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.
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 Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Jean Rhys’ Good Morning Midnight, George Elliott Clarke’s George & Rue and Robert Wiersema’s Walk Like a Man.
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!)
It’s the book which Moth discovers in Mr. Wentworth’s study in Ami McKay’s second novel, The Virgin Cure (2011): “The Witches of New York was the book I’ found most intriguing.”
“Listing addresses from Broome to Nineteenth Street, it claimed to be a reliable guide to the soothsayers of the city. I put it on the top of the stack, planning to come back for it later to search for Mama in its pages.”
There is some truth to that, I suspect, for Ami McKay was inspired by a family member to write The Virgin Cure, as she explains in the author’s note at the end of that novel. And she has returned to The Witches of New York to continue that tale.
As Moth is at the heart of both tales, it is interesting to note that she began at the margins and only gradually inserted herself in the centre.
“Originally I thought that the narrative voice of The Virgin Cure would be Sadie’s, but as I searched for the best way to write the story I wanted to tell, I discovered that it wasn’t to be found in her voice after all. I spent hours walking the streets and sidewalks that had once been travelled by my great-great-grandmother in her work as a medical student and physician in the late 1800s. As I walked, I tried to conjure up the memory of her life and the women and children she had served. On Second Avenue, I stared at the place where the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children once stood. I went to Pear Tree Corner to see where Peter Stuyvesant’s great pear tree had lived for over two hundred years. I visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and looked into the small, dark rooms of the past. On those streets, I found my answer. I found the voice I’d been waiting for, the voice of a twelve-year-old street girl named Moth.”
The Virgin Cure was a difficult tale; Moth’s was a difficult young life.
“Miss. E. went on to explain that the girls are brought into the trade gradually, with care and consideration for their tender age. Men are required to court them, in a sense, buying the girl of their choosing candies and gifts as an overture to their deflowering. ‘My position here is as a watchful mother. I make certain the men who come for my girls are well-looking and kind. None of my girls has ever been hurt, or stolen away, or used as a virgin cure.’”
Despite Miss. E.’s role as watchful mother, the girls must unite to survive within a debilitating – even devastating – system. This sense of sisterhood – by circumstance rather than blood – infuses both novels with a sense of hope and promise where, in the hands of another storyteller, darkness could rule.
“We three near-whores, Mae, Alice and I, shared the upstairs quarters—the room where Dr. Sadie had examined me. There was teasing and rivalry of course, and sometimes sharp words, but, in the short time I’d been there, there’d been more kindness than cruelty. We were sisters of a sort—with Miss Everett acting as our strange, sly mother.”
The Witches of New York is much more than a list of addresses. Moth’s experiences are summarized succinctly, so that readers who have not met her on the page can settle into this new novel.
“By the age of thirteen she’d been sold three times over—first, by her mother as a lady’s maid, then by a brothel madam as a child whore, then…as a Circassian Beauty—all in the space of a year.”
Her’s is a tale of reinvention – transformation: Adelaide, Ada, Moth.
“She felt now, more than ever, that the city wasn’t done with her, or she with it. If there ever was a place where one could start again, it was Manhattan. Move a block, and your enemies become your friends. Move ten blocks and you might never see anyone you knew again. She’d gained a new costume, as it were, complete with a mask that could never be removed, and she’d soon learned there were advantages to that sort of thing as well as to calling herself a witch.”
The novel considers a variety of witches. “The world has need of more witches. Sibyl, oracle, seer, prophetess, hag—it is their hearts that wish to beat within you, their souls you see in the face of the Moon. The Mothers are always watching.”
It also suggests that this is as much about self-definition and identity than about an extenal belonging, an organized group.
Consider this excerpt from the grimoire of Eleanor St. Clair (as told to her by her mother): “Close your eyes and get some rest. We gain new worlds when we sleep.”
When we dream, we are all witches. Each of us can reinvent and reimagine, illuminate and transform. But risks remain.
Like ordinary and everyday fractures. “If her mother had ever held any witchery in her blood, the pathetic wretch had lost the better part of it the moment her heart had been broken by a man. She’d given whatever power she’d had away—to love, to drink, to laudanum and, eventually, to the river.”
And organized and deliberate prosecution. “He came from a long line of God-fearing men going back to the famed preachers of Massachusetts Bay, who’d lived there when the colony was rife with witchcraft. It’d been his ancestors, in the years after the trials, who’d continued to be watchful for the Devil’s workings within God’s people.”
As in The Virgin Cure, there are scenes of monstrous cruelty and both sharp and long-winded losses. Beneath the surface, questions of morality and miracles simmer.
Ami McKay gives the cauldron a good stir, allowing Moth to bubble to the top: many readers will undoubtedly queue up to have some “Tea and Sympathy” with her in Manhattan.
Have you read any of Ami McKay’s books? Is one of them on your TBR?
Have you read any fiction which was inspired by family history lately?
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 2016, here.
Earlier in 2016, they posted a reading challenge, which I printed and dutifully began to read towards. (I’ve misplaced the link: sorry!)
- 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 already discussed the following: Ernest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men (1983); N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms (2010); André Alexis’ Pastoral; David Chariandy’s Soucouyant (2007); Farzana Doctor’s All Inclusive (2015); and Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat. And I’ve chosen Nicola Harwood’s memoir, Flights for the Commitment Impaired (2016) as my selection for a Canadian LGBTQ author.
Today: a book bought at an indie bookstore, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, to finish the challenge, which I’ve done in about three months. It’s not too late for you to join: eight books is not so many! (Poetry counts. Graphic novels count. Picture books, too!)
