention, then I was slipping Child Soldier into my bookbag.

And, there again, talk of mosquitoes. Though the bloodshed in this story is at the hands of human beings. (Both the illustrations and the text in his graphic memoir are worth reading.)

Byatt Angels InsectsIn A.S. Byatt’s “Morpho Eugenia”, a novella included in the volume Angels & Insects, there is talk of not just a single mosquito.

Instead, there is talk of a cloud of them (even though the bulk of the story is preoccupied with a cloud of butterflies).

“The primeval forest out there – the endless sameness of the greenery – the clouds of midges and mosquitoes – the struggling mass of creepers and undergrowth – often seemed to me the epitome of the amorphous.”

This was the first fiction published by her after the inimitable Possession, which I loved to pieces (literally – I no longer have my much-abused copy).

It was also an early instance of Not-the-Book-I-Loved phenomenon, in which I expected an author’s subsequent publication to be both (a) new and fascinating and different and (b) exactly like the book they wrote before, the one that I had loved.

Although mosquitoes are not at the heart of this story, there are many flurries and bursts of things, some winged and others shoed.

William has just returned from the Amazon, in which he was shipwrecked for a time, most of his collected specimens lost. He managed to salvage only a couple of pieces, but their value managed to secure a future for him all the same (though perhaps not the future he would have imagined).

There is a lot of talk about ants (and bees, to a lesser extent) and they scurry through the story like the maids scurry up and down the backstairs of wealthy homes in the 19th century. (It does not take long to recognize the queen!)

In some instances, the mosquitoes in my reading have flown off almost immediately after I spotted them on the page.

But in Griffin Ondaatje’smiddle-grade novel The Mosquito Brothers  (illustrated by Erica Salcedo), they take centre stage. Er, hover above it, anyway.

Ondaatje Mosquito BrothersJust as A.S. Byatt takes the world of insects and positions readers so that they wonder if they are viewing an ant colony or a pseudo-mediaeval manor house, Griffin Ondaatje tells Dinnn’s story – the story of a young mosquito – in the context of his everyday life, with his family and attending school.

One could read this as a nice middle-grade story about a young wanna-be-hero, who doesn’t have the same attributes as the other youngsters but learns to accept himself for who he is and sees that he really does have something unique to offer.

But I read it as someone who needed more information about mosquitoes, having had so many chance encounters with them lately (on the page).

Dinnn was named with 3 ‘n’s because his mother had 400 children to name, so it was necessary (nnnecessary) to double up eventually. This is a problem that I had never considered. (It’s one of the reasons that the interview with the author and Shelagh Rogers, on a recent episode of CBC’s “The Next Chapter”, caught my attention!)

So Dinnn’s mother has my sympathies. All the more so because she ran away to a parking lot with Dinnn’s father and only later discovered that he was a floater.

That’s right: her husband spends the bulk of his time bumping around the drive-in movie theatre screen. Then again, maybe he is struggling with the fact that his sweetheart had another family before, in an abandoned tire, with some other mister-mosquito some years back.

When Dinnn’s father goes to parent-teacher night, he falls asleep, because he’s up so late, with the movies playing every night at the Lakeside theatre. Or maybe the air is just too stuffy in the school, which is an old air-conditioning unit.

Ironically, The Mosquito Brothers was intended as my final book on the subject. But Dinnn learns some truly fascinating facts about his kind, when he attends school. Griffin Ondaatje’s book might not be the last on the subject in my reading after all.

Bundle up, Dinnn: it’s nearly December, and you’re going to need a warmer coat!

Kyo Maclear’s The Good Little Book (2015)

I returned to picture books when a face-to-face bookclub read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Books without pictures still outnumber the illustrated volumes in my stacks, but I am working to adjust the balance.

Kyo Maclear Good Little BookThe Good Little Book, written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Marion Arbona, will suit booklovers of all ages, and likely some pre-bookloving youngsters who are drawn to boldly coloured and intricate drawings as well.

The inside leaf has a bookplate with a number of readers’ names in childlike handwriting, the names of the author and illustrator and various loved ones with whom they have shared the volume.

Against a rich floral pattern, around the plate and on the facing page, it looks as though some young hands have drawn some stick figures, outlined some of their favourite things (including a dinosaur and a rocket) and an x’s and o’s grid (in which o won).

Much is revealed here: books are to be shared and readers are to interact with their favourites, to make them a part of their everyday lives. The Good Little Book does have a story, but there are only a few pages, so that’s best left for readers to discover themselves.

