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

Megan Abbott’s The Fever (2014)

Paradoxically, the phenomenon in The Fever has a chilling effect on characters and readers alike.

The girls fall to the ground, one after the next; they writhe and tensions rise but blood is chilled.

Abbott Fever

Little Brown & Company, 2014

“As Deenie walked out, a coolness began to sink into her. The feeling that something was wrong with Lise, but the wrongness was large and without reference.”

What Deenie observes is something new and frightening. (For readers of a certain age, it is impossible to meet a character named Deenie and not think of Judy Blume’s novel of the same name: isn’t it? It’s an apt allusion for a novel preoccupied with the trials of coming-of-age.)

“She’d seen Lise with a hangover, with mono. She’d seen girlfriends throw up behind the loading dock after football games and faint in gym class, their bodies loaded with diet pills and cigarettes. She’d seen Gabby black out in the girls’ room after she gave blood. But those times never felt like this.”

Megan Abbott has explored the mindscape of a teenage girl before too, in The End of Everything. Deenie Nash is a believable character, inhabiting an age of extremes.

“You spend a long time waiting for life to start – the past year or two filled with all these firsts, everything new and terrifying and significant – and then it does start and you realize it isn’t what you’d expected, or asked for.”

But Megan Abbott also presents material from the perspective of Deenie’s brother, who is slightly older than Deenie, and their father, Tom.

Tom’s perspective introduces a different kind of discomfort for readers who might long for a more experienced evaluation than Deenie’s. This allows readers to take a step back from the teen-drama-soaked point-of-view and more broadly consider the risks posed in this situation.

In some ways, Tom operates as an EveryParent. “Sometimes it felt like parenting amounted to a series of questionable decisions, one after another. “

But emotions run high for characters of all ages in this novel; Tom’s sense of helplessness adds to the sense of overwhelming distress.

Ultimately, these events are disturbing because they are rooted in universal fears, largely in the unknown.

“When you thought about your body, about how much of it you couldn’t even see, it was no wonder it could all go wrong. All those tender nerves, sudden pulses. Who knew.”

And, beyond the physical risk, there are the psychological tremors which resonate with readers, as the characters struggle to accept the unfathomable.

“…what was really bothering her… was the realization that you can’t stop bad things from happening to other people, other things. And that would be hard forever. He’d never quite gotten used to it himself.”

The Fever focuses on a perfect pairing: the escalated emotions and extremes of being a teenager and the heightened tension and paranoia which accompanies a seemingly-contagious illness.

Megan Abbott’s style is deliberately clean and her background writing noir fiction shines through. Her tone is functional and poised-to-alarm-at-any-moment, and readers can relax in her capable storytelling hands.

The Fever is a well-written page-turner; however, the resolution provides the potential to add an additional layer to the story (as does one element of the story which does not ultimately figure in the resolution but does act as an interesting diversion), but this is not a novel which invites rereading.

Megan Abbott’s fear-soaked story does not inhabit the more analytical space that novels like Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down or Emily Schultz’s The Blondes occupy; the social pressures that female characters experience do play a pivotal role, but The Fever does not veer into layered commentary.

Smart and solid storytelling, The Fever engages and entertains; it deserves a place on summer reading lists and the shelves of readers who enjoy crime fiction with a focus on characterization.

Have you read her fiction before? Or, is this on your reading list?

Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood (2012)

“The ‘geography’ in question is the Cypress Hills, a broken rise of land that straddles the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, just north of Havre, Montana,” the author explains.* 

“The country is a complete knockout for anyone who enjoys the romance of the Earth’s history or who is susceptible to the wild, windblown beauty of natural prairie.  I was head over heels in an instant and knew I’d have a story to tell.”*

Geography of Blood Savage

Greystone Books, 2012

And this geography, this story, is a bloody one.

It is not the version of the wild west that is taught to schoolchildren and celebrated by tourists.

The story which Candace Savage unearths has much deeper roots.

(The portion quoted above is from a conversation about the process of writing the work, and these extracts are starred; quotes from the work itself are unmarked. Details below.)

As a storyteller, she does not take hold of the root and give a sharp tug.

She considers her surroundings, loosens the surrounding soil, and studies the extremities.

She acknowledges the reach, the inconnections and complexities, and explores the possibilities by wriggling a little.

“What if the hills weren’t really an uncharted wilderness before the Europeans showed up?”

This is a question for which we have an answer, for of course it was not an uncharted wilderness but a homeland. But that answer does not fit with the mythologizing of the frontier.

“What if there was more to indigenous prairie cultures than whooping and war clubs?”

This, too, is a question with an answer which directly challenges the myth of the Wild West.

