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

Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist (2014)

It doesn’t get much more obvious than stacking these truths on the book jacket: there it is.

Confabulist Galloway

Knopf Canada, 2014

The Confabulist
Steven Galloway

For even though the noun more commonly associated with ‘confabulate’ is ‘confabulation’, what is most important here is not the story itself but the voice behind the story: the confabulist.

Readers are directed to attend to the storyteller, whose fiction has been critically acclaimed, long- and short-listed for a number of awards, and selected for Toronto’s One Book program in 2014 (The Cellist of Sarajevo): Steven Galloway, the confabulist.

Looking beyond the novelist, the next most obvious candidate is Martin Strauss, whose voice opens the novel, speaking directly to readers in the first person.

But in a novel preoccupied by the relationship between reality and illusion, between memory and invention, between distraction and subterfuge, readers must be cautious. Confabulists in the mirror may be nearer than they appear.

‘Confabulate’ is defined by the OED as “fabricate imaginary experiences as compensation for the loss of memory” and Martin’s doctor explains the phenomenon to him soon after readers meet him on the page.

So readers know that this man — whose brain will no longer store and process memories like most people but, instead, “will invent new memories” — is bound to present more questions than answers.

But Martin has a solution. “Perhaps if I write things down, I can create a story for myself that, through rereading, will become a sort of new reality as my ability to distinguish between illusion and substance worsens.”

At first glance, this seems reasonable. But readers must recall that Martin’s condition was present when the diagnosis was shared.

This means that readers must also question the point of entry for the confabulist, whether or not the question of the narrator as confabulist is, itself, a confabulation.

There is great potential to ravel and unravel these philosophical questions for those readers who enjoy such puzzles. In fact, Martin’s solution of creating a story actively engages readers in the process.

“I still wonder if this memory is real or false, if it’s me or everyone else who’s wrong. […] Is this illusion or substance? What does it mean if this moment never happened?”

What role does having an audience play in terms of establishing or confirming validity? If readers participate in Martin’s tale, through the act of reading and co-imagining, does that add substance to the experiences described? Does that make The Confabulist more or less real?

But for readers who are not interested in such musings, there is considerable pleasure to be found in Martin’s confabulations (both real and imagined from his perspective, all of them imagined from Steven Galloway’s perspective).

There is as much suspense in this tale as history, and it can be viewed as a page-turner or a work of polished artistry. (Or, perhaps one of those is an illusion.) Martin Strauss’ recounting of the life of Harry Houdini is gripping and propulsive.

“The whole world knows me as the man who killed Harry Houdini, the most famous person on the planet. His story is complicated, though most of it is widely known. What no one knows, save for myself and one other person who likely died long ago, is that I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice.”

It’s possible to completely forget the possibility that this is fabricated (which is certainly is at some level, although Steven Galloway cites some of his sources in the author’s notes at the end of the novel).

The presence of a number of historical figures besides Houdini himself adds substantially to the story’s credibility; it is easier to believe this accounting when the Romanov family and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle make appearances on the page. The settings are rich, though sketched in broad strokes, the language is straightforward and uncluttered, the dialogue is deftly interwoven with the exposition necessary to develop the plot, and the sense of the tale’s veracity swells.

But Houdini himself is an elusive character and as he rises in prominence, his capacity to wield significant influence increases along with his celebrity. Above all, Harry Houdini is a performer, an entertainer.

“At times he didn’t know what parts of him were real and what parts of him had been made up in order to become Harry Houdini.” He is a master of illusion. “Effect, method, misdirection, reconstruction. For me, they explain everything.”

One could say the same of a novelist. Steven Galloway, too, is a skillful illusionist. He pleats two tiers of a narrative, one the first-person voice of Martin Strauss and the other the third-person experience of Harry Houdini, but behind the curtain he is working his own kind of magic.

“A memory isn’t a finished product, it’s a work in progress. We think that our minds are like a library—the right book is there somewhere if you can find it. A
whole story will then unfold with you as the narrator. But our memory changes, evolves, erases. Moments disappear and are replaced and combined.”

The most remarkable element of this novel is not that it contains a multitude of illusions, but that it, itself, is an illusion. One might argue that the same could be said of any novel, but what sets this work apart is the author’s attention to a taut and delicate construction, the slow unravelling of voice twinned with the gradual lift of the curtain so that readers can catch a glimpse of the inner workings.

We readers are immediately engaged and bear some responsibility for creating this illusion, too, as we replace and combine our own memories of reading Steven Galloway’s confabulation.

IFOASmallBadgeSteven Galloway will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.

This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.

Next Wednesday, thoughts on Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk.

This One Summer: A True Favourite

These sentences are dappled across a two-page spread of Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer (2014), as though they are wafts of milkweed ink:

This One Summer Tamaki.

House of Anansi, 2014

“The first time I ever saw a milkweed was on the beach at Awago. I thought they were magic pods. I thought that if we ate them, the fluff would make us grow wings. So Windy and me picked like hundreds of them. A whole knapsack. We were going to mix them with ice cream and milk and coconut.”

The plants are drawn from mid-stem up, their leaves and stems detailed and scored with dark lines and texture, the fluff barely-there, side-stroked wisps of near-nothing. There is a sense of wonder and possibility there, which mirrors the innocent plans and musings of a younger Rose and Windy.

