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

Beginning the Jalna Books

The snow has melted from all but the most sheltered parts of the yards and the temperature has hovered above zero for so long that any fresh flakes that fall do not accumulate on the ground. The earth has warmed, the daylight lingers well past five o’clock, and sometimes it smells like spring.

Kirk Mazo de la RocheBut on the afternoon I began to read the first Jalna book, finally, great sprawling flakes were falling, fiercely for a spell, then a gap of nearly an hour, then another burst, and so on. And the idea of beginning to read a family saga seemed to fit perfectly with a winter’s afternoon.

Before I began The Building of Jalna in earnest, I peeked into two biographies of Mazo de la Roche. Heather Kirk’s Mazo de la Roche: Rich and Famous Writer (2006) actually references the other volume I had gathered: Joan Givner’s Mazo de la Roche: The Hidden Life (1989).

My ideas about Mazo de la Roche circle around her fame. I think of her in the same breath as L.M. Montgomery: so successful. But there’s more to it: Joan Givner identified Mazo de la Roche’s work as forming a transition betwen the 19th-century’s literary foremothers, like Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill and Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence.

She draws attention to the fact that she opted for a life for which there was no precedent and no pattern, forged outside the established tradition of women’s lives. Referring to feminist literary scholars like Carolyn Heilbrun as well as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, she remarks upon Mazo de la Roche’s “unparalleled individuality”.

But Heather Kirk adds that Mazo de la Roche wasn’t an isolated figure when she began to write the Jalna stories in 1925 and 1926; she was part of the literary community in Toronto, a member of the Canadian Authors’ Association, and acquainted with prominent writers like Morley Callaghan, Raymond Knister and Charles G.D. Roberts.

She also had support closer to home. In her autobiography, Mazo de la Roche paints an enchanting bookish picture of her and her young cousin Caroline: “”We sat together at a table close to the window to catch the last of the daylight and read aloud, page about. I remember how carefully we sounded the ‘g’ in gnat. Our heads – hers fair, mine curly and brown – touching. Our legs, in their long black cashmere stockings, dangling.”

Caroline’s support of Mazo’s writing was vitally important in the early years. “I had a small sum of money which I had inherited from my grandfather, but I felt like the man of the family then, I felt Mazo must go on with her writing,” she explains.

Mazo was also inspired by her reading, listing John Galsworthy among her favourite authors (with Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy and Sheila Kaye-Smith). The similarities between Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga and the Jalna saga are undeniable: “family solidarity and substance” are at the heart of both stories.

She was already a successful novelist when she began to write these stories. She wrote “Jalna” at the top of the page and worked chapter-by-chapter from beginning to end with little revision. In the evenings, Caroline read aloud what Mazo had written, and they discussed the work and future chapters together.

“That summer I lived with the Whiteoaks, completely absorbed by them. In fancy I opened the door of Jalna, passed inside, listened to what was going on.”

I’ve just begun to open the door of Jalna myself. I like the idea of knowing a little more about my host before I settle in.

How are your reading projects for this year unfolding so far? Have you dipped into any writers’ biographies lately?

What’s the longest series of novels you’ve read? Do you have a favourite family saga?


Vickie Gendeau’s Testament (2012; 2016)

Originally written after the author had been diagnosed with a brain tumour, Testament is a response to the news that Vickie Gendreau would have little time left to live: about a year.


2012; Book Thug, 2016

The novel’s translator, Aimee Wall, writes about the work, a few months after its author died, in Lemon Hound.

She explains: “I have spent a lot of time trying to find a way into writing about this book. I wanted to talk about it, but then wasn’t sure I knew how. I went looking.”

She goes looking “for other novels written from similar places of suddenly-limited time” and writes about the novel in numbered paragraphs, assembling fragments of information and observation and reflection.

I find myself wondering where, in the sequence, it occurred to her that she could translate Vickie Gendreau’s work. When she realised that it could work, could connect with English audiences despite the linguistic challenges.

In the translator’s note, Aimee Wall observes that Testament “moves between the present and the near-future, between poetry and prose, between French and English” in a “textured, hybrid language” which makes translation particularly challenging.

And, then, there is a subject matter.

Debilitating illness is one thing.

“I never left the hospital. I will never fully leave the hospital. I come back every day for my radiation treatments. I have this little coloured scarf and a ton of hats to hide the hair I’m losing.”

Fatal illness is yet another.

“You don’t want people talking about miracles when they’re discussing your recovery.”

Testament chronicles present-day events (“My mother accumulates old visitor badges and cards for my appointments in her huge purse.”).

But the bulk of the work is preoccupied with future events, imagined encounters with the author’s friends after her death and imagined encounters with these imagined encounters.

So, Raphaêlle observes: “I’m wearing a black dress. Vickie too. We’re wearing balck. I think black is charming. It’s slimming.” And Maman notes: “I didn’t understand any of Vickie’s book. Her friend Mathieu is going to help me make some sense of this document.”

When she speaks to readers directly, Vickie Gendreau sometimes speaks of ordinary things. “There will always be a collection agency to wake me up in the morning. There will always be a pot of something rotten in my fridge. There will always be someone to hate me. Someone to make a fool of me on athe telephone at three in the morning. Someone to treat me like a slut in front of my family. Someone to steal my drink, someone to steal my purse.”

And she is aware of the concept of readership, of the ways in which readers might interact with words on a page. Specifically her words. And difficulties with endings. “I won’t bore you with that too much. My stories never work. That’s why I like poetry, it’s always infinite. I’m suspicious of people who end their poems with a period.”

But, more often it’s as Aimee Wall describes. “Testament pulls the reader in close and then sometimes doesn’t let her in on the joke.” As though we are “occasionally eavesdropping on snippets of conversation for which we have little context, smiling at inside jokes we don’t really understand”.