“What if it wasn’t the Metis (as Stegner claims) who stripped these hills of wildlife, bringing their own way of life to an end?”

Stegner? That’s Wallace Stegner, the American writer, whose boyhood home was in Eastend, on the southeastern edge of the hills. The Stegners’ home is still there and operates as an artists’ residence, which is what initially drew Candace Savage and her partner, Keith Bell, to the town.

“At the time, I certainly didn’t anticipate that Wallace Stegner would be a companion through the early stages of my explorations or that I would end up daring to spar with him.”*

And spar she does, though perhaps it’s not a fair fight; Stegner only battles with words he has linked in the past.

But if the sparring isn’t fair, Stegner’s accounting is unfair as well.

“What I found in his writings was a classic–you could even say canonical–account of western settlement. Nobody from Stegner’s generation recounted that history with more passion or grace than he did in Wolf Willow, his reflection on his own Eastend years. I’m the descendant of generations of prairie “pioneers” myself, so I have a very personal stake in that history. In the end, the standard framing of the settlement story, as presented by Stegner and others, left me feeling troubled.  Actually, make that mad.”*

But not only angry. A barrage of emotions awaited Candace Savage as she began to unearth the other versions of this old story. “These memories make us ashamed, angry, bewildered, regretful, curious, eager to understand. I know I felt all those things.”*

Ultimately, Candace Savage does not pull up this tale by the roots. She gets her hands dirty, and you can feel the grit beneath the nail, and the acknowledgement of deeper recesses and gashes beyond. But this is an open-ended exploration.

“If the incomer and Aboriginal communities ever do begin to talk sincerely about how the West was won, we are going to have a lot of painful ground to cover.”

A Geography of Blood is the beginning of a conversation.

Not a one-sided one either. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. No longer.

“Home Truth by Dudley Patterson, Apache elder, 1996
Wisdom sits in places.
It’s like water that never dries up.
You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you?
Well, you also need to drink from place.
You must remember everything about them.
You must learn their names.
You must remember what happened at them long ago.
You must think about it and keep on thinking about it.
Then your mind will become smoother and smoother.
Then you will see danger before it happens.”

* These excerpts come from a conversation which appears on Candace Savage’s website , following the publication of The Geography of Blood.

“Silence” Alice Munro

In the story, it is Joan who prolongs the name “with a certain tone of celebration”.

Penelope.

But it’s easy to imagine that it is actually Alice Munro who is savouring every syllable as she draws it out in ink.

Pen-ell-oh-pee.

You can imagine her there, à la Winslet and DiCaprio, at the bow.

No, not Penelope there, but Juliet.

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

“On the short ferry ride from Buckley Bay to Denman Island, Juliet got out of her car and stood at the front of the boat, in the summer breeze.”

Our solitary heroine.

Once part of a pair, now a singleton, with her Romeo lost at sea.

The alignment of a “Juliet” with a “Penelope” in a story cycle whose first story features a heroine with an affinity for the Classics?

Allusions abound for readers of “Chance”, “Soon” and “Silence”.

In Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, a character explains the endurance of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” by saying that people want to remember what it was like to be young and in love.

Alice Munro chooses her characters’ names deliberately and carefully.

But here it feels as though readers are meant to remember what it was like to be once-young and no-longer-sure-it-was-love-anyway.

Readers’ expectations of a “Juliet” are challenged initially in “Chance” (although Juliet does act impulsively in that story, seeking out Eric in his home north of Vancouver).

And just as Romeo had been smitten by another young girl, Eric’s affections have been previously engaged, not only by his wife, but by another woman (whom readers become acquainted with in “Silence”).

But Juliet is still drawn to him, despite some off-putting moments and realizations. Even while she acknowledges some imperfections in the situation.

Eric’s independence (disinterest? unavailability? neglect?) appeals to Juliet strongly and immediately, as much as if Eric had been a Montague.

Juliet is put off by interdependence and need. (It’s interesting to consider whether this contributes to her disconnect with her mother, Sara, which readers observe in “Soon”; Sara’s flamboyance and individuality irks Juliet even as she criticizes what she perceives as weakness in her mother.)

From the man on the train in “Chance” to men that she meets years later, Juliet – who is desirable in Shakespeare’s play for her very Juliet-ness — wants to be wanted, but her conviction is muddled when the idea of wanting mingles with the idea of needing.

“She liked him, but his loneliness was so raw and his pursuit of her so desperate that she became alarmed.”

What is most remarkable are the differences between the classical heroines and their roles and actions in this trio of stories.

For instance, Penelope is not she-who-waits as she was in the traditional myths.