On the next page, the story slips back into panels. They are neatly drawn and squared, but just slightly askew, like images from a scrapbook of photographs with those old fashioned corners that required licking and sticking to hold the image.

“Then my mom found the knapsack and she told us milkweed is really poisonous.”

It isn’t even about whether or not it is poisonous; what matters is that something beautiful was declared to be other-than-expected, the possibilities squelched by contradictions.

In another book, this realization might have slipped into anti-grown-up-ness. (And perhaps justifiably so, for Rose certainly has her hands full this one summer, coping with her parents’ problems, just as she is at her most-between, when she is keenly craving stability and security.)

But although they do not inhabit the story’s core, the parents in this book are fully integrated into the story and their own characters are well enough established to hint at other narratives orbiting the story of Rose’s summer without a full-on collision.

This passage immediately leads into one of my favourite scenes, in which Rose is sitting at the table reading a book while her mother French braids her hair. In the final panel, after the braid is tied off and her hair has been smoothed down, Rose looks up from her seated position and asks her mother if she’s planning to go down to the beach with the girls. The mother’s face is beyond the panel, but her arms drape across Rose’s shoulders, her wrists limp and her hands dangling below Rose’s neck. Rose grasps her wrists and waits for the answer.

Rose is somewhere between hand-holding and braiding her own hair. She is still looking up at her mother, but on the verge of understanding that her mother’s decision to stay indoors really has nothing to do with Rose but with matters about which Rose has been unaware. (This is yet to happen, because this scene is early on, but it is in the wings.)

On the surface, This One Summer is about a single summer, in which certain matters which were either tremendously fuzzy or completely out-of-view begin to have edges and emerge from the sidelines where grown-ups live.

It is simultaneously about the glorious and seemingly unending days of summer-somewhere-away, somewhere barely touched by rest-of-the-year concerns, and about that time of life when adulthood, too, seemed impossibly far away, but was inevitably approaching.

Cottage life is captured so perfectly that it feels like there are grains of sand trickling out of the binding, and it’s a relief that the book has one of those waxy softcovers, because otherwise it would surely curl from the dampness of those early cottage mornings.

The drawings, the layouts, the ratio of text-to-image, the narrative pacing, the dialogue, the characterization, the setting: every component combines seamlessly with the whole to create a winsome and soul-satisfying tale.

This is one of my favourites this reading year, and I expect I will reread it every summer (possibly every winter too). In fact, I might just reread it now, this (one) summer.

June/July 2014, In My Reading Log

Days and days throughout this July have contained book after book after book: a swell of print.

From graphic novels (revisiting the Game of Thrones saga in this medium) to short stories (lots of those!), from memoirs (I’ve just finished Zarqa Nawaz’s Laughing All the Way to the Mosque) to bestsellers (I’ve just started Tom Rachman’s latest), even a mini Canlit read-a-thon.

There will lots of full-length reviews next month but here are a few words about some recent discoveries:

Abel Place Scraps

Talonbooks, 2014

Jordan Abel’s the place of scraps (2014)
Dedicated to the Indigenous peoples of North America, the place of scraps juxtaposes poetry and visual art with excerpts from Marius Barbeau’s “classic” anthropological study Totem Poles.

Text and black and white photographs collide. A full set of paragraphs on one page is presented on the following page with only select words evident, suggesting a new meaning. The ‘his’ of history appears like a settler’s declarative statement upon arrival in a homeland.

Sometimes only the punctuation remains, and readers must wonder at the decision, for instance, to include the indigenous language only in parentheses in Barbeau’s work.

Curators and collectors claimed articles as small as beads and as large as totem poles, often in the name of preservation not extermination, and Jordan Abel invites readers to reconsider elements of this his-torical process and its legacy for today’s descendants.


Three O’Clock Press, 2014

Lily Poritz Miller’s The Newcomers (2014)
“Across from the field when Mr. Wolfson had taken Libka lived the widow Sharon Krinsky and her daughter, Fanny, who worked as a seamstress in a local mill. They occupied the second floor of the tenement house that Mrs. Krinsky owned, and she spent most of her time looking out of the window. On the night when Mr. Wolfson pulled up in the field and turned off his engine, she watched the activity in the car through her binoculars, highlighted by a street lamp.”

Carrying on from In a Pale Blue Light, reading The Newcomers feels somewhat like turning to a Galsworthy novel, as though the family saga might unfold endlessly. But with a dash of the Sydney Taylor All-of-a-Kind Family series, for the focus is on the children in the family and the action eventually shifts from South Africa to the United States.

In this volume, the second, the focus is the daughter, Libka, whom readers have followed since her father’s death at the beginning of the first volume, through her school years and graduation. But just as the quote reveals, there is a wider ensemble cast, and readers are as likely to get details about her mother’s work in the laundry as about parked cars and untoward behaviour.

The covers, too, hint at the voice and themes; their cool colours and charcoal lines suggest that these stories are told from a distance, when passions have cooled, and both language and preoccupations are soft and controlled, neither stark nor highly emotive.

Time Out Shaw

Second Story Press, 2014

These stories reward the patient reader with a solid connection to characters followed across time and space and a desire to continue with the story in as-yet-unpublished volumes.

Liane Shaw’s Time Out: A teacher’s year of reading, fighting, and four-letter words (2014)
“Social workers, teachers, doctors, parents, principals – so many adults in the lives of these kids. It reminds me of an old joke: how many adults does it take to screw up a kid?”

