So many books to talk about! Including what’s currently in my stacks and what I’m reading with this year’s reading about writing.
Spring and summer reading: something for every readers. Historical fiction? Michelle Butler Hallett’s This Marlowe. Families unravelling? Catherine Cooper’s White Elephant. Fiction unravelling? Malcolm Sutton’s Job Shadowing. Cookbooks? Gwyneth Paltrow’s It’s All Easy. Mystery? Susan Philpott’s Blown Red. History: James Laxer’s Staking Claims to a Continent.
Casting a spell on girlhood: Joni Murphy’s Double Teenage. Mining it for laughs: Jessi Klein’s You’ll Grow Out of It. Just trying to survive it: Karen Molson’s The Company of Crows. Adding a splash of scent: Lisa Moore’s Flannery. With fruit-filling: Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards.
There’s talk of backlisted fiction too, like Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe and Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl. On that score, I’m currently reading Ernest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men, Robert Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls, Toni Cade Bambera’s The Salt Eaters, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped and Grace Lin’s The Year of the Dog.
And I’m looking forward to my next Toni Morrison, some Philip Pullman and more Guy Gavriel Kay (it’s been too long).
How about you: what are you reading these days, and what are you looking forward to reading soon?
(First time here? Please don’t be shy: there’s no such thing as too much bookchat! Please leave a comment, say hello, talk books!)
The FOLD (The Festival of Literary Diversity) is an annual event, in Brampton (Ontario, Canada) dedicated to telling more stories, to having audiences connect with a wider variety of storytellers. You can check out their lineup of terrific writers and storytellers who were a part of the debut festival in May this year, here.
Earlier in 2016, they posted a reading challenge, which I printed and dutifully began to read towards. (I’ve misplaced the link: sorry!)
Here are the categories:
- A book you’ve had for more than a year.
- A book outside of your ‘favourite genre’.
- A book you buy at an indie bookstore.
- A book by a person of a faith.
- A book by an aboriginal author.
- A book by a Canadian LGBTQ author.
- A book by a Canadian person of colour.
- A book by a FOLD 2016 author.
I’ve divided the challenge into parts, so here is my discussion of the first and last categories:
1. Ernest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men (1983) and 8. Farzana Doctor’s All Inclusive (2015).
My copy of Ernest J. Gaines’ novel landed on my shelf thanks to Aarti. But I do a much better job of collecting books than I do of reading them, once they are comfortably ensconced on the home shelves, so this book sat unread for about four years.
Nonetheless, she’d sold me on the idea of it being told from multiple perspectives and I pulled it off to read this summer.
It’s a deliberately disorienting tale in some ways. There has been a shooting and the authorities have not yet arrived. “The rest of the people said pretty much the same. One claimed he did it, then another one; one, then another one.”
Everyone takes responsibility for the crime, including the man who fired the shot. They are united in their stand, many of them looking back to past experiences of silence and inaction and determined to resist and stand tall in this instance.
This isn’t to say that the community is without divisions, without its own tensions. “Mathu was one of the blue-black Singaleese niggers. Always bragged about not having no white man’s blood in his veins. He looked down on all the rest of us who had some, and the more you had, the more he looked down on you. I was brown-skinned – my grandpa white, my grandma Indian and black, and both my parents black; so he didn’t look down on me quite as much as he did some others, like Jacob, or Cherry, or the Jejeune brothers. With Clabber and Rooster, he just shook his head. Rooster was yellow, with nappy black hair; Clabber was milk white, with nappy white har. Mathu just shook his head when he saw either one of them.”
But as the narrative slips through a number of narrators, it becomes clear that the story is less about the details than it might have seemed at first. As different men offer different accounts of the shooting – different motivations and responses – readers recognize that each of these character’s experiences could have filled a book. Each of them has had experiences which might have brought them to shoot this man. But the fact is, that only one man pulled the trigger.
“’I’m stating facts,’ Tucker said. “Facts. ‘Cause this is the day of reckonding, and I will speak the truth, withut fear, if it mean I have to spend the rest of my life in jail.’
Mapes grunted –a grunt that said you might.”
Mapes is charged with determining the outcome. He is aware, from the start, that the shooting did not play out as described. But he inhabits this territory, recognizes the heritage of injustice which now sways in the balance alongside this single act of violence.
He listens to each account patiently and determinedly.
“You never liked any of us. Looking at us as if we’re a breed below you. But we’re not, Candy. We’re all made of the same bone, the same blood, the same skin. Our folks had a break mine didn’t, that’s all.”
It’s difficult to find common ground, both in the description of this event and in acknowledging the importance of historic injustices and balancing their perpetration against a desire to move forward and mend fences.
A Gathering of Old Men is a riveting tale, easily read in a single sitting but complex enough to support many rereadings.
Farzana Doctor’s novel, too, reads very quickly and easily. The tension revolving around Ameera’s job at an all-inclusive Mexican resort keeps the readers’ interest from the start in All Inclusive.
Ameera is a swinger who has established the habit of hooking up with willing couples on their last booked night, to capitalize on their interest with minimal risk of her employers catching wind of her activities.
Not only is she still discovering things about her sexuality, ordering materials on the internet which help her understand that others share her desires, but she is also uncovering even more basic layers of her identity, working to establish contact with her father, who has not been a part of her life.
