Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Fresh bookishness!

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!)

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Faves and Stand-out Reads from My 2016

My reading year began with a reread of The Radiant Way (1987), which begins with a New Year’s party. The first time I read the novel, I was in my 20s and I hadn’t yet read Virginia Woolf; this time I couldn’t help but think of Mrs. Dalloway as the women in Margaret Drabble’s novel make their preparations (as hostess, as guests). And this time around, there were two additional volumes to read, which set the tone for my reading year: expect excellence.

lindberg-birdie

HarperCollins, 2015

So, Favourite Reading Experiences of 2016:
*Rereading and Reading Margaret Drabble’s Thatcher Years Trilogy, including A Natural Curiosity (1989) and The Gates of Ivory (2007)

*Judith Kerr’s Anna Trilogy (which brought me to her Mog stories, also to her memoir Creatures)
As a girl, I reread When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) periodically, but this was my first reread as an adult. Not only does it stand up very well, but the idea of seeing her transform her life into fiction (as described in Creatures) is fascinating too. Both The Other Way Round (1975) and A Very Small Person Far Away (1978) were wholly enjoyable because she consistently approaches dark subject matter (war, illness, struggle) while allowing for some light to shine.

*Robert Wiersema’s The World More Full of Weeping (2009)
One night, unable to sleep, I selected an e-book and the device choked and opened this one instead; around 3am, I was too impatient to try again for the book I’d been aiming for and instead fell hard and fast into this delightfully haunting novella, read it straight through and loved every minute.

*Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016)
This was my final read from this year’s Giller Prize longlist reading (and the jury chose it as the winner) and I reserved it deliberately; I wanted to savour it and make sure it had the bulk of my reading attention for that week. Each time I picked it up, I felt both safe and vulnerable: a trusted storyteller, with all the intensity that comes with crafting.

*Shared reads with bookfriends (including Budge Wilson’s Before Green Gables (2008) and L.M. Montgomery’s The Blythes are Quoted (2009) with Naomi, Andre Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs (2015) with Stephanie, Jane Smiley and Antonia White with Danielle, and 22/11/63 (2011) with Eva.

New-favourite authors:
Michael Helm’s After James (2016)
Karen Molson’s The Company of Crows (2016)
Riel Nason’s The Town that Drowned (2011) and All the Things We Leave Behind (2016)

Already-favourite authors:
Lisa Moore’s Flannery (2016)
David Mitchell’s Number 9 Dream (2001)
Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby (1981)

Livingston Crooked HeartOutstanding rereads:
Marian Engel’s Bear (1976)
Timothy Findley’s The Piano Man’s Daughter (1995)
Jean Rhys’ Good Morning Midnight (1939)

Woman-soaked stories:
Tricia Dower’s Becoming Lin (2016)
Kate Taylor’s Serial Monogamy (2016)
Katherena Vermette’s The Break (2016)

Beautiful and Painful:
George Eliott Clarke’s George & Rue (2005)
Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie (2015)
Billie Livingston’s The Crooked Heart of Mercy (2016)

Delightfully Bookish:
Margarita Engle’s The Lightning Dreamer (2013)
Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words (2016)
Margaret Mackey’s One Child Reading: My Auto-Bibliography (2016)

Single-sitting readings (or, nearly):
Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall (2016)
Luisge Martin’s The Same City (2013; Trans. Tomasz Dukanvich)
Lydia Perović’s All that Sang (2016)

Coming-of-age:
Ann K.Y. Choi’s Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety (2016)
Melanie Mah’s The Sweetest One (2016)
Louise Meriwether’s Daddy was a Number Runner (1970)

Senior Pain Tree

Cormorant Books, 2016

Short Stories:
Cherie Dimaline’s A Gentle Habit (2015)
Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks (1933)
Olive Senior’s The Pain Tree (2016)

Non-Fiction:
Norman Doidge’s The Brain’s Way of Healing (2015)
Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (2015)
Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s Honouring the Truth Reconciling for the Future (2015)

Reading Projects:

Finally my marker moved steadily through Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (1988), Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe (1990), Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005)Leslie Marmon Silko’s Gardens in the Dunes,(1999), and Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers (1987); I’d made multiple attempts but gotten stuck in them previously. (There are a few others in this category which I hope to read in 2017.)

I also finished some series which have been underway a long time (including Chinua Achebe’s African Trilogy (finished the second and third), E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (last of his novels), Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Western Trilogy (first of three), Antonia White’s Clara series (volumes three and four), the remaining Gabrielle Roy books, and L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories. And I continued with other long series with an aim to completing them, and tried to complete some new ones (like Susan Philpott‘s and Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes and the Giant Days graphic novels) instead of simply reading the first and declaring “someday” for the remainder. Either I finished, or brought up to date, sixteen series, and I’ve read towards twelve others.

Many of my reading projects feel like they belong to an earlier reading-me, but I began to revisit some of them in earnest, to see if I wanted to continue, and that brought some animal stories onto my stacks, including James Oliver Curwood’s The Grizzly King (1916) John and Jean George’s Meph the Pet Skunk (1952) Mary O’Hara’s Thunderhead (1943). This year I’m planning to read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling, and the last in Mary O’Hara’s series (Green Grass of Wyoming), among others.

This isn’t even one of my organized reading projects, more a collection of books and intentions. Out of the reading lists I’ve been keeping, there are four projects which I didn’t even touch last year. It could be that they just aren’t as satisfying as more recent discoveries, but it could be that I have started more projects in my mind since then, which I’ve not written down. The lists which I did make progress on were the Giller Prize longlist reading, the Toronto Book Award reading, with more than five books read for each during the year, and the quarterly short story project continued strong (the winter 2016 edition was here).

