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

Emerging and Established: The Journey Prize Stories 26 and Margaret Atwood

Just as the jury enjoyed reading the stories submitted for tthe 2014 Journey Prize, other readers can also value the “exposure to a new generation of writers who are extending the tradition of Canadian short fiction well into the twenty-first century”.

Journey Prize 26

McClelland & Stewart, 2014.

Edited by Steven W. Beattie, Craig Davidson and Saleema Nawaz, The Journey Prize Stories 26 presents tremendous variety in these emerging storytellers’ styles and themes, but the stories are consistently well-crafted and solidly constructed.

(Those who follow the prize collections annually may find less of a focus on imagistic writing and fewer experimental stories than were included in last year’s collection, #25, which was edited by Miranda Hill, Mark Medley and Russell Wangersky.)

Geographically, settings in this year’s collection include Thailand, Jerusalem, Burrard Inlet, Montreal, North Vancouver, St. John’s, Toronto (from the intersection of Queen and Bathurst to the restaurant Grapefruit Moon), and the Internet.

The narrative voices cover the gamut, from first-person to third-person omnisicent, through rotating POVs and even an excerpt from an instruction manual (which the jurors describe as “[p]lotless and characterless…[requiring] readers to radically reconsider their concept of what qualifies as a fully formed story”, also calling Julie Roorda’s story “tightly calibrated” and “gut-bustingly funny”).

Conflicts abound, between union and scab workers (“Sealskin”), partners in relationships (“Juvenile”, “High Beams” and “Remainders”), teacher and pupil (“Piano Boy”), pet and caretaker (“Frog”), shooter and shootee (“Old Man Marchuk”) siblings (“Four Mintues” and “Probabilities”), daughters (“Wolves, Cigarettes and Gum” and “#MaggieVandermeer”) or sons (“Monsoon Season”) and mothers, and old *cough* friends (“Downturn”).

Memorable Quotes:

“He turned off his car but did not get out and instead sat listening to the engine, which tinked intermittently like slow-cracking glass.” (Tyler Keevil’s “Sealskin”)

“Pearl turns herself into a human shield, using the hem of her untucked blouse as a cork to stop the blood coming out of Marxy’s nose. Marxy whimpers, curling into a nautilus shell.” (Andrew MacDonald’s “Four Minutes”)

“Chinook wind blew warm across the prairie, slowly spun a crooked weathervane that had been long ago fixed atop the high front gable of the house.” (Kevin Hardcastle’s “Old Man Marchuk”)

“I watch the waves hitting the shore below the cliffs, let the wind wash away the noise of downtown St. John’s and the strain of the last few weeks. I lose myself in the pattern of large and small waves, thinking about Eddy and Wayne, about Jeff twenty years ago, and then I hear him speak for the first time since we parked the car.” (Rosaria Campbell’s “Probabilities”)

“Two nights before the date printed in silver italic on her wedding invitations, Sylvie’s old friend Erik from high school called, the guy she’d ridden with through all those dust-hung after-darks on country gravel grids in his mom’s long Meteor, boarlike in the night.” (Leona Theis’ “High Beams”)

“Her mother picks through the fries like she’s trying to find a four-leaf clover in a field of corn. She finally decides on one and bites down delicately on one end.” (Amy Jones’ “Wolves, Cigarettes, Gum”)

In the final story, Annalise sticks her earbuds back in her ears: “That’s stupid,’ she says, eyes down even as the cop cars race through the intersection in front of us, cherries flashing. ‘Everyone has a hole in them.’”

That may be true, but there is no hole in this year’s Journey Prize collection: short stories laudable and enjoyable throughout.

Contents: Lori McNulty “Monsoon Season”, Shana Myara “Remainders”, Nancy Jo Cullen “Hashtag Maggie Vandermeer”, M.A. Fox “Piano Boy”, Jeremy Lanaway “Downturn”, Julie Roorda “How to Tell if Your Frog is Dead”, Tyler Keevil “Sealskin”, Andrew MacDonald “Four Minutes”, Kevin Hardcastle “Old Man Marchuk”, Clea Young “Juvenile”, Rosaria Campbell “Probabilities”, Leona Theis “High Beams”, Amy Jones “Wolves, Cigarettes, Gum”

McClelland & Stewart, 2014

McClelland & Stewart, 2014

Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress (2014) has received a lot of attention for its title story, conceived of while she was travelling on a cruise ship, which is as useful as Julie Roorda’s treatise on an African clawed frog, but not targeting frog owners rather those seeking to execute the perfect murder while at sea.

With so many collections to her credit (seven others, beginning with 1977’s Dancing Girls, through 2006’s Moral Disorder), readers will expect top-notch work and Stone Mattress delivers. (I have six pages of notes from a single reading of this collection in December, a busy time of year which one might suggest wasn’t the best time to maximize note-taking.)

One element of this collection which is particularly remarkable is the delicate pleating of theme and interconnected stories and characters.

“Things have a way of coming full circle: a bad habit, to his mind.” (“Revenant”)

As with Rosemary Nixon’s Are You Ready To Be Lucky? and the trio of tales in Alice Munro’s Runaway, there are ties between tales in Stone Mattress. (This always appeals to me but, in this case, because my favourite story is one of cycle of related tales, “Alphinland”, I was particularly pleased.)

“There isn’t any past in Alphinland. There isn’t any time.”

Though drawn from “Dark Lady”, the idea of playing with time plays a role in more than one story as well, which adds to the sense of a tightly curated collection. Consider in “Lusus Naturae”, “no future…only a present” which changed with the moon. Or, in “Stone Mattress”, there is “…an anger already fading into the distance of used-up time”.