Anyway, is that the point with a book like this: understanding? I wonder if one could adapt the translator’s statement to imagine the author being interviewed about her work, after her death, after some time has passed: “I spent a lot of time trying to find a way into writing my book. I wanted to talk about everything, but then wasn’t sure I knew how. I went looking.”

Perhaps, in the end (for how can we not think of endings now), it is less about the reading, less about the writing, and more about the looking.

About leaving something behind which does not end with a period —

Reading Louise Erdrich: At Last

For years, vaguely since I collected The Bingo Palace with a university course in mind (but there was never enough time to read all the books I planned to read for papers) and intensely since falling in love with The Last Miracle at Little No Horse, I’ve wanted to go back to the beginning of Louise Erdrich’s stories.

Erdrich TracksThis isn’t uncomplicated, and not only because making time for more than a dozen novels when one’s TBR list has 7,559 books on it is tricky.

Readers can choose to read in publication order or in chronological order.

“All of the books will be connected somehow—by history and blood and by something I have no control over, which is the writing itself. The writing is going to connect where it wants to, and I will have to try and follow along.”

So these connections are interconnections, as explained in the the Paris Review interview, from Issue 195 in 2010, with Lisa Halliday. She finally began to include family tree diagrams after seeing so many devoted fans making their own, bringing them to book readings and signings.

The earliest stories, chronologically, are those about Fleur and Pauline, Nanapush and Eli, which play out between winter 1912 and spring 1924.

But these were not the works Louise Erdrich wrote first. “Then I thought I’d better write a real novel. So I left everything else and wrote a book called Tracks.”

She explains that she rewrote the novel completely in 1989, based on her emotional understanding of the characters rather than out of her own experience.

“I’ve only had children with two fathers. Lulu’s had children by what, eight? People sometimes ask me, Did you really have these experiences? I laugh, Are you crazy? I’d be dead. I’d be dead fifty times. I don’t write directly from my own experience so much as an emotional understanding of it.” [Paris Review interview]

Family is integral to Tracks and the novels which precede and follow, and the interconnections between the works have led to comparisons with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County novels.

And this basic concept does emerge from her experience. “In the Turtle Mountains, everybody is related because there are only so many families. Nobody sits down and picks apart their ancestry. Unless you want to date somebody.”  [Paris Review interview]

Yet family does not translate into intimacy, into connections. Not necessarily.

“Abandonment is in all the books: the terror of having a bad mother or being a bad mother, or just a neglectful mother; letting your child run around in a T-shirt longer than her shorts.” [Paris Review interview]

And what is consistent, what endures, is not necessarily human. But, even so, living. As Nanapush explains in Tracks.

“Land is the only thing that lasts life to life. Money burns like tinder, flows off like water. And as for government promises, the wind is steadier. I am a holdout, like the Pillagers, although I told the Captain and the Agent what I thought of their papers in good English. I could have written my name, and much more too, in script. I had a Jesuit education in the halls of Saint John before I ran back to the woods and forgot all my prayers.”

The connection between land and people is more intimate than some readers might expect. The spirit is one.

“Summer fled and all the living plants dried to stalk and seed. The earth hardened. I swelled so tight that I could hardly life my arms and every breath was forced, fought for against her weight. I felt my bones give, the bowl of my hips creak wide, and between my legs there was a soft and steady burning.”

And the connection between women and the land can be particularly powerful but the connection between people must be nurtured and nourished, just as the connection with the land.

Nanapush handed his nearly full plate back to Margaret, who took a spoonful and passed the dish to Fleur, whose bowl was already cleaned by Lulu.
“I ate while I cooked,” said Margaret. She looked at Fleur, so gaunt, the baby pushing out, and at Lulu, eating with such ravenous attention, suking the thin bones and licking her fingers. “We old ones don’t need much, because our stomachs are too bitter.”

Bitter stomachs, bitter politics: what one takes and what one gives. This story unfolds more than a hundred years ago, but what we can learn from it fits with the headlines of today’s world.

This is my first read in my Louise Erdrich reading project; I’ve tried to arrange them in chrological order in terms of recurring characters, but when she’s shifted focus to other characters and other communities, I’ve settled back into publication order.

Favour a particula reading order? Please let me know. Is she a favourite of yours? Have you dabbled?

Tracks (1988)
Four Souls (2004)
Love Medicine (1984)
The Beet Queen (1986)
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001) *Reread
The Bingo Palace (1994) *Reread
Tales of Burning Love (1997)
The Antelope Wife (1998)
The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003)
The Painted Drum (2005)
The Plague of Doves (2008)
Shadow Tag (2010)
The Round House (2012)
LaRose (2016)

A Really Good Brown Girl: Marilyn Dumont

First published in 1996, Marilyn Dumont’s debut – A Really Good Brown Girl – was reprinted thirteen times and later republished as part of Brick Books’ classic series in 2013.

Dumont Really Good Brown GirlIn Lee Maracle’s  introduction, she talks about keeping a worn copy next to her bed, taking good care of it.

Like it “was made of ancient birchbark scrolls”. How she would wash her hands before reading.

This is what happens when books are sacred. “No other book so exonerates us, elevates us and at the same time indicts Canada in language so eloquent it almost hurts to hear it.”

Marilyn Dumont’s “Letter to Sir John A. MacDonald” begins “Dear John: I’m still here and half-breed / after all these years”.

In “Memoirs of a Really Good Brown Girl”, she writes: “Some learning theories say that native kids learn best by watching, because they’re more visual. I always knew that I learned by watching to survive in two worlds and in a white classroom.”

It’s parenthetical, and one realises, while reading these poems, that Marilyn Dumont is willing to share not only plain-speech commentary but parenthetical observations.

