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

Margaret Millar’s A Stranger in My Grave (1960)

Here, the figurative language of Millar’s 1950s novels (like Vanish in an Instant and  Wives and Lovers) is replaced by a cleaner style which often focuses on extremes.

Millar Stranger in My Grave“But Fielding’s pity, like his love and even his hate, was a variable thing, subject to changes in the weather, melting in the summer, freezing in the winter, blowing away in a high wind. Only by a miracle did it survive at all.”

Instead she directs readers’ attention to specific kinds of extremes: inequities and injustices.

From the beginning, Daisy Harker’s concerns are dismissed as the anxieties of an unfulfilled woman.

“’All I can do is assure you that the matter is, to everyone else but Mrs. Harker, quite trivial. There are no lives at stake, no money, no great issue.’
He was wrong: all three were at stake. But he hadn’t the imagination or the desire to see it.”

Ironically, the speaker here, Steve Pinata, is often judged unfairly himself, his ethnicity not immediately identifiable (indeed, his parentage is uncertain, which suits this story in particular) but he certainly is not white.

“Few whites ventured out on Opal Street after dark. This was his part of the city, his and Camilla’s, and it had nothing to do with Daisy’s part. Grease Alley, some of the cops called it, and when he was feeling calm and secure, he didn’t blame them. Many of the knives used in brawls were greased.”

Although he is initially unable to recognize the prejudices which limit Daisy Harker’s ability to resolve her concerns, Pinata does pursue the information she requires and he provides to her what relief he can. In short, Daisy cannot remember what happened on a certain day and believes her existence depends upon this lost information.

“Perhaps a very special event had taken place in the world on December 2, 1955, and once the event was recalled to her, she would remember her reactions to it; it would become the peg on which she could hang the rest of the day, hat and coat and dress and sweater and, finally, the woman who fitted into them.”

It is not her imagination. Not simply her refusal to play the role of “happy innocent” which she believes her mother and husband require of her. “Any good marriage involves a certain amount of playacting,” Daisy observes.

Expectations of wives are key to this story, and key to its resolution (but in a quiet way). “Mrs. Fielding was too subtle to say any of this outright, but the implication was clearly made: Daisy had to be a super wife because she couldn’t be a mother.”

She, like other women in Margaret Millar’s stories, seems paralyzed by her inability to meet the demands on her as a wife. But she recognizes that these expecations are not fair or just.

She presses against the boundaries, longs for a certain kind of escape (as was also the case for characters in Wives and Lovers and An Air that Kills).

“She wanted to be a train, a huge, beautiful, shiny train, which never had to stop for fuel or to let people off or on. It just kept on going, blowing its big whistle, frightening everyone off the tracks.”

Pinata faces a similar kind of paralysis in the face of prejudice, and he has questions about his identity too.

In the following passage, Daisy’s mother issues a blatant warning, a tidy summary of the racism simmering beneath stories like these (present too, in Beast in View and The Listening Walls).

“’Tolerance is one thing. Foolishness is another.’ There was a curious rasp in Mrs. Fielding’s voice, as if her fury, which had been denied admittance into words, had broken in through the back door of her larynx. ‘You know nothing about such people. They’re cunning, treacherous. You’re a babe in the woods. If you let him, he’ll use you, cheat you—’
‘Where did you learn so much about a man you’ve never even seen?’
‘I don’t have to see him. They’re all alike. You must put a stop to this relationship before you find yourself in serious trouble.’”

Daisy is a “good girl”, caught in a situation which a “good girl” is ill-equipped to handle, but she uses her determination and her intelligence (also her husband’s resources) to get to the bottom of things.

Published in 1960, this attempt to address social inequities in crime fiction is interesting. But Margaret Millar’s strength remains in her depiction of quotidien detail, her willingness to expose and engage with the psyches of ordinary women.

This type of passage (complete with meander-y observations in parentheses, which would be playful if the conversation itself weren’t so tedious and demanding for the participants) reveals the author’s attention to detail and fascination with psychology and interpersonal relations and conflicts.

“Mrs. Fielding had talked nearly all the way home while Daisy watched the dreary landscape (where were the green hills?) and the slate-gray sea (had it ever been blue?) and the barren dunes (barren, barren, barren). It wasn’t the end of the world, Mrs. Fielding had said, count blessings, look at silver linings. But Mrs. Fielding herself was so disturbed she couldn’t go on driving. She was forced to stop at a little café by the sea, and the two women had sat for a long time facing each other across a greasy, crumb-covered table. Mrs. Fielding kept right on talking, raising her voice against the crash of waves on pilings and the clatter of dishes from the kitchen.”

The next three volumes promise angels and fiends and monsters: perhaps ordinary women will take a back seat to their activities.


Mavis Gallant’s “About Geneva”

Even the shortest story in The Other Paris provokes a strong sympathy on the part of readers.

Bill Perlmutter: "Through A Soldier's Lens. Europe In The Fifties".

Bill Perlmutter: “Through A Soldier’s Lens. Europe In The Fifties”.Click for source details

At the heart of the story are two young children, Ursula who is older than seven and Colin who is younger than seven.

They live with their granny and their mother, who is thirty-four years old and anxious-looking but semi-youthful.

The children have just returned from two weeks with their father, who is now in another committed relationship.

Granny is openly suspicious and resentful; she does not believe the children have been properly attended to while they were away and although she recognises the limitations of her authority, she makes her disapproval known.

If she were in charge, the children would have remained in their grandmother’s flat, rather than having travelled to Nice, when they have eaten entirely too much ice-cream.

There is talk of the lake and white water birds, a parasol and a boat with coloured cushions; and someone dared to cut Colin’s curls.

It was about time, his mother declares, suggesting that a boy is not well-brought-up when tended to by women alone.

Nonetheless, as the story procedes, the mother’s capacity for acceptance and interest weakens. It’s clear she has her own doubts.

In the beginning, however, when Ursula announces that she is going to be a writer (like her father, apparently), her mother puts forth an impression of support and encouragement. Ursula’s play has a splendid line in it, about Tatiana all in gold and a Grand Duke, and her mother is suitably impressed. She even offers her a writing desk from her bedroom, which has a lock.

Granny objects, asking where the children’s mother will keep her own things if she gives the desk to Ursula. Mother insists: “I’m not writing a play, or anything else I want kept secret. Not any more.”

Raynaud Menu Nice France Gallant

Raynaud Restaurant in Nice, France 1950sClick for source details

What is a secret? Is there any way to separate it from the idea of romance? Can there be intimacy without secrets? Can there be secrets without intimacy?

Colin is not consciously keeping secret the events of the afternoon which he had with his father and the new woman; he does not recall much of it.

“As he said it, the image became static: a gray sky, a gray lake, and a swan wonderfully turning upside down with the black rubber feet showing above the water. His father was not in the picture at all; neither was she. But Geneva was fixed for the rest of his life: gray, lake, swan.”