Next, talk of 2017. Because it seems to have arrived. And not just on the calendar, but on my bookshelves. At last.

Have you read any of these? Were you pleased with your reading last year?

Is there anything you’re looking to change in this reading year?

Quarterly Stories: Three Collections

Simpson Hey Yeah Right Get a LifeIn Susan Hill’s Howard’s End Is on the Landing, she quotes a friend who says “We read Margaret Drabble to feel the zeitgeist, our daughters read Helen Simpson.”

(Their daughters’ daughters might be reading Janine Alyson Young or Alex Leslie or Rivka Galchen or Eufemia Fantetti.)

In the first story in Hey Yeah Right Get a Life (2000), “Lentils and Lilies”, Jade is revising for her A levels, reading Wordsworth and Coleridge. (This collection is sometimes titled Getting a Life; Jade believes she is on the cusp of doing so, but most of the stories are centred on women who are old enough to have a life, but who are surprised to find themselves living the one they have.)

Jade’s in a T-shirt and on her way to an interview at the local garden centre, but she’s quoting Romantic poets: somehow, in the hands of Helen Simpson, it works. (There is another satisfying story about attending the opera which uses a similar parallel structure, though with an older heroine.)

Along the way, Jade  has an encounter which drives the story outwardly. But the heart of the story is about an inward realization and shift. (This is true of the majority of the collection’s stories, which are more often about the juices in which one is stewed than the act of making the juice.)

“She sensed babies breathing in cots in upstairs room, and solitary women becalmed somewhere downstairs, chopping fruit or on the telephone organising some toddler tea. It was really suburban purdah round here. They were like battery hens, weren’t they, rows of identical hutches, so neat and tidy and narrow-minded. Imagine staying in all day, stewing in your own juices. Weren’t they bored out of their skulls? It was beyond her comprehension.”

The stories in the collection share a focus on female narrators (although at least one allows the concentration to wander across the table as a man and his wife are out for dinner), and characters do reappear (Jane is a babysitter in another story, in which the focus is on the mother, for instance), which will please those readers more likely to pick up a novel than a collection of stories.

It was her first collection, Dear George, which won my reader’s heart, but her third collection is just as good.

Contents: Lentils and Lilies, Cafe Society, Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, Millennium Blues, Burns and the Bankers, Opera, Cheers, Wurstigkeit, Hurrah for the Hols

Hughes Ways of White FolksLike Helen Simpson’s stories, Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks concentrates on the lives of ordinary people. Sometimes on isolated moments, as with “Passing”, which is also the shortest in the collection, in which a young man addresses his mother on paper, following an encounter in which his acknowledgment of her would have put his cover at risk.

“Since I’ve made up my mind to live in the white world, and have found my place in it (a good place), why think about race anymore? I’m glad I don’t have to, I know that much.”

Published in 1933, the world in which these characters live is starkly drawn, with lines — both immediately visible and simply understood — to clearly demarcate territory.

The characters in Hughes’ stories are most often dancing across those lines, their momentum creating the tension which makes the stories both interesting and relevant, even decades after they were first published.

For instance, Oceola in “The Blues I’m Playing” spends a considerable amount of time in Paris and other centres in which her musical talent is given an opportunity to shine (after she gains the support of a white benefactor). But eventually she returns to Harlem. “I’ve been away from my own people so long,” said the girl, “I want to live right in the middle of them again.” That is not uncomplicated.

In “Poor Little Black Fellow”, Arnie spends most of his time on the other side of the line, but as he grows older, expectations and rights and privleges change. “To tell the truth, everybody had got so used to Arnie that nobody really thought of him as a Negro – until he put on long trousers and went to high school. Now they noticed that he was truly very black. And his voice suddenly became deep and mannish, even before the white boys in Arnie’s class talked in the cracks and squeaks of coming manhood.”

In “Father and Son”, the history of their liaison, like that of so many between Negro women and white men in the South, began without love, at least on his part. For a long while its motif was lust – whose sweeter name, perhaps, is passion.”

Ordinary and complicated stories.

Contents: Cora Unashamed, Slave on the Block, Home, Passing, A Good Job Gone, Rejuvenation Through Joy, The Blues I’m Playing, Red-Headed Baby, Poor Little Black Fellow, Little Dog, Berry, Mother and Child, One Christmas Eve, Father and Son

Roy Garden in the WindGabrielle Roy’s Garden in the Wind (1975) is also preoccupied with capturing the extraordinary moments of everyday life on the page.

Any tension in the stories proceeds from the ordinary: “My mother was expecting something or other. She kept going to the door, drawing back from the windowpane the white curtain hemmed in red linen and staring long and vaguely out at the drenched countryside. Suddenly she gave a start, one hand going up to her forehead.” (“A Tramp at the Door”)

The tramp is a distant cousin. Or, is he. The question remains unanswered through much of the story, which raises matters of belonging and home, family and community, heart and hearth.

And, just as the tramp is a visitor, readers can take a seat at the table as well, listen to the tales which he tells (and receives), offering insight into the experiences of settlers and farmers.

As with all of her works, from her debut The Tin Flute to the stories in The Road to Altamont, landscape plays a vitally important role in these stories, be it a street in Montreal or a string of hills.

“And in fact that’s about all there was to it: a horizon so distant, so lonely, so poignant, that your heart was gripped by it again and again.
Luckily, a chain of little hills far to the right put a stop on that one side to the flight of the landscape.” (“Where Will You Go, Sam Lee Wong?”)