My girlhood copy of A Circle of Children is off-colour and worn; I reread Mary MacCracken’s books about her years working with “troubled kids” as often I reread my favourite Lois Duncan novels; Time Out bears some similarity as the emphasis is on emotional connection (and disconnection) between teacher and students more so than academics.

But Liane Shaw did not pursue this career. “It seems I have just agreed to a job that I don’t want to do,” she writes. But over the course of the year, “these” kids become “her” kids. Her elementary school room is both a refuge and a prison, for the bullies and the bullied, but with a course in crisis management, she survives (they do too).

There is just enough of her personal life shared for readers to understand the bleed-over of a committed teacher’s care-taking and compassion, and there is just enough detail overall to add depth to the cursory treatment of a single academic year.

The balance between broad-strokes and specifics is deftly handled and the author’s voice is warm, sometimes witty and sometimes tender, and her delivery is assured.

Cushion in the Road Walker

The New Press, 2013

Alice Walker’s The Cushion in the Road (2013)
“A writer’s heart, a poet’s heart, an artist’s heart, a musician’s heart is always breaking. It is through that broken window that we see the world; more mysterious, beloved, insane, and precious for the sparkling and jagged edges of the smaller enclosure we have escaped.”

The subtitle reveals the breadth of content covered in this collection of essays: Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way. Palestine, the Drug War, the importance of napping, compassion, subsistence farming, justice: the subject matter is broad.

“I would be remiss, as an elder of the planet, to remain silent at this point about some of the ways to deal with this period of emotional, psychological, ideological, and financial instability,” she writes, with conversations about the instability alongside conversations about the impossible.

People like Howard Zinn, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Frieda and Diego, and Edwidge Danticat (and their work) appear in the pages with commentary, and the essays certainly lengthened my lists of books to read and films to watch and places to visit.

Sometimes inspiring and always informative, this collection is best enjoyed in short bursts, for though the wordcounts are sometimes slim, the girth of the ideas herein is substantial indeed: food for thought.

How about you? What has caught your attention recently?

Have you been indulging in bookishness?

84: Best Canadian Stories (Edited by David Helwig and Sandra Martin)

These stories were chosen “to be read rather than merely admired, or even envied”, including five previously unpublished stories. Thirty years later, the list of contents conjures up echoes of the Giller Prize, Canada Reads, and even a Pulitzer.

Frances Itani’s “Grandmother”
“And she has long known what the rest of us take the better part of our lives to learn. That there is an element of self that can never be reached or touched by any other.”

Originally published in Queen’s Quarterly, I wonder if this story would eventually become part of Deafening. A family attends a funeral, and the narrative slips back into the past, memories bracketed by the present, perfectly recreating the strangeness of those moments between time in which we struggle to reconcile ourselves with a loss, particularly a loss which belongs more to someone near to us than to our own selves. The occasional bit of dialogue contributes vastly to characterization, but mostly this is a solid expository piece (fitting for a character who could neither hear nor speak) which vividly creates a familiar scene.

Carol Shields’ “Home” (Unpublished)
“This luminous transformation, needless to say, went unnoticed by those in the aircraft, so busy was each of them with his or her private vision of transcendence.”

While each character might be busied with a personal vision of transcendence, the storyteller is slipping from traveller to traveller. Each has a different reason for travelling and a different experience of travelling, and this short exploration of strangers sharing a confined space allows readers’ imaginations to wander. Playful, though not always uplifting, “Home” ends most delightfully, with a sense of endless stories yet to be told. It would later be published in Various Miracles.

Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “Letters to Josef in Jerusalem”
“Do you still take walks through the graveyard where we sat? Twenty years have passed and we’re still sitting there, Josef, younger and older than death, looking out over the vivid darkness of No Man’s Land….”

Lyrical and mythic, GM’s story contrasts dramatically with the stories on either side of it. Talk of an “unholy wound we carved in God” and “cylindrical coffins of words” requires a relaxed reading muscle, a space in which the writing can simply settle across the reader’s consciousness.  Broadcast on CBC’s “Anthology” and published in “Canadian Forum”, this appeared long before Rosemary Sullivan’s outstanding biography, Shadowmaker. If I had read this story in the anthology when it was freshly published, I wouldn’t have recognized its author’s name, nor did I have a copy of Noman’s Land which would be published later the same year.

David Lewis Stein’s “The Working Class”
“The important thing is that Janis hasn’t gone into a coma. He begins to withdraw his honesty from them like a man closing up a zipper. A few days’ rest, he says, and Janis will be as good as new.”

Originally published in “Canadian Forum”, readers slip into this story out of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s strange near-real just when Ellie is half-asleep and awakened by a call from a student who has attempted suicide. Just as suddenly as Ellie finds herself in a car, racing to Janis’ home, readers are swept into a complex reevaluation of a woman’s working, mothering, loving and fracturing.

Tom Marshall’s “T” (Unpublished)
“The future is always imaginary. So thought the professor, as he developed the fantasy sketched in above. He fancied a melodramatic death for himself.”

Whether a single sentence or a couple of pages, Tom Marshall’s story is separated into thirty segments which play with the idea of Professor T’s life and death and a neighbour boy also named T. With MacEwen’s story, this is one of the collection’s less conventional works, questioning the narrator’s capacity to access and present his reality to readers who can only dumbly follow along, line by line.