This is a reread for me, but it feels fresh in its tidy new package; when I first read it, the cover was pink and glossier, and in my memory the pages were ultra-white and the binding tight.

This time, I was in the midst of reading the last of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books, The Blythes Are Quoted, a reissue of her final manuscript, which was originally published as The Road to Yesterday, heavily edited to remove all the problematic subject matter (like adultery and talk of the loss of life in wartime which verged on being unpatriotic); what was not edited out was the story with the character of Squaw Girl.

Dumont Green Girl Dreams MountainsIn Marilyn Dumont’s “Squaw Poems”, she writes: “Indian women know all too well the power of the word squaw. I first heard it from my mother, who used it in anger against another Indian woman. ‘That black squaw,’ she rasped. As a young girl, I held the image of that woman in my mind and she became the measure of what I should never be.'”

In Green Girl Dreams Mountains (2001, Oolichan Books), Marilyn Dumont’s palour and palette seems to shift slightly, but she is still writing from the memory of that “old school house / jut out of the flatness / like a misplacd monument / to the wanderings home and away / of an extended family of halfbreeds”. (“monuments, cowboys & indians, tin cans and red wagons”)

Still present is the quiet grieving at the tangible and intangible losses, the heritage of injustice which has played out in addiction and depression, as in further explorations of her father’s descent: “’til his spirit is sucked from his eye, and / he is taken again / ghosted away /from the one who is my father / into a stranger, into an Indian / staggering down the street”. (“ghosted”)

But her indigenous identity is not the only means by which readers might relate to the work, but also a sense of the formless quotidien existence, from the working-class perspective: “stop at corners / look both ways, walk / to the number 4, appear / at work for eight hours, retrace / our steps home, lock the door behind us, feed / the cats, then ourselves, settle / back into our armchair with / newspaper, magazine or television monitor”. (“Salisbury”)

Despite the yearning for meaning, a stretching for a true (not prescribed) identity, persists and one thread remains secure: “‘What is it? What is it I am supposed to do?’ And the voice / that came back said ‘Write’ / and she knew that she had landed / once more / up/write”.

Dumont Tongued BelongingThat Tongued Belonging (Kegedonce, 2007) opens with the title poem: “Cree survives in the words / my niece offers her tearful daughter, ‘It’s O.K. my girl.’ Words of belonging. The significance and sacredness of indigenous language is considered in the earlier volumes as well, but seems to move to the centre of the circle with this volume.

Language as a tool of oppression is examined as well, even in the second poem, ” this, is for the wives”, which considers the native women who were good enough to keep house and bear children until the proper white financees and wives were brought over to the “new world” to sit at the dinner table with their men once more.

Lines about the tedium of low-paid maintenance work share space with poems about the tedium of domestic work (like the litany of tasks in “what older sisters are good at”, from 15 shirts – and nearly as many pairs of pants – for pressing to holding it all together.

Necessarily and appropriately, there is a lot of anger in these poems, but there is also humour and persevernce, an appreciation of irony alongside a need for resistance. So “my breasts are sensible” made me smile and “inventory” made me cheer: there are so many ways to feel and these verses create a space for all of them. (The sad and angry poems are often my favourites.)

“do I think of minds that design
an extended family of threads into
story? do I think of the women and children
who survive mothering these textiles?
do I think of the plant’s yellow leaves?
whether it still grows, or if anyone
knows how to cultivate it? do I
think of the water needed and
if there is enough?”
(From “madder root”)

Most recently, The Pemmican Eaters (ECW Press – MisFit Press, 2015) includes a reprint of her “Letter to John A. MacDonald” from the first volume.

But here, Marilyn Dumont is viewing history slightly differently. Perhaps, in this sense, this entire collection is a letter to Gabriel Dumont.

Dumont Pemmican Eaters“My family’s acknowledgement of our blood connection to Gabriel Dumont has taken a long time. I frequently found my lack of interest in history puzzling, fraught with a reluctance to approach a subject that seemed merely to recount the lives of famous men; I knew the history of women, like my mother, deserved retelling too. Perhaps this loyalty to my mother was part of the reason for not writing about Gabriel Dumont before now.” (“Our Gabriel”)

Questioning the way in which “we” personally and “we” politically view the past, and the ways in which “we” re-view the past from another perspective is core to these writings.

There are so many challenges looking backwards, as described in “Our Prince”, about Louis Riel.

“It’s not just that the path is narrow
but it’s also borrowed from
another people
another place.”

The epigraph which precedes “The Land She Came From” draws upon Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, looking back to the mid-1800s: “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.”

And, yet, sometimes it is easier to define how NOT to do this, easier to identify what is not helpful:

“no, what we don’t need is
another expert who can be bought by industry and government
to lead us to our own destruction” (“What We Don’t Need”)

What we don’t need are more images of “good Indians”.

“We ride, Pahaska, the showman marshalling the re-enacment of the Battle of Little Big Horn, a bison hunt, a train robbery, the attack of a burning cabin, we ride whooping pageantry, in mock battle before the Improved Order of the Red Men, we show Indians, those of the horse and buffalo culture given a final chnce to be ourselves and many had a good time playing Indian; the only safe kind to be” (“The Showman & Show Indians”)

But it is so difficult to acknowledge the past, to witness the suffering and injustice, but not at the expense of the present, still affording opportunities to move through the present and to work towards another way of being.

“I want to forget the 192 amended Criminal Code of Canada
and its three-year time limit on scrip fraud

And finally I want to forget the number of Metis
less than one percent
who hold property from that scrip today”
(“To a Far Country”)

How do we both remember and forget. Here in this country.