A paternalistic tone permeates this story; it is clear that the author is sympathetic to Sam Lee Wong’s situation, and she acknowledges that interventions to assist with settlement fall into ruts and repeat unhelpful patterns, but there is a sense that this story is the story of every Chinese immigrant and that he cannot tell it himself (just as another marginalized character cannot make himself understood on the streets of the town).

Certainly Roy was no stranger to the struggle to adjust to a new environment and community, leaving Quebec for life in an insular Prairie town.  She captures some of these difficulities poignantly and realistically. And, yet, Sam Lee Wong faces challenges that Roy did not. “At that time there was a very cruel immigration law regulating the entry of Chinese immigrants into Canada. Men – a few thousand of them a year – were admitted, but no women, no children. Later the law was made more humane.” More humane, perhaps. Still, unjust.

Quite likely this story raised important questions for a number of readers some decades ago, but contemporary readers will long to hear Sam Lee Wong’s voice speak directly to them.

Contents: A Tramp at the Door, Where Will You Go, Sam Lee Wong?, Hoodoo Valley, A Garden at the Edge of the World

Have you read any of these? Are there any story collections in your stack? Are you planning to read any this reading year?

The Promise Falls Trilogy

Promise Falls has a history. You might not think so, but it matters.

barclay-broken-promise“Are we too insignificant up here: A couple of hours away from New York? Is that what we’re foolish enough to think? Let me tell you something, my friend. You want to strike fear into the hearts of Americans? Then go to the heart of America. The big  cities are the obvious targets. But why not Promise Falls? Why not….” [Far From True (2016)]

And what are things like in the heart of America? In Linwood Barclay’s trilogy?

‘This is a town that’s living in fear. This is a town where people are afraid to leave their doors unlocked even when they’re home, in the middle of the day. There is, and I think some of you may snicker when I say this, but there’s an evil in this town. Something’s very wrong.’ [Far From True (2016)]

The source of this fear is complex. It’s not a single instance of violence. But there are significant markers which still impact some Promise Falls’ residents, even years later.

“It ws a long time ago. Seven, eight years? The Langley murders. Father, mother, son, all killed in their home one night. Derek and his parents lived next door, and for a period of a day or two, Derek was a prime suspect. The real killer was found and Derek completely exonerated, but it had to be a scarring experience.” [Broken Promise (2015)]

At the heart of the trilogy is the murder of a young woman named Olivia Fisher.

“You had your whole life ahead of you. Just finishing up school, ready to fly on your own. Whoever did this to you, he didn’t just take you away from me. He killed your mother, too. It just took longer where she was concerned. It was a broken heart that caused her cancer. I know it. And I guess, if a broken heart can kill ya, he’ll get me eventually, too. Of course, it wasn’t just him that broke my heart. There’s plenty of blame to go around.”

Each of the trilogy’s three volumes has one single first-person perspective and a wide range of third-person narratives; each man has a degree of proximity to a suspenseful situation which dominates that respective volume.

barclay-far-from-true“’Really?’ I might have sounded surprised, but I wasn’t. Grieving families often left the rooms of those they’d lost untouched. It was too painful to go in there. Cleaning out a bedroom was a final acknowledgment of what had happened. And even if the bedroom could be used by another family member, who wanted to be the relative that moved into it.”

But even though there are major crimes and betrayals, what fuels the trilogy is the quieter, everyday kind of violation.

“Jan had never been who she claimed to be, and it made everything I’d once felt for her false in retrospect.” [Broken Promise (2015)]

The ordinary noises we hear in the night, from childhood through adulthood.

“The cover page features a drawing of a little girl walking through a forest at night. It was titled ‘ Noises in the Night by Crystal Brighton’.
There was a yellow sticker attached that read: ‘NOT a comic book.’
I looked back at the house, to a second-floor window, presumably Crystal’s bedroom. She was silhouetted against the light, watching me.”

So while Promise Falls is the setting for the trilogy – and the town does hold its shape just as well as the towns in Stephen King’s novels – the emotional landscape is just as important.

Ultimately the success of the novel lies with its characters. One notable quality – in a genre known for its stereotypes – is the credibililty of the wide range of characters (although the small town is fairly – but not entirely – homogeneous in terms of ethnicity). In particular, the female characters are sketched fully and broadly, a quality which has been absent in too many thrillers.

barclay-twenty-threeRelated to this is the author’s skill in balancing acuity with ambiguity. He knows just when to drop into neutral pronoun usage, to allow readers to run with their own assumptions and prejudices, without sacrificing a consistent attention-to-detail which rewards careful readers.

Halfway through the final volume of the trilogy, I began to worry that there was no way to successfully resolve the many threads that appeared to be unravelling, whipping around in the whirlwind of developments as the suspense increases.

Although I’ve read and enjoyed one other Linwood Barclay novel, that wasn’t enough to settle my nerves; I resolved that I could be a little disappointed and still acknowledge the strengths I’d observed in the three works…but I wasn’t disappointed at all.

“So I was back where I’d started.
There were other issues with the Fisher crime.
The witnesses. Or, at least, the potential witnesses. There’d been so many of them. Twenty-two, according to Rhonda Finderman’s notes.
Twenty-two people who heard Olivia Fisher’s screams.
And did nothing.”

Linwood Barclay can hold a whole lot of voices in his head – more than twenty-three if one counts supporting characters who recur and hold their own on the page – and there was not a drop of disappointment.

This trilogy has shifted me from being a Linwood Barclay reader to being a Linwood Barclay fan.

Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016): Third Variation

This is the third of three posts spiralling around the notes made while reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Each with ten parts. Thirty segments. As though my post is the aria and the thirty segments are the variations. In recognition of the importance which Bach’s Goldberg Variations holds in relationship to the novel.

