It’s not all “Reader, I married him” but plenty of contemporary novels are preoccupied by the idea of storytelling, and often one voice does speak to us directly even now.
Periscope Books, 2016
In Tabish Khair’s Just Another Jihadi Jane, the storyteller’s direct address appears regularly and spiritedly.
“Yes, well, if you insist, I shall take another cup of coffee. Did I tell you that despite all the Islamic sisterhood on display in Hejjiye’s orphanage, we were divided into groups that bickered over how to brew our coffee and tea? We never agreed on just one way to make it.”
The story begins when the girls are young, with recollections of their meeting, which each girl remembers differently; dissent figures from the start.
The novel is rooted solidly in women’s experiences. The direct address is to a male listener, however. (The novelist, another storyteller.)
“Even you observed me on the sly. No, don’t get flustered. There is probably nothing wrong with noticing a woman. Who knows? I guess it depends on what is in the man’s heart. I did not point this out to accuse you; I just wanted you to know that I know. I know that men notice me.”
This adds a playful note to a novel which is preoccupied with more serious themes, including the nature and extent of fanaticism. (This is not an observation of one of the girls, but of a teacher, Mrs. Chatterjee.)
“I used to find her ludicrous. I don’t know why, now. I mean, she was fanatical about her poetry, but then I was fanatical about my religion, as were my Abba and Mohammad and all my mosque friends. She was an extreme admirer of her Romantic notion of poetry, in the same way that Wahhabis are extremist admirers of their notion of Islam. How could I see the fanaticism in her absolute love for Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley and find it ludicrous, but take my own fanaticism so seriously, so unconditionally?”
Also serious, also unconditional, is a profound and relentless desire (and quest for) change. This sets Ameena apart, not only from others (as described in the following passage) but from the storyteller as well.
“That perhaps was the difference between her and Mohammad. Mohammad had exactly the same opinions and sometimes even the same words. But the words did not leave him bitter and restless; they left him feeling good and righteous. Again and again. Ameena would conclude by lamenting her inability to do anything to change the world.”
Always, there is the pull of tradition. The concern that despite a yearning for change, convention will triumph.
“Was this how I was going to end, another version of my Ammi? Was that all I could do with my life in this world, where there was so much that called out to be done? Was all my reading and piety to end in a kitchen, denying the role that a woman of true faith had to play in this life, of which all of us, men in their ways, women in theirs, would have to submit a full account to Allah?”
It’s clear throughout just how much variation there is amongst any given group of followers. Even readers unfamiliar with the religion can grasp that there are as many differences as similarities, as in the storyteller’s recollections of an Eid Millan enjoyed in London.
“I had not grown up in a family that celebrated festivals in what you might call a ‘cultural manner’. With a few token exceptions for the sake of my Ammi, we had observed them in a kind of bare, denuded style. (Salafist, you say? Well, maybe, if you want to give it a tag.)”
But despite the desire to categorize, to classify, this remains one woman’s story.
“You smile. But you are a man. I don’t know if you believe in God or don’t, let alone the extent of your faith, but trust me, no man, not one Muslim man, no matter how believing, how faithful, how orthodox, has to face a third of the difficulties that orthodox Muslim women encounter in the West.”
Second Story Press, 2016
Rajni Mala Khelawan’s Kalyana is also preoccupied with women’s experiences in the world.
Given that it is set in Fiji, readers might expect postcard-styled images. “I could hear the sage blow the conch shell in the distance, and the water wash up against the seawall, and the pundit blow on his bansuri, and the frogs croaking in the stillness of night. I heard the strum of an enormous sitar, and the quiet hum of the harmonica, and the howls of the wind, and the echo of a charmer’s flute.”
But in Kalyana, this description is followed by a scene of devastating cruelty.
This kind of scene is infrequent in the novel, but there is an undercurrent of disrespect and prejudice (although our narrator is privileged, as a lighter-skinned girl in a racialised society, so she escapes much of this).
“Unlike many of the Indians in our village, I had chestnut hair, lightly tanned skin, and light brown eyes. My mother would proudly declare to relatives and guests that I looked just like my father.”
Looking like her white father is an advantage in this society, but she craves connection in his absence.
Her mother, too, looks beyond her known territory for inspiration, finding the news of women in North America (burning their bras, protesting unequal treatment) particularly heartening.
“I remember now the delight in my mother’s eyes, delight at the thought that women everywhere were capturing opportunities, making waves, taking stands.”
Kalyana does not recognise the significance of these events for her mother when she is a girl, only understands later. At the time, however, she finds inspiration elsewhere – somewhere readers know well; her love of the library and the books therein is deep and lasting.
“At first, I only chose the books that were wanted by others, but later I sought out those books that were unwanted and unread. I thought that they also deserved to see the world outside this library.”
Although a powerful message exists at the heart of the novel, Kalyana is sometimes over-earnest in its pursuit of it. Attentive readers could have recognized the mother’s delight if it had been shown in a scene (rather than explained in a recollection as above) and would not require additional hand-holding.
Nonetheless, in a political climate which seems to emphasize divisiveness and discrimination, perhaps such concepts need to be spelled out more clearly after all:
“For there was a greater truth: every life, regardless of skin color, place of origin, birth rights, status, and, yes, gender, was entwined with pain and suffering. There was no escaping it. But if we tried to stand tall amidst the chaos and to contemplate, looking inward, we could perhaps learn the lessons and look beyond into a brighter future.”
Penguin Random House – Del Rey, 2016
Whether brighter or not, Connie Willis’ Crosstalk is preoccupied with the future as well, particularly the ways in which technological advancements have impacted communication and identity, the breathless dance between information and curation.
“Baying hounds and shouting mobs all blurred together into a dull roar, the individual voices impossible to identify in the general din. But she could hear every single voice, even though there were now scores of them, railing at her at once, talking over one another.”
Laurence Scott’s musings in The Four-Dimensional Human resound: how does being plugged-in change us, reshape us?
It becomes overwhelming for Briddey. “They poured over her, a torrent of inchoate thoughts and emotions.” And, yet, she is tempted to undergo a medical procedure which invites still more “data”, a procedure pitched to couples as a means of gaining greater intimacy.
Full-fledged emotional contact is the goal, but the process is not streamlined.
“’Those initial, sporadic contacts may be felt by only one of the partners,’ Dr. Verrick was saying, ‘and they can take a variety of forms – a momentary awarenss of your partner’s presence or a feeling of being touched or a sense of happiness. Or more negative sensations. Fear or a prickling of the spine or a sense of being intruded on.'”
And, then again, procedures do not always occur as planned. And, as anyone who’s watched “True Blood” (or read Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series) knows, telepathy is not uncomplicated either.
“People always think being telepathic would be like some cute romantic comedy where you could find out secrets and use them to get what you want. Or find out what your enemies are up to.” You can hear the “BUT” there. Connie Willis is preoccupiedy by that “BUT”.
She is also concerned with the way in which ideas are transmitted across time. Readers of her Hugo/Nebula-winning novel Doomsday Book will recall Kivrin’s difficulties with communication (both within and between time periods), and how she, too, appears to be hearing voices, when she is actually recording and transmitting her experiences of time travel so that her co-workers can learn from her experiences.
In Crosstalk, however, characters want to hear voices (even when it’s arguably poor judgement) and don’t want to hear them (unless circumstances are viewed as perfect).
