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January 19, 2015

Born Out of This by Christine Lowther

born-out-of-thisChristine Lowther’s essay collection, Born Out of This, is a wild book about life on the margins, in terms of geography, culture, and environmental activism. It also reads like notes in a margin, rich with references to literary texts, song lyrics, poetry (in particular, works by Lowther’s mother, the poet Pat Lowther), and musings on life and nature, the view from her window. Which is not just any window. Christine Lowther makes her home on a house float off the Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, anchored just off shore. A greenhouse sits on an accompanying float, where bees buzz and somehow slugs appear. After the pleasure of reading Sarah Henshaw’s The Bookshop That Floated Away last month, I was pleased to encounter another woman who makes her life on the water. And what a life it is, Lowther partaking in the labours required to keep her house maintained and sound, commuting to work via kayak (and later, motorboat), watching wolves from her deck, swimming with a seal, and (yes) shitting in a bucket. She writes wonderfully about her views of nature, of being immersed in it and still apart from it at once, about the complex and difficult relationships between humans and wild things, between people and place. She writes about the freedom and claustrophobia of rural life, and also about how her idyllic surroundings are not so at odds with her punk roots: “if anyone thinks it’s not punk to live out in nature they should visit during a storm.” Nature is teeming too with death as much as it’s full of life, the opening piece in the collection presenting a stream choked with the bodies of dead salmon, though it’s not strictly a system of binaries: “This landscape of gore nourishes and fertilizes the trees and berry bushes.” And so too is death a shadow in Lowther’s own life; in “Gifts from Lands So Far Apart,” she explores the ways in which the loss of mother was connected to landscape, and this loss subtly haunts the rest of the collection. (The following essay begins: “An infant harbour seal cries for its mother…”) Lowther also explores the roots of her own environmental and political activism, her essay, “We Tremble in Response: Famished for Grief,” an excellent complement to Nancy Lee’s recent novel The Age, both works exploring Vancouver in the early 1980s and a sense of inevitable catastrophe in the nuclear age, the sitting perched on the edge of the world in more ways than just one. Other essays, about community gardening in Vancouver and wildlife in the city, underline Lowther’s connections between here and there, her principle that the rural and urban are not so much at odds, and that indeed their sensibilities mingle.

January 14, 2015

Her by Harriet Lane

her

UPDATE: I can’t believe I forgot to note the extraordinary ends to which Lane uses the sinister implications of classic children’s literature, including Goodnight Moon and “James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree”. So very good.

There is such a descriptor as sippy-cup sinister.

“I’m reading a terrifying book about a woman with a newborn,” I told my husband, who went pale then, because a woman with a newborn is the most terrifying thing he’s ever known.

“I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it,” write Leslie Jamison in “Grand Unified: Theory of Female Pain,” from The Empathy Exams, and I sometimes feel similarly about the reading of the burdens of motherhood.

It’s a burden documented in vivid detail in Her, the second novel by journalist Harriet Lane. The novel is a mash-up, one scene after another presented from two points of view. One from Emma, recently a mother of two, in her late thirties, struggling to get the stroller up the steps as her three-year-old clamours for her attention, and the baby cries, and she contemplates her life, wondering where her once-self—a successful journalist, happy and carefree—has got to. And then the other, from Nina, who spies Emma from a distance, knows her from long ago, and becomes determined to work her way into the other woman’s life to enact some form of revenge.

To Emma, hoever, Nina—a successful painter, her own daughter nearly grown—is a saviour, always turning up at the right time, offering Emma exactly what she needs, providing a glimpse of the world outside, of the life she’d like to have. Nina is a respite from the drudgery of a schedule Emma describes as full of tasks all both so urgent and tedious, breaking the day into useless pieces, rendering the whole thing as just scraps. But why is Nina so interested in her? It’s a nagging question, but one that Emma pushes to the back of her mind, which is already overwhelmed by lack of sleep, stress, financial worries, marital strife, and general ennui. She’s so vulnerable, which Nina recognizes instantly, and realizes she can prey on.

