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

Young Love, Complicated Love: Nothing Like Love

Reading about Sabrina Ramnanan’s love of Anne of Green Gables made me really want to read the debut novelist’s Nothing Like Love.

And it’s a good thing that I understood this about her reading past, because it prepared me perfectly for her prose style.

Ramnanan Nothing like Love

Random House CanadaDoubleday Canada, 2015

“Thinking back on this day much later, Vimla would understand: this was the pivotal moment in her and Krishna’s relationship. The moment when the gods witnessed their audacious sacrilege. The moment it was decided a torrent of misfortune would rain down upon the pair.”

A “torrent of misfortune”: Anne-lovers will recognize a hint of Anne’s “depths of despair” in this descriptor.

And just as Anne spent a great deal of time soaking up the beauty of the natural world, Vimla is immersed in it as well.

Though Vimla does not see cherry blossoms and the landscape of Prince Edward Island out her bedroom window. No, she paints a picture of Trinidad.

“Vimla opened her eyes and rolled onto her side. She listened to the kiskadee morning call and watched the flutters of black and yellow in the guava and tamarind trees at her bedroom window. They trilled and rustled in the treetops, cocking their heads at impossible angles and announcing their presence to the world: kis-kis-kiskadee!”

The plot in Nothing Like Love revolves around a series of relationships but two in particular.

“Vimla saw Faizal Mohammed lean out of his window and drink Sangita in with insatiable desire. Vimla knew that look well – she had seen it on Krishna’s face just hours ago; only then it had been muted in pre-dawn shadows and nerves.”

The tension is subtle and rooted primarily in fractured connections, in the gap between “what is desired” and “what is unobtainable”.

“The secret sent thrilling zings through his wiry body; he loved to know what others didn’t. And Faizal’s rain-barrel baths were a particularly safe secret, as he was the only Muslim in the district, the only one who rose before the cock’s first crow, before the sun peeked over the horizon, to wash, and to praise Allah.”

The narrative style is not entirely Anne-of-Green-Gables-influenced. Sabrina Ramnanan also uses dialogue to introduce readers to the rhythm of life in Trinidad.

“Vimla, it only have one woman and one man living in this house and that is me and your father,” Chandani said to her back. “If you feel you too big for we, pack your bags and go, nuh?”

The abundance of adjectives and adverbs and sensory detail might be overwhelming for many contemporary readers, but Anne-readers might find themselves falling in love.

Is this debut on your summer reading list?

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Young Love, Complicated Love: Where Did You Sleep Last Night

“A man could do a lot for you, he added. I mean, like bulldozing and roofing, heavy lifting, he said. Maybe more.”

Crosbie Where Did You

House of Anansi, 2015

So says a character in Lynn Crosbie’s Life is about Losing Everything (2012).

It might not be the kind of statement that leads one to expect a passionate love story from her pen, but Where Did You Sleep Last Night is not about the bulldozing and roofing kind of love, but about the ‘more’.

The kind of ‘more’ that demands a little more from readers, too. Including a willingness to step away from the known.

“Earth looks like this when you are away: a big floating apartment building, where some of the drapes are drawn; others are open; where different things – eggs frying on a hot plate, a home perm, a cello’s sacred lowing – happen all the time.”

In this new place, narrator and reader alike, may have to step away, just to leave a space for what is intimate and frightening.

“I would eat in the library, where Mrs. Killzone ignored me as I watched the part in Nirvana Unplugged when, at the end of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night,’ he closes his eyes, pauses, then opens them, and it is so intimate and frightening, I would never fail to be shocked to tears.”

The emotional intensity of the story is a lot to take in, not only for the narrator but for the fictional Kurt Cobain, who returns to life on the pages of Where Did You Sleep Last Night.

“Eventually, I told him that he died young.
And that I knew all of his music, and a lot of personal things.
He saw that I was miserable, knowing too much, and held up his hand.
‘This can’t be good for either of us,’ he said.”

He and the narrator are married using expensive forgeries, as Evelyn and Celine Gray-Black.

“He didn’t know that I’d loved him as long as I could remember; that I had such a painful crush that I used to go to bed early just to imagine being with him.

The novel charts the history of their relationship, the narrator’s journey from reading “a lot of many, pretty good, Kurt Cobain fanfics to “our honeymoon in New Mexico, we stood above the Rio Grande gorge, and he carved our names on the bridge as my scarf unwound and fainted beneath us, landing like a vein in the stones.”

This passage reveals one of the many lyrical moments in the prose, but not all of them are beautiful although ‘unwinding’ is a recurring theme.

“We got stoned and saw our old skins putrefying in the compost and remembered stepping out of them, like sticky white salamanders struck by sunbeams.”

There is an overwhelming tension to the story.

“I could see inside myself, where I was not beautiful. And knew that he would see it too, my fury, my jealousy, and my need.
He would leave me.
I made sure of it. I found the plug to the whole universe and tore it out, then got high as everything, very slowly, collapsed.”

It is simultaneously disorienting and unstable, paralyzing and unyielding.

“The anger, I told her, was like a twister, funneling hard towards me, sucking dirt and poison into its mouth.”

It’s dirt and poison, eggs frying and cellos lowing, the kind of novel that pulls readers into the storm’s eye so sharply that whiffs of euphoria distract you from the crash-landing to come.

Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer’s Bookish Fairy Tales

On the outside? Between the Lines is an ordinary, kinda chunky YA novel.

But, inside? Some full-colour illustrations and a generous amount of silhouette artwork are scattered throughout the text, which is printed in three different colours.