Bonnie Burnard’s “Moon Watcher” (Unpublished)
“When grief and rage began to overtake the decency, like weeds through the cracks of a sidewalk, she signed up with a psychiatrist.”

Perhaps this originally appeared in Women of Influence; it is not in Casino, one of my favourite collections, but it would have fit, stylistically and thematically. The ending of this story is quietly revolutionary. A few years later, Bonnie Burnard would have another story published in the 1989 anthology, so other readers, too, must have responded well to this passions-cooled story of a middle-aged woman on the other side of leaving.

Elizabeth Spencer’s “Madonna”
“Did I say that before? The memory has done all it can; it has taken me back to the beginning of itself, to that day at the secretary’s desk, to a vision’s fleetingness and its power to remain.”

Many of these collected stories are preoccupied with the past and with memories, but Madonna is wholly absorbed by remembering. What is forgotten, too, is central to this Montreal-soaked story. The narrator attempts a fabrication to conceal her obsession with what has been lost, but she stumbles relentlessly into what-was-once-and-is-no-longer.

Nora Keeling’s “Mine” (Unpublished)
“She was too engrossed in absorbing her own loss. Nobody and nothing stays with me she would think, as she retraced her steps back to her reading-chair.”

A solitary and lonely narrator, Sadie’s perspective is inherently limited, but readers have a front-row seat to her loss and grief. The prose is weighted by the accumulation of details shared about her daily routine, but that suits the character’s development. She, too, is often pulled into the past, but an unexpected connection forces her to leave room for the present, and perhaps even the future.

Helene Holden’s “The Arsonist’s Dream” (Unpublished)
“A fire always jolts me – I don’t know what it is about burning: I smell it first, I taste it first, I’m much too avid a fire watcher.”

This story of two sisters in Montreal reminds me of Saleema Nawaz’s sisters in Bone and Bread, perhaps partly because it is a story which is comfortable with unanswered questions and, as such, it feels more contemporary than many of these works. Punctuated with dialogue, this story is sensorily rich, though it is also one of the collection’s shorter tales.

Robin Mathews’ “Florentine Letourneau”
“Florentine looked down at her coffee cup, her fingers still entwined with Emmanuel’s. She wondered what the men had said about her, what Jean Lévesque had told Boisvert.”

Because I watched the mini-series as a teenager, I have been waiting to read Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute (at first I was waiting to forget the details, so I could discover the story afresh, but then the years slipped past). So I can’t tell how much of Florentine and Emmanuel and Jean’s story here differs from the original, but I do love it when fictions inspire other fictions, so I appreciated this one all the same.
It was originally published in Queen’s Quarterly and Roy’s novel was originally published in 1945.

Audrey Thomas’ “Elevation”
“There had been several of these boy-men at the ice-cream social: charming, interesting to sit next to. But perhaps scary to spend your life with.”

Originally published in Saturday Night, Audrey Thomas is one of three eventual winners of the Marian Engel Award included herein (along with Carol Shields and Bonnie Burnard). Incisive observations and vivid scenes bolster the story’s impact. I am reminded how much I enjoyed the stories in The Wild Blue Yonder.

Mavis Gallant’s “Lena”
“In her prime, by which I mean in her beauty, my first wife, Magdalena, had no use for other women.”

Arguably the best-known short story writer in the collection, , given this story’s original publication in “The New Yorker”, the style here is quintessential Gallant. The story spirals backwards, inspired by a series of visits made to Lena – now nearly 80 and bedridden – by her husband. Elegant and measured, this is a class act.

I’ve said before that I wanted to make a project of more methodically reading her short stories, and this confirms my desire.

Oberon Press is one-of-a-kind; it is always a pleasure to dip into their collections.

Literary Kismet: Michaels and Galloway

Us Conductors MichaelsLocks are like this: to break their purpose you must know them fully, as you would know certain faces. You must understand the flick and tick of tumblers, the swivel of nooks in metal. I did not know how to pick a lock. I tapped the first small silver circle. I peered at it. I wondered how long it would be until someone came into this room and found me tampering with boxes that did not belong to me. I had no time for failures. The lock was just a complicated thing that would come undone, like so many complicated things had come undone. I tapped the lock again. I imagined other locks I had seen, the greased fit, and I evaluated the size and style of the mechanism before me. In my hand were my two pins, my lock picks—one like a flattened piece of steel, hooked; one like a strong wire, bent. I considered the way these tools could be used. I took the first and I jammed it into the lock. It remained there, wedged. I fitted the second above it. This movement had no sound. I pushed inside slowly, softly, feeling for a skirting touch. Tiny grooves, sensitive places. The tools were loose in my hands. I found the faintest ridges at the top of this channel. I stroked these ridges with needle-tip. I felt hidden and very strong.
Sean Michaels’ Us Conductors (2014)

Confabulist GallowayHe closed his eyes and pictured the inside of the plug, the three pins, the cleave in the pins, and the cylinder. There was an angle he wanted to achieve, and after a moment he knew what it was. Then he opened his eyes, twisted his wrists in opposite directions to place some torque on the plug, and slammed the cuffs down hard on the workbench.
The cuffs leaped open and clattered to the floor. Both Houdini and Deakins stared at them. The hooves of a horse clopped by out on the street, and the wind creaked at the door. Deakins nudged the cuffs with his foot as if they were a dead animal. “Huh,” he said.
Houdini didn’t say anything for a while, unsure of what to do. “We shouldn’t tell anyone how this happened,” he said.
Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist (2014)

My mini-Canlit-read-a-thon on Canada Day, 2014 (II)

Choosing a stack based on whimsy rather than duty urged me to binge on these books with enthusiasm. The afternoon heat was held at bay by good stories and an assortment of drinks (often rum with some sort of fruit juice, from tangerine to strawberry, lemon to cherry). And without any pressing engagements, it was easy to dismiss the events which threatened to interfere with turning pages in bulk.