Which makes Her so compelling, so beyond those other narratives which tire me whose only virtue is their honesty, is that the truths revealed about new motherhood are just the starting point. From here, Lane has created a psychological thriller so convincing in its reality, so ominous in its mundanity, so sippy-cup sinister in a manner I last recall reading in Emily Perkins’ excellent 2008 book, A Novel About My Wife.

Nina gets closer and closer to Emma, welcomed into her home, caring for her children, and while we know along she has nefarious intentions—presented in the alternating chapters which, like Emma’s, are written in first-person—we don’t know why she’s out to exact revenge from Emma, who doesn’t remember her at all. We don’t know either which form her revenge will take, though as the novel progresses, indicators emerge, signs and signals that are so terrifying, all hurtling towards  the novel’s very end, which is completely and utterly devastating.  Not to mention amazing. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

It’s a page-turner, but the reader will be slowed by Lane’s prose, the pitch-perfect imagery and descriptions, which are to be savoured. By the nuance too, suggesting the motherhood (and everything) is a many-sided reality after all. And the reader will be chilled by Lane’s suggestion that danger lurks even in the safest of places, that the most heightened maternal vigilance might never be enough.

January 11, 2015

The Devil You Know by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

the-devil-you-knowThe stakes were high for Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s The Devil You Know. On Wednesday morning, I walked 2km at -25 degrees to get a copy, because I’d been hearing such good things about it and it seemed like exactly the kind of book you want to hang out with curled up warm while the blizzard howls. A mystery, a thriller, a book set in Southern Ontario during the 1980s and early ’90s, during which a series of young girls were kidnapped and sometimes found murdered, otherwise their faces depicted on posters for years afterwards under the heading, “Missing.” Years later, “aged-enhanced” images of these children would be updated, but we’d still recognize them. I’ve noticed that reviewers have been responding to the book personally, viscerally. There’s a whole generation of us haunted by these missing girls—I could plot my own history by theirs, from Nicole Morin to Alicia Ross. (I was too young to know about the disappearance and murder of Sharin’ Morningstar Keenan in 1983, though she was taken the very playground where my children play.)

Evie Jones, rookie reporter and protagonist of The Devil You Know is similarly haunted, not least because she’s currently covering the Paul Bernardo case as he and his wife are arrested for the murders of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy in 1993. But also, in particular, because her own childhood best friend was one of the dead girls, Lianne Gagnon, whose story is a fiction conflating the cases of Keenan and Allison Parrott, who was last seen getting into a car with a strange man near Varsity Stadium eleven years before. Leanne’s killer was never found. And when a strange man begins appearing on Evie’s fire escape and elsewhere, a dark figure skirting on the periphery of her life, she begins to wonder if it’s Lianne’s killer returned and if there’s something that he wants from her. Her fears are dismissed by those around her, but she can’t shake the feeling that she’s under threat, and no wonder—her own history, and the stories of women in the world that she covers in her job, do absolutely nothing to suggest otherwise.

It is suggested—perhaps too strongly, my one criticism of this book, for the signs are there and the reader surely can read them—that Evie’s job as a crime reporter is part of her need to control the forces in her life, that she seeks out stories like Bernardo’s and the stories in missing and dead girls, in order to be in command of the narrative for once. And by those concerned for Evie’s wellbeing, it is suggested too that her need for control is a bad thing, that it’s detrimental to her mental health, and that it’s this desperation making her imagine the footsteps at the door… I mean, never mind the actual footsteps at the door.

But with Evie, de Mariaffi dares to posit instead that female agency is a salve instead of a symptom. Evie Jones is far from perfect, but she’s smart, unflinching, shameless, and brave. The hero of her own story, certainly.

In her research, employing a brand new tool called the internet, Evie starts looking back at the records of what happened to her friend, and learns that there is more to the story than she ever knew. The big picture that emerges as she puts pieces together begins to suggest that the story of Lianne’s disappearance is less random than Evie ever supposed, and that she can trace the case back to a place that’s closer to home than she can bare to imagine. And that all the trouble (and the footsteps) might not be in her head after all.

