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

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?

BIP’s Snips: Abbreviated Bookishness

Penguin-Razorbill, 2012

Mariko Tamaki’s (You) Set Me On Fire (2012)

Read: At the hair salon, on the TTC, standing in line: everywhere. Allison’s voice is strong and compelling. I could pick up this story and immediately fall into step with her, even if I only had a very short time to read.

Bad stuff happens. It’s Allison’s freshman year. She’s in residence at Dylan Hall (aka Dyke Fall) at St. Joseph’s and not everybody is adjusting well to campus life. Mariko Tamaki hones in on the disorientation that accompanies life’s transitions and fleshes it out brilliantly.

Loved: The sensitivity with which Allison recalls her first love (a relationship which predates her St. Joseph experience) and the contrast with the emotions she experiences with Shar on campus (and two friendships in particular, but I’m not mentioning names).

Would have loved more if…there had been even more of the “supplementary” bits, like the posters from the dorm. What was included worked well, and combined with the liberal use of dialogue it created the sense of a lighter, funner read (despite some of the darker, realistic plot elements).

Serving suggestions: (Why?) A full bar, with bad cafeteria food and greasy side-dishes. More to drink. Lots of chips. Still more to drink. (Dorm life.)

Fave quote: “It seemed that Shar and I were always on the verge of a fight. It was like one of those bad smells you notice in a restaurant and try to ignore, but can’t.” (She manages to capture the drama of coming-of-age succinctly and realistically, with just the perfect amount of angst for the reader to feel it without drowning in it.)

In the Wake: Books which Suit RIP X

In the past, I’ve made large stacks of creepy reading with the RIP challenges in mind, but I  have a habit of stacking up many lovely possibilities but then choosing different books altogether later on.

Perhaps this is partly because books can surprise you and take you in unexpected directions. Many of the books in my recent reading have been preoccupied with loss, and the body count has been much higher than expected.

TwentyOneCardinals SaucierSometimes the most unsettling tales are those which are rather ordinary. Sure, there are still some scenes from Nick Cutter’s novels which I wish I could un-see, which are truly haunting in all the worst ways, but sometimes everyday stories about death really get under your skin too.

Although Jocelyne Saucier’s And the birds rained down was largely populated by octogenarians, it is a novel very much about life and living rather than death and dying.

So perhaps it is appropriate that Twenty-One Cardinals, purportedly about the 21 children in the Cardinal family, subverted my expectations as well. A loss overshadows all but the first chapter.

This 1999 novel was translated by Rhonda Mullins this year, in the wake of the success of And the birds rained down as a contender in this year’s CBC Canada Reads event.

Each segment is narrated by a different Cardinal and the novel opens in the voice of the youngest, who does not have the experience of his older siblings. He is the perfect companion for readers, who not only have to grapple with an excess of children on the page, but soon realize that there is a mystery hovering and are unsettled by the effort to assemble an understanding of past events.

Somewhere in the third segment, having reread the first two chapters, trying to swallow the feeling that perhaps I should begin to take notes and sketch a family tree, I relaxed into the story; it was clear that Jocelyne Saucier was keeping tight control of her narrative and I did not want to get distracted by the details. (Or, maybe I just wanted to know WHAT HAPPENED.)

This is not a murder mystery but one is preoccupied with the idea of who has died (at first) and also the idea of how it happened and (later) the responsibility attached to the event. The blur of siblings settles out, like debris following an explosion, and readers recognize that it is as much about perspective as voice, as much about the mystery of what makes us individuals as about what happens when an individual life is lost.

None of this is straightforward. Partly because there is a need to conceal the truth. “Here, words are as sharp as rock. I’ve grown unaccustomed to conversations that riddle you with pointless words.” Partly because time has passed. “I sometimes tell myself that we should have let the truth come out.” Partly because such things never are straightforward. “Truth is not where we think it is.”

Throughout Twenty-One Cardinals, there is an air of tension, which is just as unsettling if there had been a body laid out on the firs page.

“All it took was a moment; I had barely set foot in the lobby, and I felt the earth shift in my stomach. A sense of imminent, intimate danger went through me like a knife. The threat closed in as the minutes and the seconds ticked slowly by. What in the world am I doing in this bad dream?”

Kerri Sakamoto Electrical FieldSimilarly, Kerri Sakamoto’s The Electrical Field is a psychologically driven story which pulses with unanswered questions, also rooted in events long-past.

Like Jocelyne Saucier’s novel, it simmers with a strange energy, but in this novel the body is presented up front.

“A violent murder in a quiet neighbourood, our neighbourhood. A woman, my friend, murdered. Two young people missing, along with their father. I felt warmed, protected, in the tall shadow of this man in my living-room. He wasn’t some hakujin stranger in my home; he was a detective; Detective Rossi, who had grown up in the nightbourhood across from ours.”