In many stories there is, as described in one tale, an atmosphere of “longing, wistfuness, and muted regret”.  But this is presented in a variety of guises. Perhaps “a burp from the past” . And one might want to keep in mind that “discarded wives stick like burrs”.

There is often, too, a sense of disorientation, of viewing the everday through a skewed lens. As with “an upside-down saint” or “the would-have-been wife”. Things are out-of-joint, and even a simple statemnt can have a double meaning whic conjures up a contradictory emotion in readers.

“She smiles again and puts her hand on top of his; he can feel the bones inside her fingers.” (“The Dead Hand Loves You”)

Settings vary, from public to private. The cast might be a solitary figure or an ensemble. Geographically, a scene might be as specific as the Queen Mum cafe on Queen Street West in Toronto or as general (and immediately conjured, in memory) as a noodle-and-tuna-scented kitchen.

But what is predictable in a Margaret Atwood collection is sophisticated crafting and a smattering of sass: Stone Mattress is my favourite of her collections (but it’s true that I say that upon finishing any given one of them).

Favourite Quotes:

“…that turgid puddle of frog spawn…” [of writing which does not appeal to the speaker]

‘…vocation guaranteed to take the bloom off ornamental adjectives…” [of advertising]

“Who knows? Out of desperation’ Out from under the bed. Out of his childhood nightmares.” [of the idea for a novel]

“When it came to love, wasn’t believing the same as the real thing?” (“Stone Mattress”)

“On a cruise, word of mouth spreads like the flu.” (“Stone Mattress”)

Contents: Alphinland, Revenant, Dark Lady, Lusus Naturae, The Freeze-Dried Groom, I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth, The Dead Hand Loves You, Stone Mattress, Torching the Dusties

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Molly Peacock’s Alphabetique (2014)

Molly Peacock’s Paradise, Piece by Piece (1998) reconstructs the poet’s life using fragments of memory and experience, in orderly lines of text. The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (2010) is a biography, sumptuously illustrated. Both books consider women’s work and creativity (among other things).

McClelland & Stewart, 2014

McClelland & Stewart, 2014

In many ways, Alphabetique feels like a union of these earlier works. It takes as its subject, the biography of the alphabet, but not just their familiar outward forms but their intimate under-sides, strikingly illustrated with a series of collages by Kara Kosaka.

Reaching beyond the author’s oeuvre, there are glimpses of Dr. Suess in the vein of “Big I, Little I, what begins with I?”

Here is part of Molly Peacock’s answer in Alphabetique:

“It was independence itself she helped her patients aim for, though Dr. I expressed this indirectly. She vowed to ease the irrational, inspire the irritable, illumine the ill, and lead them all into images of themselves, pictures they could draw internally. Dr. I thought all her patients were intrepid, even the timid ones. She understood that ichors of being flowed up and down the cores of every last one of them.”

These short narratives are playful (perhaps best enjoyed in short bursts of reading, so as they don’t become a blur of cleverness) but also acute observations of behaviour.

“U loved being useful. He was a guy who could clean an eavestrough of a Saturday morning and plough through handyman chores faster than a vacuum cleaner. He was neat, too. Always swept up the sawdust from the drill, wiped up the gunk from the old plumbing he coaxed into another year, and kept his beautiful wooden worktable oiled. The table was the pièce de résistance of his workshop off the garage, a utopia of neatly racked hardware and tools. It stood in the center, huge and ready as a canvas for the next project.”

These are not portraits conceived of in isolation, in some make-believe world that might be indexed in The Dictionary of Imagined Places. These letters inhabit a world that readers will immediately recognize and, possibly, relate to their own personal experiences.

“…her new heroines would be exceedingly vigorous and mature despite pesky ailments like heart trouble. She chose two. One came from the afterlife: Diana Vreeland (who mounted a dozen costume exhibits extraordinaires before her heart failed at eighty-six). Among the still living, she took as a heroine the spirited Diana Athill, celebrated editor and memoirist, keeping up her elucidating correspondence at ninety-six.”

(Not surprising to find contemplation of the creative life for female artists, feminism and the identification of heroines molding independent and spirited existences, when so much of Molly Peacock’s writing considers these themes.)

“Because both Diana A. and Diana V. advised the wearing of makeup in advanced age, X decided to make a short excursion of her own to an exclusive makeup counter, one of those exorbitant places that, to her, was both exhilarating and exhausting.”

Repetition and rhythm, delicacy and deliberation: Alphabetique can tickle and toy with readers’ expectations of prose, and that is largely because the work began as lyric rather than narrative. The author’s note explains the work’s transformation over time.

“The first notes of the tales began as poems. Then they transformed into stories, as if from space to time, with the radiant guidance of editor Lara Hinchberger. When the tales became formed in their imagery, CS Richardson, art director and author of the inspired abecedarian novel, The End of the Alphabet, stepped in with a brilliant layout. He then encouraged the visual poems of Kara Kosaka….”

But although the whimsical flavour lingers, strength lies at the heart of this work, inside its central core.

“T wasn’t a journalist, or a historian, or a meteorologist—she just recorded what happened in her diary. It was a self-portrait, really. Locked inside her central core. They’d have to chop her down to get at it.

Even if you’ve never wondered what the letter T’s diary might contain, Alphabetique might make you wonder why you’ve never wondered about wondering it before.

Mireille Silcoff’s Chez L’Arabe (2014)

Weeks after reading these stories, a glance at the table of contents brings back their characters and arcs in a moment. (With “Flower Watching” and “Eskimos” I also required the aid of the characters’ names I’d noted.”)

