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

Autumn Prizelists and Reading Projects

Partly because I am addicted to reading lists and partly because I have discovered many of my favourite writers because their names appeared on various literary prizelists (long or short or eligible), I look forward to this time of year, in hopes of discovering new favourites.

ECW Press, 2013

ECW Press, 2013

When I see the name of a favourite writer appear on the list, I am ridiculously pleased.

A little squeal when I learned that Carrie Snyder had been nominated for the Writers’ Trust Award because I so admired The Juliet Stories and Hair HatA wriggle in the seat when I spotted Dominique Fortier’s Wonder , nominated for Sheila Fischman’s translation, on the GG list. Rapid claps for Jennifer Lovegrove’s The Way We Walk on the Giller longlist. A big smile upon seeing Sweetland appear on the GG list.

But then I am disappointed when a favourite book doesn’t appear on the lists.

Because I was so swept away by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s All the Broken Things (2014), Dennison Smith’s The Eye of the Day (2014), Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk (2014), and Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings (2014), I check the lists repeatedly, convinced I have simply overlooked their names.

I look, too, for Nadia Bozak’s Border novels because they were so striking, even though I am still smarting from the experience of reading them. (Orphan Love would not have been eligible obviously, as it was published in 2007, though it is the first in the trilogy.)

And I make reading lists of reading lists, determined to finish the shortlists before winners’ names are announced.

Toronto Book Award 2014
✔Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky (RHC)
Charlotte Gray ‘s The Massey Murder: A Maid, her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country (HC)
✔Carrianne K.Y. Leung’s The Wondrous Woo (Inanna)
Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis’s The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement (RHC)
✔Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts (RHC)

Thoughts: From Shyam Selvadurai’s bookstore scenes, to Carrianne K.Y. Leung’s transit rides, to Anthony De Sa’s rooftops, the Toronto-ness of these three novels recommends them readily for the award. The Massey Murder and The Stop are both on my shelves, but being non-fiction they haven’t lunged into my TBR stacks. I can’t decide which to read first, so I suppose it will come down to whether, in the moment, I want a thrill or a snack.

Giller Prize 2014 Shortlist:
David Bezmozgis’s The Betrayers (HC)
Frances Itani’s Tell (HC)
✔Sean Michaels’ Us Conductors (RHC)
✔Heather O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (HC)
✔Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows (RHC)
✔Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao (RHC)

Paradise Elsewhere PageGiller Prize 2014 Longlist:
✔Arjun Basu’s Waiting for the Man (ECW)
Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations (HC)
✔Jennifer Lovegrove’s Watch How We Walk (ECW)
✔Shani Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab (RHC)
✔Kathy Page’s Paradise and Elsewhere (Biblioasis)
Claire Holden Rothman’s My October (PBC)

Thoughts: Although I absolutely loved David Bezmozgis’s Natasha and Other Stories, I did not feel as impassioned about The Free World, a novel that I admired more than loved; I’ve had a copy of The Betrayers for awhile now, but it keeps getting shuffled into the stack every time it nears the top (despite my fondness for other broken plate fiction). But because the other three works that I have yet to read are of equal interest, I will likely pluck it out of the stack next, rather than settle the ‘tie’ between the other three in my reader’s mind.

Governor General’s Award for Fiction in English
✔ Michael Crummey’s Sweetland (RHC)
Bill Gaston’s Juliet Was a Surprise (PBC)
Claire Holden Rothman’s My October (PBC)
Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle (HC)
Joan Thomas’ The Opening Sky (RHC)

Thoughts: Because Sweetland is one of my favourite reads of the year, it’s tempting to set aside the reading of the remainder of the shortlist so that I can focus on hoping for the one novel I’ve read on it so far; Michael Crummey’s work is always of great interest to me (he is on my MustReadEverything list of authors) and I find myself wanting the narrator of the novel to win this prize, to even out the losses he endured, as much as I want Michael Crummey’s writing to be recognized. But Thomas King is on my MRE list too, and I’ve been eyeing Bill Gaston’s fiction and Joan Thomas’ debut for ages. Because I’ve read so few of these titles, this list piques my curiosity.

All Broken Things KuitenbrouwerIFOA2014 Reading (partial list)
Kamal Al-Solaylee, Linwood Barclay, Renné Benoit,
David Bergen, David Bezmozgis, Jared Bland,
Joseph Boyden, Nadia Bozak, Dionne Brand,
Catherine Bush, Claire Cameron, Michael Crummey,
Nick Cutter, Jeffery DeaverFarzana Doctor,
Emma Donoghue, Krista Foss, Steven Galloway,
Sheila Heti, Linda Holeman, Aislinn Hunter,
Ghalib Islam, Frances Itani, Andrew Kaufman,
Thomas King, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, Laila Lalami,
Yan Li, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Lee Maracle,
Peter May, Eimear McBride, Mark Medley,
K.D. Miller, Lorrie Moore,
Shani Mootoo, Susin Nielsen, Grace O’Connell,
Heather O’Neill, Carol Off, Katrina Onstad,
Kathy Page, Alison Pick, Tom Rachman,
David Adams Richards, Ray Robertson,
Claire Holden Rothman, Karen Russell,
Diane Schoemperlen, Johanna Skibsrud, Carrie Snyder,
Ania Szado, Lynn Thomson, Kim Thúy,
Miriam Toews, Christos Tsiolkas, Colm Tóibín,
Rebecca Upjohn, Priscila Uppal, Richard Wagamese,
Russell Wangersky, Sarah Waters, Ruby Wiebe,
Kathleen Winter, Alissa York, Alexi Zentner

Thoughts: The IFOA is my favourite literary event of the year. In recent years, I have been much more excited about the Canadian authors and less invested in the international appearances, but this year I am really looking forward to seeing Christos Tsiolkas, Colm Tóibín and Sarah Waters (who is also on my MRE list of authors). And oh my, hasn’t it been forever since Diane Schoemperlen had a new book? (She’s on that MRE list too.) And how much did I love Annabel? Enough to buy Kathleen Winter’s Boundless in hardcover at Toronto’s Word on the Street last month. And even though I think the event with Susin Nielsen is intended to be for young readers, I would love to attend it too. It looks to be another great year at IFOA; I’m counting the days.

Carrie Snyder Girl RunnerRogers Writers’ Trust Shortlist 
André Alexis’ Pastoral (Coach House Books)
K.D. Miller’s All Saints (Biblioasis)
✔Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist (RHC)
Carrie Snyder’s Girl Runner (House of Anansi)
✔Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows (RHC)

Thoughts: Girl Runner is the novel on this list which I am most excited to read (see my gush-y Spelling It Out post about The Juliet Stories), but I have been collecting André Alexis’ books for years and yet have only read short pieces (from Beauty & Sadness), so I’m looking forward to Pastoral too. Even though I’ve enjoyed other collections from Biblioasis (like Nancy Jo Cullen‘s and Cynthia Flood‘s), I wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of K.D.Miller’s collection, but I thought the first story was unputdownable (as the best character-driven tales can be), so I’m looking forward to it as well. I really loved the layering in Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist and Miriam Toews’ writing consistently impresses me with her skillful handling of difficult themes the voice of All My Puny Sorrows is beautifully drawn. I anticipate being torn when it comes to choosing a favourite here.