The story is narrated by a neighbour woman, with the bulk of the narrative playing out in the 1970s, in a small Ontario community. Our narrator is isolated from the community and she is preoccupied by her relationship with a neighbour girl who has witnessed exchanges between the key players which leave her anxious and overtly questioning.

Here there is something simmering beneath which soon troubles readers, who recognize other aspects of the story as unsettling which the young girl does not witness in the same way. (With Saucier’s novel it is mining and here it is trash: so clever!)

“It was so like Yano to be obsessed in that way. Living in sight of the hill made his wounds fester. It was an ugly hill anyway, a mound of garbage that had filled in a green field. They said the garbage would make a natural fertilizer, but the grasses and trees they’d planted on it years ago were still patchy, ashen, and frail.”

As the story unfolds, and more people begin to seek answers to the lingering questions, it becomes clear that older crimes must also be investigated.

There is, for instance, the question of reparations and the divisions within the Japanese-Canadian community regarding the best way to address the injustice of internment during wartime. Years have passed, but the scars remain. Some are more visible than others.

Ruth Rendell Judgement in Stone“Didn’t I know how it felt to be left alone, deserted by the only one who knew you and loved you just the same? Pulled you close, took your secrets and gave some back, and then was gone? I would have done anything to make things the way they were before and to never be alone again.”

Both Jocelyne Saucier and Kerri Sakamoto present quietly disturbing novels, and picking up Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone seemed a contrast at first.

Certainly she does offer readers a bunch of bodies straight away and, in the first sentence, a murderess. But she, too, is fundamentally preoccupied by the same kinds of questions which haunt these other writers.

“A curious feature of Eunice Parchman’s character was that, alhough she did not stop at murder or blackmail, she never in her life stole anything or even borrowed anything without its owner’s consent.”

In both Twenty-One Cardinals and The Electrical Field, a dangerous act has devastating consequences, but the kinds of issues raised about responsibility and agency are different than those presented in Ruth Rendell’s murder mystery.

The root of the mysteries, however, is not far removed. Each book contemplates what motivates people to make small decisions with broad ramifications, the ways in which small acts of unkindness can balloon into cruelty, the codes of honour by which people live which directly contradict the codes of others.

Ultimately Ruth Rendell wants to understand what makes Eunice Parchment tick, which requires travelling back in time. Making sense of her relationships with her victims is of central importance but, ultimately, the set of questions which niggle are rooted more deeply.

“What was the root cause of Miss Parchman’s sullenness and depression?” Readers could pose the same questions about some of the siblings in Twenty-One Cardinals and the characters in The Electrical Field too.

Kelley Armstrong BrokenJust as A Judgement in Stone was a deliberate choice, so was Kelley Armstrong’s Broken, the sixth in her Women of the Otherworld series.

The first book in Kelley Armstrong’s first series remains my favourite, Bitten, partly because it introduces Elena’s character. It’s unfair of me, because I understand the value of an emsemble cast, but I have not warmed to the other characters in the series as I did to Elena.

When I realized that Broken would pick up with Elena’s character (she also features in the second novel and makes appearances elsewhere in the intervening novels) I was pleased and when I discovered that the pack was travelling to Toronto for this story, I was doubly gratified. ( The descriptions could be lifted from a tourist guide, but I still enjoyed tramping through Cabbagetown and the Royal Ontario Museum.)

The plot of this novel adds another macabre layer, involving an artifact said to date to Jack the Ripper’s time, which is connected to those crimes. From a practical perspective, this object also serves as a reason to unite other aspects of the supernatural community in the series (some known and some newly introduced, some lasting and others dusted) and this creates a broader canvas for the later volumes in the series to rest upon.

Broken, too, however, pulls on some very ordinary fears and sorrows which aligns it with some of the more literary novels in this group. Illness and weakness, the sense of no longer being able to take actions which were once habitual, personal identity changing too quickly for comfort: a rogue werewolf or an unethical sorcerer might be frightening, but a loved one being threatened and oozing pustules are scary too.

Steve Burrows Siege of BitternsAnother deliberate choice was Steve Burrows’ A Siege of Bitterns.

“Murder set everybody’s alarm bells jangling. And now, once again, it was to him, Domenic Jejeune, that the daunting task of silencing them had fallen.”

If you love birding? “This was the most concentrated area of dedicated birders in the country, possibly in the world.”

If you love word play? “It’s a business of ferrets.”

Or a strong sense of place? “Having come from the city, it never ceased to amaze Jejeune that you could be that alone in the world. He walked along the beach, feeling the satisfying softness as the sand gave way beneath his slow, deliberate strides. He ventured as close to the tide line as he dared, the white noise of the waves breaking on the shingles. A set of paw prints ran along the sand, with an unbroken line in between. A small dog, dragging a stick in its mouth. Always the detective, even if, these days, he wasn’t a very good one.”