Simon Pulse, 2012

Simon Pulse, 2012

It begins with “The Beginning”, in black text, and a once-upon-a-time tale. This is the story that Delilah is reading.

But readers haven’t met her yet. And neither has Oliver.

Who is the boy living the once-upon-a-time tale.

Over and over. Ad nauseum.

For Delilah is big on rereading.

Readers actually meet Oliver first. Which is only fair, because he more desperately needs to meet people. (The only people he has ever known are those stuck in the fairy tale with him, whose lives repeat in blue ink.) And, like a typical fairy-tale boy, he is craving something “more”.

“I wouldn’t mind doing anything other than the sme old things I have done for as long as I can remember. I guess I just have to believe there’s more to the world than what’s inside these pages. Or maybe it’s just that I desperately want to believe that.”

And, Delilah, too, wants something “more”. She prefers stories to her high school reality, which unfolds in green print. “No thanks; I’d much rather pretend I’m somewhere else, and any time I open the pages of a book, that happens.”

The hitch is that their needs are in conflict. Oliver is frantic to escape the endless repetition of living the same story whenever a reader opens the book he inhabits. And Delilah is desperate for the security that a familar and predictable — and happy — ending offers.

But Oliver and Delilah have a great deal in common as well. “Being a teenager isn’t all that different from being part of someone else’s story, then. There’s always someone who thinks they know better than you do.”

Oliver is looking for a world in which he is free to be something other than Oliver-in-the-fairy-tale and Delilah is looking for a world in which she can be herself. And what is more appropriate thematically for a teen novel than exploring identity and finding a place in the world.

The mechanics of the situation, which allow for character and reader to connect, are described vaguely enough to appeal to a wide variety of readers. And as various attempts are made to unite Oliver and Delilah, the border between fantasy and reality shifts to allow for more possibilities. Readers learn, for instance, that Oliver’s experience is not exactly limited to what is written on the pages of the story in black ink.

Picoult Van Leer Colour

Detail from one of Yvonne Gilbert’s illustrations

Some of the older characters in Oliver’s story have suggestions which widen his world, even when he is stuck in the context of the story which Delilah has reread so many times. “You know that anything that was in the author’s mind might exist in the book, even if it doesn’t show up in the proper story.”

There are many playful moments in which commentary is offered about the creative process (particularly in relationship to the story’s author, who had her own reasons for writing Oliver’s story in that specific way) and traditional fairy tale elements. For instance, Oliver observes: “One of the great ironies of this book is that the mermaids, in real life, don’t have a boy-crazy bone in their bodies.”

However, this is not an opportunity for Jodi Picoult or Samantha van Leer (mother and daughter) to show off her experience with Bruno Bettelheim or Maria Tatar.

Only the briefest of allusions is made to the tradition of wonder tales which preceded the Disney versions which have been so popular recently, and although some expectations are subverted (like, perhaps, with the mermaids), readers hoping to spot of a glimpse of Marina-Warner inspired critical-thinking will be disappointed. (As will those who prefer traditional language usage.)

There isn’t a lot between the lines in this novel; it is an entertaining diversion which is beautifully packaged. But the idea simmering beneath is complex indeed.

The relationship between book and reader can be profound; a narrative can transform a reader and many witers and readers have explored the concept of co-creating which unfolds when mind and story meet.

And for many bookish folks, what is bound between covers can often be more real than the world beyond those pages.

“I liked thinking that whatever Delilah and I had between us was so strong that there was no boundary between the true and the imagined, the book and the Reader. I liked the idea that although I started my lfe as a figment of someone’s imagination, that didn’t make me any less real.”

Picoult Van Leer Silhouette

One of Scott M. Fischer’s silhouettes

Jodi Picoult and daughter Samantha Van Leer use this idea as a touchstone, but just as Delilah and her mother prefer the Disney versions of the darker tales which inspired the studio, Between the Lines touches upon some serious themes but keeps them at a distance, so that readers feel free to race to the happy ending.

Or, is it a happy ending? In some ways, yes, for both Oliver’s and Delilah’s yearnings are satisfied to a degree. But there are complications.

Note: If you want to avoid spoilers, avoid the inner flap of Off the Page, which summarizes the events and conclusion of Between the Lines. (If, on the other hand, you don’t want to read the first volume in the series, the flap will suffice.)

Off the Page employs all the striking presentation elements in the series’ first volume, beginning with a colourful map by Yvonne Gilbert, and the first chapter headed by one of Scott M. Fischer’s silhouettes.

Many familiar elements are demarcated, like the unicorn meadow and the enchanted forest, and readers will be reminded of the dragon who wore braces and will recall the scenes which played out on Everafter Beach.

The text is dual-coloured, blue and green, the former for the “real” world and the latter for the fairy-tale world.

One recurring character who is welcomed back immediately is Delilah’s best friend, Jules, whose Mohawk has grown out into a midnight-blue-coloured bob. (She says things like “I’m barfing rainbows”: my favourite.) And the scenes set in the high-school will inherently appeal to many young readers, with an abundance of dialogue and recognizable settings and conflicts.

Delacourte Press, 2015 Penguin Random House

Delacorte Press, 2015
Penguin Random House

“The really crappy thing about being a teenager is that even if you have a legitimate, monumental problem – the sky is falling or the zombie apocalypse has begun or you’ve contracted the plague – you still have to do your geometry homework.”