CanadaDayCanlitReadAThonSmallFabric draped to one side to keep the sun out made it feel more like a cottage than a porch, and with the exception of one neighbour’s over-exuberant experiments with a leaf-blower and another neighbour’s full-blown addiction to air-conditioning (it starts in April, I swear), it was a most peaceful scene.

Though not as serene perhaps as cottage life in Jean Little’s Stand in the Wind. This was one of my favourite books of hers as a child, but I haven’t reread it as an adult.

Like Janie in One to Grow On, however, the girls in Stand in the Wind are bookish and contemplative. They have no problem filling time on a rainy day at the cottage. But Martha, as much as she is a reader, is also an extroverted child, eager to attend camp for the first time and devastated when an injury results in her having to stay home. She conceives of a plan to make her own camp but is disappointed yet again when the two girls who are coming to visit are not inclined in that direction (for different reasons).

Jean Little’s style is slightly old-fashioned and over-earnest, with the innocence characteristic of Elizabeth Enright and Sydney Taylor, and for good reason, as this novel was first published in 1975. Families are of paramount importance and largely sources of support and nurturing; someone might be in a bad temper, but there are so serious “social issues” and the challenges to be overcome are signifcant (for example, triumphing over fears and learning to spend time with different personality types) but not overwhelming.

As a girl, I wouldn’t have thought twice about the two youngest boys being aboriginal, adopted and brought into the family as a pair of brothers to join the pair of sisters. Now I realize that such a practice is an extension of Canada’s residential school system, an attempt to dilute indigenous culture, cloaked in good intentions. But the boys’ heritage is mentioned only in passing, and the focus is consistently on the girls; their large family would have been astonishing to me as an only child with or without native heritage.

“Once I asked mother why we didn’t have more money for things like that [records], things we don’t really need but still want, and she said she had given me a sister and two brothers instead. She asked me which one I wanted her to trade in.”

Beauty plus Pity Kevin ChongThe stories in Gilles Archambault’s In a Minor Key, which are translated by David Lobdell, are sometimes only a few sentences long. And, yet, just as readers marvel at the capacity of Alice Munro to put the stuff-of-novels into a single short story, readers might marvel at Archambault’s ability to evoke a fascinating situation in just a few lines.

Following my usual rule of reading only a single story by an author on a given day, I wouldn’t finish this book until the end of the year. So I’m reading two or three pages at a time, meaning at least that many stories in a single sitting. They are frequently constructed around relationships, which affords the reader the opportunity to fill in the gaps with experiences both on- and off-the-page, as Archambault strikes familiar chords and invites the reader to let thoughts wander. Sometimes there is a shock-ending, but often not.

“Tell me, do you think the people who live in that house on the hill are happy? They spend only a few weeks of the year up there, throwing lavish parties for an ever-increasing number of guests. They hardly spare a glance for the sea spread out at their feet. When I see the long line of cars climging the steep road to their place, I find myself feeling sorry for those poor creatures in their unfortunate plight. They will never have the leisure to discover the vacuity of their own existence.”

Kevin Chong’s Beauty Plus Pity is Malcolm’s story. “Everything I saw reminded me of them, and every reminder felt barbed. Now, a year later, I’m writing this not so much to have a permanent record, but simply to remember, to stir the memories I do have, before they clot and dry in my head.”

Beauty plus Pity, Love plus Loss, Humour plus Heartbreak. At times, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. “Seamus Henry was a critically acclaimed but commercially unrecognized novelist whose one book, Eye [I] Chart, was written using only the letters on the eye-exam chart at his doctor’s office.” At times, it is barbed, just as Malcolm said.

Kevin Chong’s style is predominantly based in dialogue, which he uses tremendously effectively, for character development and plot pacing (though, to be clear, there is not a lot of external movement beyond Malcolm’s auditions as an aspiring male model, so the momentum is often spiral in nature). The perspective is consistent and credible, and although in hindsight it seems a story that should feel insular and cloying, it is a pleasure to read, even though the echo of loss resounds after the final pages have been turned.

I read Richard van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed in a single sitting; he is one of my MustReadEverything authors, and this is the book of his that I  bought the day after I finished Godless But Loyal to Heaven, but somehow I’ve read it almost a year later. (This is why I should pull random books from my shelves more often, right?) An intensely vivid coming-of-age story, this puts the North and the lives of Dogrib youth on centre stage; I’ll have more to say about this at a later date.

Debra Komar’s The Lynching of Peter Wheeler is the fresh read which I spun out the longest (I tend to read non-fiction more slowly.) The story at its heart is more than a hundred years old, a young man convicted of commiting a murder based not on evidence but on the colour of his skin and his birthplace, but the story is still relevant and the author’s work in forensic anthropology turns this historical narrative into a pageturner. I was browsing in a room filled of fiction, and Deborah Komar’s book just happened to be in a stack of new arrivals near the door, but if I had another weekend like this to read, I would make a point of adding some more non-fiction.

