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

Literary Kismet: Michaels and Galloway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quarterly Stories: Summer 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer of the Canadian Short Story Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Already in play for July:

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

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

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

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

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

Just Pretending Lisa Bird WilsonIn the Wings:

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

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

Joining The Book Mine Set’s Canadian Book Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Powers” Alice Munro

Runaway readers cannot run away from the book after turning the final page. Instead, they have to burrow in.

Much like “Vandals” in 1994′s Open Secrets and the title story in 2012′s Dear Life, “Powers” is one of those closing stories that sends readers rushing back to the beginning.

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

So long that it can be divided into five parts – “Give Dante a Rest”, “Girl in a Middy”, “A Hole in the Head”, “A Square, A Circle, A Star”, and “Flies on A Windowsill” – this story is a challenge indeed.

Part of me expected there would be nine parts, one for each circle of hell (which have been recreated in Lego: clearly nobody told him to “give Dante a rest“). But instead, Alice Munro has chosen five segments.

The schoolgirl in me wonders if she is playing with Freytag’s theory, which classically applies to plays but can be applied to other literary forms, and would have been a fixture in the curriculum in Alice Munro’s day. (Versions of it are still taught today, though I’m not sure how often his name comes up.)

If Munro had this structure in mind, his traditional arc (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement) impacts the readers’ understanding of the story’s focal point.

One might have thought the climax of the story occurred with the revelation that a couple had run away together at the end of “Girl in a Middy”. It is certainly a surprise, though one ushered in with little pomp, right at the end of the segment.

But if one identifies the climax of the story as falling in the third “act”, one must choose a moment other than this one, something in “A Hole in the Head”. (Well, that seems like an obvious moment, doesn’t it,but in fact that hole already existed, or never existed, or still exists. In typical Munro-fashion, each of these scenarios seems possible.)

Perhaps the moment in which one woman realizes that the other is operating under the assumption that her lover is dead, the moment at which she chooses not to correct the misunderstanding, the moment at which she turns her back on her and leaves her there, isolated and confined.

Let’s say that this is the climax of the story, perfectly situated in the third segment, infusing it with all of those realizations and determinations and possibilities.

In some ways, this interpretation shifts the focus from one character to another. Readers assume, privy to a woman’s diaries in “Give Dante a Rest” that the writer is the main character of the story. And from that first March 13, 1927 diary entry, that appears to be the case.

I used to have a feeling something really unusual would occur in my life, and it would be important to have recorded everything. Was that just a feeling?”

Perhaps it was just a feeling after all, and she has nothing unusual to tell.

But what of this other woman, on the fringes of the story, literally and figuratively.

We do not see her diaries, and her presence is not as immediately apparent at the beginning and end of this story, but perhaps she is the heart of the tale after all.

Perhaps readers should take a hint from Freytag’s arc, relocate the climax of the story, and rediscover a heroine in the process.

For you it is all the glory of getting into print. Forgive me if that strikes you as sarcastic. It is fine to be ambitious but what about other people?”

The question of ambition is fascinating indeed, for as is often the case, the person who accuses another of ambition is simultaneously lamenting their own lack of glory, their own thwarted ambitions.

In this case, our diary-keeper’s aspirations, for a true romance, have been dashed. Early on she suspected this disappointment was rooted in a lack of marriage proposals. Later, she realized an excess of proposals (one, in fact) could also destroy one’s hopes for happiness.

So it does seem likely, after all, that the woman in the background of the story, the woman whose betrayal is perfectly situated in the third act, is our heroine after all.

This story fits beautifully within the collection: “No place for anybody to hide if they ever had a notion of running away.” It’s easy to see the support group of runaways that could form from the pages of this fiction. (Because the end of this story brings readers around to the present, I am reminded particularly of “Passion”, which also covers a broad arc of time, although readers do not glimpse as much of the middle as is presented to us in “Powers”, along with the beginning and ending of those goings-on.)

Of course there is always a place to hide if one has such a notion, even if only in the pages of fiction.

Our heroine made a bid for anonymity, and we nearly missed her escape.

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 last story in this collection. The others appeared here: Runaway, Change, Soon, Silence, Passion, Trespasses, Tricks, Powers

Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next up: The View from Castle Rock.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

“Tricks” Alice Munro

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

This story has long been my favourite in this collection, although I could not recall which of them it was, when I first approached my reread of Runaway.

When Stratford appeared in the first story, I thought maybe my favourite was coming. But, no, “Runaway” was pure sorrow. There was no glimmer of something else.

So I thought, because I knew that some of the stories were linked, that perhaps it would be the next, but no. Not until nearly the end.

But it was worth the wait. And I read it, even this second time, like a story in Ellery Queen, unable to look away. Because, despite my fondness for it, I could not remember how things turned out for Robin.

My memory of the story stalled at the point when she disembarks from the train, heads to the theatre for “As You Like It”. So when I got to that point on my reread, my pace picked up. I reminded myself that it must matter which play was chosen for that journey, that I should recall what I knew of the story, but that instant was not enough, and I, too, was tricked. Again.

