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

Susan Philpott’s Dark Territory (2016)

Henriette has just met her, but Dark Territory is actually the second Signy Shepherd novel.

Philpott Dark Territory

Simon & Schuster, 2016

“So wonderful to finally meet you, honey. We’ve all heard so much about you. […] Look at you, such a skinny little thing. From what Maitland said, I expected a giant killer, fourteen feet tall and swinging a mighty sword.”

In an interview with “Open Book”, the author discusses the genesis of the titles of both novels.

Dark Territory is the latest in my thriller series following the adventures of Signy Shepherd, a conductor on a modern Underground Railroad, known as the Line. The working title for the first draft, The Ties that Bind, was a lifeless cliché. As I worked through the final draft, I spent a long time trying to come up with a more evocative title. Finally, I hit on the idea of using train terminology. Modern train related definitions are dry and technical, so I researched old-fashioned railroad language. Dark Territory means ‘a section of tracks without functioning signal lights'”.

Much of the inspiration for the series is rooted in her experience as a social worker, including a placement in a women’s shelter, which she describes in an interview with Civilian Reader:

“It was a fascinating place to work — never a dull moment. The women who worked there were strong, brave and dedicated to keeping other women safe. Occasionally, there appeared to be a coordinated effort to help women flee particularly dangerous situations — tickets purchased, rides organized, that sort of thing.”

But ideas can come from multiple directions, sometimes simultaneously, so whereas this earlier experience has its roots in her early working years, a more specific incident contributed to what would become the second novel in the series:

“At about the same time, there was a story in the newspaper about a woman who had fled her allegedly abusive partner. She ran across the United States, and eventually went into hiding with help from an Underground Railroad system. It was a controversial case. The woman claimed she was keeping her daughter safe — her partner claimed she had kidnapped their child — but what stuck with me was the entire concept of a modern underground railroad. I thought it was a brilliant idea, and very much needed by women who have been failed by the legal system.” (Also, from Civilian Reader: check it out in full.)

While there are many brave and determined women in these novels, there are also many who are openly disparaged and mistreated; there are abusive and misogynistic male characters in both novels, some presented in fleeting glimpses (revealing the pervasive sexism in our society) and some in what appear to be recurrnig roles (however, no spoilers!).

“‘Trust me,’ said Wilkington, moving Stone toward a side room where they could talk in private, ‘you don’t want to go there. The woman’s like a zebra mussel; she gets into everything and is almost impossible to scrape off.’ He gave Stone a reassuring squeeze on the arm. ‘Don’t worry, though. She’ll still write you a fat cheque. She has more money than she knows what to do with.’”

The second novel in the series opens with a simliar structure and pace as Blown Red did. The first segment focuses on the character(s) comprising the new case which will occupy the bulk of the story, Signy’s current assignment, with ensuing segments devoted to the other new character(s) who are most threatening in this file and the recurring characters recognizable to readers of the first novel

Although technically self-contained, readers who choose to begin with the series’ second volume will not have the advantage of understanding the shadow cast by Signy’s backstory, even though devoted readers have only a fleeting understanding of it. [Thoughts on the series’ first volume here.]

Much remains unknown, because she grew up in the foster care system, but at least one significant layer surrounding her identity and experiences as a young girl was revealed in Blown Red, and although this revelation is repeated in Dark Territory, the full impact of it isn’t felt in summarizing, but in discovering it along with Signy.

This reconstruction is challenging because Signy was very young when she was taken into foster care, and “…events before the age of four or five are ephemeral, eventually eclipsed by newer memories. It is not until about the age of ten that the memories begin to crystallize and can be accessed as the person moves forward into adulthood.”

But it is clear that something in Signy’s background or constitution drives her work with The Line. In situations which would leave many paralyzed, she takes action.

Much of the action in Dark Territory unfolds near Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks, but what will bring readers back for a third Signy Shepherd novel, will be the slow unfurling of the events which instiled in her the capacity for this action.

That’s the real story here.

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July 2016, In My Stacks

Halfway into the calendar year, I ritually consider what I’ve read so far and what I’ve not yet picked up. For the past few years, I’ve straightened the stack at hand mid-year, and gotten reacquainted with any over-lingerers, but this year I’ve been a tidy reader. (Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers had lingered for months, but I finished it in June.)

2016 was to be my year of finishing books that I’ve habitually gotten stuck in (like Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale) and series that I’d left unfinished (like Margaret Drabble’s Thatcher Years trilogy). Did you have a specific reading goal for this year?

So far, so fair. I’ve fnished six series, have read on with eight, but, yes, it’s true, I’ve started three four new ones (Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan, Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway, Brad Smith’s Virgil Cain and Susan Philpott’s Signy Shepherd) but I’m already up-to-date with one of those.

And, really, I’m okay with that math. I don’t want to be stuck in the past, with an endless TBR that never alters, but I don’t want to be stuck in the present either!

July’s stack has some long-time shelf-sitters in it, but some new books too:

July 2016 StacksErnest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men – I think this landed on my TBR because of Aarti, who drew attention to the fact that it’s a story told from a number of different perspectives, which inherently appeals to me.

Toni Cade Bambera’s The Salt Eaters – This has sat too long unread, despite the fact that, no matter what page I open to, there is evidence of the most careful crafting at the sentence level. Although previously I’ve only read her short stories, this one is getting pushed to the top of the stacks this month.