All of this becomes pressingly important when rumours of her involvement with resort guests reach her employers (also based in Canada) And, just as she tries to curtail her activities, she meets someone who might be able to assist with her search for her father. While some opportunities are restricted, others flourish.
The narrative is divided between Ameera and Azeez, whom readers meet in Canada, when he falls into bed with a young woman on the day before he plans to return to India.
Initially, Azeez’s portion of the story contains less inherent tension. This is partly because readers have met him in the past, where events have already played out, so there is no tension surrounding the question of what will happen. Instead, a casual exploration of what has happened, which only becomes clear about 75 pages into the novel.
But Azeez’s story is not uncomplicated. In many ways he, too, is left with central questions surrounding his own identity, even though he is older than Ameera when the bulk of the narrative unfolds. He, too, struggles to connect, tries to find ways to relate meaningfully even though he often feels isolated and alone. In time, his struggles eclipse Ameera’s.
One of the most satisfying elements of the novel is the detail offered about Ameera’s work in the resort, which plants her in a space which is neither ‘home’ nor ‘away’. The relationships with her co-workers are fascinating, as well as the complicated relationships between the workers whose famiies live locally, those who have come from abroad to work in the resort, and the resort’s administration.
Who is restricted and who thrives: this aspect of the novel is not heavy-handed but still manages to reveal some core truths about privilege. Or, as Gil says in A Gathering of Old Men, some truths about who got a break and who didn’t.
All Inclusive is a romp of a read, which manages to take some serious issues and pack them into the corners of the narrative-stuffed suitcase.
Ultimately both of these novels are about finding a way to stand up for who you are, to own all the various parts of yourself and insist upon their worth, regardless of the risk attached. Regardless of the outcome.
Which books could you use for these elements of the FOLD’s challenge?
“My books aren’t romances per se; they don’t even necessarily feature happy endings any more, they just conclude with hopeful moments that allow the reader to decide whether widows have the strength to go on or divorced dads find love for a second time.”
And there is nothing romantic about the idea of serial monogamy. One cannot focus on the episodes of falling-in-love without being aware of the falling-out-of-love episodes sandwiched between them.
Doubleday Canada, 2016
So, here, Sharon is discussing her own novels at the beginning of Serial Monogamy, but readers already know about her cancer diagnossis and are wondering ahead as to whether Kate Taylor’s novel will have a happy ending.
And, yet, romance is not the point of this novel. Neither the ending, nor its happiness.
But, rather, the series of episodes, the act of the sequence.
Sharon has a new writing gig which brings this to the forefront of the novel. In a bid to revitalize print newspaper, she has been contracted for a serialization, a series of pieces about Charles Dickens.
Known for the resounding success of his serialized novels, Dickens seems the perfect choice for her subject. Nonetheless, Sharon has just discovered that her husband, a professor, has entered a relationship with one of his students, and he has determined to leave his marriage to pursue a life with this younger woman.
So Sharon is suddenly less enamoured with Dickens as a successful writer and more interested in Nelly Ternan, the woman with whom Dickens betrayed his wife (Catherine).
When readers meet Sharon, however, she fully inhabits the role of wife and mother (to two young girls). She is not Nelly, here; rather, she is Catherine. But it’s Nelly’s voice she inhabits on the page for the serialization.
And, no, this isn’t what the newspaper editors were expecting. Anymore than Sharon was expecting to learn that Al was cheating. Expectations and reality: it’s the gap between which is so often problematic. In all kinds of relationships.
As she moves through her cancer treatment and negotiates her shifting identity (Al leaves but returns to care for her during treatment), Sharon is bolstered by her writing. It heals her in a way which she finds difficult to describe, provides something essential which she currently lacks.
Writing the serial and inhabiting the role of mistress on the page brings new levels of understanding regarding her marriage, but also to the complicated machinations of the pursuer and pursued, beyond the context of a marriage.
(Kate Taylor calls out Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman and Lillian Nayder’s The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth as key sources for her writing. Readers of Serial Monogamy will be intrigued enough to want to follow up, but need not. This work stands alone.)
In fact, as she works through the sequence of pieces, she inhabits all the roles. As their writer, she knows each character intimately and understands their motivations. This is an act of compassion on the page.
As such, there is a delicious sense of twinned control and chaos in the work. Readers are aware from the start that the novel will be preoccupied with unravelling. First, Sharon’s marriage is severed and Al moves out. Then, the first serial installment puts Nelly and her mother on a train, which goes off the tracks.
There are many parallels between the installments (and the present-day segments quickly adopt a rhythm which makes them seem to be installments as well). Many, as with the first, are subtle but immediately recognizable. (Charles was on the train, part of the derailment, but he moves off-stage almost immediately, just as Al is part of the narrative immediately, but at a distance.)
Underneath, there is a consistent sense of tension and uncertainty.
“Looks unsafe,” agreed her husband.
“But just imagine the view if you did manage it,” Mr. Dickens encouraged.
Here, in the Dickens installment, the characters are discussing the view from a damaged staircase in the Conisbrough Castle, but this scene follows one in the present-day, in which Sharon and her husband take their daughters to the the Scarborough Bluffs, approach the edge and marvel at the view beneath.
Later, when Nelly asks Charles Dickens about the progress he is making on his French novel, he speaks of his challenges.