Who Fears Death has been on my TBR for years, ever since I read The Shadow Speaker in 2010 (originally published 2007). But it was the #DiverseSFF bookclub‘s selection for September which yanked it off the shelf and onto my stack proper.
However, this novel begins with brutality and I was unprepared. Nnedi Okorafor’s writing style is no-nonsense, almost bare bones, which is what allowed me to read on, taking some breaks in Onye’s (Onyesonwu’s) story, to recover from the potency of the losses.
Here, the emphasis is not on the setting (post-apocalytic Africa) or the language or even the characters (although considerable attention has been paid to them, for without them the story would falter), but on the story. On stories, in general.
To avoid discussing the specifics of the story, which unfold dramatically and relentlessly, here is a passage from rather late in the narrative which illustrates some of the author’s preoccupations.
“THERE’S A STORY IN THE GREAT BOOK about a boy destined to be Suntown’s greatest chief. You know the story well. It’s a Nuru favorite, no? You all tell it to your children when they’re too young to see how ugly the story is. You hope the girls will want to be like Tia the good young woman and the boys like Zoubeir the Great. In the Great Book, their story was one of triumph and sacrifice. It’s meant to make you feel safe. It’s supposed to remind you that great things will always be protected and people meant for greatness are meant for greatness. This is all a lie. Here’s how the story really happened….”
Direct and conversational, subversive and sweeping: Onye’s story presents a narrative of devastation-rebirth which includes missteps alongside triumphs, violations alongside celebrations, and friendships alongside betrayals. But this novel is not so much about extremes, as it is about a place between: between darkness and light, between despair and hope. And, perhaps even more importantly, it is a novel which questions our understanding of polarized states.
At first, this seems simple: “Mortality smelled muddy and wet and I reeked of it.”
But that is not the case: “Just because something is not alive, does not mean it is dead. You have to be alive first to be dead.” I closed my eyes and lay back. “The wilderness is someplace else. Neither of flesh nor time.”
Who Fears Death takes readers to the wilderness. It isn’t comfortable. But it is vitally important. And, despite the losses, a vital story at its core.
Other Fold Reading List posts are here, here, here, and here. There are still a couple of reading weeks left in 2016, and the same list could serve for another reading year: why not join?
In which I discuss some of the skinny volumes which have kept me company while on the move, while heavier volumes (like Connie Willis’ Crosstalk and Steven King’s 11/22/1963) stayed home.
Warsan Shire’s chapbook is my skinniest book of the year. I finished reading it on a single commute, but rather than read another volume on my return trip, I reread her poems instead.
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth begins with “What Your Mother Told You After You Father Left” and it ends with “In Love and In War”.
Identity is at the heart of the collection, often explored within the context of family relationships (“Grandfather’s Hands”) and the absence of them (“When We Last Saw Your Father”), and sometimes within broader frameworks of belonging.
The cycle “Conversations About Home” are overtly personal and politcal. “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” “Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.” “Do they not know that stability is ike a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second; the next you are a tremor lying on the floor covered in rubble and old currency waiting for its return.”
Older sisters and soldiers who survived, lovers and escapees. First kisses and minarets, and cayenne and roasted pine nuts. These verses are tender and painful, some freshly poured and others boiled: always striking.
Just as short: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists.
This is the publication of her TEDx talk, and much of it is as you might guess, filled with feminist-y statements. “A man is as likely as a woman to be intelligent, innovative, creative. We have evolved. But our ideas of gender have not evolved very much.”
But what makes the piece so appealing is that it draws from her personal experiences in Nigeria. The anecdotes range from advice given to her after she was identified as a feminist following the publication of her first novel, Purple Hibscus, to an exchange between teenaged friends, to the awareness which came from giving a tip to a parking attendant.
Here’s one: “I know a woman who has the same degree and same job as her husband. When they get back from work, she does most of the housework, which is true for many marriages, but what struck me was that whenever he changed the baby’s nappy, she said thank you to him. What if she saw it as something normal and natural, that he should help care for his child?”
Often these musings are presented with a question to follow and, if there is anger in some instances, there is also hope. “All of us, women and men, must do better.”
Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent (2015) climbed into my bookbag during this year’s IFOA. The collection claimed the Griffin Prize for poetry this year, which garnered a terrific amount of publicity for her debut.
Mark Medley reported the win in “The Globe and Mail”: “Adam Sol, who served on the jury alongside Alice Oswald and Tracy K. Smith (they considered 633 books of poetry from more than 40 countries) said it was the ‘ambition and reach’ of Howard’s book that ‘made her work stand out. This is a debut book – holy crap. Who knows what she’ll do next.’”
Even without being a dedicated poetry reader, that ambition is clear. (Also discussed last month: Soraya Peerbaye’s Tell, which was also shortlisted.)
Sometimes I felt decidedly under-equipped to participate in these verses, as though she had been observing a world about which I knew nothing, as with these lines from “Foramen Magnum”: “a river of somnolent fauns / heady-white-tailed apnea / our sleep a fossilized memory sequence”.
The natural world is not merely a backdrop to these verses; it permeates them. As does the damage which has been done (and is being done) to it. Here is a peek into “Tender Pathos: A Denser, Blue Vapour”:
tailwaters did valley the hydro
of children taken
boil this water
of false men
The vocabulary suits a student of the sciences in several instances, but there are also many moments in which I settled more immediately into territory I recognized, as with these lines from “A wake”: “As long as you hold me I am doubled from without and within a wake of fog unbroken, a shore of twisted cedar.”