Deni Ellis Béchard’s Into the Sun – Coming in September, this novel “explores the personal impact of America’s imperial misadventures and draws an unsentimental portrait of the journalists, mercenaries, messianic idealists, and aid workers who flock to war zones”. I’m eager to read it, but plan to dip into his earlier works first (see below).

Jessi Klein’s You’ll Grow Out of It – This will be published July 12th, with a snazzy blurb by Amy Schumer: “Jessi Klein is a brilliant comedic mind and this book is a perfect reflection of that. It’s like having a glass of wine with the best friend you wish you had.” I would enjoy a glass of wine right now.

Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls – The author was a Teetl’it Gwich’in, from the land now called the Northwest Territories, telling the story of a handful of community members who have survived the residential school system and carry a legacy of painful memories from that experience. This has sat neglected for too long on my shelves.

As I continue to work to shift some of my reading habits, I am returning to more regular library usage, and I’ve got Madeleine Thien’s Certainty in my sights, as preparation for reading her new release, Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

Library July 2016Since I heard her read from Simple Recipes, several years ago in London, Ontario, I have been charmed by Thien’s insightful and acute vision, her attention to detail, and her subtle touch in displaying and unravelling the complexties of human relationships. I have been wanting to read Certainty for so long that it almost feels like I’ve read it already.

It was Deni Ellis Béchard’s forthcoming novel Into the Sun which brought his work onto my reading radar (see above), but I am intrigued by the diversity of his backlist, and I am particularly curious about his first novel, Vandals, and his memoir Cures for Hunger.

Amy Jones’ We’re All in This Together – I’d better hurry up and read this one because I have heard so many good things – not just from the expected corners, like the Terry Fallis blurb on the cover – from reading friends that it might turn into one of those books (like Richard Wright’s Clara Callan and George Elliott Clarke’s Whylah Falls) which I begin to avoid because I fear that it just can’t be THAT GOOD (but I loved both ot those too, just as much as everyone said I would, and maybe more).

Alissa York’s The Naturalist – As one of my MRE Authors, I was immediately and heartfully excited and pleased to learn of her new novel, but also anxious and hesitant. She has broken my heart a few times. And I trust that she hasn’t lost the knack of that. But I also trust that she tells important and vital stories, stories which need hearing as much as they need telling. And I can’t resist that. Her books are irresistible for me. But this is not going to be an uncomplicated reading experience.

What’s in your July stack? Have you read any of my stacks’ residents? Do you know any of the authors’ other works? Are you eyeing any shelf-sitters? Are there any forthcoming books which you are eager to dive into? Has your reading year shaped up as expected, or has it contained some surprises? Do tell!

Cordelia Strube’s On the Shores of Darkness, There Is Light (2016)

The image of wanting to put a child in a plastic baggie to preserve his freshness stuck under my skin instantly and irrevocably. So, you see, from her third novel, Cordelia Strube hooked me. Back in 1997. With Teaching Pigs to Sing.

Strube Shores of DarknessBut just as that protected child would (if one actually attempted this) slowly suffocate, there is a price to be paid for caring for the characters she brings to life on the page.

There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in her fiction, but sometimes an impenetrable darkness simmers beneath, and other times a wave of pain crashes over you, soaks you to the skin.

She makes no secret of it. Even the title of her latest serves as a warning of sorts: On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light. But not only a warning, but a promise, too.

Even an eleven-year-old’s existence can be consumed by the effort to find a balance between the positive and negative aspects of life.

Harriet is resourceful and rebelious, creative and manipulative, monstrous and vulnerable. She is eleven years old with some of the life experiences of someone twice her age, who knows just enough to realize that age doesn’t have much to do with it.

“Childproof caps defeat most of the seniors as they turn and turn in the same dull round. Harriet opens the caps for them, feeling herself turning and turning in the same dull round.”

One of the reasons that Harriet has such a tremendous appeal is her astute analysis of some startlingly complex situations.

Not only can she reset any technical devices which stump the senior citizens who reside in the Shangrila apartment building. But she can hone in on an emotional truth like a heat-seeking missile.

Perhaps because she has been immersed in and orbited by a number of dysfunctional relationships in her life, she is surprisingly capable of identifying the sore point (and either pressing or skirting it, depending on her motivation in a given moment).

“Lynne always excuses Gennedy by saying he didn’t ask for any of this, as though anybody asks for the shit that happens. The fact that Gennedy gets to live rent-free doesn’t enter into the equation, or that Irwin was already sick when they shacked up. It’s always what a good man Gennedy is because he sticks around.”

However, she is not simply a sassy, precocious near-child narrator. She falters and misjudges, as anyone would at eleven (or forty-two, or seventy-two).

For instance, Harriet understands that staying with her grandmother poses a risk because sometimes the stovetop isn’t attended to properly, but she doesn’t extrapolate. So, while Harriet keeps her eyes on the stovetop, she overlooks the fact that other details which could complicate Harriet’s situation could slip past her grandmother’s fragmented attention.

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light reads quickly, scene swelling into scene, one exchange cascading into the next.

At the beginning of the novel, Harriet’s younger brother is six years old, and his way of speaking is as sharply defined as that of a single senior citizen in the building.

“Near the end of a puzzle, Irwin inevitably panics, convinced that certain pieces are missing. Some blue sky with a wisp of cloud, or a piece of tree, that should occupy a space can’t be found. Mrs. Chipchase tells him not to worry, that the piece must be somewhere, but anxiety tackles him and he falls down on all fours and scours the floor. Sometimes he goes so far as to empty a vacuum cleaner bag.”