“Yes, and also that we can’t fully know other people. We only know ourselves. He is a man who has been imprisoned. That is all we can see of him.”
Not only does this theme suit Serial Monogamy as a whole, but the scene follows one in the present-day in which Sharon remembers glimpsing Al at a party and, just for a moment, not recognizing him as her husband, but seeing him as a stranger.
“I felt so torn between my two duties: Did you ever suffer those moments where your husband seemed to pull you away from your children?” Here, Nelly is pondering Charles’ desire that she leave her children behind to travel to America with him, and this parallels Sharon’s sense of being pulled between her writing and Al’s desire that she dedicate more of herself to their marriage and less to her work.
“Marriage, in my experience, is full of conversations you never manage to finish.”
If conversations remain unfinished, Kate Taylor is acutely aware of the importance of leaving some stories unfinished as well. She directly refers to the tales in the Arabian Nights in which Scheherazade leaves her tale incomplete to save her life (the King must spare her in order to hear the end of the tale the following evening).
Storytelling (Scheherazade’s, Charles Dickens’, Sharon’s, Kate Taylor’s) is of vital importance. Stories keep the world in order. When life is disorderly, stories can write things back into their proper places. (Or, at least, manageable places.) Just as Scheherazade saves her life by telling stories, Sharon has hope that she can save her life by writing them. But her narrative ends when the serial ends, so Sharon’s story is ultimately unfinished as well.
Charles Dickens plays at retelling part of the Arabian Nights to Nelly, and Sharon plays at retelling Dickens’ experience of love with his wife and his mistress. The 19th-century and 21st-century narratives are equally engaging and tumble together like folks caught in a train wreck, “like gumdrops at the bottom of a paper bag”.
Perhaps that is the point, then. And not only the act of the sequence. But the art of the sequence.
Reading Becoming Lin reminded me of discovering Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room and Marge Piercy’s Small Changes. Two unapologetically feminist novels which I felt had poured out of my own heart into some other writer’s story. I inhaled these books, and I felt the same sense of intense recognition and kindred-spirit-ness in Tricia Dower’s newest novel.
Caitlin Press, 2016
Lin’s story is not self-absorbed. In fact, she is deliberately reaching beyond her own experience, particularly in her efforts to support the pacifists fighting the Vietnam/American War and activists demanding accountability to the American electorate. She is actively stretching.
But nonetheless, it is a self-centred story, in the sense that Lin is overtly and passionately engaged in the struggle to discover and root herself. She is, as the title declares unabashedly, in the act of becoming, Becoming Lin.
“Everyone was always becoming and unbecoming,” declares Kathleen Winter’s Annabel. And perhaps this is true, if one were to delve more deeply into the secondary characters’ experiences, but in Lin’s experience of her family, most people have become already; they have remained static since the act was complete.
When she looks to her mother, in particular, she finds no openness to change, and she struggles to locate it in herself as well. She recognizes a tendency towards a stagnancy, a fearful disengagement. “That would be me: stringent, orderly, rigid & obsessive. Thank you, Betty Wise.” She knows she will have a lot of work to overcome that inherited confinement.
This is an excerpt from her journal, entries from which appear at regular intervals throughout the narrative (consistently in italics). Even though I found the narrative more engaging reading, the journal excerpts in my copy were frequently flagged because they immediately rang true for me, recalled similar passages in my own diaries two or three decades following Lin’s entries, successfully encapsulated trends and shifts in her experiences with details and scenes.
“THURS DEC 8/66
One foot tucked under me, listening to the radiator hiss, sipping tea made w/dried mint from Grace’s garden. Still light enough to see snow falling from trees in soft wet clumps outside my office window. Supposed to be reading Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas for Interim. Got sidetracked by Room of One’s Own. It’s making me aspire to more than I should.”
Her diaries offer a concrete record of Lin’s experience of her early married life, which serves as a complement to the scenes of those days which Lin now recalls, with varying emotions. Having recently made the decision to separate from her husband, establishing a separate household with their young son, she is actively reflecting and reconsidering.
“A year ago Lin took a workshop based on Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy that introduced her to the idea that roles and scripts can rule your life. It transformed the way she saw herself.”
She’s feeling understandably disoriented.
“On the way home, Artie says, “You’re opening yourself to higher, nobler possibilities, to something larger than yourself.”
Is she? Feels more like she’s dangling her feet over the edge of her life.”
And her efforts to educate herself often reveal more uncertainties, more questions with pending answers, than resolutions.
“TUES MAR 8/66
I’m the only married student in Psych. He said it’s like losing yourself in a beautiful piece of music.”
Sometimes the sense of inertia is overwhelming. “Most days it’s so quiet she can hear the woods shiver.” Other times, the world seems to be moving too quickly for her to regain her footing. She seeks comfort and support, but finds challenge and discontent in places which she once associated with love and security.
“THURS JUNE 29/67
Relived to be back. I don’t fit in Stony River anymore.”
One of the most satisfying aspects of the novel is the kind of female friendship which she discovers when she moves beyond the protective circle of her marriage. She begins to see possibilities which never existed for her before. “How do you know which idea of yourself is the true one?”
The language is often matter-of-fact and clean, but occasionally a metaphorical passage gleams. These are particular treats, carefully crafted and resonant.