These stories stood out, not only as independent narratives but, simultaneously, for the connections between them; as with Bronwen Wallace and Margaret Atwood collections, not all tales intertwine, only some and not necessarily all in a row, as Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence have done).

AN03 Chez l'arabe Selected.indd

House of Anansi, 2014

The first story, also the title story, immediately grips the reader. Although a story rooted in stillness, there are jolts and jerks of motion which force the reader to sit upright.

This is highly appropriate given that the narrator’s existence is preoccupied with stillness. She has chronic health issues, because her spinal fluid is leaking and her brain has no suspension. A simple car ride holds the potential for excruciating pain, as the vehicle’s driver negotiates the bumps in the road.

The narrator is navigating with care and caution as well. Her life has been transformed by illness, and there is motion even in the stillness, as her body works to adapt and, hopefully, heal.

But there are bursts of intrusion with as she emerges tentatively into the outside world, and these force readers to readjust their expectations. For as small as the narrator’s world is currently, her existence is not solely defined by her illness.

This exchange between her and her mother reveals some of the themes which resurface elsewhere in the collection.

“‘You know they have some Israeli food there – labneh and zatar.’ [The mother says.]
‘It’s Persian food.’
Labneh is Israeli food.’
‘No, it’s Middle Eastern food. Israelis eat it because their country is in the Middle East.’
‘I grew up eating labneh.’
‘Yes, and if the Jewish state had set up shop in Sweden, you’d have grown up eating lingonberries.’”

Questions of identity, voice and belonging,relationships between daughters and mothers (and one notable step-mother), the meaning of home, the intricacy of treaties (personal and political agreements), gaps between understanding, and food: these make multiple appearances in different stories, so those readers who enjoy a tightly curated collection will likely find Chez L’Arabe quite satisfying.

Mireille Silcoff’s use of figurative language is deliberate and spare. The sky might be the colour of overlooked veal. Trouble might slide over someone like water over a rock. The leaves of stippled white birches might shimmer. But more often a story simply considers the hot and dry places in America or the contents of a shop carefully itemized. The style is matter-of-fact, measured and, on occasion, distanced. Readers are not invited to inhabit the narratives completely, but they are made comfortable in their seats on the margins.

Readers who have enjoyed the works of Ayelet Tsabari, Sarah Selecky, Clark Blaise and  Saleema Nawaz, will appreciate Mireille Silcofff’s debut collection.

Some favourite quotes:

That night she let Anne get under the covers with the book from the kitchen. In bed, Anne didn’t snuggle it like a teddy but arranged it open on her chest, as if her heart could absorb its pages. ‘I like it like this,’ Anne said as her stepmother turned out the bedside lamp. The book’s spine peaked over Anne’s small rib cage like the top of a little house. As long as it was there, Anne felt, there was nothing to be afraid of. (“Davina”)

If I had suffered an ever-widening gulf between me and my best destiny, I could now feel the gap coming together, almost by magnetic force. There are no meaningless coincidences, I thought. I had zero guilt about my pilfering. I was sure that everything that was happening – that had happened – was part of a pattern, that something was happening through me, and happening for a reason, and it felt enveloping enough to contain the whole Ojai night – the stars under my skin, the moon glowing from inside my rib cage. (“Appalachian Spring”)

“Even though the author was in North America doing readings and giving interviews, it felt almost cosmically coincidental that his voice would be in my kitchen that Sunday, as if the preoccupations of / my house and that of th world outside were finally on the same page.” (“Shalom Israel!”)

“Betrayal was a point of conversion, a crux, where the victim careens to clarity. That evening, Elsa went to sleep still a dupe. The following morning, she woke up knowing it.” (“Complimentarity”)

And, even though I recalled the final two stories only foggily, when I glanced at the TOC, the following passages brought the characters back sharply.

“I had a book that had built itself up in my mind as being some kind of portal. But now I’d spend mornings raking through the first drafts of first chapters, looking for a live coal, and every paragraph trailed into ash.” (“Flower Watching”)

“There are people who just add zero to the world, so fully impermeable are they in their skin, that barely anything goes in or out.” (“Eskimos”)

Contents: Chez l’arabe, Davina, Appalachian Spring, Champ de Mars, Shalom Israel!, Complimentarity, Flower Watching, Eskimos

K.D. Miller’s All Saints (2014)

My grandmother attended All Saints Church. Although I was not a devout child, I have many happy memories surrounding that small brick building: bazaars and bake sales, pancake suppers and holiday lunches.

Biblioasis, 2014

Biblioasis, 2014

None of my happy memories reside in the pews or at the altar, however; they are attached to the basement or the kitchen, the foyer or the parking lot.

And, similiarly, the characters in K.D. Miller’s All Saints are sketched in laundry rooms and city parks, in armchairs and rehab, more often in ordinary places than in the church proper.

What  unites the characters is their membership in All Saints, but otherwise the connections betweem them range from loose to non-existent (with some notable exceptions) and their connections to the church itself are of varying intensities.

Some, however, are integrally connected to the institution, as leaders (of/within the congregation), whereas others are occasional attendees.

“Yes, he would have his own parish. Finally. But it would be creaky old All Saints which was tiny and getting tinier by the Sunday. He doubted the bishop actually thought he was going to revive the place with his innovative ideas and commanding presence. More likely, it was a relatively painless way of getting rid of them both. Five or so years of ministering to a dwindling congregation would serve to end his career. And his retirement would make it easy for the diocese to turn a cool eye on All Saints, with its empty pews and emptier collection plates.” (Still Dark)

The tone shifts. Sometimes characters express themselves in brusque snippets.

