November 27, 2011
CBC Canada Reads is tackling nonfiction for 2012, which got me thinking about true stories. One of the best things about lately barrelling through my unread books in author-alpha-order is that I’ve finally been driven to pick up the nonfiction I’ve been so long putting off, fiction always being what I turn to first. And so I finally read Christopher Dewdney’s Soul of the World, biographies of Elizabeth Bowen, Gertrude Bell and The Eaton Family. Nonfiction I’ve been compelled to read without prodding recently have been Maria Meindl’s Outside the Box, the biography of Virginia Lee Burton, Bring on the Books for Everybody, and Cinderella Ate My Daughter. So yes, there has been a lot of nonfiction to appreciate.
But to show my true appreciation, and in the tradition of me reading alongside and offside what CBC folks are doing, I’m going to rereading a truly great Canadian nonfiction book this winter. It’s like Canada Reads Independently, but it’s one book, and a lot less trouble. I’m going to be rereading Joan Bodger’s memoir The Crack in the Teacup: The Life of a an Old Woman Steeped in Stories, and I’d love it if you could read along with me. If you’re following along with Canada Reads, I promise that your experience will be richer if you include this book along with the other five (and that it will blow the other five out of the water, no contest.)
From my blog post about the book: “Joan Bodger’s life was never, ever boring, from the grandmother who was killed in a shipwreck, to her unconventional girlhood as the daughter of a sailor, her stint in the army working as in decoding, the terrible sadness of her family life, what she learned about story and its power to transform children’s lives (and what I learned about Where the Wild Things Are in reading about this), her fascinating work in early childhood education, the loveliness of her second marriage, her shamelessness (which is learned, and earned with age), her honestly, her passion, that she placed her husband’s ashes in the foundations of the Lillian H. Smith Library which was then under construction.”
March 20, 2011
It was the tie that refused to stay broken, and I’ve just decided to accept it. This year, of our five deserving Canada Reads Independently Picks, all of which received their fair shares of love in the poll, the two picks that shared the largest share of the sharing were Lynn Coady’s Play the Monster Blind, and Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water.
One reader wrote, “Play the Monster Blind is the one that has stayed with me the most deeply and that made me say, ‘I want to write sentences like that’ – always a good sign. Coady is my pick!” Another wrote, “But it was Truth and Bright Water that resonated with me when I read it and it still does. Kind of like the dog who hangs his head out the car window and gets all excited when he smells his home territory.” And I know exactly what she means.
Thank you to everybody who read along and sent in a vote for your favourite– especially those of you who I didn’t quote here, but whose pitches were no less fervid than the two above. Thank you to the CBC for the marvelous Canada Reads format whose slight deficiencies have allowed us our own independent fun. Thank you to Sheree Fitch, Nathalie Foy, Chad Pelley, Carrie Snyder and Robert J. Wiersema for providing us with a spectacular line-up, and so many hours of unabashed reading enjoyment. That was fun.
March 16, 2011
1) I’m quite excited about the YOSS Manifesto, which went live today on a spiffy new website rigged up by my favourite outfit, Create Me This. It’s a wonderful celebration of the short story form, and I couldn’t think of a better year to dedicate to short stories with so many stellar collections coming out.
2) My course is starting in a few weeks! Sign up for The Art and Business of Blogging at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. I am in the midst of planning, and things are turning out marvelously.
3) We’ve got a tie for the Canada Reads Independently popular poll. Somebody break it, please? Email me your top pick of this year’s selections (even if you haven’t read them all…).
March 15, 2011
I’ll admit that Canada Reads of all stripes have lacked the momentum of previous years, but this did not mean that I loved my reading any less. I was happy to have saved for last my favourite pick of the five, which was Lynn Coady’s Play the Monster Blind. And I’m even happier to have enjoyed all five books immensely, and I think they complemented one another in delightful ways.