One of my favourite pieces was “Thinktent” (which includes this lovely bit: “to be a shopkeep / in the showroom of nouns / what to purchase and what /to disavow) which reminds me that sometimes we all feel more like guests than residents:
“I know myself to be a guest
in your mind a grand lodge
of everything I long to know and hold
within this potlatch we call
What have you been taking with you in your bookbag this week? What’s the skinniest volume in your stack right now? The fattest?
In the wake of my IFOA reading list and the literary prizelists of the season, my November reading felt relatively whimsical. Without duedates attached to the majority of my reading, it was a pleasure to slip into volumes which had sat untouched in recent weeks.
Each of these three volumes covers, in one way or another, a lifetime. Whether fiction or non-fiction, the lives on the page have an expanse, a reach.
Goose Lane, 2016
The cover of Jared Young’s Into the Current makes you want to cock your head to one side just slightly: deliberately disorienting.
And it’s fitting: this debut novel will make your head spin a little.
First, as you follow airplane passenger Daniel Solomon as he plunges through the atmosphere.
Next, as he slips into some between-state.
“Don’t you find it the least bit suspicious that I’m describing it all in the present tense?
The extraordinary thing about this particular memory is that it’s not a memory. It’s not playing out, as memories do, on some candescent movie screen in the darkness of my conscious mind. Not, I am there! I am physically there, right there….”
It is extraordinary, if not suspicious. And even when an explanation is offered, it remains so. Ultimately, however, there are enough memories cascading past the reader to allow for some brief anchoring moments.
“Funny, these small moments that alter one’s trajectory. Dumb little decisions: turn left, turn right. Spontaneous statements; cursory commitments. I suppose if they kick you onto a different course, they’re not really that small, but they certainly seem that way in the moment they occur: just some vague promise to put someone in touch with someone else, whatever, no big deal.”
Some aspects of the novel are mundane; from carpet fibres to groping, a lot of detail goes into the scenes sketched across the years Daniel reinhabits. There is a fine between, here, between states of undress and states of unbeing. And at times the “bowel-twisting pocket of nothingness” threatens to overwhelm the narrative. “It’s a backwards paradox of fate: I am doomed to always do what I did, there’s no changing it.”
But as an exploration-of-self, Into the Current has some strong scenic elements and the desire to tap into a deeper search for meaning, for “this is the great tragedy of human life: no other person will ever fully understand what it is to be you; they’ll only ever know the abridged, desaturated, second-hand versions of our most important stories”.
Jane Smiley has long been preoccupied with the telling of “our most important stories”. Early in her career, she set out to write one of each major literary type and The Greenlanders did not scratch her epic itch: the Hundred Years trilogy is another work in that vein, with Early Warning the second installment, covering 1953 through 1986.
In some ways, Jane Smiley’s Early Warning is an excellent reading companion for Jared Young’s debut. Both books cross large swathes of time in the narrative, but whereas Young’s structure is chaotic (back and forth in time) and his focus insular (one mind’s memories), Smiley’s Hundred Years trilogy is constructed deliberately (one chapter for each year) and on an epic scale (there is a family tree in the front and readers must consult).
This volume, the second, begins with a family gathering, which serves as an excellent refresher for readers who have let some time pass since reading Some Luck. It doesn’t take long for key characters, like Roseanna, the matriarch, to take shape once more. She “doled out words and smiles like they were stock options” but some of the younger members of the family are a bit of a blur for a few more chapters (years).
An impatient reader might be frustrated with the details required to root the narrative as the years pass, but these are the anchors which hold the passage of time, from pigs-in-a-blanket and a carrot-raisin salad to a little girl dressed for a birthday part in a red velvet dress with lace-trimmed white socks and Mary Janes. (I’m guessing that neither othese menu nor wardrobe items will make an appearance in the trilogy’s third volume.)
Just as it is challenging to spot the growth of a child across the weeks (which inspired the pencil-on-doorway chronicle in many homes) while those who see them once a year on holidays are startled and amazed by the cumulative change, many elements which reside in this novel’s individual chapters and storylines are even more impressive when viewed across the work’s expanse.
Patterns are visible across the generations when, for instance, daughters muse about the men they intend to marry as compared to their fathers. In the first volume, Eloise muses about her daughter, Rosa: “You didn’t have to want to kill your mother and marry your father. But probably you did want to attract their attention once in a while.” And in the second, Claire believes she wants to marry a man who reminds her of her father but she makes a contrary choice in the end: “No, Paul was not a farmer and did not remind her of her father, but he was attentive and her goal was attained: since he was not like Frank, Joe or Henry, she would not be like Andy, Lillian or Lois.”
There are comparisons and contrasts throughout the characters’ experiences for readers to consider actoss the generations; these brief discussions of marriage are hardly spoilers against a landscape of interconnected and ever-shifting relationships. As an epic, it is the work’s breadth of scale at which readers are intended to marvel and this is indeed the case.
This quote from later in Some Luck summarizes it perfectly: “As if on cue, Walter turned from Andrea and looked at Rosanna, and they agreed in that instant: something had created itself from nothing – a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with twenty-three different worlds, each one of them rich and mysterious.”
There are so many more of these worlds in Early Warning, that readers will put the family tree to good use; surely it will be a fold-out poster for the third volume.
Christie Blatchford’s Life Sentence fits with these two novels because it, too, revisits key events in her past, in her work as a court reporter in Toronto.