“Sunlight stretches like smeared butter across the fertile landscape of corn and hay fields peppered with farmhouses, barns, silos, the occasional feedlot, apple orchard and huddle of oaks. If she rolls down her window, the smell of hay might yet change her mind.”
Lin is all about changing her mind. In all the best senses of the phrase. Whether she is driving down a road or sitting still, lost in thought. She is not a character who has gotten under my skin; it’s like she’s always been there.
“She pictures the future as prairie-flat and stretching out forever. They have only to keep going forward to find it and the selves they are becoming.”
It begins with something extraordinary.
“Almost a decade earlier, a man with a .45-70 Marlin hunting rifle walked through the front doors of Avalon Hills prep school. He didn’t know that he was about to become a living symbol of the age of white men shooting into crowds.”
House of Anansi. 2016
Readers are immediately alerted to the idea of a threat which can burst into an everyday scene. Something as alarming as a man with a high-powered weapon, erupting into a school hallway, seeking revenge.
But there is another man, too, who tackles him, sparking a “graceless pas de deux of grappling, the gun discharged an aimless bullet”.
The gunman is not presented as inhuman. He has challenges; he faces some of them down in a more reasonable fashion, but others have brought him to the edge of violence, to this school hallway.
But when he sees Sadie in front of her locker, in the hallway, he consciously acknowledges that he is not a killer-of-children.
Although he might have been a killer-of-a-girlfriend, except he is interrupted.
First, by the presence of the girl, but then by George Woodbury, the prep-school science teacher who tackles him. In this scenario, George is a hero.
“He was a fixture in town. He remained the man from Woodbury Lake who’d saved the children.”
And the book is about The Best Kind of People. So readers will expect it to be about George.
“Say the words wealthy and Protestant and picture a family. That’s them, or close enough.”
And, it is. But now? It’s a decade later.
George’s role is about to change dramatically.
“No one saw it coming.”
Two plainclothes detectives and several uniformed officers come to the door.
Against a backdrop of flashes of red and blue through the open windows, “a light show for the symphony of cicadas”, George is cuffed in the foyer.
“Sexual misconduct with four minors, attempted rape of a minor. The words didn’t make sense.”
And none of this is extraordinary.
The most unsettling bit of all – how ordinary it is.
How often is there a gap between what we expected and what transpired: it happens all the time.
True, the gap between the George Woodburys is a sizeable gap. One, devoted father, who tackled an armed gunman to the floor, while his daughter (yes, that girl in the hallway was his daughter – Sadie); the other, George Woodbury, accused rapist.
Sadie attends school with these girls, the victims/accusers. One of them is the younger sister of Sadie’s good friend, Amanda. One of them. Because it is now a question of ‘them’ and ‘us’.
Whether an instinctive understanding of vulnerability or a contrary perversity fuelled by hormones, Sadie does not automatically assume her father is innocent. Wife (and mother), Joan, falls solidly into the role of loyal helpmeet and supporter. Andrew, the older son who has lived away from home for some time, puts his legal training to work and aims for neutrality, while following courtroom protocol to support his father’s case.
This is skillful plotting on Zoe Whittall’s part, allowing her to explore several positions on the spectrum, while the question of George’s guilt/innocence is examined, formally and informally. (And the pacing and language conspire so that every scene seems to probe into dark corners, creating the sense that, at any moment, someone could drag some torn bit of truth into the spotlight.)
As the story develops, this might have become a courtroom drama, but that’s not the intent of The Best Kind of People, in which the injured and the personal acts of betrayal/reparation which play out on the most intimate levels.
“She didn’t automatically trust anyone anymore. Trust was now something that required an extra beat, a moment of consideration.” (So many characters might have this thought: leaving it unattributed avoids spoilers.)
House of Anansi, 2009
Whether or not there is adequate evidence to dismiss/exonerate/convict is less important than how the people closest to George respond to the evidence, how they cope in the absence of evidence, how they perceive the need for it for themselves and for others.
And how one lives their ordinary life, while all of these questions loom: that’s perhaps most important of all.
“They’d been back at school for one week. Their senior year in high school at Avalon prep had begun with aplomb. They were both in the accelerated stream, their sights set on prestigious universities, afternoons filled with student government meetings, sporting events, community volunteer hours, making out between the rows of woody ancient texts inhe school library. The week had been busy and thus ordinary. This was the last weekend that anything would feel normal until they were halfway through college.”
In this context, busy is equated with ordinary.
When one’s father/husband is arrested, time slows. There is nothing to do but wait. Wait for a verdict, wait for a resolution, wait for permission to move on.
Readers know from the beginning that this will happen, at least for Sadie. Even in this early passage, only one week after the arrest, readers are assured that things will eventually feel normal for Sadie. Just as they did after the gunman entered those school halls. Now she is in her senior year and nothing feels ordinary, but by the time she is halfway through college, she will feel that again.
What readers do not yet know is what happens in those two years, what transpires to restore a sense of normalcy in her life.
The Best Kind of People is preoccupied with that waiting period, although it does not chart the entire timeline.Throughout, there are small shifts in perception and understanding, and broader experiences of underlying issues (trust and acceptance, authority and betrayal, disregard and denial, consent and vulnerability, isolation and care-taking). So while the narrative displays the quotidien (who is sitting outside the neighbourhood coffee shop and the number of times someone gets high), the complexity brewing beneath is ever-in-motion.