Here, Penelope travels like Odysseus, leaving loved ones behind, in Juliet’s case, waiting and wondering, though not weaving.

(But the way that Juliet speaks of her work on a television show does emphasize its repetitive nature, so perhaps it could be seen as reworking the same piece of cloth with each episode.)

Juliet conjures up a variety of scenarios for her daughter, who it turns out, has not been charmed by Circe or barricaded in a cave by a shepherd.

“Now she seldom mentioned Penelope, even to Christa. She had a boyfriend—that was what you called them now—who had never heard anything about her daughter.”

Nor has she disappeared underground, like another mythic figure whose allusions have fleetingly appeared in other Munro stories.

No, Juliet has set up house off the beaten path. In a small community perhaps much like the one which Penelope’s parents called home, though in  northern Canada, not southern.

And just as Juliet left them behind, Penelope’s choices have taken her to unexplored territory. (And interestingly enough, to a place of contradictions, a city in the wilderness, just as Juliet grew up in a house on the edge of town.)

“Penelope was not a phantom, she was safe, as far as anybody is safe, and she was probably as happy as anybody is happy. She had detached herself from Juliet and very likely from the memory of Juliet, and Juliet could not do better than to detach herself in turn.”

Juliet does not comfortably inhabit her role in this story, whether literally or figuratively detached. After Eric’s death, she becomes even more keenly aware of a sense of distance between her own experience of her life and the events unfolding around her which comprise that life.

“The storm, the recovery of the body, the burning on the beach—that was all like a pageant she had been compelled.”

It is interesting to consider the women who inhabit the margins of this pageant.

“It was Ailo who took charge—her Scandinavian blood, her upright carriage and flowing white hair, seeming to fit her naturally for the role of Widow of the Sea.”

Juliet seems to believe that another woman would actually be better suited to be Eric’s widow; she is not lover-enough, not Juliet-enough, to be the grieving mate left behind. (Ironically, her relationship with Eric formally begins when he is mourning his wife’s death and he is the mate left behind.)

And, quite possibly, given Eric’s propensity to wander (and, seemingly, to take up with other women as freely as Odysseus did on his travels), there is some truth to Juliet’s sense of remove from this relationship.

In “Silence”, Alice Munro offers readers something like Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, a Penelope with wanderlust and a living, breathing, aging Juliet.

Versions of versions, stories within stories: “Silence” ends with an homage to “Chance” and readers can imagine rereading many times to unearth new layers of understanding.

Do you have a favourite amongst this cycle of stories? If you could request a fourth, what would you like (or expect) it to contain? Do characters and situations in these stories recall other Munro stories as you read? If this story was a reread for you, what (if anything) did you remember of your earlier reading?

Finally, if you haven’t read this story, is there another collection of stories in your stack currently?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Runaway as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the fourth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Passion”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

June 2014, In My Bookbag

I’m slipping a variety of reading into my bookbag this month.

It depends on my mood, when I’m travelling to and fro, and how much time I know I will have to spend on a bus or train, or whether it will be calm or chaotic.

Tricksters Hat BantockNick Bantock’s The Trickster’s Hat: A Mischievous Apprenticeship in Creativity has some terrific exercises and prompts; some require some than a pen and a notebook but many of them call for just that, so this small volume is a fine travel companion. (And isn’t that a grand subtitle?)

Heather O’Neill’s second novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, makes for good company. The language is rich; the story has the same emotional intensity of her debut, Lullabies for Little Criminals, so I find it perfect for short commutes because part of me is tempted to read it in bursts, but another part of me wants this to last until she writes another.

Girl Saturday Night ONeillParticularly when travelling by train in southwestern Ontario, there are still a few glimpses of woodland. Theresa Kishkan’s trees in Mnemonic are west-coast Canadian trees but some of them are familiar nonetheless, and her musings on memory and experience are engaging and evocative. This might be on my list of favourites for this year: a beautiful read.

Mnemonic KishkanThe first of the volumes in Benjamin Lefebvre’s L.M. Montgomery readers, A Life in Print, is a heavy volume to lug about, but there are 80 pieces from which to choose, so for LMM fans, this is a delight to peruse in a variety of reading moods. It reminds me, too, that I have yet to revisit the unedited versions of LMM’s journals; the edited version are ATFs, so I am looking forward simply to more of what I previously loved discovering therein.

Two short story collections are also rotating in my bag: Janine Alyson Young’s Hideout Hotel and Andrea Routley’s Jane and the Whales.

Jane Whales Routley

Both debut collections by Caitlin Press, these stories are woman-soaked, with astute observations and tight dialogue working to invite the reader to read “just one more”.

