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!)
In 1944, Mazo de la Roche published The Building of Jalna, nearly twenty years after she began to work with the Whiteoak family on the page. The beginning grew out of the middle, you might say.
Jalna was actually written first, begun in 1925 and published in 1927: the fifth in the sequence of the family chronicle.
On the back of that paperback, Adeline is described as the indomitable grandmother, but in The Building of Jalna she is a young bride.
Even as a young girl, pawing my grandmother’s copies of the novels, I knew you had to have the building of Jalna before you could have a Jalna; now, as an adult, I still agree, but I also want to see the history of the family unfold.
I think that I might know the indomitable grandmother better if I had a glimpse of her as a girl. And of my own grandmother’s copies, The Building of Jalna is the most well-read: so, here I begin.
Straight away, I realise that even though I had anticipated a traditional colonial romance, I was going to discover new layers of appropriation. For even the name ‘Jalna’ was taken from India, the name of the garrison town there where Adeline’s sister lived with her husband. (Later in the book, they explain that adopting the name was a romantic gesture from their perspective.)
In her sister’s home in India, Adeline met Philip, an officer in the Hussars and a descendant of a Warwickshire family, when she was 22 and he 32.
“The intimacy of their companionship never failed to exhilarate him. There was excitement in the thought that he could eventually control her, no matter what her defiance.”
And, so, they married. Because of couse that’s what one does when they meet someone they want to control.
They stay in India only long enough for Adeline to have a child – an unplanned and “unfortunate” event – because Philip quarrels with his colonel and Adeline is tired of the dust, the weakness induced by the climate, the gossip and the “swarming natives”.
Instead they plan to settle in the “New World”, where Philip has an uncle who is stationed as an officer in Quebec. (So many enticing conquered territories from which to choose.)
Adeline isn’t an Englishwoman, but the granddaughter of a marquis, born and raised in County Meath with Dublin the big city in her life. Readers meet her as she emerges from a performance of The Bohemian Girl in London, enraptured, having glimpsed another world.
She is positively enchanted by the experience, and it was “not often one saw a face so arresting as Adeline’s,” husband Philip notes. (And, in turn, she observes that even among so many fine officers, Philip is the most dashing and most noble-looking man.)
Immersed in the overarching narrative of colonial “discovery”, the young couple follow what is now a familiar route, toting an ayah — who was terrified of crossing an ocean but also swept away by love, a “fierce possessive” and “selfish” love for baby Augusta — along with some beautiful pieces of furniture and beautiful carpets.
The ayah is valued, in part, because Adeline doesn’t wish to care for Gussie herself. (“She despised the too maternal woman.” Recall: her pregnancy was an ‘unfortunate’ event. Hardly the typical response for a story in this time.)
But the ayah is not a whole person; even infant Gussie is said to view her as a “slave”, and her illness during travel is viewed as an inconvenience rather than true hardship. (To be fair, in this volume, Gussie isn’t a whole person either; when questioned by a family member who is visiting the family with whom the Whiteoaks are living while Jalna is being built, neither Philip nor Adeline can remember how old Gussie is, and neither cares enough to try to figure it out.)
Along the way, Philip meets Adeline’s family, including Renny Court, her father, who isn’t an absentee landlord but knows every man, woman and child on his estate. (Too much steeplechasing for Philip’s liking, though: the visit is cut short. There’s a lot of judgment from one privileged person to another.)
During the journey, some steerage passengers learn that one of the gentleman travellers is an absentee landlord, whose mismanagement has resulted in loss and even death; Philip is embarrassed to see that Adeline joins the conflict, affronted by the irresponsible behaviour of a countryman.
In some ways, as in this instance, Adeline is a surprising heroine, capable of striking a blow or grasping a wheel out-of-turn. And she is sympathetic in situations when she has something to offer which someone else lacks (from coins to influence, from construction materials to a place to sleep). But she has also fully embraced the social hierarchy, so she is incapable of seeing those who occupy another rung of the ladder as full human beings.
Philip has an even more overt air of entitlement, as evidenced by the scene in which he has been left to care for Gussie unexpectedly and, instead, he follows the corridors into the ship’s steerage and hands Gussie to a Scottish mother of five, where he “commanded” her to care for his daughter.
But — he pays the poor woman. So, you see, he is not assuming that she is either willing or able to do the work for free, although he is assuming that she will want to do so. (And even though Mazo de la Roche does not slip into as many sloppy and short-handed racist and classist descriptions as some of her contemporaries, the stories remain rooted in the colonial gaze, so wordlessly the woman does care for Gussie, and so much so that she neglects her own children in the process, as though Gussie was the kind of child she had always dreamed of having.)
Mostly the “New World” is viewed in positive terms by the characters, with a hint of trepidation but mostly promise. It is acknowledged that other people are already inhabiting the land, though only in a cursory way.