“I got to thinking about Joan of Arc’s hearing voices and decided to see if ther were any other saints who did. They were – Saint Augustine and Saint Brendan the Navigator and your very own Saint Brigid and Saint Patrick.”
Connie Willis, suitably, arranges Crosstalk so that it is nearly entirely presented in dialogue or direct observation, and although it does feel a little too formal at times to be believable office banter, the pace of the novel moves more quickly than its girth might suggest. The idea is certainly relevant, raising all of the right kinds of questions.
“It’s a paradign shift, all right. In the wrong direction.”
Or, is it? Even Briddey finds refuge in the stacks.
“And we’re safe from the voices, Briddey thought, looking around at the book-lined walls. Even though she knew it was the readers’ thoughts and not the books that screened them, she felt even safer here than she had in the Reading Room.”
Periscope Books, 2016
In Bakhtiyar Ali’s I Stared at the Night of the City (Trans. Kareem Abdulrahman), storytelling is not necessarily a safe haven.
“I am an honest person, and so you should know from the start that my intentions are not honourable. I, of course, know where to begin and where to go next, but you know nothing of this – and that gives me infinite delight.”
Isn’t that interesting: honest but not honourable? Readers are immediately off-kilter: “Do not treat me as a virtuous storyteller.”
At first, I wondered if this cover illustration suited the story; I was expecting something bold and starkly outlined, a pair of characters at the forefront of an adventure, the setting a formless backdrop.
In fact, there is a sense of being overwhelmed, almost immediately. “God alone knew how many stories were born and perished in my head every day.”
Then, I recognized the wave pattern behind the figures and forms. “This book, which begins simply with Magellan’s story, is in fact more intricate, more multi-dimensional and more interlinked than might at first appear.”
The chapter headings situate readers, in terms of voice (or time, or place) but there are so many things going on that it’s a rush of activity.
“Don’t forget that our book is full of digressions, of untimely questions that force us to retreat to our rooms, lock the doors and mull them over by the dim light of a candle.”
I Stared at the Night of the City is more Tristram Shandy than Alexandre Dumas, more Rabih Alameddine than Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Readers must be prepared to make an investment. And, even so, they will sometimes fall short. “What kind of readers are you? Are you impatient and shortsighted, or do you just forget things from one chapter to the next?”
The storytellers will, however, guide readers as often as they chastise them. “You shouldn’t assume that these are the fictitious feelings of a man not normally interested in poetry but using it now to describe feelings that cannot be put into ordinary words. These were truths I lived with, and witnessed.”
But this is not necessarily an advantage, for readers must recall the declarations made earlier (in those other chapters which may have been forgotten as readers turned the pages).
Musings upon Kurdish identity, the “blood and dreams” of a failed revolution, the difficulties transitioning from life as a mercenary to living as a lover, a bricklayer’s building of “secret shelters and dark prisons”, the weaving of carpets: I Started at the Night of the City situates the reader at the centre of a narrative whirlwind.
Granta Books, 2016
Sarah Moss’ The Tidal Zone is also openly preoccupied with the importance of storytelling, considering how we construct the narratives of our lives, what shape specific events take against a back drop of everyday details.
“Stories have endings; that’s why we tell them, for reassurance that there is meaning in our lives. But like a diagnosis, a story can become a prison, a straight road mapped out by the people who went before. Stories are not the truth.
Begin with brokenness. Begin again. We are not all, not only, the characters written by our ancestors.”
Adam is preoccupied with ancestry, with the past as it impacts the present which is still being written. He is looking for explanations for what endures and what is lost.
Mixed with the talk of his everyday life as a stay-at-home father of two girls, are glimpses of the life of an artist whose work is connected with the devastation and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in WWII.
“Suddenly, but not really. There is always a beginning.”
When he traces the events which led to the bombing of Coventry, it’s clear that the losses were not entirely unexpected. Some key personnel could have predicted them, could have informed ordinary people who might have made different decisions in light of the raids.
Similarly, when Adam and Emma’s eldest daughter collapses on the field at school and stops breathing for a spell, one can see elements of risk when one looks back. But, when assembled, do they create a story? And whose story?
“It is normal for children to die. Look at Syria, at Palestine, at Eritrea and Somalia. Look at the tidelines of beaches in Italy and Greece. Look, while we are on the subject, at certain parts of Chicago and Los Angeles. The nurses’ world, the hospital version of normality, is true and what most of us here and now regard as ordinary life is a lie.”
Is there a narrative to be recognized, studied, understood? There is a certain appeal to that idea. But, it depends upon the details in the story.
“We all believe in patterns we do not see. We are all following magic ravens, even when we are lost. Otherwise, there would be no story.”
Whether or not we want a story often depends upon the outcomes. What about this one: “Once upon a time, her body made a mistake and ended itself.”
That’s one ending. And hasn’t it already been said that there is always a beginning? So there must also be an ending. “Fiction is the enemy of history. Fiction makes us believe in structure, in beginnings and middles and endings, in tragedy and comedy.”
Unless there is neither a beginning nor an ending. Only magic ravens which look like beginnings and endings and middles.
Have you been reading any books that talk back to you directly? Or in which storytelling plays a major role?
Which of these do you think you’d be most likely to enjoy?
This month, I’m wholly enjoying the stories in the Short Story Advent Calendar (edited by Michael Hingston and designed by Natalie Olsen). The variety of the boxed set is fantastic, especially if you’re looking for “new” short story writers to follow, but I generally read collections of works by a single author.
So many of the situations in the stories in Clea Young’s Teardown (2016) feel familiar from the beginning, as though we have already witnessed them (if not participated in them). And because they feel so natural, it’s less as though we are invited to join as readers, and more like we have stumbled into them, as though into a memory.
But the interesting part is that the stories do not settle into the familiar. In many instances, the characters therein are swept up in change (e.g. adjusting to a new living space or a pregnancy, with new roles too).
The dialogue is credible and the stories move quickly – just like changes and adjustments – the daily kind, the momentous kind – in our lives. They are set in or near places of transition (e.g. parking lots, the ruins of a cabin).
“’Everything’s changed so fast. At the park today, leaves were coming down, honestly these yellow leaves were…I could cover my entire face with one, which he loved.’ Alannah nods at the baby, who sits in the middle of the kitchen looking up at his mother, a string of drool connecting his chin to the grimy linoleum. ‘What kind of tree would that be anyway?’”
They remind us that, in the time it takes to read a short story, one’s entire idea about something really important can shift 180 degrees.
Contents: Teardown, Split, Dock Day, Chaperone, Juvenile, Lamb, Congratulations & Regrets, New World, Desperado, Ursa Minor, Firestorm, What Are You Good At, What Do You Like to Do?
Richard Van Camp’s Godless But Loyal to Heaven, hooked me on his work, made him a MustReadEverything author for me, but his first collection, Angel Wing Splash Pattern (2001), introduces readers to a number of characters who reappear in those later stories.
Here we meet Torchy for the first time; he has experienced a great loss, and we also meet a young girl, Stephanie, who has a great need: “Mermaids” captures so many feelings. “It was such a pretty night for sin.” “They forgot about God and anytime men forget about God, He reminds them that He’s still there. That’s why he brought AIDS. Because we forgot.” “And I would rather unleash fire than have fire unleash me.” “I’ll be your sister, Torchy, if you’ll be my brother.” In many ways, this story feels like a cornerstone of his work, although it is raw and unpolished (which suits Torchy, actually).