Like Barbara in “One Morning in June” and the narrator from “Autumn Day”, Colin’s idea of the picture is preserving something pure, something worthy of notice. And, as such, it’s significant that neither his father, nor the new woman, appear in the image.

Neither, however, do the children appear. Of course, Ursula was not in attendance, but Colin was. And he has positioned himself deliberately outside of the image.

His mother cannot discern whether he truly does not remember more of the day, or whether he has begun to identify more with his father and is prepared to keep his secrets.

“But Colin seemed to carry the story of the visit with him, and she felt the faintest stirrings of envy, the resentfulness of the spectator, the loved one left behind.”

And it’s not only Colin whose loyalty is now in question. Ursula is keeping her own secrets (whether indications of her disloyalty of not).

“But how can they be trusted, the children’s mother thought. What of them can one believe?”

Ultimately, however, it is not about the children’s memories, but about their mother’s ideas about their memories and about her own memories. (And presumably, the grandmother has the same doubts about whether her own daughter is trustworthy, about how much she might alter her impressions to provoke a particular response in her own mother. Geneva: neutrality? This is a story of extremes, not moderation.)

“But, really, she doubted it; nothing had come back from the trip but her own feelings of longing and envy, the longing and envy she felt at night, seeing, at a crossroad or over a bridge, the lighted windows of a train sweep by. Her children had nothing to tell her.”

She is a woman alone, and her son has just had his first hair cut. What next?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the tenth story in The Other Paris. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “Señor Pinedo”.


In My Stacks, May 2016

How much of your reading is non-fiction? Does it fluctuate, or are you committed to reading (or not reading) it?

When others were participating in non-fiction November last year, and actually reading a lot of the books that I’d been kinda-half-sorta thinking about reading, I realised that tending towards fiction had shifted into reading almost entirely fiction.

May 2017 Nonfiction ReadingThe thing is, there are always novels to pull my attention away from these other important and serious and overtly edifying choices.

My goal? Increase my non-fiction reading to 15% and focus on finding new areas of reading interest so that I would find the non-fiction shelves as inviting as the fiction shelves.

The Artist’s Library by Laura Damon-Moore and Erinn Batykefer (2015) contains chapters on how the library can serve as a source of inspiration or a place to work creatively (also practical chapters on how to start an arts organization and work on your business in the library). My favourite image is that of a fingerprint in which the whorls and marks are shaped by the names of books and authors. Light and easy, this is great for dabbling.

Maya Angelou first appeared on the Oprah show in 1993; that’s the first time I encountered her, and she brought a presence to the stage which I found so striking that I had to learn more; I bought my copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings shortly afterwards. Just a glimpse of a volume like Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration (2008) and I would have been all-the-more smitten. So many photographs and copies of pages from her memoirs: this volume makes a terrific companion for reading Maya Angelou’s autobiographies. (I just looked at the pictures!)

Lynn Knight’s The Button Box (2016) contains twenty-eight chapters, each titled for a particular kind of button which opens the door to a discussion of a chapter in women’s socioeconomic history. It’s tremendously accessible although readers who yearn for more detail could track the sources in the voluminous pages of reference materials at the back (endnotes and selected bibliography, fiction and non-fiction). “Favourite dresses, best coats, everyday overalls, children’s clothes, their buttons reach across the generations and the large and small stories of women’s lives.” VMC and Persephone devotees: you will love this!

Readers of Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Crow Planet will be especially pleased to discover more talk of the feathered in The Urban Bestiary (2013). Also included is talk of the furred and the rooted, along with some helpful images (for identifying pawprints or determining whether scat belongs to a mouse or a rat or a squirrel). Her tone is inviting and informal and the volume is also entertaining, particularly when she shares anecdotal information about humans’ common fears and obsessions about creatures alongside stats which reveal these are both unjustified and irrational. I read this one straight through and then reread some parts afterwards.

Kimmerer Gathering MossIn writing Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (2003), Robin Wall Kimmerer draws on knowledge received from the plants themselves, from her training as a scientist, and also from an affinity for the traditional knowledge of her Potawatomi heritage. “Mosses and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception. All it requires of us is attentiveness. Look in a certain way and a whole new world can be revealed.” She has a way of making analogies and issuing invitations to readers into her passion for moss which looks easy but obviously takes years of study and attention. Although I was known to snap photos of moss long before I requested this book from the library (there was a long wait and I haven’t finished in a single borrowing term), this slim volume has given me new words and new ways to see and listen. “Finding the words is another step in learning to see.”

The Island of Knowledge by Marcelo Gleiser (2014) landed on my TBR thanks to brainpickings. It’s the most challenging read in my stack, but this makes sense because this is a book which takes over where science leaves off. Not being much of a science-y reader, you might think this would make me more comfortable. Instead, this is the kind of volume which requires that I read even the first sentence of each paragraph – the introductory sentences – twice (at least), let alone the later sentences which build upon the introductory idea. “To what extent can we make sense of reality?” he asks. To what extent can I make sense of this book, I answer. But, then, I try again.

But, then, Stephen Buchmann’s The Reason for Flowers (2015) is science-y, so not all is lost. There are definitely words in here which make me slow down – like ‘pollinators’, ‘hybridizing’, and ‘glandular’) but also talk of mythology, marketing and murals. For every ‘thorax’ there is a ‘chocoholic’, with talk of state emblems and online shopping alongside talk of insect activity and DNA. Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire was one of the first non-fiction books to tempt me beyond the fiction shelves (it’s still a favourite) and this volume is just as accessible, although longer and more specific (whereas Pollan’s was shorter and dealt with only one flower and three other kinds of plants). This is one I will need to renew, but I don’t wonder whether I’ll be able to finish it either!

A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka by Ajith Boyagoda and Sunila Galappatti (2016) landed on my stack thanks to 2016’s International Festival of Authors. Sunila Galappatti’s discussion of her experience writing the story of Commodore Ajith Boyagoda’s experience as the highest-ranking detainee of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka was gripping and her struggle to capture his voice and his story fascinates me. This is not a long book, but it is a challenging story (as it should be). Galappatti Boyagoda A Long Watch

Barbara M. Walker’s The Little House Cookbook (1979) exists because Laura Ingalls Wilder’s frontier stories contained so many scenes with delicious meals. A lot of them included pancakes! The cookbook also includes some of Garth Williams’ illustrations (for additional charm) and the ingredients and instructions have been adjusted so that what was once prepared on hearth and old-fashioned stove can be readily replicated with modern kitchens. The recipes typically contain a snippet of the original story with some explanation when substitutions and alterations are required for today’s cooks and sometimes a bit of historical context.

