March 9, 2014
For two weeks, I was reading For Sure by France Daigle, a 719 page novel that doesn’t have much of a plot. However plotless though, For Sure is more useful than most novels I encounter—with its help, I taught my daughter to swim. Seriously. And not just that, but for those two weeks as I lived with this book, a giant doorstop, and its people, strange connections were made between the happenings in their lives and the occurrences within my own. Which is precisely what France Daigle wants me to think. She has no truck with characters or their stories staying within the confines of their pages.
Not least of all because this is the fourth book in her series about a group of people who live and work in converted lofts in Moncton, New Brunswick. In its original French, Pour Sur won the Governor General’s Award for French Literatre in 2012. Though it wasn’t French exactly, but instead Chiac, an Acadian-French dialect mixed with English and Aboriginal influences, spoken by Acadian communities in southeast New Brunswick. Which has been translated into English by Majzels as French-accented English with a Newfoundland bent–”fer sure” for “for sure”, a lot of “dat dem dare.”
The novel is made up of twelve sections, each section broken into fragments, assigned a number code and category. A sense of progression comes from moving through the code rather than the fragments themselves, whose connections are often elusive. (I just mistyped that as “allusive” but I kind of mean that too.) There’s a lot about Scrabble, colours, the names of colours, the colour of letters, attempts to quantify the abstract, apply methodology to slippery things (like novels). An attempt to write the book of Chiac, to put the colloquial down on paper, articulate its rules and laws, but then language is as slippery as a novel after all. And life itself.
There are people here too. At its heart, this is a novel about Terry and Carmen and their small children Etienne and Marianne, and their friends at the lofts where they live, and where Terry works at a bookstore and Carmen co-owns a bar (called Babar). There are little plots, small mysteries, and even a murder (on the periphery). Terry worries about being a good father, they wonder whether their kids might grow up to be gay, they take a holiday, do crosswords, and define their language through acts of every day life. All the characters in the book ponder the mysteries of language and words, and search for meaning in their patterns. Just as the reader of For Sure seeks to put the pieces together in her own right, connect the dots, come up with a whole.
What is most compelling about these characters is their goodness, their aspirations toward such things. And yet that they’re compelling all the same—this is something. They’re flawed too enough to be real, so much so that when France Daigle herself (so we assume) sits down with these fictional people for a chat, and they discuss their place within her narrative and her control over their fates, the conversation is completely plausible, as is the fictional existence of Daigle herself.
More for plausibility: Terry teaches his son to swim by imploring him to try to drown. The boy tries, finds it’s impossible and begins having faith in his buoyancy after all. Which is the same trick I tried the next day after reading this passage, in the swimming pool with my daughter whose relationship to swimming lately has been of an adversarial nature. And it worked! 30 minutes later, she was swimming without clutching another human body for dear life, which is huge. And to think we owe it all to Terry Thibedeau.
It is worth nothing that in reading this translation, rendered in a made-up dialect, there is an enormous gap between what we’re reading and what Daigle and her novel intended. And yet, I think this gap only underlines the novel’s central thesis, which is that precision of language is something of a fallacy. That anything expressed in language is going to be a muddle, a translation. That in reaching toward precision, the reach instead of the precision is always going to be the point.
March 5, 2014
We’ve had The Little Woman Wanted Noise out of the library, a picture book by Val Teal and illustrated by Robert Lawson, recently reissued by New York Review Books. Lawson is notable as the illustrator of The Story of Ferdinand and Mr. Popper’s Penguins, though it was Val Teal’s biography that most intrigued me. “In addition to her stories for children,” it reads, “Teal also wrote a memoir of motherhood, It Was Not What I Expected.”
It Was Not What I Expected is described in this 1948 review as “[s]teering away from sentimentality… a vivacious, gaily turned account of modern parenthood.” I liked the sound of that, as well as any parenting memoir by the author of The Women Wanted Noise, who in her dedication thanks her own three sons, “whose noise inspires the little woman.” The book isn’t easy to come by, long out of print and not held by local libraries, but used copies are available on Abebooks (though that I bought the cheapest I regret now, because it came without a dust jacket).
I had some ideas of what an account of modern parenthood published in 1948 might read like. I had these ideas because a long time ago I’d read Dream Babies: Childcare Advice from John Locke to Gina Ford by Christina Hardyment, which is where I first encountered the idea of babies being aired from apartment buildings in cages. It is also where it was first made clear to me that childcare advice (and “parenting philosophies,” baby fads and gadgets, and dictums everyone from Ferber to Sears) is a complete load of bollocks, and that we ought to cleanse our minds of most of it, except for reasons involving amusement or historical interest. The more things change, the more they stay the same, which is both a cliche, and also Hardyment’s thesis and in this context, such a revelation.