Peripheral family members dart into and settle into spheres of influence, as the crisis unfolds: relationships bloom and recede in the face of pressure. In George’s absence, gaps between other characters narrow and widen, raising other questions about intimacy and loyalty. Members of Sadie’s boyfriend’s family are key in her struggle to reorient herself. Even the minor characters have agency (and opinions).
In her prior novel, Holding Still for as Long as Possible, Zoe Whittall’s character Billy observes: “The more strangers think they know who you are, the less you feel you know yourself. Or worse, you might believe them.”
This concept is at play in The Best Kind of People too: the line between knowing and believing will not hold still.
So many questions are raised in the narrative, about sexuality, agency, independence, identity, responsibility, compassion, respect, authenticity, and, of course, justice.
Very ordinary questions. Very hard questions.
In which I discuss some of the skinny volumes, which have nestled into my bookbag.
(Meanwhile longer works, like Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber and Greg Iles’ The Bone Tree, were left at home.)
Patricia and Fredrick McKissack’s Best Shot in the West tells the story of Nat Love, who was born into slavery in 1854 and became a renowned African-American cowboy.
The volume is arranged in a series of short tales, as though Nat Love has responded to a request to write his memoirs. In fact, his autobiography was published in 1907, The Life and Aventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick’. But it wasn’t illustrated by Randy Duburke!
The illustrations are in pale, watery tones and predominantly black-white-grey at first, as the story begins in Denver, Colorado in 1902, where Nat is working as a railway porter.
But when he begins to consciously remember the experiences of his earlier days, dating to childhood on a plantation in Davidson County, Tennessee, his memories are often boldy and brashly tinted.
There are only a few panels on each page, affording plenty of room for background figures and shading to establish scenes and atmosphere, and frequently entire pages contain only a single illustration.
There is some dialogue but the information is largely shared in textboxes of narrative which summarize not only his personal experiences but also general information relevant to the life of a man employed as a cattle driver and roper.
“Shortly after I joined Gallinger’s outfit, we got an order to move 2,500 head of three-year-old-steers to Dodge City. It was the largest drive I’d ever been a part of. We left with 40 men and two months of provisions.”
A contemporary of Bat Masterson and Billy the Kid, there is a lot of talk of adventure and outlaw life, and most of the scenes explored in detail here are rooted in tension or conflict, which makes for engaging reading.
If John Wayne is the only cowboy you know, the McKissacks’ graphic book is an excellent reminder that life in the Old West was colour-filled indeed.
(And, if you’re looking to really shake up your ideas of Cowboys’N’Indians, Thomas King’s novel Green Grass, Running Water is a fantastic – and oh-so funny – place to start!)
Thani Al-Suwaidi’s The Diesel is a perfect candidate for several categories in this year’s BookRiot Reading Challenge.
It’s set in the Middle East, it features a transgender character, and it’s under 100 pages in length. (See challenge here.)
In an interview with al-Jazeera in 2004 (quoted in the introduction by W.M. Hutchins, who also translated the work from the Arabic), the author acknowledged that his novel had “shocked some readers with its frank portrayal of the behavior of homosexuals in the Arabian Gulf region but said that the novel’s theme is the effect of the petroleum age of a small community torn between two cultures”.
He speaks of depicting “a world heading for a collision, a world that many in the Gulf region have worked to conceal”.
He’s referring, Hutchins explains, not only to sexual “desire and a rebellion against dichotomous, patriarchal gender assignments, but also to popular culture, superstitions and magic”.
There are scenes in the novel which unfold in the mosque, but there are many others which take place outside, which have a strange disorienting sense of unfolding elsewhere, in an untethered place, which feels familiar but is removed from the everyday. (The book might also count in BookRiot’s challenge for one which considers religion.)
Majid Nur al-Din states that the structure is “deliberately disjointed to present the contemporary Arab experience in a portrait that reflects a self that is split between an image of the past and an image of the consumer-oriented present”.
When he becomes The Diesel, when he makes people dance and seemingly escape the confines of their less satisfying lives, simultaneously cloying and draining, he appears to contain and offer an irresistible alternative to joyless living.
Dr. Fatima Ahmad Khalifa explains that Thani Al-Suwaidi “personifies place and breathes his spirit into it so that place, time, history, and the character constitute a single whole that is agitated and alarmed by what happens”.
For me, this novella reads like poetry. At the sentence-level, there are some beautiful passages which often require rereading, and as W.M. Hutchins knows the text intimately, I suspect this is a reflection of the original narrative.
One has the sense of being removed from what is known, dangled from some aerial structure by the toes, one’s fingertips never quite brushing the surface of what’s unfolding on the page below. It’s not a comfortable feeling; rather, a curious one.
What are you slipping into your bookbag this week?
If a story’s beginning looks at its reflection in a room made of mirrors, does it see its own beginning-self reflected back? Or is the reflection actually the story’s ending?
Hamish Hamilton, 2016
This is the kind of question that I can imagine keeps Jay Hosking up late at night. The characters in Three Years with the Rat are similarly preoccupied.
Consider the friend who asks the narrator of the novel “Beginning of the end or end of the beginning?”
Of course, he’s actually asking about the young man’s relationship with his girlfriend, Nicole. Which is strained and waning. But it’s important overall: where things start, where they stop, and the amount of time which elapses between starting and stopping.