Set in England, the idea of combining burding with murder mysteries makes more sense than you might guess.

“Find a spot, a wall, a corner, a nineteenth-century oak beam, and watch. Watch the interplay of people, their unguarded expressions, their gestures, their body language. But if Domenic Jejeune could readily acknowledge that he was, by trade, a watcher, he could not have explained what it was that he was looking for.”

Sometimes the first volumes of anticipated series are thin as writers scramble to introduce key players while eyeing their word count, making general allusions to characters and overarching unknowns which motivate and secure the detective on a path which only becomes clear in later books (and perhaps was never clear to begin with).

Steve Burrows does a fine job of setting his supporting cast in motion, in such a way that one recognizes that revisiting the first volume later will be rewarding without feeling unmoored on the first pass. And one has a clear sense of a backstory lurking behind the scenes, but trusts that all will be revealed once the urgent matter of the bittens has been resolved.

In ongoing RIP-reading, my rereading of the Courtney Crumrin books continues. But what’s next?

How about you? Have you read any of these? Any on your TBR? Are you reading for the RIP X event, hosted this year by The Estella Society, or simply indulging in seasonal reads independently?

 Artwork by Abigail Larson

Artwork by Abigail Larson

Goose Lane, over 60 and still counting

In the autumn of 2014, the press release celebrating Goose Lane’s 60th birthday landed in my mailbox.

It arrived when I was in a nostalgic mood, and I wandered around the house, randomly pulling their publications from the shelves.

Some I could distinctly remember purchasing and others I have picked up on a whim, trusting in the quality of the works they produce, in second-hand shops and at college booksales.

Pamela MordecaiCertifiablePamela Mordecai’s collection of poetry, Certifiable, is divided into three parts: Jus a Likl Lovin, My Sister Muse and Certifiable. Sometimes sharp, sometimes soft: her poems capture a variety of moods and subjects.

My favourite in the collection is “The Angle in the House”. I’ve tucked it inside my copy of the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s diary. Here’s a peek into the poem’s middle, but it’s most powerful in its entirety:

Well, to start with,
I feel this sister mean.
Whole world of somebody
pile up on top them one
another and she out
looking wider berth for
she alone? Nobody
tell her all o’ we cramp
up out here truggline for
abbreviated air?

Soraya Peerbaye’s Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names is reflective and evocative. Comparisons are sensorily rich, sometimes to tamarind and cardamon pods (an armonica, whales) and  other times to penguins from the sea and veins (watermelon seeds spat, filigree). Scenes are as diverse as Mauritius and Antartica, with many interior landscapes of memory too. My favourite is the final long poem, “Reading the Yamana-English Dictionary”, but it is hard to choose: this is a beautiful volume, a favourite amongst my collections.

I picked up Linda Johns’ Birds of a Feather: Tales of a Wild Bird Haven in a rush one afternoon, when I knew I was going to have to sit and wait awhile for my older daughter; it’s the perfect book for a slightly distracting environment (and now I forever associate it with that waiting room). Her drawings provoke the same warm feeling that I had as a girl staring at the GarthWilliams’ illustrations in my Little House books, though Linda Johns’ are more precise and detailed. Though it’s not my usual style to wander in a book, I found myself browsing these pieces, content to flip through and choose by whimsy. Often amusing, sometimes sad, they may be a few pages long to more than a dozen, most frequently somewhere in between.

Birds of a Feather Linda JohnsOne that stood out in my reading was a story about a young pigeon. “But this one, though well disposed towards the other birds, chose alway s to be with us, not them, She sat in our laps dozing, or preening, her eyes utterly contented. She lay across our open books, the better to command our attention, and sampled our foods. Bread and crackers became her favourites, though several times I watched her picking diced celery out of my salad and swallowing it with enthusiasm. [..] She loved to cuddle down under our hands and doze, and she welcomes visitors with the same confidence. One day, Mack lifted her up to his face, pursing his mouth to emit kissy sounds, while the pigeon, squealing and excited, nibbled gently all over his lips. I felt I shouldn’t be watching.”

Sheree Fitch’s In This House Are Many Women now sits next to my copies of Bronwen Wallace’s poetry collections, defying the sorta-alpha-order in that bookcase. It was on my shelves unread for years, but now I wish that I’d read it in the early ’90s when I was discovering Bronwen Wallace’s stories in People You Could Trust Your Life To.

These poems are accessible and as likely to make readers wince as laugh aloud but, most often, nod along in recognition. I cannot choose a favourite, but I did particularly enjoy meeting up with the women in the poems on multiple occasions as I turned the pages (which happens with Wallace’s stories too). That was a pure delight. And, as such, the group of poems titled “Lucy in Parts” was a pleasure indeed.