“When on Monday, January 16, 1978, I first wandered into a Toronto courtroom for the start of jury selection in the first criminal trial I had ever covered, I had no idea I was beginning to serve a self-imposed life sentence.”
While on jury duty, I saw Christie Blatchford at the courthouse downtown occasionally; I didn’t recognize any other court reporters, but perhaps they, too, will have a book like this in a few decades.
Sometimes controversial and always outspoken, it’s interesting to get her perspective on her career at this juncture. Her style here is informal but attentive-to-detail; she is concerned with the facts but I’m most keenly interested in her personal observations and conjecture.
“Canadian courthouses are like far-flung island colonies of Las Vegas, where clocks are discouraged lest the guy in front of the slot machine or at the poker table look up and realize how long he’s been there, losing money.”
The book is structured around key cases which Blatchford covered in detail as a journalist, with five chapters titled “R v Betesh to R v Duffy”, “R v Abreha”, “R v Elliott”, “R v Bernardo” and “R v Ghomeshi”. Even if you think only one or two of them are familiar, you will quickly discover that they are more high-profile than you might have thought (or, alternatively, you will quickly understand why they were selected). After all, there is a whole world unfolding in the courtroom: only a handful of the 200,000 criminal cases in Ontario touch the media.
“Ours is an age of increasing demands for scrutiny – from government at every level, from politicians, police, publicly owned companies and even the mainstream press – yet the courts have escaped the collective notice.”
Certain cases are examined in detail (but sometimes refer to entire works devoted to them, for readers keen to follow up in even more detail) and sometimes it comes down to page numbers in a certain document and specific citations, but also included are anecdotal experiences and information shared by acquaintances and friends.
Perhaps for many readers, a specific case will be of interest, for instance Paul Bernardo’s. “For a good long while, back when it all was happening, it seemed improbable that Canadians would not always recoil a little at the mention of those two names. The country had never before seen crimes quite like theirs, and probably was never more sharply reminded of a few uncomfortable truths.”
However, around the discussion of specific cases are many broader matters of concern, like a consideration of the role of child welfare institutions, the role of the jury, the question of which trials are eligible for a jury and which evidence is submitted to the jury members.
Put enough books like these together and maybe we can come up with an alternative Lifetime Reading Plan?
Any of these in your stack or on your TBR? Which of the three do you suspect you’d most enjoy?
Back in the summer, I was planning my reading list for this year’s International Festival of Authors in Toronto. It always seems like it will be possible to read all the books which are calling to me from the schedule of events and list of participants.
And maybe it would be, were it not for the other calls from the stacks and shelves, for I cannot ignore the pleas from the Giller longlisted books and the new releases with other bookish events attached (like Jonathan Safran Foer’s promotion for Here I Am).
So here are my original festival reading plans, In My Notebook , and here’s a list of the reviews related to some of those books:
But the pages in my notebook are now preoccupied with various reading projects which I have begun this year.
Now, like my IFOA reading, I’m in the dreaming phase of this planning. List-making and re-making, winnowing and gathering.
What reading will yet unfold in the coming weeks, before the 2016 stacks transform into the 2017 stacks?
Is it really possible for me to finish all the Oz books this year (it’s taken me all year to read 9, and 5 remain)?
Even though I planned to finish all Toni Morrison’s and David Mitchell’s books this year, now I’m working to fit just book from each of their oeuvres into the next month (having only read one of each author’s earlier this year).
My idea of finishing more series than I begin could be thwarted by the fact that I was able to borrow My Brilliant Friend from my brilliant friend, and thus began reading another series, and yet I haven’t yet read on with that series. If I do the math, will I have improved upon my habit of favouring beginnings over endings this year? Would reading the remaining Neopolitan novels help? (I stumbled on a nice new library copy of the second novel: is it a ‘sign’?)
What about all those multi-start-but-never-complete single volumes that haunt my stacks: have I turned a corner towards completion there? (It feels like it’s been months since one of these nestled into my stack. Surely that’s not because I finished them all at last.)
Do my stacks match my intentions, particularly when it comes to discovering and reading more indigenous authors along with other oft-silenced voices? (Or perhaps I am relying upon having bought them as being-nearly-as-good-as-reading.)
Have I reignited my enthusiasm for long-standing reading projects, or is it time to consider filing some of them (as having belonged to a younger reading me)?
And my list of must-reads: is it just as long because I am still consistently favouring the new and shiny books, or have I made a dent (or, at least, begun to make progress)?
But what of the fact that I might not be adding to that list anymore but, in fact, I have a running list in my mind which is tugging at my attention as much as any fresh promotions or publications? (And it’s this list which comes to mind first, when browsing at the library or in a bookstore.)
Even if the rest of life ground to a halt, and I could read a book on each day which remains in 2016, would I still be preoccupied by the idea of all that I did not read this year? Or perhaps I would be content, feeling that I have read my best, even if I read only a few more books this year.
Well, you know how it is. When the stacks and lists seem to be neverending. What’s in your reading plan for the rest of 2016?
Are you squeezing a few more books into your year to satisfy some earlier readolutions, or are you easing into the next season and taking some time to plan?
Squeezing? Or, easing?
Even when Bernice is liked, she’s not necessarily liked for the person she is, but for the person someone believes her to be. This is largely why she leaves herself, why she learns to fly.
“I wonder how fascinated she’d be if she knew that I’d been fucked before I was eleven, Bernice thinks. That I smoked pot every day; that I have read every Jackie Collins novel ever written – even the bad ones. Nope, that dying savage thing is what floats her boat.”