Circularity is humming throughout the novel. Wide arcs connect characters and timeframes, memories and geography. However, just as with the question posed above, readers can rely upon solid characterization and an investment in a handful of voices to pull them through the narrative.
Structurally, readers can rely upon the calendar to root them as well. The novel is divided into August, September, October, November and December.
But, wait: it’s not that simple. The August section contains, for instance, 2008 and 2007 and 2006. In fact, each of the months contains glimpses of these three years. From ending to beginning, from 2008 back to 2006.
Readers might want to draw a straight line for the chronology of months, to join these parts of the story, to feel something concrete beneath the narrative. (I imagine this line drawn in thick, water-proof, black, chisel-tipped magic marker.)
But they also would have to draw other connections., so the 2006 segment of the December chapter near the end of the book, could be connected to the 2006 segment of the August chapter, which is near the beginning. (I imagine these lines drawn with those skinny little markers you buy at art stores, in a variety of bright colours.)
And so on, and so on. Except, not so much so-on-and-so-on. Because the essential element of this novel is disconnection, not connection. Readers no sooner settle into a month and year, which is scenically drawn and filled with emotional and sensory detail, when their attention to directed to another layer in the reflection.
While the plotting is tight and solid (readers could read all the 2006 sections together, for instance, instead of moving through the pages sequentially), nothing else feels firm here.
The characters are young and searching, students in university, inhabiting laboratories and bars with equal dedication. Questions outnumber answers in both scenarios.
“Man up or suck it up, Danger. Commit to something or stop your maudlin pity party. You can make your choice or you can have it taken away from you again.”
When and how to act: this is an underlying concern, both at the everyday and ordinary level (whether to keep a job which is clearly dissatisfying) and the bizarre and extraordinary (whether to travel through time).
And, then, there is the matter of sorting out what one can trust and what is possible (whether a relationship brings out the best in you), from what is illusory and inconceivable (whether you can control the subjective nature of time to move yourself through your past-present-future).
Early in the novel, a mystery is presented. “There was something in it, not a lie exactly but not the truth. He had faltered. He knew something about Grace but he didn’t think it would help me.”
When Grace disappears (and, later, her boyfriend, John, disappears), the narrator begins by asking the kinds of questions you think one would ask if someone disappears.
But before page 100, readers understand that there is another set of questions which must be addressed.
“Just imagine you could be the past and the present and the future you, all at the same time,” she said. “Imagine you had full access. Imagine you knew everything was going to work out, or even if it wasn’t going to work out, at least you’d be ready for that’s coming. The things you could tell yourself.”
This is Grace speaking. Readers understand that her disappearance is not the average girl-goes-missing story.
Furthermore, Grace is not an average girl. She is above-average smart. But she understands that readers (and some other characters) do not engage with the world in the same way she does.
She takes time to explain her studies to her brother and uses language that readers can understand.
“If objective time is a one-dimensional arrow, maybe subjective time is a two-dimensional wave. Or a three-dimensional spiral. Maybe clocks are only measuring that movement in one dimension, its length, but our brains are sensing our depth and width through time.”
Here, you can begin to see that diagram of the novel’s structure (the one I was drawing with magic markers above, fat and skinny lines, dark and bright colours) pointing and waving and spiralling.
(The jacket compares this novel to Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. This makes sense: I think of the pages in that book in which the narrative takes place in the margins, the way that the actual story gets displaced, forcing readers to read blank pages and grapple with a shape that is constantly shifting, a story that loses its centre before it begins. But it seems to have a closer resemblance to a book like Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am, which also plays with science-y ideas and time in particular, but is truly concerned with connections between people and the question of absence and presence. Or Benjamin Constable’s The Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa, which is also about a disappearance, but less sciencey and is more about securing a relationship by solving a series of puzzles and following clues left behind.)
But not-so-science-y readers need not fear. Those who are super curious could turn to Claudia Hammond’s 2012 work, Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception, and delve into the psychology and neuroscience that simmer beneath the novel’s surface.
Yet, Three Years with the Rat is ulimately about relationships, and not just the relationship between one’s subjective and objective experiences of time, but family and love relationships.
Ultimately it is about whether or not we can connect in those relationships, whether acts which resulted in our disconnecting from ourselves (painful things, haunting things, puzzling things) mean that we are left unable to draw lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Whether, as the years pass (or, as we force them to pass or to un-pass, whether we move backwards or forwards) we can thrive (or, survive).
“Oblivion is the annihilation of the self. Grace was looking for the opposite, a way to remove everything but the self.”
How do we make ourselves? What happens when all that is left is the un-making?
Is there a way to get back to the beginning, when the ending is just too much?
Sometimes I buy books for the stories on their pages; sometimes I buy them for the stories between the pages.
My copy of Porcupines and China Dolls was purchased second-hand at the Trinity College booksale more than ten years ago.
Because of a handful of folded sheets tucked inside the back cover (although, yes, I was freshly in love with Thomas King’s writing and on the lookout for other aboriginal authors).
Some correspondence between a potential reviewer and two different publishers, an inner-office memo, a copy of a very positive review of the book which appeared online in a regional newspaper, and the reviewer’s handwritten notes.