One family member makes a joke about being able to offer a trade to the Indian Chief who will offer the Pipe of Peace (the presumption being that their arrival will be heralded and valued and rewarded).
But the natives are no joking matter for Patsy O’Flynn, the coachman who accompanies them to the New World; he thinks of them in the same breath as the wild animals who will also be prowling along the edges of the settlements in this uncivilised country (and when she becomes ill, Adeline, too, has feverish dreams of terror of “Red Indians”).
During the construction process, a neighbouring settler reinforces the idea that natives are trustworthy (perhaps an uncommon view amongst the privileged colonizers) but “half-breeds” are thieves. Adeline and Philip’s neighbour, Wilmott, recognizes value in unlikely places, however, and generously supports efforts toward civilization (financially and morally) when any individual shows potential. His intentions are good, but it’s patronizing all the same.
Adeline is a strong-willed woman, spirited and compassionate. There are many elements of her personality that I admire. (And her stubborn fondness for Wilmott – which veers sharply towards flirtation on occasion – is intriguing.)
Part of me thinks that we could be friends. Especially when I imagine her on the deck of the Alanna, travelling to the New World, wrapped in rugs so she can read the “much-discussed Pendennis”. (Not that I’m a huge Thackeray fan, but it’s not like I could’ve been reading Margaret Atwood or Alice Walker on deck back then.)
But then I realise that I wouldn’t even have been allowed on the deck, and I wouldn’t have had any time for reading. There is no place for me in this narrative, and there would have been no place for my grandmother either, even though there are soft crescent shapes in the back cover where her hands must have gripped as she read and reread.
There is something seductive about the story all the same. Or, perhaps, only about the idea of reading oneself backwards in time by falling into an ancestor’s reading.
Have you read from a grandparent’s bookshelves? Either as a child or as an adult? What did you discover there?
I laid in with this story, while on a brief holiday in a small town outside Toronto. Outside, the sound of other people’s everyday morning scurried past, but I was not required to be anywhere in particular that day.
Salzburg Austria, Prison overlooking town [Piotr Bozyk, Click for credit]
This open-ended kind of feeling suited the story, even though it was more springlike than autumnal outside my window, which overlooked the street.
Nonetheless, this sense of suspension, the day readying to hold more exploring and experimenting than workaday life usually allows, created a space for me to settle next to Cissy, who has just disembarked in Salzburg, to meet her husband.
They were married when she was 18 and now she is 19, a wartime bride, excited but discomfited by the idea of being a wife.
Parts of this discovery seem quite lovely: she almost cries when she imagines how she must look, meeting her husband at the train station. But in fact she acts rather childishly and laments that she has nothing memorable to say.
The reality is more challenging than she has anticipated. And it is wartime. The demands overshadow her daily life, their weight in expecations as prominent as the prison overshadowing the Austrian town of Salzburg.
Cissy and Walt are boarding outside the city, in Herr Enrich’s farmhouse, along with a Hungarian couple (the husband was once wealthy but now works as a salesman) and a rabbity looking family from Vienna.
These people are truly displaced, and the American singer who remembers the house from a previous visit and returns briefly, is in transition as well.
Cissy is too young and inexperienced to understand this kind of rootlessness, and seemingly oblivious of the war, although she endeavors to follow the instructions she is given, to make friends with the other army wives. And the feminine experience of wartime life is not her husband’s experience at all. He is not in a transition: his identity remains intact.
“He hardly remembers our life on the farm. Yet those three months stand out in my memory like a special little lifetime, neither girlhood nor marriage. It was a time when I didn’t like what I was, but didn’t know what I wanted to be. In a way, I tried to do the right things. I followed Walt’s instructions.”
But Cissy isn’t comfortable with the idea of wife-ness, so she is reluctant to make alliances on that basis. Indeed, the main task Walt assigns her – to befriend his best friend’s wife – is a true burden. One only alleviated by an abundance of fruity alchoholic drinks.
“I don’t know if I was unhappy or happy in those days. It wasn’t what I’d expected, none of it, being married, or being an Army wife, or living in Europe. Everything – even conversation – seemed so much in the future that I couldn’t get my feet on the ground and start living.”
“Autumn Day” Click for source credit
And her exposure to the other residents’ wifedoms is unhelpful.
“The bed wasn’t made; just the covers pulled over the pillows. From the back of a chair, a dirty cotton brassiere hung by a strap. The word “marriage” came into my head. It reminded me of something – a glimpse of my married sister’s bedroom on a Sunday morning, untidy and inexplicably frightening.”
She is convinced that the visiting American singer’s residency will offer a reprieve of sorts.
“Here is someone whose room won’t be dirty, who doesn’t drink all day, who won’t frighten me, who hasn’t got a husband.”