Young Hideout Hotel

Monday brought this year’s summer reading from Walrus Magazine, which include “Part of the Main” by Mark Callanan, “Brute” by Jessica Grant, “Care and Feeding of the Amish” by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, “Ultrasound” by Stephen Marche, and “Watching the Cop Show in Bed” by Alexandra Oliver. If there was a category for Mag found Most Often in My Bookbag, The Walrus would win, flippers down.

What’s been travelling with you recently?

Polly Dugan’s So Much a Part of You (2014)

Though each segment could be read as a standalone, each is So Much a Part of the Landscape that Polly Dugan’s work is best read all-in-a-burst.

So Much a Part of You Dugan

Little Brown & Company, 2014

More trust is required on the reader’s part than, say, with Carrie Snyder’s more prominently linked The Juliet Stories or Elise Juska’s The Blessings.

But nor are the links as subtle as in, say, Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, in which the tales cross hundreds of years but revolve around the act of reading.

So Much a Part of You focuses on a core group of characters, the concerns of the collection swelling outwards like ripples in a pond, but with the core remaining distinct.

In fact, the only gap appears to be between the first story, which focuses on a single character from an earlier generation, and the remainder of the tales which concentrate on interconnected contemporary characters.

But this gap is actually not a gap and here is where the reader’s trust is required; the circle is cinched with the final story, in a quietly satisfying “ahhh” moment, with a subtle thematic link that could not have been predicted but which is surprisingly satisfying.

The majority of the stories are preoccupied with relationships, with the dramatic ebb and flow of affections. The characters are frequently young (the youngest is in the first tale) and struggling with issues of identity, or somewhat older but facing circumstances which challenge aspects of their identity which once seemed immovable.

The prose is straightforward and the use of figurative language is minimal. The stories are scenic, set out with a journalist’s attention to detail, with only the occasional simile to add to the reader’s sensory experience of characters’ key realizations.

“He smells like booze, something harder beneath the beer. She knows it well. And more – laundry detergent, shampoo, and himself. His sunny, earthy smell of boy makes her feel empty and reckless. His scent is like a plateful of something she wants to cut up and shovel in by the forkful until she’s stuffed.”

Polly Dugan  makes deft use of detail from the 80′s music references, to sobbing in the theatre during “Against All Odds”, the radio in Chris’ mother’s car playing Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain”, the pearls against Audrrey’s clavicle, ad the Olivers’ farm at the end of a dirt road lane with soybean fields on both sides.

The majority of the stories are narrated by a female character, and the girls and women in the collection behave credibly (not always likeably, but believably); they are sometimes flimsy and fuzzy, losing themselves in the pursuit of a romantic relationship, and sometimes determinedly independent.

“By their last night together, Caitlin thought she loved him. She felt like a rock he’d taken and carved something out of. She was a different person from the one she’d been a week ago.”

The male characters’ vulnerabilities are also explored, and the storyteller’s voice is consistent throughout, so that a sense of unity in the collection is maintained, despite the regular shifts in character and perspective and, as the collection proceeds, time.

As the years pass, the characters’ preoccupations grow more complex, reflecting a variety of experiences (often revolving around a loss or a perceived loss). “He feels the fatigue of having aged, as though he has undergone a crash course in the business of growing older.”

Polly Dugan’s style is gently probing; singly, the stories in So Much a Part of You might not have the same emotional resonance with readers but, in combination, the characters take hold.

In much the same way that writers like Jami Attenberg and Meg Mitchell Moore can catch a reader’s heart unawares, Polly Dugan’s stories are tender explorations of love and loss.

Is this collection on your stack? Or, do you have a favourite collection of linked stories?

Shari LaPeña’s Happiness Economics (2011)

The next time someone says to me that funny books are always disappointing because they’re funny-dumb, I’ll be pointing them to this novel: it’s funny-smart.

Brindle and Glass, 2011

Happiness Economics opens with Will Thorne struggling with the idea of being a poet in a world which does not value poets.

Except that in Shari LaPeña’s second novel, the economic theme isn’t as heavy-handed as the language that I’ve used in that sentence.

“It was a crazy, mixed-up world, a world that took economic forecasters seriously — see everyone hang on his wife’s every word! — and sports figures, and movie stars.”

Poets deserve to be taken seriously, Will believes. Or, more accurately, Will thinks.  Believes is a strong word for someone who spends an inordinate amount of time disbelieving.

“Would it be ennui today or despair?”

Will’s world is not as concrete as his wife’s.

Judy Thorne writes books too, books about investing, instant best-sellers written in a “chatty, informative, accessible” style, but she can measure her success in dollars and cents, in television appearances, in phone calls with influential contacts.