This is not the only story which captures the roaring and weeping of a coming-of-age tale.
“Something had changed about his room. It was still a mess, with his CDs and tapes piled all over the place. He had posters up of Morrissey, The Cure and The Smiths. There were also pictures of Bat Girl all over the place with loving attention on her latex ass. His laundry basket was overflowing and my porno mags were fanned out all over his floor. What the hell? There were bullet holes in the walls!”
From bullet holes to porno mags, power and vulnerability are sometimes at the forefront of the stories and other times inhabit the dark shadows in the corners. “The fender was a splash parade of flapping dragonflies, mosquito pepper and a dislocated sparrow wing.”
There is a poetic undertone as well, and occasionally it swells to the surface of the prose without abandoning the matter-of-fact tone and plainspeak. Life for the members of the Dogrib Nation who inhabit these stories and live in and around Fort Simmer (Fort Smith in real life) is sometimes violent and hard and sometimes beautiful and sensual.
“The good thing about it being minus 45 degrees is that the sunrise is spectacular. It’s a Physics 30 orgasm. The light from the sun, which is low to the horizon, hits the ice-fog which hangs over this little northern town and you have rarefaction, refraction and some fancy light that makes you ache. Too bad you can’t enjoy it without your cheeks splitting, it’s that cold. And you would not bleed blood, either. You would bleed purple purple steam.”
Richard Van Camp’s collection also counts towards the 13 works by indigenous writers I’ve decided to read for the 10th annual Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set. The others I’ve read in recent months include Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls (2002), Paul Seesequasis’ Tobacco Wars (2010), the comics anthology Moonshot (2015), edited by Hope Nicholson, Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat (2008) and Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie (2016).
Contents: Mermaids, Let’s Beat the Shit Out of Herman Rosko!, Why Ravens Smile to Little Old Ladies as They Walk By, the uranium leaking from port radium and rayrock mines is killing us, The Night Charles Bukowski Died, Sky Burial, Snow White Nothing for Milles, My Fifth Step, How I Saved Christmas
The title of Douglas Coupland’s Bit Rot (2016) is pulled from the world of digital archiving: the way in which digital files can spontaneously and rapidly decompose.
This aligns with the feeling that Douglas Coupland has had since Richard van Camp was writing the stories for Angel Wing Splash Pattern; since 2000, Coupland has felt aware of his capacity to “shed older and weaker neurons and connections and create and enhance new and unexpected ones”.
It’s disorienting, this idea that “we are now always going to be living in the future”. But writing can provide a kind of anchor. “The novel made us individuals. The Internet makes us units. Write as fast as you can. Blog like crazy. Vlog your brains out. Be unique. Be the best you can be.”
He does discuss technology and media, floating an idea for an app like Grindr and Tinder but for politics, which he calls Wonkr, and musing on corporate services. “Good Wi-Fi is good business. High-speed internet keeps your country from being second-rate. Overcharging for speed – or crippling speed under the aegis of pseudo-capitalism – is simply stupid.” (“iF-iW eerF?”)
He also considers older tech, like the propensity towards of ads for mood-altering drugs on television (“New Moods”) and takes a store sign as inspiration in “Bulk Memory”.
Because it’s not always about technology. “Unclassy” considers his experience of talking about class in a suburban Shanghai Internet router factory, which leads him to create the term “blank-collar workers”. And “McWage” looks back briefly to his novels Generation X and The Gum Thief; it considers the inequity of minimum wage policies today.
Often longer titles are assigned to works of fiction, like “The End of the Golden Age of Payphones”, “Superman and the Kryptonite Martinis”, “The Short, Brutal Life of the Channel Three News Team” and “Bartholomew Is Right There at the Dawn of Language”. (But not always: consider, “Temp” and “361”.)
In a pilot script, “George Washington’s Extreme Makeover”, we have Instagram-sized snippets in a Grexit Blog-post styled IQ. Then, toss in some images too. And the promotional material for an app called “Yoo”.
Not all of the pieces appear to be polished. Some seem like stories written over an afternoon, reread the next day and submitted to their intended readers. This brings to mind “Nine Readers” which questions why so many individuals are clamouring to be heard, online in particular, when what they have to say isn’t unique (which also introduces the question of whether being unique matters or is even possible).
Sometimes the tone seems a little glib, other times it seems to be simple but profound. Consider this from “The Ones That Got Away”: “There’s always that pallel universe out there, featuring a much richer version of yourself taunting the you in this universe for goofing up. But then that parallel universe version of you probably missed out of somethin else and is probably lonely and miserable and wishes they were you. The universe seems to be very good at equalling things out that way.”
Contents: 65 pieces, beginning with “Vietnam” and ending with “An App Called Yoo”
The stories in Joan Lane’s You Call This Home (2016) were written in the early fifties but the manuscripts were not discovered until 2008.
Many times, while reading, I was reminded of Willa Cather’s short stories (and her novel, Song of the Lark).
I do wonder what was on Joan Lane’s bookshelves (maybe some Edith Wharton or some Elizabeth Taylor?) but certainly not short stories which focussed on the lives of women who lived on the farm-side of town on the Canadian Prairies. Those, she had to write.
The external setting, however, is less important than the emotional landscape the characters inhabit.
“All her life she had been saying goodbye, to friends going away to school, to university, to jobs, to marriage and new homes, until it seemed that only she remained. Now it was her turn.”
Many of her characters are young women, but she also captures a young girl’s view of a too-quickly-changing world (in the wake of her sister’s illness): astute and sensitive-without-being-overly-sentimental.
“I adored her [her mother’s] playing. Maybe someday I’d play like that too – she said I had a ‘good ear’ because I could already pick out melodies. But only in the key of C; maybe it was in the other, not-so-good ear which would some day unlock the mystery of the black keys.”
And she does venture into the male psyche as well, exploring the idea of threatened/unrealised artistic potential, which some other characters grapple with as well. “Patrick threw down his brush. He couldn’t paint today. It had been the same yesterday and the day before.”
Sometimes the external setting gets a nod, too: “The street was silent. In the wintry dark the old houses rested dark and formless. The shadows joined hands, washing the snow blue, softening the tall, ungainly woman who walked with jerky movements, her head thrust forward and tilted to one side.”
And there are some lovely turns of phrase. “Her head pecked, birdlike, to consult her watch.” A woman is described as a “faded brown leaf”. “She fixed her gaze on the jewel-toned wine.” An olive in a cocktail “rolled and winked derisively”. (There are more musical instruments than alcoholic beverages in this collection, despite what this selection of quotes might lead you to believe.)
Contents: The Winter I Composed Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, A Sheltered Life, The Echoing Night, An Old-Fashioned Custom, Everything Is Music, Journey Into Solitude, The Snows of Yesteryear, You Call This Home
What short works have been in your stack of late? Do you have a regular favourite source of them beyond collections?
If you haven’t read any of these, which of these do you think you would enjoy the most?
It’s the book which Moth discovers in Mr. Wentworth’s study in Ami McKay’s second novel, The Virgin Cure (2011): “The Witches of New York was the book I’ found most intriguing.”
“Listing addresses from Broome to Nineteenth Street, it claimed to be a reliable guide to the soothsayers of the city. I put it on the top of the stack, planning to come back for it later to search for Mama in its pages.”