However, in case you need to recognize it in a crowd, here is a description of the main character: “The good little book was neither thick nor thin, neither popular nor unpopular. It had no shiny medals to boast of. It didn’t even own a proper jacket.”

And here is a hint of the action contained herein:”The silence of reading slowly filled the room.” Sometimes things get more exciting: “Then he turned back to the beginning and read it again.”

Marion Arbona’s illustrations are slightly disorienting, in a way which seems to pull readers into the story: buildings with straight lines angle towards one another and a reader in an armchair repeats across a spread-page as though the floor is never flat or still.

In collage-styled spreads, people and other creatures overlap like sardines in a can, body parts colliding, instantly creating a mood. There is a playful tone, which would appeal to children (a couple of scenes in particular will make them giggle, offering eyes on uncommonly viewed territory) but the colours and intricacy will also appeal to adults. (I would happily hang prints from this volume on my walls, the two which are not covered with bookshelves.)

As with Kyo Maclear’s Virginia Wolf, the prose is clearly written to reach young readers, but it resonates with older readers as well. It is delicately and deliberately constructed, and perhaps it’s because I so enjoyed her debut novel The Letter Opener and still remember the feeling that book created, but the prose feels inviting, warming even (the colours help with that too, of course).

If you’ve loved Sarah Stewart’s The Library (illustrated by David Small), Manjusha Pawagi’s The Girl Who Hated Books (illustrated by Leanne Franson) and Kate Bernheimer’s The Lonely Book (illustrated by Chris Sheban), you will want a copy of The Good Little Book on your shelves.

It can hang out with all the other good little books there.

Do you have a favourite illustrated bookish book?

November 2015, In My Bookbag

Three of the books in my stack currently are heavy or over-sized (G.R..R. Martin: I’m looking at you), but there are several skinny options making an appearance in my bookbag this week.

November BookBagFirst, Michel Chikawanine’s Child Soldier (written with Jessica Dee Humphreys and illustrated by Claudia Dávila); he begins by introducing himself and saying that the “story you are about to read is true”.

It is a story aimed at young readers, who may be shocked to learn that an estimated 250,000 of their peers are soldiers.

Half of this number are involved in Africa, but their experiences are shared by many on other continents as well, and the supplementary material also draws attention to the impact of other kinds of violence and crime on children everywhere.

It’s clear that this book could be immediately and powerfully put to use in classrooms, and the pages illustrated in colour seem as though they would be particularly appealing to young readers. (There are alsosix pages of supporting material at the end, including definitions and resources, whereas some terms – like genocide – are defined in the story proper.)

Yet there are pages interspersed, which are illustrated in the same style but include a few panels coloured in sepia or neutral tones, with maps or text, which also offer direct and concrete geographical and political commentary. This is presented in basic terms, so that generations of history are encapsulated in a couple of pages, and it situates readers in time and space succinctly.

Sometimes these panels contain no image, only a comment from the author which reveals a concept requiring additional explanation. “Looking back, I see it was unfair that I had been raised to think I was great because of my gender insetad of my deeds. But Congo, like most of the world, suffers from ‘boy is best’ thinking. Although my dad was smart, modern and understanding, he was still a product of his upbringing and his culture. I guess we all are.”

Perhaps younger readers would be pulled more completely into the story, for it is announced almost immediately that things are going to change, and a sense of tension lurks from the start; I find that I can only read a few pages at a time. Michel Chikwanine’s story is presented in the simplest manner, and it is tremendously affecting told in this way.

There is some grim reading in the November issue of “The Walrus”, but it, too, ends on a note of promise. “In a way, it’s harder to read about the brutalization of livestock than of humans, because we don’t put humans in Happy Meals,” writes Jonathan Kay, in his review of Project Animal Farm by Sonia Faruqi.

Project Animal Farm penetrates our psychological defences, because Faruqi’s compendium of horrors is interwoven with the deadpan story of her own bizarre, mortifying, often hilarious interactions with a rolling cast of characters.” This one is on my reading list, thanks to the review.

I usually start reading “The Walrus” at the back (or the front) and then turn to the front (or the back) and read up to the feature article. This month, I began at the back, with Seth’s cartoon, and I loved what came next: the photographs taken by Joseph Hartman of the studios of Canadian artists (accompanied by a short piece by Kyle Carston Wyatt about the nature of the ‘studio’ and the photgrapher’s fascination with it).

