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

I Spy with My CanLit Eye: Two Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alison Pick’s Between Gods (2014; 2015)

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

Alison Pick Between Gods

HarperPerennial, 2015 (US edition)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunter Wild Girl Holdstock

Goose Lane, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 2015, In My Stacks

My stacks for this month are works-in-progress. Because even though we are two weeks into October now, my inner calendar is still hovering near the beginning of September.

October 2015, In My StacksSo, part of me still thinks that I will have more time to read more of the books that I’d dreamed of covering in this year’s Diversiverse event (you can spot some of the same volumes in this enthusiastic post).

Whereas, the logical part of me realises that they have not been finished in time for them to be included in the event (of course that doesn’t change my commitment to reading them, only the timeline).

In September, I was reading a lot of skinny books, so I am looking to fall into longer tales now.

Which is not to say that I’m not reading short stories this month, for my Alistair MacLeod weekly reading continues (I slipped into this following my completion of Alice Munro’s stories, but I haven’t been writing about the stories in Island).

They are absolutely beautiful stories. You have probably heard that before. There is something almost hypnotic about his prose style, and even though they are often melancholy, the crafting in them elevates the reading experience to another level of appreciation, beyond the sadness.

Several of these books have been hanging about on the bedside table, untouched for days at a time. This is partly because my enthusiasm doesn’t necessarly match the available reading hours in my days, but it’s also partly because this time of year whispers of multiple reading projects even though my attention span isn’t cooperating.

So, for instance, I did read and reread all of the Courtney Crumrin graphic novels in recent weeks, but I have only read the first two pages of the new Margaret Atwood novel. This is how it goes sometimes, right? (This is also because it felt like I had nightmares all night after beginning the Atwood novel, whereas the night things in Naifeh’s series didn’t once keep me up.)

One of the books in which I have been half-heartedly dabbling, but which I can now properly attend to, is Madeleine Stern’s biography of Louisa May Alcott.

She is not one of my favourite writers, but I did reread Little Women and Good Wives a couple of summers ago (my girlhood copy of Little Women had included both volumes, unbeknownst to me) and then I read on, with Little Men and Jo’s Boys, which were fresh-reads for me.

There were so many things about the series which I hadn’t observed in the same way as a girl; Jo’s character challenged all the right things for the younger-me, but the older-me wanted her to be more of a rebel.

While I forgive the traditional choices of the characters in L.M. Montgomery’s novels, because I reread them so many times as a girl and throughout my life, I wanted more from Jo March than she was built to give (same with the other little and not-so-little women in the series).

So I stumbled into this biography because of Madeleine Stern (via her Old Books, Rare Friends), but what an interesting approach to biography. It reads like a novel, with Louy’s daily life unfolding complete with sensory experiences and fully sketched scenes from even her youngest years.

Yet, this is not fiction, for Stern has spent a lifetime researching this writer’s life and work. It is the work of a scholar, but written in a novelistic style. When I pulled this book into my stack, I’d left another biography (of Edna St. Vincent Millay, more conventionally styled) and an unabridged writer’s journal (Sylvia Plath’s) on the shelf. In my mind, I was expecting something near-academic in tone. This was an unexpected discovery, but I’m looking forward to reading on.

As for the others in this month’s stacks, some may return to the shelves until another reading mood strikes, but I’m sure there is some good reading ahead nonetheless.

What about you? How are your stacks this month? Anything you are thinking of setting aside for another time? Anything you have been inspired to squish into the mix?

On Two Pieces by Tomson Highway

“I’ve always conceived of language as music,” says Tomson Highway: musician, playwright, novelist. “I play Chopin still, but in Cree,” he continues.

Tomson Highway Monstrous ExtravaganceThen, more than a decade later, it is as though he continues this conversation, in A Tale of Monstrous Extravagance.

This slim volume is subtitled on “Imagining Multilingualism”, which might strike you as a poor prospect for entertainment, but Highway is a gifted presenter.

With a live audience, this piece must have been wholly engaging. Even in only a handful of pages, flat stark black-and-white pages, his humour comes through, and readers have a clear sense of his cadence.

“Ever seen a score by Arnold Schoenberg? Learning Chinese would be easier.”

But in between these observations and witty snippets, there is a great deal of personal reminiscence, philosophy and mythic writing.

This volume begins with the tale of a birth, and even in the young life of Tomson Highway, it’s clear that there is a remarkable synergy at work.