Having spent countless hours with my own dolls and those of my friends and family, I was immediately keen on Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. And I giggled to find talk of my Skipper Grows Up doll, which I received for Christmas when I was about twelve years old. When you twisted her arm, she grew up. Which is to say that her torso lengthened slightly and all those Judy-Blume-inspired-mutterings — “I must, I must, I must increase my bust” – paid off. (It was reversed just as easily, with another spin of her arm.)

“Growing Up Skipper slipped into prodcution while men managed the Barbie line. Earlier Barbie products had reflected a sort of sly, knowing, conspiracy-of-women approach to the muysteries of femininity. But Growing Up Skipper is a male interpretation of female coming-of-age, focusing not on the true marker of womanhood — menstruation — but on a tidy, superficial change.”

Sex, race, class: Forever Barbie takes on all the gritty details. There are scads of endnotes and quotes throughout the text, but the work reads comfortably: the research doesn’t get in the way for a second.

Kuitenbrouwer Nettle SpinnerThe first glimpse I had of Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s first novel (her second published work, following the collection Way Up) was the paperback from Goose Lane, which I borrowed from the Guelph Public Library. The number of times that I’ve returned library books unread is embarrassing to contemplate, but I had to find another copy of The Nettle Spinner after I finished All the Broken Things, one of my favourite books last year (published by Random House).

The press release about their birthday reminded me of many Goose Lane favourites, but I was caught in the swell of the season when their anniversary was announced, so the catalogue was tucked in with a stack of magazines, and I just discovered it there (along with many back issues of “The Walrus” from a previous year which I have recently enjoyed as well).

Later last year, however, even though I wasn’t talking about Goose Lane’s bithday, I was enjoying many of their publications (Ian Weir’s Will Starling, Margaret Sweatman’s Mr. Jones, Theresa Kishkan’s Mnemonic, Tamai Kobayashi’s Prairie Ostrich, Debra Komar’s The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, and Running the Whale’s Back, a collection of stories about faith and doubt edited by Andrew Atkinson and Mark Harris.

Just a few weeks ago, I read Mark Anthony Jarman’s Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, Peter Nowak’s Humans 3.0 and the anthology of love letters by Canadian poets, Where the Nights are Twice as Long, which was edited by David Eso and Jeanette Lynes.

And this summer the family has been leafing through their series of art books (Jack Chambers, Alex Colville, Emily Carr, and Iain Baxter&), enjoying them on the back porch, at leisure while the sparrows and squirrels peck and flit and beg and hoard.

Earlier this month, I finished reading Pauline Holdstock’s The Hunter and the Wild Girl, which is one of CBC’s 15 must-reads for this autumn. It is wondrous.

At first, I avoided all but the last paragraph of the cover, which states: “Holdstock spins an unforgettable tale that affirms the persistance of life, the power of human connection, and the fundamental urge to be free.”

Okay, I could not miss Charlotte Gill’s blurb on the front cover (and because I loved her Ladykiller, the blurb enticed me), but I aimed to finish before any spoilers could reach me.

Back in 2012, I realized that although I thought I was supporting independent publishers, the bulk of my reading was from mainstream presses. And, hey, they’ve got great stuff, too. This shouldn’t have to be an either-or situation. And every single reader will want to balance things in their own way.

Since then, I have read more books by small and indie publishers in each year, and as you can tell, there are still plenty of Goose Lane books in my stacks too.

Here’s to many more birthdays, for many more indie publishers, in the years to come!

Do you have an indie-press read in your current stack? Or one lined up?

Infinite Riches: Virago Modern Classics

And what will you find in this collection of short stories, edited by Lynne Knight and published under this title (and under The Secret Woman) in 1993?

Knight Infinite RichesThoughts and ideas about many things.

About marriage:

“If she had never, from the first, regarded her marriage as a full cancelling of her claims upon life, she had at least, for a number of years, accepted it as a provisional compensation – she had made it ‘do’.”
Edith Wharton “Souls Belated”

And, not:

“Well it is usually to be among that crowd that we pay large prices for small portions,” he said, much to his own surprised, for he had always considered himself a lone wolf, and his behavior had never belied this. He sensed this same quality in Mrs Perry, but he was moved by a strange desire to mingle with her among the flock.”
Jane Bowles “Plain Pleasures”

About being married-but-not:

“Endless years of waiting, of living the life of neither a wife nor a widow, pitied by her relatives, wept over by her mother and mother-in-law, hag-ridden by her misgivings that Arshad might die or marry again, wrung the spirit out of her.”
Attia Hosain “Time is Unredeemable”

About something-in-between:

“Two sophisticated women, keeping their poise on the rather skiddy surface of a serial husband, was how she saw the situation. For a while, she managed to keep conversation on a black-coffee level: foreign travel, television, the guitar. But you could see the poor thing’s heart really wasn’t in it; grieving for what could never again be hers, she just tagged along.”
Sylvia Townsend Warner “An Act of Reparation”

About wanting to be more-than-married:

“She also had a few scruples about Charlie, but they were not so insistent as the cicadas. After all, she thought, she had never had a holiday romance – not even a honeymoon with Charlie – and she felt that life owed her just one.”
Elizabeth Taylor “Flesh”

About being not-exactly-happily married:

“For years they had talked of nothing else but butter and eggs and the prices of things, and now they had as much to say to each other as people who meet after a long separation.”
Willa Cather “The Sentimentality of William Tavener”

About being unhappily married:
“Yeah, when me mates get to twenty or twenty-one, they see the girls they mucked around with getting married and they think, ‘If I don’t hurry up all the best ones will be gone.’ So they get married and then they’re bloody miserable…”
Nell Dunn “Out With the Girls”

And beyond-unhappily married:

“All men begin by loving a woman for what she isn’t and end by perceiving what she is. In the beginning they caress the skin with kisses, and in the end they puncture with the pistol.”
Djuna Barnes “The Jest of Jests”

And isn’t that a grand note on which to end this sampling?

Have you read this collection, or have you enjoyed some of the authors’ works in other forms?

Contents: Sylvia Townsend Warner “An Act of Reparation”; Penelope Gilliatt “Living on the Box”; Jane Bowles “Plain Pleasures”; Tillie Olsen “I Stand Here Ironing”; Elizabeth Taylor “Flesh”; Willa Cather “The Sentimentality of William Tavener”; Rosamond Lehmann’s “A Dream of Winter”; Djuna Barnes “The Jest of Jests”; Antonia White “The House of Clouds”; Nell Dunn “Out With the Girls”; Edith Wharton “Souls Belated”; Jessie Kesson “Until Such Times”; Leonora Carrington “As They Rode Along the Edge”; Attia Hosain “Time is Unredeemable”; Grace Paley “Seen from Paradise”; Rebecca West “The Salt of the Earth”

A Voice of One’s Own: Jon Chan Simpson and Marion Milner

Jon Chan Simpson invites readers into a world of “abductions, gunshots, commando dads, street-poet moms”, a world populated by gangs and kidnapping conspiracies.

Chinkstar Jon Chan Simpson“‘This thing – chinksta.’ She stumbled over the word, at first but pulled herself through it. ‘You’re worried this is all you got,’ she said. ‘This is all you got, and you’re not even sure it’s yours.'”

Chinkstar doesn’t offer readers a lot to hang onto: there is no security here, not for narrators and not for readers.

When a brother disappears, the foundations are that much shakier.

And not just any brother, but he was “King Kwong a.k.a, the Chink King a.k.a. Emperor Easty a.k.a. the Celestial Warrior a.k.a. Smash Hands a.k.a. Yellow Orang a.k.a. Swag Sapien a.k.a. Cloud Monkey a.k.a. the Iperial Monstar a.k.a. MC the Ape a.k.a. the Great Ape Himself, mashin muthafuckas like they’s made outta play-doh, stompin any haters, roaches running through lego”.

This is an upset, to say the least. But ironically, as prominent as he was as a character, his fame also increases the distance that readers experience, and the chaos which is left behind, in the wake of his absence, feels like a dislocation. This is not sentimental, it is surreal.

“In my world, blood stayed on the inside of people, but my world was changing, and as I caught myself in the doorframe I wondered if the whole thing had disappeared with Kwong.”

The novel is set in Red Deer,  “a crapfest – box stores, obesity, volunteerism out of control”, “crowded parkades and abandoned sidewalks and blocks of yellow grass, all the visual stank…plus the real sourness from the dairy plant downtown”. Here, again, readers feel isolated and remote.

What sets Chinkstar apart is the stylized presentation of a performer who is looking for an audience, a young man who is seeking a place, a connection, something to call his own.

He is on stage, and the performance is unsettling, but his voice is commanding. “Normal was out the window.”

Marion Milner Life of Ones OwnIn A Life of One’s Own, Marion Milner deliberately tosses her ideas about herself out the window.

The process she undertakes unfolded decades ago, but the motivation remains recognizable. Published in 1935 and reprinted by Virago Press, in 1986, her quest will resonate with contemporary readers.

“But I had found that it was not so easy to know just what one’s self was. It was far easier to want what other people seemed to want and then imagine that the choice was one’s own.”

What does Marion Milner want? What does she find satisfying? Often is it not what she expects, not what she pursues. “If just looking could be so satisfying, why was I always striving to have things or to get things done.”

This is a central element of her exploration and over time she recognizes its importance. “The act of looking was somehow a force in itself which changed my whole being.”

She is preoccupied with observing patterns and she experiments with alternate methods and approaches. “I did learn very soon how to know the signs that would tell me when I was evading an unadmitted thought –worry, depression, headache, feeling of rush and over-busyness – but it took me much longer to learn ways of finding the thought that was causing the trouble.”