Although Madeleine Thien has expressed this idea in several interviews, the “Canadian Notes and Queries” piece, an interview conducted by Brad de Roo, is particularly striking.

Here, she observes the relationship between books and writers and readers: “I think every book about China (or any place, really) reveals both China and the writer. So much of narrative is about distance, intimacy, who we think we’re speaking to (or not speaking to), how we imagine ourselves in relation to another.”

Madeleine Thien interviewed by Brad de Roo

Asked whether a novel is like a conversation, she replies: “Not every novel will work for every person, of course, but sometimes there’s a real chemistry. As a reader, I often feel I’m meeting another mind, and it’s exciting.”

Here are some of the points where the novel met my reader’s mind most memorably. On the question of books and writing, records and stories.

1

“’You understand, don’t you?” she said. ‘The things we never say aloud and so they end up here, in diaries and notebooks, in private places. By the time we discover them, it’s too late.’ Ai-ming was holding a notebook tightly. I recognized it at once: it was tall but thin, the shape of a miniature door, with a loose binding of cotton thread. The Book of Records.”

2

“Surely another story could serve the same purpose, and lift her out of her solitude. She lost herself in travel books about Paris and New York, imagining a journey that would bring her to the far west.”

3

thien-do-not-say-we-have-nothing“After all, the Book of Records was just a distraction from the realities of modern life. It was only a book, so why couldn’t she let it go? She opened her trunk and saw objects from her past, a vanished time and a former self.”

4

“The Professor read aloud from the most battered book Sparrow had ever seen. The book turned out to be a play….”

5

“How the city mesmerized me. Shanghai seemed, like a library or even a single book, to hold a universe within itself.”

6

“I know that throughout my life I have struggled to forgive my father. Now, as I get older, I wish most of all that he had been able to find a way to forgive himself. In the end, I believe these pages and the Book of Records return to the persistence of this desire: to know the times in which we are alive. To keep the record that must be kept and also, finally, to let it go. That’s what I would tell my father. To have faith that, one day, someone else will keep the record.”

7

“It is a simple thing to write a book. Simpler, too, when the book already exists, and has been passed from person to person, in different versions, permutations and variations. No one person can tell a story this large, and there are, of course, missing chapters in my own Book of Records.”

8

“A story is a shifting creature, an eternal mirror that catches our lives at unexpected angles.”

9

“Sometimes Ai-ming cried for no reason, even when the story was a happy one. Sometimes, when the story was sad, she felt nothing, not even the beating of her own heart.”

10

“It was just as Wen the Dreamer said: she could take the names of the dead and hide them, one by one, in the Book of Records, alongside May Fourth and Da-wei. She would populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts.”

Books like Do Not Say We Have Nothing do live on. As dangerous as a revolutionary.

Note: The first and second variations appeared here and here.

Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016): Second Variation

This is the second of three posts spiralling around the notes made while reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Each with ten parts. Thirty segments. As though my post is the aria and the thirty segments are the variations. In recognition of the importance which Bach’s Goldberg Variations holds in relationship to the novel.

Although Madeleine Thien has expressed this idea in several interviews, the “Canadian Notes and Queries” piece, an interview conducted by Brad de Roo, is particularly striking.

Here, she comments on the state of quiet: “The qu is sometimes not having the words, or having the words taken from you, for instance in a political climate when words begin to mean their opposite. I think listening is a state of being. You have to listen to know when you can add your voice to the fabric of sound and be heard.”

Madeleine Thien interviewed by Brad de Roo

Asked whether a novel is like a conversation, she replies: “Not every novel will work for every person, of course, but sometimes there’s a real chemistry. As a reader, I often feel I’m meeting another mind, and it’s exciting.”

Here are some of the points where the novel met my reader’s mind most memorably. On the question of language and words. Sometimes an overt mingling with the idea of expression. Sometimes the expression itself.

1

“Kai still said nothing. He reminded her of a cat with one paw raised, about to touch the ground, momentarily confused.”

2

“Would I still be the same person if I woke up in a different language and another existence?”

3

thien-do-not-say-we-have-nothing“She was as graceful and beautiful as a written word, but any word could be so easily erased.”

4

“What mattered was the here and now and not the life before, what mattered were the changeable things of today and tomorrow and not the ever, infinitely, unbearably unchanging yesterday.”

5

“Across the courtyard, I saw a miserable Christmas tree. It looked like someone had tried to strangle it with tinsel.”

6

“Her long braid touched the small of her back, a pressure like her mother’s hand guiding her through the invisible, ever-watching crowds.”

7

There were days in my life, he thought, that I passed over as though they were nothing and there are moments, seconds, when everything comes into focus.”

8

“How could a lie continue so long, and work its way into everything they touched?”

9

“It must have rained not long ago. The air felt renewed, the dawn light was the colour of pearls, unreal against the pavement.”

10

“Mathematics has taught me that a small thing can become a large thing very quickly, and also that a small thing never entirely disappears. Or, to put it another way, dividing by zero equals infinity: you can take nothing out of something an infinite number of times.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing might be a small book – one of a couple hundred in my stacks in last year’s reading – but it became a large thing very quickly.

Note: The first variation appeared here. The third variation will appear tomorrow.

Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016): First Variation

This will be the first of three posts spiralling around notes made while reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

Each with ten parts. Thirty segments. As though my post is the aria and the thirty segments are the variations.

In recognition of the importance which Bach’s Goldberg Variations holds in relationship to the novel.

Although Madeleine Thien has expressed this idea in several interviews, the “Canadian Notes and Queries” piece, an interview conducted by Brad de Roo, is particularly striking.