The Devil You Know is a gripping, fast-paced book that I had to be torn away from, an excellent crime book with strong female protagonists, in scintillating company with those by Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn. But there is more to it than that. More than just nostalgia too, though it’s a part of it. de Mariaffi was long-listed for the Giller prize a couple of years ago for her short story collection, How to Get Along With Women, which included her acclaimed short story, “Kiss Me Like I’m the Last Man on Earth,” which I first read in The New Quarterly. And while it seemed like a leap for a writer to go from literary short stories to a thriller, once I began reading The Devil…, the connection seemed quite straightforward to me. Partly because of the nostalgia that infuses both the novel and the story, 1980s Toronto in startling specificity. But also because of how much short story writing sets one up to write a plot driven novel—this has never occurred to me before.

Short stories are all about atmosphere and their scenes, one moment standing in for many, representative of a broader picture. Nothing is extraneous, and so too is it with a crime novel, plot-driven, which just really means one scene after another. Though perhaps with some writers and books, the reader doesn’t notice the scene, so preoccupied is she by plot, but the scenes stand out in The Devil You Know. A gripping, fast-paced book that I had to be torn away from, and I kept noticing the scenes, which were like tiny short stories contained within. The plot is the book’s foundation, but the story rises far and large above it.

It was terrific, and definitely worth a walk in the cold.

January 8, 2015

Vacation Reads Part 2: All the Best/All the Rest

I don’t actually care about the weather, or the accommodations, or the buffet. If the books are no good, then the vacation is ruined. And this is never more important than when one is vacationing at home, as I was over the holidays. I finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s Lila on Christmas Eve, confident that the flat rectangular packages under our Christmas tree would yield great reading, and was I ever right.

exact-replicaThe first book I set to reading was An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken, which I read in a day, and this meant that I spent all day Christmas being discovered hiding with my paperback, weeping, and exclaiming, “This book is just so good.” Stuart felt bad at first: “I got you a book that makes you sad.” But I shushed him. The sadness was important, but not the point. That I was weeping was a testament to this book, whose resistance of sentimentality is most remarkable. And it was also funny. Plus, brilliant. A memoir by the author of Thunderstruck and Other Stories, which was one of my top books of 2014. It’s the story that bridges the stillbirth of her first child with the birth of her second, a healthy boy, a year later, and it probes the edges of motherhood and humanity in a way that’s so important because few storytellers go to these places, where so many people go all the time. I’d recommend this book to anyone who is literate—no experience or interest in the subject matter required. It is a truly extraordinary memoir. I can’t wait to read McCracken’s other books.

Book Cover The UThe other book I got for Christmas was the essay collection The Unspeakable, by Meghan Daum, which tied into the McCracken memoir in its probing of edges. (Daum is also editor of the essay anthology Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, out in March.) These essays are also about the things nobody talks about—what really happens when your mother dies, particularly if your relationship has always been fraught; what we’re looking for in dating and relationships, and in marriage; about nostalgia (though, truthfully, everybody talks about that) and about how the soundtrack to your twenties becomes “unbearable to listen to in twenty years…not because they…sound dated and trite but because they…sound like the lining of your soul”); about filling the supposed space in one’s life by not having children; on being “an honorary dyke”; playing charades with Nicole Kidman and Nora Ephron; being in a coma (last two examples in which “unspeakableness” becomes literal). Truthfully, some parts of these pieces flirted around the edges of the mundane, and really the guiding principle of these essays is their singular point of view, by the contrarian misfit, Daum, an excellent writer who examines everything critically, including her own insatiable thirst for discovering an authentic way to be in the world. There is a point to everything.

exmoorNext, I reread The Witch of Exmoor by Margaret Drabble because, while she is one of my favourite authors, most of her output has in fact faded into a blur in my mind and I need to revisit many of them to remember what was what. It is possible that the books that had faded aren’t her best—that the fading is a mark of the books rather than my reading. Exmoor didn’t blow my mind. It received some poor reviews when it was published in 1996, James Wood contending that her Dickensian project lacked the depth of the original, that her characters were never allowed to be fully developed human beings and rather were pieces their author moved around on a game board. Though this is actually what I love best about Drabble’s work, her command of her fictional universe, the metafictional elements. I wonder if the novel was a victim of timing though: a year later was Labour’s election victory on the UK, the advent of the internet would also bring about rapid change. Her portrayal of “the way we live now” was almost so much on the cusp of something that the cusp itself seems less relevant in retrospect.