Buried in Print enjoyed Play the Monster Blind also. She writes, “Obliquely contrasting emotions and experiences characterize many of the stories in this collection: euphoria and desperation, celebration and regret, stagnancy and propulsion, triumph and loneliness. It’s an unsettling but also powerful device…”
Rebecca Rosenblum read Mavis Gallant’s Home Truths. My favourite part of her review was: “Sometimes it feels like a story is just a random collection of notes and memories, but you get to the end and the weight on your brain is, in fact, story-like. How does she do that?” She notes the humour in these stories, which I claimed didn’t exist in my previous CRI post. And I suppose Rebecca is probably right, but it’s just not the kind of humour that has me laughing hysterically in bed over a reference to day-cake.
So I liked the Lynn Coady best. What say you? Email me at klclare AT gmail DOT com with your top Canada Reads Independently Pick, and we’ll see who came out on top this year. And feel free to send in your choice even if you haven’t read all the books, because every book deserves a little bit of love.
March 13, 2011
There were two stories in Lynn Coady’s Play the Monster Blind that ended so unsatisfyingly that I was able to perfectly understand the sentiment of those people who say they don’t like reading short stories. I like stories that are a kernel of a bigger idea, stories which (however ambiguously) contain all the answers to any questions about what happened before or what’s going to happen next, but one of these ended with a boy about to descend down a slope whose precariousness may or may not kill him. I mean, it’s a testament to the story that I cared so much either way, but still, I thought, come on now
But it is a testament to this book’s all-round wonderfulness that it was these two stories that were linked to stories that came later in the collection, stories that answered my questions about precarious slopes, and invested their characters with whole other dimensions. And then the other stories, the ones that stood on their own– they stood so well, so perfectly contained and yet entirely expansive.
It is also a testament to this book’s all-round wonderfulness and alleged funniness that it met my personal funniness benchmark, which is that I was compelled to read two pages of it to my husband beside me in bed while I laughed so hard that tears ran down my cheeks. This was from “In Disguise as the Sky”, a story that otherwise was not particularly funny, but no matter. It was the part about “day-cake”, and what “muffin” means, and “the sudden appearence of a tall woman with large breasts screaming ‘muffin'”.
A woman who has just met her fiance’s brawling, sprawling family and is now travelling with them through Cape Breton on a road-trip gets out of the car at one point and looks out at the ocean: “She didn’t know if this was beautiful or not”. Which is the kind of response a reader will have to these stories, with their moments of tenderness amidst ugliness, humour and desparation, their ribald gentility. A character like Cookie Sloane, a cross-eyed, drunken, lumbering thug, and how he managed to make the line, “I’m a known snatch-sniffer” kind of charming. When he smiles with his dirty teeth, and said, “God love ya, dear!” and I kind of wanted to jump his cross-eyed bones. I’m really not sure if Cookie is beautiful, but Coady makes me understand why Bess thinks that he is.
I was fairly sure I was going to love this book, which surely benefited from being championed by the exuberant Sheree Fitch whose exuberance was entirely justified– it was a pleasure to read this book from start to finish. Many of these stories are concerned with inhabitants of rural communities who have disgraced themselves and find shame within and without (or sometimes not at all with the former, as in the case of “Jesus Christ, Murdeena” who begins to walk through the town barefoot and convinced that she’s the second-coming). Sometimes these communities are seen from the outside as in the title story, the girl who can’t decide what is beautiful, and ends up with a split lip and a broken tooth after an elbow in the mouth from her future sister-in-law. In another, a woman returns after years away and numerous accomplishments racked up, and finds the past is either inescapable, or getting away from her so quickly she hasn’t even noticed it’s gone. In “Look, And Pass On” , a man “from away” becomes involved with a woman whose “wholesome sexiness” belies a darker past (and a terrible pair of underpants)– everything under these simple surfaces is always more complicated than it seems.
These are sad stories, but most funny stories are sad underneath (and this is the case with every other book I’ve encountered this year for Canada Reads Independently, except the Mavis Gallant, but only because she wasn’t funny). And underneath the funny, and underneath the sad, there is ballast here, stories rooted in place, in character, and emotion. They were so realized that their form was entirely secondary, and I could devour these one after the other. There wasn’t sameness, but this collection was a readable book, and I haven’t devoured any other of the Canada Reads Independently picks quite like it. And so this is my top pick, a book like this the whole point of the exercise, because it’s out of print even. When else was I going to read it? But now I am just so terribly glad that I did.