There is no outward measure of Will’s success.

He is an engaged father (mostly, except when we forgets to let the kids in for lunch because the ennui/despair is too overwhelming) and he has written some good poetry.

But there’s no Governor General’s Award to show for it. And when he proposed to Judy that he receive a wage for his childcare responsibilities, she made a counter-offer, a significantly lower figure.

And “[s]he had all her expertise as an economist behind her while he’d only had an article in Chatelaine.”

But even Judy — as great as she presents on camera — has concerns, even before the events of 2008 which seriously threatened her professional identity.

She is particularly concerned about her children, Alex and Zoe. (And these are not like sitcom kids: they are wholly believable.)

“They had everything. She didn’t know what to do about it, so most of the time she simply kept working and telling herself that they should be happy — they had everything.”

And, yet, her family is unhappy, her children in their tween/teen years struggling in the same way that Will is (although the kids are preoccupied with their own concerns and aren’t aware of the parallels).

Zoe “vaguely wished to be a pop star — she watched all the Idol shows — but she didn’t know anything about music, and now it seemed almost too late”.

Even at 12 years old, Zoe keeps her pop-star ambitions to herself, recognizing that artsy dreams are fragile, whereas Alex broadcasts his desire to be a police officer, a detective.

“‘Right,’ said Zoe. ‘There’s a fitness test, you know.’”

Catch a glimpse of the realistic dialogue there, also all the unstated eye-rolling: Zoe is at that age.

But, there is some truth beneath Zoe’s defensive barb; both Will and Judy are unsure whether the amount of sweets that Alex is eating will create a problem for him.

When tension at home increases — because there is conflict between Will and Judy, particularly as each feels their identity rocked by external events and internal fears — Alex reaches for a candy bar.

All of the characters in this novel have their own ways of coping with what lurks beneath the surfaces of their lives.

Sometimes the struggle is visible, even to casual onlookers; sometimes the veneer is solid.

Sometimes the choices appear minor, as in whether Zoe should be allowed to attend a Shopping Party for a class-mate’s birthday.

Rarely the issues are approached openly, philosophically: “When…does the end justify the means? And how do you measure the externalities, the collateral damage? What is life but the continuous exercise of moral choice?”

For that is the delight of this novel; after you have finished reading, it’s clear that the author has deliberately layered the theme throughout, but the reader is simply engaged in the story.

What is truly an obstacle, whether to progress or happiness? What does it mean if we, individually or nationally, decline to participate in a measure of well-being which values war over housing starts?

These are big questions. But in the course of reading Shari LaPeña’s novel, the reader simply hopes that someone will honk for the poet who is standing at the side of the parkway with a sign that reads “Honk if you love poetry.”

A novel that is wholly entertaining  – there are some laugh-out-loud moments and countless smirky grins — and still leaves you with lots to think about? That’s good stuff.

A wholly entertaining novel that leaves you with something to believe in? That’s grand.

PS If it adds to the value of the book in your reader’s mind, Happiness Economics won the Stephen Leacock Medal for being hilarious.

“Soon” Alice Munro

Readers who were left with an abundance of questions after reading “Chance” might turn to “Soon” believing that some will be answered.

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

But Juliet’s reappearance holds no promises of resolution; there are just as many new musings unaddressed.

Most prominent are the questions outwardly posed at the end of the story: “When Sara had said, soon I’ll see Juliet, Juliet had found no reply. Could it not have been managed? Why should it have been so difficult?”

It’s possible that part of the answer rests with Juliet’s fundamental understanding of her place in the world, particularly regarding her identity as the daughter of Sam and Sara.

“And the truth was that she saw herself—she saw herself and Sam and Sara, but particularly herself and Sam—as superior in their own way to everybody around them.”

In “Chance”  it is unclear why Juliet pursued a teaching career and a study of the classics; “Soon” does address this question, even as it raises additional questions about the nature of Juliet’s understanding of relationships.

Her parents, Sam and Sara, “lived in a curious but not unhappy isolation, though her father was a popular schoolteacher. Partly they were cut off by Sara’s heart trouble, but also by their subscribing to magazines nobody around them read, listening to programs on the national radio network, which nobody around them listened to. By Sara’s making her own clothes—sometimes ineptly—from Vogue patterns, instead of Butterick. Even by the way they preserved some impression of youth instead of thickening and slouching like the parents of Juliet’s schoolfellows.”

The story opens with Juliet buying a print of a Marc Chagall painting for her parents. “I and the Village” brings them to her mind, which is an interesting thought when one considers the other painting discussed in the story, Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”.