“Silence. Oh, right. You know how it’s going to be now, once you do go up. She’ll put your lunch down in front of you without a word, then sit across the table from you not eating. Not talking. For once. And you’ll try. Try a little joke. Call her one of the old names. Say, How about supper down at the Legion tonight? Save cooking? No dishes? Still nothing. So finally you’ll say, All right, what is it then? And she’ll be all tears, blubbering on about the jar of pickles or whatever the hell it was that you wouldn’t bring up. Except it’s not the jar of pickles. It’s never the bloody jar of pickles.” (Barney)

Other times, characters make phrase-soaked observations.

“And remember the way the venetian blinds sliced the afternoon sun into bright stripes along the living-room floor? And the way the handles of their two umbrellas, in that white ceramic stand by the door, used to lean away from each other to form a heart?” (What They Have)

Sometimes the prose is lyrical, poetic.

“The sight of her fellow rehab patients—pale as skinned potatoes, slack on one side like marionettes with half their strings cut. Does she look like that? She has to get out of here. She has to get home.” (Return)

Other times, it is perfunctory, simply serviceable.

“But since we have been writing to each other, since these letters—sent and received—have begun to punctuate my week, I have become so much more aware of what is around me. I pay attention to the taste of my food, to the different tones of my minders’ voices. I notice now if a wall needs repainting. I can’t say I exactly care, nor would I ever point it out to someone in authority. Nevertheless, I notice.” (October Song)

In every case, however, there is a sense of careful and deliberate construction; the words are draped across the narrative as delicately as a garment over the back of a chair.

“Drapes the sweater over the back and arranges it so the button at the neckline is centred. That’s important. It gives the garment a presence, a sense of awareness. And there is something sweetly composed about the curves of the fabric joining at the button.” (Still Dark)

These stories are exceptional. The tone of the collection balances the need for variety in style with the need for consistency which builds trust with the reader, between and within stories. And the drama is drawn from the everyday, as remarkable — and memorable — as that may be.

“We all survived. I guess that’s what’s so remarkable—the sheer normalcy of the lives we ended up living.” (Heroes)

Contents: Barney; Still Life; What They Have; Magnificat; Ecce Cor Meum; Kim’s Game; Return; October Song; Spare Change; Heroes

Dionne Brand’s Love Enough (2014)

“Yes, June collects sadness. What would happen if no one remembered sadness? We’d walk around mutilated and mutilating and not know how we got there or have any remorse.”

Alfred A. Knopf, 2014

Alfred A. Knopf, 2014

Perhaps this is as true of the author, Dionne Brand, as it is of June in Love Enough, for characters in In Another Place, Not Here and What We All Long For seem to embody this quality as well.

Love Enough seems to simultaneously rail against this tendency and honour it. It is a mass of contradictions (as is love, itself): beautifully and hauntingly expressed.

Throughout the narrative, many characters come up against uncomfortable truths. They have believed something or someone to be true; instead, they have misunderstood.

“If you were to notice every small physical gesture of an individual person and if you observed those small gestures over the course of a year and a half, say, and if you were to lose that person you should be able to find that person. Like tracking the genome sequence, but the genome sequence of gestures. You should be able to find that person. You should.”

You should. You should be able to.

But the implication is that you cannot.

But, why not?

Perhaps we are tracking the wrong trail.

“As we all do, June had expected her own reflection in the lover’s face. Her reflection being a benign understanding. But the lover’s face, in the end, was fierce and foreign. It wasn’t the same person. Not someone June knew at all.”

A novel about the nature of love might be sprawling to afford the opportunity to contain all those unanswerable questions, but Dionne Brand is a poet. One expects precision of language and Love Enough exhibits this. A single sentence, for all its simplicity, may have been laboured on for hours. (Another contradiction.)

“The woman loves being loved, more than she loves. That the man loves her is more compelling than whether she loves him. But sometimes, as now, she is overwhelmed by this love and breaks off to the lake or to the red underwings of a black bird.”

Some of the statements seem also mythic in their universality. And the philosophical link between love and freedom (strikingly illustrated on the cover), connection and disconnection, is explored in layers. “To be lost or to be free.”

“They weren’t old men really, his father and his uncle, but they seemed old because of how their life was. It was all in the past tense. And when they told him what he should do, he felt as it they were welcoming him to some petrified life. So he had separated himself from them, separated himself from the grim warmth around the counter at Bilan. He felt left.”

With such exacting prose, it’s ironic that chaos lurks beneath. Disorder. Happiness?

“And people with ordered lives always think that people whose lives are in disorder are looking for their kind of order. They think their kind of order is happiness, when their kind of order is gluttony and selfishness. And with all this order, June thinks, we are creating wreckage and disorder, piling it up like a midden.”

There lies a midden of emotions.

“Then is when she decided that you had to keep the noise of other people out of you. This is when she knew the only recourse was to watch and wait. Wait, because you can’t change people, you can only change yourself.”

With those you love, you must disconnect. And yet there is cost not only with the unfiltered noise of love, but also with the protective layer of silence.

“He’s disappeared into the elements of mayhem and randomness. They are indeed elements, June thinks, like iron or mercury. Of course June knows she’s being a little precious. She laughs at herself out loud. Right now she is probably an odd-looking woman in the coffee shop. She looks around and laughs again. Everybody in the coffee shop is odd-looking except those who have someone sitting across from them talking. Companionship makes you look sane.”

Is it even about love? Perhaps, something else? Perhaps survival.

“You have to survive people. You meet people and sometimes you have no control of that, and then it’s a simple matter of waiting them out.”

Sometimes the shortest sentences contain the greatest amount of confusion: “(No one thinks they’ve been loved enough.)”