Fairy tales are populated with archetypes and there is an abundance of two-dimensional characters in this series too (the nerds run for class when they’re only 15 minutes early and the president of the LGBT Alliance has his own bow-tie business). The female characters possess a degree of agency that allows them to reach beyond the achievements of conventional heroines, but ultimately they are preoccupied with their romantic interest, their desire to connect with — or reunite with — “the one”.

The central theme of Off the Page revolves around a prince-pauper riff, which suits YA novels preoccupied with questions of identity.

“It’s not all that difficult to be the person people expect you to be. It’s harder to remember who you really are.”

The idea of adapting to an unfamiliar environment has a timeless appeal and is at the root of the humour in this story. Nonetheless, things do take a darker turn in this follow-up volume.

“I wish that someone would flip backward through the pages of the story…bringing us back to the Once Upon a Time.”

Readers flipping back in Off the Page might want to take a moment to peek beneath the dustjacket; the binding is a light purple (like the book which houses Oliver’s original story, the book that Delilah kept rereading) and the spine is lettered beautifully in an old-fashioned storybook style.

The cloth bound cover is embossed with a small image, too, which reminded me how much I loved the small scattered silhouettes throughout the first volume.

In the second volume, the silhouettes are intricate and impressive as subject headings, and they add as much character to the story as the lushly illustrated pages, but the small figures added an element of whimsy which is missing in the second volume.

Those who prefer some shady elements amidst the saccharine, who appreciate the more subversive elements of fairy tales for older readers (Neil Gaiman’s Stardust or Sheri Tepper’s Beauty), may long for more adventure.

But those seeking a light-hearted diversion with a side of bookishness could find a happy ending in their relationship with Between the Lines and Off the Page.

“Wenlock Edge” Alice Munro

1648 Henfryn Street and 363 Carlisle Street: “Wenlock Edge” feels so vivid that one can hardly resist keying in the significant addresses to see what appears on the digital map.

These addresses do not actually exist in London, Ontario. But there is a Henfryn Line which runs north-south, just east of Clinton, Ontario. And there is a town called Carlisle, which is halfway between London and the shore of Lake Huron (directly south of Clinton).

UniversityCollegeUWO

University College, UWO campus

It seems almost-nearly-practically possible to map the details, given Alice Munro’s attendance at the University of Western Ontario, which figures so prominently in this story and her familiarity with the countryside surrounding it, particularly Huron County (her home for many years).

But readers are left to imagine the residences of Mr. Purvis and Ernie Botts, the homes which served as university residences, and the old Chelsea restaurant on Dundas Street.

“The house looked just as it had when I had come here once or twice with my mother. A brick bungalow with a tiny front yard, an arched living-room window with an upper pane of coloured glass. Cramped and genteel.”

The public buildings which feature in the story are more readily identifiable. The girls probably would have attended their arts classes in University College, in the heart of the UWO campus, atop a large hill.

Here is a building that comes up immediately when one searches online. How deliberately the author has identified public spaces (we can imagine our narrator moving through the halls of this building, walking the tunnels which run between it and other campus buildings). And, yet, how imprecisely the private spaces are defined.

But there is a gap, too, between a woman’s public life and her private dreams, between what she aspires to and what she expects to achieve and, for our narrator, between her expectations of other womens sophistication and their quotidien lives.

  “Kay and Beverly were a disappointment to me. They worked hard at Modern Languages, but their conversation and preoccupations seemed hardly different from those of girls who might work in banks or offices. They did their hair up in pin curls and painted their fingernails on Saturdays, because that was the night they had dates with their boyfriends. On Sundays they had to soothe their faces with lotion because of the whisker-burns the boyfriends had inflicted on them. I didn’t find either boyfriend in the least desirable, and I wondered how they could.
They said that they had once had some crazy idea of being translators at the United Nations, but now they figured they would teach high school, and with any luck get married.”

The daily lives of these young women are at best predictable and at worst disappointing. The experiences of the girls’ landlady, Beth, who inhabits the first floor, also offers little hope of escape.

“Wet laundry—diapers and smelly baby woollens—was hanging from some ceiling-racks, bottles in a sterilizer bubbled and rattled on the stove.”

KingsUniversityCampus

King’s College, UWO campus

I imagine that the homes which served as residences for the university were down the hill, below University College, and across the bridge; there are plenty of older homes there, yet, on the side-streets bordering the campus, with two full stories topped with an attic with eaves.

But perhaps we cannot exactly identify them because any one of those buildings could house such secrets.

(The building pictured to the right was once a private residence but is now a key campus building in King’s College, which is also part of the UWO campus, a few blocks from the modern residences for the university’s students. Although I do not believe Mr. Purvis’ residence was half as grand as this, and it is described as being a modern dwelling, our narrator’s reference to travelling east and passing brick and mock-Tudor houses brings this kind of structure to mind.)

At first our narrator is not entirely pleased to share her space with Nina, but it is, nonetheless, a formative and influential relationship in her young life.

“Her life made me feel like a simpleton.
I asked her what was Mr. Purvis’s first name.
‘Arthur.’
‘Why don’t you call him that?’
‘It wouldn’t sound natural.'”

The relationship(s) with Mr. Purvis contain(s) echoes of the tension that other heroines have experienced in other relationships with men in other stories. I can imagine Mr. Montjoy, for instance, in “Hired Girl”, making this kind of arrangement (if he could find a way to occupy Mrs. Montjoy elsewhere).

“’It would be very kind if you would read to me. My eyes are tired in the evenings. You know this book?’
[A Shropshire Lad]
I knew it. In fact I knew many of the poems by heart.
I said that I would read.
‘And may I ask you please—may I ask you please—not to cross your legs?’”