Harriet does errands for the home-bound seniors, expanding the boundaries of their small worlds; she saves the quarters she earns to pay for a ticket to Algonquin Park, where she hopes to paint like Tom Tomson. Her artwork reflects the myriad of emotions she is experiencing (speaking of darkness) and the chaos she inhabits.

“Lynne slams her hand on the table. ‘Can you two stop bickering for one second?’
‘You two were bickering all morning,” Harriet says. “Are only adults allowed to bicker?'”

There are more shadows in this novel than appear at first glance; brief references to Harriet’s medication are one thing, her open despair about her brother’s health another. “Just because you’re related to someone doesn’t mean you don’t hate them.”

On the surface, it appears to be about stark states of being and not-being, light and darkness. But in fact, it’s just as much about the shadowy and half-lit areas between those states.

In the murk, the author makes a bold choice structurally, which resituates the reader on the margins of the story. The shadowy bits are exposed in an abrupt and stark change, and definitions and identities shift in the wake of extremes.

Those who look for explanations for this decision will be disappointed. Just as those who look for explanations in life are often stymied.

Other readers will be satisfied by readjusting the lens, peering to see all that there is to see in the light which remains.

Susan Philpott’s Blown Red (2015)

It begins with a body. And with short chapters, told from a variety of perspectives, guaranteed to create strong pacing.

Philpott Blown RedBlown Red is the first in the Signy Shepherd mysteries ,and it introduces readers to the series’ star, as well as some of the other key personnel working on the Line.

One stop on the Line is relatively visible and accessible (both by victims and perpetrators, so the protection it offered is not always sufficient): the women’s shelter in Linden Valley.

Named Vicky’s Place, it is housed in a classic red-brick Ontario cottage, in a community characterized by all the staple small-town elements (from a bandshell to the community park): Linden Valley.

There is a surprising amount of action in Linden Valley. Grace Holder, the executive director of the Women’s Centre, has a ringside seat to much of the tumult (to the dismay of her partner, Kim).

A good deal of the “constant crisis” which surrounds Grace, is due to the ambitious decisions made by new workers, like Signy Shepherd, who has only recently begun to contribute beyond her work at the shelter, on the Line.

In charge, but not on the scene until the novel is well underway, is Maitland McGuinness Spencer (she is a fascinating character, whose background will, hopefully, be illuminated in later volumes).

She has had first-hand experience of the devastation wrecked by abusers and murderers, whose exploits often go unpunished because the law does not adequately protect the victims of domestic violence.

As such, the Empress of the Line is motivated and positioned to point women to freedom, just as conductors did on the line of the Underground Railroad more than a century ago. She is a near-mythic figure, charismatic and powerful, capably directing from off-stage.

In contrast, Signy is sometimes short-sighted and definitely inexperienced, but she is assertive and quick-thinking, observant and compassionate.

Even if readers are, on occasion, frustrated by her impulses, Signy is a sympathetic and relatable character.

She is also a character with a past, and its unearthed layers shift only slightly as the novel progresses.  Abandoned as a toddler in a garbage bin at Christmas time, near the Eaton Centre in Toronto, Signy appears to be rootless. Which makes it all the easier for readers to take her side, to adopt her yearning to belong.

“It was essential that a conductor’s life on the Line stay separate from her private life, not only to ensure her safety and the safety of her family, but to maintain a boundary between the excitement of the Line and the realities of real life.”

Because of Signy’s past experiences, her difficulties growing up in the foster care system, Signy isn’t great with boundaries. She recognizes that they are important, in theory, but even when she tries to draw them in reality, she misjudges.

But she is also a seeker, looking for understanding, inwards and outwards. And this approach invites patience on the part of readers.

Ultimately, the success of this series depends upon the success of Signy’s character with readers.

Susan Philpott builds the relationship between her and readers with broad strokes but secures the attachment with details. One character, who observes Signy’s bookshelf, notes: “Not one book had been purchased merely for pleasure. She was driven, but then he’d known that already.”

[This, after first listing some of the shelf’s contents (including Girl, Interrupted An Unquiet Mind, A Memoir of Moods and Madness, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). There is some depth lurking beneath the commercially-paced, page-turner’s surface.]

Beyond the nuts and bolts of genre-writing’s conventions, Susan Philpott succinctly adds sensory detail to add to readers’ experience of the narrative. She covers all the marks: from bristly chins to 600-thread-count sheets, from the whine of cicadas to the snickering of gravel, from the reek of oily creosote to the acrid bite of nicotine, from a hundred-watt smile to sand billowing like  a rooster’s tail, from a congealed grilled-cheese sandwich to a mouth like the inside of a bird cage.

These feel a little more like good-advice-afterthoughts in the context of a first novel whose preoccupation really must be characterization, but a second volume holds the promise of a more natural touch with minor details.

For the first volume in a series, Blown Red is a solid start. From the half-way point, it is difficult to put down, not only because the pacing is compelling and the plot intriguing, but because readers will already be invested — in Signy’s success, and in the successful escapes which she facilitates.

[Edited to add a link to the second book in the Signy Shepherd series: Dark Territory.]

June 2016, In My Bookbag

In which I discuss some of the skinny volumes, which have nestled into my bookbag (while longer works, like Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, were left at home.

Vivek Shraya’s God Loves Hair is illustrated by Juliana Neufeld, a full-page image introducing each of the short pieces.

The collection was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award (for children’s and YA literature) in 2011, and it could be read in a single sitting, or parsed over a series of days.