For example, here is Val Teal on big strollers, which remain, of course, a contentious issue to this day:
“In those days buggies were built. None of your light canvas affairs. They had a solid steel framework and lots of it. They had a big wicker body and hood with a steel bottom with a diaper compartment large enough to hold a dozen or so. The baby-carriage manufacturers expected you to push the baby on really long trips. If you took the notion to walk to Chicago some afternoon to visit your aunt they would not stand in your way. They had prepared a perambulator with ample space for the baby’s and your luggage during your stay. They expected you to have a big baby and push him around until he was three or four years old and they had provided room for this, with enough left over to bring home the groceries, including a watermelon if you were so inclined. The buggy weighed several hundred pounds, several hundred and fifty pounds with the baby and his paraphernalia aboard. We did not have an extra garage to keep it in. It furnished our small dining room very nicely before we could afford a dining room set. While you pushed this young truck around like mad, your tongue hanging out the baby sat like a rosy king, taking in the world with his round eyes, the air with his pink nose.”
It is often said that nobody tells the truth about motherhood, though I think the reality is really that nobody ever listens. Because Val Teal was telling the truth in 1948, Betty Friedan in 1963 Erma Bombeck in the 1970s, Susan Swan in 1992, just to pick a handful of examples. Some early passages from It Was Not What I Expected were so similar to my own experiences, which had come as such a surprise to me when my first baby was born. Like this one, as Teal and her husband arrive at the hospital for their first baby’s arrival:
“Across the street a young couple were just getting home. They were laughing and talking softly as he found the key and put it in the door. We could have been just like that as well as not. We could have been just coming home from a party. Why had I been so eager? Maybe I’d die. Maybe we’d never come home from a party like that again together… We had been so happy. We’d had a good life. Why had I had to get ambitious? Darn it all, I didn’t want a baby. I just wanted to go home and go to parties.”
A few pages later, the baby is born, and mother and son are home:
“The Baby cried and cried. I had given up not feeding him at two in the morning long ago. Every time I fed him he went to sleep for half an hour. Then he cried again.
‘I didn’t know it would be like this,’ I wept to Bill. ‘I wish I was back in the hospital.’”
Motherhood was less complicated for previous generations, Teal explains. She describes a trip when her first son was seven months old, the directions they’d had to send ahead, provisions required, their car ridiculously packed. Along they way, they stop for the baby’s sunbath (as dictated by both government pamphlets and the Women’s Home Companion). She writes, “I used to think about [my mother] being cleaned up every afternoon, baking cakes for visitors, sprinting off peppy as a kitten to coffee parties, pushing her baby-sled full of clean babies, and I wished I’d lived then when babies were less complicated…”
It Was Not What I Expected takes great joy in dissecting the naiveté of the new mother, insistent upon raising baby according to the book (what book? depends which decade, I suppose). How stupid we all were in those early days, and how determined we were that we would be the masters of motherhood rather than motherhood be the masters of us. Naturally, hilarity ensues.
Memorable scenes include Teal getting locked in the attic while her son sits outside the door eating beads, and the time she hires a simple-minded creature prone to seizures to babysit as she tries to better herself at a meeting of the American Association of University Women and it all goes wrong. (“I began gradually to give up the International Relations section because Hitler seemed to go right ahead doing impolite and smarty things, even though we met every week with luncheons too, instead of teas.)
And like any mother, she frets about play dates:
“I learned at the Child Study Group that children need companionship. If you child did not have others to play with you must do something about it. You must see that other children came to your house. It was a matter of life and death. Or anyway the difference between success and failure. You must drag in companionship. You must inveigle children to come. You must offer them food and toys, anything, to get them there. Companionship was the breath of life to the normal child.”
Teal’s second child just escapes being born in the Piggly Wiggly. “Now I knew all about babies,” she writes. “Peter would be easy to raise. I was experienced. There would be no foolishness about who was boss. I knew who was boss.” Instead of books to raise this baby, she decides, she’ll employ her own instinct. She will let the baby do what he likes.
More adventures in motherhood with boys: the necessary acquisition of a menagerie, dogs, ducks and rabbits. The obligatory paper-route. She helicopter parents, terrified of her boys riding their bicycles and therefore driving along behind them in the car on the way to their music lessons.
She addresses her determination that her boys shall play with dolls, much to the concern of everyone around her. To which she replies, pre-dating Charlotte Zolotow, “If more boys had been allowed to play with doll there’d be more intelligent fathers. Boys have been taught for too long a time that it is shameful for men to have anything to do with the care and bringing up of children. Men need tenderizing. I’m going to raise them to, first of all, be kind and loving fathers, and considerate husbands.” This chapter is wonderful, and ends with her son packing his doll (Uncle Pat Mulligan), along with a toy revolver on a trip:
“What have you got that for?” I asked. “Leave [the gun] at home. You’ve got enough to carry.”
“No, I gotta have it,” Peter grabbed for the gun.