There is some truth to that, I suspect, for Ami McKay was inspired by a family member to write The Virgin Cure, as she explains in the author’s note at the end of that novel. And she has returned to The Witches of New York to continue that tale.
As Moth is at the heart of both tales, it is interesting to note that she began at the margins and only gradually inserted herself in the centre.
“Originally I thought that the narrative voice of The Virgin Cure would be Sadie’s, but as I searched for the best way to write the story I wanted to tell, I discovered that it wasn’t to be found in her voice after all. I spent hours walking the streets and sidewalks that had once been travelled by my great-great-grandmother in her work as a medical student and physician in the late 1800s. As I walked, I tried to conjure up the memory of her life and the women and children she had served. On Second Avenue, I stared at the place where the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children once stood. I went to Pear Tree Corner to see where Peter Stuyvesant’s great pear tree had lived for over two hundred years. I visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and looked into the small, dark rooms of the past. On those streets, I found my answer. I found the voice I’d been waiting for, the voice of a twelve-year-old street girl named Moth.”
The Virgin Cure was a difficult tale; Moth’s was a difficult young life.
“Miss. E. went on to explain that the girls are brought into the trade gradually, with care and consideration for their tender age. Men are required to court them, in a sense, buying the girl of their choosing candies and gifts as an overture to their deflowering. ‘My position here is as a watchful mother. I make certain the men who come for my girls are well-looking and kind. None of my girls has ever been hurt, or stolen away, or used as a virgin cure.’”
Despite Miss. E.’s role as watchful mother, the girls must unite to survive within a debilitating – even devastating – system. This sense of sisterhood – by circumstance rather than blood – infuses both novels with a sense of hope and promise where, in the hands of another storyteller, darkness could rule.
“We three near-whores, Mae, Alice and I, shared the upstairs quarters—the room where Dr. Sadie had examined me. There was teasing and rivalry of course, and sometimes sharp words, but, in the short time I’d been there, there’d been more kindness than cruelty. We were sisters of a sort—with Miss Everett acting as our strange, sly mother.”
The Witches of New York is much more than a list of addresses. Moth’s experiences are summarized succinctly, so that readers who have not met her on the page can settle into this new novel.
“By the age of thirteen she’d been sold three times over—first, by her mother as a lady’s maid, then by a brothel madam as a child whore, then…as a Circassian Beauty—all in the space of a year.”
Her’s is a tale of reinvention – transformation: Adelaide, Ada, Moth.
“She felt now, more than ever, that the city wasn’t done with her, or she with it. If there ever was a place where one could start again, it was Manhattan. Move a block, and your enemies become your friends. Move ten blocks and you might never see anyone you knew again. She’d gained a new costume, as it were, complete with a mask that could never be removed, and she’d soon learned there were advantages to that sort of thing as well as to calling herself a witch.”
The novel considers a variety of witches. “The world has need of more witches. Sibyl, oracle, seer, prophetess, hag—it is their hearts that wish to beat within you, their souls you see in the face of the Moon. The Mothers are always watching.”
It also suggests that this is as much about self-definition and identity than about an extenal belonging, an organized group.
Consider this excerpt from the grimoire of Eleanor St. Clair (as told to her by her mother): “Close your eyes and get some rest. We gain new worlds when we sleep.”
When we dream, we are all witches. Each of us can reinvent and reimagine, illuminate and transform. But risks remain.
Like ordinary and everyday fractures. “If her mother had ever held any witchery in her blood, the pathetic wretch had lost the better part of it the moment her heart had been broken by a man. She’d given whatever power she’d had away—to love, to drink, to laudanum and, eventually, to the river.”
And organized and deliberate prosecution. “He came from a long line of God-fearing men going back to the famed preachers of Massachusetts Bay, who’d lived there when the colony was rife with witchcraft. It’d been his ancestors, in the years after the trials, who’d continued to be watchful for the Devil’s workings within God’s people.”
As in The Virgin Cure, there are scenes of monstrous cruelty and both sharp and long-winded losses. Beneath the surface, questions of morality and miracles simmer.
Ami McKay gives the cauldron a good stir, allowing Moth to bubble to the top: many readers will undoubtedly queue up to have some “Tea and Sympathy” with her in Manhattan.
Have you read any of Ami McKay’s books? Is one of them on your TBR?
Have you read any fiction which was inspired by family history lately?
The FOLD (The Festival of Literary Diversity) is an annual event, in Brampton (Ontario, Canada) dedicated to telling more stories, to having audiences connect with a wider variety of storytellers. You can check out their lineup of terrific writers and storytellers who were a part of the debut festival in May 2016, here.
Earlier in 2016, they posted a reading challenge, which I printed and dutifully began to read towards. (I’ve misplaced the link: sorry!)
- A book you’ve had for more than a year.
- A book outside of your ‘favourite genre’.
- A book you buy at an indie bookstore.
- A book by a person of a faith.
- A book by an aboriginal author.
- A book by a Canadian LGBTQ author.
- A book by a Canadian person of colour.
- A book by a FOLD 2016 author.
I’ve already discussed the following: Ernest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men (1983); N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms (2010); André Alexis’ Pastoral; David Chariandy’s Soucouyant (2007); Farzana Doctor’s All Inclusive (2015); and Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat. And I’ve chosen Nicola Harwood’s memoir, Flights for the Commitment Impaired (2016) as my selection for a Canadian LGBTQ author.
Today: a book bought at an indie bookstore, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, to finish the challenge, which I’ve done in about three months. It’s not too late for you to join: eight books is not so many! (Poetry counts. Graphic novels count. Picture books, too!)
Who Fears Death has been on my TBR for years, ever since I read The Shadow Speaker in 2010 (originally published 2007). But it was the #DiverseSFF bookclub‘s selection for September which yanked it off the shelf and onto my stack proper.
However, this novel begins with brutality and I was unprepared. Nnedi Okorafor’s writing style is no-nonsense, almost bare bones, which is what allowed me to read on, taking some breaks in Onye’s (Onyesonwu’s) story, to recover from the potency of the losses.
Here, the emphasis is not on the setting (post-apocalytic Africa) or the language or even the characters (although considerable attention has been paid to them, for without them the story would falter), but on the story. On stories, in general.
To avoid discussing the specifics of the story, which unfold dramatically and relentlessly, here is a passage from rather late in the narrative which illustrates some of the author’s preoccupations.
“THERE’S A STORY IN THE GREAT BOOK about a boy destined to be Suntown’s greatest chief. You know the story well. It’s a Nuru favorite, no? You all tell it to your children when they’re too young to see how ugly the story is. You hope the girls will want to be like Tia the good young woman and the boys like Zoubeir the Great. In the Great Book, their story was one of triumph and sacrifice. It’s meant to make you feel safe. It’s supposed to remind you that great things will always be protected and people meant for greatness are meant for greatness. This is all a lie. Here’s how the story really happened….”
Direct and conversational, subversive and sweeping: Onye’s story presents a narrative of devastation-rebirth which includes missteps alongside triumphs, violations alongside celebrations, and friendships alongside betrayals. But this novel is not so much about extremes, as it is about a place between: between darkness and light, between despair and hope. And, perhaps even more importantly, it is a novel which questions our understanding of polarized states.