Shraya God Loves HairIt begins with the concrete, and immediately readers are draw into the scenic detail and the narrative voice.

“When we travel to India to visit my parent’s family, my aunts tell me how pretty I am. I seize the opportunity to test out their observations. Maybe you should dress me up in a sari and see what I would look like as a girl, I say coyly. They jump at the chance. They spread out their rainbow sari collections on the bed and I feel like a princess as I choose the bold magenta and black one.”

Vivek stands on the margins and shares the view from that perspective, in simple and uncluttered prose.

“My body is disappearing. Armpits, chest, belly button, arms, fingers, legs, toes that were once bare are now lost somewhere under multiplying hair.”

It feels like a personal story but with wide-reaching relevance. “The more a brown person looks like a white person, the more attention they seem to get. Even if they are ugly.”

One source of strength for Vivek, in negotiating the world, is storytelling, which is recognized from an early age. “A ball being hit or thrown or kicked around doesn’t captivate me the way Nancy Drew books do.”

(Even though I wasn’t much of a Nancy Drew fan, any book was more interesting to me than any ball.)

But later the true power of storytelilng settles in: “It’s not until I am a little older that I find a new story. At a street-side vendor’s stall in India, as I am flipping through the stack of familiar pictures of Hindu gods, I freeze at an image I have never seen. It is of a deity composed of Lord Shiva’s left side and his female consort, Parvati’s right side. Ardhanaraeeshwara.”

Oliver Sacks GratitudeI have a copy of She of the Mountains close at hand, and I suspect it has grown out of this discovery; I will be eager to add it to my bookbag in the weeks to come.

Another compact addition to the bookbag is Oliver Sacks’ Gratitude, comprised of four short essays,

It might seem unlikely that a series of pieces titled “The Joy of Old Age”, “My Own Life”, “The Periodic Table” and “Sabbath” could be inspiring, but if you are already familiar with his work, it will not seem such a stretch.

He has a way of laying things out, of displaying the ordinary elements in such a light, that the extraordinary catches every glimmer of light in the environs.

The volume is beautifully presented and the contents are honed. These short works have been worked and re-worked, so that every word appears to have found exactly the right place in which to rest.

Admittedly, I brought this book home with every intention of slipping it into the bookbag, but I found the pieces too touching: read-at-home pieces for me.

Although the pieces are soaked with life, and they are truly vibrant and life-affirming, I had not yet absorbed the fact that he had died, until I began to read from this collection.

Nonetheless, Gratitude does make good company for the grieving.

If you’ve read all of Joseph Boyden’s books, don’t despair, for even as the days in Aboriginal History month dwindle, there is plenty of great reading to be had, spun by aboriginal tale-spinners.

Jordan Abel InjunJordan Abel’s Injun follows The Place of Scraps, one of my most memorable reading experiences of 2014.

As a reader who is hooked on narrative, works like these challenge me fundamentally, because it seems (at least, at first glance) that there is no linear story to follow.

Works like Jordan Abel’s might be even more challenging, if readers’ understanding of borders in this land, this land now called Canada, is rooted in the kind of “facts” that I was taught in my sixth-grade social-studies class.

As a schoolgirl, I dutifully coloured the provinces and territories on heavily dittoed maps.

I memorized the regions’ capitals, and a myriad of details declared relevant by instructors over the years (e.g. key industries, population, M.P. names). And I was a serious student. I learned my lessons well.

Nobody ever mentioned that these lands were some other peoples’ homelands: home + lands. So much was left unsaid.

Ironically, a lot is left unsaid in Injun too. (In The Place of Scraps, the concept of erasure is even more prominent.)

These spaces might be left for the gaps in which prejudice brewed, in which assumptions were left untested.

Jordan Abel Excerpt InjunThese spaces might be left so that other versions of the truth might stake a claim.

Injun is a perfect book for reading in the kind of space which affords the opportunity to reflect. (A commute works that way for me, because I am more inclined to look away from the book and muse for a spell. When I am reading at home, I am more likely to get up and wash the dishes in that span of minutes.)

Injun does not tell a story in a linear fashion, but it does smack of a story which is filled with beginnings and middles and ends. Not necessarily in that order.

And it does tell a story which insists that stories must be told. One which reminds us that they are told with spaces as often as with texts.

If you have already discovered Jordan Abel’s work, you likely need no encouragement to pick up Injun. If you haven’t sampled it, Injun is a compact peek into a story which deserves re/telling and un/telling.

What are you slipping into your bookbag this week?

Annie Proulx, In Interview with Jared Bland (IFOA)

Appearing as part of Toronto Harbourfront’s IFOA Weekly, Annie Proulx read from Barkskins in the Fleck Dance Theatre on June 17, 2016.

Annie Proulx Barkskins

Scribner, 2016

She began reading on the first page of the novelher tone even and measured, but filled with expression when appropriate, particularly in dialogue.

She captured the accent of her New France inhabitants perfectly, and she held the attention of the attendees completely, even through the long and poetic descriptions which characterize her depictions of landscape.

Even though she had presumably caught a tinge of a cold from Adam Gopnik, during the interview prior, she was alert and responsive through the conversation with Jared Bland, current Arts editor of The Globe & Mail.

Inserting a light-hearted moment in the first exchange, he thanked the author for the reading and also for mentioning that her last interview was with The New Yorker staff editor: “no pressure”, he quipped.

Whenever I have heard Jared Bland interview an author, I have been convinced that he wholly and completely admires their work, that every question comes from a sincere desire to listen to their answer.