Some drama and more kidlit would be nice, too, but that’s starting to sound like a week-long event, isn’t it. And it’s starting to sound like list-making, which I do adore, but that’s not what the weekend was about.

Have you had a long bookish weekend lately? If you could have one next weekend, what would you put in your stack? Or where would you browse to make up your stack of whimsy?

My mini-Canlit-read-a-thon on Canada Day, 2014 (I)

Sometimes a stack of reading goes stale. For no good reason. You know what I mean. CanadaDayCanlitReadAThonSmall

Maybe you’re just bored with the covers. Or you’ve been teasing the books along with a page here and there, when they needed some quality one-on-one time.

That’s where I was with my stack, heading into Canada Day’s long weekend, but with a few days ahead, anything seemed possible.

Finally, I could sit down and play nice, really concentrate, devote myself.

But, instead, I wandered around the house and put together another stack.

All Canadian authors, some prose and some poetry, some non-fiction and a lot of fiction, a couple of re-reads and several fresh reads, some classics and some contemporary.

And as if that didn’t feel decadent enough? Just whimsically pulling books from shelves according to the mood of the moment?

I did not add my notebook to the stack. I simply read.

The first book I finished was Dany Laferriére’s How to Make Love to a Negro (the extended title in later editions adds ‘Without Getting Tired’). His satirical consideration of a black writer’s life in Montreal runs just over 100 pages, and the tone is immediately and consistently engaging. It’s not all that different from The Return (also translated by David Homel) in some ways, except that there is more writing at the beginning of that book and less as the story moves along when the writer returns to Haiti, and here there is less writing at the beginning and more as the story moves along but the writer stays in one place.

“I flip open the Remington’s top and replace the ribbon. The cursor moves as smooth as silk. I slip a white sheet of paper in the roller, move my chair in front of the machine, settle in with a bottle of cheap wine at my feet and, once the ritual is over, I put my chin on my palm, dreaming as we all do of being Ernest Hemingway.”

Each day I read one of Janine Alyson Young’s stories in Hideout Hotel. The characters hold jobs and inhabit places that are not commonly encountered in fiction, and they are either transient or drawn to places between, or places on the edge of impermanence. The women in these stories are strong and independent and vulnerable and unsure: credible and recognizable.

“I’d just finished my last class of grade eleven and was overwhelmed by summer, the anxiety of groundless days. I felt like I might float away down the forest path through Sung Spit to be pulled and lifted over hte overhang of the beach houses, over the rocks an dup into the hot-blue sky. Kendall lived for that kind of freedom; she was a year older than me and more or less a dropout.”

Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies and Other Poems was originally published in 1972 as part of the movement to protest the disintegration of Canadian national identity, also explored in works like Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and George Grant’s Lament for a Nation.  My copy is one of the House of Anansi’s A-List publications which I bought as part of my HOA45 celebrations in 2012 and the introduction by Nick Mount so clearly outlines the importance of Lee’s work, that I read on eagerly, reading half one day and the other half the next. (It is responsible for Margaret Atwood’s Survival being added to the stack too.)

I sat one morning by the Moore, off to the west
ten yards, and saw though diffident my city nailed against the sky in ordinary glory.
And dreamed a better past. A place, a making,
two towers, a teeming, a genesis, a city.

On each day I read a section of W.O. Mitchell’s How I Spent My Summer Holidays, which I chose for the summer-ness of its title, although immediately I began to want to reread my favourite of his novels, the one which compelled me to buy his fiction whenever I spotted it on the shelf: Who Has Seen the Wind. There are some similarities, both books being set in the past (this one in the summer of 1924 primarily) and tales of coming-of-age, complete with chasing gophers from their holes, avoiding confrontations with adults, and swimming on long hot afternoons. But twelve-year-old Hugh is involved in situations which introduce matters of sexuality and mental health to the predictable summer routine. Admittedly, some aspects of this novel feel old-fashioned, both in content and style, but even so, there is one scene in particular which made me laugh out loud, verging on a full-throated cackle.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree was the book which reminded me that fantasy wasn’t a genre whose enjoyment was limited to children. Somewhere in my teens, on the other side of Tolkien and McCaffrey, removed from L’Engle and Baum, I must have decided that I was too cool for wizardry and dragons. But Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar books reminded me of the power of fantastical storytelling, that peculiarly seductive sort of magic. It was also the first time that I had ever encountered an adult fantasy novel which was also set in a city that I knew, on the University of Toronto campus. (Though not an urban fantasy novel, The Summer Tree did introduce fantasy into urban life for me.) I did not own the trilogy when I first read it, and I distinctly remember being absolutely rabid for the third volume and, soon after, in despair that it was over. (My re-read of this volume continues.)

More on my mini-Canlit-read-a-thon on Canada Day tomorrow but how about you? Have you had a mini-read-a-thon lately? Have you been reading on a theme?

Quarterly Stories: Summer 2014

Coming Home van CampComing Home: Stories from the Northwest Territories (Enfield & Wizenty, 2012)

In the foreword, Richard Van Camp writes that this collection is a “testament to the beauty of the land, the communities and the people who choose to live here” and he welcomes readers to the works. The same words might be used as plumpy jacket copy, but they are indeed an accurate reflection of the contents, and the spirit of the work as a whole does serve as an invitation.