For the price of $5, could I understand why a reviewer who was writing for an Anglican church publication was so eager to get a copy of this book, which explores the abusive practices of the residential schools staffed by the Anglican church?
The horrors, general and specific, perpetrated upon residential-school students are now well-documented.
But the publication of Porcupines and China Dolls falls after Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen but before Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse.
The sociopolitical impact of the residential school system didn’t/doesn’t commonly appear on the pages of literary novels; I wouldn’t have thought that discussion of the abuse perpetrated by church officials would have commonly appeared in Anglican church publications either.
Whether or not the reviewer did ultimately cover Robert Arthur Alexie’s book remains uncertain. Her notes stop with a remark for page 68: “getting monotonous”.
Admittedly, it was. Monotonous, I mean. So many nights spent drinking. Men in the bar, taking women home, where they drink more. They wake up hurting, pry themselves through the day, head back to the bar.
Beyond page 68, the binding of this hardcover feels tight; it’s hard to imagine that anyone read beyond, until I did.
Which is a shame. Because the root of the monotony, the tedium, the horror of inescapable memories isn’t yet clear at that point in the story.
“He wished he could shoot all his dreams.
Just put the gun in your mouth ‘n pull ‘a fuckin’ trigger.
Who’re you? Silence. Are you the devil? Silence. Are you my dreams? Silence. Oh well, c’mon. Let’s get it over with! Do your best!
They did and they came smelling of hopelessness, despair and death. They came with big, fat hairy hands and false promises.”
If she had read just twice as many pages, she would have caught a glimmer of the weight that threatens to crush James Nathan and Jake Noland.
The bulk of the novel is scenic in construction. Long passages of dialogue, ordinary settings, packed with quotidien detail: readers quickly develop a sense of the rhythm of everyday life in the community.
This aspect of Robert Arthur Alexie’s novel reads quickly and easily. Even the heavy back-and-forth in the inner-and-outer dialogue (in the quote above) is not overwhelming, because the voice is as often deprecating and funny as it is heartbreaking. (This reminds me of Thomas King’s ability to twin humour with sorrow. Although I never actually laughed aloud while reading this novel. More wry grins.)
The portions of the novel which describe the children’s experiences of residential school life – in particular their transformations into porcupines (the boys, with their super-short haircuts) and china dolls (the girls, with their uniform bobs) – are short and deliberate.
And when the men admit what they endured as students, it seems almost inconsequential.
“How many more?”
“At least one,” he said quietly.
She knew what he meant. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I talked about it when I was in treatment, but never to you or anyone else.”
“You’re not alone,” she said. “You’ll never be alone.”
She knew what he meant – even though he is her husband and this is the first she has heard of this – because she knows this story. It doesn’t require any nouns to members of the community, who have heard this story countless times (though not as many times as it could have been told).
When the story is ultimately told, readers do not endure the details. Even then, it is offered in summary.
“Chief David then grew twenty feet and held himself like a Warrior of Old. He spoke of his days in the hostel and of a man named Tom Kinney. He spoke of trust, honour and respect. He spoke of distrust, dishonour and disrespect. He spoke of little boys and little girls in the hostel. He spoke of porcupines and china dolls. He spoke of late-night visit and long hallways. He spoke of dark rooms and dark dorms.”
And it is offered in the form of small diary-like entries which open the chapters, chronicling the life of an old wolf, worn and tired by the act of survival.
But even if you already know the story of the residential school system, have read and heard other stories by survivors already, there is something remarkable about Robert Arthur Alexie’s novel.
“So our People haven’t drummed for a hundred years?”
“Las’ time ‘ey drummed was 1965 when Chief Francis died. Always liked drum dancin’ . Be good if someone brought it back.” He paused. “Our language will be gone in ‘nother generation. Once ‘at goes we’ll have nothing’.” We’ll be jus’ ‘nother bunch ‘a Indians.
To say anything more would spoil the story, but because this is only halfway through the novel, and because there is a lot to endure before-hand, I will say that, yes, there is drumming.
But, there is still half a book left to read. And although there are still dreams of suicide and death, there are other kinds of dreams, too. After the truth is told.
“They dreamed of three Warriors standing above slain demons, dreams and nightmares like great Warriors of Old covered with blood, sweat, guts, tears and pride.”
Dear Anglican-Reviewer who was stuck on page 68: You should have read on. But, then, perhaps you were expecting some other ending.
Even though the challenge officially begins on July 1 — and ends on the last day of the following June — it’s not too late to join The Book Mine Set’s Canadian Books Challenge.
This year is the tenth event, and John has calculated thousands of books reviewed for past challenges he’s hosted. This time, my challenge will be to read 13 books by indigenous authors.
Rather than share my reading list, which will change throughout the coming months anyway, I’m going to share 13 books by indigenous authors that I would recommend if someone else was undertaking this specific challenge.
These would be my choices for that imagined reader’s challenge:
Beatrice Culleton Mosionier’s The Search for April Raintree (1983)
Perhaps teachers in Canadian schools look to this novel about two Métis sisters as American teachers look to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The prose is spare and accessible and the story is told in the simplest terms, but resonates deeply. (This was the first book I read by an indigenous writer.)