This was true too with his questions for Annie Proulx, although he began with a predictable question about the genesis of the work. Her answer, however, stretched back further in time than I would have anticipated (which made me wonder if his research had alerted him to the fact that this seemingly simple question would lead to interesting places).

The idea for this novel came to her years ago, when she was driving around North America, across and through the United States, exploring backroads and settlements. She spotted an old billboard, upon which someone had written that the land below had been covered with a vast white pine forest once upon a time.

She roamed the area for some time and eventually did discover a small copse of white pine trees, on a raised outcropping of land, which would have been inaccessible to the workers who razed the remainder of the trees in the past.

Not far away, there was a group of five headstones, also made from white pine, solidly planted in the Earth, but illegible.

That is not what I would have imagined as a genesis for such a vast and expansive novel. Barkskins is a dramatic undertaking, covering more than 300 years of history, four continents and two familial lines (trees included in the back of the novel for much-needed reference apparently).

But as she described it, I could imagine the names of the characters she had read about, carved or burned into the wooden tombstones, her fingers tracing the imagined shapes of those letters as she mused upon their possible backstories.

But the hard work of her novel-writing does not begin with musing. Rather, with research. Her habit, with this book, was to research a particular time period (sometimes two or three spans of time) and then to allow the characters to come forth, to announce themselves.

“They’re as real as real people when you’re in it,” she explained, in response to a later question. When asked if she had a favourite character, she did not play coy and insist that they are all her favourites, but named two, and admitted that Jared Bland’s favourite character wasn’t one of hers: “she was a hard case”, she declared.

Even so, she elaborated upon the demands that a 19th-century business woman would have faced, and encouraged readers to investigate further, if she was a favourite character of theirs as well, for although such women do not appear in the pages of the history books, “they were there and they did things”. (Jared Bland joked that this is actually one of his favoured Google searches.)

In speaking of business practices, Proulx observed that the outlook of the times was rooted in the inhabitants’ experience of the world: “They believed in infinity.”

But she also suggested that contemporary characters, contemporary personages, would not necessarily behave any differently in terms of resource management, that the “horrible sense of inevitability” carries on.

Bland questioned whether perhaps it is too late, even if we recognized that greed and opportunism has reigned unchecked for too long; however, she suggested that it might not be as much about whether it is too late to change our ways, as whether we would choose to do so anyhow.

“It’s like we can’t shift easily,” she continued. Perhaps it is some “fatal flaw”, that we simply “keep on and refuse to change”. She has been thinking about this for a very long time, and said that she thinks she “will be thinking about it forever”.

She might well have a different definition of forever than I, than many of the audience members. From the second-row I would have guessed her to be in her sixties, but she is, in fact, 80 years old.

The only outward indication of her eighty years could have been as much an indicator of anxiety: a deliberate and repetitive folding and unfolding and refolding of a tissue, which remained unused despite her attentions. In another writer’s hands, this might have been distracting, but it seemed to accentuate her measured and deliberate approach to even the smallest action.

Annie Proulx Credit GusPowell S&S

Credit: Gus Powell

It might have seemed, at times, as though she would be writing Barkskins forever, but apparently her publisher hastened its completion, which drove her to an all-consuming work schedule for the year prior to her final deadline. No letters written and nothing else to do in the morning but sit down to write, she outlined.

“Do you have a process?” Jared Bland asked. What’s it like to produce such an extensive work? “It helps if you really like to write, which I do,” she replied.

She had originally conceived of a different ending to the story, but was unable to complete that portion of the manuscript. But when asked f there be a sequel? “No,” she answered: “I’m out of the woods now.”

But perhaps even more interesting than the unwritten ending is the epigraph which Jared Bland suggested might have been included as an indictment of privileged (white) thinking.

It’s “there to provoke readers and make them ask a lot of questions,” she said.

And isn’t that just what good storytelling is all about.

Gwyneth Paltrow: It’s All Easy (All Good? All a Lie?)

From Amy Sedaris to Alicia Silverstone, celebrities have things to say about cooking and entertaining. Stanley Tucci talks Italian food and Tony Danza contributes to the conversation.

Paltrow Its All Easy

Grand Central Publishing, 2016

But Gwyneth Paltrow does not appear to be passing through the territory; she’s putting down some roots.

In 2011, she published My Father’s Daughter: Delicious, Easy Recipes Celebrating Family & Togetherness. In 2013, It’s All Good: Delicious, Easy Recipes That Will Make You Look Good and Feel Great.

Now, It’s All Easy: Delicious Weekday Recipes for the Super-Busy Home Cook.

Note the continued emphasis on deliciousness, but no more outward promises of celebration or feeling great: it’s understood.

Her third installment appears to build upon the foundations estalished in the earlier works, with a focus on clean-living and family-focussed meals, but with the intention of more completely satisfying devotees (who no longer have as much time for cooking as the earlier installments required) and/or drawing in new cooks who weren’t convinced they had time to celebrate or cook good things when the first two books came out.

With the advent of a third cookbook, I was too curious to resist.

And this was, ironically, due as much to Timothy Caulfield’s Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything? (subtitled When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash) as to her cookbooks, which I hadn’t leafed through yet.

When I did, I wasn’t sure there was room for me at this table. Let alone for my family. Everything in this cookbook is pretty and well-orchestrated, even when it’s presented as natural and spontaneous. The kids might be wearing sweatpants, and Gwyneth is in denim on the cover, but this is one classy set-up.