LPL 305 Queens Avenue LondonON

Building which housed the London Public Library at that time

But ultimately the relationships between women (yes, Mrs. Montjoy, here too!) more sharply draw the lines of hierarchy and status.

Our narrator is not entirely certain whether she will respond to Mr. Purvis’ requests, but Mrs. Winner’s presence influences her decision.

“It was partly her contempt that made me stay. Partly. That and my pride.”

Innocence and experience are expressed in ordinary and uncommon ways in “Wenlock Edge”.

Pantyhose are hung to dry in a bathroom. There are peculiarly intimate readings of the works of English Country Poets. (Public readings, too, as it turns out.)

Nina’s unpredictable agency and compliance, her independent spirit and her desire to please, stand in contrast to our narrator’s approach, at first ambivalent, but then boldly determined.

Early in the girls’ story, when Nina seeks an escape out the back door of the city public library, our narrator follows.

(And, indeed, a side door of the library did open directly near the back of the building onto the parking lot, which backed onto an alley-way running parallel to Dundas Street, so it is conceivable that the girls could indeed have foiled Mrs. Winner, who saw them arrive by bus and would have naturally expected them to leave the same way.)

And, for much of the story, our narrator seems to react rather than act.

But, later in the story, she plots her own path. What motivates her actions is complicated, but she acts boldly.

“Better not to expect too much. Some things I guess you’re just not meant to have.”

The intersection between determination and resignation: familiar territory indeed.

And this is a landscape Alice Munro readers know intimately.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the third story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Deep-Holes”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

Three Novels that Made Me Smile

It’s not impossible to find them, but if you read a lot of literary fiction, the novels which contain humour are outnumbered. Each of these books actually addresses a serious issue (or touches upon it, for Susan Juby’s novel doesn’t delve very deeply): global warming and habitat erosion, family farm sustainability in an age of industrialized food, and the policing of language and creativity. And, yet, humour can be a powerful agent of change.

***

Gunn AmphibianCarla Gunn’s Amphibian (2009)

And besides, what’s the worst that can happen if my mother finds out? She’ll get really upset and maybe yell at me. I think a question like that should be in the game Worst Case Scenario. It could say, ‘What should you do when your mother gets super angry and is yelling at you?’ I think the answer is to imagine her as a barking elephant seal.”

Phin’s character is one of those designed to make your heart break a little even while you are laughing out loud at his story.

For it is amusing to think of a nine-year-old boy imagining his mother as a barking seal in an attempt to transform her anger into something he can cope with.

But Phin is so often in a position in which dealing with something head-on is too painful to manage that readers are soon in a spot in which they do not want him to have to deal with anybody yelling.

And, yet, Carla Gunn creates a credible and sympathetic mother (though she is not really funny) to counterpoint her young hero: the frustration and love that she clearly feels in her thwarted attempts to assist Phin with his anxiety about the world and its powerless-to-strike-back inhabitants (the webbed, the furred, the winged) is palpable.

The adults (e.g. the token helping professional, the teacher, the father) are believable but the star of the book is Phin.

Readers’ hearts are so solidly with him that the rest of the book settles behind his character and voice, so that one reads simply to find out what will become of Phin and his compassion for the downtrodden.

There is no complex construction or lyric prose: if this was a Green-channel broadcast, it would be a Phin-Marathon.

And because he is such heart-ful company, that feels just perfect.

***

Juby Republic of Dirt

HarperAvenue – HarperCollins, 2015

Susan Juby’s Republic of Dirt (2015)

“I’m twenty-one-year-old farmhand, which is similar to being a cowboy, but without a horse, a hat or any cows.”

Prudence Burns isn’t having an easy time on Woefield Farm. “I am beginning to think the word farm actually means ‘land upon which things go wrong in surprising and unexpected ways’ or perhaps ‘place where it’s impossible to get good help’.”

But readers will appreciate her conundrum. Though perhaps take issue with the lament over finding good help, for Seth and Earl and Sara are very helpful in their own way.

Sure, Seth has only recently moved out of his mother’s house (though not exactly willingly) and has a lot to learn, from AA meetings and just generally (that’s Seth speaking, above). Earl is getting older, and admittedly “keeping [his] drawers hitched up these days is challenge enough”. And Sara is only eleven years old but such a fanatic about fowl that she is grateful to be cast as livestock in the school play. “Mrs Singer was the one who gave me the role of the partridge in the Christmas play because she’s very fond of me.”

But loyal and determined? You bet. Each is so emotionally invested in Woefield Farm that readers can sense the dirt under their finger nails.

Readers who prefer humour with an edge will find fiction like Sheri LaPeña’s Happiness Economics (2011) or Edward Riche’s Easy to Like (2011) more satisfying.

But those who prefer gentle chuckles over raucous cackles,will find much to enjoy in Susan Juby’s fiction for adults.

(Best to begin, however, with Home to Woefield (2011).)

***

Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters (2001)

Dunn Ella Minnow PeaMark Dunn’s first novel is an epistolary novel which comes unstuck.

Just like the letters on the cenotaph, which spell out the famous pangram sentence designed by Nevin Nollop: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

When the ‘z’ falls off the sign, the council (of Nollop, an independent island nation off the coast of South Carolina) dictates that the letter must be stricken from the alphabet too.

Of all the letters to tumble, this seems the least complicated. Except that any book containing the letter ‘z’ must be culled from the public library, people’s names with the letter must be changed, and even the bees are subject to the mandated punishment (for bu**ing).