If you could give an award to one book you’ve recently finished reading, to which book would you grant it?

Are any of your favourite writers/books on the lists here?

Are you watching any awards lists this season?

 

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Dissenting Voices: Three Novels

Lowland Lahiri

Knopf, 2013

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (2013)

“Naxalbari is an inspiration. It’s an impetus for change.”

One brother in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel is a member of the Naxalbari movement, Udayan. His involvement with the far-left radical Communist group in Calcutta vitally impacts the entire family, even Subhash, who leaves for the United States in the late 1960s.

“You’re the other side of me, Subhash. It’s without you that I’m nothing. Don’t go.
It was the only time he’d admitted such a thing. He’d said it with love in his voice. With need.”

The Lowland is a highly emotive work, considering political and familial relationships of great intensity, but the tone is staid and controlled.

Instead, Jhumpa Lahiri uses landscape to express some of that intensity.

“The following day she’d walked with her father to campus to see torn branches scattered on the quadrangle, streets green with leaves. They found a thick tree that had fallen, the tangled roots exposed. They saw the drenched ground that had given way. The tree seemed more overwhelming when it lay on the ground. Its proportions frightening, once it no longer lived.”

Whether India or America, the sense of place is important in this novel. Characters connect as much to landscape as to each other.

“He wanted to tell her that he had been waiting all his life to find Rhode Island. That it was here, in this minute but majestic corner of the world, that he could breathe.”

In fact, sometimes the connection to landscape is more immediately recognizable than emotional ties. And the land endures in unexpected ways.

“She was unprepared for the landscape to be so altered. For there to be no trace of that evening, forty autumns ago.”

The setting of this novel is expansive, both in terms of time and place, and the author works to infuse a similar sense of timelessness in the prose.

“It was in English that the past was unilateral; in Bengali, the word for yesterday, kal, was also the word for tomorrow. In Bengali one needed an adjective, or relied on the tense of a verb, to distinguish what had already happened from what would be.”

The first and last sections of the novel employ a distinct voice, which emphasizes the idea that this story considers the specific experiences of a single family but it is, also, a representation of a broader, sweeping story. Readers not only have the sense that the story has happened, is happening and will happen, but that is has/is/will repeatedly, as part of the human experience.

Throughout The Lowland, there are striking moments of beauty, recognizable to loyal readers of Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction. These are most evident around the question of setting, sometimes predominantly in her use of language (a shoreline receding, “resting calmly like a thin brown snake upon the water”) and other times in her use of detail:

“Once more the leaves of the trees lost their chlorophyll, replaced by the shades he had left behind: vivid hues of cayenne and turmeric and ginger pounded fresh every morning in the kitchen, to season the food his mother prepared.”

Jamal Air Sweet

HarperCollins, 2014

Her prose has a unique rhythm that can seem distancing and dry in one reading mood, precise and deliberate in another. Not all readers will respond with equal enthusiasm and even devoted Lahiri readers might find themselves varyingly responsive to her work. Nonetheless, The Lowland is skillfully crafted, its characters memorable and its themes resonant.

Tasmeen Jamal’s Where the Air is Sweet (2014)

When Idi Adim expelled 80,000 South Asians from Uganda in 1972, many families were forced to leave the region in short order, amid upheaval and violence.

Tasmeen Jamal’s novel opens with a window upon that time, but then readers are cast back to 1921, putting down roots in Uganda along with the characters who come to call that territory home.

Where the Air is Sweet takes readers by the hand affording them the opportunity to explore attentively and exhaustively. The following descriptive passage offers a glimpse of the author’s capacity to balance the macro and micro scales of change and flux, detail and expanse.

“Mumtaz has never walked through a tea estate. She looks down at the leaves. Each one is a different shade of green. The new, young ones, some of them still rolled up, are bright green, their leaves almost transparent. The older ones are darker and thicker, some glowing and healthy, some beginning to dry out. Many of the leaves have brown spots on them, and some of their edges are uneven. From the road, the tea estates are a rolling sea of uniform green. At times, Mumtaz has been struck by their lush beauty, particularly when the clouds are dark and varied and threatening, leaving her with a sensation that the earth is overwhelmingly fertile. But most of the time, Mumtaz hardly notices them; the endless green impresses her no more than the endless blue of the sky. But up close, the tea leaves fascinate her, draw her in.”

Mumtaz is at the heart of the novel and the dramatic scene which opens the novel sustains a quiet tension throughout, as the arc of the story curves and eventually knits together.

Readers require more of an interest in interpersonal relations than political, however, as the characters respond to the unrest in different and curious ways. Differing approaches to valuing and protecting stability are presented when chaos erupts. Identities shift as required. Risks outweigh pleasures and safe havens create their own stresses and strains.

Where the Air is Sweet is a remarkable debut which presents endless tea leaves and skies alongside close-ups of one family’s struggle to create a home amidst shifting borders.

McClelland & Stewart, 2014

McClelland & Stewart, 2014

Krista Foss’ Smoke River (2014)
The question of belonging is at the heart of this debut novel, which presents a wide cast of characters who are struggling to cultivate and nurture their roots and interconnections.

“Divisions stripe their people like plaid. There are those who belong to the other tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy – Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca, Onondaga, Tuscarora – among them some who resent the Mohawks’ pre-eminence, their persistent activism, their nationalism. There are those who follow the old longhouse religion and buy their groceries and play bingo beside all variety of Catholics, Protestants, Pentecostals, evangelicals, and atheists. Within their own faith are those who believe an oral version of the Great Law that prohibits war and violence, and those who follow a written version, which interprets resistance as using whatever means necessary.”

Krista Foss’ use of language is primarily uncomplicated, but occasionally an image bursts forth. A man is jaundiced like a stewpot chicken or a woman wears her tiredness like a heavy coat: readers have the sense that a narrative immersed in a single character’s perspective would allow the author’s focus to shift from plot to voice.

Nonetheless, Smoke River is preoccupied with the battle over a plot of land, which is integrally connected to broader questions of identity for a number of characters in a southwestern-Ontario tobacco country. The intersection of the sacred and the profitable creates an abundance of material: conflict grows and pages turn. The fundamental question of what (and who) is of value lurks beneath.

“Native women were tossed from cars like fast-food wrappers; their bones were plucked clean by coyotes and vultures; they disappeared with nothing left but poster pictures and the water-drip torture of hope.”

Smoke River’s characters are well-developed and readers are afforded the opportunity to inhabit all sides of the issues via their rotating perspectives; Krista Foss presents a solid narrative which leaves room for complications and complexities.

Have you read any of these? Or, are they on your TBR stack or list?

Quarterly Stories: Autumn 2014

“Bad coffee can only keep you company for so long at four a.m. in a bus depot.”

Hideout Hotel Young

Caitlin Press, 2014

All of the characters in Janine Alyson Young’s debut collection seem as though they would immediately recognize the truth of that. They all seem to have a spot of the drifter in them, even if they seem to be set in one place for the duration of a particular story.