What one character muses is true, too, of a novel like Love Enough. “It is hard if you really want to do it right.”

It’s very difficult to produce a tightly honed novel on a subject which suggests that any book considering the matter should be the length of Anna Karenina or Kristin Lavransdatter.

Dionne Brand makes it look easy.

Michael Crummey’s Under the Keel (2013)

After hearing Michael Crummey read two poems from this collection on “The Next Chapter”, I rushed to find a copy of Under the Keel.

Under Keel Crummey

House of Anansi, 2013

(Rushing is relative, mind you; I am chronically behind in listening to bookish podcasts: this interview actually aired in September 2013.)

Galore was one of my favourite books of its reading year and Sweetland one of last year’s favourites, but I haven’t been following his verse.

Some of the poems could be set anywhere, like the pair of “Girls” and “Boys” which succinctly capture the sharply recognizable universals.

“Half-grown, we were living our life by halves,
our dreams were vacant rooms we didn’t own

and roamed in silence, shadows behind dark glass,
our mute hearts a mystery to ourselves.”

Some have specific settings: Fong’s restaurant, a flight to Boston, the Overfalls, the Mud Hole, the Funk Islands.

Some settle easily into my mental map of Newfoundland (based in books and calendar photographs once bought for relatives overseas):

“we baits a hook on a string sometimes
hauls them birds around
like a busted kite

Jimmy’s mother says
it’s a sin to be at it
god’s creatures too she tells him”

Lighthouses and fishing boats, priests and cliff-faces, forty-ouncers and seagulls: the scene is set.

Shift in perspective careens.

Readers not only consider an abandoned Datson in the woods, but consider the view of the woods regarding its presence.

And readers not only considering the humans’ perspective on a fox who was not expected to survive the winter, but the fox’s view of the people, “an inconsequential riddle / on the margins of her concern”.

The pieces which bookend the third segment (“Patience” and “Birding, Cape St. Mary’s”) recall the pieces in Hard Light.

“How he strung a rope thick as a man’s wrist from his back door to the tower to lead him blind through the fog and the black, clung to it in wind that could strip the shoes from your feet.”

The works feel intimate and revealing, but they bring everyday and familiar experiences into a keener light.

Other readers who have enjoyed Michael Crummey’s fiction may want to rush for his verse too.

February 2015: In My Stacks

No matter how dilgent one has been with one’s read-o-lutions, February is not the shortest month but the longest test.

February StacksIf it had a chapter heading? In which all your good bookish intentions will flake away like paper splinters from the spine of a well-loved paperback.

And, yet, my February reading, one week in, remains in concert with my 2015 read-o-lutions. Part of that is due to the fact that I am still reading some of the same books. (Is that a good thing?)

Lewis Hyde’s The Gift (1979) and The Diaries of Dawn Powell settled into the stack on the first day of January. Just five or ten pages of Lewis Hyde’s book gives a reader something to chew on.

“In the beginning we have no choice but to accept what has come to us, hoping that the cinders some forest spirit saw fit to bestow may turn to gold when we have carried them back to the hearth.”

Under discussion is the source of the creative spirit, which inspires the artist to make the work and offer it to an audience, to keep the gift in motion. This fits with a more general discussion of what it mean to bestow a gift which  was discussed in detail in the book’s first half, relying upon a variety of sources, from anthropological studies and fairy tales.

In The Gift‘s second half, Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman move to centre stage (but many other voices – Coleridge, Pinter, Sarton, Conrad,Angelou, Kundera – fill out the chorus). Readers settle into complex questions, like the consequences of the commercialization of art (in the context of which television shows should be in the time-slots opposite “Laverne and Shirley” and “Happy Days”).

Talk of Nielsen ratings in terms of allowing commodity art to “define and control our gifts” and exhaust the creative spirit is surprisingly relevant in an age where writers are forced to balance the need to “produce content” or “create art”.

The Gift is not light reading; Lewis Hyde’s classic has a chunk of pages devoted to bibliography, index and notes and the need to reread passages is pressing. And, yet, the book has less of a lecture-hall feel to it, more of a brandy-snifter-after-dinner-fireside-scene feel to it.

It landed on my TBR some years ago because Margaret Atwood recommended it (her Payback would make a terrific reading companion) and it is certainly a worthwhile read. Deep in Whitman territory, in the second-last chapter, there’s little question of my finishing, also little question that it would bear rereading immediately.

Every book in the rest of the stack is somehow related to a read-o-lution. Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna and Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero are there because I loved other books by them (The House of the Spirits and The Cat’s Table) but haven’t made time for many of their others (why not?).

Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True was a gift from a friend (soo many years ago that it’s hard to argue that I’m a good friend). It’s also probably the longest novel I’ll read this year. Not since Kristin Lavransdatter have I felt that a bookmark parked at 200 pages seemed like a lame effort on my part.

Infinite Riches is a Virago read (but I’m better at collecting them than reading them) and the short story collection in my stack. Next week there will be talk of five contemporary collections I’ve read recently, but I’m in the mood for some classic stories these days.

Where Nests the Water Hen is part of my Gabrielle Roy project (but I’ve only read The Tim Flute so far). It’s one of those books that’s been in the mix for months, slipping in and out of the current stack. Part One is the perfect length to read in a single sitting, whereas the novel’s second part comprises the bulk of the volume (followed by a shorter third part), so I keep reading the first part, setting it aside and then losing track of the story and beginning again. But that happens to you too, sometimes, right? I know that I must read beyond the first part in a single sitting, even just a single page.