Kathryn Laskey and Meribel Knight’s Searching for Laura (1993) will immediately appeal to bookish folks who imagine tracing the literary footsteps of their favourite characters. Meribel Knight was five years old when her mother first started reading her the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books. So, years later, when the family planned an RV trip to the real-life Plum Creek and Walnut Grove, Pepin and De Smet, it seemed like a dream come true. But these characters lived more than a hundred years ago, and what Meribel discovers looks very different. The photographs her father, Christopher Knight, snaps of the holiday are perhaps meant to capture a kind of quiet musing, but there is sadness there too, it seems.

Kristin Petrovich’s Elemental Energy (2016) snuck into the stack not only because it has a pretty cover, but because the whole book is pretty. It’s like a Dorling Kindersley book for grown-ups about crystals and stones, so how could I not. There are sections on acupressure and massage, creating elixirs and detoxifying. It’s great for browsing and brings a whole new meaning to the idea of bringing home stones from the beach.

Samarra Khaja’s Sew Adorkable (2015) includes fifteen projects which are perfect for the “chic geek”. Even though I haven’t sewed anything since the tenth grade, and don’t expect to take up the habit because it would interfere with my excessive bookishness (hard to read and sew at the same time, right?), I had fun browsing the projects. My favourites were the cover for a tissue box, which looks like a typewriter (the tissues come up like pages of paper) and the shower curtain which looks like binder paper, with blue lines and a pink border. So cute!

Davis Qigong through seasonsIf you’re looking for an introduction to qigong, Ronald H. Davis’ Qigong through the Seasons (2015) might serve you well. The format is slightly over-sized and he takes time to explain elementary concepts, from ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ to the ‘five phases’. There are chapters on mindfulness and meditation, food and chronobiology, as well as long sections on each of the four seasons. The diagrams for movement are stick figures – which comes off as charming rather than cheap (a long way from Namaslay, see below) – and for those new to the forms perhaps best used in conjunction with some supplementary videos online, but the tone is no-nonsense and down-to-basics.

Candace Moore’s Namaslay (2016) might have immediate appeal for fans of her website, but I stumbled into the book and borrowed it because I liked the format, with large-scale photos with arrows pointing out detailed information about positioning and focus which I can use in my fledging home practice. Overall, it feels like there is more emphasis on the perfect asana than I find comfortable; the text accompanying each pose often includes suggestions for modifcations and occasionally these are also pictured in a second photograph (the book as a whole is helpfully divided into beginning, intermediate and advanced), but the focus seems to be on the goal rather than the process and, as a beginner, I don’t quite feel included. Nonetheless, she says all the right things in the segments which are about her personal journey and the tenets she believes underscore a healthy and nourishing practice, so maybe I am simply intimidated by the glamour.

What non-fiction have you been reading lately? Or, thinking about reading, if you’re more of a fiction-lover too?

If you had to read something out of this stack, which would you choose? (Or, have you already read one/some?)

Does any one of these make you want to recommend another specific book to me?

If you made reading goals for this year, how are you doing so far?


Mavis Gallant’s “One Morning in June” (1952)

In another collection, this story is called “One Morning in May”, and I wonder if anyone thought about renaming it “The Other Menton”. For as surely as the title story takes a young woman’s expectations of Paris and examines how they conflict with her real experience of the city, this story bursts the balloon of another young woman’s ideas about a picnic in Menton.

Menton Winter Palace Gallant

The Winter Palace Hotel in Menton, France

The string of hotels which faces the beach in Mention is renowned, the buildings named for Albert and Victoria and the Empire. Even though Barbara Ainslie is not staying in one of these, but is staying with her aunt, her residency is just as itinerant.

Not that she has experienced much of life yet. She is sixteen years old, and has been educated in a New York day school. A relatively sheltered existence.

“Barbara was conscious, every moment of the day, that she was to get something from her year in France, and return to America brilliant, poised, and educated. Accordingly, she visited all the museums and copied on slips of paper the legends of monuments.”

Already she has learned a lot. But she is not yet “brilliant” or “poised”, although still striving.

“She had read a great deal in the winter, and she could have told anyone that Africa seethed, Asia teemed, and that something must be done at once about the Germans, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Spanish or Heaven only knew what would happen.”

There are so many threats to disorder, on the political and personal levels. Barbara is on the precipice, waiting to see “what would happen”.

Mike Cahill is a little older (not much) and he is also passing through Menton, because “…his family had decided that a year in Paris would show whether or not his natural bent was toward painting. It was rather like exposing someone to a case of measles and watching for spots to break out.” (This is one of my favourite lines in this collection. Artistry as affliction!)

Like the narrator of “Autumn Day”, Barbara is amused by the idea of viewing herself with Mike, placing herself in an image which suits her imaginings.

“She carried her camera, slung on a strap, and she felt that she and Mike formed, together, a picture of art, pleasure, and industry which, unhappily, there was no one to remark but a fat man taking his dog for a run; the man gave them scarcely a glance.”

Notably, she is only interested in the perspective which includes Mike alongside.

“It had occurred to her many times in this lonely winter that only marriage would save her from disgrace, from growing up with no skills and no profession. Her own mother did nothing all day, but she was excused by having once been married.”

Quai dAnjou Paris Gallant

Quai d’Anjou, Paris

Barbara has no way of imagining herself in the future, no idea of who she might be.

Like the younger narrator of “Wing’s Chips”, she is preoccupied by the idea of what she is not.

“From her reading she knew that she would never meet men or be of interest to them until she could, suddenly and brilliantly, perform on the violin, become a member of Macy’s Junior Executive Squad, or, at the very least, take shorthand at a hundred and twenty words a minute.”

With all the qualities she lacks, she remains undesirable. She sits and knits while Mike paints Menton (which is not all that much different from Barbara imagining the photograph of the two of them, except that he is not interested in drawing figures, perhaps has no need to situate himself in relationship to anything else, because he is at the centre of the act of viewing, not of being viewed).

Mike has been studying with an English painter named Chitterley, who advertised his services by poster in a cafe and has a studio on the Quai d’Anjou.

In Paris, he paints “with sober patience the bridges of the Seine, the rain-soaked lawns of the Tuileries, and a head-on view of Notre Dame”. (Readers of “The Other Paris” might imagine that he is painting what Carol expected to find in the city, before she visited it.)

His paintings are large and slightly askew, which is what he has brought with him from his studies at home. (As if the scale is all out of whack, ill-fitting and lacking perspective, either from within or without.)

The artistic projects are dissatisfying and he remains insecure, but at least he has not suffered an embarrassing audition for a theatrical role (which has been Barbara’s experience). He continues to create (rather than auditioning for someone else’s creative projects).

Barbara is no good at acting, it seems, and perhaps this is why she cannot pretend that it doesn’t matter if Mike is not enchanted by her.

She craves his enchantment with her. She needs to be able to imagine herself in somebody’s image of a happy married couple.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the ninth story in The Other Paris. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “About Geneva”.