At first, this seems simple: “Mortality smelled muddy and wet and I reeked of it.”
But that is not the case: “Just because something is not alive, does not mean it is dead. You have to be alive first to be dead.” I closed my eyes and lay back. “The wilderness is someplace else. Neither of flesh nor time.”
Who Fears Death takes readers to the wilderness. It isn’t comfortable. But it is vitally important. And, despite the losses, a vital story at its core.
Other Fold Reading List posts are here, here, here, and here. There are still a couple of reading weeks left in 2016, and the same list could serve for another reading year: why not join?
In which I discuss some of the skinny volumes which have kept me company while on the move, while heavier volumes (like Connie Willis’ Crosstalk and Steven King’s 11/22/1963) stayed home.
Warsan Shire’s chapbook is my skinniest book of the year. I finished reading it on a single commute, but rather than read another volume on my return trip, I reread her poems instead.
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth begins with “What Your Mother Told You After You Father Left” and it ends with “In Love and In War”.
Identity is at the heart of the collection, often explored within the context of family relationships (“Grandfather’s Hands”) and the absence of them (“When We Last Saw Your Father”), and sometimes within broader frameworks of belonging.
The cycle “Conversations About Home” are overtly personal and politcal. “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” “Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.” “Do they not know that stability is ike a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second; the next you are a tremor lying on the floor covered in rubble and old currency waiting for its return.”
Older sisters and soldiers who survived, lovers and escapees. First kisses and minarets, and cayenne and roasted pine nuts. These verses are tender and painful, some freshly poured and others boiled: always striking.
Just as short: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists.
This is the publication of her TEDx talk, and much of it is as you might guess, filled with feminist-y statements. “A man is as likely as a woman to be intelligent, innovative, creative. We have evolved. But our ideas of gender have not evolved very much.”
But what makes the piece so appealing is that it draws from her personal experiences in Nigeria. The anecdotes range from advice given to her after she was identified as a feminist following the publication of her first novel, Purple Hibscus, to an exchange between teenaged friends, to the awareness which came from giving a tip to a parking attendant.
Here’s one: “I know a woman who has the same degree and same job as her husband. When they get back from work, she does most of the housework, which is true for many marriages, but what struck me was that whenever he changed the baby’s nappy, she said thank you to him. What if she saw it as something normal and natural, that he should help care for his child?”
Often these musings are presented with a question to follow and, if there is anger in some instances, there is also hope. “All of us, women and men, must do better.”
Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent (2015) climbed into my bookbag during this year’s IFOA. The collection claimed the Griffin Prize for poetry this year, which garnered a terrific amount of publicity for her debut.
Mark Medley reported the win in “The Globe and Mail”: “Adam Sol, who served on the jury alongside Alice Oswald and Tracy K. Smith (they considered 633 books of poetry from more than 40 countries) said it was the ‘ambition and reach’ of Howard’s book that ‘made her work stand out. This is a debut book – holy crap. Who knows what she’ll do next.’”
Even without being a dedicated poetry reader, that ambition is clear. (Also discussed last month: Soraya Peerbaye’s Tell, which was also shortlisted.)
Sometimes I felt decidedly under-equipped to participate in these verses, as though she had been observing a world about which I knew nothing, as with these lines from “Foramen Magnum”: “a river of somnolent fauns / heady-white-tailed apnea / our sleep a fossilized memory sequence”.
The natural world is not merely a backdrop to these verses; it permeates them. As does the damage which has been done (and is being done) to it. Here is a peek into “Tender Pathos: A Denser, Blue Vapour”:
tailwaters did valley the hydro
of children taken
boil this water
of false men
The vocabulary suits a student of the sciences in several instances, but there are also many moments in which I settled more immediately into territory I recognized, as with these lines from “A wake”: “As long as you hold me I am doubled from without and within a wake of fog unbroken, a shore of twisted cedar.”
One of my favourite pieces was “Thinktent” (which includes this lovely bit: “to be a shopkeep / in the showroom of nouns / what to purchase and what /to disavow) which reminds me that sometimes we all feel more like guests than residents:
“I know myself to be a guest
in your mind a grand lodge
of everything I long to know and hold
within this potlatch we call
What have you been taking with you in your bookbag this week? What’s the skinniest volume in your stack right now? The fattest?
In the wake of my IFOA reading list and the literary prizelists of the season, my November reading felt relatively whimsical. Without duedates attached to the majority of my reading, it was a pleasure to slip into volumes which had sat untouched in recent weeks.
Each of these three volumes covers, in one way or another, a lifetime. Whether fiction or non-fiction, the lives on the page have an expanse, a reach.
Goose Lane, 2016
The cover of Jared Young’s Into the Current makes you want to cock your head to one side just slightly: deliberately disorienting.
And it’s fitting: this debut novel will make your head spin a little.
First, as you follow airplane passenger Daniel Solomon as he plunges through the atmosphere.
Next, as he slips into some between-state.
“Don’t you find it the least bit suspicious that I’m describing it all in the present tense?
The extraordinary thing about this particular memory is that it’s not a memory. It’s not playing out, as memories do, on some candescent movie screen in the darkness of my conscious mind. Not, I am there! I am physically there, right there….”
It is extraordinary, if not suspicious. And even when an explanation is offered, it remains so. Ultimately, however, there are enough memories cascading past the reader to allow for some brief anchoring moments.
“Funny, these small moments that alter one’s trajectory. Dumb little decisions: turn left, turn right. Spontaneous statements; cursory commitments. I suppose if they kick you onto a different course, they’re not really that small, but they certainly seem that way in the moment they occur: just some vague promise to put someone in touch with someone else, whatever, no big deal.”
Some aspects of the novel are mundane; from carpet fibres to groping, a lot of detail goes into the scenes sketched across the years Daniel reinhabits. There is a fine between, here, between states of undress and states of unbeing. And at times the “bowel-twisting pocket of nothingness” threatens to overwhelm the narrative. “It’s a backwards paradox of fate: I am doomed to always do what I did, there’s no changing it.”
But as an exploration-of-self, Into the Current has some strong scenic elements and the desire to tap into a deeper search for meaning, for “this is the great tragedy of human life: no other person will ever fully understand what it is to be you; they’ll only ever know the abridged, desaturated, second-hand versions of our most important stories”.
Jane Smiley has long been preoccupied with the telling of “our most important stories”. Early in her career, she set out to write one of each major literary type and The Greenlanders did not scratch her epic itch: the Hundred Years trilogy is another work in that vein, with Early Warning the second installment, covering 1953 through 1986.
In some ways, Jane Smiley’s Early Warning is an excellent reading companion for Jared Young’s debut. Both books cross large swathes of time in the narrative, but whereas Young’s structure is chaotic (back and forth in time) and his focus insular (one mind’s memories), Smiley’s Hundred Years trilogy is constructed deliberately (one chapter for each year) and on an epic scale (there is a family tree in the front and readers must consult).
This volume, the second, begins with a family gathering, which serves as an excellent refresher for readers who have let some time pass since reading Some Luck. It doesn’t take long for key characters, like Roseanna, the matriarch, to take shape once more. She “doled out words and smiles like they were stock options” but some of the younger members of the family are a bit of a blur for a few more chapters (years).