M.C.Higgins the Great is one of my 20-something books; it’s been on my shelves, neglected, for more than 20 years. Since then, I’ve read some other books by Virginia Hamilton but I’m fine with having waited so long to meet M.C. because his story, of a mountain in the process of being levelled to satisfy corporate interests, feels just as timely today as it would have done when the book first landed on my shelves.

Toni Morrison is one of my MRE authors but The Bluest Eye is one that I’ve read before, so it appears in the stack as part of my desire to reread favourites this year. (Swann was the first.)

And Amphibian was bought new, but then I read a few hundred other books instead (why do I do this?). Phin is a terrific character and the tone of the story reminds of my Susin Nielsen’s writing (especially The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, for Phin, too, is seeing a doctor).

What is in your stack these days? How is your reading year so far?

A Fainter Footprint in Fiction

Sarah Ellis’ Outside In is her seventeenth novel for young readers, and readers who discover her through this unusual work will undoubtedly be keen to investigate her backlist.

Groundwood Books, 2014

Groundwood Books, 2014

The cover captures the hint of mystery which lurks beneath the story, for Lynn encounters Blossom and immediately questions present themselves.

“Either this extremely ordinary-looking person in a school uniform was a nutbar, or the world had become like one of those fantasy trilogies that Shakti liked to read and which were Lynn’s least favourite books. Maybe this person was a glurb and she had an amulet that had to be restored to the true Druid princess or some such, and wouldn’t it just be Lynn’s luck if it turns out by some horrible cosmic joke that the world was really like that. She would have to go and lie down in the tundra somewhere and just give up.”

There are some humourous touches like that, too, as Lynn tries to make sense of what she is seeing. And, along the way, some social commentary. How does one define real in a world which is dominated by the virtual?

“Did Blossom and her family really exist? Lynn experienced a wave of doubt as she glanced around before running her key across the metal screen at the edge of the reservoir. No Phone. No email. No street address. Did Blossom even have a last name? For Pete’s sake, it would be easier to confirm that Celia’s guinea pigs, stars of their own YouTube movies, existed.”

Blossom doesn’t leave a trail behind her which is easy for Lynn to spot and contemporary readers will face the same challenges following her breadcrumbs. Is she a fantastic creature of sorts? Or does she just live her life in a way which seems fantastic to onlookers living in a mainstream existence complete with pets on YouTube?

“We reorder things. We collect recycling and take it back to where it is useful. We pull up weeds and put them in the compost where they turn into dirt to grow more things. And something we just fancy things up.”

These are not fantastic concepts to be sure. But there is some complex thinking behind these everyday save-the-Earth aspects of the story.

““The game’s not worth the candle.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s from card games from long ago. The chances of winning are not worth the cost of burning a candle to light the game.”

And along the way, a number of valuable issues are raised. Out of context, these quotes could suggest that the book is preachy, but that’s not the case.

“But there are so many things in the world already. Did you know that there is a billion square feet of self-storage in America? That’s a billion square feet of stuff that nobody is using. There are already enough things without making new ones. We can just use what we’ve got. Fix it and use it. All this racing around earning and shopping and saving. It’s all just dancing for doughnuts.”

There is perhaps an overly-wholesome feel to some of the story’s language (‘nutbar’ and ‘for Pete’s sake’ hearken to the 1950s kids’ books I grew up reading) but the talk of candles and games is embedded solidly in story. Outside In fits perfectly within this Friday Fugue: A Fainter Footprint. And as an introduction to this critically acclaimed author’s works, it is an impressive ambassador.

Other Posts in this Friday Fugue: Clotilde Dusoulier’s The French Market Cookbook (2013)Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg: 200 Inspired Vegetable Recipes (2013)Mark Bittman’s VB6 (2013)Miriam Sorrell’s Mouthwatering Vegan (2013)Two books on carbon footprint in your kitchen.

On Power: Between and The Massey Murder

Angie Adbou handles multiple narrative voices very well. Readers familiar with her earlier novels, The Bone Cage (2008) and The Canterbury Trail (2011) will know this, having inhabited narratives from varying perspectives. They will also know (as will readers of her 2006 collection of short stories, Anything Boys Can Do) that she embraces the sweat and grit of a situation.

Arsenal Pulp, 2014

Arsenal Pulp, 2014

Readers who simply see the cover of Between will understand that this is a story of bits and pieces; they once fit together, but now the narrative is preoccupied with the fractures and slivers, mismatches and gaps. Between chronicles the events leading up to — and following — the break and, yes, all the parts between.

Whether loyal or new readers, it’s clear that Angie Abdou’s novel will be uncomfortable reading.

And, yet, its pacing bears a resemblance to the storytelling of Russell Wangersky (who also has an interest in the overooked and untold, but expresses it in plot as much as character) and Cordelia Strube (particularly her ability to intertwine tragedy and comedy while always keeping focus on characterization). Similarly, Between should be a quiet story by nature, but it demands attention every step of the way.

Told in two voices, Vero’s and Ligaya’s, Between chronicles the experiences of two women, who experience varying degrees of constraint in their lives, who feel their powerlessness in different but equally devastating ways, as they care for children and move through the demands of everyday life.

The stuff of the story is fascinating. The women’s ordinary experiences are shared in matter-of-fact prose, which is sometimes sassy and sometimes sharp (sometimes both), and readers are pulled into uncomfortable places, literally and figuratively cramped.

Ligaya is sleeping in a closet when we meet her; Vero is hiding in one, soon after we meet her.

“With the door shut, Vero feels better. A closet of one’s own. That’s all she needed. She takes another long swig from the bottle.”

The female experience is central to Angie Abdou’s novel, in a quietly determined way. She doesn’t pencil in Virginia Woolf’s name, but the reference is there for those who have dreamed of a room of one’s own (and, often, settled for closets).