Mazo de la Roche’s Ringing the Changes (1957)

When I first peeked into the Jalna books, I discovered that Mazo de la Roche’s biographers depended heavily upon Ringing the Changes, her autobiography, which I was pleased to find in the library.

Mazo de la Roche Morning at JalnaIt’s that kind of old book whose pages have been turned so often that they are softer near their edges, which means there are a lot of stains too, which I choose to interpret as chocolate or coffee spots and smears.

There are no footnotes or endnotes, but there are photographs, in which everyone – and everything – looks lovely.

At this point, the author is about to write her last Jalna books which “sold 9 million copies in 193 English- and 92 foreign-language editions” and she is writing this for her fans but also for herself.

“Thinking it over, I am convinced that I know little about the writing of an autobiography – that I am without skill in presenting my own life. But i have tried to see myself objectively, as a character in a book, my weakness and my – I hesitate to write the word strength, but will instead use the word resilience – my vacillations and my temerity. I realize that I have possibly given too much space to the telling of little things, but these had a way of pushing themselves in. They were important to me.”

She is preoccupied by her “record of books written…seeing her children grow up, of seeing a different sort of world rise into my astonished view”.

But the first third of the book is devoted to her younger years, especially to her growing friendship with her cousin, Caroline. They had a game of pretend, which reminds of the game “making up” that Edith Wharton played when she was young (but she did not have a Caroline), which they resumed whenever they could. This kind of scene plays out many times, here when the girls are in their later teens.

“When we were alone together I asked: ‘Have you forgotten our Play?’
‘Never.’ She gave her gay little laugh. ‘Never for a moment. Let’s do it now.’ And so we did.”

The style is anecdotal and informal, dialogue often imagined, as in the passage above. Nonetheless, certain patterns are shared comfortably in such a manner, as with the arrival of Bunty, who undoubtedly “worked” in such a fashion for the duration of her four-legged life.

“While we were passing through times of sorrow and preparing again to move, the Scottie, Bunty, was developing in her own sturdy carefree way. She busied herself in the grounds or explored the neighbouring cornfield. But when I wrote she would come and lie at my feet and this was the beginning of her share in my work.”

Many memories are untethered to dates. It doesn’t matter when a particular book was read aloud by a parent, for instance, only that it was read and shared.

“We were enthralled by old books. My mother read aloud Don Quixote, from a very old copy, with strange print and stranger illustrations. It had belonged to my grandfather de la Roche. There were nearly a thousand pages of it.”

Although of course publication naturally tethers some memories to specific dates.

Ringing the Changes“Before this removal was accomplished Knopf had published Explorers of the Dawn. It was highly praised by the critics and sold moderately well. Christopher Morley wrote of it: “There will be readers who will look through it, as through an open window, into a land of clear gusty winds and March sunshine and volleying church bells on Sunday mornings, into a land of terrible contradictions, a land whose émigrés look back to it tenderly, yet without too poignant regret — the almost forgotten land of childhood.”

Sometimes I surmise that readers glimpse some aspects of the author’s personality alongside such concrete details, as with the details of a particular publication’s success.

“For a time it was on the list of best sellers in America and I think it is not without interest to give the titles and names of the authors of the four books which preceded it on that list.

They were, and this was in 1922:
The Secret Places of the Heart, by H.G. Wells.
Gentle Julia, by Booth Tarkington.
Memoirs of a Midget, by Walter de la Mare.
Adrienne Toner, by Anne Douglas Sedgwick.”

This is not a matter of capturing the zeitgeist, rather an exercise in recounting which of the books were more successful than Mazo de la Roche’s. (She does not include the books which fell below hers on the list.)

It’s clear, however, that she loves books. (The following passage resonated with me particularly, as I am reading my grandmother’s copies of the Jalna novels, slightly mildewed, but not – thankfully – falling apart.)

“Some of the most beautifully bound literally fell to pieces in our hands. Dozens upon dozens we were forced to throw away. It was heart-breaking to see them, and there were the bookmarks to show where my grandfather had left off reading, and there were passages he had marked! What charmed me most, and it was in good condition, was an ancient volume of natural history with fabulous pictured beasts. Almost all the books were in Latin, Greek or French, the poetry and drama of the classics. Did my grandfather, demanded Caroline, never relax with a thriller? Why, yes, there was a book by Edgar Allan Poe — and in English, too!”

Nonetheless, at this point in her career she was remarkably accomplished and her autobiography is of interest in this context. She was perhaps obliged to capture her connections and achievements in that particular light.

“Our nearest neighbours were the Livesays who had already spent several summers in the woodland. They had built a comfortable house and surrounded it with lovely gardens. J.F.B. Livesay was president of the Canadian Press. He had been a Canadian war correspondent and had written what was acknowledged to be the best book on Canada’s part in the First World War. […] He and his daughter Dorothy were cherished companions. Now one of Canada’s most interesting poets, she has written a Lament for him, than which I think I have read no more beautiful tribute to a father.”

Master of Jalna10It’s particularly interesting to read about the ways in which she acknowledges connections with her Jalna stories and her experience. (A book has been published, since, which suggests more direct and plentiful connections, but I haven’t read it yet, preferring to discover the stories on their own terms first.)

“Jalna was inspired by the traditions of that part of Southern Ontario on the fringe of which we had built Trail Cottage. The descendants of the retired military and naval officers who had settled there stoutly clung to British traditions. No house in particular was pictured; no family portrayed. From the very first the characters created themselves. They leaped from my imagination and from memories of my own family. The grandmother, Adeline Whiteoak, refused to remain a minor character but arrogantly, supported on either side by a son, marched to the centre of the stage.”

With more than sixteen volumes in the series, it’s strange to consider that she once chose the name rather randomly, unsuspecting of its later significance to so many readers and viewers.

“The name Jalna was suggested to me in this way: a member of the Civil Service, in the same department as Caroline, had spent many years in India. When she told him that I was in search of names of military stations there he sent me a list of quite a number. I pored over them and chose Jalna because it was the shortest; it was easy to remember and looked well in print. When I wrote it at the top of my first page of manuscript, it never entered my head that one day it would become well-known to quite a number of people.”

The joy of writing this story is fundamental for her, and I love the idea of Caroline reading the pages aloud in the summer evenings. I imagine them debating plot points and directing and redirecting romances and losses.

  “That summer I lived with the Whiteoaks, completely absorbed by them. In fancy I opened the door of Jalna, passed inside, listened to what was going on. Except for Bunty I was isolated in my woodland till Caroline’s return in the evening. As the chapters were finished she read them aloud.
The months passed.”

[Naomi: this bit is for you, given your keen interest in another Canadian classic novelist. “Thomas Raddall, that fine Nova Scotian novelist, has written to me: ‘You cannot imagine what your winning of the Atlantic Monthly prize meant to us other Canadian writers. It was as though you opened a door that had been inexorably shut against us.’”]