Margaret Drabble’s books are often too heavy to slip into a bookbag easily, but Jerusalem the Golden does. It is just over 200 pages, and she is one of my MRE authors (MustReadEverything), so I am happy to bring her along.

This is the story of Clara Maugham. “She stayed indoors for the rest of the summer, lying on her bed, trying to read.” Readers meet her long after that summer, zip backwards to well before that summer, and then settle firmly on the other side of it once more.

“Her desire for such a life was so passionate, and her gratitude to Walter for this glimpse of it was so great that she could have kissed him in the street, and later that day she did in fact allow him to undo her brassiere strap without a word of protest.”

Passion and gratitude, bassiere straps and protest: Margaret Drabble’s novels are quietly subversive.

What’s in your bookbag these days?

 

I Spy with My CanLit Eye: Two Classics

Our young separatist narrator is imagining his own future and the future of Quebec, and both man and nation are struggling with matters of expression and independence, in Hubert Aquin’s Next Episode (published in 1965, translated by Sheila Fischman in 2001).

Hubert Aquin Next Episode“I am the fragmented symbol of Quebec’s revolution, its fractured reflection and its suicidal incarnation.”

He is isolated and lonely: thinking back, thinking forward.

“I need you; I need to retrieve the thread of our story and the ellipsis that will take me back to the heat of our two consumed bodies.”

The narrative is deliberately disorienting for readers but, paradoxically, it is rooting the writer.

“Writing a story is no small matter, unless it becomes the daily and detailed punctuation of my endless stillness and my slow fall into this liquid pit.”

It is what maintains and sustains his sanity. (Or does not.)

“This book is the tirelessly repeated act of a patriot who’s waiting in the timeless void for the chance to take up arms again. Moreover, it embraces the very shape of the time to come: in it and through it I am exploring my indecision and my unlikely future.”

In Sheila Fischman’s translation, the prose is rhythmic and readers are caught up in the swell of long phrases which pull readers in and then cast them outwards once more.

“Writing is a great expression of love. Writing used to mean writing to you; but now that I’ve lost you I still mass words together, mechanically, because in my heart of hearts I hope that my intellectual wanderings, which I reserve for born debaters, will make their way to you.”

This classic novel takes work, as does any relationship, but one can’t help but feel that it is a love letter of sorts: a heartfelt declaration.

And even without an understanding of the politics and philosophy which simmer beneath the story, the storyteller’s passion remains seductive: seductive and secretive.

There is a lot of clandestine activity in Next Episode, as secret communications and quietly orchestrated acts of resistance unfold in any backdrop of revolution.

This is true, too, in Helen Weinzweig’s Basic Black with Pearls (1980). The narrator’s lover works for The Agency, and their capacity to spend time together is dictated by this organization’s demands.

Weinzweig Basic Black with PearlsShirley Kazenbowski (née Silverberg) looks in magazines for clues which might refer to an earlier meeting or could suggest possibiltiies for their next meeting. Everything has the possibility of containing a message, a sign (or, a memory, perhaps a loss).

“The question still remained: where, in the problem of dead elms [discussed in an issue of National Geographic], was his message for me? I counted words on a line, lines on a page, the number of Latin terms. Nothing was revealed. Fatigue diverted a rising dread.”

The personal landscape and the physical landscape intersect, the geography of memory settles into place.

“Even in the rain I could see that what appeared to be new shops and buildings were only facades over the old: larger windows, bright tile, some stone work. I felt my past had not been erased, just covered over and given new names in other languages.”

There is a strong sense of place in the novel, as she walks the streets of Toronto, looking for clues. In those shops near Spadina and Dundas Streets, she walks with her head down, in the rain. Often the weather parallels her emotions, when she is overwhelmed, suspended between meetings and missing her lover.

She is pulled into memories of other places in which they have spent time together as she searches through her collection of postcards.

“This card, recalling the night Coenraad first made his appearance, filled my mind with a clarity of detail that one sees in shock, as after a blinding explosion or during a night of labor. And even when the shock is the result of violent pleasure, then the ordinary properties of wood or plastic or paint or cloth take on strange and mysterious shapes and colors. The senses sharpen as if one’s very life were in danger, even in paradise.”

Her senses do seem to sharpen as the story unfolds, circuitously, through memory and imagination, through those parts of her past that have been covered over and renamed. Gradually, readers come to have a different understanding of her current situation.