This “leaving” is a complicated process, but readers are introduced to it immediately. When we meet her, Birdie can fly. But, paradoxically, she is grounded too. She is not always like a rock skipping across the water, but sometimes more like a sinking stone.
“Lying in her bed, now, she thinks of that period as the time when she learned to leave. It became part of her, a continuum of change, growing in her until she could fully move and bend. Memories. Bad thoughts. Time. It felt like a rock skipping on water, so much so that she strangely is not shocked when she sinks. She has been strange for so long that she cannot even attempt to understand what normal might feel like. For her, coming back into her self after her time felt precisely normal.”
Even her mother makes her feel as though she should be someone else. This kind of denial and denigration seeps into her being. It both makes her want to fly and holds her pinned to the ground. (And practically speaking, Birdie is a heavy woman. Her kind of flight demands a mechanism both delicate and substantial.)
“All of it added to a knowledge, lodged as deep as those chocolate bar wrappers in a purse, that Maggie would rather an Other. Another. Another life. With fewer nieces, nephews and Bernices around. Kids who weren’t so noisy. A kid who she wouldn’t catch gulping mashed potatoes by the handful in the kitchen after dinner one night so that she couldn’t fit hand-me-down clothes and had to have new clothes every time she gained weight. Which was often.”
Her coping mechanisms take on a new sophistication — and also a new darkness — as she ages.
“She felt, at times, invisible. That helped. She could change, too. She could appear and disappear, using only words to / unmask herself. Some people, mostly crazy people, could see her. Not that anyone recognized her. She wore black only, hid in crowds and walked the city streets with her eyes down. Some days, on the best of days, she met women’s eyes – only street women – women who were the seen/unseen. On other days, she felt oddly disconnected from her body, like she did not know the nature of her form.”
As the novel unfolds, readers spend a significant amount of time in Birdie’s skin, but also out of it (which is true, too, for Birdie), so that there is a fresh perspective which is both disorienting and stabilizing.
“Bernice has been immersed in travelling, lately. The three women moving around her generate some sort of resistance that allows her to travel back and forth (Now and Then, Here and There) without much pain. Somewhere in the back of her mind there is an idea. A memory. A piece of something yet unearthed. ”
The chapters take a ritual form, introducing readers to new words and concepts, and to the perspective of one who can fly. Each chapter’s opening segments are exceptionally lyrical, but there are beautiful splashes of poetry throughout the novel. At times, the sensory detail is immersive, as in this passage (one of my favourites):
“Her ache for home, home being something she does not yet understand, and a place she has never been, brushes over her like a skirt hem on the floor. If the women could see her insides, she imagines they would see a churning, a quickening, a real live storm inside of her. Whatever was happening, her pulse remains the same while her skin feels lit from within.”
Bernice is keenly watching for this light. “Bernice had always thought that Freda’s confidence flowed out from under shadowed crevasses and angled bones. That some mélange of svelte certitude, magazine model skinny happiness leeched out of her in places where silence and stuffing found Bernice wanting. It would be years before she understood that the funhouse mirror of their shared childhood would alter the ways they saw themselves and warp what others saw in them.”
But she struggles to locate it. “She is so hungry. Not for food, not for drink, not for foreign skin. This appetite that sits next to her now is relatively unknown and persistent. She is hungry for family. For the women she loves. For the sounds of her language. For the peace of no introduction, no backstory, no explanation. She misses her aunties, her cousins and her mom. She thinks that she maybe misses who her dad was, too, but isn’t sure. She wouldn’t know what that felt like. She misses the Cree sense of humour. She misses her Auntie Val. Misses the production of her auntie getting ready.”
And even though she had a troubled childhood, part of her is forever looking back to it, seeking to root herself, somewhere and somehow.
“She was sorry to have left her room. She looked at the pile of library books on her floor (the carpet was the kind that is supposed to feel like grass when it’s green) and felt better. Back then, Saturday was just about her favourite day of all. She would spend about four hours in the town library, about three and a half hours too many by Miss Robbins’ watch. Miss Robbins, Bernice imagined, was at least seventy years old. She was almost certain that Miss Robbins, Clara Robbins, was a smoker. She had arthritic fingers and knew every title on the shelves of the Grande Prairie public library. The skin on her fingers, spotted, yellow and papery thin, would tap past books at an alarming rate as she tried to select what Bernice could read.”
Miss Robbins doesn’t think that ten-year-old Bernice Meetoos should be reading Judy Blume (she announces this in what Birdie describes as “an in-sin-u-ating voice” but Bernice is not your average ten-year-old girl. “Where she went depended upon something that she could not control. All she knew was that she usually ended up someplace where the past lives with the present, and they mingled like smoke. Once it cleared, she was almost sure she would see her future. She never did, though.”
She has faced a series of challenges with quiet perseverence. Bolstered from unexpected sources of strength (including a strange attachment, almost worship, of Pat John, who played Jesse on the quintessential CBC drama, “The Beachcombers”, one of very few aboriginal figures in Canadian pop culture when Birdie was growing up), she endures.
“She never found the perfect book and contented herself with stories about families that sounded perfect.”
So even though there is nothing about her life which she would define as perfect, Birdie tells her own story, in her own voice. Which is quite a feat, in a language and a culture which has built its power upon silencing these stories.
“She is a patchwork quilt made up of who she would have been. If her life had turned out differently.” Tracey Lindberg’s novel is stitched together delicately and deliberately: it adds an essential and beautiful block to the literary quilt.