“So there we were, Joe and Pelagie Highway’s brood, the privileged children of three Native languages each as distinct one from the other as English is from Arabic and Korean or French is from Mandarin or Swahili—for Cree, like Ojibway and Blackfoot, is an Algonquian language; Dene, like Slavey and Dogrib, Athapaskan; and Inuktituk resides in a linguistic family all on its own, like Hungarian in Europe, let us say. Between these three Native languages, that is to say, there is not a stitch of similarity, not a syllable in common.”

One can imagine the linguistics textbook.

“So if the Dene language belongs to and comes from the soil and the muskeg and the reindeer moss of the northern extremities of the three Prairie provinces and a sizeable chunk of the Northwest Territories—though not so much Nunavut for, on that side, the language merely peeks into is southern extremity—then Cree comes from the laughter of a cosmic clown, as he/she has been called, a merry-maker called the Trickster, Weesageechaak in Cree, Nanabush in Ojibway, Glooscap in Mi’kmaq, Iktomi in Lakota, Coyote on the plains, Raven on the west coast.”

One can imagine the poems, the lyrics, the songs.

Tomson Highway PostMistress“Without speaking other languages, you would never know these facts. You would never know that such a vision of life, one so different from yours, existed. There is simply no other way of digging out such information. Speaking one language, I submit, is like living in a house with one window only; all you see is that one perspective when, in point of fact, dozens, hundreds, of other perspectives exist and one must, at the very least, heed them, see them, hear them.”

One can imagine just how much more than is to imagine. Through all those windows.

Something similar is at work in The (Post) Mistress, a one-woman show, which contains eleven musical numbers in a variety of musical styles, written by Tomson Highway in Cree, French and English.

At the heart of the production is Marie-Louise Painchaud, a 49-year-old Francophone post-mistress in Northern Ontario. She is but a single window.

“You see this uniform, this counter, these boxes? Mailboxes. This is a post office, my post office, the post office where I work here in my hometown of Lovely, a small farming town near Complexity, Ontario, and just spitting distance from the legendary iviere Armitage, the long and winding, cliff-sided river that connects Lake Mahji-di-ate to GeorgianBay on Lake Huron, so you can just imagine how beautiful it is, maple trees for miles.”

Complexity, with its monstrous penny, evoking Sudbury with its monstrous nickel is a mining town, is in the background, however. The set is the post-office but overshadowing the props is Marie-Louise, whose voice, whose laughter, sets the stage more than anything.

Yet the letters and the addressees create the sense of enlarging the cast and they provide the opportunity for Marie-Louise to reflect upon a variety of subjects. She affords access to many windows.

“That’s Barbaro Botafogo, my friend Sylvie Labranche’s secret lover; writing from Brazil, can you believe it? He writes to her once a month ever since he had to fly back home – after his term at the university in Complexity was over one year ago – back to his wife and children in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the sexiest city in the world, this Barbaro Botalogo tells my friend Sylvie in these letters. Isn’t that terrible? He has a wife and God knows how many children down there and he still writes to her, the nerve, but anyway. Accordng to the man, it’s so hot down here in Rio de Janeiro that they wear nothing but dental floss, even to go shopping. ha! You wear dentail foss here in Lovely, Ontario, in February and you’d freeze to death, no doubt about it.”

The community is of vital importance and Mary-Louise evidently plays a central role in it, but in this context she appears to be on the margins, observing and considering the various scenarios which play out in the envelopes which come and go.

Diversiverse2015There is another aspect of this story which fits with a conversation between Tomson Highway and Shelagh Rogers on CBC’s “The Next Chapter”, in which he discusses his relationship with his brother, who died some years ago.

The conversation made me cry, but it was not simply that it was sad, but that it was so overwhelmingly beautiful. There was something so ludicrous and so true about his observatios, that I felt my understanding of the world shifting. I had not considered that words used to discuss loss and grief could contain so many possibilities.

But language is fluid and illuminating when you look through Tomson Highway’s windows. These are wonder-tales for our world.

(Source for initial quotes: CBC’s “Life and Times” documentary from the later 1990s)

Ian Williams: Not Anyone’s Anything (2011) and Personals (2012)

If the idea of experimental or innovative short stories makes you squirm, even though you are simultaneously bored with more traditional structure, Not Anyone’s Anything belongs on your bookshelf.

Ian Williams Not Anyones AnythingIan Williams puts relationships at the core of his work and this fiction collection exhibits this tendency as well.