Sam’s (and Sara’s?) taste in art was not acceptable in these environs. “It had been the subject of nervous jokes years ago on the occasion when they had the other teachers to supper.” But Juliet chooses to pursue a career in the classics even though she recognizes the marginal role her parents inhabit in the community. (And even though she purchases a print of a modern work of art for her parents, the Chagall is relocated to the attic.)

The family’s marginalization is literal as well as metaphoric. “Light from the last streetlight in town now fell across Juliet’s bed.” (But perhaps Juliet blames this discord on Sara and her ineptly sewn Vogue outfits.)

Like Rose, Juliet inhabits the fringe. As she takes the train home again, the landscape is lush and thriving, but it assaults Juliet’s vision. She seems openly offended by her roots.

“The hardwood trees were humped over the far edge of the fields, making blue-black caves of shade, and the crops and the meadows in front of them, under the hard sunlight, were gold and green. Vigorous young wheat and barley and corn and beans—fairly blistering your eyes.”

Her visit is further tarnished by the presence of Irene, who is helping out with Sara, who is not what Juliet expected to find.

“Irene was a mother, too. She had a boy three years old and a daughter just under two. Their names were Trevor and Tracy. Their father had been killed last summer in an accident at the chicken barn where he worked. She herself was three years younger than Juliet—twenty-two.”

Irene’s character offers another perspective on Juliet’s home life. (Or, perhaps Irene gives voice to some of Juliet’s judgements, which she is unwilling to own?)

“Irene’s flickering pale eyes, indirect but measuring looks, competent hands. Her vigilance, in which there was something that couldn’t quite be called contempt.”

As does an encounter with a school chum, faced with Juliet and her defiantly-born-out-of-wedlock child, Penelope.

“He appraised her, covertly, perhaps he saw her now as a woman displaying the fruits of a boldly sexual life. Juliet, of all people. The gawk, the scholar.”

Years later, when Juliet discovers a letter in which she described these days to Eric, she is uncomfortable.

“When she read the letter, Juliet winced, as anybody does on discovering the preserved and disconcerting voice of some past fabricated self.”

But as those experiences are unfolding, she is even more uncomfortable with Sara’s exposure of a different perspective on the dynamics of this home, of her marriage to Juliet’s father.

“’You know I don’t mean it if I ever say mean things about Daddy. I know he loves me. He’s just unhappy.’”

Has Juliet never recognized that Sara might have had her own unhappinesses, her own grievances, her own disappointments?

Juliet, at twenty-five years old, is freshly struggling with difficult situations, incapable of managing the simplest answer.

Readers must wonder if she will find her voice in the next story, or whether the questions will continue to accumulate.

What do you think about Juliet? What does “Soon” add to your “Chance” understanding of her character?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Runaway as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the third story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Silence”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

On Courtney Crumrin, Lucy Knisley, and Faith Erin Hicks

There’s a new girl at school. One who hasn’t heard about Courtney Crumrin and who dares to sit with her at lunch.

Readers, however, are well-acquainted with Courtney by now; this is the fifth book in the series about the irrepressible girl who dares to go into dark places and keep dark company.

Courtney Crumrin FiveIn The Witch Next Door, readers return to Hillsborough (and other familiar places) and learn more about Courtney’s Uncle Aloysius, who is – as Courtney observes – both terrifying and reassuring, at the same time.

Time passes differently for Uncle Aloysius – fifty years is nothing and he is a hundred years older than Courtney – so there is a lot of potential for backstory, but readers unfamiliar with the first four volumes would not be overwhelmed by the narrative in this volume. Though incidents and characters from earlier volumes make appearances, the story is relatively self-contained.

“Dark or light is all in how you use it,” one character observes. And that is true, too, of the artist’s style. At times the use of colour is bright and bold, and at times there is a Wizard-of-Oz draining and fading, so that the world is a kaleidoscope of greys.

The darkness never entirely overwhelms, either stylistically or thematically, however. Sometimes the ground splinters and fangs are bared, and the staircases in the underworld might seem to be endless and exhausting, but for every assassination there is a making-cocoa scene and for every gasp a giggle. There is humour alongside the horror in this tale.

Courtney Crumrin is just as sassy and irreverent as ever: fans will not be disappointed. “Anyone can learn to play a tune but some people have more talent than others.” And Courtney is more of the talented.

Still, she is not infallible. “Sometimes, bravery and nobility take a back seat to common sense.” Frequently these stories hinge on an error in judgement, a gap where common sense should reside, but the action in this volume is of a slightly different hue. 

There is some ambiguity about choices made. “I can’t even do good without doing evil as well.” And the complexity of the world holds sway.