The writing did not always come easily to her. “Only a writer who has suffered an attack of nerves, such as I had passed through, can quite understand the effort of beginning, the tremendous eagerness to put down the first words, the fear of defeat, of breakdown. I knew what I wanted to write. The words were at my hand. But could I write them?”

But it was worth the investment. “In Toronto, Whiteoaks with Ethel Barrymore had had a warm reception, even though on its opening night there was a blizzard. Traffic was blocked by cars and the First Night audience was a blaze of diamonds and ermine such as is seldom seen in the theatre nowadays, when people may look as dowdy as they choose.”

Mazo de la Roche inhabited a world of diamonds and ermine, although she wrote of a big house in a little woods in Ontario.


Louis Riel: On the Page, On the Stage

The Canadian Opera Company is now presenting a new 50th-anniversary production of “Louis Riel”, originally written for the celebration of the Canadian centenary in 1967, with an attempt to shift that oh-so-colonial gaze, now including indigenous artists and languages with more nuanced representations of the historical figures.

These are powerfully important figures, and seeing their stories performed live can have a profound effect on those whose voices are typically confined to the margins, to the audience, rather than centre stage. Such an effect is described by Gregory Scofield, who attended  another cultural historical event which he expected to ridicule and resent, called “Back to Batoche Days”.

In Thunder Through My Veins (1997), he writes: “Now I had new heroes – Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, the half-breed soldiers who had given their lives for our homeland, freedom and independence. Never again would I search for a place of belonging. This place, Batoche, would always be ‘home,’ my home.”

Scofield Thunder Through My VeinsThe event came complete with fiddling contests and a theatre production narrated by Gabriel Dumont’s character, and it was followed by a pilgrimage to the mass grave site of the Métis soldiers killed in the 1885 rebellion and a tour of the historical site (of which only the chapel and rectory remain).

“As we left Batoche I felt my heart sink into the very landscape, my spirit joining those of my ancestors in the empty ravines and coulees. I had searched so long for a place of belonging, and now I had found it. The importance that I had once placed on being Cree – a true and pure Indian – seemed to disappear with the sinking sun.”

More than fifteen years later, he more fully engages with this experience in Louis: The Heretic Poems (2011). Here, each of four sections, titled in French, consider four roles Riel played during his lifetime: as boy, president, spokesman and statesman. “The Orange Poems” section begins with verses inspired by Riel’s experiences in the Red River Settlement in 1869.

“I did not want this, a crate of oranges
spoiled by greed.
But it came to be, this unpleasant fruit.

I said to them, these pitted anglais
we will not be shaken like so many plums
We will not fall down
not even like one pitiless

And, yet, there is a descent. The third segment contains a series of works which parallel government documents which outline the requirements of newcomers/settlers with words from Chiefs of the indigenous peoples/inhabitants. Here are a few lines from Minahikosis (Little Pine), Chief of the Plains Cree:

Scofield Louis Heretic Poems“We are collected here
like raindrops in a bucket.
The piece of parchment says
We are to stay here
Like stones that do not move.
We are to wait for rations
Like a dog or beggar.”

After the successful rebellion of the Métis people,which should have drawn attention to the rights of the indigenous peoples to inhabit their homelands and also to freely move through these lands as needed, Louis Riel turned himself into the government, in an effort to secure protection for the Métis.

He was tried and sentenced to be hanged.

The final segment of Gregory Scofield’s volume of poems imagines what verses Riel might have written to leave behind. There are letters and excerpts from a diary which remain in Riel’s hand. It’s not hard to imagine a poem like “The Request” being left behind. Here is a glimpse of one of the volume’s later verses:

“I ask, too, that when I am laid in a box
I am not made to look the sufferer
as if I was man of great articulations,
as if I was more that of a mapmaker
rather than those of a boxer
whose movements are quick and calculated
such as the dance of drunk mumbling fool.
This is my fear.”

Chester Brown Louis RielAs such a noteworthy figure, how could he not wonder how he would be viewed as the years passed, whether he would be considered a calculating martyr or a foolish heretic. Given that his legal representation relied upon a plea of insanity, this fear would be compounded.

Non-fiction sources could include Joseph Boyden’s Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont (2010) or Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography (2003).

Readers familiar with the Extraordinary Canadians and Penguin Lives series will anticipate a cursory treatment in Joseph Boyden’s book.

He acknowledges the vast primary source material (particularly recommends Riel’s diaries) and cites a handful of secondary sources, including Chester Brown’s comic, but the narrative itself can be read comfortably in a single sitting.

The introduction to the series is written by John Ralston Saul, who also was in attendance at the COC production on opening night (with Adrienne Clarkson).

He writes: “Each one of these people has changed you. In some cases you know this already. In others you will discover how through these portraits. They changed the way the world hears music, thinks of war, communicates. They changed how each of us sees what surrounds us, how minorities are treated, how we think of immigrants, how we look after each other, how we imagine ourselves through what are now our stories.”

This fits with Gregory Scofield’s experience of “Back to Batoche Days” too; the potential for transformation as we recognize heroes and homelands.

Chester Brown’s biography actually has more pages and extensive endnotes but it, too, can be read in an afternoon. It is divided into four parts also, with the panels in the final part blackened throughout Riel’s trial, only switching to a white background again following the sentence (and for the epilogue).

The Métis experience is not well known or understood. In his most recent volume of poems, Witness, I Am, Gregory Scofield writes:

Louis Riel Opera Study Materials“I apologize my skin
is not a good skin to be in

I’m not brown enough to testify
I apologize for my off-putting

beige hue, the discount colour
they sell at the fabric store”

In “This is not a manifesto”, he considers belonging as a place of betweens: “the half of a half of a half half half    the one little / two little three little     hatreds”. And in “Since When”, he describes the process of becoming a “no accent é Mé – tis / but a stand-my ground Metis / lay my bones at Batoche Metis / kill-me-if-you-can Metis”.

Tantoo Cardinal’s “There Is a Place” in Our Story considers later Métis experiences, betweeen 1915 and 1928: a “time of hopelessness”, in which the history of Red River and Batoche was forgotten. “The new immigrants knew nothing of it, nor did they care – a proud history forgotten. Now we had illiteracy, landlessness, and disease to consider in a new world where we had no place. We were obsolete.”

These are stories which need to be told. They require open-minded listeners. The Canadian Opera Company’s production of  “Louis Riel” by Harry Somers (libretto by Mavor Moore with the collaboration of Jackques Languirand) underscores this idea, presenting the tale in an atonal and discordant language, inviting us to enter uncomfortable spaces, encouraging us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Are you familiar with any of these works? Did you study Louis Riel in school? What aboriginal stories are next in your stacks or your TBR?