But, then, one does not have to have been in a bus depot at 4am to understand that bad anything, not only bad coffee, isn’t much company in the wee hours of the morning.

(I can understand that, and I’ve never been in a bus depot past midnight, and I’m not sure a donut shop at 6am is the same.)

There is, however, something worn and lonely about these women and, yet, other aspects of their experience (for instance, their curiosity, their determination) cannot be discounted.

The sisters in the opening story work on a ranch in Australia, one as a comber and the other as a shearer. The scant workplace details are fascinating, but the focus in the story is on relationships, between the sexes and between siblings and between parents and children.

“For once I reckon I’m the better-looking one even though I’m shorter and my face is rounder. We’ve got the same beer-coloured hair and tiny teeth, but everyone could always tell us apart.”

The descriptions situate the characters in recognizable surroundings. And often the details revolving around character and setting reveal important dependencies (or independencies, as the case may be).

“There’s a line of ants above the dresser. They weren’t there yesterday. This sort of thing is our problem now.”

Although of varying ages, the main characters here are determining alliances and looking for places and people in the world that they can trust.

“Most of the girls we grew up with have kids and boyfriends they think are deadbeats. If I had to put my money on any of them, I’d choose their men. The guys might be bad, but at least they don’t pretend otherwise.”

Much of the action is internal, and the dialogue (inner and outer) verges on the mundane, as the characters wrestle with quotidian decisions, which seem large at the individual level but which are recognizable human struggles between love and loss, petty when viewed in the wider context of a full lifetime of connecting and disconnecting.

“Sometimes she thinks about leaving Jonah, or at least what it would look like to leave. He wouldn’t be surprised. Or maybe he would. She used to worry about him. He was gone so much, for so long. If he called one day to announce he wasn’t coming back, she wouldn’t be shocked.”

The setting is of vital importance to each of the stories in Hideout Hotel. Although not often overtly named, there is a clear understanding of place, often transmitted to readers through a collection of details which conspire to create an idea without resorting to map coordinates.

“There were huskies all over the place. I bent down and patted them as I passed. They were panting and tufts of hair came off on my fingers, even though the sun wasn’t hot, just high up there and endless.”

Sometimes the sense of place is openly named, and the attention paid to sketching the scene is more about the human community than the landscape and its natural inhabitants.

“The village, as it was called, was the grocery store, a café, a movie rental place, some kitschy hippy stores that were only open in the tourist months and a cold beer and wine. There was a pub, small restaurant and other grocery store on the other side of the island by the marina but that was about it.”

One remarkable aspect of this collection is the tendency to vacillate between the bleak and the possible without bold identifiers. Sometimes the narrators are openly challenged in some way; an aspect of their life has been turned inside out and upsidedown, and they are struggling to fin their way out of a seemingly grim place.

“These sorts of days always strike me as dishonest. Everything is extroverted all of a sudden. I want to know what was so bad about the winter. I want to know why we should all be happy that the flowers are out. I don’t understand what’s so great about the flowers. There’s no soul to spring; everything is thin and bland and weak.”

And, yet, even when the situation is sorrow-soaked and the burden of disappointment heavy, the weight of these stories settles lightly upon readers. Like the couch on the cover, it might not be polished, not even slightly pretty, but there is comfort to be had there nonetheless.

Contents: Bushfire, Greyhound Special, Once It Breaks, Sung Spit Part One, Sung Spit Part Two

Paradise Elsewhere PageKathy Page’s Paradise and Elsewhere (2014)

Ranging in length from a few to many pages, these stories consider familiar and fresh landscapes. As comfortable in the mythic as in the concrete, Kathy Page gives readers’ expectations a good shake.

Twins die and trees live. Kissing is forbidden and thievery is encouraged. Strangers are intimates and sisters are strangers.

“A generation of greedy travelers, living in the last days and wanting to see it all, the world as onion, layer on layer going back beneath today’s crisp, dry skin.”

Readers travel through these tales, peeling back their skins, peering beneath sometimes greedily but sometimes reluctantly.

Some of the events chronicled are harshly disturbing, some are gently subversive. The storyteller’s voice is consistently assured and seductive.

Contents: G’Ming, Lak-ha, Of Paradise, The Ancient Siddanese, Low Tide, My Beautiful Wife, We the Trees, Clients, Lambing, Woodsmoke, I like to Look, Saving Grace, The Kissing Disease, My Fees

Soderstrom Desire LinesMary Soderstrom’s Desire Lines (2013)

Divided into three parts (Substrata, The View from Here, and The Forces of the Earth), these twelve stories explore the fundamental layers of relating, the unanticipated trajectory, the joins and dead ends of life’s journey.

“I’m an archivist,” says one character, so “I know the value of documents and the excitement of finding a window on the past through someone’s handwriting”.

Readers might imagine Mary Soderstrom’s approach to writing to be similar. The stories are frequently preoccupied with the past viewed through a fresh lens, a narrow window on a wider landscape.

Lust and circumcision, volcanoes and mines, injuries and near-misses: Desire Lines considers the many ways in which wanting intersects with losing.

Heightened emotion is harnessed in prose which is clear and precise, and though nearly always bloodless, these stories will leave marks on their readers.

Contents: Ancient Faults, On the Prelude to the Wedding of the Plants, Underground, Wrong Address, Trepidation of the Spheres, The Ugly Baby, Blood Rites, Russian Olives, Bass Line, Open Window, Madame Pele Is Not Amused, Leaving

All the Rage Kennedy

House of Anansi, 2014 (Astoria Imprint)

A.L. Kennedy’s All the Rage (2014)

“Making readers happy is not a bad thing. Readers like screwing and manoeuvres.”

There’s a little of both in All the Rage, but more quiet contemplation of what makes relationships tick and what makes them go still.

The action is mostly internal and the tone measured, the language straightforward though sometimes stylized, humour simmering beneath. Sometimes descriptions pull readers into the story with sensory detail – the stitching on a tea towel or crushed biscuit beneath a shoe – but the prose is clean and uncomplicated.

Often a phrase or sentence commands attention, begging for a sticky note or flag, although the writing appears effortless. “Unsolicited early conversations made her tetchy as a maiden aunt facing down a squirrel.” (from “The Practice of Mercy”) “The real experience of love is of having unreasonably lost all shelter.” (from “Baby Blue”) “He didn’t want to hit her, he simply couldn’t shake his desperation to leave her marked.” (from “All the Rage”)

A.L. Kennedy has an eye for the moments that matter and whether one of these comprises the bulk of a story or a string of them is assembled to recreate a broader arc, readers are struck by the heavy emotional weight of love and loss.

Contents:Late in Life, Baby Blue, Because It’s a Wednesday, These Small Pieces, The Practice of Mercy, Knocked, All the Rage, Takes You Home, The Effects of Good Government on the City, Run Catch Run, A Thing Unheard-of, This Man

September 2014: In My Reading Log

Among other books enjoyed in September were some standout novels that will be featured later this month, including Michael Crummey’s Sweetland and Magie Dominic’s Street Angel. There was also Diversiverse and the launch of RIP IX, and much musing on future Read-a-Thon choices. Award longlists began appearing (including the Toronto Book Award and the Giller Prize) and IFOA reading began in earnest (Nadia Bozak’s novels made a real impression). Below are some brief thoughts on some works read recently.