“Bach’s Goldberg Variations was key. It taught me a great deal about counterpoint and structure and ambiguity and range. And Glenn Gould’s recordings of this music taught me about expression, time, desire.”

Madeleine Thien interviewed by Brad de Roo

Asked whether a novel is like a conversation, she replies: “Not every novel will work for every person, of course, but sometimes there’s a real chemistry. As a reader, I often feel I’m meeting another mind, and it’s exciting.”

Here are some of the points where the novel met my reader’s mind most memorably. On the question of music and silence.

1

“It was a time of chaos, of bombs and floods, when love songs streamed from the radios and wept down the streets. Music sustained weddings, births, rituals, work, marching, boredom, confrontation and death; music and stories, even in times like these, were a refuge, a passport, everywhere.”

2

“Was this what music was, was it time itself containing fractions of seconds, minutes, hours, and all the ages, all the generations? What was chronology and how did she fit into it? How had her father and mother escaped from time, and how could they ever come back?”

3

thien-do-not-say-we-have-nothing“She said, “The only life that matters is in your mind. The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book. Silence, too, is a kind of music. Silence will last.” In the west, in the dry wind of the Gansu Desert, Big Mother and Swirl had finally recovered Wen the Dreamer. He stared at the illusion before him and wept.”

4

“In jianpu notation, zero indicated a caesura, a pause or rest of indeterminate length. Did time that went uncounted, unrecorded, still qualify as time? If zero was both everything and nothing, did an empty life have exactly the same weight as a full life?”

5

“Paper flowers jumbled over the ground, paper carnations grew from the trees, though some had fallen and been mashed by the everlasting stream of bicycles. He heard their tinkling bells and also a music in his head, shaken loose, the Twelfth Goldberg Variation, two voices engaged in a slightly out-of-breath canon, like a knot that never got tied. He could still write music. The thought jolted him.”

6

“He had lived only half a life. Without intending to, he had silenced Zhuli. He remembered how much of himself he had poured into that Symphony No. 3. He could have left the papers in the trusses of the roof, he could have hidden them with the Book of Records. Why had he not done so? Why had he destroyed them with his own hands?”

7

“If Gould had been prevented from playing the piano for twenty years, what other form might his music have taken?”

8

“Many lives and many selves might exist, but that doesn’t render each variation false. I don’t believe so. If he were still alive, that is what I would tell him.”

9

“Noise from the ongoing demonstrations filled the room. Radio Beijing didn’t broadcast music anymore, instead the loudspeakers kept repeating the fact of martial law. He regretted all the radios he had ever built.”

10

“He wanted to find some way to cut all the wires, to hush all the voices, to broadcast stillness, quiet, on this city that was coming unmoored.”

More variations tomorrow….

Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future (2015)

The Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is essential reading.

TRC, 2015

TRC, 2015

As a component of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the TRC’s “mandate is to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian Residential Schools (IRS).”

The report is intended “to document the truth of survivors, families, communities and anyone personally affected by the IRS experience”, including “First Nations, Inuit and Métis former Indian Residential School students, their families, communities, the Churches, former school employees, Government and other Canadians”.

The summary document is available in full online (each part available in PDF here) or in a bound version. Volunteers have also organized to read the document aloud to ensure that those who cannot read the document have access.

It’s that important that these survivors’ accounts be witnessed. As one (non-aboriginal) listener describes it: “By listening to your story, my story can change. By listening to your story I can change.”

These are hard stories to hear. The definitions of the different kind of genocide are brought into focus immediately with even short excerpts from the survivors’ statements.

Like Victoria McIntosh’s description of  her experiences at the Fort Alexander, MB residential school, which taught her not to trust. “You learn not to cry anymore. You just get harder. And yeah, you learn to shut down.”

And the facts included are significant too, bringing another undeniable layer to the surface. For instance, in 1966, residential schools in Saskatchewan spent $694-$1193 per year and per student, whereas comparable child-welfare institutions in Canada spent $3300-$9855 per year and per child, and comparable residential care in the United States had a price-tag of $4500-$14059 per year and per child.

Many of these experiences have been recently explored in fiction and non-fiction, even graphic novels. From the well-known works of Richard Wagamese (particularly Indian Horse) and Joseph Boyden (Wenjack) to the classic tale Beatrice Culleton’s In Search of April Raintree (a legacy story, with more direct commentary on the Sixty’s Scoop flavour of genocide than direct commentary on the IRS system) to the graphic novels by David Alexander Robertson.

Even so, there are important elements which are not explored substantially elsewhere, which this volume brings into the light. For instance, an extension of the residential school system’s mandate was its officials’ impact on many aboriginal people’s marriages even after students had managed to survive the system.

Because government officials believed that a marriage to someone outside residential school system would encourage a now “civilized” student to revert to “uncivilized” ways, they made marriage part of the process of leaving the residential school system to further support an assimilationist policy.

Such marriages were not only encouraged but arranged, well into into the 1930s, and officials made efforts to block “unsuitable” marriages as well.

(Elsewhere in the document, readers are reminded that it is important to make a distinction between the process of becoming civilized and the price paid for being colonized.)

This like many other facts could have been lost along the way. Between 1936 and 1944, there were at least 200,000 Indian Affairs files destroyed. This practice must have been common enough to have been preserved in the remaining records.

Another element which is not often represented in other works about the experiences of residential school survivors is the rebellion which occurred at the community level.

Apparently it was not uncommon for parents of an entire community or region to refuse to return their children to school when the abhorent conditions were shared with their elders (children who dared to speak, adults to dared to believe and to risk rebelling).