This is not uncomplicated. The women in this novel have varying degrees of privilege and  capacity.

“The woman beside him wears a familiar vacant expression. Vero spends enough time with new mothers that she hardly notices. They’ve all left their brains at home in the dryers. They’re bumping around in there like shoes fluffing up the down duvets.”

They are imperfect, they are credible.  Sometimes they care, sometimes they do not.

“Her capacity for denial is astonishing, matched only by her capacity for rationalization. She knows this. Again, she doesn’t care.”

Sometimes they are likeable, sometimes not (as are we all).

Vero’s privilege allows her the luxury of hiring a nanny. “Things are looking up for the Sprucedale Nanton-Schoemans. We’ll think back to this night as the moment when things really turned around for us.” Ironically, this moment upon which fortunes turn, is also a moment of great potential for the nanny hired, Ligaya.

But Ligaya’s challenges are eased and exacerabated by this change in fortune. She no longer sleeps in a closet, but she is overwhelmed by the need to acclimatize. “Even the children in this family have twelve mouths. Ligaya will need twenty-four ears to keep up.”

The plot is surprisingly gripping, as each woman struggles with changes she does not feel equipped to handle. The balance shifts quickly, as each is pressed to be someone other than she has imagined herself to be.

For Ligaya, this plays out in the workplace, for Vero this is true, too, but the novel’s most memorable scenes of her identity stretching and recoiling roll out while she is on vacation, in the context of her personal (i.e. no paycheque visible) relationships.

“Vero pays Lili, of course, there is that, but who isn’t paid? One way or another. Life: it’s all a barter system.”

Ultimately, the power of Between lies in its ability to identify and create this barter system on the page, so delicately and smartly that readers do not realize that they are reading a treatise on value until the car is in gear and rolling.

What seemed like an innocent conversation between Ligaya and the children, about whether a seal is a predator or prey, is a layered reminder that we all inhabit the food-chain, some of us in more complicated roles than others.

For of course the whale is a predator; that’s easy, Ligaya explains. But the seal is harder to answer, because to the whale the seal is prey, but to the fish, the seal is predator.

Some women are eaten by whales, others eat fish; Ligaya and Vero are shapeshifters, and the questions that Angie Abdou asks in Between are the best kind: the kind that make you want to talk about opposites both being true, about the contradiction of finding power or fragility where one expected to find the other.

Charlotte Gray’s readers also count on her ability to find one story where another was expected. She makes history come off the page whether writing about women exploring the Klondike or a pair of literary sisters; she values the stories less commonly told in history.

Massey Murder Charlotte GrayThis is true, too, in The Massey Murder; rather than adopt the comfortable perspective of a wealthy and privileged man in late nineteenth-century Toronto, she presents the perspective of his maid, who was accused of murdering her employer.

“In the bourgeois world of 1915, the Carrie Davieses barely merited a glance, let alone a footnote in history. Women like her formed the silent army that kept households humming, and yet remained almost invisible to many of its employers. Carrie’s life was particularly exhausting because she was Bert and Rhoda Massey’s only servant. They couldn’t afford the army of cooks, butlers, parlour maids, and lady’s maids that kept up the houses of richer Masseys. Carrie had to do everything, during days that began at six in the morning and might not finish until well after 9 p.m.”

There is much discussion of related historical material: the invocation of and imposition of the death penalty, the research gathered by Bertillon to develop a criminal identification scheme, the significance of an “At Home” event, the description of the “Riverdale Bastille”, the Massey monument in Mount Pleasant cemetery and the mansion on Jarvis Street in Toronto, reportage on military movements overseas, the popularity of detective fiction, and the role of the jury in courtrooms of the day.

But for readers with a passion for women’s history, the details about Carrie Davies’ life as a female servant and gender roles and expectations are most interesting.

 “Servants are everywhere and nowhere in history. Carrie and women like her worked too hard to have any energy left for writing diaries or letters, and if any of them did manage to scribble down something, it has probably been lost.”

Carrie’s history is constructed through the experiences of other women in similar roles and positions, with heavy reliance upon the court transcripts and the journalism of the day.

“What really alarmed them was the idea that a ‘harmless’ backstairs seduction led to Bert’s death. Moreover, it looked as though the girl had planned the death: this wasn’t a crime committed in the heat of a struggle. But Bert’s relatives didn’t appreciate the salacious gossip that was starting to spread. The first step towards suppressing the story was burying the corpse. Step two was promoting the Massey version of the facts.”

Carrie did not have power; the Massey family did have power. And, yet, there is a kind of power afforded to women, even in areas traditionally reserved for men.

“But there was one arena in which female reporters could monopolize a front-page story: the Toronto Women’s Court. Thanks to the Women’s Court ban on male onlookers, only women were welcome in the court’s press box.”

The history of the Women’s Court and women reporters is directly relevant to Carrie Davies’ case, but Charlotte Gray’s writing notes mention specific sources for further reading on the topic.

“There are two excellent books about the feisty women reporters in Toronto newsrooms: Marjory Lang’s Women Who Made the News: Female Journalists in Canada 1880–1945 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999) and Linda Kay’s The Sweet Sixteen: The Journey That Inspired the Canadian Women’s Press Club (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012).”

She updates readers on these matters too, revealing that even the early feminists eventually stopped advocating for special legal protections for women.”Once women had the vote, Toronto’s Women’s Court was increasingly regarded as an anachronism: it was disbanded in 1934. But some of the emotions and concerns that Carrie’s case aroused flowed on through the twentieth century, as women entered universities, professions, and politics, and lobbied for equality.”