You know: just because someone is wearing distressed clothing and fleece doesn’t negate the fact that there’s a chandelier above the breakfast table, right?

However.

The chapters are simply titled, often evoking a feeling or situation than truly describing the contents, so if you’re looking for “Something Sweet”, you’ll know to turn to page 223, but you will find all sorts of flavours under “In a Pinch”. (The other chapters are “First Thing”, “On the Go”, “Pick-Me-Ups”, “Cozy Evenings”, “Summer Nights”, “Unexpected Guests”, and “The Basics”.)

In the “Pantry” list, there were only a few items missing from our cupboards and drawers (four spices, three sauces, and some meat-related things), and not one recipe looked too complicated (though one bad crepe-making experience, twenty years ago, was enough to put me off making crepes for eternity, so even though her recipe looks simple, I shall remain a pancake-girl).

The emphasis on whole-foods ingredients, short lists of requirements, and the fact that she obviously enjoys a number of the same basics that our family enjoys: all of this combined to make me think that I could dress up my fleece.

One thing she loves, which is a huge hit in our family, too, is the spiralizer. I love veggie noodles, but I’ve always used them with sauces or as salads. Her Zucchini Cacio e Pepe is basically zucchini noodles, olive oil, black pepper, salt, and cheese. (See? Now you do want a spiralizer, don’t you?) That’s the kind of thing that fills plates around here, especially when it’s too hot to cook, although it doesn’t appear in her summer section, but under “In a Pinch”. (And we use ground nuts instead of parmesan.)

In her miso soup, she uses ramen noodles. But in her pho, she uses spiralized zucchini “noodles”. (She also uses chicken, but I do not.) But it simply hadn’t occurred to me to toss some veggie “noodles” in a soup. And, yet, why not?

Paltrow Pizza

Her version, not mine!

There are also some very simple drinks, which have become staples in our house on cool mornings. (Largely because we already enjoy some of the other drinks she includes, like the Coconut Latte and the Ginger and Lemon Tea.) The Ginger, Sesame and Almond Drink is fantastic for damp days, and I’m sure will be even more enjoyable when winter rolls around once more.

One of the best parts of the cookbook for our family, however, was the discovery of the Socca Pizzas, which are both vegan and gluten-free. That sounds dramatic, but because they only contain chickpea flour and olive oil and salt, along with whatever toppings you choose, it’s pretty simple. (In some recipes, she calls for larger quantities of things like oil and garlic, toppings and sauces, than some cookbooks do, but it suits our family’s taste perfectly.)

The base is used elsewhere in the book, as a platform for some other tasty bits, but since we’ve packed up the gluten in our kitchen, we have been looking for a pizza-like thing that wasn’t about what-was-missing and was all about what’s-there. This doesn’t seem like a gluten-free pizza crust, but something else entirely: it works perfectly for us.

(Mind you, I don’t understand why a nonstick-pan is included in a cookbook which is all about health. But this is a cookbook for busy people, who don’t want to take the time to season a cast-iron pan, which doesn’t stick and isn’t linked to cancer-causing chemicals either.)

Now as to whether or not Gwyneth Paltrow is “wrong about everything”? Timothy Caulfield’s book is fascinating, really. Like Azar Ansari, he is interested in the stats and trends, and he is curious about the relationship between proximity and influence, especially as it relates to culture. For instance, people feel closer to celebrities now that social media offers a different way to interact (or seemingly interact), and this has changed the dimensions of the reach that (some) celebrities have culturally.

It’s All Easy is not very prescriptive, although there is more narrative in the earlier books she has presented. She does deliberately address the matter of specific foods which she “cleansed” from her kitchen in earlier books, in an effort to regain her compromised health. But some of those foods, which do not make an appearance in earlier menus are included in this book, in moderation. (And all the recipes are clearly marked under their titles, if they are particularly suited to a style of eating, like vegan or gluten-free.)

In his analysis, Caulfield takes a common-sense approach, reminding readers that eating more fruit and vegetables and home-cooked food are just plain healthy choices and, when coupled with other healthy habits (like sufficient rest and exercise), folks will see improvements if they’ve fallen into other kinds of habits.

He has no argument with her there. He does question her decision to avoid some particular food groups, and her preference for organically-grown/raised foodstuffs; he cites some studies which show that differences she feels are significant are either not significant or not identifiable. And he has some broader questions, about why people are inclined to turn to celebrities for information about health and wellness in the first place.

But I’m not looking for advice from Gwyneth Paltrow. I am less concerned about whether she is buying organic zucchini and simply interested in the fact that she likes to spiralize hers into soups sometimes.

And because that’s true, I can set aside the fact that the beautiful photographs (of cityscapes and rural landscapes, of the movie-star and her family, of leaves and plants and growing things) don’t really have anything to do with my not-usually-photogenic (but quite-often-damn-tasty) kitchen/dinner table/life.

It’s All Easy is beautifully presented, meticulously organized and aesthetically pleasing. And it is readily adaptable for a messy, lived-in, dairy-free, meat-free kitchen.

Lisa Moore’s Flannery (2016)

Lisa Moore builds folks from the ink up: she is standout at characterization.

Groundwood Books, 2016

Groundwood Books, 2016

One of the elements that makes her characters so convincing is the echo effect, the reverberations off seemingly extraneous details (in images, in descriptions, in settings) to construct multi-faceted individuals.

Readers who have come to admire this quality in her previous novels (she is one of my MRE authors), might have thought this quality would be lost in her writing for younger readers.