51N9Q7S021L.jpgAnd then I read Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe, the first novel by author of the epistolary memoir Love, Nina. It’s possible that my aversion to the Drabble was too much heavy for holiday, and Man at the Helm was a perfect counter. Nancy Mitford meets Sue Townsend, the story of Lizzie Vogel, a young girl whose wealthy parents divorce in the 1970s, the children and their mother relocating to a Leicestershire village whose inhabitants are hostile to newcomers, in particular households without “a man at the helm.” And so Lizzie and her sister hatch a plot to find their mother a new man, a plan that has the unintended consequence of their mother sleeping with half the husbands in the village, doing her reputation not much good. Oh, it was so funny, and I loved it.

housekeeper-and-professorAnd then my final holiday read was The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, which I plucked off the shelf at Book City because I liked the cover, and I loved the book for that reason very much before I read it, and then I read it, and there were other reasons. That it was a translation, first, which meant I was succeeding at my New Year’s Resolution before the New Year had even started. I also like that it was another book I read in a day, which is one of my great pleasures. It’s the story of a housekeeper who works for a former professor of mathematics with a brain injury that means he has a short-term memory of only 80 minutes, but the professor is taken with her young son, he teaches them both about the poetry of numbers, and the three of them together form a tenuous family unit for a while, a remarkable equation, the opposite of their previously lonely lives.

January 6, 2015

Vacation Reads Part 1: Marilynne Robinson

gileadAnd now I am going to lay down a path, book by book, of how I made my way through a vacation packed with spectacular reads. It helped that I went on reading vacation a week or so before my actual vacation, abandoning myself to the task of reading all Marilynne Robinson’s novels in order. I really loved Housekeeping, and was taken by its magic and gothic sensibility. I was wary of Gilead though, as I always have been. It just didn’t seem like a book for me. But while I found it slow to start, I eventually came to appreciate it very much, and found John Ames’ worldview so admirable and beautiful, but then I was wary of that too—was I reading this like an old-age New-Age self-help guide to understanding how the world is? It is possible that I actually read all novels this way, but Gilead was so conspicuously in its, well, preachiness. Which I don’t mean as a criticism, actually. John Ames would have been an extraordinary preacher. But it is okay that I was underlining lines like they were delivered by a deity? Doesn’t this make me not far from someone who puts post-its in Chicken Soup for the Soul? So I am conflicted, but then so is Ames, which is the power of his point of view, actually. There is much subtlety at work here. That makes me nervous too. Anyway, I liked this book.

homeI moved on to Home, which was a reread, and which turned out to be the book I liked least of the lot. While I did find it interesting to read the two books side-by-side and see how differently characters’ behaviour was interpreted by the others than what they’d intended (and the idea that came to me while I was reading KD Miller’s All Saints last summer: that we are all figments of one another’s imaginations after all), I found Home to be a bit agonizing in its repetitiveness and melodrama. Due to being on vacation and sick, I watched the stupid by entertaining movie, “They Came Together” starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd as I was reading Home, and maybe it was partly the head cold, but when I picked up the book again, it similarly seemed to be a spoof of sentimentality, just one darn thing after another. I don’t know if an Amy Poehler vehicle has ever been used to critique a Marilynne Robinson book before, and maybe this is my one real act of originality in this life. It is possible that reading Home and Gilead so close together wasn’t a great move after all, and perhaps I was just bored of the storyline? I do find it interesting that Gilead won the Pulitzer and Home won the Orange Prize, and I’m thinking, come on women’s fiction prize, you’ve got to up your game.

616Eizn12dLAnd then I read Lila, and I am so glad that I read all the others before because they really are a cycle, bringing us back to womanhood, daughterhood, motherhood, transiency, and a certain wildness. If The Grapes of Wrath married Gilead, this is what they’d come up with. I think what I like about Lila and Gilead over Housekeeping is that both are so engaged with the world instead of apart from it, and engagement does not require certainty. Ames and Lila really are such perfect companions, even if gaps in language and emotion keeps this from being articulated from one to the other, which is certainly a kind of faith. I suppose any marriage is.