This is not riveting reading for a wide audience, but for a reflective reader, partiuclarly one who is similarly preoccupied by analytical thought and interested in psychology, Marion Milner’s ruminations are of interest. And because she is also preoccupied by the question of self-expression, the care taken to clearly express her thought-process and responses is notable, as is her willingness to accept contradictions and the need for ongoing investigation.

“I was as sure as that I was alive, that happiness not only needs no justification, but that it is also the only final test of whether what I am doing is right for me. Only of course happiness is not the same as pleasure, it includes the pain of losing as well as the pleasure of finding.”

Sometimes two books collide in one’s bedside table, but in this case I expected contrast and discovered that these two disparate books were both preoccupied with questions of identity.

One work of fiction and one of non-fiction, both works consider the ways in which one questions and tests the true nature of one’s own self.

Blanche Howard’s The Ice Maiden (2015)

Please welcome back ReaderWoman, who has bookchatted here before, as part of the House of Anansi 45 reading celebration of indie presses and bookshops. (You can search for her posts using the tag GuestPost.)

She has been reading (among other good things, which you can discover here) Blanche Howard’s posthumously published The Ice Maiden (available in e-copy via Bev Editions).

Take it away, ReaderWoman!

Blanche Howard Ice Maiden

Bev Editions, 2015

Imagine travelling halfway around the globe and meeting up with a person having the same name as the protagonist in a book you wrote and are there to publicize. That is the situation Connie Brewster faces when she goes to England to attend a literary awards gala in London’s Guildhall.

The first chapter sent me to my bookshelves to eagerly pull out A Memoir of Friendship: The Letters Between Carol Shields and Blanche Howard. A green post-it flag took me to a page marked a few years back where Blanche writes:

“I’ve read Jack Hodgins’ Resurrection of Joseph Bourne, and can see why it won the GG’s award…it is brilliantly conceived, the characters are strong…What else -oh yes, Doris Lessing’s second sci-fi book, a re-read of Henry James’ The Ambassadors for my reading club, and now we’re looking at Ibsen’s A Doll’s House… You asked if I’d read any Proust…”

Howard’s latest is a cornucopia of titles and names and resources representing alternate realities.

Midway through The Ice Maiden, Connie has a discussion with her friend Hermione in which Hermione says:

“In this day and age films provide us with an alternate reality, don’t you agree? Not so much reality as a different canvass in which to frame reality.”

This theme of alternate realities and reality versus fiction will appear several times in the book and is always  thought-provoking given the particular situation .

The writing process itself is a major undercurrent in the book. In the first chapter Connie is reminded by her own behaviour of some writerly advice she was given long ago: NEVER TRASH YOUR OWN WORK. The writing process and the personal connection to that process is deftly handled by Howard through the  insertion of appropriate sections from Connie’s published book into this book by Blanche Howard which we are reading.

Howard NovelsConnie describes,, for instance, a research adventure/experiment she and her agent engaged in to learn about wheelchairs and  combines it with a passage from The Ice Maiden which begins: Every day Reginald’s seventeen-year old adopted son Angus comes home from school and takes him for a walk outdoors in his wheelchair. This episode is tied to an episode in Connie’s own life in which she is hospitalized and her agent assists her in getting from one ward to another to see her son. In this episode there is also another reference to the “alternate realities” theme: “But now they were living in the realm of reality rather than fiction and the stakes were much higher.”

This intricate weaving of themes and the movement between the two novels and life is not always apparent on the first reading (and not seeing it does not detract from the reading at all) but makes itself clearer in a second reading and feels like a series of epiphanies or firecracker showers in the brain.

Early in the book, Connie makes  an observation about publicity which reveals her ambivalence about that part of a writing career: “This need to transform oneself into someone others can get a handle on was, she supposed, the downside of fame.”

It is because of her writing career that Connie and her family are in England. It is partly because  of a mention in her book of the Alberta tar sands project but also because Graham works for oil interests that two things happen to Connie, one known and exhilarating and one unknown and life-altering.

Relationships are the most interesting aspect of this novel for me and there are a plethora of them to consider as you might expect: Connie and her husband Graham (8 years older); Connie and Graham and their adult children Percy (Persephone) and Eliot (named after T.S.); Connie and her mother Cora; Connie and her agent Lucille Goodwin;Graham and Lucille; Graham and Cora; Graham and Hermione Fancourt (a biographer and an environmentalist) who introduces herself as “born a muggle [but] Hogwarts changed that.”; Connie and Peter Vancleigh (also a writer and a “Sir” and a homosexual); Connie and Angus. J. Watson (a person with the same name as the protagonist of Connie’s book).

Howard Shields LettersAll of these relationships are interesting and fraught with tension either for those inside the relationship or for those close to the persons or both!