As I reflect upon all five books, Coady’s is the least fragmented of the bunch. Though a collections of stories like Gallant’s, it doesn’t play the games the three novels played with fact and fiction, truth and lies. And though I love these kind of games, I do wonder if they’re redundant sometimes when we’re reading fiction after all. If in accepting that I’m reading a story, I’ve already leapt through those hoops of what is real, and what is art, what is artifice, and the problem of fictional realities. The questions these stories ask are clever, but it is the rootedness of Coady’s stories that will stay with me, I think– the ballast. Her characters walk on ground that seems as solid as earth, and something quite like life plays out upon it.
1) Play the Monster Blind by Lynn Coady
2) Still Life With June by Darren Greer
3) Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King
4) Home Truths by Mavis Gallant
5) Be Good by Stacey May Fowles
February 15, 2011
The connections between the four books I’ve read so far for Canada Reads Independently are really quite remarkable: each is a book constructed of fragments, truth is always a construction, the truth-teller functions as a creator, and these are books that test the limits of fiction (even Mavis Gallant’s, who calls the Linnet Muir stories “as close to autobiography as fiction can be”).
None of the others do any of these things, however, with quite as much unbridled nerve as Darren Greer’s novel Still Life With June. Greer’s narrator Cameron Dodds is an unsuccessful writer (“a loser who knows he’s a loser”: do note how such an admission clears a guy of so much responsibility) who publishes under a variety of pen names, including “Darren Greer”. Cameron works nights at a Salvation Army Treatment Centre (where he’s carved out a niche for himself– he’s the gay guy who breaks up brawls by standing in the middle and screeching songs from “Annie”), whose clients he mines for their stories. He attends a writers group at a local bookstore where he never speaks, and certainly the other writers’ stories are of no use to him, but the stories of the writers themselves are gold to him, these poor pathetic people wasting their time.
He’s a story vampire, so desperate for his next fix that he breaks into the file of a client, Darrel Greene, a former addict who recently committed suicide, and discovers that he had a sister, institutionalized with Down’s Syndrome, who Darrel felt guilty about never taking care of. Cameron decides to pretend to be Darrel, connects with the sister, June, and discovers depth to his character in the process. At the same time, he also forms a relationship with a woman from his writing group who has a few aliases of her own, and a troubled relationship with her brother (who is Cameron’s upstairs neighbour).
There are weaknesses in the plot, but Greer has structured his book to escape all scrutiny. For example, Cameron reports that he’s “not really sure why” he decides to go and meet Darrel’s sister June, which is the sort of flimsy construction I can’t stand, but events transpire at end of the story to reveal that there’s more to the story than that. This happens several times in the text actually, when I thought the plot was lost, and then Greer revealed another trick up his sleeve.
June’s character also remains decidedly two-dimensional, though Cameron is upfront about his/Darrel’s inability to imagine the world through her eyes– to show her as anything more than this would be a violation of Cameron’s perspective. She’s two-dimensional for a reason, but yes, that two-dimensionality has a purpose, but sometimes I wonder if we’re letting the book get away with too much.
I was also uncomfortable with the language here, the use of the word “retard”, and it all got a bit Huck Finn on me. And yes, those of us with purely literary intentions can argue context, but I sometimes wonder if those to whom these words are personal have something to teach the rest of us. That there is more to life than literature, perhaps, and that some of us who love words best are blissfully ignorant as to their power, to how they work. So yes, I was uncomfortable, but I also think that I was supposed to be, and that Greer draws parallels between “retard” and “faggot” that made me thing the term wasn’t flung as randomly as Cameron Dodds presented it as being. I think the whole book was an exercise in uncomfortable-making anyway.
Anyway, the whole thing came together marvelously for me in the end, and though much about the book remained ambiguous, I was satisfied– all the right questions were answered, and I was content to let the others go in a way I wasn’t as happy with in Truth and Bright Water. It was a bleak book, but with passages of levity (whose big box bookstore setting also made me think of a very different book, Corey Redekop’s Shelf Monkey, which I also enjoyed). And it was a book that surprised me time and time again, and always just when I thought it couldn’t surprise me anymore.