Mavis Gallant’s “The Legacy” (1954)

Inheritance: a common literary theme. Here, Mrs. Boldescu has died, leaving behind four grown children and a family grocery shop on St. Eulalie Street in Montreal: “Rumania Fancy Groceries”.

Grocery Shop 1935 Gallant

Small shops in 1935, imagine “Rumania Family Groceries” on the signClick for source details

Carol and Georgie are the older brothers, and the youngest boy is Victor, who is married to Peggy Ann now and living in Bloomfield, New Jersey.

Marina is sandwiched between the boys. And it quickly becomes apparent that she has felt the squeeze her entire life.

“She remembered at last what her brothers were like – not the somber criminal of sociological texts, denied roller skates at a crucial age; still less the hero-villain of films; but simply men whose moments of megalomaniacal audacity were less depressing than their lack of common sense and taste. It was for their pleasure, she thought, that people manufactured ashtrays shaped like little outhouses, that curly-haired little girls in sailor suits were taught to tap-dance, and night-club singers gave voice to ‘Mother Machree’ and ‘Eli, Eli’.”

There is a calendar in the kitchen, unturned from 1937, which is the year that Marina was supposed to travel to Grenoble for a scholarship, but something went wrong. (Readers do learn the details.)

So, the story is titled for the legacy of the family grocery store, with “Rumania Fancy Groceries” on the glass, “Mrs. Maria Boldescu in smaller letters beneath on the window”.

But it is also titled for the sense of confinement which all members of the family felt, but which both mother and daughter experienced intensely.

“Twenty, fifteen years before they had avoided each other like uncongenial castaways, each pursuing some elusive path that led away from St. Eulalie Street. Considering the way they had lived, crowded as peas in a pod, their privacy, she now thought, must have been a powerful act of will. In the darkening room, she saw herself ironing her middy blouse, the only one she owned, a book propped insecurely on the ironing board. Georgie and Carol came and went like cats, and Victor shouted outside in a game of kick-the-can.”

Gallant 1937 Calendar

When time stopped for Marina in “The Legacy”Click for source details

Victor’s life has turned out differently. He now works as a C.P.A. and he owns his own home south of the border. (He has also become a Protestant. Tsk tsk.)

The family grocery shop has no place in his life now, and Peggy Ann would never dream of running such a business. Yet, that’s exactly the future which Victor imagines for his sister, Marina.

““For me?”’she cried again. ‘I’m to live here?’ She looked around as if to find, once more, the path away from St. Eulalie Street, the shifting and treacherous path that described a circle, and if her brothers, after the first movement, had not held her fast, she would have wrecked the room, thrown her chair out the window, pulled the shrine from the wall, the plates from their shelves, wrenched the curtains from the nails that held them, and smashed every one of the ten tiny glasses that were her brothers’ pride.”

The images in this story establish the setting firmly and colourfully: the long black car hired for funeral, the wreath with “Good to You, Mama” on a violet horseshoe from the older boys, the radio with wood cut in a waterfall pattern, a shrine with a Madonna and her blue glass eyes, a pearl-and-diamond pin shaped like a daisy, a Persian lamb coat, Victor’s Buick, tin Pepsi-Cola signs, crepe on the window of the grocery, the 1937 calendar with the phone numbers of Sergeant-detectives Callahan and Vronsky on the back, and tins of chocolate empire biscuits.

Like a haze around all of these things, Marina’s anger is palpable. Possibly she imagined a kind of escape would await her, following her mother’s death.

Instead, she seems to feel the event is a death sentence for her as well.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the eighth story in The Other Paris. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “One Morning in June” (sometimes titled “One Morning in May”, as though one summer month is as good as another).


Louise Erdrich’s Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country (2003)

The table of contents is simple but thrilling for me, the book’s five chapters all themes and topics of great interest: Books and Islands, Islands, Rock Paintings, Books, and Home.

If the other titles in the series (from National Geographic)  are even half of what this volume appears to be, even at first glance, I’m not about to cross off one book from my TBR, but about to add twenty-three to it.

Books Islands ErdrichNonetheless, I’ve plucked this book from my TBR not, in this instance, for its bookishness, but for its Louise-Erdrich-ness. Because this year I am making good on my promise to myself to read and reread her books.

Beginning with Tracks, it was clear this would be a project which would require both attention and curiosity, which is appropriate because it would seem that the author possesses both qualitites in quantity.

Books & Islands begins quietly, with a packing scene, preparations for a journey. It’s fitting, this talk of difficulty with leavetaking at the beginning, given the volume’s concluding theme: home. (And, yes, you were probably wondering if she tells you which books she packed: that’s just what a bookish person would wonder. And, yes, she does.)

This is the kind of quiet satisfaction readers can expect to find here. It isn’t all spelled out. In some ways, the volume appears to be a rather superficial collection of musings and observations about a trip (partly by road and partly by lake and partly by inward motion).  But this is an invitation to settle in and allow the journey to unfold.

From the very beginning, readers are reminded that their worldview can shift easily. On the first page, there is a small inset map which displays both Canada and the United States, with an even smaller rectangle drawn in solid black roughly in the middle.

The full-page map, however, is titled “Ojibwe Country”. Covering parts of land now called Ontario and Minnesota, provinces of two neighbouring countries, these words are scattered across a homeland (although the reserve territories are marked as well).

This is the land readers will travel with Louise Erdrich, when she is 48 years old and her baby is 18 months old, often nursing while they travel, through the territories on the map and in the TOC.

At first, I wasn’t certain about my connection to her as a narrator. Yes, she says some things which are immediately inviting. Like, “I cannot imagine home without an overflow of books.” And when she talks about how books are the primary decorating motif in her house? Well, yes, of course.

But there is often a moment when I begin to read a bookish book in which I am sharply disappointed because the writer does not have exactly the same kind of bookishness as I do. After all, I’ve come to this kind of volume often because I’m yearning for that kind of bookish connection. And when the writer talks about books I don’t recognise, at first I’m put off a little. Maybe we can’t be friends, I worry.

This is foolishness on my part, which was even more strongly evident in this case, because it was the chapters on rock paintings and language which secured this book in the “long to have” column in my reader’s imagination. (Possibly I would have felt a sense of kinship with only these sections, but I think the bookishness was important too, and now it’s impossible for me to separate the different facets of the story from her as a storyteller.)

Perhaps this isn’t entirely surprising. I planned a vacation in my twenties around an image I’d seen of rock paintings in an Ontario lake. (And I didn’t plan it well enough, because I visited too early in May to travel to the paintings by boat and had to peer at them from a considerable distance on one of the rainiest days imaginable; I still have a photograph of a bench near the waterline half-submerged, because the rain was falling so fast, so fierce.)

But these passages in Louise Erdrich’s book are more about the stories than about the rocks themselves. About, for instance, the story told by Tobasonakwut (her sun dancer, who is a community healer, politican, teacher and negotiator) about his father. “The Creator is the lake and we are the waves in the lake.”