But her plan is unsuccessful. “I’d have to manage without help, without a friend more important than Walt. I wondered if all of this – my crying, Walt being bewildered – was married life, not just the preliminary.”
And she is left with the sound of the “Autumn Day” in the background, a sad accompaniment to a fresh reality. “Your girlhood doesn’t vanish overnight. I know, now, what a lot of wavering goes on, how you step forward and back again. The frontier is invisible; sometimes you’re over without knowing it.”
Cissy is over the line. She’s crossed the border. Into some Other Salzburg. Into some other Cissy-ness.
And her previous sense of suspension, between states, perfectly encapsulated in the scene of her arrival at the train station, is not filled with pleasant anticipation.
Rather, a sense of something inescapable reflected in a scrap of worn nylon.
Perhaps this is the vinegary bit, to which Janice Kulyk Keefer referred, but for all that it is a little grim, it is credible and realistic.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the second story in The Other Paris. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “Poor Franzi”.
Because so many of Margaret Millar’s novels consider married couples – often at the point in which the relationship is strained, if not fractured – one wonders about her relationship with Ken Millar (better known as Ross MacDonald, who also wrote mysteries).
Did they squabble like Esther and Ron do at the beginning of An Air that Kills? “Esther had been going in for scenes lately, picking at the past like a bird at a sale loaf of bread, dislodging a crumb here, a crumb there.”
Here, again, Margaret Millar’s use of language is playful. But it is also a product of its time.
“Until tonight Turee had always considered Thelma as something of a birdbrain. He now began to realize how cleverly Thelma had outmaneuvered him into the role of custodian of the secret. It was like finding himself custodian of a fissionable mass of uranium; if he didn’t get rid of some of it, the whole thing might blow up in his face. The problem, then, was to unload it a little at a time, with due respect for its explosive powers.”
In 1950s America, men called women birdbrains. People were concerned about uranium. And there are broader societal patterns and prejudices afoot as well, although most often rooted in the characters’ perspectives (which makes the works more inviting for present-day readers, rather than it seeming to be the author’s viewpoint as well).
Not all – not even very many – 0f Margaret Millar’s women are birdbrains. Indeed, Esther is not. “She’s too damned bright for her own good. And too honest to hide it. No wonder she and Ron have some bad times.” (This is Turee again: he can’t deliver a compliment when it comes to women.)
And even the birdbrains are not simple. Thelma, for instance, contains many Thelmas.
Part of her is a daydreamer, apparently, who “fed her mediocrity with meaty chunks of dreams until it was fat beyond her own recognition”. She was a “woman equipped with great psychic powers”.
Another part is Harry’s wife, and that Thelma is a “short, placid, pleasant-looking woman in her early thirties”, an “excellent cook”, a “skillful housekeeper”, and “incapable of originating any plans or ideaas”.
Yet another part is a “femme fatale” with an interest in “’girl stuff” but she “was no girl”.
And, then, there is the Thelma who had a goal in mind and pursued it “with single-minded determination”, with “not a trace of moral misgiving”.
That’s where it gets interesting. Not just with Thelma, but whenever there is trouble, rooted in somene’s single-minded pursuit of a goal.
‘You’re a fresh kid, Blake. Full of ideas, some of them good, full of stories, some of them true. But mostly full of you-know-what. I wouldn’t give you a job here even if I could. You’re trouble.”
The editor of “The Globe and Mail” might not want to hire Blake, but he has a nose for a good story.
So does Margaret Millar.
For me, an added pleasure was discovering that this story was set in Canada, north of (and in) Toronto; the death occurs near a hunting-and-fishing lodge. (Even though Margaret Millar was born west of Toronto, she set the bulk of her stories in the United States, but perhaps moving north for a vacation – er, holiday – was acceptable.)
Note: The cover image features a vintage copy, but I’m reading one of several volumes in a reprint series from Syndicate (Soho Press); when you line up the seven spines on your bookshelf, they will complete a suitably menacing/domestic image, which you can glimpse in my posts about Wives and Lovers and Beast In View. Next, talk of The Listening Walls.
My reading year began with Marina Endicott’s New Year’s Eve (2011), written with literacy front-of-mind; its vocabulary, structure and tone are meant to ease the passage for readers with varying degrees of ease reading in English.
It begins simply: “The snow started before we left home.” Despite its brevity , there is going to be a weight to this story. An accumulation.
Dixie is already carrying a burden of sorts. She and Grady were supposed to leave at nine int he morning, but Grady worked late the night before (and twelve nights in a row before that, too, apparently). He didn’t make it home until noon and needed to sleep before they could leave.
“The baby was already in her snowsuit. I took her out of it again.”
One thing was to happen, but something else happened instead. The gap between expectations and reality widens. And it’s the holidays: expectations run high.