These four books are counted towards my reading for the 10th Canadian Book Challenge. My sign-up post is here (and you can still sign up, too!) and I’ve previously read these other works by indigenous writers for the challenge: Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China DollsPaul Seesequasis’ Tobacco Wars, Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat, Editor Hope Nicholson’s Moonshot: Indigenous ComicsTracey Lindberg’s Birdie,  Richard VanCamp’s Angel Wing Splash Pattern, and the Summary Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee.

Have you read some of these? Care to recommend another title or author?

On Michael Helm’s After James (and other puzzling novels)

“Perhaps the most brave and honest review of After James should restrict itself to two words: Read it.”

Could be that Angie Abdou got it right, when she reviewed Michael Helm’s After James and concluded with this.

Helm After James

McClelland & Stewart, 2016

But she did a fine job of reviewing it in “The Winnipeg Review” all the same.

And although it’s true that “Read It” is what one wants to say most of all, it feels like one should say so much more (which I”m guessing is why Angie Abdou kept writing, as much as her review assignment urged her onwards) .

Partly that’s because Michael Helm is following that model, too: saying so much. He makes you want to contribute.

Reading After James felt like receiving an invitation: an invitation into something as fascinating as it is complex. (Were either of those qualities lacking, the novel would be only frustrating.)

As though into a secret circle, where one is simultaneously overwhelmed by the sense of intimacy and the need to protect its fragility but also the conflicting desire to broadcast one’s fortune – the simple act of inclusion and the sense of discovery.

There are, however, other reasons to settle in. Even if one doesn’t feel this immediate sense of collaboration.

There is an air of tension from the beginning: a woman living a solitary existence, as a temporary measure, whether in response to something or in preparation for something (or both). Mysteries. Questions to answer.

And even in the first of the novel’s three parts, there is an awareness of storytelling that could heighten readers’ awareness.

Both generally: “One story rises inside another.” (You can’t help but want to look for the layers, the complexities.)

And, specificially: “Ali read the first pages. There was already a body, a gun going off, the usual dumb mystery, cheap violence. It settled her to know what the story was only an entertainment.” (Especially when the complexities are laid out on display.)

And because this description could describe the early pages of After James, readers are on alert. Immediately.

With the Borges quote from “Coleridge’s Dream”, which appears between parts one and two in the novel, readers are on high alert. Looking for the key.

“The first dreamer was given the vision of the palace, and he built it; the second, who did not know of the other’s dream, was given the poem about the palace. If this plan does not fail, someone, on a night centuries removed from us, will dream the same dream, and not suspect that others have dreamed it, and he will give it a form of marble or of music. Perhaps this series of dreams has no end, or perhaps the last one will be the key.”

But that suggests, however, that the connections can all be sussed out, simply given proper attention and time.

And, in one sense, at least, this is true; as Angie Abdou’s review reveals, some reviewers have mistakenly identified concrete connections between the characters and events in the novel’s three parts. (If you doubt the unreliability and inaccuracy of memory, Julia Shaw’s The Memory Illusion gives readers plenty to consider.)

After James and other puzzles

Making readers’ heads spin

But, in another sense, they are intangible and amorphous.

My notes while reading are cryptic now that weeks have passed since reading, but the first passage I copied out was this one: “Setting up blinds. It was what they did professionally. Now one might have been set for her, hidden somewhere in the current run of days.” [My emphasis]

Immediately, you can grasp the motif of pursued and prey: the threat, something burdensome and ominous.

But it’s not all motif and abstraction; by this time, readers have become invested in the woman’s character. (So, maybe it is “only an entertainment” after all.) Readers are also looking for the key.

The last passage I copied out considers another motif, a different kind of pattern, cast by shutters on the wall.

“Past the mounds formed by her feet under the sheets she watched the ruled score cast on the wall by the moon as a breeze moved the latched shutters and the slat lines shifted and fixed, shifted and fixed. In the furrowed light dimly hesitant on the wall were parade grounds, canalscapes, microchips, fork tines and barrel staves, ribs breaching a cave floor. The images fired briefly and died. A pattern held in the sequence of things never fully read or proved before the pattern changed. Some mechanism of perception could make forgetting and knowing the same.”

There were other reasons to note this passage, but I was keen to identify another pattern, that of the light and shade on the wall, which would appear in layers of light and shade coming through, like the pattern cast by a — yes, you know what I’m going to say — a blind. [See emphasis above]

Not that there is something key in this passage, not necessarily, although apparently sometimes endings can hold keys. There seems to be something.

And maybe that’s all it is: something. But it also feels a lot like everything. Which is nearly the same thing. Isn’t it?

Handwritten Notes After James

Looking for patterns – and keys!

After James is not the only tricksy novel I’ve been reading.

Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child is a messy thing. “All I’m doing is comparing my own set of misunderstandings to the misunderstandings of others. All I am doing is wishing that I were not what I am. All I am doing is constructing a story that might be told about me when I have given up hearing the stories of others.”

Simon Van Booy’s The Illusion of Separateness is about piecing together all the parts from 1939 to 2010 which unify a set of characters (and here, at least, things do fit, but there is some assembly required).

And David Mitchell’s Number 9 Dream  is filled with so many 9’s that I was dizzied by them in the world around for days afterward and here, too, a sense of stitched seamlessness triumphs: “Endings are simple but every beginning is made by the beginning before.”

“Words grow out of the world and then back into it, made of the very history they string together.”

Stitched seamlessness: my two words for a whole lot of satisfaction.

Little wonder After James was one of my favourite reads of 2016.

I only wish I could better explain why. So, I guess I”m back to this.

Read. It.

2017 Plans and Projects

More short stories, more indigenous authors, more series completed and updated, more from my own shelves and more non-fiction: my reading goals for this year.

Gallant Other ParisReading Alice Munro’s short stories lasted from 2011 to 2015, reading two or three collections a year, no more than a story a week.