Ethical questions about power and responsibility are raised. Characters must consider whether they should challenge old patterns and dare to defy expectations in an effort so they can live with the decisions they must make. Issues surrounding belonging, loyalty  and deceit play out, and the question of forgiveness and atonement lurks beneath.

But, perhaps most importantly, The Witch Next Door entertains and delights.

Relish KnisleyLucy Knisley’s Relish is, clearly, about food.

Readers know that, not only from the Alison Bechdel blurb on the cover: “Step aside, Joy of Cooking.”

Not only from the title (delightfully punny though it is) and subtitle (My Life in the Kitchen).

But from the cover illustration. It’s obvious, yes.

Still, readers of her first book, French Milk, might have guessed as much, even before seeing Relish, as her debut had a good bit to say about food (in Paris) too.

Nonetheless, what I most enjoy about both works is the focus on her relationship with her mother.

Okay, okay: there are a number of high-points. Like the chapter on cookies. And the recipe for pesto.

And the delightfully awkward coming-of-age story which unfolds in a chapter set in Mexico.

Did I mention that chapter on croissants? I think that might be my favourite.

“The layers were flaky and buttery, concealing the fresh jam in the depths of the thickest part of thecrescent, where the pastry was so soft that it nearly disintegrated in my mouth. Unspeakably good.”

But my absolutely favourite part of the book is the afterword, which recasts the rest of Relish in a thoroughly pleasing way: the photographs of Lucy and her mother that clearly bolster all that is told in the pages before.

Knisley’s works read rather like a teenager’s diaries; they feel saturated with her really-rather-privileged experience of and perspective on the world.

But there is something charming about her spirit and her playful tone is invigorating; I’m curious to sample her next volume of work.

Nothing Can Possibly Go WrongI enjoy books about high school far more than I enjoyed high school. Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks bring that world off the page.

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong takes a tired theme (cheerleaders versus robotics club) and adds a dash of student government and a splash of chaos at home (divorced parents).

The ensemble cast has two male friends at its core, uniting the two worlds-at-war as the novel opens, for one boy has been dating the head cheerleader and the other plays an integral role in the robotics club.

There isn’t a lot which challenges readers’ expectations of this age-old theme. The robotic boy wears plaid and the head cheerleader boasts a larger-than-life ponytail. The villains are pimply and greasy-haired. There is a single geek girl in the boys’ club.

The problems characters face are not extreme (frustrations of father-son-bonding camping trips and unfortunate creek encounters) but they play out with believable drama. That’s what I most enjoyed about the story.

In the lives of these characters, belonging and recognition are of vital importance, in the form of whether or not a group can participate in a competition or has new uniforms. It definitely rings true.

The drawings are contained in a varietry of blocked panels. Sometimes the shapes are unexpected, for instance to mimic the upward motion of the first throw in a basketball game or to catch the momentum of a sidelong pass across the court.  The facial expressions are the perfect combination of overly angsty (which sometimes seem almost manga-like) and nonplussed.

One of my favourite scenes is the short backflash to the two boys’ first meeting, several years earlier, a playdate which neither particularly wanted to attend; the drawings were particularly comical, their reluctance and resistance almost tangible. I would have liked more of that kind of backstory, but I suspect the target audience is more interested in the through-story and the outcome of the conflict.

Last year I read Faith Erin Hicks’ Friends with Boys and I liked it quite a bit, but in combination with another solid read in Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, I’m now interested enough to more deliberately seek out her other works.

Have you read any of these? Or, do you have any other comics in your stacks?

Bookish Synchonicity: The Age, What We All Long For

What We All Long For BrandThe Age Nancy LeeGerry stands on the pedals of her bike, rides a slow, controlled slalom down the hill, forces the cars behind her to change lanes.

Her muscles shudder with the effort. The horn blares make her smile.

At the bottom of the hill, she tucks as the traffic light slips to amber, swerves around a car turning right.
Nancy Lee’s The Age
(M&S, 2014)

Gearing up on her bicycle she left the dreariness of it behind, heading downtown.

When she made the intersection at Runnymede, the glow was still on her body, searing and damp.The afternoon light was sharp for spring.

The sun coming west was dead angled at her head as she rode east, chipping between cars, crazily challenging red lights. […]

As fast as she was riding, she could still make out the particularity of each object or person she saw, so acute this searing light around her, tingling her skin.

Could anyone see her? drenched in lightning?
Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For
(Random House Canada, 2005)

Nancy Lee’s The Age (2014)

Do you hear it when you look at the cover of Nancy Lee’s debut novel?

The Age by Nancy Lee

McClelland & Stewart, 2014

Cue the music: “This is the dawning of….”

The Age. It is an unusual title which manages to feel both like a fragment and an expansive concept.