Furthermore, Dixie and Grady are adjusting to parenthood. “I loved to watch Daisy being held by someone else. It was like I could see her better as herself. And she could see me, and that made her happy.” Marina Endicott captures fresh mothering in succinct and familiar images.
It’s complicated, because as much as she loves it, the idea of Daisy in another woman’s arms widens the insular and intimate circle in uncomfortable directions. And as much as Dixie loves mothering, it’s impacted her core identity and changed all the other facets of her being. She has questions about desirability and femininity, about fidelity and responsibility.
Quiet but not light, New Year’s Eve is about taking corners, putting a toe in the water before plunging in.
The Lumberjanes comics, written by Noelle Stephenson, came recommended by Sharlene at Real Life Reading, in my search for holiday entertainment.
As an extra bonus for winter reading, they are set in a summer camp, which melted away the afghans and transformed the hiss of the radiators into the whine of mosquitos.
The first collected volume, Beware the Kitten Holy, introduces the five girls, who are distinct without being types. By the end of the second comic, I had them straight in my mind, although it took me several more volumes to actually become attached; until then, it was more about the ensemble than the individuals.
One aspect of the story which makes me giggle is their seemingly endless pursuit of badges. It doesn’t matter if you grew up in Brownies or Guides, because now you get badges through apps too. (And maybe you could get the Everything Under the Sum badge some other way, but you’d have to be at Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types to get more specialized badges, like Pungeon Master.)
Each individual comic opens with a single sheet which purports to be from the conduct handbook (which you can actually read) and closes with another (which you can’t read, because there are Polaroid-style snapshots with captions atop the printed material).
The heart of the volumes are brightly and richly coloured. As the volumes mount, the amount of text increases, throughout Friendship to the Max, presumably to reflect an aging readership, even introducing an elderly lady in the third bound volume – A Terrible Plan – who turns tail on the presumptions about older hardcore lady-types).
So the early comics feel more juvenile, the escapades more episodic and quickly resolved; the later ones are more protracted and relationships (growing intimacy) take on more importance. The fourth bound volume, Out of Time, considers a longer – and more wintery – adventure and allows readers’ attachments to grow.
Motion’s 40Dayz (2008) has been on my TBR since I first heard her slam on CBC Radio about ten years ago. You’re quite right: the math doesn’t add up! She didn’t have anything in print at the time.
These are verses to hear in your mind. Perhaps that’s true of all poetry, but it’s advice which resonates for me with these works particularly.
Reading these in snippets, on the subway and on errands, standing in line and sitting in place: there is such energy to these works, a commanding voice and a sense of urgency.
[the] “world is quiet
somewhere headlines grow
In .”connect the t.dots”:
“Love is the shock under my sneakers when I’m
keep me bouncing to that t..dot o. dot anthem
when I feel like I got no home”
“it’s about the pains of women
the strains of women
the wondering if I am even
And some works, like “revival”, have a particularly powerful resonance to them right now:
“slow dance of sage
in the air
These volumes might be skinny but they’re stuffed with good things.
What have you been reading while you’re on the go?
What’s in your bookbag today?
There is, about an hour’s drive from Toronto, a small town called Paris, on the Grand River. I’ve visited it a couple of times and I have travelled through it, by train, countless times.
Rarely, on one of those rail journeys, did I miss that broad curve of the tracks, the glorious view of the river (often in the very early morning). Always in my mind, it was the Other Paris.
Wikimedia Commons: Click for source details
But even though Mavis Gallant lived for many years in Canada before she moved to France, she was not writing about Paris, Ontario in this story.
She was exploring the idea of Paris, France. Which makes me think of the line in 84 Charing Cross Road about visiting the London of English Literature.
Because of course it is there, Helene Hanff observes. If that is what you are looking for, you’ll find it, she says.
Implied is the fact that there are other Londons and other Englands too, which could also be found.
That there is always something other, when one’s expectations are at play, approaching the juncture with reality.
To suit Carol, who is only twenty-two years old, I set the stage for this reading with elements of the Real Paris.
With a Madeline, an Edith Piaf playlist, and my feet propped up on the radiator (as I imagine one would need to do in a garrett flat in Paris – or should that read, The Other Paris – this time of year): I began to read.
And how I do want to please Carol. She is setting about the ‘business of falling in love”. She and Howard have had a “satisfactory beginning” and she is looking forward.” Because as “[n]othing mattered until the wedding, and she could not see clearly beyond it. She was sorry for all the single girls of the world, particularly those who were, like Odile, past thirty.”
Everything is happening as it should be.
Except that it isn’t.
At least, not how Carol thought it would be with her Other Fiancé.
What happened to the scene she had imagined: “a scene that involved all at once the Seine, moonlight, barrows of violets, acacias in flower, and a confused, misty background of the Eiffel Tower and little crooked streets”?