I also wholly enjoyed his poetry collection You Know Who You Are, which opens, you might have guessed, with an epigraph from Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? and behaves, in some ways, more like a conversation than a collection of poems.

The stories in this collection reverberate within and throughout, seem to call-and-answer in an unusual and compelling manner.

Stylistically this is an exciting project as the author’s playfulness extends not only to trios of trios of stories, which reflect and refract, but to forms which shift and expand as the reader turns the pages.

Lines are drawn, for instance to afford the possibility of simul-reading two characters’ experiences on the same page (i.e. one person’s perspective on the left-hand side and the other’s on the right-hand side) or to align two experiences of the same narrative space (i.e. a horizontal line separating the characters’ experiences until they inhabit a shared space).

But these lines are inclusionary and engaging, rather than isolating and pretentious.

Musical staves or Korean language study-cards: you might not be able to predict the contents of an Ian Williams’ story, but loyal readers will know you can predict the degree of satisfaction which settles upon reading.

Personals WilliamsPersonals examines the ins and outs of coupling.

From “Anticipation” to “Bore”–

From “The Romantic Lead” to “Superhero Fantasies” —

From “Sixteen” to “Stranger” —

Ian Williams charts the landscape of attachment and detachment.

But before the reader discovers the contents of the collection, there is the striking wrapping to study. (I can’t stop staring: design by Natalie Olsen.) Including charming endpapers.

And Ian Williams is a designer too.

The shape of his poems is remarkable.

And sometimes the shapelessness, too: the way that lines wrap and turn, rather than simply end.

Sometimes a verse is all about what is said and what has been said and what is still being said.

As with “Echolalia”:

“Once one gets what one wants
one no longer wants it.

One no longer wants what?

One no longer wants what
one wanted.”

And sometimes what it is not spoken speaks louder than words.

Personals Hangman

Ian Williams’ works simultaneously challenge and invite, and sometimes the silences resonate as loudly as the words.

Curious? His website is here.

Austin Clarke’s The Meeting Point (1967)

The first volume of his Toronto trilogy introduces readers to Bernice Leach, who has left Barbados to work in Toronto as a housekeeper in an upscale neighbourhood in the 1960s.

Austin Clarke Meeting PointShe has left behind a son and his father, as well as a mother and a sister, and she is preoccupied by the adjustments required for her to work for the Burrmann family and settle into this new country.

Although there are new opportunities for her in Canada, she faces new challenges as well, and she soon adopts new habits designed to facilitate her adjustment.

“One immediate result of this change in her place of worship, was that she stopped thinking Mrs. Burrmann was the devil; and consequently, stopped thinking of leaving the job. Life became a little less unbearable. She could stomach Mrs. Burrmann, who at this time, was going to the University of Toronto, doing a part-time course in Social Anthropology. Mrs. Burrmann had less time to herself; less time for the whiskey; and she spent most of the day studying. Bernice spent all her time caring for her personal appearance; and the appearance of her mind.”

She begins reading magazines which she recognizes as valuable to families like the Burrmanns and finds herself choosing different kinds of clothing; this new position both requires and encourages changes in almost every aspect of her being.

Of course there is a great deal of pressure to represent and a great deal of risk when one does not conform to social expectations (there are beatings and police chases, dismissals and insults).

“Look, you had better learn one thing. We is the only coloured people in this district. We have to be on our best peace and behaviour, always. Everything we do, every word we utter, we gotta be always remembering it is a reflection on all the hundreds and thousands o’ coloured people in Toronto and in the whole o’ Canada.”

But The Meeting Point does not paint a rosy picture of the lives of the Burrmanns either. For all that Bernice feels compelled to change integral aspects of her self (her appearance and her religious beliefs and her very thoughts), Mrs. Burrmann is not static and contented. Perhaps she does try some university studies, the way that Bernice tries a new church, but the reason to fill up her whiskey glass remains.

The Burrmann household is troubled and Bernice is clear that having money does not solve people’s problems. Even though who are most entitled in this society are struggling to find a meeting point, a sense of belonging.

“Mr. Burrmann really never felt at home, at home. Not even when, as a boy growing up on Palmerston Boulevard in the guts of old downtown Toronto, in the days when Jews inhabited and ruled that entire section bounded by College, north to Bloor Street, east to Spadina Avenue and as far west as Bathurst Street. He used to spend those days in a “gang.” Some of the “gangsters” were young “coloured boys,” sons of West Indians who had come to Canada to work as porters on the railroads, and as domestics in white, rich kitchens and homes. Mr. Burrmann was therefore acquainted, from an early age, with domestics.”