And then more tiles fall. Is it a matter of the fixative deteriorating, or is Nevin Nollop speaking from beyond the grave?

The council claims the latter and seizes (oops, takes) the opportunity to further restrict language and the lives of residents.

At first delightful and playful, letters written between family and friends (even enemies) become shorter and more desperate and usage changes to accommodate the increasingly restrictive edicts.

This makes for difficult reading (and living for Nollop residents) as time passes and tiles fall, but passionate resistance fighters are on the scene. 

***

Works like these can provide a spot of relief from the relentlessly grim tales of literary fiction, which might more often appear on prizelists but might not provoke as many smiles from readers.

Have you read any of these, or are they on your TBR? What have you read recently that made you smile?

Tessa McWatt’s Higher Ed (2015)

The story of how the cover for Higher Ed evolved provides readers with clues as to the novel’s preoccupation with perspective; from a close-up of a clown fish to a human hand, Tessa McWatt’s story covers the gamut.

McWatt Higher Ed

Random House Canada, 2015

It begins with a cast of characters, five primary (the administrator, the film professor, the law student, the civil servant, and the waitress) and a couple dozen supporting characters.

“This way of seeing things is like being the projector itself, like life has a movie and she’s showing it.” This is Francine’s observation (the administrator).

But Robin (the film professor) reminds readers that any given scene contains more detail than a casual passer-by might recognize:

“Kurosawa would use the noise and the pending rain. He would begin this scene with a long, wide-angled exposition—water, concrete, a lid of clouds—and then move to the contracted theatrical space to focus on the unknown woman. Robin looks around him, and, of course, there she is.”

As much as the five primary voices are central to the novel, the list includes several supporting characters who are deceased. (All are tied to the academic setting somehow, too, emphasizing another layer of interconnection.)

The unknown: what is lost is as much of a focus for Tessa McWatt as is the process of discovery and exploration.

“’What are you looking for, Olivia?’ he says, thinking that this young woman holds truth as a cup holds water. He himself is a sieve.”

Perhaps the novelist is much like a sieve too, but despite the metaphysical matters which simmer beneath the surface of Higher Ed, the elements of the concrete and familiar world invite readers to settle into story.

“Callaloo, pepperpot, Rupununi, arapaima, Karanambu, Essequibo: words he still must say to her.”

Ed muses upon the idea of expression and connection, observing that “while a young man wants freedom, an old man wants only peace”.

What is the relationship between peace and death?

“He was dead, I was sure of it, but I could have done something, maybe. I could have called someone; I could have turned him over. I could even have said something like I was sorry, but I didn’t. I did nothing.” (Speaker’s name withheld to avoid spoilers.)

How does the editing process affect the speed of events?

“There is a time in all the loves she has had when one person becomes faster or slower than the other person in the way love is working in their heart,” Katrin muses.

Who remains in the audience?

“’The lonely dead,’ [Robin] says, her shoulders hunching. ‘They are mostly people without family, or if they’re foreigners we don’t even know who they are, they have no papers, or they are old people whose family have fucked off—they don’t get funerals, not proper ones.'”

What happens when the credits roll?

“All these people and their bodies: celluloid. And when life checks out, when it clicks off, it stays in other places, like in her hand, like in her finger. Like in her jaw. Sayonara!” (That’s Francine, again.)

How do we say goodbye?

“And if she gets beyond all these, she will have arrived at something resembling an original idea. There is a case to be made for rights that take into account a proper goodbye.”

Tessa McWatt’s Higher Ed might be preoccupied with farewells, but it’s the perfect ‘hello’ for readers who have not yet discovered this writer’s work.

Summer 2015, In My Stacks

My reading recently has been a lovely mix of new books and old friends, rereads and longtime – but neglected – residents of my shelves.

June 2015 StacksReacquainting myself with L.M.Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea, I warmed to the scene where Anne and Diana come upon Miss Lavendar Lewis’ house, when the sense of enchantment is so strong that Anne expects to meet a princess at the end of the road. In Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose, the younger daughter does NOT expect to meet a princess, when she begins to explore the intersection of history and fairy tale in her grandmother’s past, but she actually does discover one.

But what’s next and what is underway?

The only library loan in this stack is Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor. It is also the heaviest book in the stack, although the anthology of love letters written by Canadian poets, Where the Nights are Longer, published by Goose Lane, leaves a mark too!

This collection I have actually been reading for several weeks now; I usually read a letter or two at the beginning of the evening. It usually marks a divide between some work and some food, and the ritual reminds me that there is likely more reading in the hours to come. Eventually I will post about the collection, but I am growing anxious, because the notes I’ve been taking are several pages long already. If you love all-things-epistolary, this is a “can’t miss” collection.

Another ongoing project is Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America. Its subtitle “Five Centuries of the Pillaging of a Continent” is the first clue that this is a difficult read. Even if you think you have an understanding of the colonization of Latin America, I suspect you will find yourself surprised by aspects of this narrative. Because the author is a poet and storyteller, the prose style is compelling, but I tend to read only about 2o pages in a sitting. I have dabbled in the book before, but this time I am steadily turning the pages, and I would like to read/reread another of his works when I have finished this one: do you have a favourite?

Besides Scott McCloud, there are five new-to-me authors in the stack. I’ve had Sarah Hall’s The Electric Michaelangelo on my stack for years, but something about it made me think it was going to be a sad story, and I haven’t had the nerve to read it yet (am I wrong?) but I am looking forward to The Wolf Border all the same. [Edited to add: I have finished this novel. Very enjoyable, very impressive.]