It’s also about her experience learning Ojibwemowin, the language her grandfather spoke fluently, but which she had to learn from the tapes produced by Ojibwe anthropologist Basil Johnson (rather than from family or nearby community members). This is a language of action (befitting a people always on the move), a language of verbs (for how can you carry so many nouns) and a language of human relationships (with up to 6,000 forms for each verb to express those relationships between nouns).

While reading about these subjects, it’s rare that a single sentence stands out. I would reach a powerful passage and unstick the sticky-flag and prepare to place it, but the passage would go on and on, until I realised that I simply couldn’t extract a single element to preserve. I simply wanted to reread the piece as a whole.

This is true for the descriptions of her home library, of the library on the island (which contained some 11,000 books and includes a ghost book – yup!) and that of her bookstore: this is a volume to which I would love to return, at a whim, as a whole.

I look forward to finding a copy. In the meantime, you might like to find one as well?


Mavis Gallant’s “Wing’s Chips” (1954)

This feels like a quintessential Mavis Gallant story: expectations and disappointments swirling around a young girl’s form, as she begins to assemble a set of truths about the world.

Riviere du loup Gallant

The town in “Wing’s Chips” would never make it onto a postcard of Valley-living(Click for source details)

Although the setting appears to be so familiar as to render the act of description unnecessary, the author’s eye for detail is remarable.

As unfamiliar as the scene must be for contemporary readers, it is easy to picture.

“It was a town like many others in the St. Lawrence Valley – old, but with a curious atmosphere of harshness, as if the whole area were still frontier and had not been settled and cultivated for three hundred years. There were rows of temporary-looking frame and stucco houses, a post office in somebody’s living room, a Chinese fish-and-chip store, and, on the lawn of the imposing Catholic church, a statue of Jesus, arms extended, crowned with a wreath of electric lights. Running straight through the center of town was a narrow river; a few leaky rowboats were tied up along its banks, and on Sunday afternoons hot, church-dressed young men would go to work on them with rusty bailing tins. The girls who clustered giggling on shore and watched them wore pastel stockings, lacy summer hats, and voile dresses that dipped down in back and were decorated low on one hip with sprays of artificial lilac. For additional Sunday divertissement, there was the cinema, in an old barn near the railway station.”

Our narrator is remembering a summer when she was seven or eight years old in this town, when she lived there with her father, who had only been in Canada for eight or nine years.

She is remembering the way that her father used to remember his boyhood in England before the First World War, where it was “green, sunny, and silent”, “landscape flickering and flooded with light, like the old silents at the cinema”.

Their housekeeper was a “fierce-looking local girl called Pauline”, so ill-tempered that she was called P’tit-Loup (Little Wolf). She cooked abominably and had a pronounced mustache.

Her piano teacher, Madame Tessier, was the convent-educated wife of a farmer, who persevered twice a week with the girl, until it was known that she had no piano at home for practice.

It was easier for this young girl to define herself by what she was not. For instance, she knew that she was not a Catholic, because she attended the Pensionnat Saint-Louis de Ganzague in Montreal and did not take First Communion like the Catholic children.

So, she is not Catholic and she is not French-Canadian. This, too, she knows because of something that is missing in her story, something that does not happen.

Gallant Other Paris“All of the French-Canadian fathers in the town worked. They delivered milk, they farmed, they owned rival hardware stores, they drew up one another’s wills. Nor were they the only busy ones. Across the river, in a faithful reproduction of a suburb of Glasgow or Manchester, lived a small colony of English-speaking summer residents from Montreal. Their children were called Al, Lily, Winnie, or Mac, and they were distinguished by their popping blue eyes, their excessive devotion to the Royal Family, and their contempt for anything even vaguely queer or Gallic. Like the French-Canadians, the fathers of Lily and Winnie and the others worked. Every one of them had a job.”

Her relationship with her father is key, and here, too, he is defined by the things he does not do.

“He was not like any father I had met or read about. He was not Elsie’s Mr. Dinsmore, stern but swayed by tears. Nor did he in the least resemble Mr. Bobbsey, of the Bobbsey Twins books, or Mr. Bunker, of the Six Little Bunkers. I was never scolded, or rebuked, or reminded to brush my teeth or say my prayers. My father was perfectly content to live his own summer and let me live mine, which did not please me in the least. If, at meals, I failed to drink my milk, it was I who had to mention this omission. When I came home from swimming with my hair wet, it was I who had to remind him that, because of some ear trouble that was a hangover of scarlet fever, I was supposed to wear a bathing cap. When Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame finally arrived at the cinema, he did not say a word about my not going, even though Lily and Winnie and many of the French-Canadian children were not allowed to attend, and boasted about the restriction.”

What her father DOES is actually rather problematic. He is a painter, an artist, although his efforts at portraiture are not always to the subject’s specifications or satisfaction.

It is not until a local business is seeking a painter, that her father appears to be some use. Perhaps he can work after all. “Wing’s Chips” needs a new sign for the business. Finally, her father can make a recognisable contribution to the community.

“’Just ‘Wing’s Chips’?’ my father asked. ‘Or would you like it in French – ‘Les Chips de Wing’?’
‘Oh, English,’ said all the Wings, almost together. My father said later that the Chinese were terrible snobs.”

The Wing family is also defined primarily by what they are not. Despite their perfect language skills and skill with chip-making, they are not English.

“The smaller Wings, in the winter months, attended Anglican boarding schools in the west, at a discreet distance from the source of income. Their English was excellent and their French-Canadian idiom without flaw. Those nearest my age were Florence, Marjorie, Ronald, and Hugh. The older set of brothers and cousins – those of my father’s generation – had abrupt, utilitarian names: Tommy, Jimmy, George. The still older people – most of whom seldom came out from the rooms behind the shop – used their Chinese names. There was even a great-grandmother, who sat, shrunken and silent, by the great iron range where the chips swam in a bath of boiling fat.”

There is no attempt – not even a whisper of the possibility – to imagine how different the memories of the “older” generation of Wings might be, let alone the “still older” generation and the great-grandmother’s generation, from the younger Wings’, from the narrator’s memories.

Although barely ten pages long, “Wing’s Chips” raises some interesting questions about the intersections between identites together with the feeling that a child often has, of being caught between-the-lines, not fully inhabiting any well-defined and welcoming spaces.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the seventh story in The Other Paris. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “The Legacy”.


Hodgepodge of Irish Bookishness

There’s some Irish in me and some on my bookshelves, too, but this March, with Reading Ireland hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and memories of reading Irish short stories with Mel at The Reading Life, I went for a library browse to add to the volumes I’d pulled from my shelves.

reading-ireland-month_2017The first plucked were Kate O’Brien’s Not Without My CloakAnakana Schofield’s Malarky and Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies. Then, on a hunt for an old favourite, in the back rows on the shelves of children’s books, I discovered Patricia Lynch’s The Bookshop on the Quay.