An impatient reader might be frustrated with the details required to root the narrative as the years pass, but these are the anchors which hold the passage of time, from pigs-in-a-blanket and a carrot-raisin salad to a little girl dressed for a birthday part in a red velvet dress with lace-trimmed white socks and Mary Janes. (I’m guessing that neither othese menu nor wardrobe items will make an appearance in the trilogy’s third volume.)
Just as it is challenging to spot the growth of a child across the weeks (which inspired the pencil-on-doorway chronicle in many homes) while those who see them once a year on holidays are startled and amazed by the cumulative change, many elements which reside in this novel’s individual chapters and storylines are even more impressive when viewed across the work’s expanse.
Patterns are visible across the generations when, for instance, daughters muse about the men they intend to marry as compared to their fathers. In the first volume, Eloise muses about her daughter, Rosa: “You didn’t have to want to kill your mother and marry your father. But probably you did want to attract their attention once in a while.” And in the second, Claire believes she wants to marry a man who reminds her of her father but she makes a contrary choice in the end: “No, Paul was not a farmer and did not remind her of her father, but he was attentive and her goal was attained: since he was not like Frank, Joe or Henry, she would not be like Andy, Lillian or Lois.”
There are comparisons and contrasts throughout the characters’ experiences for readers to consider actoss the generations; these brief discussions of marriage are hardly spoilers against a landscape of interconnected and ever-shifting relationships. As an epic, it is the work’s breadth of scale at which readers are intended to marvel and this is indeed the case.
This quote from later in Some Luck summarizes it perfectly: “As if on cue, Walter turned from Andrea and looked at Rosanna, and they agreed in that instant: something had created itself from nothing – a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with twenty-three different worlds, each one of them rich and mysterious.”
There are so many more of these worlds in Early Warning, that readers will put the family tree to good use; surely it will be a fold-out poster for the third volume.
Christie Blatchford’s Life Sentence fits with these two novels because it, too, revisits key events in her past, in her work as a court reporter in Toronto.
“When on Monday, January 16, 1978, I first wandered into a Toronto courtroom for the start of jury selection in the first criminal trial I had ever covered, I had no idea I was beginning to serve a self-imposed life sentence.”
While on jury duty, I saw Christie Blatchford at the courthouse downtown occasionally; I didn’t recognize any other court reporters, but perhaps they, too, will have a book like this in a few decades.
Sometimes controversial and always outspoken, it’s interesting to get her perspective on her career at this juncture. Her style here is informal but attentive-to-detail; she is concerned with the facts but I’m most keenly interested in her personal observations and conjecture.
“Canadian courthouses are like far-flung island colonies of Las Vegas, where clocks are discouraged lest the guy in front of the slot machine or at the poker table look up and realize how long he’s been there, losing money.”
The book is structured around key cases which Blatchford covered in detail as a journalist, with five chapters titled “R v Betesh to R v Duffy”, “R v Abreha”, “R v Elliott”, “R v Bernardo” and “R v Ghomeshi”. Even if you think only one or two of them are familiar, you will quickly discover that they are more high-profile than you might have thought (or, alternatively, you will quickly understand why they were selected). After all, there is a whole world unfolding in the courtroom: only a handful of the 200,000 criminal cases in Ontario touch the media.
“Ours is an age of increasing demands for scrutiny – from government at every level, from politicians, police, publicly owned companies and even the mainstream press – yet the courts have escaped the collective notice.”
Certain cases are examined in detail (but sometimes refer to entire works devoted to them, for readers keen to follow up in even more detail) and sometimes it comes down to page numbers in a certain document and specific citations, but also included are anecdotal experiences and information shared by acquaintances and friends.
Perhaps for many readers, a specific case will be of interest, for instance Paul Bernardo’s. “For a good long while, back when it all was happening, it seemed improbable that Canadians would not always recoil a little at the mention of those two names. The country had never before seen crimes quite like theirs, and probably was never more sharply reminded of a few uncomfortable truths.”
However, around the discussion of specific cases are many broader matters of concern, like a consideration of the role of child welfare institutions, the role of the jury, the question of which trials are eligible for a jury and which evidence is submitted to the jury members.
Put enough books like these together and maybe we can come up with an alternative Lifetime Reading Plan?
Any of these in your stack or on your TBR? Which of the three do you suspect you’d most enjoy?
Back in the summer, I was planning my reading list for this year’s International Festival of Authors in Toronto. It always seems like it will be possible to read all the books which are calling to me from the schedule of events and list of participants.
And maybe it would be, were it not for the other calls from the stacks and shelves, for I cannot ignore the pleas from the Giller longlisted books and the new releases with other bookish events attached (like Jonathan Safran Foer’s promotion for Here I Am).
So here are my original festival reading plans, In My Notebook , and here’s a list of the reviews related to some of those books:
But the pages in my notebook are now preoccupied with various reading projects which I have begun this year.
Now, like my IFOA reading, I’m in the dreaming phase of this planning. List-making and re-making, winnowing and gathering.
What reading will yet unfold in the coming weeks, before the 2016 stacks transform into the 2017 stacks?
Is it really possible for me to finish all the Oz books this year (it’s taken me all year to read 9, and 5 remain)?
Even though I planned to finish all Toni Morrison’s and David Mitchell’s books this year, now I’m working to fit just book from each of their oeuvres into the next month (having only read one of each author’s earlier this year).
My idea of finishing more series than I begin could be thwarted by the fact that I was able to borrow My Brilliant Friend from my brilliant friend, and thus began reading another series, and yet I haven’t yet read on with that series. If I do the math, will I have improved upon my habit of favouring beginnings over endings this year? Would reading the remaining Neopolitan novels help? (I stumbled on a nice new library copy of the second novel: is it a ‘sign’?)
What about all those multi-start-but-never-complete single volumes that haunt my stacks: have I turned a corner towards completion there? (It feels like it’s been months since one of these nestled into my stack. Surely that’s not because I finished them all at last.)
Do my stacks match my intentions, particularly when it comes to discovering and reading more indigenous authors along with other oft-silenced voices? (Or perhaps I am relying upon having bought them as being-nearly-as-good-as-reading.)
Have I reignited my enthusiasm for long-standing reading projects, or is it time to consider filing some of them (as having belonged to a younger reading me)?
And my list of must-reads: is it just as long because I am still consistently favouring the new and shiny books, or have I made a dent (or, at least, begun to make progress)?
But what of the fact that I might not be adding to that list anymore but, in fact, I have a running list in my mind which is tugging at my attention as much as any fresh promotions or publications? (And it’s this list which comes to mind first, when browsing at the library or in a bookstore.)
Even if the rest of life ground to a halt, and I could read a book on each day which remains in 2016, would I still be preoccupied by the idea of all that I did not read this year? Or perhaps I would be content, feeling that I have read my best, even if I read only a few more books this year.
Well, you know how it is. When the stacks and lists seem to be neverending. What’s in your reading plan for the rest of 2016?
Are you squeezing a few more books into your year to satisfy some earlier readolutions, or are you easing into the next season and taking some time to plan?
Squeezing? Or, easing?
Even when Bernice is liked, she’s not necessarily liked for the person she is, but for the person someone believes her to be. This is largely why she leaves herself, why she learns to fly.
“I wonder how fascinated she’d be if she knew that I’d been fucked before I was eleven, Bernice thinks. That I smoked pot every day; that I have read every Jackie Collins novel ever written – even the bad ones. Nope, that dying savage thing is what floats her boat.”