Last year I enjoyed Alistair MacLeod’s stories the same way, but quietly and in a solitary fashion. (I’m not sure why: maybe because there was a lot of weeping involved.)

This year, I will begin to methodically explore Mavis Gallant’s short stories. I’ve read three collections and some odd stories, but I am planning to reread them and explore beyond.

For now, I’ll begin again with an early collection, The Other Paris (1956) followed by The Cost of Living (titled Going Ashore in Canada), which collects some early and uncollected stories.

I’m imagining a story each week, with some breaks between collections. I haven’t thought much more about it, except that I want to make sure I read out of pleasure rather than duty.

Here is a link to the Mavis Gallant Reading Project page, if anyone would like to read along, for a collection or for a single story.

I’ve also got a list of indigenous writers whose works I am counting towards the 10th Canadian Book Challenge. My sign-up post discussed some of the works which inspired me to choose this theme.

Since then, I’ve read seven books towards the thirteen-book challenge, including Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China DollsPaul Seesequasis’ Tobacco Wars Harold Johnson’s Charlie MuskratEditor Hope Nicholson’s Moonshot: Indigenous Comics, Tracey Lindberg’s BirdieRichard VanCamp’s Angel Wing Splash Pattern, and the Summary Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. (I’ve read others, but haven’t reviewed them, so they don’t count towards the challenge.)

Right now I am rereading and reading Marilyn Dumont’s poetry, and I’m aiming for a Richard Wagamese after these.

This is related to my plan to read more non-fiction this year, for I’ve done the math and last year’s reading was comprised of only 10% non-fiction, most of these being bookish/literary/writerish choices. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that my first – and only  – non-fiction read of this year was Sylvia Plath’s Unabridged Journals.

This year, I’m aiming for 15%; it’s not much more, but I’m just as concerned with diversifying my choices, which will probably make it easier to increase the numbers next year.

Erdrich TracksOne challenge on this matter is it’s in conflict with one of my other goals, which is to read more often from my own shelves. Because I not only read but buy far more fiction, so I don’t have many tantalizing non-fiction choices on my own shelves.

And, in fact, less than 5% of my reading this year has been from my own shelves so far. And it’s clearly not because I’m reading more non-fiction and bored with my home selection, because it’s just been me and Sylvia so far for non-fiction reading.

No, it’s my quest to finish reading series and the very projects I’ve chosen for this reading year. For instance, this is the year that I am finally going to begin properly with Louise Erdrich’s novels, but I don’t own them all, not even the first one (in chronological order, that is, not publication), Tracks.

For more than five years, I’ve been intending to do this, having loved a couple of the novels and her collected stories (some of which appear in Tracks, it seems).

Every time Kat has mentioned one of them on “Mirabile Dictu”, I trot out my good intentions but then proceed to read other books instead. And I’ve mentioned it more recently, and more regretfully, on Naz’s site too.

But for how long can one claim to feel a strong connection to an author’s works without actually reading them? Eventually, you simply must sit down with the words.

It’s been even longer that I’ve entertained the possibility of reading Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna series. Even as a girl, I remember them sitting on the shelves of my older female relatives (a great aunt, a grandmother).

I loved to pull them from the shelves and look at their illustrated covers (some of which seemed delightfully risque) and then rearrange the set in the proper order once more. (They had to be in the proper order, of course.)

These will be quite a contrast to my other reading projects: the stuff of colonization with all the women in their proper places, hands pliant and soft on the shoulders of their men-folk. Not only best-sellers, but they were also made into a film in 1935 and a mini-series in 1972; I’ve got a better chance of watching the documentary of the author’s life which was made in 2012.

The books cover a hundred years in the history of the Whiteoak family (in this sense, it will be interesting to compare the Jane Smiley trilogy) although they were not written in chronological order and can apparently be read out of sequence.

Maybe I won’t get too far after all, but this will, at least, be the year of trying. I’m late starting, because I had so many entrancing graphic novels borrowed over the holidays, and then didn’t spend all that much time reading after all.

And, then, there is the matter of tidying up the past year, bringing logs and charts up-to-date and copying lines from spreadsheets. (This year marks my first full year of logging films – I started midway through last year – and television shows too. Because there are so many good stories and they’re not ALL written down.)

It’s not until I’ve gotten the past year in order that I feel I can sink into the next year’s reading. How about you? Did your 2017 begin on time?

Do you feel like this reading year is off to a promising or faltering beginning?

Margery Sharp’s The Rescuers (1959; 1977)

When I was a girl, I was too afraid to watch the part of the Disney movie in which Penny is lowered into the darkness in a bucket.

Sharp The RescuersIf I had actually read the stories on my bookshelf, I would have had great sympathy for the mice in the Prisoner’s Aid Society. They spend much of their time being afraid.

Then again, they are afraid of cats who are many times larger than they. Or jailers who’d think nothing of squashing them with a boot. Or, they fear drowning.

And not *all* of them are afraid of those things either. Bernard, for instance: he wears the Tybalt Star, For Gallantry in the face of Cats. (He defended his sister-in-law, who was nursing six baby mice at the time.)

Miss Bianca isn’t afraid of cats either. But she should be. The only reason she’s not is that she has led such a sheltered life; in the company of her Boy, she has a cat companion, who wouldn’t think to harm the resident of the Porcelain Pagoda in the Boy’s room.

When Miss Bianca is called into service to rescue a prisoner, she comes to understand that her experience of cats isn’t the norm (and a few other layers of her mouse-privilege).

However, she does still use her feminine mouse-wiles to charm the four-legged threat, who is so entertained by her behaviour that he misses his chance to gobble her up.

“I’m sure he wants to meet me again, if only from dishonourable motives. Let me engage him in conversation, and guide it into the right channels, and what may I not learn, to our advantage?”