Some of my favourite passages (acute descriptions, philosophical musings, and symbolic scenes) are below, along with some notes that I’ve written to some of the characters.

Please do not read on if you want to avoid general spoilers, for the kind of ending that this story has becomes clear in the lines below.

“Very different from the only other bachelor premises Robin was familiar with—Willard Greig’s, which seemed more like a forlorn encampment established casually in the middle of his dead parents’ furniture.”

Dear Willard Greig,
It’s very kind of you to come over to play cards with the girls. I bet that Joanne can be tiresome, she would probably be even snippier if you didn’t visit as often as you do. And playing games sure passes the time in the summer’s heat. The lights went out the other night in a storm and I learned to play dominoes, a variation called Sniff All Fives, and it’s all that I’ve wanted to do since. When I am home alone, as Joanne is when Robin goes out, perhaps I will simply take turns and play against myself. You would think I would win more that way, but I know from experience that it works out much the same. I bet you could have followed Shakespeare just fine if you’d ever seen one of his plays.
Kind regards.

“It was all spoiled in one day, in a couple of minutes, not by fits and starts, struggles, hopes and losses, in the long-drawn-out way that such things are more often spoiled. And if it’s true that things are usually spoiled, isn’t the quick way the easier way to bear?”

Dear Joanne,
It wasn’t kind of you to say that Robin smelled of vomit when she returned from Stratford. I’m not convinced that red wine and goulash together would smell that rank anyway, but it was uncalled for. However, I’m sure Robin looked all holier-than-thou when she traipsed off to Stratford all those years, dressed to the nines and quietly declaring her separateness that one day each summer, not just from you but the whole town. And it’s not fair about your asthma, that you cannot go outside in the winter and cannot be left alone at night. That would make anyone bitter and mean. But I bet when Robin stepped out to the store, you tried on that green skirt and imagined yourself in the theatre. And I bet you knew that Robin belonged somewhere else, you just couldn’t bear to think of it. And I’m sure you never knew that Willard only meant to be kind when he let you win at rummy.

“She had something now to carry around with her all the time. She was aware of a shine on herself, on her body, on her voice and all her doings. It made her walk differently and smile for no reason and treat the patients with uncommon tenderness.”

Dear Alexander,
I do not believe your temperament suits a job which includes an element of customer service, although I am certain you are a valuable asset in the workshop.

“Now the real winter has set in and the lake is frozen over almost all the way to the breakwater. The ice is rough, in some places it looks as if big waves had been frozen in place.”

Dear Daniel,
Could you not have left a note on the door if you were going out?
Yours truly.

“Nothing faded for her, however repetitive this program might be. Her memories, and the embroidery on her memories, just kept wearing a deeper groove.
It is important that we have met.
Yes. Yes.”

Dear Robin,
I have that certain kind of seriousness too, which you’ve talked about, so I feel like I understand some things about you. And because of that, I agree that it probably was a good thing that he decided there would be no letters because I’ve read other stories in which the women were just as you thought, waiting and waiting and waiting, and worrying when a letter did not come. But, in hindsight, I bet you wish he hadn’t come up with that stupid idea. How differently things might have gone. What a different kind of spiral you might have admired. But for all your rationalizing, I think you must be furious. There’s a hint of that, near the end. But I wonder if the sequel to your story wouldn’t have revealed you to be more angry and bitter than Joanne ever was. For all the unfairness of the situation. And I wonder how many stories would need to be written before you could think of Daniel’s dilemma. After all, he had all the same sadnesses, but all that waiting and waiting and waiting for the woman who never came. And he was out the price of the train fare too.

“But she always loves the part of the story where he describes how the spiral unzips and the two strands float apart. He shows her how, with such grace, such appreciative hands. Each strand setting out on its appointed journey to double itself according to its own instructions.”

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 second last story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Powers”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

“Trespasses” Alice Munro

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

‘Trespass’ is a word that I associate with childhood more than most.

It slipped off my tongue every morning in school, after we sang “O Canada”, in a dutiful recitation of “The Lord’s Prayer”.

And there was always a sign warning against it when we explored the ravines and fields which bordered on more familiar spaces.

But it is a strangely adult term, so it’s ironic that it dropped out of my vocabulary as I grew older, just when I might have had greater call to consider it, employ it even.

In “Trespasses” young Lauren is the innocent in the tale; the adults have trespassed.

Not recently, but enduringly. Their trespasses resonate across the years, spiral into Lauren’s everyday life.

It’s ironic that Harry speaks of lurking tragedies in the lives of the town’s folks. For he is concealing a tragedy, several steps beyond simply ‘harboring’. And not only from friends and neighbours but from his daughter, Lauren, too.

“Harry kept a file full of ideas for books and was always on the lookout for life stories. Someone like Mr. Palagian—or even that fat tough-talking waitress, he said—could be harboring a contemporary tragedy or adventure which would make a best seller.”

And, despite his declaration that children should be told the truth, he draws lines and keeps some of that truth behind them, to himself.

“I could make up some kind of a lie to tell you, but I am going to tell you the truth. Because I believe that children should be told the truth.”

There are a lot of lines in Lauren’s life. Not only because she is at an awkward age, but because she is a newcomer to a small community.