This “leaving” is a complicated process, but readers are introduced to it immediately. When we meet her, Birdie can fly. But, paradoxically, she is grounded too. She is not always like a rock skipping across the water, but sometimes more like a sinking stone.
“Lying in her bed, now, she thinks of that period as the time when she learned to leave. It became part of her, a continuum of change, growing in her until she could fully move and bend. Memories. Bad thoughts. Time. It felt like a rock skipping on water, so much so that she strangely is not shocked when she sinks. She has been strange for so long that she cannot even attempt to understand what normal might feel like. For her, coming back into her self after her time felt precisely normal.”
Even her mother makes her feel as though she should be someone else. This kind of denial and denigration seeps into her being. It both makes her want to fly and holds her pinned to the ground. (And practically speaking, Birdie is a heavy woman. Her kind of flight demands a mechanism both delicate and substantial.)
“All of it added to a knowledge, lodged as deep as those chocolate bar wrappers in a purse, that Maggie would rather an Other. Another. Another life. With fewer nieces, nephews and Bernices around. Kids who weren’t so noisy. A kid who she wouldn’t catch gulping mashed potatoes by the handful in the kitchen after dinner one night so that she couldn’t fit hand-me-down clothes and had to have new clothes every time she gained weight. Which was often.”
Her coping mechanisms take on a new sophistication — and also a new darkness — as she ages.
“She felt, at times, invisible. That helped. She could change, too. She could appear and disappear, using only words to / unmask herself. Some people, mostly crazy people, could see her. Not that anyone recognized her. She wore black only, hid in crowds and walked the city streets with her eyes down. Some days, on the best of days, she met women’s eyes – only street women – women who were the seen/unseen. On other days, she felt oddly disconnected from her body, like she did not know the nature of her form.”
As the novel unfolds, readers spend a significant amount of time in Birdie’s skin, but also out of it (which is true, too, for Birdie), so that there is a fresh perspective which is both disorienting and stabilizing.
“Bernice has been immersed in travelling, lately. The three women moving around her generate some sort of resistance that allows her to travel back and forth (Now and Then, Here and There) without much pain. Somewhere in the back of her mind there is an idea. A memory. A piece of something yet unearthed. ”
The chapters take a ritual form, introducing readers to new words and concepts, and to the perspective of one who can fly. Each chapter’s opening segments are exceptionally lyrical, but there are beautiful splashes of poetry throughout the novel. At times, the sensory detail is immersive, as in this passage (one of my favourites):
“Her ache for home, home being something she does not yet understand, and a place she has never been, brushes over her like a skirt hem on the floor. If the women could see her insides, she imagines they would see a churning, a quickening, a real live storm inside of her. Whatever was happening, her pulse remains the same while her skin feels lit from within.”
Bernice is keenly watching for this light. “Bernice had always thought that Freda’s confidence flowed out from under shadowed crevasses and angled bones. That some mélange of svelte certitude, magazine model skinny happiness leeched out of her in places where silence and stuffing found Bernice wanting. It would be years before she understood that the funhouse mirror of their shared childhood would alter the ways they saw themselves and warp what others saw in them.”
But she struggles to locate it. “She is so hungry. Not for food, not for drink, not for foreign skin. This appetite that sits next to her now is relatively unknown and persistent. She is hungry for family. For the women she loves. For the sounds of her language. For the peace of no introduction, no backstory, no explanation. She misses her aunties, her cousins and her mom. She thinks that she maybe misses who her dad was, too, but isn’t sure. She wouldn’t know what that felt like. She misses the Cree sense of humour. She misses her Auntie Val. Misses the production of her auntie getting ready.”
And even though she had a troubled childhood, part of her is forever looking back to it, seeking to root herself, somewhere and somehow.
“She was sorry to have left her room. She looked at the pile of library books on her floor (the carpet was the kind that is supposed to feel like grass when it’s green) and felt better. Back then, Saturday was just about her favourite day of all. She would spend about four hours in the town library, about three and a half hours too many by Miss Robbins’ watch. Miss Robbins, Bernice imagined, was at least seventy years old. She was almost certain that Miss Robbins, Clara Robbins, was a smoker. She had arthritic fingers and knew every title on the shelves of the Grande Prairie public library. The skin on her fingers, spotted, yellow and papery thin, would tap past books at an alarming rate as she tried to select what Bernice could read.”
Miss Robbins doesn’t think that ten-year-old Bernice Meetoos should be reading Judy Blume (she announces this in what Birdie describes as “an in-sin-u-ating voice” but Bernice is not your average ten-year-old girl. “Where she went depended upon something that she could not control. All she knew was that she usually ended up someplace where the past lives with the present, and they mingled like smoke. Once it cleared, she was almost sure she would see her future. She never did, though.”
She has faced a series of challenges with quiet perseverence. Bolstered from unexpected sources of strength (including a strange attachment, almost worship, of Pat John, who played Jesse on the quintessential CBC drama, “The Beachcombers”, one of very few aboriginal figures in Canadian pop culture when Birdie was growing up), she endures.
“She never found the perfect book and contented herself with stories about families that sounded perfect.”
So even though there is nothing about her life which she would define as perfect, Birdie tells her own story, in her own voice. Which is quite a feat, in a language and a culture which has built its power upon silencing these stories.
“She is a patchwork quilt made up of who she would have been. If her life had turned out differently.” Tracey Lindberg’s novel is stitched together delicately and deliberately: it adds an essential and beautiful block to the literary quilt.
Tracey Lindberg’s novel also counts towards the 13 works by indigenous writers I’m determined to read for the 10th annual Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set. The others I’ve read in recent months include Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls (2002), Paul Seesequasis’ Tobacco Wars (2010), the comics anthology Moonshot (2015), edited by Hope Nicholson, and Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat (2008).
Have you been reading any aboriginal authors lately? Is Birdie one you’ve already read? Did you watch Canada Reads the year it was featured? Is it flying onto your TBR list now ?
This volume is a fantastic introduction to Chef Michael Smith’s oeuvre. The volume opens with “The Real Food Pledge”, and although this is the first of his books I’ve read, I could speak this pledge right along with him: it’s as though he’s speaking directly from our kitchen. So you would think this a terrific match. And, mostly, it is.
Penguin – PRH, 2016
The pledge is followed by a a single-page food philosophy, which begins with “Real food nourishes body, mind and soul” and ends with “Real food always includes a homemade treat”.
The next section, “Real Food Strategies”, begins with “Be Deliberate” (elaborating on routines and effort) and ends with “Share a Meal” (speaking about connecting around a table).
Then, a list of “Superfoods” for your kitchen (beginning with kale and other dark leafy greens, ending with herbs and spices) and “Real Ingredients: Everything You Need” (which begins with meat and poultry and ends with dark chocolate).
There is a short discussion about labels and another about foods to avoid and, then, the heart of the volume for me: “20 Recipes for Real Food”. These are the kind of recipes that are often delegated to the back chapter of a cookbook, titled staples or basics.
That’s fine, too. But I do like the emphasis on the basics here; they are not segregated at the end, next to the index and on the wrong side of the dessert chapter (I’m all over Michael Smith’s ideas about a treat being an important part of real food).
The list of 20 begins with Bread and ends with French Fries. Neither item appears frequently on our table, but these recipes are simple and inviting.