For example, there were 75 students from the Blood Reserve in Alberta who were held back by family members, kept at home, kept from returning to the school. In other instance, in the 1960s, a group of Edmonton students blocked entry to a school dormitory at night to protect the residents therein from abuse.

Also not often discussed were other voices of dissent, which included members of staff who dared to speak out against policies and procedures. Although originally (the IRS system began in the 19th century – there is a lengthy historical study included in the report) the staff was primarily religious and governmental in nature, as generations passed, many graduates chose to remain at the schools. By 1994, out of 360 staff members working in Saskatchewan schools, 220 were of aboriginal ancestry.

Even early on, however, there were members of the staff who did not engage in the abusive and exploitative practices typical of the system. Some members not only eschewed the operating principles, but they even spoke up for the rights of the aboriginals. For instance, Hugh McKay (superintendent of a Presbyterian missionary) criticized the federal government for not having implemented its Treaty promises and for failing to alleviate the hunger crisis on the Prairies. And William Duncan (an Anglican missionary in Metlakatla British Columbia) advised the Tsimshian how to advance their arguments in favour of aboriginal title.

These incidents appear uncommon; in contrast, one of the document’s appendices includes a list of the staff members who were charged with criminal offences for some of the actions they committed against students in the schools, with a summary of each sentencing.

Nonetheless, recognising and recording this kind of rebellious behaviour would not have served the purposes of the IRS system, so it seems possible that there may have been other instances of rebellion – both without and within the aboriginal communities – which have been lost to the purging of files.

This discovery process is important. Even a single reader can act as a witness.bCurious? You can read it for yourself here.

Or, perhaps you’ve already read it? Or have it on your TBR?

Zadie Smith’s Swing Time (2016)

In the first musical number in the classic RKO comedy film “Swing Time”, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance with grace and finesse; towards the end of the number, they even leap across the fence-like borders which circle the floor.

zadie-smith-swing-time

Hamish Hamilton – PRH, 2016

Astaire and Rogers barely seem to touch the floor, but in Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, even the dancing characters spend more time stumbling across barriers than cascading across them, even tripping across the everyday.

Zadie Smith offers readers the necessary details to add an additional dimension to their reading of the novel, so we needn’t be familiar with the film.

Swing Time functions adequately as a story of female friendship and a mother-daughter tale even without giving the film a second glance.

But taking it in context, with the film cast as a backdrop like a childhood memory, the novel becomes brilliantly complex, each subplot multi-dimensional.

Readers who are willing to take a closer look will be rewarded substantially.

“Look closer at that Cotton Club, she said, there is the Harlem Renaissance. Look: here are Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. Look closer at Gone with the Wind: here is the N.A.A.C.P. But at the time my mother’s political and literary ideas did not interest me as much as arms and legs, as rhythm and song, as the red silk of Mammy’s underskirt or the unhinged pitch of Prissy’s voice.”

The narrator’s mother urges her daughter to take a closer look, but she remains disinterested. Nor has the narrator ever visited her mother’s family home in St. Catherine, Jamaica.

But perhaps ‘never’ and ‘endless’ are not so far removed as they might seem. “For me the film had no beginning or end, and this was not an unpleasant sensation, just a mysterious one, as if time itself had expanded to make space for this infinite parade of tribes.”

Despite all the re-viewings of “Swing Time” however, the narrator’s memory of the film is incomplete. And as often as she and her friend Tracey watch these dance numbers, they do not interpret them the same way either.

Tracey, for instance, is quite offended by the narrator’s fondness of the video “Stormy Weather”, which Tracey feels unfairly and unkindly excludes white people. “We wouldn’t like that, would we?” Tracey demands. And our narrator is left “going over and over this curious lecture in my mind, wondering what she could have meant by the word ‘we’.” Because of course all of the other videos which the girls watch could be described as having unfairly and unkindly excluded black people. Yet, Tracey dreams of being Ginger Rogers, even though she’s clearly on the other side of the colour line.

Perhaps Tracey imagines another version of herself who might be as successful, and as included, as worthy of belonging, as Ginger Rogers. A shadow version perhaps. Just as the narrator remarks upon the three shadowed figures in the “Bojangles of Harlem” number (a tribute/mockery performed in blackface).

Readers are urged from the novel’s opening pages to look out for shadows. “I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance – the opposite. A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

The narrator’s experience of herself as a kind of shadow is echoed in her experience working for a white dancer who seems to have achieved the kind of success that her friend Tracey dreamed of having for herself. “But why should she get to take everything, have everything, do everything, be everyone, in all places, at all times?”

This sense of being excluded is explored in other aspects of the story too (notably when the narrator travels to Africa, for work).

“At this Lamin laughed, heavily sarcastic, and Hawa’s cousin replied sharply to Lamin in Wolof – or perhaps it was Mandinka – and Lamin back to Musa, and back again, while I stood there, smiling the awkward idiot grimace of the untranslated.

And of course one cannot discuss exclusion without considering powerlessness

“Did all friendships – all relations – involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power? Did it extend to peoples and nations or was it a thing that happened only between individuals? What did my father give my mother – and vice versa? What did Mr. Booth and I give each other? What did I give Tracey? What did Tracey give me?”

And, perhaps more to the point, the nature of power and control.  “There can’t be no understanding between you and me any more! You’re part of a different system now. People like you think you can control everything.”

The illusiveness of power. The quiet nagging of being unfairly judged. “The power she has over me is the same as it has always been, judgment, and it goes beyond words.”

Zadie Smith’s Swing Time is an invitation to look closer. To peer at the barriers and decipher a means of crossing or dismantling or settling alongside.

“And so we got something like the truth, quite like it, but not exactly.”