Contributors are of varied ages and ethnicities and writing backgrounds (from emerging writers and passionate scribblers to lifelong journalists and established writers) and this is reflected in the breadth of styles and themes. In one moment, I felt like I was reading “Readers’ Digest” and, in the next, “The Malahat Review”. Read over several days, this diversity was a pleasure, and those readers who prefer to read collections all-in-a-burst could simply leaf ahead if a contrasting style doesn’t suit.

Personal favouites include Christine Raves’ story “Dirty Rascal” and Jamesie Fournier’s “Children of the Strike”. Each delivered facts that I hadn’t known within the vehicle of an engrossing narrative. Raves’ dialogue and theme is immediately engaging with a light-handed sadness to the tale, which strikes a chord with anyone who has been swept up in something untoward and simultaneously awed and horrified by the resulting devastation. Fournier captures the gentle humour simmering beneath an incident in a serious political conflict so that even though it’s the only piece with footnotes, it reads with the momentum of a story.

Contents, Fiction:
Colin Henderson’s The Points, Jordan Carpenter’s Finding Home, Richard Van Camp’s Born a Girl, Marcus Jackson’s Angatkuq, Annelies Pool’s Celia’s Inner Anorexic, Cathy Jewison’s Haunted Hill Mine, Rebecca Aylward’s My Epiphany, Patti-Kay Hamilton’s Homecoming, Christine Raves’ Dirty Rascal, Shawn McCann’s The Long Gun

Contents, Non-Fiction:
AmberLee Kolson’s Lost, Brian Penney’s Ts’ankui Theda, The Kindness of the Lake, Karen McColl’s Beauty of the Butte, January Go’s For Us, Jamesie Fournier’s Children of the Strike, Jessie C. MacKenzie’s Where They Belong

Ramshackle Tabernacle MartinSamuel Thomas Martin’s This Ramshackle Tabernacle (Breakwater Books, 2010)

A camp counsellor in “Rosary” muses: “I want to feel relieved that Jaz is gone and that I don’t have to worry about her cutting herself anymore. But I do worry. I remember. I can’t get her out of my head. It’s like she’s walking behind me, staring at me. But when I turn, there is no one there.”

That’s what it’s like reading the stories in This Ramshackle Tabernacle. I want to be relieved that these characters are gone, caught in the pages behind me.

I don’t want to worry about them anymore. Floating in the water. With their dog in their arms. Fired from a summer job. Busking in the subway tunnels.

But Samuel Thomas Martin brings his characters off the page. Content-wise, the stories remind me of Michael Winter’s and David Adams’ Richards fiction. But stylistically Martin uses dialogue and a sharper prose style to pull readers into these tableaux. Vivid scenes and sensory details drop an anchor for the readers, even when the plots makeyou long for a motor to aid escape.

“I take the sweater from his huge hand and pull it over my head. It hangs off my bony shoulders. It’s loose everywhere save around the neck. But it’s warm and it smells like Jim. It reeks of fish too but that’s Jim’s smell: the smell of his boat. It’s as if I’ve put his skin on, as if I’m inside him. But it’s so warm.”

Cliff Jumping, Adrift, Shaver, Up out of the Water, Rosary, The Hammer, Eight-Ball, Becoming Maria, Crafty Old Dragon, Roulette, The Killing Tree, Shekinah

Andrea Routley’s Jane and the Whales (Caitlin Press, 2013)

Jane Whales RoutleyWhen readers meet Ray in the collection’s opening story, “Habitat”, he has just rushed indoors to fetch some weiners for a fox that he discovered had been rooting through the trash.

There are a number of clues here for readers; compassion is definitely at the heart of these stories, and they are often inspired not only by the four-legged, but also the winged and flippered.

But Ray’s compassion for the fox is rooted in his belief that the world should behave in a certain manner; the world he imagines is perfectly ordered, but the real world frequently rubs that image the wrong way.

First, he claps his hands at the creature, shouting and rushing, urging it to save itself, before he decides that at least the fox should have something decent to eat and he returns indoors to fetch the weiners.

By then, however, the “fox had already started up the trail by the clay cliffs that rose up at the end of the cul-de-sac”.

The slight delay in Ray’s well-intentioned response meant the fox didn’t get its belly filled and although he was doing his best, Ray has misjudged and the appetite has been left unsatisfied.

All of this happens, from trash strewn to weiners offered, in the story’s first paragraph, but an echo of these events plays out in the next dozen pages, as Ray tries to demonstrate his usefulness and willingness to his daughter, Lana, fifteen years old, and now coming over less reliably than her standard every-weekend visit.

But even as Ray reaches out, well-intentioned, he pushes. And soon it’s not just the fox, but also the guinea Pig (BubbleGum), and Lana too, whose habitats are altered/threatened.

Many of the other stories in the collection, like “Habitat”, focus on the areas of the world in which the wild presses up against the domestic, the natural world and its inhabitants getting cozy (be it in a tent or a vision, mysticism or imagination).

Ultimately the works are preoccupied with relationships, of all sorts and with a close-up view, also suggested by the striking cover image by Sandy Tweed. Whether from the perspective of teacher or student, guide or follower, the characters in Jane and the Whales sometimes reach out and sometimes retract, sometimes recoil and sometimes connect. It is a very satisfying debut.