Richard van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed (1996)
Zarqa Nawaz’s Laughing All the Way to the Mosque (HarperCollins, 2014)
Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty (2007)

Lesser Blessed vanCampRichard van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed (1996)

“I had rewound the Outfield’s song ‘Baby, When You Talk to Me’ and got it ready so that when she answered, I would press ‘play’ and she’d hear it. Man, she just had to know how I felt. I also had Judas Priest on standby: ‘Turbo Lover’ was set to go, and if the conversation followed along, I had backup, too. Van Halen was locked, cocked and ready to rock.”

Larry is in love with Juliet. A member of the Dogrib nation, he thinks of her like a white caribou, whom he chooses to keep in his sights, beautifully alive. When Johnny Beck, a Metis, moves to Fort Simmer, a small northern town, alliances shift and possibilities present themselves. “It was okay, not much to do if you’re not into booze or sports. I mostly read and listened for stories.” Richard van Camp’s style not only captures the realistic grit of coming-of-age but affords room for the unexplained, a sense of mythic power which hovers beneath the seemingly mundane choices that the characters in his stories make (or fall into). The Lesser Blessed is a slim volume, but the characters stretch beyond its binding

Zarqa Nawaz’s Laughing All the Way to the Mosque (HarperCollins, 2014)

“Dear Reader, I’ve written this memoir so that one day, should you find yourself facing a pint-sized Muslim trying to save your soul, you will be armed with understanding of the other side. You will have all sorts of interesting knowledge to catch them off guard with, like ‘Isn’t there a prayer that you’re late for?’ or ‘As soon as you figure out the moon issue, I’ll listen to you,’ and the perennial ‘Exactly how clean are your genitals?’”Laughing Mosque Nawaz

Zarqa Nawaz has been accused of not knowing the difference between poking fun at Muslims and making fun of Islam, but although she may occasionally veer into the former camp, she steers clear of the latter. Laughing All the Way to the Mosque is fast-paced and entertaining, also filled with useful observations as promised (for instance, hajj and fudge do rhyme but one actually is a religious requirement and the other the author eats as though it is a religious requirement). Tales about the filming of “Little Mosque on the Prairie” will interest all readers, although those who have seen some episodes of the CBC television series will be most keen. Most remarkable is the author’s conversational and inviting tone; a firm resolve to read just one chapter is bound to swell beyond that page-count.

Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty (2007)

“You might admire my egg slicer collection. What is better than a sliced egg sandwich, eaten by someone named Sally at a luncheonette counter on a drizzly day in New York City?”

Kalman Principles UncertaintyMaira Kalman’s collections, which comprise the thing-y-ness of this volume, are fascinating. From postcards (of Hotel Celeste or Santa Lucia) to numbers on tags and tapes (all shapes, sizes and origins) and paper packets, from photographs of people she has walked behind to things that have fallen out of books.

The artwork is boldly coloured, dramatic strokes shaping a particular person or a view, sometimes more detailed bits, like a garbage receptacle in Paris or a pair of shoes. Be it a subway platform or a chocolate bar wrapper, there is an unmistakeable energy in these observations.

We are reminded to take in our surroundings attentively and ambitiously, whether a hat or a favourite aunt. Creatively, the volume inspires and urges a mood of reflection, but also leaves one with a strange sense of longing, perhaps for what cannot be collected on a page.

What has stood out for you in your recent reading?

Were you pleased with your bookish September?

What are you looking forward to reading next?

Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2012)

It seems perfect. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is not really a novel. And this is not really a review.

How Should Person Be Heti 2 It’s a collection of my collisions with understanding.

Opening sentence: “How should a person be?”
Subtitle: A Novel from Life

Off the page, there is an interview with Shelagh Rogers, “To Plot or Not to Plot?”

Sheila Heti talks about moments.

“But in the moments that haven’t existed yet, there are truths none of us can predict, and as an artist I want to be there for them, creating out of those moments. I haven’t been there yet, none of us have, it’s exciting, and it’s the unknown.”
Certain moments. Specific moments.

“It is in those future, untouched moments that I want my words to come into being.”

“At any time when you’re reading the book and you’re saying what is this book about you can just look at the title “Oh, it’s about how a person should be, or it’s the question of how a person should be”…in some sense the outline [of the book].

(I did that. It helped. But only sometimes.)

How Should Person Be Heti 3In an interview with Liz Hoggard in The Observer, Saturday 19 January 2013 she reminds us that “How should a person be?” is the question Moses answers for the Jews with the 10 commandments. If Sheila could give the answer, she’d be like Moses. But she has to accept she’s not.

From the book:

“I admired all the great personalities down through time, like Andy Warhol and Oscar Wilde. They seemed to be so perfectly themselves in every way.” (1-2)
And this:

“One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me.” (4)

But this is bigger than I thought.

“I know that personality is just an invention of the news media. I know that character exists from the outside alone. I know that inside the body there’s just temperature. So how do you build your soul?” (2)

And I’m not even sure about the characters, like Sheila, but also Margaux, because she exists in the book and out of the book too.

“In an hour Margaux’s going to come over and we’re going to have our usual conversation. Before I was twenty-five, I never had any friends, but the friends I have now interest me nonstop.” (3)

[Margaux Williamson (b. 1976) About the film.Watch the film. Yes, a film. And a brochure. "How to Act in Real Life." Because in 2012, Sheila Heti was the artist in resident at the Art Gallery of Ontario and did a live performance every Wednesday night in the museum's main atrium."]

How Should Person Be Heti 4This makes me wonder: what else interests Sheila Heti nonstop.

Here’s something: an interview with Mary Midgley. It’s here.

“The Financial Times praised her work as “commonsense philosophy of the highest order,” and she was characterised in The Guardian as “the most frightening philosopher in the country… the foremost scourge of scientific pretension.”

And here’s something else: an interview with Charlyne Yi, comedian (she was in the Judd Apatow film “Knocked Up” a few years ago, on screen for only about two minutes, but she was “mesmerizing and memorable”).

“Maybe the idea of surprise is part of what makes something funny, or what gets a reaction. At least when I’m an audience member, after you hear a joke so many times it’s not as funny because it loses its surprise or its twist. So I think funny has to do with surprise.”
In the Paris Review Interview by Thessaly La Force, she is asked to articulate the differences between you and alter-ego Sheila:

“I don’t think of it as an alter-ego, but yeah, I’ll try to explain how I experience it. Writing, for me, when I’m writing in the first-person, is like a form of acting. So as I’m writing, the character or self I’m writing about and my whole self—when I began the book—become entwined. It’s soon hard to tell them apart. The voice I’m trying to explore directs my own perceptions and thoughts. But that voice or character comes out of a part of me that exists already. But writing about it emphasizes those parts, while certain other, balancing parts lie dormant—and the ones I’m exploring become bigger, like in caricature. That sounds really orderly but I never realize it’s happening, because who is “the first person” becomes confused. Of course, this transformation happens very gradually over many years. Then, months after the book is done, all that falls away—the ways I was behaving and thinking while writing the book—and a different self from the original one is left, with the qualities I was emphasizing much less prominent than originally. But I’ve only realized after finishing this book that it happened with Ticknor and now with this book, too. During the times it was happening, I didn’t realize that was going on.”