From the beginning, when Graham forgets to include Lucille in Connie’s thank you speech at an award ceremony, to the end when he withholds a royalty cheque left by Lucille for Connie, we sense Connie’s unrest. When Graham thinks Hermione desires him and finds out that she wants to discuss Jevons Paradox and relate it to his employment by and support of Big Oil, we feel relieved. This is  another seamless connection with the environmental topics included in  both Connie’s novel and Howard’s novel.  Hermione has asthma and is particularly interested in deteriorating air quality!

There are two minor threads in the novel which are of more than passing interest. The environmental issue is connected with Graham as indicated above. The second interesting minor thread is that of native heritage and identity which is confined to Connie’s novel but a connection can be drawn with Connie’s personal struggle to possess her own self.

This last book by Blanche Howard is a reader’s feast, so rich in so many ways.

There are allusions galore: artistic, geographic, historical, literary, mythical, and political. Beginning with Persephone and Cora as characters and a gathering at London’s Guildhall then continuing with writers such as Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Patrick White, A.S. Byatt and Charles  Dickens.

The list goes on to include T. S. Eliot, Jackson Pollock, William James, Colm Toibin, Pat Barker, Marion Engel, John D. Rockefeller, Dylan Thomas, Ian McEwan, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and the Mona Lisa!

These references alone provide readers great pleasure by acting as a wonderful reminder of pages and people to revisit.

A rich posthumous gift which will be read again many times by this reader.Dropped Threads Howard

Have you read Blanche Howard’s writing previously?

Does this sound like a novel that belongs on your TBR?

Weekend ReLit Sampler: On a Bookish Plate

The ReLit Awards, founded by Kenneth J. Harvey, are considered Canada’s “pre-eminent literary prize recognizing independent presses” (taken from the prize’s website, where you will also find longlists and shortlists: lots of good reading). 

Serving today, a plateful of the 2013 Short Fiction winner (Ian Rogers’ Every House Is Haunted) with side-servings of Alex Leslie’s stories and Ronna Bloom’s  poems in Cloudy with a Fire in the Basement and Tracie’s Revenge by Wade Bell.

The hand reaching to straighten the sampler on the cover of Every House Is Haunted isn’t blood-covered or wizened. And the sampler, despite its ominous declaration is traditional and nicely framed.

Every House HauntedBut it is soiled slightly, off-kilter, and the wall behind it is grimy and unkempt. There is something slightly bent, and then there is the talk of haunting of course.

Appearances matter in these stories, whether speaking of their packaging of their contents. For just as long as it takes to unearth the reality beneath.

(Though from a marketing perspective, Every House is Haunted is consistently well-presented. Each section of stories is named for a portion of a house – The Vestibule, The Library, The Attic, The Den, and The Cellar – and introduced with a double-page spread of an atmospheric image which suits the setting, creating a sense of momentum even without a section for staircases.)

And that is where a large part of the enjoyment of these stories rests, in the delightful upset of readers’ expectations.

“There are haunted places in the world. Dark places. Shunned places. Forgotten places. All existing in reality and every bit as tangible and accessible as the house next door. Sometimes it is the house next door.” (From “Cabin D”)

For the scenes are often not only recognizable but familiar. A windowless facade that might be just a bar, but it’s not the kind of bar you frequent. A roll-top desk in a university office, but it’s in the Demonology Department. Telling stories around the campfire, except the listeners are also characters in a horror story that is about to unfold.

“Consciousness retuned in what Joe thought was a very cinematic fade-in of details. First everything was blurry and wavering, like the dissolve before a flashback. Then they gradually became clearer, details filling in, shaped taking on sharper, more definite forms, until he got a complete picture of his surroundings.
He was in a movie theatre.
Of a sort.”
(From “Deleted Scenes”)

One feature of Ian Rogers’ style which adds to credibility and a sense of familiarity is the use of dialogue and swiftly executed exposition. The narrative is punctuated with bursts of conversation, stories broken into short scenes and vivid episodes, and paragraphs fragmented into purposeful phrases. There is a sense of movement throughout the prose. (That is at work in the passage quoted above as well.)

“‘So I got the job?’ Wendy said.
‘Your qualifications check out, and you said you like books. That’s enough for now.”
This is completely absurd, Wendy thought. But when Vanners reached across the table and offered his hand, she shook it. It was a job, after all. And if she didn’t like it, she could always quite. Right?”

The characters do not always behave in a likeable manner, but they are sketched in such a way that readers are willing to invest in short order (often through the characters’ relationships to others, drawing on human universals). Even the characters which are not human. (Like I said, it’s all very normal. Until it isn’t.)

In the Acknowledgements, Ian Rogers explains that these stories span the time from his first sale (“The Tattletail”) to his most recently sold (“Aces”), representing his “evolution as a writer” across six years of storytelling. The stories vary substantially, in length and depth, in voice and style, but the collection is consistently entertaining.

Cloudy Fire Basement BloomRonna Bloom’s Cloudy with a Fire in the Basement reminds me of the first time I read Jan Zwicky’s Songs to Relinquish the Earth.