Paris isn’t at all as it was supposed to be. “Where were the elegant and expensive-looking women? Where, above all, were the men, those men with their gay good looks and snatches of merry song, the delight of English lady novelists? Traveling through Paris to and from work, she saw only shabby girls bundled into raincoats, hurrying along in the rain, or men who needed a haircut. In the famous parks, under the drizzly trees, children whined peevishly and were slapped.”
Even when she demands that Howard put forth an extra effort, things go awry. Or, they don’t exactly go badly, just not as they should.
Credit: Pars by Photo (Click for source details)
“Howard made an amusing story of their adventure in the Place Vendôme. She realized for the first time that something could be perfectly accurate but untruthful—they had not found any part of that evening funny—and that this might cover more areas of experience than the occasional amusing story. She looked at Howard thoughtfully, as if she had learned something of value.”
But she hasn’t really learned anything at all.
“I’m tired of the way everything is here—old and rotten and falling down.”
And the women she knows in Paris do not offer another viable perspective.
Neither the other American women with whom she works (although some of them seem to have found the proper Paris, or at least they have proper amusing stories about their experiences), nor Mme Germaine the dressmaker, nor Odile Pontmoret, the thirtysomething secretary.
Carol is on her own. “No wonder she was not in love, she would think.”
But she came to Paris to fall in love. “This was what everyone expected, and she had nearly come to believe it herself.”
Not the white-on-white wedding dress, not the failing Parma violets, not the carol singing in Place Vendome, not the theatre in the second arondissement on some obscure street, not Odile’s sister Martine’s Bach violin concert, not the red brick tube of the Metro over Boul de Grenelle: none of these is Paris for Carol.
But something does happen. And Carol does think that she catches sight of it.
“For a moment, standing under the noisy trains on the dark, dusty boulevard, she felt that she had at last opened the right door, turned down the right street, glimpsed the vision toward which she had struggled on winter evenings when, standing on the staircase, she had wanted to be enchanted with Paris and to be in love with Howard.”
What happens, however, is much more significant than that, in the end. Carol constructs her own amusing story.
“Soon, she sensed, the comforting vision of Paris as she had once imagined it would overlap the reality.”
How do we imagine an ‘other’? For us readers, stories offer a key to understanding. But also to creating. And there and back again.
Have you had to reconcile an “other” version of a place you discovered in a story to fit with your experience?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. She is the first story in the collection of the same name. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “Autumn Day”.
The Other Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
She won the Edgar for it in 1956: Best Novel. (If you are looking for new reading lists, the Edgar Award’s site is filled with temptations.)
And it was the first of three, later awards being given for The Fiend in 1965 and Beyond This Point Are Monsters in 1971. (She would receive The Grand Master Award in 1983.)
You might think the three books are linked, a trilogy of sorts: beasts and fiends and monsters.
But the focus of Margaret Millar’s mysteries is the psychology of it all.
The emphasis is on ordinary two-legged creatures: dentists and artists, managers and widows.
“Miss Clarvoe’s age had very little to do with chronology. She was a middle-aged woman because she had had nothing to keep her young. She was the chosen victim, not only of Evelyn Merrick, but of life itself.”
The characters are not defined by substantial detail, but nor are they thin and recognizable tropes. (I’ve only read three Daphne duMaurier works, but longed for the women to be a little more complicated: Millar’s novels afford this opportunity.)
Miss Clarvoe is a woman living alone in an apartment, who might have been in a Barbara Pym novel or an Elizabeth Taylor story.
In fact, many of Margaret Millar’s characters strike me this way.
(Consider: “Let Verna find it out for herself; she had a whole closetful of punctured dreams, but there was always room for one more.”)
Even Evelyn Merrick. Who seems, at least at the beginning, to be the beast in question.
But, then, everyone has their troubles. “All troubles are interesting. Perhaps that’s why we have them, to keep ourselves from being bored to death. Go on, tell me yours.”
The source of trouble is often just as innocuous. “Things had begun to repeat themselves: new situations reminded him of past situations, and people he met for the first time were exactly like other people he’d known for years. Nothing was new anymore.” (Yes, there are male characters in her novels, but even when they are at the heart of the story, the mystery seems to be rooted in the female experience, in the characters surrounding him.)
But it develops into something more dramatic. And occasionally, this development creates a fracture.
“A plate breaks and you throw it away. A person breaks and all you can do is pick up the pieces and try to put them together the best way you can.”
Margaret Millar’s mysteries consider the broken pieces. They delight in the sharp edges but also the as-yet-undetected fissures.
In its day, A Beast In View would have been quite shocking. But the value of the work is as much about the characterization as it is about the resolution, which is more likely to provoke surprise than shock with present-day readers (and perhaps not even that, in seasoned suspense and crime readers).