How Should Person Be HetiAnd, on the topic of alter-ego and not alter-ego, Sheila Heti also plays Lenore Doolan in Leanne Shapton’s book, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry.

(I bought this book for a friend who retired from an ad agency a few years back. I thought she’d appreciate the idea of artifacts comprising a life. Later, I wondered it was exactly the wrong choice for such an occasion. I didn’t think about Sheila Heti at all when I bought the book.)

Sheila Heti’s novel, Ticknor, was released in 2005. The novel’s main characters are based on real people: William Hickling Prescott and George Ticknor, although the facts of their lives are altered. So says Wikipedia. More alter-ego talk. Or, not.

In her 2007 interview with Dave Hickey for The Believer, she noted, “Increasingly I’m less interested in writing about fictional people, because it seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story. I just — I can’t do it.” “It doesn’t make sense to me. And the complicated thing is, I like life so much. I love being among people, I love being in the world, and writing is the opposite of that.”

Life. Story. World. Writing.

” If you want to write from life, you can’t really write a story. People are always changing, and I think if we didn’t look the same day-to-day, and our self weren’t always in our body, would we even be the same?”
Interview, SHEILA HETI’S HYSTERICAL REALISM (Were these my caps or theirs? I can’t remember. But it seems caps-worthy.)

How should we talk about how we should be?

IFOASmallBadgeSheila Heti will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors to interview Karl Ove Knausgärd.

This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.

Next Wednesday, thoughts on another IFOA2014 author.

Alice Simpson’s Ballroom (2014)

The reader moves onto the floor with great excitement, turning the initial pages of a debut novel, heartbeat slightly accelerated, hopes and expectations heightened. It is a dance: this movement between reader and story. Alice Simpson’s Ballroom takes that connection seriously.

Ballroom (1)

HarperCollins, 2014

The very structure of the novel mirrors the movements on a dance floor of the ballroom, not in a competitive event in which a couple would remain in each other’s company for the entire event, but a public venue, one in which dancers must shift partners as time passes.

And, so, the focus of the narrative shifts, from partner to partner, from character to character. Readers must step quickly, move from one set of arms to another comfortably. Those readers who would prefer a broader, over-arching narrative arc — a single, devoted narrator/partner — may find these shifts frustrating, but a single voice would not suit a story which is rooted in constant movement. The form is a perfect reflection of the story.

Readers spend only a few pages with one character before the perspective shifts to another character, though the reader’s experiences with each character do intensify as, after being introduced and through repeated encounters, the reader can more completely understand the dance partners, as the everyday details are compounded by history and memories, though relayed with a light touch.

The author’s skill at depicting heavy subject matter with a gentle hand is remarkable. Indeed, one could view ballroom dancing as an art form which presents a distinct impression of decorum and beauty, an impressive veneer obscuring something else entirely which lurks beneath the surface. Partners may exhibit a well-rehearsed impression of passion and connection, even if the only harmonious element between them is their shared desire to dance well. In Ballroom, the characters are presented impeccably, and their steps accomplished and learned, but beneath the surface they embody many contradictions.

The glamour and intensity of dance partners mirrors the idea that every reader has a perfect book awaiting them, every dancer the perfect partner. A scan of the dance floor, might lead one to believe that there are some ideal partnerships gliding across the floor. But the majority of the dancers in Ballroom are as flawed and damaged as the rest of us. They may be more impeccably dressed and coiffed, but they are as often lonely and yearning, hesitant and fearful, as they are connected and thriving, assured and successful.

“She can’t explain or quite understand what it is that is special about dancing with Harry. When he opens his arms to her, he is so sure, the way he holds her, not too hard, not too soft. Like coming home. Where she belongs. The way he moves her. They are a part of the music. Their bodies fit together, move like one person. Perfect. The way a man and a woman must feel, she thinks, when they are in love. He makes her feel beautiful, too, like when he assures her that someday she will be good enough to be a professional dancer. Harry must know, because he is the best dancer, the best teacher, a girl could have, patient and gentle. She is lucky that he believes in her. That is how she feels outside his door.”

Harry has lived four floors above the Rodriguez family since before Maria was born, but when she grew old enough to begin taking dance lessons on Friday evenings, Harry’s dreams about/for her, and Maria’s dreams, too, crystallize and form a pattern like dance steps drawn across a tiled floor.

Alice Simpson

Alice Simpson

The characters in Ballroom do crave love, and sometimes romantic love, even though they often (like Maria) cannot clearly articulate what that means, neither to explain it or understand it. But ultimately what they crave is the sense of partnership that is an integral part of ballroom dancing.

The nature of true partnership is a theme which Alice Simpson’s work explores in a variety of situations. Characters in her debut reach out and retract, step forward and back; they may make mis-steps, but they recognize the value of taking a bow with a flourish. Individuals may, like Gabriel, be married, or like Sarah, have been married multiple times, but they do not inhabit the role of partner in these capacities; they step onto the ballroom floor hoping for a true connection there which they lack in their everyday lives.

Stylistically, Alice Simpson frames her work with a series of quotes from classic references on ballroom dancing, but notably the excerpts often apply to the study of relationships as well as they apply to dancing.

The work concludes with a Ballroom Bibliography, but the author is clearly just as fascinated by the dances between partners off the ballroom floor; she is preoccupied by the footwork of human relationships, and Ballroom will perhaps appeal more to readers who have an interest in human mis-steps than in perfectly executed dance routines.

Ballroom is stylistically deft and structurally impressive, but the reader might be uncomfortable with the reality which lurks beneath the beautiful presentation. Alice Simpson is not inviting the reader to attend a performance and admire from a distance; the reader must take to the floor and might well be as breathless from a broken heart as from an invigorating number.

Thanks to TLC for inviting me to participate in this book tour. If you’d like to consider other readers’ opinions of the book, check out the following:

Click for details

Click for details

September 10th: Tutu’s Two Cents
September 11th: she treads softly
September 15th: Kritters Ramblings
September 16th: BookNAround
September 17th: I’d Rather Be At The Beach
September 18th: Walking With Nora
September 19th: Not in Jersey
September 23rd: Drey’s Library
September 26th: Books, Books Everywhere
September 29th: Book Loving Hippo
October 1st: Book by Book
October 3rd: Stephany Writes
October 6th: Consuming Culture
October 8th: Reads for Pleasure
October 8th: Ms. Nose in a Book
 October 9th: bookchickdi

Edited to add: the author’s website reveals not only all sorts of information about Ballroom (and its original genesis) but other artwork as well. Have a peek!