Thomas King’s Green Grass Running Water (1993)
Athough now it is commonly used in classrooms, too, I read this one (my second by an indigenous writer) before it caught the attention of prize-list juries and scholars, so I wasn’t intimidated by the string of accolades. That was lucky, because I just thought it was wickedly smart and funny, and all the acclaim didn’t get in the way of my pulling it off the shelf. Just try it: it’s terrific! (Truth and Bright Water is great too and The Inconvenient Indian is page-turning non-fiction.)
Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach (2000)
Lisamarie’s voice is incredible: you just can’t stop reading, even when things get ugly. I’ve lost track of the number of people to whom I’ve recommended this novel. Sixteen years later, the only element I remember clearly is that she seemed to leap off the page. Such a vibrant character! I remember also being struck by this sense of the ethereal being a part of reality in a way which seemed both wondrous and strange to me, as it did in Banana Yoshimoto’s fiction. It’s time for a reread obviously! (She is a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations.)
Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998)
It opens with a breathtaking scene. Such a rush! But there is so much quiet and deliberate beauty which follows in this novel. It was one of my favourites in that reading year, and it is one of those books which I wanted to reread as soon as I had finished.
Leanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love (2013)
These short pieces are striking and beautiful. You will be inclined to gobble, because they are accessible and inviting. But they are also powerful and are best enjoyed in a number of sittings rather than all-in-a-gulp. She landed in my stack because I was listening to an interview with Shelagh Rogers and Thomas King on “The Next Chapter”, and he praised her work highly. (She is of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg ancestry and is a member of Alderville First Nation.)
Lee Maracle’s Bent Box (2000)
One of the first aboriginal writers to be published in Canada in the 1970s and, since, one of the most prolific aboriginal writers (according to Theytus Press), Lee Maracle’s poetry serves as an excellent introduction to her work. The longest, most dense works are in the second section, which includes poems to/about Mister Mandela, Sojourner Truth, Leonard Peltier and considering injustice in Palestine, Nicaragua, El Salvedor and Chile. (Maracle is of Salish and Cree ancestry, and she is a member of the Sto:loh Nation.)
David A. Groulx’s Under God’s Pale Bones (2010)
When I heard him read at an evening event at the International Festival of Authors, I knew this book was a must-read. These are seering and vital verses which dig deeply beneath the skin to those pale bones. Even though at times the rage is palpable, the same intensity is accorded to beauty. There is much to marvel at here, on the page. So many reminders of what’s worth marvelling at, off the page.
Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk (2014)
Although his Indian Horse is a common starting point (it’s shorter and there’s hockey), this is my favourite. It is a reconciliation story on a personal plane (between a father and a son) but one which is so layered and complex that it has much to offer on the matter of reconciliation in a broader sense as well. Although quietly told, it becomes something of a page-turner as the tale unfolds.
Richard van Camp’s Godless but Loyal to Heaven (2012)
This collection landed the author on my MustReadEverything list. The first story still keeps me up at night on occasion, when it flits back into my mind during those dark and lonely hours between three and four in the morning. But as overwhelming as that tale’s power is (based on a traditonal tale, but brought into contemporary times), it’s the stories about ordinary people rather than mythic powers which draw me back to his work.
Edmund Metatawabin’s Up Ghost River (with Alexandra Shimo, 2014)
The language in Up Ghost River is succinct and unsentimental. And, yet, the content is highly emotive. What bridges the gap between these contrary states is a scenic style, as the authors describe Number 15’s experiences in residential school (as Edmund was renamed, to obliterate his family identity).
Jordan Abel’s the place of scraps (2014)
When I was a little girl, I marvelled at the beautiful totem poles in the foyer at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. They were the first things I visited (but, to be fair, not out of true recognition of their beauty or significance, but because they stood between me and the dinosaur gallery, which I both loved and feared, as I got closer and closer to the T-Rex). Jordan Abel’s volume of poetry changed the view for me lastingly and profoundly. His work also made me less afraid of poetry. (I dealt with the T-Rex on my own.)
Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce (2008)
I came to this novel after reading The Orenda, which I did not love as much as many other readers did. And, at first, neither of the alternating voices in Through Black Spruce engaged me either. But, then I began to recognize connections that I missed in the shorter segments. Will is telling his story to his niece from the “dreaming world” and Annie is telling her story to her uncle from the “waking world”, and the process of telling pulls each of the storytellers closer to another dimension (suiting their different needs and positions). It’s quite remarkable.
David Alexander Robertson’s Seven Generations comic series (Stones/Scars/Ends-Begins/The Pact)
Illustrated by Scott B. Henderson, this series is a great option for classroom-use, but also serves as a solid introduction for many of themes explored in greater detail in the longer works listed above. Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story draws specific attention to the Canadian government’s attempts to formalize the process of devastating the core identifty of native children by removing them from their families and traditions.
As for my own reading choices for the challenge reading, those 13 choices?
There are some gaps in my reading, including other works by writers whose previous works I’ve enjoyed (like David A. Groulx’s poems and Lee Maracle’s writing).
And I’ve got two MustReadEverything authors on this list, but I haven’t actually read everything yet (Thonas King and Richard van Camp).
And there are even some non-fiction volumes on my TBR which would fit this challenge (as well as my continued reading of/listening to the summary report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission).
To begin, however: talk, tomorrow, of Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls. And, then, the challenge will officially be underway!
Have you been reading any indigenous authors? Are you participating in the Canadian Books Challenge too?