If readers do think of the song from “Hairspray”, images conjured from the Age of Aquarius might cluster.

Astrologers disagree about the specific calculations which define this astrological age, about whether it has arrived or is yet to arrive, but readers might think of defining characteristics of popular culture’s understanding of the age, like humanitarianism and idealism, rebellion and nonconformity.

These ideas lurk and certainly fuel elements of the story, but the overarching sense for readers is a feeling of pending doom and anxiety.

It is 1984 Vancouver and there are warships in the Atlantic: these are precarious times and the nuclear threat is resounding.

In fact, the atmosphere of this novel is truly overwhelming. It takes considerable skill and attention to detail to build this kind of emotion without a relentless start-to-finish blood-pumping plot.

Mind you, The Age does have a plot with teeth. There is a plan to plant a bomb, designed to reveal the destructive impact of war and underline the importance of working towards peace. Chaos is to be cultivated though no lives are to be lost. So there is overt tension in some plot elements, yes.

But if The Age was intended to be a page-turner, Nancy Lee would have structured it differently. Events would have been recounted in a linear manner, the glimpses into the main character’s imagination would have been excised, along with the clutter of secondary relationships.

Instead, it seems readers are directed to feel as fragmented as the shards of Gerry’s identity, scrambling to piece together meaningful bits, assembling something-like-a-story despite immersion in a dark and deadened atmosphere.

At first glance, this might be mistaken for the amorphous wanderings of a debut novel. But the mood of The Age is carefully constructed, even though families and communities are shattering.

In the hands of another storyteller, perhaps The Age would culminate in a swath of loose ends, but Nancy Lee’s novel begins and ends with the aftermath, a serious and deliberate fracturing.

The novel’s imagery is presented in straightforward language: uncomplicated, but effective. Even individual sensory descriptions force a degree of discomfort.

Consider the cumulative effect of details like the following: from “her grip on the handlebars part sweat, part tack of peeling tape” to her rubbing “her head, her face burning. The ringing lingers like a bell in dream”.

Sweat, tack, and burning: these are not pleasant. And this kind of thing is inescapable, even at the sentence-level, for consider the echo of ringing which is lingering, which transforms the sentence into something designed to make readers recoil and want to cover their ears.

It is often claustrophobic, strangling. “Megan’s living room is always stuffy, like a hand over Gerry’s face, heat that starts in the matted carpet beneath her socks, then rises to muddy the air.”

Even drawers squawk and protest. “She flattens her palms on her father’s desk, the varnish rough in patches, dust like fabric under her hands. She works her fingers past the lip of the drawer, wiggles it, the stiff, squeaky protest of wood on wood.”

The layering of detail is distinctly unsettling. This novel is unlikely to be anybody’s comfort read, but it could be a fable of sorts, for the seeker, for the traveller.

Gerry’s identity is shifting and altering, as disrupted as the political scene she inhabits, both at home and in the circle of resistors she joins. Desperate to belong, to be recognized as having a role to play, she makes decisions with the passion and misdirection of a hormonal teenager. At times she is savvy and insightful, and at times she is thoughtless and aimless: unsure of her own self, perpetually in disguise.

“With the tips of her fingers, she pats her mom’s liquid foundation over the worst of it, tempers the angry purple with tawny beige. She leaves her hair down as camouflage, draws a brush through it, careful not to graze her scalp.”

In the novel’s opening scene, she is misidentified as a boy: beaten first and then recognized as a girl. In her own imagination, a series of scenes in which Gerry imagines what existence would be like following the detonation of a nuclear bomb, she transforms herself into a boy.

Both in and out of this fantasy, Gerry grapples with the threat of and inevitability of death.

“Missiles will get them first.”
Gerry traces the tiny vessels. “What do you think it will it feel like?”
He pinches his fingers together, then bursts them apart. “Pfft. Nothing. Life is nothing. Death is nothing.”

This is an Age, but it is also Gerry’s Age. Her Age of Becoming. An age characterized by fear, personal and political, which leaves readers shaken and disoriented from the blast of disappointments.

“She is afraid of spiders, of dying a virgin, of the new virus, detonators and plutonium, warships in the Persian Gulf. She is afraid of airplane sounds, the shape of certain cloud formations, gas masks, submarines, the electric squeal of the emergency broadcast system, farmers’ fields that open to mile-deep silos. She is afraid of generals and admirals, and old white presidents. Of seeing her father, and never seeing him, of radiation sickness, and reincarnation, being vaporized only to return to an annihilated world.”

Nancy Lee’s The Age is challenging and abrasive; it scatters readers’ expectations of a novel and invites us to enter the aftermath.