Broken: Careers, Contracts, Society

Each of these novels considers a shattered state of being, whether the devastation plays out through the cycle of addiction or societal breakdown or international conflicts. The characters employ a variety of coping mechanisms and the authors’ styles are diverse; Elizabeth Renzetti’s Based on a True Story, Edan Lepucki’s California and Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking make for a fascinating trio.

Elizabeth Renzetti’s Based on a True Story (House of Anansi, 2014)

Based True Story Renzetti

House of Anansi, 2014

Augusta Price’s career is no longer thriving. She was recently invited to the panel discussion “Type-A Personalities: The Evolution of the Vampire Medical Drama”, based on her “iconic role” as Dr. Helen Mount in “The Blood Bank”. Augusta once volleyed this offer into the trash. But freshly returned from rehab, with her options dwindling, she digs through the bin and reconsiders.

“The blanket of tequila had slipped away, and she felt as naked and miserable as she ever had. How in God’s name did people cope with these emotions all the time.”

Most immediately disturbing is that she has heard that Kenneth Deller is publishing a book. The most recent article written about Augusta was titled “Washed-Up Tales from a Soap Flake”, penned (but not titled) by Frances, whose work as a journalist claims a share of the narrative in Based on a True Story.  What Augusta shared with Frances was one version of the truth, but Augusta is concerned that Kenneth’s printed version of the truth might hit the press before she is prepared to deal with the fallout.

“Eventually everything comes back to bite you in the arse,” she said. “Even the things that used to kiss it.”

The bulk of Based on a True Story is devoted to considering the unraveling and reweaving of the stories people tell, to each other and to themselves. Frances, too, is reconsidering her perspective on her own career and romance, and perhaps recognizes a kindred spirit in Augusta, who is at another stage in life, seemingly years apart from either romance or motherhood, but still trying to make sense of both.

“Why on earth do people write them [books]? I’ll tell you why. […] To win. So your side of the story can win. Because they last forever, those fuckers. Longer than movies. Longer than music. Much, much longer than love.”

Elizabeth Renzetti’s novel is rooted in Augusta’s voice, flamboyant and bold. Because she feels the threat of being exposed so acutely, she remains a character to whom readers can relate. She might have crossed the line into caricature if she did not acknowledge the cracks in the veneer of her carefully constructed “true” story.  But, as it is, readers will accompany her, just as Frances does, on her quest to rewrite the truth.

* Companion Reads: Louisa McCormack’s Six Weeks to Toxic, Edward Riche’s Easy to Like

Little, Brown and Company, 2014

Little, Brown and Company, 2014

Edan Lepucki’s California (Little, Brown and Company, 2014)

Cal and Frida are living off the grid when readers meet them. The world as it exists today is broken and Cal and Frida live in relative isolation, so there is little for the readers to glean about explanations or conditions elsewhere. The novel is preoccupied with the young couple’s experiences, so the idea that there are other living conditions is irrelevant, at least as the novel begins.

“Frida had always been fascinated by the Communities, the secret life behind their walls, their riches and beauty all conjecture. In the first couple of years after they opened, Frida had conjectured a lot. L.A. was a festering wound, but just a few miles away men and women slept peacefully on canopied beds in large rooms in large houses.”

California is structured initially with a loose flow between the two narrative voices and their tendency to wander in time. There is a lot of time to simply ruminate and remember, and readers come to understand more about both characters as they contemplate their pasts, with a sense of formlessness both to their lives and futures. But this is considerable potential for plot, not only because of the unanswered questions which remain (for characters and readers alike) but also because a pattern of secrecy takes root.

“Frida hadn’t told Cal about the coyote, and she wasn’t planning to. She deserved another secret from him. It evened the score.”

Soon the structure shifts from seemingly casual forays into the past to a more linear focus on the future. Readers are swept up in a cascade of events which unfold as Cal and Frida attempt to negotiate possible connections with other individuals who are also living outside the Communities; California becomes less about character and more about action and the element of secrecy which develops between Cal and Frida is mesmerizing in the context of a plot-soaked tale.

Nonetheless, Edan Lepucki’s narrative remains loosely constructed. Readers are likely to expect a taut narrative style after key plot developments are revealed, but inconsistencies disrupt the page-turning potential. On one page, a bra is stuffed into a duffel bag; a few pages later, it is hanging over a carriage rail. On one page, a woman is described as being eight months pregnant and too uncomfortable to sleep well; a couple of pages later, she is described as being in her third trimester with the baby’s acrobatics keeping her awake nights. (Repetition and contradiction can be used to reveal character and emphasize significant details, but that does not appear to be the case here.)

California falls somewhere between a highly (and imperfectly) detailed, character-soaked novel and a compelling plot-driven drama. Colson Whitehead’s Zone One might be more likely to appeal to readers looking for the former whereas Jean Hegland’s Into the Forest, could satisfy readers seeking the latter. And, yet, there is an element of enchantment about California, perhaps rooted in the love story between Cal and Frida which first draws readers’ attention in the novel’s opening pages. Even readers who would rather have had the novel settle more solidly into one style or the other are likely to find it entertaining and engaging.

Companion Reads: Steven King’s Under the Dome, Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers

Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking (HarperCollins, 2014)

Undertaking Magee

HarperCollins, 2014

Katharina and Peter do not have a typical courtship. It is, indeed, an undertaking to arrange their official union; they marry during WWII in a sort of proxy service, before they have even met, but wartime requires creative problem-solving.

The process, however, places curious demands not only on the couple but on the family members watching the drama unfold. Both Katharina and Peter struggle to convey their commitment to those who expect the process of getting married to take a different shape.

“She closed her bedroom door and pushed against it, locking out her parents. She was twenty-two years of age. A married woman. When would they accept that and stop calling her girl? He had to come back to take her away from them, because she couldn’t bear it any longer. Being their daughter. The good girl.”

Audrey Magee’s language is simple and her style uncluttered. This is wartime and neither the grim scenes which Peter inhabits nor the fraught emotions which Katharina experiences on the homefront are belaboured. The pacing of the story is remarkably quick, urged onwards with scenic writing and adept use of dialogue. Readers who might habitually avoid wartime novels would likely find this one exceptional for its accessibility.

Readers who require their characters be likeable, however, might face more of a challenge. One reason is demonstrated in this brief quote from a letter Katharina has sent to Peter:

PPS I hope that you are not having an affair with some Russian woman. Natasha here is a little dull to look at, but I am sure there are others who are prettier. You wouldn’t, would you? ”

Peter is much more accepting than some readers, for given what he has recently endured (and readers are aware as it has been presented in his alternating portions of the narrative), it is at least laughable, if not insulting, that he be accused of a dalliance while he is struggling to survive. (To be fair, Peter has not shared any of his experiences with Katharina, seemingly to protect her, so perhaps she could not be expected to reprioritize her concerns.)

The Undertaking does consider war on the front and on the homefront. Like Marghanita Laski’s To Bed with Grand Music, some of Katharina’s experiences are less commonly shared on the page than the battle scenes one associates with wartime fiction; but though it carries a weight, the homefront is not at the heart of the novel, as it is in Laski’s or in Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers.