Habitat, The Gone Batty Interpretation, Dog, Other People’s Houses, Art, Reflection Journal, Monsters, The Sign, The Things I Would Say, Jane and the Whales

Summer of the Canadian Short Story Reading

Write Reads is hosting this event, which runs from June 1 – September 1, 2014.

Summer Canadian Story 2014I learned about it last week via Consumed by Ink, and how could I resist: two of my favourite things, Canlit and short stories.

But the act of choosing is almost overwhelming. And of course there’s always the possibility of a theme within a theme. Haven’t I been meaning to focus on my own shelves, not the library’s new and shiny shelves? To read more Quebecois writers?

Rereading favourites? Single-author immersion projects? How about 2014 publications? Classics? Anthologies? Prizewinners? Genres? Linked collections? The Oberon series? The Journey Prize? New Canadian Library editions?

I’m nearly paralyzed by the act of narrowing a list, so I’ve resorted to CBC’s recent compilation of the 100 Best Canadian Songs Ever to calm my nerves.

With the likes of “Patio Lanterns” and “Sweet City Woman” playing, the reading hours appear to be endless ahead. And I can break this large problem into smaller portions. Beginning with a beginning.

Here’s what I read in June, before I realized there was a challenge:

Already in play for July:

  • Gilles Archambault’s In a Minor Key (Trans. David Lobdell)
  • Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock (a reread)

Paradise Elsewhere PageIn a Minor Key won the Governor General’s Award in 1987 for French-language Fiction. The stories are flash fiction, written before the term was commonly used, only a few sentences but very evocative.

The View from Castle Rock is the second-last in my Alice Munro project, which I began in 2011 and which involved a lot of rereading and two fresh reads, including 2012′s Dear Life. It’s not a collection of hers that I have considered a true favourite, but that might change with a reread.

Likely choices for July and August, because they are already lurking near the tops of the “next” stacks:

  • Kathy Page’s Paradise and Elsewhere (with blurbs by Amy Bloom, Sarah Waters, Caroline Adderson and Barbara Gowdy)
  • Mary Soderstrom’s Desire Lines (which comes in one of those beautiful Oberon Press packages)
  • Rabindranath Maharaj’s The Book of Ifs and Buts (because I adored The Amazing Absorbing Boy)
  • Lisa Bird-Wilson’s Just Pretending (great interview here)

Just Pretending Lisa Bird WilsonIn the Wings:

  • Douglas Glover’s Savage Love (longlisted for the Frank O’Connor award, along with Kathy Page and some of my faves from last year by Shaena Lambert, Susie Moloney, Cynthia Flood and Rosemary Nixon)
  • Lorna Goodison’s By Love Possessed (which I started last year and lost track of)
  • Austin Clarke’s Choosing His Coffin (because More was very good and I haven’t read another of his yet)
  • Rohinton Mistry’s Tales from Firozsha Baag (a reread)
  • Clark Blaise’s A North American Eduction (I’ve wanted to read something else, since I discovered The Meagre Tarmac on the 2011 Giller list)

Come on, why not join Write Reads in reading some Canadian short fiction this summer?

Joining The Book Mine Set’s Canadian Book Challenge

It’s that time of year again: time for the Canadian Book Challenge, which launches each July 1st on Canada Day.

Most of what I read is Canlit, but I am easily distracted by new and shiny books and I forget to make time to read the classics.

The first time I joined the challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set, I read (and reread) all of Ethel Wilson’s works, along with some books about her. This year I’m eyeing Gabrielle Roy’s works.

  • Canadian Book Challenge 8 Pic 3The Tin Flute (Bonheur d’occasion) (1945)
  • Where Nests the Water Hen (La Petite Poule d’Eau) (1950)
  • The Cashier (Alexandre Chenevert) (1954)
  • Street of Riches (Rue Deschambault) (1955)
  • The Hidden Mountain (La Montagne secrète) (1961)
  • The Road Past Altamont (La Route d’Altamont) (1966)
  • Windflower (La Rivière sans repos) (1970)
  • Enchanted Summer (Cet été qui chantait) (1972)
  • Garden in the Wind (Un jardin au bout du monde) (1975)
  • My Cow Bossie (Ma vache Bossie) (1976)
  • Children of My Heart (Ces Enfants de ma vie) (1977)
  • The Fragile Lights of Earth (Fragiles lumières de la terre) (1978)
  • Cliptail (Courte-Queue) (1979)
  • What Are You Lonely For, Eveline? (De quoi t’ennuies-tu, Eveline?) (1982)
  • Enchantment and Sorrow (La Détresse et l’enchantement) (1984)
  • The Tortoiseshell and the Pekinese (L’Espagnole et le Pékinoise) (1987)
  • My Dearest Sister: Letters to Bernadette, 1943-1970 (Ma chère petite soeur: Lettres a Bernadette) (1988)

I’ve read Windflower (about ten years ago) and Children of My Heart (when I was about 13 years old), but the rest will be fresh reads (and it’s been so long since I read these two, they might as well be fresh reads too).

Thanks to John for hosting this challenge every year, and I’m looking forward to seeing what other participants are reading.

It’s a very well-organized challenge and there is even a level for a single book. Tempted? Join here.

Is there some Canlit in your reading stack already? Do you have a favourite Gabrielle Roy novel?