Diversiverse2015One outstanding feature of Austin Clarke’s The Meeting Point is the use of dialogue, whether internal or external. The scenes are rich and vivid, whether detailing a trip to the Malton Aiport or describing Bernice’s rooms in the Burrmann house, and the story moves steadily, showcasing the voices of the characters who will likely continue to play important roles in the series’ next two volumes.

Readers are fully immersed in Bernice’s experiences but there are enough more broadly sketched scenes for readers to observe some of the complications that arise, particularly surrounding the arrival of her sister Estelle. These complications also invite the greater participation of other members of the domestic community, who become embroiled in situations which are sometimes comic but more often painful. Disappointment and betrayal is as much featured as friendship and support.

The setting is detailed and one can imagine drawing a map of the neighbourhood which Bernice comes to know so well, even though it is not her neighbourhood, only a meeting point.

Want more bookchat about Austin Clarke? More discussed hereA bibliography on Wikipedia. A short formal biography at Athabasca University. A January Magazine interview following the publication of The Polished Hoe. An excerpt from his 2015 autobiography ‘Membering along with some terrific photographs.

October 2015, In My Reading Log

I pulled André Alexis’ Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa (1994) off my shelf when Fifteen Dogs was nominated for the Toronto Book Award (since then, FD has also been nominated for the Giller Prize and the Rogers’ Writers’ Trust Fiction Award). There aren’t any notable four-legged characters, but the collection is fascinating.

In speaking of his dreams, the narrator in “Horse” says: “‘I would like to say: ‘I understand these things. They mean…’.

In some ways, that is how I feel about these stories. I’ve been raised on conventional storytelling, like the CanLit classic The Mountain and the Valley, which another character in the collection finds uninteresting: “Typical Canadian fare.” Andre Alexis Despair

The stories in André Alexis’ debut collection are not typical. They are disorienting and unsettling, they seem to defy understanding.

There is a spiritual side to this questioning, from the appearance of the soucoyant in the opening cycle of stories (titled “Michael”) to the more overt discussions in the final story:

— Was that about love or about Ottawa? asked Mr. Lemoine.
— Both, answered Mr. Davis
— More about God, though, said Helen. (“My Anabasis”)

Where are the sources of power in this world and how do we, as individuals, interact with them? What does coincidence mean — when the lives of a number of people who each claim an address in Ottawa beginning with 128 intersect, or when you receive a letter addressed to you from someone living in the house you last lived in — or, does it mean anything? How do we grapple with forces of darkness and where do we locate our light when it is nearly extinguished?

“The entire city was different. The lights were brighter, the shadows darker. The Rideau was black and smooth as noxious gelatin. The pavement was grey, porous as bread.”

This Ottawa? It has undiscovered layers. If you, too, are more accustomed to traditional styles, you might enjoy the classics-play which simmers beneath this collection. But even if you don’t care to play with the allusions and echoes, you might want to play tourist in this territory and allow its landscape to alter your perspective of the everyday.

Landscape is a very important element in Megs Beach’s Go Home Lake, both literally and psychologically. Like Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer, this book is summer-soaked, capturing the Ontario cottage season perfectly in ink. (There is another reason why this book would make a great reading companion for Go Home Lake, but that would reveal some key elements of its story.)

Beach Go Home Lake

Second Story Press, 2015 Click for sample chapter

“By the middle of the summer the lake was warm and the weather was hot. But I hardly noticed. Each day folded into another without seams or rends. The sun and rain rolled over the intermittent night.”

Time is altered there. And, yet, from an adult perspective, looking back on those years, Megs Beach is writing about a very distinct time: between Expo ’67 and Watergate. (Similarly the prose varies from a near-poetic-and-take-your-time style to a clean-and-precise-summary style.)

Penny and her brothers (James, Kieffer and Buck) inhabited a time when sunny days were spent outdoors exploring and playing and rainy days were spent indoors with Tales of the Crypt, Spiderman and Richie Rich comics. Tang in the fridge, racks of T-shirts with Peanuts characters in service centres, and Bobby Hull all the talk on Hockey Night in Canada: many readers will relate to these scenes.

In between summers, another kind of life exists. “We went back to the city and went to school and weekly lessons and visited friends. We did all those incidental things that constituted a reasonable facsimile of life between summers. The Perfect Suburban Life.”