The cover image features the omnibus edition I’m reading, one of several volumes in a reprint series from Syndicate (Soho Press). Previous posts have considered Vanish in an Instant and Wives and Lovers and, next week, talk of An Air that Kills.
When you line up the seven spines on your bookshelf, they will complete a suitably menacing/domestic image. My set is incomplete, but still charming. Do you have any spine-art on your bookshelves? What book(s) have you added to your collection just for their looks?
February was a relatively light reading month for me, so there are some nearly-done books in the stack at the beginning of this month, along with new additions.
Naomi Novik’s Black Powder War, N.K. Jemisin’s The Kingdom of the Gods, Baratunde Thurston’s How to be Black and the Margaret Millar omnibus have been keeping company with me for at least five weeks. Serious lingerers: I’m not alone in this, am I?
Novik and Thurston are rereads, and included for very particular reading moods, the former for humour and adventure (i.e. the political situation is weighing heavily) and the latter for a more alert version of the same mood.
Jemisin and Millar are demanding each in their own way, the former for its complexity and the latter for its size (the omnibus containing five complete novels). I’m not surprised they have lingered, but I expect I’ll finish reading them before the middle of March.
Comparatively, Héctor Tobar’s Deep Down Dark was only on a stack for a couple of weeks, but I have been reading it in short segments. Even though the story is very compelling (33 miners caught beneath the surface of the San José Mine in Chile in 2010), it’s also very emotional. Vascillating between hope and despair doesn’t feel far from real life these days (although I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve experienced anything like the particular kind of horror these men and their loved ones faced).
This year I’m aiming to read more non-fiction, and given it comprised only 10% of my reading last year, it wouldn’t be too hard to increase, but this reading experience – so gripping and engaging, qualities I associate more readily with fiction – is certainly encouraging.
Wayson Choy’s Not Yet, which chronicles his experiences recovering from a significant heart/respiratory attack, was also a story of survival (as is How to Be Black in some respects). And Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s The Urban Bestiary is a treat (Crow Planet is such a favourite that I delayed my reading of this one, but it, too, is very satisfying).
On the stack, but as yet un-begun, is Teju Cole’s Every Day Is For the Thief, which I imagine slipping into the place which was occupied by Michael Ondaatje’s Coming through Slaughter in February.
Both are strongly rooted in place and time: Cole’s in present-day Nigeria and Ondaatje’s in turn-of-the-century Storyville, New Orleans. Both works depend heavily on photographs, and I have a feeling that they will make a fine pair. Mainly because of this passage from Coning through Slaughter:
“I wanted them to be able to come in where they pleased and leave when they pleased and somehow hear the germs of the start and all the possible endings at whatever point in the music that I had reached them. Like your radio without the beginnings or endings. The right ending is an open door you can’t see too far out of. It can mean exactly the opposite of what you are thinking.”
That’s how I remember feeling while reading Teju Cole’s Open City. And a passage to which I randomly opened in Every Day Is For the Thief reads as follows:
“I have headphones on, and I am listening to ‘Giant Steps,’ that twisting,modal argument of saxophone, drums, bass, and piano that is like a repeated unmaking and remaking of the audible world. […] I have no right to Coltrane here, not with eveyrthing else going on. This is Lagos. I disagree, turn the volume up, listening to both the music and the noise. Neither gives way. No sense emerges of the combat between art and messy reality.”
Doesn’t it seem a fine pairing? That’s what I thought about Louise Erdrich’s Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country as well. Thinking it would mesh beautifully with my first forays into reading her fiction. Tracks was so profoundly rooted in landscape that I wanted to put this volume in, before beginning Four Souls. (So, if you are hoping to read along, there’s still time to read Tracks and catch up!)
The other volume in my stack is Edith Wharton’s The Reef, which I’ve chosen with LibraryThing’s Virago Modern Classics group in mind. Last year I finally managed to finish her classic The House of Mirth, and I have a nice stack of her books yet to read. The only others I’ve read are Ethan Frome, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence. And this time? I am expecting sorrow and disappointment.
Many of the women in my Mavis Gallant reading are disappointed as well. Maybe that’s why Janice Kulyk Keefer suggested leaving time between readings (which I am doing, reading about one story each week). But people – women and men – are often disappointed, are they not?
Also for March, I’m reading some Irish novels, inspited by Cathy at 746 Books and some Irish short stories, inspired by Mel at The Reading Life. For a classic, Kate O’Brien’s Not Without My Cloak. And, contemporary choices: Anakana Schofield’s Malarky and Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies. There may be chatter about them here, or perhaps just brief peeks online as I turn their pages.
How’s life on the page, in March, for you so far? Have you been reading something challenging or inspiring?
Have you already read any of these or do you have some/one of them on your TBR?