Sigal Samuel’s The Mystics of Mile End is terrific; I’m about half-way into the story, and I know I shall be sorry to leave these characters behind. If you enjoy meeting quirky but heartful characters on the page, you will enjoy this one. [Edited to add: This is one of my favourites for this reading year so far.]

I’m unsure of Susanna Kearsley’s novel, A Desperate Fortune, or whether there is a match to be made with me and her writing generally, but one reading friend assures me that there is more to her work than I might expect from the oh-so-pretty covers. Have you enjoyed one of hers?

Clifford Jackman’s The Winter Family has a blurb from Craig Davidson, an impressive and disturbing writer (whether he is wearing hat-literary or hat-scary); this first novel sounds like a fast-paced read.

Elena Forbes’ Jigsaw Man is the fourth Mark Tataglia mystery; of course I have had to put the other three in my stack first, because reading out of order has been a no-no since a disastrous encounter with Kinsey Milhone when I jumped ahead to E and missed C entirely. Tsktsk. Do you enjoy this series?

Suzanne Young is a relatively new-to-me writer as well; the only one that I have read is the first book in this series, The Program. While I am not entirely hooked, I am still curious what is yet to come in the sequel. Is this a series you know?

Last but certainly not least in this stack is Marina Endicott’s new novel, Close to Hugh. Such a talented writer and a distinctly satisfying style. (Did you read The Little Shadows or Good to a Fault?) This is one which I am savouring, reading only a few pages here and there, allowing the feeling to wash over me.

Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border (2015)

It’s an old term, ‘wolf border’, from the Finnish language: susiraja.

The boundary betweent the capital region and the rest of the country: everything which lies beyond the border is wilderness.

Wolf Border Sarah Hall

HarperCollins, 2015

Certainly Rachel does have to explain a lot about her scientific work with wolves beyond the border.

And it’s not only Londoners who go about their lives without a thought to wilderness, to the world beyond their experience.

 “How to explain to those unused to rural issues, to Londoners surprised by the fast trains north and the relative proximity of the Lake District to the Great Wen, surprised, it seems, that anything outside their own experience exists?”

But even though Rachel has a relationship with the land beyond the capital region’s borders…

Even though she has spent several years studying the movements of another species, a quintesentially wild one at that…

Even though she has lived independently of her family for all of those years…

Rachel, too, has begun to define the world by her own experiences, more expansive than some people’s but less than others’.

Having worked in Idaho for many years, she is invited to return to England, where the Earl of Annerdale seeks to reintroduce wolves to the countryside. It is an offer she plans to refuse, but one which is too tempting to ignore outright.

“The moors were endless, haunting; they had everything and gave upsecrets only intermittently – an orchid fluting in a bog, a flash of blue wing, some phantom, long-boned  creature, caught for a moment against the horizon before disappearing. Only the ubiquitous sheep tamed the countryside.”

The concept of re-wilding is fascinating on its own. (The author acknowledges the value of specific works on the subject in her notes at the back of the novel, if readers would like to explore independently.)

But Sarah Hall lays parallels for the reader, so that the layered themes — ideas of stewardship and dependence, taming and observing, protection and isolation — are particularly striking.

This novel is not titled for the content about wolves, but for the border between one state identified as civilized and another state identified as wild.

Both definitions are conceived of by humans.  There is some observation of the wolves, of course, but always through the lens of the human gaze, of a world dominated by humans as the ultimate predator.

Rachel is intrigued by the Earl of Annerdale’s plans to bring wolves from Eastern Europe, but troubled by the “hegemony, the unsettling feeling of imbalance”.

Given her investment in her work in America, returning to England is not a decision to take lightly. And questions about independence — pertaining not only to the wolves but also the countryside and her personal familial connections — are paramount. (The relationship with her mother is key, but her relationship with her brother Lawrence also introduces matters of dependency and caregiving, responsibility and resilience.)

“Still, it is England; a country particularly owned.” Indeed, England is a country traditionally preoccupied with owning or claiming the lands and territories of others. In The Wolf Border, the Scottish people are debating the merits of independence from the mother-land.

Rachel is well acquainted with the conservative take on the matter. There would be chaos across the border, given the impoverished state of Scotland, indebted and in need of European bailout: the independence scare story.

TLC Sarah Hall Author

Author, Click for site

“They are matchless predators, they exist supremely, she is irrelevant to them.”

She actually makes this statement regarding the wolves, but such observations could also be made of the political situation as well, so skillfully does the author align developments. Similar questions surrounding family relationships surface too.

“She had the only version of her mother she could have had; Binny had the only daughter. In some waya they were motherless, daughterless.”

The biological ties are undeniable, and Rachel is a scientist; she assesses, evaluates and responds more analytically than many people. Yet, she seeks and embraces the wilderness, and she struggles with her awareness that it exists both within and without.

And even though her experiences allow her to explain some things about the natural world to city-dwellers, there are many areas of life (literal and metaphorical) which she has not yet experienced.

Rachel’s borders are shifting, expanding. And that makes for a solid character-driven tale. (Readers are completely immersed in her perspective; even the dialogue is presented all-of-a-piece with the story. There are no borders here either: a thought in the mind may or may not be spoken, but exists in Rachel’s consciousness whether or not it is shared.)

For with the prospect of a new job on the horizon, she learns that she is pregnant, the result of an unplanned intimacy with a long-time co-worker on the wolf reservation in the United States.

In some ways, this development is not as immediately challenging as it might be, for Rachel’s independence co-exists with a solid set of care-giving skills, which many first-time parents inherently lack.