Who holds power in any given relationship? How does that power manifest? How quickly can the balance shift? And is that shift always a desirable outcome? These are timeless questions, whether posed in fiction or non-fiction.

The Massey Murder pulls a story from the headlines, but affords Charlotte Gray the opportunity to explore gender and social justice issues in an inviting and engaging style: so entertaining.

Angie Abdou’s Between presents the intricacies of two women’s relationships in such a nuanced and layered story that it reads like a page-turner but could be used as a textbook in economics and gender studies classes: so smart.

January 2015, In My Reading Log

Ater a year of new-new-new, January has been filled with the familiar, the known. It’s not been about making new-shiny-library-residing friends, but about becoming better acquainted with long-time residents of my own bookshelves, remembering what drew particular authors onto my MRE (MustReadEverything) list and particular books onto my shelves. Have you made any read-o-lutions this year?

M.G. Vassanji’s No New Land (1991)

McClelland & Stewart, 1991

McClelland & Stewart, 1991

“‘When does a man begin to rot?’ Gazing at the distant CN Tower blinking its signals into the hazy darkness, Nurdin asked himself the question. He sat in his armchair, turned around to look out into the night. Through the open balcony the zoom of the traffic down below in the valley was faintly audible, as was the rustle of trees. Pleased with the sound of his silent question, he repeated it in his mind again, this time addressing the tower. The lofty structure he had grown familiar with over the months, from this vantage point, and he had taken to addressing it. ‘When does a man begin to rot?’ he asked. Faithful always, it blinked its answer, a coded message he could not understand.”

Nurdin might as well talk to the tower, for all that he feels a sense of connection with those near and far. Since they came to Canada from Dar es Salaam, the distance between him and his wife has increased, and although he is surrounded by others from his homeland who are trying to make a home in Toronto at 69 Rosecliffe Drive, he feels distanced in every way. Although he believes he was nearly hired to work in the shoe department at Eaton’s Department Store, he did not likely make the shortlist, more likely mistook a friendly interviewer’s small talk as an indication of understanding and acceptance. When a friend introduces him to Dar es Salaam in Toronto, it’s as far from his memories as can be imagined. And, yet, it is connections with friends from his homeland which ultimately allow Nurdin to begin to carve out something-like-home for himself, though it has little to do with buildings or employment or the core releationships he had expected would further his adjustment to this new land. The novel is written in matter-of-fact prose and depicts a newcomer’s experience in unsentimental tones, nonetheless managing to convey the author’s tenderness for his characters. The experience of violence and crime, from within and without the community, is handled deftly, with complexity and sensitivity.

This is the third of the author’s works which I have read (beginning with his short story collection, When She Was Queen); every time I read one, I think that now I must read all of them. Fortunately,  I have gathered quite a number of them on my shelves.

Heinemann, 1986 (1958)

Heinemann, 1986 (1958)

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)

“How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

Okonkwo is an accomplished and powerful man. He has worked very hard for every yam and wife in his possession, and that is doubly impressive because the example of his own father better prepared him to be hungry and indebted. His status and sense of personal and tribal honour keep readers at a distance because he is required to perform some unsavoury duties/tasks to maintain his position and protect tradition and custom. But the scene in which he follows his third wife (Ekwefi) to the shrine, where the priestess has taken their daughter (Ezinma), and the efforts he makes which are unobserved by anybody (although Ekwefi eventually becomes aware of his presence there and the couple wait together throughout the remainder of the night) reveals another aspect of his character. It’s what happens behind the scenes with Okwonko which sustains my interest in his character. There is a lot of heartbreak in the story,but that which occurs after the missionaries arrive is paticularly keen, signalling that many, many deaths and injustices are yet to come.

This book is one of those which moved onto the shelves of my first apartment, but although I have begun to read it many times, I have never felt pulled into the story by the rhythm of the language as I did on this reading. I have always stalled and set it aside for another time; this year, I find myself eyeing the next two books in the trilogy.

Swann Shields

Random House 1996 (1987)

Carol Shields’ Swann (1987)

“How we love to systemize and classify what is rich and random in life. How our fingers itch to separate the tangled threads of theme and anti-theme, moral vision and moral blindness, God and godlessness, joy and despair, as though all creativity sat like a head of cabbage on a wooden chopping block, ready to be hacked apart, first the leaves, then the hot, white heart.”

Divided into five parts, Swann offers readers a chorus of voices. Each of four characters has an opportunity to take centre stage (Sarah Maloney, Morton Jimroy, Rose Hindmarch and Federic Cruzzi), followed by a segment titled “The Swann Symposium” which is written as a play, complete with dramatic instructions, stage directions and director’s notes. Despite a variety of ages and life experiences, working lives and professional ambitions, each of these characters is fully drawn. Readers know them intimately in only a few pages, develop attachments and suspicions, and inhabit a peculiar position of engagement twined with observation as the final segment unfolds. Although the first three-quarters of the novel are preoccupied with character development, the latter presents a mystery, which has been at a slow-boil throughout, although this only becomes clear as the narratives unite. Carol Shields is master of hooking readers from one direction while they are attending elsewhere, so that simple observations about a librarian’s quiet life translate into readers’ unexpected emotional investment as her small world swells uncomfortably large and change abounds. Throughout, musings on creativity and work, relationships and scholarship ensure the work will appeal particularly to those who have a large private collection of notebooks and a favourite pen.

Every year I say that I am going to reread more of my favourite novels, but this year began with that resolution in action. Currently in the stack is a work by another MRE author, Toni Morrison, but I hope to reread something else by Carol Shields before long.

Have you read any of these, or are they on your TBR? How was your reading January? Is there something in particular you are looking forward to reading next?