Is there something in particular you’re looking forward to later this month?
From the age of twenty-eight, Mavis Gallant lived and wrote in Europe, writing about “Canadians, Americans, Australians, Eastern and Western Europeans and their distinctive social and cultural milieux”: she was “a citizen of the world”.
On the edge of beginning a deliberate reading and rereading of her stories, I peeked into Janice Kulyk Keefer’s Reading Mavis Gallant (1989).
Janice Kulyk Keefer’s The Green Library is an outstanding novel, and I keep her Rest Harrow on my shelf of old favourite reads (with other delightfully bookish stories about women who try to disappear into the English countryside to write, in this case a biography of Virginia Woolf).
So I was looking forward to her thoughts on the stories, but her approach is a little too academic for my taste. Perhaps I will enjoy reading it more once I’ve reread some of the stories.
Nonetheless, she has some interesting thoughts about the author in general. Observing, for instance, that she is an intruiging person, though one who seems sworn to a cult of impersonality.
JKK contrasts this with Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence, who are “well-loved”, whose fictions focus on creating a “trusting intimacy” between narrator and reader, whereas Gallant is “respected and relished” but from a “considerable distance”.
So although she wants to acquaint readers with the “impressive range and scope and the unsettling force” of Gallant’s work, she also recommends savouring her work “in small doses” because “reading the entirety of her fiction can be like downing a bottle of the finest vinegar”.
Even with only a smattering of experience with Mavis Gallant’s stories, I can say that my experience is different; if the quality I have found there (which I would term authenticity) is indeed vinegary than I will happily store the bottles alongside the astringent works of Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, Olive Senior and Edna O’Brien. All astute chroniclers of women’s experiences in life and love.
In an interview with Geoff Hancock in Canadian Fiction Magazine (1978), Mavis Gallant wondered about how her life as a woman might have taken a different turn, specifically if she had remained in Canada.
“Had I remained in Canada, I would have become one of those frustrated housewives who would like to write and wouldn’t. I would read books and listen to music and take night school courses and say to other sensitive housewives who would like to write books and don’t, ‘Have you read the latest Muriel Spark’?”
I’ll be watching for remnants of that frustrated housewife as I read along in The Other Paris, with her shelves filled with bottles of fine vinegar, aged and imported and treasured.
Next week, I’ll begin sharing my responses to the stories. Please let me know if you like the idea of joining in, and I will share the schedule privately as I read along.
Contents: The Other Paris / Autumn Day / Poor Franzi / Going Ashore / The Picnic / The Deceptions of Marie-Blanche / Wing’s Chips / The Legacy / One Morning in June / About Geneva / Senor Pinedo / A Day Like Any Other
Readers familiar with Margaret Millar’s suspense novels, will immediately recognize her style and language in Wives and Lovers. (Just yesterday I discussed Vanish in an Instant, another volume in the Syndicate reprint series.)
“It was a shoebox of a room, with the ceiling pressed down on it like a lid, and Gordon and herself, two mis-mated shoes, tossed together into the box by a careless clerk.”
These mis-mated shoes are Gordon, the dentist, and Hazel, his assistant. It’s clear that they share an uncomfortable intimacy, and readers too are privy to too much information to be comfortable.
But the tension shifts quickly to other characters, primarily to Ruby, who has been renting a room from Mrs. Freeman.
“She lies, yes. People lie when the truth is too hard to bear.”
But it takes one to know one. So, okay, Ruby is a liar. “During her fifteen years as a landlady, Mrs. Freeman had become a fairly accurate judge of character and she could invariably spot a liar, all the more readily because she was such a plausible liar herself.”
Perhaps it’s not the lying itself which is the problem, but the motivation to do so. Perhaps the most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves.
“But she had stretched the dream too far – there had never been a Christmas at home that she could remember without bitterness – and it snapped like an elastic band and stung her skin and brought moisture to her eyes.”
There is, after all, a fine line between lies and secrets.
“I like you better the way you are, so full of secrets you’re bursting at the seams.” a man (not a gentleman, I hasten to add) says to Ruby.
Throughout Wives and Lovers, there is a sense of something menacing. An atmosphere of dread.
“The sound reminded him of when he was a boy in Minnesota; in the spring the icicles that had hung stiff as quartz from the eaves throughout the winter started to melt until they fell loose and shattered, and the ice on the pond split open and water began to gurgle up through the cracks. Water sounds, dripping sounds everywhere. The first thaw in spring was almost as noisy as the first storm in autumn.”
There is a slow accumualtion of something powerful. And if it wasn’t disturbing enough to imagine this threat coming from afield, what if the threat is actually much closer to home? A personal betrayal? Something which actually seemed benign, innocent – but was actually the opposite?