“In the storm of it all, she does not consider that for years they have been together, companions, lovers of sorts, mutually obsessed with the family under their care – with their feeding, their nurture, their scat, the routes along which they travel – as if partners already.”

But motherhood as a social structure is something with which Rachel has no experience.

“Most uncomfortable is the awareness that she is to some degree following in Binny’s footsteps: unmarried, independent, not at all leavened by maternity.”

Again the author’s skill with presenting parallels in the storyline is evident. Just as Rachel can manage the scientific elements of care-giving for the wolves, it is theoretically possible that she could follow a series of steps to maintain the health of an infant in her care.

“The implants have proved negligible. They have been vaccinated. They are acclimated to the terrain, its hard carapaces and grasslands, via the microcosm of their acre. All that remains is for their human aversion to prevail.”

But the idea of mothering is something else. Just as the scientists can observe a pair of wolves, they cannot force them to mate and raise a family together. Rachel’s decision will change the shape of her world.

“For the first time in her life, work is not the primary concern: work is not in full possession of her soul…. She cannot hide in it. All those years in which she was safe and exempt, focused on the management of another species. Now, a different sphere has ascended. The qualities of human reward and failure rest with her. It is terrifying.”

As complicated as it was to erect a barrier to protect the rewilded wolves in England, constructed barriers are not necessarily effective. Barriers break down when not all inhabitants of the world agree that their construction is a priority.

This is the kind of dilemma with which Rachel grapples in The Wolf Border: the ascendance of a different sphere.

A sophisticated and engaging novel: Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border.

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Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the invitation to participate.

Other readers’ opinions and responses can be found here:

From the TBR PileBookNAroundBook DilettanteReading to DistractionWildmooBooksConceptual ReceptionRaven Haired GirlA Bookish Way of LifeSharon’s Garden of Book ReviewsBook Reviews by Lanise BrownLavish BookshelfBroken TeepeeKritters Ramblings

You can find out more about Sarah Hall at her website, and you can connect with her on Facebook.

“Fiction” Alice Munro

Is it something like a triangle? With happiness, unhappiness and love arranged with an equal distance between each point?

Perhaps. Certainly there are triangles in “Fiction”, shifting alliances and fractures.

Love triangles. Happiness triangles.

Just enough. Too much.

Munro Too Much Happiness RANThe kind of happiness discussed in “Fiction” is different from that which Doree/Fleur muses upon in “Dimensions”.

Doree/Fleur recognizes it in other people. She barely remembers what that was like: the happiness that comes from a sunny day or peonies in bloom or the smell of rolls fresh from the oven.

In “Fiction”, it doesn’t seem to be a light feeling, but a more solid – if not heavy – sensation.

Not something ethereal and fleeting, but something with a definite presence, something which provides a weight from which something might pull away.

Or, is that unhappiness?

Is that where the question of transformation worms in?

The weight of what has been sloughed off, left behind. The lightness of the freshly possible.

“She felt herself shedding the day’s work, which was harried and uncertain, filled with the dispensing of music to the indifferent as well as the responsive. How much better to work with wood and by yourself—she did not count the apprentice—than with the unpredictable human young.”

The rhythm of Joyce’s daily life is very different from Jon’s. She seems to believe that his woodworking affords the potential for something pure, unadulterated.

Jon does not need to peel parts of himself away and rebuild them nightly.

Instead, he spends time in solitude, predictable and consistent, or with Edie, the apprentice.

“Edie does not believe in evolution.” Edie does not shed her day’s work nor does she shed her skin.

Snakes belong in gardens, with temptresses, in Edie’s static and dependable world.

From Joyce’s perspective, Edie does not seem to be the sort of person poised for a fall.

“She [Joyce] should have understood, and at that moment, even if he [Jon] himself was nowhere close to knowing. He was falling in love.
Falling. That suggests some time span, a slipping under. But you can think of it as a speeding up, a moment or a second when you fall. Now Jon is not in love with Edie. Tick. Now he is.”

And, yet, there is a fall. Whether from grace. Or from knowing. What was once a haven is no longer.

“At this time many people, even some of the thatched-roof people, were putting in what were called patio doors—even if like Jon and Joyce they had no patio. These were usually left uncurtained, and the two oblongs of light seemed to be a sign or pledge of comfort, of safety and replenishment. Why this should be so, more than with ordinary windows, Joyce could not say. Perhaps it was that most were meant not just to look out on but to open directly into the forest darkness, and that they displayed the haven of home so artlessly.”

Munro Too Much Happiness Vintage PBAlice Munro invites readers to venture beyond these panes of glass. There is no patio to cross first; readers step immediately into Joyce’s perspective, her home.

Readers experience the slipping that caught Joyce unawares. What was once comforting and safe, artlessly replenishing, has fallen, out of reach.

“The first thing you had to wonder was whether her whole body had been transformed in the same way.
‘How amazing,’ said Joyce, as neutrally as possible.”

Joyce has tried to get some perspective on the situation. She seeks to appear neutral, distanced, controlled.

Even at the time. But now, when the story is told, time has ticked past. “Fiction” covers a swath of years.

The final segment presents Joyce-transformed. Once music teacher, but now a professional cellist. Once Jon’s beloved, now Matt’s third wife.

And perhaps because she is now attuned to the subtle (and dramatic) transformations that can occur, across a lifetime or overnight, she recognizes the potential in Edie’s daughter. Who, one night, is dressed in black, a sombre and mysterious figure at a party. And on another day she is rosy, pink, and all-a-bloom.