Canada Reads Independently Rankings:
1) Still Life With June by Darren Greer
2) Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King
3) Home Truths by Mavis Gallant
4) Be Good by Stacey May Fowles
February 7, 2011
Canada Reads began today on CBC Radio, though I was sans a night’s sleep and attending various walk-in clinics and emergency rooms all day instead, so I missed it. (My child has been diagnosed with a cold. We are slowly coming to terms with having such a tragedy invade our lives). But Charlotte Ashley, who comes through as my Canada Reads Hero for the third year in a row, has summed up the show in Charlotte Ashley-ish fashion. I look forward to reading what she has in store for us tomorrow!
In less contagious household news, my husband is devouring Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water. “I love it,” is his direct quote, but we’re both a bit brain-dead, so I can’t get much more out of him than that. He notes the authenticity of Tecumseh’s perspective, of its limitations (that he is so young) and how King doesn’t manipulate that perspective to his own ends. The story is very true to his voice.
The Canada Reads Indies hero of the day is she of Buried in Print, who has read the entire lineup (as well as that of Canada Reads). Of Still Life With June (which I’m reading next), she writes, “I know it’s barely February, but I’m fairly sure [it] will be on my list of favourite reads for 2011.” She says Truth and Bright Water reads like magic: “It’s nasty: pitted, stripped, open wound, scabbed, blistered, split. But it’s curled up in twists like pigs’ tails. It’s dynamic, it’s alive.” She reads Home Truths and discovers that “[Gallant’s] preoccupations as a writer are my preoccupations as a reader: it’s a perfect match.” And finally, of Be Good, she writes, “It’s strangely addictive, the sort of prose that immediately provokes either immersion or revulsion.” Which is certainly championship reading– thank you for reading with me…
February 5, 2011
I may be crucified for admitting this, but I didn’t enjoy reading Mavis Gallant’s collection Home Truths, though the stories themselves, they’re a whole other thing. When I finished reading “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street”, I had to close the book, catch my breath, and put my head back together. A story that hooked me with its opening lines, “Now that they’re out of world affairs and back where they started, Peter Frazier’s wife says, ‘Everybody else did well in the international thing except us.” The story is a scathing treatment of “the international thing” and the people who do it well or otherwise, a pathetic, tragic climax, ill-considered hobo costume, Saskatchewan evoked in the wilds of Geneva. What a trick to render the hollowness of life so very richly.
The collection opens with “Thank You for the Lovely Tea”, a perfect formula. Malicious girls in private school uniforms, and the coldest, most precise and shivery ending: “[Ruth] wondered if she would ever care enough about anyone to make all the mistakes those around her had made during the rainy-day tea with Mrs. Holland. She breathed on the window, idly drew a heart, smiled placidly, let it fade.” The book proceeds with characters caring enough to make all manner of mistakes– a young girl who rejects a playmate for her more sophisticated cousin; young girl abroad whose choice of lover lands her with inevitable heartbreak; Lottie Benz who goes to Europe, seeing the whole world as a pet project, but an acquaintance from home keeps her from making her neat arrangements, and forces her to reconsider the parameters of her life (which is another way of saying that she grows up).
In her pitch, Carrie Snyder referred to the collection as “a smorgasbord for the mind”, but I confess that it was just too much for me to digest. The stories were so deep and involving that to move from one to the other was simply disorienting. (This is not a problem I usually have with short story collections. I love the idea of collections offering glimpses into window after window, and I am, after all, a veritable peeping tom.) These stories are exquisite, yes, but many are far from short, and they’re not ideally presented together in book form. Though the edition has given the book overall a definite structure (“At Home”, “Canadians Abroad” and “Linnet Muir”), these stories are not necessarily enhanced by being considered together.
I take full responsibility for this as a reader. For not having the kind of time to consider each of these stories singularly, as they’re intended to be. But perhaps these stories are best considered within the context of whatever issue of The New Yorker each one first appeared in, which places for them, I think, fully at home in the wide literary world. We’re also really talking novels for Canada Reads Independently, and though I might argue that any one of these stories on its own conveys as much depth as a novel, if not more, the effect of all of them together is overwhelming to compare book-for-book.