Fiction targeting young adult readers is often described as ‘compelling’ or ‘enticing’, less often as ‘complex’ or ‘layered’; and, yet, Flannery manages to tick all those boxes

The bulk of the story is solidly rooted in the present, when Flannery Malone is sixteen years old, living with her mother, Miranda, and her younger brother, Felix, and waiting for the next chapter of her life, when she will finally be living with the love of her life, Tyrone.

For the most part, the story moves chronologically, but occasionally the ribbon of time loops or spirals and readers are afforded a glimpse at a younger Flannery. These scenes work to build character as well, and readers become increasingly attached to her as the pages turn.

“You are nine years old, almost ten, but you know what contractions are because ever since you can remember you’ve had to know things most kids don’t.”

Her self-sufficiency and determination are appealing (both qualities evident in Miranda’s character as well, although there are more differences than similarities between these two), but her grit and astute perspective on the world are remarkable.

“We girls were sitting in the dark, watching an animated film of a gazillion sperms with dark crooked eyebrows and grimaces of effort and strain, snarled lips with teeth showing, all of them in a race of wiggling tails, trying  to get to the egg, who was batting her long eyelashes, awaiting the lucky dude’s arrival.
Is that all they could have the egg do? Sit there and wait? Why wasn’t she charging around too, gnashing her teeth?”

The description of the filmstrip sounds so familiar that readers will feel certain they’ve watched it, but many other descriptions are just as vivid.

“The sun was so low that its reflection was a perfect bright red circle on the water’s surface and as the boat swing around, the circle was smashed into a thousand pieces that skittered away from each other and then floated back together, making the perfect circle again.”

And, just as word choice and phrasing are important in descriptive passages (which also serve the cause of characterization), Flannery herself chooses her words deliberately.

“I was flabbergasted. That’s the word. It’s a word that shows up in the old yellowed Agatha Christie novels you find at your friends’ summercabins. There are British people in those novels with big green lawns and rock walls and there are little old ladies who murder people with arsenic or by stabbing their straight through the forehead with an ice pick, and portly butlers with double chins and cooks with bright red faces and rectors, whatever they are. Those are the kinds of people who get flabbergasted.”

Not everyone is as creative. Flannery’s suitor has to borrow from a master to flatter:  “And your freckles are like cinnamon. (Now he’s really hamming it up.) Shall I compare you to an October’s day in Newfoundland? He says.”

And not every image is of beauty, but some are (and the novel’s setting does play a significant role: Flannery is a Newfoundlander). So maybe “gobs of peanut butter and bread [are] tumbling around in Marty’s mouth like clothes in a dryer” or maybe the “sky was flamingo-feathered”.

Underneath it all, however, are not just a string of events in a teenaged-girl’s life, but some big ideas.

“Not believing in something requires a lot of effort. It is easier to believe. Once I have accepted that something is true, I have a hard time losing faith in it.”

Flannery is grappling with important questions, like the difference between knowing and knowing (and the way in which you can know and not know at the same time), what qualities are nice-to-have and which are essentials for success (whether choosing a scent or a mate), and what to do with her faltering long-term friendship with Amber (the girls’ friendship is an outstanding element of the story, complicated and credible).

In short, if Lisa Moore’s Flannery is the first in a string of YA novels, I will be spending more time reading in that department.

Charlotte Rogan’s Now and Again (2016)

In an interview about her bestselling debut, The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan states: “The best writing opens a person’s mind rather than closing it.”

Rogan Now and Again

Little, Brown and Co, 2016

Readers of Now and Again should pay attention, because her second novel is over 400 pages long and it is written to satisfy open-minded readers who also appreciate open-endings.

“Understanding people like ourselves is no great trick, but fiction can put us in someone else’s shoes and allow us to question our assumptions in a way that makes us better people. Mostly, doing the right thing starts with asking questions rather than blind obedience to dogma, and one of the things fiction does best is to ask questions.” (Interview with January Magazine, 2012)

It’s like she was already talking about Now and Again, which presents a story from twelve different perspectives. Each of these characters is bent on doing the right thing. Many of them are preoccupied with big questions, all of them with small ones (if only about their uncertainty how to handle the other people in their lives who are asking big ones).

And it’s about conflict, small ones (like differences of opinion about whether a blouse is suitable for office wear) and big ones (like war).

At first, there are two sets of characters: one on the home front and one on the battle front. But thematically the stories are linked from the start, with the character of Maggie Rayburn.

She was the character who first took hold for Charlotte Rogan when she began writing Now and Again. (She discusses the themes, characters, and motivation for writing in three short videos: the remainder of the quotes about crafting, which I’ve included, are drawn from these.)

Not only does Maggie figure most predominantly throughout the kaleidoscope of characters, but she inadvertently offers the-closest-thing-to-closure which Now and Again has on offer, by cinching a central theme from beginning to end, in a tight little circle that cannot be discussed in any greater detail without spoilers.

In the novel’s opening pages, Maggie is faced with a decision, whether to steal a top-secret file from the office she works in, at the munitions plant.

“She had [taken something that wasn’t hers], and now she had to do something with the evidence – evidence that was more like ammunition than she liked to think.” Immediately the parallels emerge, the ways in which an action can be as dangerous as a piece of artillery.”

Although a gripping and complex storyline, Maggie’s sole voice wouldn’t adequately explore the terrain that Charlotte Rogan is drawn to. “A single character is not capable of either knowing or expressing the truth.” She deliberately sought to include other voices in Now and Again. “The truth is not a single coherent thing.”