Because Miss Bianca is quite the lady. Margery Sharp puts her female mice on centre stage. Madame Chairperson in the Prisoner’s Aid Society dares to speak out of turn, in order to have the case of a particular prisoner heard. (She is a direct-line descendant of the Three Blind Mice and has exceptional whiskers.)

And she does not hesitate to recommend Miss Bianca for the rescue of this esteemed Norwegian poet, being held captive in the Black Castle, despite the rumours of her pampered existence.

“You should be protected and cherished and loved and honoured, and I for my part ask nothing better than to lie down and let you walk on me!” exclaims Bernard, when he accepts the duty of requesting Miss Bianca’s intervention on the poet’s behalf (she has ready access to air travel which the other mice do not).

Miss Bianca has “perfect manners and unfailing savoir faire” which “would have soothed the tempers of tigers” and she does get out of the habit of fainting, only uttering the occasional “piercing shriek of dismay”.

In time, Bernard and Miss Bianca (and Nils, the Norwegian mouse-on-the-ground, so to speak) gain all the intelligence they require to enact their mission. “They began to plan in detail what had never been planned before – or, if planned, had never succeeded: the liberation of a prisoner from the Black Castle.”

In some ways, Miss Bianca is a mouse of the 1950s. She recognises that “there is nothing like housework for calming the nerves”. But in other ways, she is quite the revolutionary.

Had Margery Sharp written the story just a couple of decades earlier, she would have had Miss Bianca holding the rope while Bernard and Nils did the heavy lifting.

This is the first volume of Miss Bianca’s adventures (the second in the series, named for our heroine, is the source of more of the events in the Disney film, although the original little girl was ‘Patience’, not ‘Penny’) and there are nine books in the series.

The Rescuers has been lingering, unread, on my shelves since I was seven years old. Jane’s celebration of Margery Sharp’s birthday landed the series on my stacks at long last.

Thanks, Jane. And happy birthday, Margery!

For My Feminist Friend Who Dreams of Revolution

I grew up loving the works of Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro. Traditional? Perhaps. Maybe my CanLit taste is old-fashioned.

And in their time, these were women who dared. Not ‘but’, ‘and’.

This remains their time. And beyond the page. In the recent furor surrounding the efforts to encourage institutional accountability on matters of justice  at UBC in western Canada, Margaret Atwood’s voice on social media was as courageous and bold and provocative as it is in Handmaid’s Tale and Year of the Flood.

And what if you’re up-to-date with Margaret Atwood, even with her Twitter stream?  And what if you simply crave more recent writing?

And so, my feminist friend asks me for CanLit suggestions. Living authors, she says. Which I understand to be about dates but also vibrancy.

My first list is compiled in email, mostly poetry and short fiction: fierce and principled and strange, books which come to mind immediately and easily as choices for her.

And she says that she is craving novels (and I get that), and she reminds me that she has some old-fashioned European favourites too (which I’d forgotten).

And, so, she asks again. For another list of CanLit novels. And she suggests that I share, here.

thien-do-not-say-we-have-nothingAngie Abdou’s Between (2014)

Catherine Bush’s Accusation (2013)

Lauren B. Davis’ Our Daily Bread (2011)

Hiromi Goto’s Half World (2009)

Tamai Kobayashi’s Prairie Ostrich (2014)

Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie (2015)

Jennifer LoveGrove’s Watch How We Walk (2013)

Elaine McClusky’s Hello, Sweetheart (Stories, 2014)

Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros (2011)

Olive Senior’s The Pain Tree (Stories, 2016)

Dennison Smith’s The Eye of the Day (2014)

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

Katherena Vermette’s The Break (2016)

Alissa York’s Effigy (2007)

When I consider the works by women writers which have shaped me, on any given day the thread which I view as connecting them might be a different one viewed within the web.

These books – these writers – ask hard questions and sometimes leave their readers in a mess. Sometimes the shape of their stories is untraditional. Sometimes perspectives are unusual. Sometimes there is immersion in a single voice which is deliberately disorienting. Sometimes they are conventionally shaped but approach the matter of resolution from an unexpected direction. Every single one of these books takes something you believe in (or once believed in or want to believe in) a good hard shake.

So what connects them?

Today, I am thinking that it has to do with the way in which these women have embraced and challenged, accepted and resisted, fought and transformed darkness.

That because their relationship with darkness (within and without) is complicated in their fiction, it creates a complicated reading experience, affords the opportunity for complexity, shapes a space in which the way we consider the world can alter.

So, yes, I read Ethel Wilson and Marian Engel. And L.M. Montgomery and Mazo de la Roche. And Lee Maracle and Pauline Holdstock and, and, and….

There are many shades of daring, and I want to inhabit a bookshelf and a world in which we speak more of ‘and’s than ‘or’s.

My Bookfriend will tell me what she thinks of this list the next time we meet for coffee.

And what do you think of it? Is there a book you would like to add for her?

Oh, yes, please do!

Offer an ‘and’ here.

Invite conversation.

Faves and Stand-out Reads from My 2016

My reading year began with a reread of The Radiant Way (1987), which begins with a New Year’s party. The first time I read the novel, I was in my 20s and I hadn’t yet read Virginia Woolf; this time I couldn’t help but think of Mrs. Dalloway as the women in Margaret Drabble’s novel make their preparations (as hostess, as guests). And this time around, there were two additional volumes to read, which set the tone for my reading year: expect excellence.