“Perhaps I ought to try my hand at fiction. I would have to be careful: for me the power of the written word is so great that there would be the danger of my believing what I imagined.”

When I came upon this passage, I immediately thought of the way that Next Episode‘s narrator thinks about writing as an expression of love.

The narrator in Basic Black with Pearls hopes her words will reach her lover, too. And Next Episode‘s narrator desperately needs to believe what he imagines.

When characters start having conversations between books, I smile. (Even when their stories are sad ones.)

Alison Pick’s Between Gods (2014; 2015)

She tells you straight-up: “The decision when to begin a family story is arbitrary.”

Alison Pick Between Gods

HarperPerennial, 2015 (US edition)

And she lays out the doubts and uncertainties: “Who am I to claim the official version?”

And, so, Alison Pick is our seemingly uncertain and unsanctioned guide.

But, she also writes about the dynamic between certainty and reluctance in a relationship.

And this is true not only in an intimate and romantic partnership, as she describes, but in the relationship between reader and writer.

The more uncertain the writer, the more she is willing to explore and unearth difficult truths, the more she bares her humanity and confronts her doubts and fragility, the more we, readers, develop a certain trust in Alison Pick’s voice.

The story of her “own small life” in the context of her family mythology has long inspired her work. In her poetry collection, Question & Answer, she also considers the arbitrary nature of beginning a query into one’s ancestral heritage.

Consider these lines, from a poem written for her grandparents, “What They Left Me”:

“Her son: my father.
My own small life.
The first light snow of winter, their ashes at my back.”

For years, these stories have haunted her, even before the desire could be clearly articulated (a process she describes at length, in an authentic voice, which strikes a balance between peculiarly personal and universal human experiences), even before she understood the dimensions of their experience of the Holocaust.

“But I felt a growing unease. The clues were beginning to add up. Something wasn’t right in our family. Something was lurking, biding its time. It seemed to be pulling at me, a persistent tugging. I wasn’t sure I could resist much longer.”

It is more than a simple unease, however. With time, it becomes “…an oppressive, relentless psychic weight; a nagging voice that I have to somehow override each time I set pen to paper”.

This lurking and tugging, oppressive and relentless, settles into a diagnosis, but this is not a medical memoir; by nature a contemplative and reflective person, Alison Pick records and evaluates, reels and careens.

“There are things I used to care about: That the bills were paid on time. That we ate the kale in the crisper before buying more. I once nagged Degan about ironing his shirt before work.  I remember this through a fog of comprehension, stunned that I would have noticed such a thing, let alone felt compelled to do anything about it.”

Her quest, unsurprisingly (given the title), focuses on matters of faith.

“At a time of spiritual crisis it is best to do nothing. To float. To rest. To ask for guidance. But when I finally make it home and collapse into bed, I find myself unable to pray. I am between Gods, as others are between relationships or careers.”

But the role of her creative work, her use of dance and music and language to form order from chaos: this, too, is vitally important in both questioning and answering.

“And a story, any story, has to start somewhere.”

In some ways, it starts when you get out of bed in the morning (or do not).

In other ways, it starts when you put pen to paper. While “between Gods”, the author is also composing her novel, Far to Go. (Her first novel, The Sweet Edge, is what drew me to this volume.)

“Maybe writing fiction serves a dual function: letting the author excavate her psyche while at the same time functioning as a kind of psychic shield.”

The links between her ancestral history and her personal life are explored through a swath of experiences as varied as a traumatic hospital visit and an unexpectedly strong attraction (to another writer who has published a memoir about his experience growing up in the Orthodox Jewish tradition) to a tour of a concentration camp and a speech given by a Holocaust survivor. And, throughout, there is a persistent awareness that hers is “just one of many possible stories”.

Many scenes are rooted in religious traditions, both Christian and Jewish. From Passover to synagogue services, from Christmas carols to Communion wafers: many readers will likely be drawn to the detailed exploration and consideration of specific memberships. (There is a lot of detail about Toronto worship in particular, from community centres to Judaica retail locations.)

While I am sure that many readers will find these elements of the memoir central, for me the pull of Between Gods is its sense that each of us travels our own spiritual road, with or without formal affiliation (both states are considered at length in Between Gods). This journey of a lifetime (and across lifetimes) is a road much travelled, shaped by us as individuals and as members of communities (whether rooted in blood or in choice: Alison Pick finds travelling companions in both groups). And all readers can find something to relate to in this kind of travelogue.