Tracey Lindberg’s novel also counts towards the 13 works by indigenous writers I’m determined to read for the 10th annual Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set. The others I’ve read in recent months include Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls (2002), Paul Seesequasis’ Tobacco Wars (2010), the comics anthology Moonshot (2015), edited by Hope Nicholson, and Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat (2008).
Have you been reading any aboriginal authors lately? Is Birdie one you’ve already read? Did you watch Canada Reads the year it was featured? Is it flying onto your TBR list now ?
This volume is a fantastic introduction to Chef Michael Smith’s oeuvre. The volume opens with “The Real Food Pledge”, and although this is the first of his books I’ve read, I could speak this pledge right along with him: it’s as though he’s speaking directly from our kitchen. So you would think this a terrific match. And, mostly, it is.
Penguin – PRH, 2016
The pledge is followed by a a single-page food philosophy, which begins with “Real food nourishes body, mind and soul” and ends with “Real food always includes a homemade treat”.
The next section, “Real Food Strategies”, begins with “Be Deliberate” (elaborating on routines and effort) and ends with “Share a Meal” (speaking about connecting around a table).
Then, a list of “Superfoods” for your kitchen (beginning with kale and other dark leafy greens, ending with herbs and spices) and “Real Ingredients: Everything You Need” (which begins with meat and poultry and ends with dark chocolate).
There is a short discussion about labels and another about foods to avoid and, then, the heart of the volume for me: “20 Recipes for Real Food”. These are the kind of recipes that are often delegated to the back chapter of a cookbook, titled staples or basics.
That’s fine, too. But I do like the emphasis on the basics here; they are not segregated at the end, next to the index and on the wrong side of the dessert chapter (I’m all over Michael Smith’s ideas about a treat being an important part of real food).
The list of 20 begins with Bread and ends with French Fries. Neither item appears frequently on our table, but these recipes are simple and inviting.
How I wish I had discovered a cookbook like this when I was still eating sausage and sour cream; his recipes are straightforward and the ingredient lists very simple.
Many of the recipes incorporate meat and dairy and because they are such simple recipes, there would be little point to substituing; there are more complex and flavourful recipes in cookbooks which place a broader emphasis on plant-based meals which would better suit those who rarely/never eat meat and dairy.
(It’s possible that, if one were accustomed to fast-food, these simple recipes might be a little plain in terms of seasoning, but I also suspect that recommending the generous quantities of garlic and onion that we use at home would not be to everyone’s taste either.)
Two of the basic recipes immediately appealed to my sense of “But, that’s too hard to make at home”: marshmallows and mustard. I won’t be trying the former, but I will happily share it with those who do purchase/eat gelatin; I will be trying the latter.
(Having discovered a few years ago, how easy it is make my own ketchup, you might think I’d considered the possibility of making my own mustard. But, no. It seemed decidedly out of reach.)
My hunch is that a lot of readers will find their own “Who knew?” moments in this cookbook. I still vividly remember the moment I discovered a recipe for chocolate fudge sauce in another cookbook (and, yes, I’ve been making my own for years). Ditto for caramel sauce. (Are you sensing a theme here?)
Less-experienced cooks might find that all 20 are useful additions to their list of favourite recipes. This would make a great gift for anyone adjusting to cooking independently and a great investment for anyone seeking to place a greater emphasis on healthy eating habits with minimal effort and investment.
Those more experienced, who have already done substantial reading on food and health, might find the efforts to present this material in the simplest of terms frustrating at times; occasionally the impetus to present information succinctly glosses over helpful facts.
For instance, some generalizations about divisive concerns (e.g. the tap water vs. filtered water debate, the varying laws surrounding the use of antibiotics in animals raised for slaughter) could perhaps have been dealt with quickly in the pages of principles and precepts but elaborated upon in an appendix with additional resources (either print or digital) so that interested readers could explore further. (Not all tap water is the same; animals raised for slaughter are exposed to treatment which varies widely.)
Nonetheless, Chef Michael Smith does advocate asking questions and that process is an important part of getting to know your food. After all, it’s like any other relationship. It’s all about communicating.
This time, the conversation is between Michael Smith and readers. But, ultimately, it’s about your relationship to what’s on your plates. Cookbooks like this one give you something to talk about.
In which I discuss some of the skinny volumes which have kept me company while on the move, while heavier volumes (like Steven Price’s By Gaslight and Ami McKay’s The Witches of New York) stayed home.
The Selected Poetry of Ryszard Kapuściński is the first in the International Translation Series from Biblioasis.
It’s translated from the Polish by Diana Kuprel and Marek Kusiba, affording English-speaking readers the opportunity to sample the verses of the renowned journalist.
“I cannot imagine that I would be able to write anything without first having read poetry. It is the highest form of language… I believe that a poet is someone who preserves language and, for that reason, stands at the gates of its inexhaustible wealth, its simultaneous beauty and threat.”
When I was younger, and between picture books and chapter books, one of the few sections in the stacks of the library which appealed to me were the poetry books (and the fairy tales), but somewhere along the line I swapped affection for intimidation.
In this interview with the poet (from 2005; he died in January 2007), his passion and commitment to the form shine.
“I value poets and poetry because poetry is something more than a transmitter of information or a well-told story; it’s a strange form which is comfortable in what is hidden right before our eyes, where, in a few stanzas, one can raise to a boil a powerful freight of experience and transgression at the same time.”
His love of the form and his belief that it is essential to the art of writing is rooted in the idea of rhythm.