And I started underlining John Ames’ sermons again: “Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvellous. Our experience is fragmentary. Its parts don’t add up. They don’t even belong in the same calculation. Sometimes it is hard to believe they are all parts of one thing. Nothing makes sense until we understand that experience does not accumulate like money, or memory, or like years and frailties.”

I think I will definitely have to read Lila again, this time while not so doped up on Marilynne Robinson, because it’s certainly a novel that deserves to be considered in its own right. Confession: I didn’t adore it. I don’t think I’ve quite cracked its surface yet. I also find myself at a distance from it, as I do Gilead. Both books find me unsteady as a reader, but I think that is a good thing. So I will return to it, which is the best thing about books, how you can do so over and over.

Now stay tuned for Part II of my Vacation Reads which includes (get ready for it!) the books I got for Christmas. So good.

 

January 4, 2015

Rose’s Run by Dawn Dumont

Rose's Run CoverWell, if a holiday has to eventually end, Rose’s Run by Dawn Dumont is a pretty good book to go out on, a book that’s funny, breezy and heartwarming, and then manages to include a terrifying demon in the mix who feeds on the strength of women, so I was hooked in a cannot-turn-out-the-light-until-I’m-done kind of way, an I’m-going-to-have-nightmares kind of way (and I did!), and I haven’t been so gripped a scary book since I read The Troop by Craig Davidson/Nick Cutter a year ago.

But let’s back up a bit. The novel begins with Rose Okanese, a First Nations woman living on a reserve in rural Saskatchewan, catching her husband bonking her cousin (and his), and then him taking off with their car so she has no way to get to work at the pig-farm. She loses her job, and has also just caught her teenage daughter doing drugs—troubles compounding. And to further compound them, Rose—through a series of misunderstandings—starts a rumour that she’s going to be running in the reserve’s annual marathon. More than a few pounds overweight and a heavy smoker, Rose is an unlikely candidate for the race, but she eventually starts training, one foot in front of the other, a seemingly insurmountable challenge, but perhaps the one thing in her world she has any control over.

If things could get any worse, it seems that her daughter and her troubled friend have managed to raise a demon from the dead, a spirt called “The Dream Woman” who feeds on the strength of the women around her and seeks vengeance for the many wrongs done to them by men. One by one, the women on the reserve become possessed by the woman’s spirit, but somehow Rose remains immune—perhaps because of the extent of her own strength as she begins to get stronger, and also somehow due to the ghost of her mother who remains a protective presence.

Soon, the marathon is the least of Rose’s problems as she is forced to battle with The Dream Woman, freeing the local women from her power (and the local men from their brutal justice), protecting her daughters in the process and sending the spirit back into the earth where she came from.

Kind of preposterous, yes, but Dawn Dumont (a comedian and broadcaster whose first novel, Nobody Cries at Bingo, was shortlisted for two Alberta book awards) balances the supernatural elements with real emotional connections between her characters, Rose’s down to earth point of view, and a wonderful ribald sense of humour. I’ve never encountered a book that managed to be hilarious and terrifying at once—and the humour never ceases, even when the suspense is at its height, but it never gets too silly either. Which makes for a really fantastic and engaging read.

While Rose’s Run would have benefitted from a stronger edit (I stumbled on a few typos and errors; the prose could have been tighter), any problems didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel. I read the book with an awareness of Julie Flett’s recent comments on the importance of First Nations literature:

“Our First Nation, Métis, and Inuit communities vitally need books with text and artwork that reflect our cultures and realities. Our works are also critical resources for increasing awareness and understanding in Canadian society, contributing relevancy to literacy programs, improving curricula, at all levels, across Canada, and adding significantly to the body of Canadian literature.”

There is nothing polemical about the novel at all, but not far beneath its breezy style and humour, it certainly is political, depicting the complicated reality of life on First Nations’ reserves, and in particular the status of First Nations women (whose problems at their most extreme and not so rarely either have led to the disappearance and/or murder of more than a thousand of these people in the last two decades). Now is certainly a time in which Canadian First Nations women seem to be finally starting to receive what they’re due—see the recent critical response to the television show, “Mohawk Girls“‘; the potential for a book by a First Nations woman to be part of the Canada Reads lineup for the very first time;  the Native Women’s Association of Canada receiving the 2014 Vox Libera Award from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and more—and a book like Rose’s Run is an inspiring part of this cultural wave.