“He had bought it, not for a special reason like a birthday, but in a moment of guilt and compunction, as if he could give to her in the form of this doll the happy babyhood she had missed. He had been able to buy off his conscience to some extent, but he hadn’t bought off Judith. Within two days the doll was naked and almost scalped, one arm was gone, its china eyes had been carefully pushed back into its empty head, and into its slightly open mouth between the rows of tiny perfect teeth, Judith had thrust Elaine’s ivory-handled nail file.”
Ultimately it is personal disappointment and heartbreak which caused the most severe and lasting damage. It’s what’s left behind when we believe we have escaped but we have only entered another kind of sadness.
“Now that they had reached Eden they were all the more discontented to find themselves leading the same old lives. The end of the rainbow was no longer around the corner; it was six miles north to the mountains and nineteen blocks south to the sea. Yet these blocks were more difficult to travel than three thousand miles across the country.”
Margaret Millar’s characters reach the end of the rainbow in unexpected ways; the pervasive sense of duplicity in California in the 1950s permeates the stories, and the era’s insistence upon conformity makes her misfit characters all-the-more surprising.
The cover image features the copy I’m reading, one of several volumes in a reprint series from Syndicate (Soho Press) and I’ll have another post about Beast in View next week; when you line up the seven spines on your bookshelf, they will complete a suitably menacing/domestic image. Doncha love it?!
Margaret Millar’s mysteries are being brought back into print by Soho Syndicate. The Master at Her Zenith volume is comprised of five of her well-known books, including the Edgar-winning Beast in View.
Throughout, her interest in psychology is evident. Both she and her characters are fascinated by detail. And the emotions which often erupt in response.
For instance, consider the emotions simmering beneath the surface of this momentary frustration in Vanish in an Instant.
“Neither of the women made any move to take Meecham’s hat or coat, so he laid them across a chair. He was a little irritated because he was sure that the omission on their part was more than a lapse in manners; it was an unconscious expression of their real feeling toward him. He wondered again why Mrs. Hamilton had invited him in for coffee, and why he had accepted against his will.”
This kind of acuity is present in the other mysteries in this omnibus as well. It’s not enough that Meecham’s irritation is noted, but he examines the source of it, teases out the quiet and deadly judgements.
And even in just a few sentences, she is prepared to have a character acknowledge their own inconsistencies. For as irritated as Meecham may be, his actions suggest otherwise. He didn’t want to go for coffee, didn’t want to be subjected to this kind of reluctant tolerance on Mrs. Hamilton’s part, but he did so nonetheless.
There is a place for contradictions in Margaret Millar’s fiction. “A lot of things that can be proved are not true, and a lot of things that are true can’t be proved.”
And her idea of truth is complex. “The truth lay somewhere between the two extremes like an uncharted island between two shores.”
Which is not to say that the suspense is all cerebral. Blood is spilled.
“Why he had blood all over his clothes, same as you had. They say he’s a nice young man, no record or anything. What amazes me is the amount of blood in a person, it’s simply amazing.”
And occasionally there is a surprising scene, sketched quickly and succinctly.
“They weren’t snowmen. One of them was a lady, with a pink ruffled apron tied around her lumpy waist and a bandana covering her head to hide its baldness. One of her charcoal eyes had fallen out of its melting socket. She had a witch’s nose made out of a carrot and a moist-beet mouth, and stuck in her chest was a long dripping icicle that gleamed in the light like a stiletto with a jeweled handle. The snow-lady seemed to be aware of the wound: her blurred beet-mouth was anguished, and her single eye stared helplessly into the night.”
The emphasis, however, remains on her characters’ psychology rather than their wounds.
“Motion, change, speed, they were essential to Virginia. She should always be on a passing train, one that went round and round the world and never stopped.”
And, in the process, Margaret Millar uses language and imagery deftly to create a mood and enrich scenes.
“Her head was too large for her body and emphasized by thick brown hair that was now burning itself out like a grass-fire and showing streaks of ashes.”
In a room, straight chairs are “lined up against the wall like mute and motionless prisoners”, a woman’s “cry of surprise hung in the air a moment like a question mark of smoke and then disintegrated” and another woman’s control “was slipping down like a zipper under too much pressure”.
These little touches make reading Margaret Millar’s suspense a pleasure to read.
Note: The image for the vintage copy of Vanish in an Instant was discovered on “The Dusty Bookcase: A Casual Exploration of Canada’s Suppressed, Ignored and Forgotten Literature)” in a review well worth reading for Millar fans. Tomorrow’s review will feature the copy I’m reading, one of the reprinted volumes from Syndicate (Soho Press); when you line up the seven spines on your bookshelf, they will complete a suitably menacing/domestic image. How could Margaret Millar fans resist?
Have you read any of Margaret Millar’s mysteries? Do you enjoy other vintage mystery writers?