Is this one on your TBR? Have you read Zadie Smith before?

Aravind Adiga’s Selection Day (2017)

Mumbai remains an important character in Aravind Adiga’s fiction, but the main character in Selection Day is something else: cricket.

Scribner -S&S, 2016

Scribner -S&S, 2016

In fact, in the “Glossary of Cricket Terms” in the novel, he writes: “India: A country said to have two real religions – cinema and cricket.”

Not to worry if you don’t know a thing about cricket because the glossary appears at the back of the book.

The story is accessible without any specialized knowledge: “…cricket, two spectacularly talented slumboys, what could go wrong?”

Apparently it was inevitable (the novel about cricket, not what could go wrong with two talented slumboys).

In an interview with Economic Times conducted by Charmy Harikrishnan (September 2, 2106, here), the author exclaims: “How can you not write about cricket in India today? It’s colossal, it’s everywhere.”

But Aravind Adiga did not determine to write a predictable novel on the subject. “Like the master-servant relationship in India that I explored in The White Tiger, cricket is so big that it’s almost invisible. We don’t question or interrogate cricket enough in this country.”

He intends to take a closer look. Nothing is as simple as it seems, and he is a big proponent of reexamining, rethinking and relearning.

“This was a truth about life he had never forgotten, even after he had left the village and come by train to the big city. Only recently, Ramnath, his neighbor in the slum, observing that poor Muslims were becoming revolutionaries in Egypt and Syria and kicking out their governments and presidents, had whispered: ‘Maybe the same thing will happen in India, eh?’ Mohan Kumar had smirked. ‘Here, we can’t even see our chains.’”

Even though this is a novel about cricket, a coming-of-age novel, a story about the bonds between fathers and sons and brothers, it is – perhaps above all – a novel about living between desires (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively).

“Radha could see there was no hope for his brother, who seemed to desire men at one moment and women at another, and lived in between his two desires, like a hunted animal – an animal which had finally run to their father for protection.”

For, in theory, sport is rooted in the simplest of principles. No matter where the game is played.

“A brick wall stands in Bowral, New South Wales. Once upon a time, a boy appeared before the wall and threw a tennis ball at it. It bounced back; so he hit it with his wooden bat. He kept on doing this and kept on doing this until he became Sir Donald Bradman, the world’s greatest batsman.”

So many larger questions circle around a story about games: failure and excellence, competition and rivalry, winning and losing, rules and expectations. And everything between. “Every man must martyr himself to something: but we have martyred ourselves to this mediocrity.”

As readers will expect – if familiar with his earlier works, which also cast a light on dark corners – there are many humourous moments in the story.

“Are you thinking of shaving? I can see in our eyes that you are thinking of shaving.”
“No, Appa.”
“A boy mustn’t shave until he’s…”
“Twenty-one.”
“Why must a boy not shave till he’s….?”
“Hormones.”
“What are not good for….”
“Cricketers.”

Dialogue is realistic, scenes are sketched vividly, characters are bold and dramatic: the functionality of a screenplay melds with the artistry of literary phrasing and shaping.

But perhaps Selection Day is not what some readers would expect from an Indian novel.

“Oh, I do read Indian novels sometimes. But you know, Ms. Rupinder, what we Indians want in literature, at least the kind written in English, is not literature at all, but flattery. We want to see ourselves depicted as soulful, sensitive, profound, valorous, wounded, tolerant, and funny beings. All that Jhumpa Lahiri stuff. But the truth is, we are absolutely nothing of that kind. What are we, then, Ms. Rupinder? We are animals of the jungle, who will eat our neighbor’s children in five minutes, and our own in ten. Keep this in mind before you do any business in this country.”

Maybe readers looking for all “that Jhumpa Lahiri” stuff might not appreciate the “animals of the jungle” slant, but surely the storytellers’ bookshelf has room for both kinds of stories.

“Unlearning is the most important thing you have to do when writing about anything in India because so much absolutely useless information is dumped on us from birth. Whether it is regional prejudices — south Indians do this, north Indians do that — or political prejudices, or for that matter worthless notions about sports, we are taught from childhood to accept stereotypes over the truth.” (Economic Times interview, also cited above)

Whether or not it is a true story, and whether or not there is a win, Selection Day plays out as a rich and satisfying story.

In My Reading Log, December 2016

Once again, my idea of reading more non-fiction this year didn’t materialize. During Non-Fiction November, so many people were actually reading books that I have been meaning to read but I picked up a novel or collection instead. Nonetheless, I’ve squeezed in a few.

jula-shaw-memory-illusionJulia Shaw’s The Memory Illusion (2016)

Memory is plagued by “biological flaws, perceptual errors, contamination, attentional biases, overconfidence and confabulation” but The Memory Illusion helps us to gain an understanding of “the circus that is our perceived reality”.

Although the cover seems to suggest a volume that tends towards self-help, Dr. Julia Shaw is a scientist; although quick to excuse readers who eschew indepth explorations, she isn’t afraid to go into detail. (She explicitly offers readers a pass on the chapter about brain biology, but it is both fascinating and accessible for not-so-science-y readers.)

There are also substantial resources in the back of the volume, for those who wish to pursue the subject, but The Memory Illusion is satisfying as a standalone. And even without text-boxes and bullet-point lists, readers can grasp some key ideas to make changes to daily routines if so desired.

For instance, we are reminded that we need to be paying attention to create memories (“sleep is crucial for consolidation and strengthening of those memories”). Also, the brain is not equipped to multi-task (each task takes longer in the end, so keep that in mind as you’re working through – or across – your to-do list).