Part of that is likely to do with the similarly earthy feel of their covers, which look as though they’d feel ridged or bumpy if you were to run a fingertip across their surfaces.

But part of it, too, is that I felt the same warring sense of want-to-gobble and must-savour as I turned the pages.

From the first poem’s playful tone in which the freakish collide with the mundane (is it a real circus with elephants, or are those strap-hangers at the end of a busy workday), I was hooked.

There was a discussion online recently amongst readers who remembered having kept notebooks of favourite lines and verses and poems when they were younger.

By the time I got to “Swim”, I wanted to start one of those notebooks again.

(That’s the second poem, which begins like this:

“The threads of you
drift away
like ink secreted and dissolving

I can’t hold them
and whatever octopus sent out this ink
is floating away too….”)

But by the time I got to “You Write the Poem”, I knew it would be too much writing.

(It would be like the first Adrienne Rich collection, the first Denise Levertov collection, the first Marge Piercy collection, that I borrowed from the library, from which I typed out so many poems that the pages stacked up like a novella.)

And yet I wanted to make note of stanzas like this:

“You take your shoes and socks off
in the middle of the painting.
You have no idea.
You disrobe like a hardboiledegg,

Ronna Bloom writes about her neighbourhood cafe and about glimpses of the sacred in the everyday, about watching television and isolated moments of being.

“The Coast is a Road” is one of the longer stories in Alex Leslie‘s collection, People Who Disappear.

Not that it takes more a few pages for readers to understand the situation.

People Who Disappear Alex Leslie

Not that I will be able to forget the final scene of the story. Not for months, perhaps not years. Perhaps not ever.

This took me by surprise (and I do like to be surprised by stories) because the bulk of the work immerses readers in a sense of the fleeting.

And because readers are on the look-out for disappearing acts, this feels appropriate.

It is often beautifully expressed, so even though uncomfortable and uneasy, with this loose feeling, a sense of being somewhat unhinged, the story affords rooom for readers to admire the journey.

“Trees flicker by like a film reel in grey and green, and the highway sweeps under the wheels until it is a faint line of colour like no other colour, a faint vein on the underside of the sky’s skin, and we drive farther and farther away.”

(Isn’t that lovely? Not only the film reel, which also incorporates an element of distance but simultaneously includes readers, for even this character feels like an observer of the landscape through which the car moves. But also the twinned sense of motion and confinement, with the highway sweeping and the vein beneath the skin – rather than speaking of the blood which must be pulsing or flowing or at least, pooling within.)

Despite the focus on the transitory, however, there is a strong sense of place in the story, and the paradoxical intimacy of discovering and treasuring the familiar in the unfamiliar.

“It rains through the first three days we spend driving the road between Tofino And Ucluelet, drinking coffee thick as paint in cafes warm as nests, walking in and out of shops to finger sea-glass necklaces and dry our hair, wondering where all the people went and when we’ll see some whales, as if they will swim onto the sidewalk in front of us out of the dark blue air.”

The acknowledgement of the impossible lurks beneath the surface of the story, this idea of whales on sidewalks, even as certain truths are acknowledged, painfully.

“I feel something inside me tear slowly away from itself. You are nothing I can keep.”

Though perhaps not in the ways readers will expect, the story does end with a disappearing act. One which I would like to forget.

“But you need to keep moving,  need the long pulls of stories, the possibility of a landscape of immediate things.”

There is a delicacy to the emotional intensity of this story, a deftness to exploration of that which lurks on the underside. It makes me want to read more about people who disappear.

Tracie's Revenge Wade BellThe title story in Tracie’s Revenge and Other Stories by Wade Bell is immediately engaging. “She was pinch-mouthed, somewhat paranoid and – or, at least, as she’d often been told – completely inconsiderate of anyone’s feelings except, at times, those of her son, aged four.”

The protagonist has no intentions of cozying up to the reader; she is simply ‘she’, not even ‘Tracie’ for several pages.

She doesn’t answer the telephone and she tosses the cat off the porch.

If indeed she does sometimes consider her son’s feelings, she doesn’t intervene when she hears the boy banging his head outside against the metal frame of the screen door.

But she does acknowledge that she should take him to see a doctor, about the head-banging and about his limited vocabulary and near-mutism.

It’s clear to the reader that Tracie’s life is complicated: there are creditors calling, claiming that Gene hasn’t made the required payments, and then a man shows up at the house with a rifle.

The complications are not itemized for the reader; they are on display, all their sharp edges and gashes.

The dialogue is credible, and as the story wraps up, the reader is left with a curious sense of motion without resolution.

It is strangely satisfying despite the all-too-human contradictions and unanswered questions which linger in the reader’s mind.

I’m looking forward to this year’s longlists: how about you? What indie press stories have you been reading? Do you look to the ReLit Award lists for recommendations?