This mix pleased me from the start – a classic, and two wildly different contemporary novels, along with a children’s story – together with a story anthology and some illustrated volumes from the library.

Kate O’Brien’s family saga spans from 1789 to 1877 in the Considine family, primarily set in the town of Mellick, on the banks of a river with the Bearnagh hills to the west. Although really Denis’ story, the women in the family are significant, too, often torn between personal desires and public expectations. (Were they more daring and spirited, Kate O’Brien’s heroines might have had small roles in novels like Elizabeth Taylor’s, but these women are more traditional, but with an air of sadness better suited to Edith Wharton’s heroines.)

With this event in mind, however, I was looking for Ireland on the page. In Mellick, we have “the crumbling Old Town that looked so gently beautiful at evening; grey, sad, and tender, huddled on humpy bridges about canals and twisting streams”.

Then, there is the surounding landscape: “His eyes were on the hills beyond the river, hills where he had trudged so often and whose colours and lines he had learned by heart in his three years in Mellick.”

There’s even a brief peek at Dublin: “‘It’ll all be the same in a hundred years,’ is Grafton Street’s motto, and if, say, twice in every hundred years she had to be emphatic about this, Irishmen being the noisy lunatics they are, she is never perturbed, for she keeps on finding that men and women remain the same, with life’s seduction just as sweet to them, however the years receded with their fashions and fanaticisms.”

Anakana Scholfield’s Malarky is preoccupied with the internal landscape, populated by a grieving woman. Mind you, the voice is unmistakably Irish, and there are references to Dublin but the ground trod upon is psychological.

“As a matter of fact I had had enough of this grief conselling.
As a matter of fact I’d had enough of Grief herself.
As a matter of fact there are a hundred people I would rather talk to.
As a matter of fact.”

Our Woman’s voice is inescapable, relentless and enticing. (I’m only halfway.)

Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies won the Women’s Prize for Fiction Award in 2016 (sponsored by Bailey’s that year).

Like Anakana Scholfield, Lisa McInerney pries out the humour in painful circumstances. The prose, here, is more dense, and the setting more deliberate and concrete (Cork). But, once more, the emphasis in on the internal setting.

“It had been a season of extremes. The sun, when it shined, crisped everything it caught, but it never appeared except in a bruise of cumulus clouds. Showers kept the children indoors. The air was thick with fuming wasps.”

The outdoors reflects the tenuous and vulnerable emotional terrain. (Again, I’m only halfway.)

Irish fairy talesPatricia Lynch’s The Bookshop on the Quay is a story which should be served with tea and soda bread slathered with farmers’ butter.

“‘Am I the kind of chap would stay in Waterford when the road to Dublin lies open before me? The road, a herd of the best bullocks from the Golden Vale, and a couple of lads who can sing a song, or tell a story with the best shanachie from West Cork!”

Even so, my favourite scenes are not in the Irish countryside, but in the bookshop, which has a copy of Gulliver’s Travels in the window (unless one of the children takes it to bed with them) and a devoted staff which reads more often than it dusts.

Just as I was reading from my own shelves, however, pointedly. I began to recognize some glimmers of Irishness which snuck in, including a biography of James Joyce in Javiar Mariás’ Written Lives.

He was no Joyce fan for, even as a young man, he was “already rather pompous and full of himself, concerned only with what he would write and with his early (and perennial) hatred of Ireland and the Irish”.

Nonetheless, it was fun to find his biography in these pages. (Just as I excused my binge-viewing of “The Fall” in conjunction with Reading Ireland!)

Even the remarks made in Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna stories, particularly about Adeline’s father, also fit with the theme: “Ah, what beautiful manners has my father! The courtesy, the amiability of an Irish gentleman! ’Tis my regret that he does not live nearby for a constant example to you.” (The young Whiteoaks are hardly examples of good behaviour, but it’s debatable whether Renny Court was really all that either!)

From the library, for atmosphere, there was Peter Harbison and Leslie Conron Carola’s Ireland: a Luminous Beauty. Originally I had hoped to find photographs which corresponded directly to the books I was reading, but I ended up enjoying the book on its own terms, reading through and especially enjoying the photos of early sacred sites and seascapes.

Also for atmosphere, Robert O’Byrne’s Romantic Irish Homes (Photography by Simon Brown). Mind you, there are a lot of pictures of books in here, too. But there is plenty of atmosphere here even without the bookishness. Here, I enjoyed the idea of choosing a particular nook in a photograph in which to imagine reading a particular Irish story. (Yes, there was even an imagined perch for reading Malarky, but that was harder to choose.)

For context, Ireland: The Autobiogaphy (edited by John Bowman) which begins with a conteporary account of the Easter Rebellion and ends with a centenary reflection upon the rebellion. Most of the pieces are only a couple of pages long and work to create a scene vividly and experientially. It’s a fine beginning for any Irish reading project.

Irish Short Stories EnrightAnd, for stories. But also because it has a lovely green ribbon for a bookmark: Celtic Tales: Fairy Tales and Stories of Enchantment from Ireland, Scotland, Brittany and Wales (Illustrated Kate Forrester). “The Clumsy Beauty and Her Aunts”, a trickster tale in which a girl is “beautiful as a spring day” but too clumsy to be a good weaver (which is just fine, as it turns out). “The Soul Cages” a sea story about a young fisherman who yearns to hang out with a merrow and discovers the unexpected beneath the waves.

Plus, three short stories in The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, edited by Anne Enright.

I selected three new-to-me writers beginning with Philip Ó Ceallaigh’s “Walking Away”. Perhaps it’s just me, but Anne Enright’s fiction seems sorrow-soaked to me, and this story fit right in as a portrait of grief. “He felt like holding something solid and imperfect, pulling himself back to earth from those sleepwalking days.” Although its clarity and starkness is almost overwhelming, in the end “he was feeling something strong, and his mind beginning to awaken”.

This awakening also shows itself in Hugo Hamilton’s “The Supremacy of Grief”. “Nobody knows when the real grief sets in. Nobody knows what a man alone in his grief might do. They had no children and it was considered better or safer for him to be in company for a while longer.” The “heavy sediment” of grief shifts and suddenly readers are asking a different question “Nobody knows the difference between a dead man and a man who wants to play dead.”

Gerard Donovan’s “Visit” considers a different kind of grief, when a man takes his mother out from the nursing home. “At a certain age and when the cities of the body no longer accept emissaries and require advance notice for anything, movement becomes a ritual like a king’s procession, it builds into ceremonies of delay, whether to the bathroom or to the window, both of which are thousands of miles away.”  It sounds sombre, but it ends with a certain slant of light.

How about you? Were you Reading Ireland in March? Or March and April?! Which of these books do you think you might like to include if you were reading on this theme?