But the idea of perfection is as changeable as lakeside-weather, depending on the onlooker’s perspective. And a child’s understanding of “normal” alters as she gains experiences.

For instance, the road-trips to the cottage were strained in ways which were ordinary to Penny’s young mind, but as an adult she views these elements differently, as with the noise Penny’s mother made in response to Penny’s father’s driving.

“She tended to emit this low, eerie sort of noise. Had it not continued from the point at which we left the driveway to the point at which we arrived, I might have been distressed by such a strangled, desperate sound. But as it was, she made it continuously on every long car trip, so I came to believe it was normal, almost comforting, and very likely useful in warding off deer that might wander onto the road.”

In fact, not only does young-Penny accept this behaviour unthinkingly, but she extrapolates to create another reason for it which is rooted in the world beyond her own family.

This is true, too, in regards to other behaviours in Penny’s family which are gradually revealed as these summers unfold.

In filing my notes for this novel, they fell into place beside Judy Fong Bates’ Midnight at the Dragon Cafe, next to these lines from it: “On the surface of things we were still the same family, carrying on as if nothing had happened. Below, there was a deep and painful wound.”

From summer to summer, Penny’s family carried on, and it is only as an adult that Penny finally acknowledgs the deep and painful wounds of her past. Go Home Lake is as much about travelling back into memory as it about travelling back to the cottage each summer.

McDougall Last Hockey GameWould you believe that Bruce McDougall’s The Last Hockey Game (2014) is the only book about hockey I’ve read, other than Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater?

Had it not been listed for this year’s Toronto Book Award and had I not been so recently reminded of how often I enjoy books published by Goose Lane (most recently Pauline Holdstock’s The Hunter and the Wild Girl), Roch Carrier would probably still stand alone. (I have been sorely tempted by Paul Quarrington’s King Leary.)

Did it make me feel more “Canadian”? Yes. Did I check out the framed photographs and memorabilia in the local pub the next time I visited? Yes. Will I ever attend a game? Probably not. But, if I could travel back to attend the games about which Bruce McDougall writes, I would.

This book reminds me of skating in backyard rinks when I was growing up, with kids whose fathers had hockey equipment and talked about Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe. Neither of them appears prominently in this book, however, which focuses on the game played on May 2, 1967, between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens.

“Tonight the fans in Maple Leaf Gardens would groan and cheer and panic in unison, until one team on the ice won the hockey game. If the Leafs won, English Canadians would gloat about the superiority they’d felt over the downtrodden French for more than two hundred years. If the Canadiens won, they would keep alive the hope among French Canadians of restoring the pride they’d lost two centuries ago on the Plains of Abraham.”

Organized by game period, there is less play-by-play than one might expect in The Last Hockey Game. It is more concerned with creating an atmosphere and depicting the culture in which these players lived (both on and off the ice). “They make a living with their bodies, on skates. On skates, in a hockey uniform, they move with the power and menacing grace of a shark. In shoes, in Stafford Smythe’s Humber Valley basement rec room, they stand awkwardly, as if they don’t know what to do with all the strength in their limbs. ‘No one really wants to retire,’ says Horton.”

Bruce McDougall writes in a straightforward tone, with the occasional colourful passage which adds a deeper sensory experience for readers (he can, for instance, bring a bruise off the page). His style is immediately engaging, and the scenes he depicts are interesting even with no familiarity with the individuals presented there.

The fact that he can appeal to a reader largely disinterested in the sport raises the question of whether fans would enjoy the work, but the inviting and informal approach to his discussions of players and coaches and managers suggests that there would be another layer of enjoyment for those readers whose interest in these people was already established. (The impact of the game schedule and culture on the players’ marriages, for instance, wasn’t likely discussed at the time.) And even those readers who actually watched the game and know a great deal about the significant players might find that the historical information that Bruce McDougall presents, particularly in regards to the politics and the ingrained racism of the time, offers a valuable context to contemporary readers.

Now, how about you? What were you reading in September? What are you looking forward to in October?

The intersection between pictures and stories

From my discovery of Neil Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine books, I have sought out books that play with form. (Even earlier, I fell hard for Anastasia Krupnik’s To-Do lists which appeared as handwritten notes on lined paper in Lois Lowry’s books.)