Alison Pick AP“Narrative begs an ending. The desire to wrap up loose-ends, to make meaning, is human, and ancient. But things do not end. There is only progression, shape-shifting, the flow of a current that crashes and tumbles, diminishes, almost dries up, only to give birth to itself again a little farther downstream.”

Alison Pick begins her quest reluctantly, but her journey is punctuated by moments of certainty.

“The flip side of grief is a blazing, blistering gratitude for being alive.”

Find out more about Alison at her website and connect with her on Facebook.

Thanks to TLC and the publisher for the invitation to participate in this tour.

Other participants’ thoughts appear here: Back PorchervationsFrom L.A. to LA. Yet to come: Not in JerseyBooknAroundLife By KristenWorth Getting in Bed ForThe many thoughts of a reader5 Minutes For BooksBook Hooked BlogSharon’s Garden of Book ReviewsSvetlana’s Reads and ViewsMs. Nose in a Book, and Book by Book.

Pauline Holdstock’s The Hunter and the Wild Girl (2015)

Despite its sedate and unassuming cover, Pauline Holdstock’s The Hunter and the Wild Girl begins in a rush.

Hunter Wild Girl Holdstock

Goose Lane, 2015

“With a shriek of splintering boards, the girl breaks into daylight and stands blinded, panting, sucking air as if it were a great hot soup, her chest heaving.”

This sentence and the following pages remind me of Tomson Highway’s opening scene in Kiss of the Fur Queen, as Abraham races towards the finish line in a race.

Immediately we readers are engaged in this girl’s story because she is racing too, but readers soon understand that she is not aiming to win.

Perhaps we notice with the ‘shriek’ and the ‘break’ or maybe we need the outwardly expressed desire to be ‘away’, offered a few sentences later.

We realize that we are witnessing an escape not a race, and immediately we sympathize with the hunted.

What is slower to come is a sense of the layers of narrative and characterization which echo that dynamic of pursuer and persued thoughout the work.

There are two central figures in this story, but perhaps even more importantly, there are two roles: several of the story’s prominent characters inhabit both.

Peyre Rouff for instance, was once a member of a small community in 19th-century France, with a wife and child to provide for; but for much of this story he lives in a state that many would describe as “wild”, living off a pot of soup for a week and devoting his waking and sober hours to creating art.

Just there, what I really wanted to say is that Peyre is creating not art, but life, or at least, as close as nearly as one can create life, with materials gathered by post and skills gained via years of practice.

And perhaps I might as well say that, for my use of the word ‘art’ could lead you to think he is painting watercolours or sculpting with clay, whereas the surprise of learning that Peyre becomes a renowned taxidermist is appropriately disorieting.

Peyre possesses (or acquires) a gift. But just as one cannot be hunted unless there is a hunter, the idea of one possessing a gift begs the corollary: Peyre also has (or acquires) a curse.

The Hunter and the Wild Girl feels like a humble and simple tale about a world in which the role of the village is so central that many French villagers believe Paris to be a different country; yet it also reads as an archetypal tale sketched in such broad strokes that readers can interpret it in an ovewhelming number of ways.

The narrative rushes and slows, darts and stops to take a breath; its course is like a stream whose underground bits move with unexpected speed and direction. (Pauline Holdstock gets the credit for this metaphor, although explaining why would be a spoiler.)

The prose itself erupts in fragments, then settles into long comma-soaked descriptive passages. The solidity of the story rests in theme.

What happens when a person bears a responsibility which is too substantial for one person to carry. What happens when one recreates one’s world around a set of bones-once-buried.

What happens when we are confronted by the bestial elements of a human eixistence. What happens when the conventional definitions of wilderness and civilization are insufficient.

What happens when an individual faces an inexpressible loss. What happens when a community has the opportunity to blame an individual for an inexplicable loss.

It didn’t surprise me that Pauline Holdstock’s novel was well-crafted; her Into the Heart of the Country was one of my favourites in 2011.

But what did surprise me? About 3/4 of the way into this novel, I began to want something for one of the characters, something that I couldn’t recall wanting for anyone before, fictional or otherwise. But then I realized that I had wanted it, but I called it something else. And now I have a new word for it. The Wild Girl showed it to me.

Companion Reads:
Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, Lauren B. Davis’s Our Daily Bread, Alissa York’s Effigy
(For thematic similarities although setting and style differ greatly amongst them.)