HarperCollins, 2015

So, Favourite Reading Experiences of 2016:
*Rereading and Reading Margaret Drabble’s Thatcher Years Trilogy, including A Natural Curiosity (1989) and The Gates of Ivory (2007)

*Judith Kerr’s Anna Trilogy (which brought me to her Mog stories, also to her memoir Creatures)
As a girl, I reread When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) periodically, but this was my first reread as an adult. Not only does it stand up very well, but the idea of seeing her transform her life into fiction (as described in Creatures) is fascinating too. Both The Other Way Round (1975) and A Very Small Person Far Away (1978) were wholly enjoyable because she consistently approaches dark subject matter (war, illness, struggle) while allowing for some light to shine.

*Robert Wiersema’s The World More Full of Weeping (2009)
One night, unable to sleep, I selected an e-book and the device choked and opened this one instead; around 3am, I was too impatient to try again for the book I’d been aiming for and instead fell hard and fast into this delightfully haunting novella, read it straight through and loved every minute.

*Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016)
This was my final read from this year’s Giller Prize longlist reading (and the jury chose it as the winner) and I reserved it deliberately; I wanted to savour it and make sure it had the bulk of my reading attention for that week. Each time I picked it up, I felt both safe and vulnerable: a trusted storyteller, with all the intensity that comes with crafting.

*Shared reads with bookfriends (including Budge Wilson’s Before Green Gables (2008) and L.M. Montgomery’s The Blythes are Quoted (2009) with Naomi, Andre Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs (2015) with Stephanie, Jane Smiley and Antonia White with Danielle, and 22/11/63 (2011) with Eva.

New-favourite authors:
Michael Helm’s After James (2016)
Karen Molson’s The Company of Crows (2016)
Riel Nason’s The Town that Drowned (2011) and All the Things We Leave Behind (2016)

Already-favourite authors:
Lisa Moore’s Flannery (2016)
David Mitchell’s Number 9 Dream (2001)
Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby (1981)

Livingston Crooked HeartOutstanding rereads:
Marian Engel’s Bear (1976)
Timothy Findley’s The Piano Man’s Daughter (1995)
Jean Rhys’ Good Morning Midnight (1939)

Woman-soaked stories:
Tricia Dower’s Becoming Lin (2016)
Kate Taylor’s Serial Monogamy (2016)
Katherena Vermette’s The Break (2016)

Beautiful and Painful:
George Eliott Clarke’s George & Rue (2005)
Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie (2015)
Billie Livingston’s The Crooked Heart of Mercy (2016)

Delightfully Bookish:
Margarita Engle’s The Lightning Dreamer (2013)
Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words (2016)
Margaret Mackey’s One Child Reading: My Auto-Bibliography (2016)

Single-sitting readings (or, nearly):
Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall (2016)
Luisge Martin’s The Same City (2013; Trans. Tomasz Dukanvich)
Lydia Perović’s All that Sang (2016)

Ann K.Y. Choi’s Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety (2016)
Melanie Mah’s The Sweetest One (2016)
Louise Meriwether’s Daddy was a Number Runner (1970)

Senior Pain Tree

Cormorant Books, 2016

Short Stories:
Cherie Dimaline’s A Gentle Habit (2015)
Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks (1933)
Olive Senior’s The Pain Tree (2016)

Norman Doidge’s The Brain’s Way of Healing (2015)
Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (2015)
Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s Honouring the Truth Reconciling for the Future (2015)

Reading Projects:

Finally my marker moved steadily through Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (1988), Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe (1990), Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005)Leslie Marmon Silko’s Gardens in the Dunes,(1999), and Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers (1987); I’d made multiple attempts but gotten stuck in them previously. (There are a few others in this category which I hope to read in 2017.)

I also finished some series which have been underway a long time (including Chinua Achebe’s African Trilogy (finished the second and third), E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (last of his novels), Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Western Trilogy (first of three), Antonia White’s Clara series (volumes three and four), the remaining Gabrielle Roy books, and L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories. And I continued with other long series with an aim to completing them, and tried to complete some new ones (like Susan Philpott‘s and Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes and the Giant Days graphic novels) instead of simply reading the first and declaring “someday” for the remainder. Either I finished, or brought up to date, sixteen series, and I’ve read towards twelve others.

Many of my reading projects feel like they belong to an earlier reading-me, but I began to revisit some of them in earnest, to see if I wanted to continue, and that brought some animal stories onto my stacks, including James Oliver Curwood’s The Grizzly King (1916) John and Jean George’s Meph the Pet Skunk (1952) Mary O’Hara’s Thunderhead (1943). This year I’m planning to read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling, and the last in Mary O’Hara’s series (Green Grass of Wyoming), among others.

This isn’t even one of my organized reading projects, more a collection of books and intentions. Out of the reading lists I’ve been keeping, there are four projects which I didn’t even touch last year. It could be that they just aren’t as satisfying as more recent discoveries, but it could be that I have started more projects in my mind since then, which I’ve not written down. The lists which I did make progress on were the Giller Prize longlist reading, the Toronto Book Award reading, with more than five books read for each during the year, and the quarterly short story project continued strong (the winter 2016 edition was here).

Next, talk of 2017. Because it seems to have arrived. And not just on the calendar, but on my bookshelves. At last.

Have you read any of these? Were you pleased with your reading last year?

Is there anything you’re looking to change in this reading year?

Quarterly Stories: Three Collections

Simpson Hey Yeah Right Get a LifeIn Susan Hill’s Howard’s End Is on the Landing, she quotes a friend who says “We read Margaret Drabble to feel the zeitgeist, our daughters read Helen Simpson.”

(Their daughters’ daughters might be reading Janine Alyson Young or Alex Leslie or Rivka Galchen or Eufemia Fantetti.)

In the first story in Hey Yeah Right Get a Life (2000), “Lentils and Lilies”, Jade is revising for her A levels, reading Wordsworth and Coleridge. (This collection is sometimes titled Getting a Life; Jade believes she is on the cusp of doing so, but most of the stories are centred on women who are old enough to have a life, but who are surprised to find themselves living the one they have.)