“Then she sees a young woman altogether different from the girl on the poster and the girl at the party. The black outfit is gone, also the black hat. Christie O’Dell wears a jacket of rosy-red silk brocade, with tiny gold beads sewn to its lapels. A delicate pink camisole is worn underneath. There is a fresh gold rinse in her hair, gold rings in her ears, and a gold chain fine as a hair around her neck. Her lips glisten like flower petals and her eyelids are shaded with umber.”

For Edie’s daughter, Christie, has a particularly powerful ability to transform.

In The View from Castle Rock, the young Alice remarks upon this capacity.

She has it too, this ability to write about things and fundamentally change them, to consume them, to pull forth their secret and plentiful messages.

“The town, unlike the house, stays very much the same—nobody is renovating or changing it. Nevertheless it has changed for me. I have written about it and used it up. Here are more or less the same banks and hardware and grocery stores and the barbershop and the Town Hall tower, but all their secret, plentiful messages for me have drained away.”

Christie is a pained and tortured figure in one environment, but elsewhere, just a few days later, she is resurrected as a fiction writer.

“You couldn’t even be sure that she had recognized the title of her own story. You would think she had nothing to do with it. As if it was just something she wriggled out of and left on the grass. And as for whatever was true, that the story came from—why, she acted as if that was disposed of long before.”

The fiction writer can wriggle out of the genesis of a story and she can dispose of the distasteful parts on the grass behind her.

In story, one can transform. One can create a sense of gratitude for that which once caused great pain.

“Love. She was glad of it. It almost seemed as if there must be some random and of course unfair thrift in the emotional housekeeping of the world, if the great happiness—however temporary, however flimsy—of one person could come out of the great unhappiness of another.”

When Joyce admires the crowd at Matt’s birthday part, she calls attention to the number of people in attendance. Look, she says: “It’s positively a life story.’”

And Alice Munro does have a way of transforming full and complicated lives into short fictions, doesn’t she. And we, as readers, can wriggle our toes in the grass.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the second story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Wenlock Edge”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

Mark Anthony Jarman’s Knife Party at the Hotel Europa (2015)

A book-length demonstration of propulsive prose.

Jarman Knife PartyThis is the word that I wrote in capital letters, in the margins of my reading diary about Mark Anthony Jarman’s Knife Party at the Hotel Europa (2015), but then I wondered if I had subconsciously (deliberately, even!) lifted it from the cover.

It sounds like a word one might see in a blurb, doesn’t it? But, no. There, it is described as ‘incendiary’, ‘adroit’, ‘riotous’, ‘bittersweet’, and ‘rollicking’.

And, in such company ‘propulsive’ pales.

And, yet, I felt driven to read on.

Not turning pages in a ‘enjoying the ride, why step off’ kind of way.

But more out of fear that the constant motion would leave me dizzy if I tried to look away to make e a beeline for the exit.

This is appropriate, given the sense of dislocation which the central character feels through this collection of linked tales.

Consider this observation from “Pompeii Über Alles”:

“Memory seems random, the lobes of my brain seem to rule me, as if I am the sighing servant. Should it not be the other way around, shouldn’t I rule my own brain? Yet it doesn’t happen.”

Reader, like character, is dizzy with the unfamiliar, the unexpected, the strange intersection between desire and despair.

Even the moments of stillness/contentment/respite are troubled, as revealed in this passage from the final story, “Pompeii Book of the Dead”:

“Slightly dazed, I jump off the sweaty train at Pompeii and explore the raw ruins on foot and in the ruins I enter another tunnel, tunnel after tunnel, airports, trains, and now this underground forum. A dark passage leads at an angle into the earth and I follow this tunnel into the lower level of the forum complex, the Teatro, down into shade, hiding from the relentless sun for even a few rare moments.”

What makes the collection habitable, however, is the sense that the overarching desire is familiar, human, universal.

“I travel so large a world, but my favourite is the tiny world we create when two people are kind to each other.” [From “Hospital Island (Wild Thing)”]

Yet, regardless of whether the tenor of this collection is one which will appeal to readers, the prose is truly remarkable.

Not in a ‘showy, look what I can do’ kind of way.

More like ‘this is simply the way in which this tale exists to be told’.

This collection stood out amongst the others in my stack at that time — Alice Munro, Kathleen Winter, Julia Leggatt — but it wasn’t about the knife. I can think of at least two other knives in those other collections, without even glancing at the tables of contents. And, so, although a reader could certainly opt to read for excitement alone (there is a good deal of it in Knife Party at the Hotel Europa), it is the crafting which secured my interest.

The following passage was the first that I stopped to reread three times, and that was only a handful of pages into the work in “The Dark Brain of Prayer”.

“Write on my tombstone that I can’t make up my mind, write that I am murdered by night-riders, by mumblers and nitpickers, by fellow travelers and Roman gods, by cold staring statues, by Hermes, by Natasha chatting at a gas station. Write that, like everyone else, I am murdered by love, that I am nibbled to death by ducks, brought low by normal events.”

See what I mean?

It is propulsive, is it not?

And every interconnection, thematic link, motif, delicate echo of another story’s core: each only makes you want to read on, travel on, live on.

Contents: The Dark Brain of Prayer; Butterfly on a Mountain; Knife Party; Hospital Island (Wild Thing); The Petrified Florist; Pompeii Über Alles; Hallway Snowstorm; Adam and Eve Saved from Drowning; The Troubled English Bride; Party Barge; Exempt from the Fang (Aircraft Carrier); Pompeii Book of the Dead