Now, Carrie Snyder notes that she chose this book primarily for its Linnet Muir stories, however, Muir being the narrator and protagonist of the final third of stories in Home Truths and to consider these, I’d like to shift gears a little bit. Linked short stories have a bad rap these days, a cheap way for publishers to sell a novel that isn’t (for writers to write one). But I would argue that the best collections of linked stories possess a range of perspectives not possible in other forms, and a greater chance of coming close to presenting something like truth.
This is apparent in the Linnet Muir stories, which present the same characters and events in different contexts. And interestingly, because they weren’t necessarily intended to be published together, contain a great deal of repetition in order to establish the facts of Linnet’s life, repetition that would be edited out of a novel’s first draft, but which becomes almost a meditation here. Characters who are secondary in one story are in the spotlight in the next. There is flux, there are many plots, some fizzle out and go nowhere, characters grow up and change their minds, and this is kind of what life is.
“Between Zero and One” was my favourite story in this section, Linnet Muir considering the world of men which she becomes privy to as the sole female working in a Montreal office during World War 2, and how other women could be just as complicit as men in ensuring women’s place as a “third-class immigrant”. In many of the stories, she’s reflecting on her parents, who were too young and too consumed in their own affairs to be present to her as a child, and who are both lost to her now. Linnet is coming of age as she looks back on the vanished world of her childhood, vanished doubly for having disappeared at the beginning of September 1939. Wartime is the backdrop of “Varieties of Exile”, which (like many of these stories) talked around and around itself, avoiding the epicentre to the point where I began to question its architecture, but came to a sad and illuminating conclusion that gave me the strange feeling that this story’s destination and not the journey was necessarily the point (though the latter will be entirely worthwhile upon rereading).
These stories are difficult, and I might suggest that “precise” is an adjective that rarely applies. Not that these stories aren’t deliberately constructed, the imprecision itself deliberate somehow, but there is a muddledness to the prose– lines that could mean any number of things. “I did not forget her, but I forgot about her” says Linnet about the godmother who fails to follow through, and though the line rings familiar, sparkles with insight, what she means exactly is unclear. Which triples the stories’ already-expansiveness.
I’ve also failed to really get to the point, because there are too many points to be considered. Instead of glimpses into one window after another, I kept getting lost in mansions. And so although Gallant should top any list, I can’t put her at the top of this one, but then Home Truths is really a book that belongs in a class of its own.
Canada Reads Independently Rankings:
1) Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King
2) Home Truths by Mavis Gallant
3) Be Good by Stacey May Fowles
January 19, 2011
I’ve developed an aversion for any book described as “gritty”, mainly because “gritty” has lately been synonymous with “badly written stories about troubled girls who exchange blow jobs for heroin”. As though addressing sex, drugs and self-harming is merit enough that the writing itself doesn’t have to be good, the book doesn’t have to be interesting. This whole approach also failing to address the reason why so many fictional girls are exchanging blow jobs for heroin, because, frankly, this is troubling, but I digress.
So I was relieved to find that Stacey May Fowles’ first novel Be Good had more going for it than sheer grittiness. The book is about two friends who struggle with their feelings for one another, and end up on opposite sides of the country in unsatisfying relationships. Hannah has just left Montreal to follow her boyfriend Finn to Vancouver, while Morgan has been traveling Europe on the dime of her older lover Mr. Templeton. The novel comprises a series of flashbacks and snapshots which culminate to the story from a variety of perspectives– Hannah’s, Morgan’s, her roommate Estella’s, Finn’s and Mr. Templeton’s, as well as that of disembodied narrative voice that seems to be curating the collection.
The propensity towards falsehood and self-delusion (the latter never as effective as the former) on the part of Hannah and Morgan, as well as the fragmented nature of the narrative, ensures that “what really happened” is never clear, nor does it need to be, and that it’s what characters think happened which is more important (and always fluid). Ambiguity, embellishment, storytelling and outright lies are narrative methods as valid as truth, and perhaps even more valid for their unwillingness to adhere to the limits that truth imposes.