But it’s also just a really good book, and one I read avidly. A very good way to begin a new reading year.

December 9, 2014

The Bookshop That Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw

bookThe trouble with being a little bit odd is that my book recommendations are not always universal, and so it is useful when I encounter a book as odd as I am, to which I can point and say, “This book is not for everyone. BUT.” Say, if you are the type who can identify with a woman who finds an injured pigeon (while travelling on her canal boat, which she has converted into a financial under-performing bookshop) and then decides to uncover all references to pigeons in the Western canon, then The Bookshop That Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw is definitely for you. It is definitely for me. My husband is a bit relieved that I’ve finally finished it, because for the past few days, I’ve been reading him passages from every other page, and while he conceded that they were indeed quite funny, he found the whole thing rather strange.

Last night in particular was the part in the book that was narrated from the perspective of the boat itself (oh yes—and its narration replicates Black Beauty, with which the boat [called Joseph] shares a colour) in which Henshaw comes home traumatized by having found “a discarded sanitary towel pressed between the pages of a reference book on cowboys… [S]he said that book vandalism was the devil’s own trade mark, and if we saw any one who took pleasure in leaving menstrual paraphernalia between pages, we might know to whom he belonged, for the devil was a murderer from the beginning and a tormentor to the end. On the other hand, where we saw people who loved their books and were kind to hardback and soft cover, we might know that was God’s mark; for ‘God loves books.'”

To be fair, that’s probably the oddest part of the book. I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. But still….

The premise of this book initially put me in mind of Penelope Fitzgerald, with the offshore and the bookshop, and everything, and while Henshaw doesn’t reference Fitzgerald, The Bookshop That Floated Away still did not disappoint. It’s not really a book about a premise anyway, but instead very much of itself, about the curious incidents that transpire when the strange and insular worlds of books and canal boating connect. The latter is not always romantic—in Burnley, they have to navigate over a sofa, and then she fears a human head has become stuck on her propeller. And then there are the locks, so many locks, mostly manual, which is no small business when you are a solo journeyer and your boat is sixty feet long. It’s a different kind of off-roading, which results in travel book that reminded me of Beryl Bainbridge’s English Journey, if Bainbridge had been travelling by canal boat and had a propensity for hosting book clubs on her boat and imbibing far too much wine.

Henshaw’s journey comes about when her plans for opening a bookshop on a barge aren’t as lucrative as she’d supposed, the problem perhaps exacerbated by a conspicuous lack of business savvy—her one qualification for the gig is a voracious appetite for books, and the ability to see the whole world through a bookish prism. So she decides to go on a six month journey from the Midlands to London, then to Bristol, back through the Midlands to Leeds and Manchester, and then home, bartering books for Victorian sponge cake and spreading the word about the importance of independent bookshops.

On the way, she has good days and catastrophes, the boat indeed floats away, people vomit on its astroturf roof, she finds three injured pigeons, the boat is stolen, vandalized, the Mayor of Bath calls Joseph a “she”, and they are banned in Bristol. She tells her own story, and is so deft with allusion that she successfully navigates a Heart of Darkness meets Scuffy the Tugboat set-up. The narrative is further powered by other references to boatish and adventure books—Treasure Island, and The Wind and the Willows, plus Anna Karenina, The Count of Monte Cristo, Dick Whittington and His Cat, Our Mutual Friend, but not The Complete Guide to Starting and Running a Bookshop, because Henshaw couldn’t get into it.

The book is crazy wonderful, if you’re a certain kind of reader, though I suspect that if you’re reading this, you might well be. I discovered The Book Barge (which is misnamed, Henshaw tells us, and is actually a narrow boat, the discrepancy causing much consternation among boating purists) from The Bookshop Book, and was pleased to find out (spoilers!) that Henshaw decided not to jump ship at the end of her journey, determining that there was indeed nothing else worth doing as messing about in boats, as both Mole and Rat will attest.