Recently, Kim Belair’s and Ariadne MacGillivray’s Pure Steele (2013) struck my fancy. Each of its pages was assembled by hand and then scanned (apparently page 109 contains real blood). Yes, you read that correctly. (No, you shouldn’t take it seriously. But it is a dangerous tale.)

Pure Steele

Click to see more at Blind Ferret

It is comprised of the writing of Henry Flemyng (a competent physician and dreamer who seeks adventure), portions of the journal of Eleanor Pryce (sometimes assembled from her discarded pages), and excerpts from publications (like “Gentlemen’s Moustachery, June 1908 and Abroad Monthly about the Wonders of British West Africa).

A bulk of the narrative is also derived from the letters of several people: Thomas Gordon (provided by Elizabeth Gordon), Lord T.F. Cunningham (Thomas Gordon was his secretary), Jacques-Henri Francois (who was stationed in Africa by the Paris Chapter of the French Poets’ Society), the hoity-toity Dr. Alan Smith and, finally, Hilary Mapsgoode (Cartographer).

The story is over-the-top adventure, tales of derring-do with an anything-boys-can-do-girls-can-do-better spirit. The collage-style presentation has a Victorian flavour, but the prose is written in a modern-though-clearly-admiring-of-Victoriana style.

“Steele gave me another hour of practice on wooden targets before he trussed up the goat for me to carry back on my shoulders. It was only rented property after all, and will be made into stew tonight by the farmer who lent it to us. It was heavier than I imagined, but I managed it after a bit of a struggle. Briefly I was bothered by a wasp that persisted in flying about my face while my hands were busied, but it dared annoy Steele and so he shot the villain’s wings off its back.”

As you can tell, more than anything, it’s just plain fun. “She took the butt of a pistol to the cheek and never flinched. She saved our lives because she dared to do something I would never even have devised! That woman, Steele, could be our hero! The Unlikely Adventures of Daring Lady Adventurer and Botanist Eleanor Pryce in Darkest Africa featuring the brilliant Eleanor Pryce.”

The volume is oversized and the glossy paper weighs it down, but the overall impression is lush and stylish.

Murakami Strange LibraryIt’s hard to imagine a more different volume than Haruki Murakami’s latest, The Strange Library (2014), which is slim and slight and has been translated by Ted Goossen.

Designed to make readers conscious of the process of entering a fictional world, this edition of Haruki Murakami’s story forces a series of steps more complicated than simply opening the cover of a book.

There are two cover-flaps to open, top and bottom, to gain access to the narrative and, even then, there is the question of what to do with the flaps. (It presents as being particularly compact, as though it could slip into a pocket but, in fact, it’s a little too big for comfortable quarters in most pockets.)

Does one first fold back the opening flap which is illustrated with an eye or the one with the mouth, for that decision affects the image which then obscures the kinda-3D-mandala-image which serves as the back cover while the book is closed and not being read?

The Strange Library is about the relationship between readers and the fictional worlds they inhabit when they disappear into a bound volume.

The story allows the line between living and imagining to fade in and out, until the idea of reading about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire seems like the most interesting story ever and a pet starling the most desirable pet ever known.

But this is not entirely comfortable reading, for The Strange Library also considers the basis of our living and dreaming fears, often strange and disorienting, which loyal Haruki Murakami readers will expect.

Rakoff Love DishonorAnother slim volume with a striking form is David Rakoff’s last book Love, dishonor, marry, die; cherish, perish (2013).

I find the cover itself mesmerizing, thick stock with holes punched to reveal the letters which form the title (the opposite side and inner sheet reveal a mass of letters, although ‘marry’ does seem to jump out from its centre nonetheless).

My fingertips trace the holes as the book sits flat on the table and, also, as I read, circling them from beneath.

“The infant, named Margaret, had hair on her head
Thick and wild as a fire, and three times as red.
The midwife, a broawn and capable whelper,
Gave one look and crossed herself, ‘God above help her….”

These the first words of David Rakoff’s story, but readers have already been introduced to young Margaret via a full-page illustration by Seth. In fact, each character is represented by one of his illustrations, which sometimes appears just slightly after they have appeared in the narrative proper (and sometimes repeatedly).

The verses make for addictive reading once readers adjust to the style. (In fact, when I finished and picked up a novel in my stack, it was difficult to adjust to ordinary and un-rhyming sentences in clunky and over-burdened paragraphs.)

But what is even more compelling is the sense of playfulness which infuses the story. Which is not to say that Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (a title which brings to mind Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage) is light reading. It is energized and lively, but it is often sad, even at times, deeply sorrowful.