“Prose must have music, and poetry is rhythm. When I start writing, I must locate the rhythm. It carries me along like a river.”
In fact, Kapuściński debuted as a writer in 1949, with a poem in a Polish literary weekly, even though his reputation is grounded in prose. The translators state, however, that the fact that he ” hould have practiced poetry, then, is not surprising”. (Isn’t that beautifully described, poetry as practice? I love that concept.)
As a witness to the Soviet occupation of Poland, he had first-hand experience of “extreme deprivation and terror”, “round-ups and executions”: his poetry confronts vitally important themes.
“You write about the man in the camp / I write about the camp in the man / for you barbed wire is outside / for me it rankles the insides of each of us / -You really think there’s a big difference? / These are just two sides of the same torment” (This is an excerpt from “Notebooks”.)
One might imagine Kapuściński as a sculptor of words, borrowing from “Sculptor from Ashanti”, in which the artist “hews and chisels away the first layer / uncovers nothing / ever more impatient / he bores”.
Or see him reflected in the work titled “The Poet Arnold Slucki On New World Street”: a man with “his pockets full of poems / He took out one after the other”. In which “the page traces the struggles / between creation / and annihilation” “I Wrote Stone”.
This is only the first volume in the series from Biblioasis; a copy of the second is now en route.
Alongside the poetry in my bookbag, I’ve also been reading Joan MacLeod’s play Toronto, Mississippi. It was a whimsical borrowing from the public library, inspired by the BookRiot Reading Read Harder reading challenge.
And, indeed, reading drama has always been a challenge for me, even though last year Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience was one of my favourite reading experiences. (And how awesome that it’s now a TV show on CBC.)
The main character of Toronto, Mississippi is Jhana, who is eighteen years old and has just begun her first workshop job. It’s unusual to have a developmentally disabled character at the heart of a story (rather than pushed to the periphery), and Jhana is a dominant presence throughout the play.
Her interactions with Bill, the poet who boards with Jhana and Maddie (her mother), bracket the drama; it opens and closes with their spirited and credible exchanges. Neither is entirely content with their current existences, each aware of uncomfortable limitations and pushing against the boundaries of their everyday lives.
Jhana’s mom plays a significant role, too, and she offers readers a context which Jhana alone could not. “People think certain words work magic – group home, workshop. They hear that and assume everything’s taken care of. Someone from York just did a research project on her. She’s [Jhana] moderately mentally handicapped – moderate. I like that, like the weather when we lived on the coast. Superbly dyslexic – very complicated version of it. Symptoms of autism or soft autism. That’s what they’re saying now. That’s the style. There is a style to everything. But then you’d know all about that.”
Jhana’s dad, King, is an Elvis impersonator, who also plays a significant role, although initially only for his absence. Jhana’s attachment to her dad is charming and innocent, casting another slant to his character. “I’m out of style, Maddie,” he laments.
Because Bill the poet (a sensitive soul, quiet and studious) is intimately involved in the day-to-day of the family life, in a way that Jhana’s father is not, there is considerable tension when King arrives for a visit.
Bill is keen to set himself apart as a scholar, a thinker, even though ultimately it’s his relationship with Jhana which is important in this story (which is ultimately connected to the relationship he wants to have with her mother, Maddie).
“Animal as victim, environment as victim, women as victim. That sort of thing. Despair’s more of a sideline. Not that they don’t overlap. I love women’s literature. And it’s very despairing, for the most part. This is a very exciting time for female writers in this country. I mean since the time I was born.”
Agency and power, self-determination and identity, connection and loneliness: these ideas imbue Joan MacLeod’s play. It premiered at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto (Ontario, not Mississippi) on October 6, 1987 but it’s in print from Talonbooks.
What have you been taking with you in your bookbag this week?
The title of her second novel might well have been a discarded option for her debut; Riel Nason is back in familiar territory: the intersection between memory and identity, the line between mysticism and madness, and sibling bonds in a coming-of-age tale.
Goose Lane, 2016
Now it is 1977 and readers are introduced to Violet, who offers a convenient summary of the events of The Town that Drowned as well as a hint of the recurring themes in All the Things We Leave Behind.
“As beautiful as the river is, it’s hiding something. The Saint John River is a lot bigger than it used to be. It was once a skinnier, twisted strip, really just a stream in some places. Then the government build a dam at Mactaquac, about fifteen miles downriver from here, and the entire landscape changed. There was a giant permanent flood. The water swallowed a whole town called Haventon. It happened ten years ago when I was still a kid. We lived in Fredericton then.”
Secrets and transformations, shape-shifting and the enduring presence of significant events in the past. Violet is perfectly situated to comment on this because her family owns an antique business and quite literally she is minding the store while her parents are away, in search of a resolution.
Readers don’t understand everything at the outset, but soon it is explained that Violet’s brother, Bliss, left a note on the afternoon of his high-school graduation;he explained that he was going exploring, and nobody has seen or heard from him since. Her parents are looking for answers.
From the beginning, there is a sense of trepidation in the situation. The novel opens with Violet’s description of the Ministry of Transportation’s boneyard, where the animals killed on the road are dumped to rot. A sense of loss haunts the book from the start.
As in her debut novel, change can be large and small. The Ministry manages large quantities of losses, but the Davis family is alone with their questions about where Bliss has gone and why he chose to leave. (In The Town that Drowned, the government mandated the moves, and transformed the lives of families into single lines on a page: statistics to be managed. Meanwhile, entire families and identities were uprooted. There are so many interesting connections and parallels between these stories.)