  • Discover The Book Barge online.
  • learn more about The Book Barge
  • PS In an ironic twist of fate, The Bookshop That Floated Away is not available outside the UK (or not here at least), so I was unable to order it through my local independent bookshop, and had to get it through The Book Depository instead. But I am so glad I did…

December 7, 2014

The Return by Dany Laferriere, and books in translation

the-returnFor all kinds of reasons, I am so pleased to have finally read Dany Laferriere’s The Return. Not least because Laferriere is one of Canada’s most internationally celebrated writers—in its original French, The Return won the Prix Médicis (France) in 2009, the International Literature Award (Germany) in 2014, and Laferriere was elected to the Académie française a year ago, the first Haitian and Canadian writer to receive this honour. It was kind of ridiculous that I’d never read him before.

I’m pleased mostly to have read The Return because I liked it so much, a novel that blurs boundaries in all kinds of ways—between fiction and autobiography, poetry and prose, home and exile, belonging and displacement, and also bridging the extremes in common perceptions of Haiti. It’s a novel whose prose is both stirring and lulling, easy to read and rich with wonderful lines. It begins when Dany, our protagonist, receives a phone that tells him his father is dead, a father he hardly knew, and even still, this begins a journey out of exile, back to the Haiti that Dany had fled decades before, to bring the spirit of his father home. So he goes back to a home that is no longer home, driven by a relationship with his father mostly constituted of absence and silence. It’s not a straightforward journey, and nothing is ever merely one thing or another, and I love that.

I love also how the book is so curious in its construction, how it tears down and reconstructs all my ideas of just what a novel is shaped like, which is what I wanted to have happen when I resolved to read more books in translation in 2014. And so I am also glad to have read The Return because it’s one more translation on my reading list, to which I can point now and say that my 2014 goals were met in a way that was not entirely half-assed. Just a modest success, but I did so appreciate the books in translation I read this year—and I like that most of them were Canadian, translated from French (The Return, by David Homel), French via Inuktitut (Sanaaq), and Chiac, an Acadian-French dialect spoken in New Brunswick (For Sure). I also read The Dinner by Herman Koch, translated from Dutch, which I liked a lot, and Viviane by Julia Deck, translated from French and first published in France.

So 5 books out of a hundred and some, which is a bit meh, but alas. I’m going to keep seeking out books in translation in 2015, and I already have a copy of Dany Lafferriere’s I am a Japanese Writer waiting to be read.

December 2, 2014

The View From the Lane by Deborah-Anne Tunney

view-from-the-laneA reader’s first impression of Deborah-Anne Tunney’s The View From the Lane will certainly be informed from the striking image on its cover, which I recognized as an image by Bryan Scott from the beautiful book, Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg. It’s a cover that invites the reader inside, out of the chill—fresh snow, fresh tracks. Though it’s a bit of a trick—the stories in this book aren’t set in Winnipeg at all, and while there is a universal element to both the cover image and the stories, the latter is actually quite particular in its locale, which is the Overbrook neighbourhood of Ottawa, a public housing development built during the 1950s. But still, I think that the cover is right, because of how it drew me to the book, my interest only heightened by a glowing endorsement by Isabel Huggan on the back.

The cover is right too because of the weather. “Winter suited us: the howl of wind, the frost as thick as calluses on the window, the sleet we could see blowing along icy sidewalks in long crystal strands, all served to isolate us in our home that creaked under the weight of all that winter snow.”

The View from the Lane is a book that recalls Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories in its scope. We follow Tunney’s protagonist, Amy, back before her own birth to the lives of her mother and her sisters, their storied childhood in a big house on Nelson Street in Ottawa. One by one, the sisters leave school and begin work in the salon on the ground floor of the Chateau Laurier hotel, and from there they met their fate in the form of disappointing marriages, widowhood, love and loss, and love and loss again. It’s true—winter suits them. It’s almost never summer in this book, it’s almost always snowing, and the stories’ foundation seems to be a disbelief in the possibility of happiness. Or at least the easy kind. Whose opposite still is never dreariness, no, but something more real, and it’s always unfailingly interesting.