The most striking illustration is the final one, which appears on an overpage, so that readers flipping through to see the portraits offered of the characters will not readily alight upon it until interconnections between the characters are more fully understood. This is the image of the story which will remain with me, I believe, perfectly encapsulating aspects of the story which could only unfold after this image was captured on the page, like memories cluster around a photograph.

Diane Schoemperlen has been playing with form and story since her son commented on the dearth of illustrations in adults’ books. Her latest, By the Book, is a collection of both visual and literary snippets, “fragments and collage, fraternal twins in both form and process”.

She created the illustrations, the colourful collages, herself to accompany the seven stories. The first story is partly fiction and partly “exact excerpts from a book originally published in 1900 called Nuovissima Grammatica Accelerata: Italian—Inglese Enciclopedia Popolare, a guidebook intended for the use of Italian citizens moving to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century”. (Both in and out of context, some of the statements made and subjects considered in this book are fascinating and, sometimes, amusing.)

By the Book SchoemperlenThe next six stories rely on a variety of source texts, including A Catechism of Familiar Things (1854), Seaside and Wayside Nature Readers (1887), The Commonly Occurring Wild Plants of Canada: A Flora for Beginners (1897), The Cyclopedia of Classified Dates With An Exhaustive Index (1900), and The Ontario Public School Hygiene (1920). In her introduction, Diane Schoemperlen describes her creative  process as follows:

“I did not exactly write any of the lines in any of them. I discovered them (like a continent), mined them (like gold or coal or potash), unearthed them (like bones), excavated them (like archaeological artifacts), solved them (like a crossword puzzle), deciphered them (like a secret code), organized them (like a filing cabinet or a clothes closet), choreographed them (like a ballet or maybe a barn dance), arranged them (like a symphony or a bouquet of flowers). In each case, I picked out the pieces (like gold nuggets from gravel or maybe like worms from the garden), shuffled them many times (like playing cards), and then put them together again (like a jigsaw puzzle, ending up with a picture entirely different from the one on the front of the box). I have used each sentence exactly as it appears in the original text, except in a few cases where I have changed pronouns and verb tenses for consistency.”

Diane Schoemperlen’s Governor-General’s-Award-winning Forms of Devotion was the first book that I bought in hardcover on a whim. It combined woodcuts from older books (with titles much like those cited above as having inspired the final six stories in this new collection) with fiction inspired by them, and I immediately loved it, had to have it, and I have reread portions of it and flipped through it many times.

Because she does not publish often, I have not rushed to finish reading By the Book. In fact, I might even return to some old favourites (like Our Lady of the Lost and Found, for instance) before I finish her latest, which was published by Biblioasis. But I have, already, read all the pictures in this beautifully constructed volume.

Some authors, like Molly Peacock, visualize and characterize the actual alphabet (as in Alphabetique, with the visual poems of Kara Kosaka). Others make up their own rules and put the letters and palette to work in different ways. Alice in Wonderland complains “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?”

Do you like your books better with pictures?

MRE Authors: Penelope Lively and Toni Morrison

Because I love making reading lists almost as much as I love reading the books that I add to them, I have big plans for my MustReadEverything Reading Projects, but then there are dozens of other books that I also want to read. This year so far, I have reread seven and another eleven books from these lists, including these two.

Penelope Lively’s City of the Mind is a delicately layered narrative which considers the ways in which we relate to — and through,and in — landscape. The novel is set in London, England and examines Matthew Halland’s key relationships as he navigates a failed marriage, fatherhood in the territory of divorce, and the earliest states of his rebuilding.

Penguin Books, 1988

Penguin Books, 1988

Other relationships are also considered, for instance, that of history and language with the city’s residents (past and present). “Language takes up the theme, an arbitrary scatter of names that juxtaposes commerce and religion, battles and conquests, kings, queens and potentates, that reaches back a thousand years or ten, providing in the end a dictionary of reference for those who will listen. Cheapside, Temple, Trafalgar, Quebec, a profligacy of Victorias and Georges and Cumberlands and Bedfords – there it all is, on a million pairs of lips every day, on and on, the imperishable clamour of those who have been here before.”

There are many scenes in which dialogue and personal exchange are central to the story, but also several long passages which reflect on psychological and philosophical matters of interest. “This is the landscape of the psyche – a coded medley of allusions in which the private and the universal are inextricably entwined. Here the mind creates its own images, a brilliant mythic universe in which there is no chronology, in which the laws of nature are suspended. Here the narrator is the Creator, setting his own stage for the flickering, fragmented narrative of obsession and anxiety.”