How I wish I had discovered a cookbook like this when I was still eating sausage and sour cream; his recipes are straightforward and the ingredient lists very simple.
Many of the recipes incorporate meat and dairy and because they are such simple recipes, there would be little point to substituing; there are more complex and flavourful recipes in cookbooks which place a broader emphasis on plant-based meals which would better suit those who rarely/never eat meat and dairy.
(It’s possible that, if one were accustomed to fast-food, these simple recipes might be a little plain in terms of seasoning, but I also suspect that recommending the generous quantities of garlic and onion that we use at home would not be to everyone’s taste either.)
Two of the basic recipes immediately appealed to my sense of “But, that’s too hard to make at home”: marshmallows and mustard. I won’t be trying the former, but I will happily share it with those who do purchase/eat gelatin; I will be trying the latter.
(Having discovered a few years ago, how easy it is make my own ketchup, you might think I’d considered the possibility of making my own mustard. But, no. It seemed decidedly out of reach.)
My hunch is that a lot of readers will find their own “Who knew?” moments in this cookbook. I still vividly remember the moment I discovered a recipe for chocolate fudge sauce in another cookbook (and, yes, I’ve been making my own for years). Ditto for caramel sauce. (Are you sensing a theme here?)
Less-experienced cooks might find that all 20 are useful additions to their list of favourite recipes. This would make a great gift for anyone adjusting to cooking independently and a great investment for anyone seeking to place a greater emphasis on healthy eating habits with minimal effort and investment.
Those more experienced, who have already done substantial reading on food and health, might find the efforts to present this material in the simplest of terms frustrating at times; occasionally the impetus to present information succinctly glosses over helpful facts.
For instance, some generalizations about divisive concerns (e.g. the tap water vs. filtered water debate, the varying laws surrounding the use of antibiotics in animals raised for slaughter) could perhaps have been dealt with quickly in the pages of principles and precepts but elaborated upon in an appendix with additional resources (either print or digital) so that interested readers could explore further. (Not all tap water is the same; animals raised for slaughter are exposed to treatment which varies widely.)
Nonetheless, Chef Michael Smith does advocate asking questions and that process is an important part of getting to know your food. After all, it’s like any other relationship. It’s all about communicating.
This time, the conversation is between Michael Smith and readers. But, ultimately, it’s about your relationship to what’s on your plates. Cookbooks like this one give you something to talk about.
In which I discuss some of the skinny volumes which have kept me company while on the move, while heavier volumes (like Steven Price’s By Gaslight and Ami McKay’s The Witches of New York) stayed home.
The Selected Poetry of Ryszard Kapuściński is the first in the International Translation Series from Biblioasis.
It’s translated from the Polish by Diana Kuprel and Marek Kusiba, affording English-speaking readers the opportunity to sample the verses of the renowned journalist.
“I cannot imagine that I would be able to write anything without first having read poetry. It is the highest form of language… I believe that a poet is someone who preserves language and, for that reason, stands at the gates of its inexhaustible wealth, its simultaneous beauty and threat.”
When I was younger, and between picture books and chapter books, one of the few sections in the stacks of the library which appealed to me were the poetry books (and the fairy tales), but somewhere along the line I swapped affection for intimidation.
In this interview with the poet (from 2005; he died in January 2007), his passion and commitment to the form shine.
“I value poets and poetry because poetry is something more than a transmitter of information or a well-told story; it’s a strange form which is comfortable in what is hidden right before our eyes, where, in a few stanzas, one can raise to a boil a powerful freight of experience and transgression at the same time.”
His love of the form and his belief that it is essential to the art of writing is rooted in the idea of rhythm.
“Prose must have music, and poetry is rhythm. When I start writing, I must locate the rhythm. It carries me along like a river.”
In fact, Kapuściński debuted as a writer in 1949, with a poem in a Polish literary weekly, even though his reputation is grounded in prose. The translators state, however, that the fact that he ” hould have practiced poetry, then, is not surprising”. (Isn’t that beautifully described, poetry as practice? I love that concept.)
As a witness to the Soviet occupation of Poland, he had first-hand experience of “extreme deprivation and terror”, “round-ups and executions”: his poetry confronts vitally important themes.
“You write about the man in the camp / I write about the camp in the man / for you barbed wire is outside / for me it rankles the insides of each of us / -You really think there’s a big difference? / These are just two sides of the same torment” (This is an excerpt from “Notebooks”.)
One might imagine Kapuściński as a sculptor of words, borrowing from “Sculptor from Ashanti”, in which the artist “hews and chisels away the first layer / uncovers nothing / ever more impatient / he bores”.
Or see him reflected in the work titled “The Poet Arnold Slucki On New World Street”: a man with “his pockets full of poems / He took out one after the other”. In which “the page traces the struggles / between creation / and annihilation” “I Wrote Stone”.
This is only the first volume in the series from Biblioasis; a copy of the second is now en route.
Alongside the poetry in my bookbag, I’ve also been reading Joan MacLeod’s play Toronto, Mississippi. It was a whimsical borrowing from the public library, inspired by the BookRiot Reading Read Harder reading challenge.
And, indeed, reading drama has always been a challenge for me, even though last year Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience was one of my favourite reading experiences. (And how awesome that it’s now a TV show on CBC.)
The main character of Toronto, Mississippi is Jhana, who is eighteen years old and has just begun her first workshop job. It’s unusual to have a developmentally disabled character at the heart of a story (rather than pushed to the periphery), and Jhana is a dominant presence throughout the play.
Her interactions with Bill, the poet who boards with Jhana and Maddie (her mother), bracket the drama; it opens and closes with their spirited and credible exchanges. Neither is entirely content with their current existences, each aware of uncomfortable limitations and pushing against the boundaries of their everyday lives.
Jhana’s mom plays a significant role, too, and she offers readers a context which Jhana alone could not. “People think certain words work magic – group home, workshop. They hear that and assume everything’s taken care of. Someone from York just did a research project on her. She’s [Jhana] moderately mentally handicapped – moderate. I like that, like the weather when we lived on the coast. Superbly dyslexic – very complicated version of it. Symptoms of autism or soft autism. That’s what they’re saying now. That’s the style. There is a style to everything. But then you’d know all about that.”
Jhana’s dad, King, is an Elvis impersonator, who also plays a significant role, although initially only for his absence. Jhana’s attachment to her dad is charming and innocent, casting another slant to his character. “I’m out of style, Maddie,” he laments.
Because Bill the poet (a sensitive soul, quiet and studious) is intimately involved in the day-to-day of the family life, in a way that Jhana’s father is not, there is considerable tension when King arrives for a visit.
Bill is keen to set himself apart as a scholar, a thinker, even though ultimately it’s his relationship with Jhana which is important in this story (which is ultimately connected to the relationship he wants to have with her mother, Maddie).
“Animal as victim, environment as victim, women as victim. That sort of thing. Despair’s more of a sideline. Not that they don’t overlap. I love women’s literature. And it’s very despairing, for the most part. This is a very exciting time for female writers in this country. I mean since the time I was born.”
Agency and power, self-determination and identity, connection and loneliness: these ideas imbue Joan MacLeod’s play. It premiered at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto (Ontario, not Mississippi) on October 6, 1987 but it’s in print from Talonbooks.
What have you been taking with you in your bookbag this week?