Jade’s in a T-shirt and on her way to an interview at the local garden centre, but she’s quoting Romantic poets: somehow, in the hands of Helen Simpson, it works. (There is another satisfying story about attending the opera which uses a similar parallel structure, though with an older heroine.)

Along the way, Jade  has an encounter which drives the story outwardly. But the heart of the story is about an inward realization and shift. (This is true of the majority of the collection’s stories, which are more often about the juices in which one is stewed than the act of making the juice.)

“She sensed babies breathing in cots in upstairs room, and solitary women becalmed somewhere downstairs, chopping fruit or on the telephone organising some toddler tea. It was really suburban purdah round here. They were like battery hens, weren’t they, rows of identical hutches, so neat and tidy and narrow-minded. Imagine staying in all day, stewing in your own juices. Weren’t they bored out of their skulls? It was beyond her comprehension.”

The stories in the collection share a focus on female narrators (although at least one allows the concentration to wander across the table as a man and his wife are out for dinner), and characters do reappear (Jane is a babysitter in another story, in which the focus is on the mother, for instance), which will please those readers more likely to pick up a novel than a collection of stories.

It was her first collection, Dear George, which won my reader’s heart, but her third collection is just as good.

Contents: Lentils and Lilies, Cafe Society, Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, Millennium Blues, Burns and the Bankers, Opera, Cheers, Wurstigkeit, Hurrah for the Hols

Hughes Ways of White FolksLike Helen Simpson’s stories, Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks concentrates on the lives of ordinary people. Sometimes on isolated moments, as with “Passing”, which is also the shortest in the collection, in which a young man addresses his mother on paper, following an encounter in which his acknowledgment of her would have put his cover at risk.

“Since I’ve made up my mind to live in the white world, and have found my place in it (a good place), why think about race anymore? I’m glad I don’t have to, I know that much.”

Published in 1933, the world in which these characters live is starkly drawn, with lines — both immediately visible and simply understood — to clearly demarcate territory.

The characters in Hughes’ stories are most often dancing across those lines, their momentum creating the tension which makes the stories both interesting and relevant, even decades after they were first published.

For instance, Oceola in “The Blues I’m Playing” spends a considerable amount of time in Paris and other centres in which her musical talent is given an opportunity to shine (after she gains the support of a white benefactor). But eventually she returns to Harlem. “I’ve been away from my own people so long,” said the girl, “I want to live right in the middle of them again.” That is not uncomplicated.

In “Poor Little Black Fellow”, Arnie spends most of his time on the other side of the line, but as he grows older, expectations and rights and privleges change. “To tell the truth, everybody had got so used to Arnie that nobody really thought of him as a Negro – until he put on long trousers and went to high school. Now they noticed that he was truly very black. And his voice suddenly became deep and mannish, even before the white boys in Arnie’s class talked in the cracks and squeaks of coming manhood.”

In “Father and Son”, the history of their liaison, like that of so many between Negro women and white men in the South, began without love, at least on his part. For a long while its motif was lust – whose sweeter name, perhaps, is passion.”

Ordinary and complicated stories.

Contents: Cora Unashamed, Slave on the Block, Home, Passing, A Good Job Gone, Rejuvenation Through Joy, The Blues I’m Playing, Red-Headed Baby, Poor Little Black Fellow, Little Dog, Berry, Mother and Child, One Christmas Eve, Father and Son

Roy Garden in the WindGabrielle Roy’s Garden in the Wind (1975) is also preoccupied with capturing the extraordinary moments of everyday life on the page.

Any tension in the stories proceeds from the ordinary: “My mother was expecting something or other. She kept going to the door, drawing back from the windowpane the white curtain hemmed in red linen and staring long and vaguely out at the drenched countryside. Suddenly she gave a start, one hand going up to her forehead.” (“A Tramp at the Door”)

The tramp is a distant cousin. Or, is he. The question remains unanswered through much of the story, which raises matters of belonging and home, family and community, heart and hearth.

And, just as the tramp is a visitor, readers can take a seat at the table as well, listen to the tales which he tells (and receives), offering insight into the experiences of settlers and farmers.

As with all of her works, from her debut The Tin Flute to the stories in The Road to Altamont, landscape plays a vitally important role in these stories, be it a street in Montreal or a string of hills.

“And in fact that’s about all there was to it: a horizon so distant, so lonely, so poignant, that your heart was gripped by it again and again.
Luckily, a chain of little hills far to the right put a stop on that one side to the flight of the landscape.” (“Where Will You Go, Sam Lee Wong?”)

A paternalistic tone permeates this story; it is clear that the author is sympathetic to Sam Lee Wong’s situation, and she acknowledges that interventions to assist with settlement fall into ruts and repeat unhelpful patterns, but there is a sense that this story is the story of every Chinese immigrant and that he cannot tell it himself (just as another marginalized character cannot make himself understood on the streets of the town).

Certainly Roy was no stranger to the struggle to adjust to a new environment and community, leaving Quebec for life in an insular Prairie town.  She captures some of these difficulities poignantly and realistically. And, yet, Sam Lee Wong faces challenges that Roy did not. “At that time there was a very cruel immigration law regulating the entry of Chinese immigrants into Canada. Men – a few thousand of them a year – were admitted, but no women, no children. Later the law was made more humane.” More humane, perhaps. Still, unjust.

Quite likely this story raised important questions for a number of readers some decades ago, but contemporary readers will long to hear Sam Lee Wong’s voice speak directly to them.

Contents: A Tramp at the Door, Where Will You Go, Sam Lee Wong?, Hoodoo Valley, A Garden at the Edge of the World

Have you read any of these? Are there any story collections in your stack? Are you planning to read any this reading year?