Readers can also learn to modify our expectations of others: “Emotional memories have no special protected places in our brains – they are just like all other memories. Understanding this can make us more considerate of the memory errors of others, can inform our approach to the investigation of criminal offences, and can help us empathise with survivors of extreme situations.”

And, why? “Rich false memories exist, whether we want them to or not.”

But forget the extreme situations, even in an everyday sense our memories are “hopelessly fragile, impossibly inaccurate”.

We can be fooled by them just as we are surprised by errant first impressions; we not only misjudge, we misremember. Because “our memories can have inbuilt flaws as a result of the ways our perceptions can be fooled – by visual illusions, our level of arousal, and even from having a poor grasp on the seemingly intuitive ability to sense time”. No matter how complex, concepts like ‘flashbulb memories’ and ‘recollection rejection’ are clearly explained.

Usually there is a breakdown of the related elements, which are explained individually as well. For instance, in the segment about memory hacking, the term is defined, as well as the related elements, the pieces of the memory puzzle that can allow false memories to happen (including a lack of scepticism, assumptions about ‘symptoms’, presumptions of guilt, scientific illiteracy, and one’s presumption of certain ‘truths’).

Here we have not only a matter of observations and studies, but some theorizing as well. For instance, readers are introduced to the concept of fuzzy trace theory, which “proposes that memory illusions are possible because each of our experiences is storied as multiple fragments, and these fragments can be recombined in ways that never actually happened”.

Best read in small but regular bursts to absorb the concepts, The Memory Illusion is certainly informative if not memorable (which is all my fault, of course).

forster-aspects-of-the-novelE.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927)

As a series of lectures, E.M. Forster draws appropriately on the works with which his listeners would have been most familiar. And, of course, he has his favourites.

“The final test of a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, and of anything else which we cannot define.”

He loves the Russian novelists, Tolstoy in particular.

“After one has read War and Peace for a bit, great chords begin to sound, and we cannot say exactly what struck them. They do not arise from the story, though Tolstoy is quite as interested in what comes next as Scott, and quite as sincere as Bennett. They do not come from the episodes nor yet from the characters. They come from the immense area of Russia, over which episodes and characters have been scattered, from the sum total or bridges and frozen rivers, forests, roads, gardens, fields, which accumulate grandeur and sonority after we have passed them.”

But above all, he loves fiction. “And that is why novels, even when they are about wicked people, can solace us: they suggest a more comprehensible and thus a more manageable human race, they give us the illusion of perspicacity and of power.”

And he discusses specific aspects of creation in detail. Well-known are his observations about flat and round characters. (“The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat.”) His definitions of story and plot. (“‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.”) And endings. (“Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up.”)

But in Aspects of the Novel there is more to discover: much more detail on each aspect, including some lengthy quotes from the works he’s chosen to explore.

“The characters arrive when evoked, but full of the spirit of mutiny. For they have these numerous parallels with people like ourselves, they try to live their own lives and are consequently often engaged in treason against the main scheme of the book. They ‘run away’, they ‘get out of hand’; they are creations inside a creation, and often inharmonious towards it; if they are given complete freedom they kick the book to pieces, and if they are kept too sternly in check they revenge themselves by dying, and destroy it by intestinal decay.”

Of course there’s always more to discover when one goes to the source, rather than relying on the excerpts most often quoted.

rajiv-surendra-elephants-backyardRajiv Surendra’s Elephants in the Backyard (2016)

One of the highlights of Rajiv Surendra’s memoir is his recounting of his visit to India.

“I was greeted with the wild chaos, disorder, and craziness in which India seemed to function perfectly well. My first major challenge: I had to cross the street. Having just arrived in Pondicherry, the air, thick with moisture and heat, exuded a kind of primeval energy that had a strangely calming effect on me. Even the light seemed different here. I was fueled by a sense of adventure, my feet now planted in a completely new world.”

Previously, he was your typical Scarborough kid. (Which makes him easy to relate to and, for those who know him from “Mean Girls” it’s probably reassuring that he was just a normal kid, before he was famous and all.)

“In sixth grade it was Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. When it was warm enough outdoors, my best friend, a Trinidadian kid named Reshad, would meet me every day after school and we’d set off on our horses (bikes) with swords (plastic) strapped to our backs, traveling the countryside (suburban Scarborough, made up of cookie-cutter-type subdivisions) looking for battles that needed our help (these were completely made-up and usually took place in an obliging park or field).”

He visits India as research (not so much into his own heritage, which might have been another kind of story:; he has decided that the role in the film “Life of Pi” is destined to be his and he seeks to understand the character in more detail.

Having first learned of the role from a camera-man on another set, he is struck by the similiarites between him and Pi, most remarkably that both boys grew up with a zoo nearby. (There are no notable exchanges with tigers here, however.) He pursues the role vigorously.

The replies that he receives from Yann Martel – who makes it clear that he is not part of the production process and has no influence over casting – are interspersed with Rajiv Surendra’s own experiences.

“I too was in a sort of nowhere place with regards to a firm cultural identity. No, I could not confidently say that I was only Canadian. And now, in India, I felt completely unworthy of calling myself Tamil when I couldn’t even speak the language or cross the damn street.”

Because he is so young, this question of identity is the main aspect of the work likely to appeal to readers who are older than he is. And this question of identity does develop even beyond ethnicity. (Spoiler: “Kissing this boy, without thinking at all, broke the spell.”) Readers younger than he might be equally impressed by other stories, like the one about the groundhog who gets inside one of the buildings in the Pioneer Village, where his acting skills are put to use between more glamourous roles.

Is any one of these on your TBR? Which do  you think you’d be most likely to enjoy?

Have you been reading non-fiction this month? Any recommendations?