Hannah and Morgan are trying on various to guises to discover what’s at their core, chasing after different fantasies of the kind of women they might actually be. They pose drinking on fire escapes, imagining the world throwing them admiring glances, enacting magazine shoots, an impression of unreality. They dress up in costumes, imagine that the self is composed of details like grape bubblicious, see themselves from the outside and work that image down to the smallest detail. They see their friends as accessories, every new scene a set-up, that the world can be so deftly manipulated, that the people are so plastic.
Be Good is a coming of age story, the turning point occurring with Hannah’s line, “Perhaps the issue is not what people see in me but rather what I see in them.” Which is a revelation from a woman of any age, really. To step out of gaze and take stock of where you are. Though of course the conclusion is not so simple– it’s never clear whether each of the separate perspectives are actually different narrators, as there is a sameness to the voices. And though Hannah is the wordsmith of the two, Morgan is a famous fabricator, and so it’s possible that the whole book was hatched in the head of either of them, imagining the self as seen through the eyes of others. This last point being what makes Fowles’ book more interesting than other grit-lit– with all that ambiguity, this story is solipsistic with a twist.
Which is in constrast with Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water, whose narrator is entirely self-effacing, but the two books share much else in common. Both are coming of age stories in with the protagonist’s relationship to the story isn’t always clear, in which he or she knows more or less than he/she lets on. Both books play with ideas of superficial poses, the natives playing up their culture on Indian Days not so far removed from the girls on the fire escape. Both books also have an ambiguous relationship to truth and fact, and choose to overlook these items in favour of a good story. Truth and Bright Water is also quite gritty, also with lesbians, suicide, sex, drink, drugs and destruction, and both skim a facile narrative surface belying darker stories underneath.
It’s just that in King’s book, however, we know that the darker stories are certainly true, and no longer are these poses anymore. His story wedded to a long, long history, whereas Fowles’ book and their characters seem to exist outside of time. King’s subtext more substantial too, unsurprisingly as insubstantiality is Fowles’ preoccupation here, but if we’re comparing books (which we are), King’s comes out the richer. If we weren’t comparing books, however, these two would stand side-by-side, drawing fascinating connections from one another.
Canada Reads Independently Rankings:
1) Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King
2) Be Good by Stacey May Fowles
January 16, 2011
So the reading has begun, and though the internet has been abuzz with readers planning to read along so I’d be reading a little less independently, I’ve only caught sight of a review or two so far. Last week, I finished Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water, which I enjoyed very much, and would recommend to almost anybody as it’s a book to be appreciated on so many levels. I’m now reading Stacey May Fowles’ Be Good, which is a very different book, but not so different that I won’t be able to draw on connections between the two– the connections are there and they open each both books even wider, and one of my favourite parts of the Canada Reads model is comparing these books you might think have nothing to do with one another… We end up having conversations you never would have imagined.
Earlier this month, Sara from the blog Read and Bead read Stacey May Fowles’s Be Good in tandem with Carol Shields’ Unless, and she was surprised to find two strong connections between these books– both, in very different ways, focus on notions of “goodness”. Sara goes on, “The other interesting thing is that they are both similar in size and shape roughly 5×7 inches.” Be Good made her uncomfortable, though not disturbed, but she found it took her to a place she didn’t really wish to go. “It’s not always pretty, and lives are full of things left unsaid, hurt feelings, and longing.” Which, though not a ringing endorsement, is certainly a testament to the book’s impact.
Meanwhile, Rebecca Rosenblum reviewed Lynn Coady’s Play the Monster Blind. Rebecca writes, “[The collection is] very very funny, without being in any way “light.” It’s such a hard balance to walk, especially because a critical perception of “lightness” can sink a book like a lead balloon (abandon metaphor). There is humour in theses characters’ lives because there is humour in everyone’s life. We don’t (usually) laugh at the characters but with them–because we all know that life is funny and cruel and weird.”
She also can’t help sharing numerous excerpts, then becomes frustrated because their brilliance is not readily apparent out of context, and then just implores us to just go and read the book for ourselves. “The problem with Coady’s writing is that any random bit of it looks easy and delightful, and it’s only when you get to the end that realize how much you’ve experienced in the story.”
(Any reviews I missed? Any plans to get reading soon? Email me links to your reviews, or send the reviews themselves if you’re not posting them online, and I will feature them in the next Canada Reads Indies update).