“The sky was a chalky orange, a mixture of fire and dust. She could see the planes, little black dots waltzing over houses and shops, over people; swirling and twisting around each other in a dance of incongruous beauty. She closed the window, shutters and curtains, sat down on the chair beside Johannes’ bed and pulled the blanket over her shoulders and chest, her feet against her brother’s hand, her hands over her womb.”

Katharina’s concerns are those which unfold within four walls and Peter’s are those which unfold without; the novel’s ultimate concern is the collision between those realities and how that affects their relationship. It is, unequivocally, an undertaking.

Companion Reads: Lilian Nattal’s The River Midnight, Paulette Jiles’ Enemy Women

Have you read any of these? Or, are they on your TBR stack/list?

Diversiverse 2014 – Reading more diversely

Diversiverse2014Of course I made a reading list.

Then, I saw Vasilly’s list. (You probably already know where this is heading.)

Her list has many temptations on it, including some of my favourites.

But I have been looking for a reason to read the rest of Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series since I read the first volume as part of the spring 2012 Dewey’s Read-A-Thon.

And when I was pulling them from the shelves, I realized that the shelves of kidlit and YA at home are not very diverse. On the outside, these shelves are the most colourful in the house; on the inside, the main characters and authors’ jacket photos are whitewhitewhite.

Which got me thinking that I should read more Diversiverse books for younger readers. In general, yes, but for this event in particular.

Wandering Son(I guess I’ve done so before, because I read and loved Hiromi Goto’s Darkest Light for the first Diversiverse – it’s the sequel to her Half World  but I didn’t think of them as books for teens.)

So, after all that, I ended up with a different list.

(You knew that was coming, right?)

Shimura Takako’s Wandering Son (Fantagraphics, 2011) “You should have been born a girl.” Nitori Shuichi felt this the first time that he put on a dress, but hearing it expressed in another’s voice adds to his conviction. Soon this fifth grade student realizes just how vitally important it is to have supportive friends who recognize and accept this truth as well. Shimura Takako’s Bud Not Buddystyle is gentle and the drawings are primarily focussed on faces and bodies with a few scenic panels to set the stage at school or home, which suits a tale devoted to inner questioning and truthtelling.

The narrator of Christopher Paul Curtis’ Bud, Not Buddy (1999) is one year older than Kenny in the author’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, but Bud is every bit as entertaining and savvy. Some of my favourite parts of the novel are the excerpts from Bud’s Rules and Things lists, like number 83: “If a Adult Tells You Not to Worry, and You Weren’t Worried Before, You Better Hurry Up and Start ‘Cause You’re Already Running Late”. Not just entertaining, mind you. Readers learn about the foster care system, the Great Depression, Hooverville (the cardboard jungle or shantytown on the fringes of Flint, Michigan) and meet Deza Malone (who will feature in a later novel called The Mighty Miss Malone).

Kazu Kibuishi’s The Stonekeeper  (2008) introduces readers to two near-orphans (they make the best heroines, don’t they?), Emily and Navin. This sister and younger brother soon find themselves in unfamiliar territory, emphasizing that family bonds are the only securities in life. Their circle of supporters soon widens, however, and a web of allies (some appearing from unlikely directions) broadens the cast and the story’s complexity. The art straddles the line between cutesy and striking, and Emily shows tremendous courage in the face of her fear. The question of the ways in which we trust/distrust our inner voice(s) will clearly take on a more dramatic importance as the series unfolds. And, yet, the book is surprisingly satisfying on its own, which a particularly great ending, which embodies the volume’s uncertainty without sacrificing a sense of promise.Stonekeepers Curse

Kazu Kibuishi’s The Stonekeeper’s Curse (2009) ends on a cliff-hanger, but readers who have come to the series late will have outsmarted the creators and gathered the remaining volumes. There is less of a sense of tangible discovery in this second volume, as friendships intensify and alliances are secured, and the plot contains even more action than the introductory volume. There is a great rooftop scene and there are few phrases as exciting for fantasy readers to hear as “pilot the house” (unless it is “port town”, which should conjure up images of the canteen in “Star Wars”). Even so, the emphasis remains on characters and relationships. “Not everybody wants to be a hero,” says one. And the reply? “But they should.” Whether or not readers agree with that pronouncement, Emily’s reluctant heroism is the stuff of good fiction.

What have you been reading that would fit into a Diversiverse reading list?

Have you read any of these? Are there others that you think I should add to yet another list?

Nadia Bozak’s Borders

Excerpt from reading journal:

Orphan Love BozakNadia Bozak is the reason that I have copies of the three books in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy on my shelves. Books that I never planned to read, but I came across the idea that the works were somehow connected with her novels Orphan Love and El Niño. And, so, the TBR grew.

And to begin with, if indeed there is a beginning to this process, I have a copy of El Niño because of its relationship to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.

This is how it happens: one book leads to another, and so on and so on. I copied a page from Aislinn Hunter’s A Peepshow with Views of the Interior because El Niño was already in my stack when I read this bit:

“Books communicate. This is one of their functions. They move ideas from one consciousness to another. But the reader is never passive in this. They can stop reading and look up. They can, as a friend once did with Coetzee’s Disgrace, become enraged at a turn of events and throw the book into a lake. In this way reading is sometimes an act of creation. What the author presents and what we glean from it forming a new kind of knowledge.”

Within this Continuity of Books (if you haven’t read Julio Cortázar’s “Continuity of Parks”, in Blow-up and Other Stories, it’s terrific), I imagined Nadia Bozak as that friend, her copy of Disgrace the same edition as mine, a trade paperback its spine like-new but pages yellowed, dodging the flies above a Northern Lake before ker-splatting, hovering on the surface for just a moment before sinking.

I imagine her clicking her pen against her cheekbone, that moment of impact before scribbling a few images and ideas in a notebook, thoughts which would fester into not only a novel but a cycle of books whose stories have slipped from their writers’ consciousnesses into her own. The guts of Orphan Love and El Niño are indeed acts of creation, a new kind of knowledge, raw and visceral.

“Woke up wet and in dirt and in a world that smelled so ripe, like rain. And it reeked of home that way, that soaking cold soil, worse than any kind of old piss or nicotine fingers. Iron on tongue, the taste of hate on the brain, in the buds. Like this, then, I opened my eyes and saw that I was still deep inside the northern bush, so cold and wet and always with that stink like fresh bloody birth. So here was me, just Bozak, like I thought I’d always wanted, though for so long I’d imagined being alone would also mean being with Slava O’Right. But alone I was. That was how it worked out, me running off into the bush like some kind of mad trapper.”

These worlds, Northern Ontario in Orphan Love and the southwestern desert in El Niño, are ripe and fresh with stink. The sensory details are evocative and soaked with the ethos of predator and prey. I feel a little like a wingless reader, pursued by a writer whose story I want to escape but am compelled to continue reading.

“Her side is numb where the texture of the earth has been stamped into her furless flesh. The hill and valley are as quiet and still as she; any bits of life have been consumed by the bald birds waiting above her. Inside the great grey cactus, baby birds — now orphaned — cheep-cheep, pecking at each other. The strongest of them will bite its brothers and sisters until they are gone and then itself tumble, wingless, from the nest.”