Ostensibly, the stories are written from a variety of points of view, many different ways of observing the same thing, which is Amy’s life and history. Though we begin to see that the structure is not even as straightforward as that, and that there is an omniscience here that comes from Amy’s imaginings, her supposing. Even the story told from the perspective of the dog is a thought experiment. She is a woman in the habit of observing mirrors, reflections caught in windows. Her character is implicit in every story in this collection, even those in which she doesn’t appear. Everything is subjective.

While chronology drives the narrative forward, a backward-looking sense pervades the entire book, and it reminded me of the line from Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye when she writes about the past ever bubbling on up to the surface: “Nothing ever goes away.” Which isn’t the only way The View From The Lane recalled Atwood’s classic, the two books with atmospheres so similar—1950s’ childhood, 1960s’ adolescence, the dark edges of suburbia. Though Tunney’s in particular is not so picket-fenced, and she creates a wonderful sense of the neighbourhood of Amy’s childhood, with its red-brick duplexes and townhouses, rusted cars and brambles in the lane ways between the houses, stray dogs roaming the alleys. Even then, the neighbourhood was rough, but it was a place of people, connections, and stories, not a bad place to grow up. Amy’s perspective casts those streets and lanes and alleys within a fog of nostalgia.

It’s where she keeps coming back to even as she grows up, moves away, gets married, then divorced. These are the stories and images she returns to, just as her mother kept returning to her own childhood, and eventually it becomes clear that these stories—which are rich and varied—are marking the trajectory of Amy’s movement toward an understanding of her mother and her mother’s life, at the same time her mother is slipping away from her.

I loved this book just as much as I’d supposed I would when I first saw the cover. Tunney’s prose is the kind that makes her reader sit up and take notice, and while it’s consciously written in some parts, more often it just served to perfectly cast a spell. My other mild criticism is that Amy herself, the heart of the story, remains a bit elusive—there’s a part where somebody comments that her name doesn’t seem to suit her and I felt similarly. The book is so firmly ensconced in her vision that her character is hard to read. When we encounter her more directly in the book’s final story, she almost seems like a stranger.

But even that is more a mark of the book’s interestingness than its failing. And seems in keeping with the cover image too—notice there’s nobody out on the road at night. Instead, this is a book about atmosphere, and memories, and the power of a place in the past to shape the people we become.

November 30, 2014

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

station-elevenLately, I’ve been reading off the beaten track (with more to come—so exciting! Up next is a copy of The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner, and over the holidays I intend to read all four of Marilynne Robinson’s novels. And it thrills me so to read like this), but I am glad I came back down to earth to read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which came recommended by Nathalie Foy and was nominated for a National Book Award. With the latter point in particular, it doesn’t need a review from me, but I want to take a moment write about how much I enjoyed reading it. About how it didn’t immediately seem like something I’d appreciate—The Travelling Symphony, a troupe of actors and musicians, makes its way across America in the years following an apocalyptic flu pandemic that had brought the of civilization as we know it. That kind of setting rarely draws me—I like my books in civilization, thank you very much. But Mandel has a savvy knack of mixing it up, for turning the page at just the point my readerly patience is waning, and taking me somewhere altogether new. The novel moves between (seemingly) our present day and the not-s0-distant future, between Toronto on the eve of the pandemic, Hollywood some years before, and an airport in the future in which relics of the past—mobile phones, credit cards, games consoles, and more—have been preserved in a “Museum of Civilization.” The night of the flu outbreak, an actor dies onstage while performing King Lear at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, a child actress in the wings watching, an audience member jumping on stage to per for CPR. And it turns out that Arthur Leander’s last night is the last night of everything, although memory of that night lives on in the mind of a few survivors connected to the actor. The survivors are also linked by a mysterious comic book whose narrative seems eerily prescient, and it turns out that this book about the end of the world is actually about the best of the world—the Travelling Symphony’s motto (written on their caravans, stolen from Star Trek) is, “Because survival is not enough,” after all.

And it’s not a book without hope. “If there are again towns with streetlights, if there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain?” Which is a question any of us could be asking any time, Station Eleven a reminder that wonders are ever unceasing—the spell of a good book most certainly among them.

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