Nonetheless, the darkness is not relentless. There are night scenes in the forest, traumatic emotional scenes and quiet disappointments; there are also moments of brilliance, warmth and hope.
One consistently bright spot in the narrative is Violet’s best friend Jill. This passage, in which Violet observes and describes her, displays a clever aspect of Riel Nason’s style. For what Violet says about Jill is important, certainly; but, even more important, is what is not said, what these observations and remarks say about Violet.
“Jill is so sure she can make everything turn out the way she wants. I imagine she sees her life as a path lined with flowers – her favourite honeysuckle and phlox, cosmos and lupines all in bloom. She is sure the sun will shine more than it will rain. The flowers will grow strong and tall and lush, season after season. No one else will pick them. No deer will come and eat them or trample them down. Those flowers will surround her with beautiful colour and sweet fragrance as she skips along joyfully into the future.”
Leaving some things unsaid is where the power of this novel rests. Were Riel Nason to take the easy path – to simply enumerate the contrasting qualities which Violet possesses or exhibits, rather than allow Violet to admire these aspects of her best friend’s way of being – the novel would be only half as satisfying.
This is much more difficult from a crafting perspective than it appears. The ways in which information is released and shared is crucial to the novel’s success. The matter-of-fact language, the simple sentence and paragraph structure, and the seemingly uncomplicated characterization of secondary characters (who also add substantially to the story plot-wise and mood-wise)? All this might make it look easy, but it requires patience and skill.
In The Town that Drowned, there is a mystery which readers expect to be solved – also a disappearance – but as the novel nears its close, another mystery surfaces, one which hadn’t even been recognised to exist.
In an effort to avoid discussing the story arc in All the Things We Leave Behind (and risk spoiling the discovery), it’s safe to say that readers will not realise what they do not know until it’s too late to check and see how substantially the surprise will strike them.
These are quiet novels. The swell of emotion rises slowly, steadily. They pull you under the surface hard and fast.
Nothing really happens. Here, the “main event is simply a view of the water”. So Ruby’s story should not be a page-turner. But, in fact, The Town that Drowned is a coming-of-age story with a curious momentum.
No single element is responsible: character and voice, setting and structure, all work in concert in this debut, engaging readers determinedly, exhaustively.
Ruby is charming: matter-of-fact, intelligent and intuitive. “Sure I was familiar with circling the perimeter of outcast territory, being forever linked to him, but it’s completely different now that I’ve been catapulted over the fence. Weird is a disease and once you have it you have it. I’m fourteen years old and infected for good. There’s no miracle cure. There’s no general prescription. I am quarantined all alone on the Island of the Odd. It’s a chronic condition. A lifelong affliction.”
Her relationship with her brother, Percy, is at the heart of the novel, because Percy represents a force which embodies routine and ritual. “Percyville. Population: 1.”
Ruby jokes, but she’s not always able to find the humour in Percy’s quirks and foibles. “I always seemed to be around to witness this, and although I used to be sure that his heart was at least cracking, if not breaking, now I only think, Great-not-this-again. After a while you feel like you’re living with the boy who cried wolf. After a while the urge to rush over and hug him fades away completely.”
Given that Percy can suffer a breakdown if the telephone rings at the wrong time of day, it seems certain that the news that the town is going to be flooded and residents relocated will devastate his sense of security. The government has announced plans to build a dam at Mactaquac, which will result in the flooding of the Saint John River and the drowing of the town of Haverton.
But it’s mysterious, really: the ways in which we do (and do not) adapt to change. “Unexpected problems bring unexpected results.”
Part of what makes The Town that Drowned such a powerful story is that it is infused with change, large and small. The layers conspire to create a sense of weight, even while the prose is spare and light.
“And did I mention the new Trans-Canada Highway being built on the other side of the river? If we are told next that our area has been chosen for a model alien colony, everyone will probably just say fine, whatever.”
Some people have an easier time with change than others. “You really don’t know what other people think about. You can’t know what other people are saying to themselves when they’re sitting home alone.”
There is an old-fashioned air to Ruby’s recounting, which is appropriate given that the novel is set in 1960’s New Brunswick. “An important way to tell that an event is truly awful is when you lose count of how many long-dead people you’ve heard are probably rolling in their graves.”
But there is also a sense of timelessness. Not every young woman experiences her hometown being drowned, but nearly every one askes the more basic questions with which Ruby is preoccupied (“I wonder if you can be disqualified from your own life?”) and has serious doubts about her choices and desires (“I think maybe my whole life is one big miscalculation.”).
There is a strange anticipatory sense of loss from the beginning of the story, however, which contrasts with Ruby’s (and Percy’s) youth.
Even the bottles which Percy releases into the river (proverbial messages to the unknown) echo across the story. And not just what we have lost, but also what we have never had, what desires will never be fulfilled.
“I really don’t believe in ghosts, but as I lie here ghosts are easier to think about than the idea that this space I am filling, the air I am breathing, will soon be out of reach to anyone alive. It will be deep in the river. Every invisible dot in front of me now, contained in these walls called my room, will be drowned and gone.”
There is a mystical element to The Town that Drowned, which is perhaps unsurprising. The drowning of a town is rather a bizarre and mythic kind of event; even though it is part of the historical record, it’s the kind of happening which seems unbelievable.
And in a town in which the main event is the view of the water, it’s quite a shake-up to suddenly find your life there plunged beneath the surface.
Riel Nason skilfully guides readers through that immersion; her debut is simply compelling.