She is growing up and realizing how quickly and dramatically one’s perspective on one’s own life can change, how the lines shift position with new understanding.

When she first arrived in town, she liked it, but now she is looking back (as so many of Alice Munro’s heroines do) and adjusting her perspective.

“Now it seemed to Lauren that all of that time had a false glow to it, a reckless silly sort of enthusiasm, that did not take any account of the weight of dailiness, or reality, that she had to carry around once school began and the paper started coming out and the weather changed.”

Within the sphere of this new critical understanding, Lauren draws lines and often inhabits the spaces beyond them.

“Her isolation at school was based on knowledge and experience, which, as she half knew, could look like innocence and priggishness.”

Which only makes her crave a sense of belonging even more.

“I know you can keep a secret, I know you keep our visits and talks and everything a secret. You’ll understand later. You’re a wonderful little girl. There.”

But even though Lauren is still only half-knowing things (each of us is, arguably, only half-knowing, I suppose), she is not a little girl.

This observation says more about its speaker than it reveals about Lauren. But Lauren is, at first, content to sip the cocoa and be that little girl. And, when she sits on the bed, her feet don’t even reach the floor. In some ways, she is still that little girl.

But not enduringly.

For all that Alice Munro is Queen of Stories about Women in Mid-life, caught between memory and reality, reassessing and reflecting, she captures the awkwardness of girlhood beautifully.

Specifically that sense of being so completely and utterly powerless, struck dumb by not inhabiting that later which is promised, overtly and tacitly by the grown-ups in her life, the later in which she will understand everything.

“She was so sick of these burrs that she wanted to beat her hands and yell out loud, but she knew that the only thing she could do was just sit and wait.”

Perhaps, when they all get home, she will don Eileen’s wedding dress and set the veil ablaze.

In the meantime, she sits behind the line, understanding on the other side.

Not realizing just how much company she has in that position.

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 sixth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Tricks”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

“Passion” Alice Munro

Like Alva in “Sunday Afternoons” and Edie in “How I Met My Husband”, Grace is a young woman with a summer job.

But even within the context of this transitory existence and experience, she settles into a routine, steadfast and predictable.

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

Soon, Grace is spending her summer Sundays with the Travers family as reliably as Liza spent summer Saturdays with Ladner in “Vandals”.

But there is an element of disappointment for Grace in this situation, even though (perhaps, because?) it is an enviable position for a young woman of her age and class to inhabit in those times.

Grace comes from a place in which she read James Thurber in The Anthology of American Humor, whereas the Travers matriarch has reread Anna Karenina so many times that she can compare how differently she felt about each of the characters in each of her rereads.

She would not have foreseen Maury’s interest in her. And he, in turn, did not foresee her frustration with “Father of the Bride”. This unexpected, seemingly inexplicable conflict, foreshadows more lasting heartbreak.

“She could not explain or quite understand that it wasn’t altogether jealousy she felt, it was rage. And not because she couldn’t shop like that or dress like that. It was because that was what girls were supposed to be like.”

Grace is incensed by Elizabeth Taylor in that role, with her wheedling and demanding, and she does not dismiss it as a comedy as Maury does. She takes personal offense.

“That was what men – people, everybody – thought they should be like. Beautiful, treasured, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl should be, to be fallen in love with.”

And, yet, ironically, Maury does fall in love with Grace.

And Grace falls in love too. But with Mrs. Travers – an alterative to Elizabeth Taylor it would seem – not with Maury.

In contrast, Maury is not smitten with the image of womanhood that his mother displays.

“It’s okay though – they can get her straightened around easy now, with drugs. They’ve got terrific drugs.”

Are we all-that-far from the days of treating women for hysteria? It’s hard to suss out the dimensions of Mrs. Travers’ despair, but it is integrally connected with her being a woman, and her treatment regiment reflects this.

So if Mrs. Travers is what a woman should be like, if she provides the alternate-reality for “Father of the Bride” viewers, and if Grace seeks to emulate her position, Grace is set on the path for disappointment (and, possibly, a prescription).

Throughout “Passion”, there is a sense that something unpleasant is lurking. Readers soon understand why Grace is preoccupied with these past events, why she has taken to the backroads of the Ottawa Valley to see if she can locate the Travers’ summer house, many years later. For, ultimately, things take a turn.

It is not unlike the tale of another couple making a stop at the bootlegger’s (“Spaceships Have Landed”), stepping outside the realm of acceptability and into something other.

And, as Grace traverses this territory, she comes to understand something she had not struck upon before. And, even years later, she is haunted by decisions made that summer.

“She had thought she was serious, but now she saw that she’d been trying to impress him with these answers, trying to show herself as worldly as he was, and in the middle of that she had come on this rock-bottom truth.”

This recalls the May Sarton quote about layers of concealment and the truth which lies beneath. “It always comes down to the same necessity; go deep enough and there is a bedrock of truth, however hard.”

However hard, Alice Munro navigates the backroads of women’s hearts, striking the bedrock with a solid blow, as  readers struggle to regain their footing.

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 fifth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Trespasses”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.