Just as geography contains and reflects history, one cannot overlook the underlying matter of time’s passing and the endless cycle of birth-growth-decay. Matthew considers this in architectural terms but also in a personal context, as he recognizes the shift in emotions in his own relationships and in his presence.

“‘I need London voices and dirty streets and drunks in the tube and bodies in the river.’
She laughed. ‘And other things. But the point is that you have been digested. The city has taken you over, in a sense.’”

References to the underground (literal and, in the context of his work, metaphorical in the form of, for instance, shady business dealings he observes) are mirrored in more personal scenes, so that the novel does not become a treatise or a diatribe. It remain’s Matthew’s story.

“The doctor held the X-rays up to the light. And Matthew saw his child’s skull, a small and fragile thing of light and shade – the curve of the cranium, the eye and nose sockets, the jaws, the teeth. That most potent of all images. And her hand – a tiny, delicate fan of bone. He stared, in his numbed state of relief and of grief, amazed and chilled that these structures should be thus revealed, beneath the warm and silken skin that he knew so well.”

His daughter Jane’s characterization reminds readers of the author’s experience creating child narrators; she is a wholly believable girl and her relationship with her father is all-the-more touching for its realism. Readers familiar with Penelope Lively’s earlier works will also recognize her preoccupation with time, in lives and in narratives. “There is no sequence in the city, no then and now, all is continuous. Equally, all is both immediate and inaccessible.”

City of the Mind is not as well known as the author’s Booker-prize-winning novel, Moon Tiger, but it would serve as an excellent introduction to Penelope Lively’s works, just as it will satisfy readers devoted to her craft.

Washington Square Press, 1972 (1970)

Washington Square Press, 1972 (1970)

Young girls are at the heart of Toni Morrison’s debut novel, The Bluest Eye, as well. The events, however, are relayed after some time has passed, “the years folded up like pocket handkerchiefs”.

Even in her first novel, the author exhibits a firm grasp of all narrative styles, from stream-of-consciousness passages to realistic dialogue to passages of poetic description.

“Beats me. Just nasty.”
“Well, they ought to take her out of school.”
“Ought to. She carry some of the blame.”
“Oh, come on. She ain’t but twelve or so.”
“Yeah. But you never know. How come she didn’t fight him?”
“Maybe she did.”
“Yeah? You never know.”

This passage reveals two grown women discussing the experiences of a young girl, but the bulk of the narrative is preoccupied with the two sisters’ observations of Pecola Breedlove’s suffering, which has given given them a new perspective on the injustices in their own lives.

Theirs has been a hard existence. And the emotive aspects of the story are most impressive in ways in which they permeate the story, so that even a description of a sofa holds a striking intensity.

“There is nothing more to say about the furnishings. They were anything but describable, having been conceived, manufactured, shipped, and sold in various states of thoughtlessness, greed, and indifference. The furniture had aged without ever having become familiar. People had owned it, but never known it. No one had lost a penny or a brooch under the cushions of either sofa and remembered the place and time of the loss or the finding. No one had clucked and said, ‘But I had it just a minute ago. I was sitting right there talking to…’ or “Here it is. It must have slipped down while I was feeding the baby!’ No one had given birth in one of the beds—or remembered with fondness the peeled paint places, because that’s what the baby, when he learned to pull himself up, used to pick loose.”

In a world in which Shirley Temple is the ideal, girls who do not have blonde curls and blue eyes and pale skin are inherently inferior, and the longing to be “other” takes a variety of forms. And the parents who were once children in this world have felt and dealt sorrows themselves.

“Instead of the dull pain of a winter strap, there were these new green switches that lost their sting long after the whipping was over. There was a nervous meanness in these long twigs that made us long for the steady stroke of a strap or the firm but honest slap of a hairbrush. Even now spring for me is shot through with the remembered ache of switchings, and forsythia holds no cheer.”

The Bluest Eye is a gripping read. The pain is presented in a context which does not afford quick dismissal, for all that it is a short novel best read in a single-sitting. And Pecola’s story is, truly, unforgettable.

Both Penelope Lively and Toni Morrison are on my list of MRE (MustReadEverything) authors, with City of the Mind a fresh read and The Bluest Eye a reread.

Have you recently added a favourite author to your reading list?

What’s the last book you reread?