Bozak El NinoThe borders in these stories are liquid and shifting, and even the name of the Oro Desert El Niño offers another border, an ‘r’ surrounded by ‘o’s in this imagined place. And, yet, as surprisingly loose as the borders seem to be, characters are increasingly confined as plots unfold, conflicted and under attack. With or without parental ties, characters are adrift and searching, caught in a maze.

“The wall was closing in. It was really going to plug up the border’s ratholes, burn out its nests of boys, forcing them to find a way out of the south by some other channel, route, or maze, of which little boys with not enough to eat can always find many. Juan said again that it was coming time to quit while they were ahead.”

The elements in Nadia Bozak’s writing are characters in their own right, and they insist on their own borders. Readers suffer a barrage of strikes, forced to absorb the onslaught from the sidelines (through two characters in the first novel and three characters in the second).

“Rain had the world by the throat, forcing it to choke down its cold and raw goodness, driving ponds and rivers to fill and flow, swelling lakes until they burst their ancient seams. And the world, it just stood there and took it.”

The effect is overwhelming, simultaneously overload and deprivation. These are not comfortable stories to read. Not only are the settings extreme and inhospitable, the characters strained and struggling, but structurally, the reader stretches back and forth between times (and voices, in El Niño).

“Like Marianne, the Tribal is dried out and wrinkled. It’s the same car she drove down to Matchstick some ten years before and together they have grown old here. Honey folds herself inside the squat driver’s seat, pushed back as far as it will go. She and Marianne are way too tall for women; Keith considers them both a little too thin. But down here Marianne became that tough kind of skinny, held together with sinew and unsnappable bone.”

There, in the joins between sinew and unsnappable bone, readers are twisted and pressed. So much of what happens is horrid and relentlessly demanding. Orphan Love is exhausting, my shoulders and back all-a-throb from the paddling through the backwaters of Northern Ontario and ugliness of the world. And El Niño is infuriating (the anger I remember feeling at the end of Disgrace seems pale in comparison) , to the point that I might have tossed it into a lake if one was within throwing distance.

But here’s the thing: the second book truly upset me. Aspects of El Niño make me want to beg Nadia Bozak for a rewrite. I want to ask her why she had to tell the story that way. The ‘why’ pleading and accusatory. But I know it’s a fruitless question. She wrote the story because these are true stories, such is the world we inhabit. Maybe she hated writing the parts of the story that I hated reading. I imagine her throwing down her pen at the end writing the last chapter like I threw down the book when I finished reading.

In the context of that story, in the process of pleading for something other, I am desperate for change, desperate to make the story different.

When books take readers to places that hurt, readers can stop reading and look up.

They can become enraged. And that desire for a new story is a catalyst for change.

IFOASmallBadgeNadia Bozak will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.

This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.

Next Wednesday, thoughts on another IFOA2014 author.

Heather O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (2014)

When a passage on page two is just breathtakingly powerful, readers’ expectations soar. It seems impossible to imagine reading beyond this passage without stopping to reread, or not reading it aloud to a friend sitting alongside, or not tapping the stranger sitting next to you, pointing and saying “Check this out”.

Girl Saturday Night ONeill

HarperCollins, 2014

  “We were all descended from orphans in Québec. Before I’d dropped out of high school, I remembered reading about how ships full of girls were sent from Paris to New France to marry the inhabitants. They stepped off the boat with puke on their dresses and stood on the docks, waiting to be chosen.
They were pregnant before they even had a chance to unpack their bags. They didn’t want this. They didn’t want to populate this horrible land that was snow and rocks and skinny wolves. They spoke to their children through gritted teeth. That’s where the Québec accent came from. The nation crawled out from between their legs.”

But when readers respond passionately to a work so early, there is an immediate concern that perhaps that level of accomplishment cannot be sustained.

When it comes to Heather O’Neill’s use of language, it is consistently powerful and beautiful throughout her second novel.

This is evident in short metaphoric bursts and in other sweeping descriptive statements. Her description of the Montreal setting is another fine example and indeed it is impossible to imagine the novel unfolding anywhere else.

“Dreaming too big was the cause of much horror on Boulevard Saint-Laurent. The street was filled with people whose dreams had gone bust. It wasn’t always drugs and bad childhoods that brought them this low. It was ambition. There was a whole group of fallen Icaruses sitting under the blazing fluorescent lights at the soup kitchen. Their jackets were half blown off by the fall. They had the complexions of clowns whose cigars had just exploded.”

These descriptions can contain a sensory weight, another dimension of possibility, that might remain static in another writer’s hands.

“There were horses on one of the girls’ T-shirts. If you put your ear up against her chest, you could hear them galloping. I was here on Rue Saint-Catherine that the most beautiful kisses in the world were grown.”

Heather O’Neill’s prose is remarkably lyrical, uncomplicated but impressive. Readers who appreciate beautiful prose, like that of Anne Michaels with a dash of the unexpected as in Karen Russell’s, will likely find themselves flagging multiple passages, regularly rereading and admiring phrases and paragraphs.

But whether the novel truly succeeds with readers depends upon a connection to character. The language alone is not enough to ferry readers through a narrative preoccupied with insecurity and near-misery.

Readers are immersed in simultaneous connection and disconnection and varied states between; there is constant conflict, in the shape of collisions and separations which threaten (and sometimes achieve) disruption or decimation.

This is certainly true of the core relationship, between siblings Nouschka and Nicolas, who are immovable, riding down the middle of the novel’s street.

  “I suppose there was something a bit freakish about our relationship. We hadn’t changed the way we acted very much at all since we were seven.
Nicolas got on his bicycle and rode next to me. We rode our bicycles in the middle of the street. The cars behind us kept honking at us to tell us to move out of the way. But we didn’t move. We still owned that street.”

But it is also true about provincial relationships, for considerable conflict is building regarding whether Quebec will separate from Canada.

“Other countries had declarations of independence written by men with white wigs and tailcoats and buckled shoes. Ours was written by men with bell-bottoms and sideburns and tinted sunglasses and enormous butterfly collars.”

This is uncomfortable territory, and relationships of all kinds are strained and fractured. Although in some ways The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is a love story, that does not guarantee a happy ending for either characters or readers.

“Love is like this small room where a child brings you to show you all their treasures. First the child shows you all the new toys that are bright and shiny and top of the line. But then she shows you all the stuff that has ended up at the bottom of the trunk.”

As in Lullabies for Little Criminals, however, there is a respite offered through art.

“Writers looked for secrets that had never been mined. Every writer has to invent their own magical language, in order to describe the indescribable. They might seem to be writing in French, English or Spanish, but really they were writing in the language of butterflies, crows and hanged men.”

Much of this story is difficult and painful, but there is something redemptive about the storyteller’s approach which eases readers’ discomfort. Readers who require a sense of steady progression and likeable characters will perhaps prefer another day of the week. But readers who appreciated the harsh beauty of Lullabies for Little Criminals will fervently admire The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.

IFOASmallBadgeHeather O’Neill will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.

This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.

Next Wednesday, thoughts on another IFOA2014 author.