Not all of the characters in the novel seek this kind of complexity. “He liked watching the water smooth over it and imagining the whole mysterious world roiling beneath the surface, filled with creatures that would live and die without knowing a thing about Lyle’s world, just the way he wouldn’t know a thing about theirs.”

Some deliberately seek something quieter. “If he had had a life philosophy, it would have involved not complaining and blending in.”

Whereas others stand out by their very nature, others by circumstance. “It was as if he had crossed into a parallel universe and was searching for a way back. He had assumed the disconnection must have happened in Iraq, but now he realized he had been looking out the window all his life and only rarely making contact….”

Some deliberately protest the status quo. “Human beings were being trafficked for corporate interests right underneath everyone’s noses!”

Others debate the proper course of action/inaction:

  “As she prayed, it occurred to her that prayer was the only thing worth doing, the only truly dgood thing, because all actions had unintended consequences, and because people who acted were always in the gravest danger of being wrong.
But so, of course, were people who prayed. Perhaps it was wrong to pray for particular people or results.”

What to do. What to not do. There are so many contradictions in this novel. One character’s solution is another character’s biggest problem. One character is presumed to be pursuing one course of action, but in fact is motivated by something else entirely and steering a bicycle in the opposite direction.

“It was disconcerting to be misunderstood. But how did a person tell his or her story exactly the way it was?”

Charlotte Rogan clearly states: “Truth and even reality are different for each one of us.”

But at least one of her characters would agree with her statement: “So the world will probably never be peaceful just the way it will never be just, but to not be motivated by idealism doesn’t make you more realistic, it makes you directionless.”

Now and Again is motivated by idealism, but ultimately readers are responsible for assembling their own understanding of its roots.

June 2016, In My Stacks

As the mid-year mark approaches, what is the state of your stack? Are you reading what you planned to read, or are you happy to have veered away from projects you’d expected to complete? Have you got some new reading projects in mind for the second half of 2016?

I’m still working to complete some left-unfinished and overly neglected reads and series, but lately I’ve been reading like a schoolgirl on holiday, picking up the next book in my stack and, along the way, picking up a bunch of books that were just on the ‘someday’ stack and then were suddenly desirable in a given moment.

Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers – The only remnant from my last In the Stacks photo. I’m considering a reread of Summer People when the weather gets hotter. Although I admire the kaleidoscopic view of the folks coping with wartime, at home and on the front, I miss the complete immersion into one or two characters’ experiences, which I remember loving about her writing.

June2016Weekend StackElena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend – I’ve resisted long enough. Now, I’m just too curious what all the fuss is about. Admittedly, the nature of the women’s friendship is immediately of interest. One woman disappears, the other wallows in memories: I do want to know more.

Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards – Oh, how I loved The Book of Ruth. And, I’ve read almost all of her novels since (except the one about a Madeleine). I’m curious how much this family story will differ from her debut family portrait.

Ian Hamilton’s The Scottish Banker of Surabaya – Summer gets me thinking about mysteries, and I’ve borrowed this on a whim from the library, but I’ve only read a hundred pages, and I’ve stalled. This would be my fifth Ava Lee mystery, but I might turn my attention to another series instead.

Karen Molson’s The Company of Crows – A first novel, with a lovely first sentence: “This grey lines fan out across the earthscape like a gigantic, tattered spiderweb.” She’s bookish, she’s thirteen, and she’s growing up in Laughing Willows Trailer Park. And there are crows. I don’t need to know more. This is one of those reading experiences, which I feel, almost immediately, is going to be a favourite.

Susan Philpott’s Dark Territory. Readers met Signy Shepherd in Blown Red, the first in a mystery series centred around The Line, an underground-railroad type of rescue operation for women threatened or attacked. The second in the series is just as compelling. (And some snowy bits make for nice contrast when reading in summer heat!) I’m spinning out the first half, because when I got halfway into the first volume, I simply couldn’t put it down until I had finished it.

Malcolm Sutton’s Job Shadowing – “As we hang on through each plausible yet impossible turn, the parllel worlds Malcolm Sutton effortlessly creates pull us ever closer to the underlying currents and desires that make the personal political, then twist back around to become deeply personal once again.” (So says Jacob Wren, who wrote Polyamorus Love Song) This isn’t exactly a comfortable read, but it sure gets me thinking!

Jill Sexsmith’s Somewhere a Long and Happy Life Probably Awaits You – I’ve annoyed everyone in hearing distance while reading this collection, constantly reading aloud “just this sentence”. (But there are so many awesome sentences. And paragraphs.) Maybe if I was reading in a burst, her style would wear on me, but parcelled out, over a couple of weeks, I have found them just wonderful.

Paul Quarrington’s King Leary – He’s positively offensive at times (much of the time, actually), but also wholly credible. This has been on my TBR for years, and now I’m enjoying just a couple of chapters each day: enough to make me smirk!

Tracy Barone’s Happy Family – Beginning with a highly dramatic opening scene in 1962, the story spills forth into other narratives and the author’s screen-writing experience is evident immediately. Readers need to be prepared to set aside perspectives almost as quickly as they’ve settled into them, but there is a strong promise of resolution as the story grows in complexity.

Frank Viva’s Sea Change – Unexpectedly funny, whereas the dark colour palette led me to expect a more sombre coming-of-age story. It’s perfect for summer reading, as the story of a boy sent to the Maritimes for a holiday, and I’ve stopped to read a passage aloud three times in just four short chapters. This bodes well!

How about you? How about your stack? How about your someday-stack?