“What for?” I asked, holding it back.
“If Pat Mulligan turns bad on this trip I’ll have to shoot him in the stomach,” Peter said.
I gave Peter the gun. You never could tell when Pat Mulligan might turn bad.
Teal’s picture book and her memoir are excellent companions. In the former, the little woman cannot rest without noise and goes out of her way to acquire more and more animals to liven up her farm and fill the air with sound. With that same lust for more, Teal writes in her memoir of her own yearning for a large family, a yearning augmented by a miscarriage and a stillbirth. “What no man, no doctor, no woman who has never lost a child can ever know about, is the consuming desire to replace that child that comes to the woman who has lost one.” The losses are not dwelt on here, but neither are they swept under a rug, instead acknowledged in practical terms as part of the vast motherhood experience.
Teal’s narrative is remarkable for its blend of wry humour and depth, of exasperation and joy. She so perfectly articulates motherhood as the curious mix that it is of the spiritual and earthly, the perfect and perfectly awful:
“Sometimes I’d look down and see these children around the house and feel very surprised and young and incapable… My goodness, where had they come from?… How in the world had this come about all of a sudden? They weren’t dolls, dream-figures. They were real, alive children, going-to-be men; dear Heaven, what had I done? I had made people! I had made people, Lord help me, people with emotions and plans and wishes and disappointments and longings. People. With souls. And when it would come over me, I’d stand very still and get very scared and helpless feeling. But they always brought me out of it.”
March 2, 2014
It’s about once or twice a day when something happens that reminds me how much I’m going to miss Book City when it’s gone (which is not too long now–stock is down to 40% off and the shelves are bare). I’m going to miss having a shop just around the corner that I could quite sure would have a copy of The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Criticism by Anita Lahey in stock. In fact, they had two. To think I took this for granted for awhile, being served as a member of the public who just happened to require The Mystery Shopping Cart at a moment’s notice.
And the reason that I required the book was because I was developing this fantasy in which I published a series of books of literary essays and reviews by Canadian women critics (including myself, naturally). I find that women writers in particular tend to be a bit all over the shop in terms of oeuvre, and I think that something magical might happen when you curate their non-fiction into a book, and some kind of overarching narrative emerges, their preoccupations become apparent, the approach that was always always there, but it’s just that she didn’t feel the need to state it in boldface over and over again.
This fantasy came about because I kept noticing the way in which male critics tend to get their work collected into books in numbers which, compared to female critics, reflects how much more of their criticism is published in the first place. And then I discovered The Mystery Shopping Cart, the book of my dreams. To Book City I ventured then in order to hold that dream in my hand.
Last week I stated (on twitter, no less) that The Mystery Shopping Cart was a perfect antidote to February, as well as to bookstore closures and general dissatisfaction with the state of the world. Because here is a book that testifies that words, books and ideas matter. Here is a smart and generous voice that takes the reader into its fold. The book begins with friendship, Lahey’s with poet Diana Brebner, and I didn’t manage to get through the first piece about Brebner (and how a mysterious shopping cart had once found its way, overturned, onto Anita Lahey’s lawn) before putting one of Brebner’s books on hold at the library–the one with her Mary Pratt poems.
This is that kind of book, the kind that takes you places. The kind with essays about poetry that I read anyway, though I am not a poet myself, or a confident reader of them. These are essays about poets I’ve never heard of, poets that I’ve never read, and I read these essays anyway. They presume that I should care about these things, invite me to do so, and I do. I am welcomed into the conversation, rather than alienated from it (by jargon, theory, grudges and biases I’m not privy to). Last week, for the first time I reviewed a poetry collection and felt confident about what I’d written, certainly not least of all because I was writing under Lahey’s influence. From The Mystery Shopping Cart, I’m learning that poetry might be mine to think about and write about, that I don’t necessarily need to learn a whole other language in order to do so, and just because poetry sometimes leaves me puzzled doesn’t mean I’m reading wrong, and that puzzlement (and a willingness to be made so vulnerable) is sometimes the very point.
Much of this book was familiar to me from Lahey’s associations with The New Quarterly. It was a pleasure to once again encounter her interview with Sharon McCartney and Kerry Ryan about poetry and boxing/wrestling/kickboxing, as well as her conversation with Kim Jernigan and Alice Munro. I’d also read some of her reflections from Arc Poetry Magazine in the wonderful Quarc Issue (which I adored and wrote about in 2011).
I enjoyed her essays about poets familiar to me (PK Page and Gwendolyn MacEwen, and how she takes issue with the former for inspiring a generation of Canadian poets to write terrible glosssas, and with the rest of us with conflating the self and work of the latter) and others–Dorothy Roberts, exiled Canadian and niece of Charles G.D.–who knew? I also appreciated her conversation with poets Stephanie Bolster and John Barton about the lure of ekphrasis. And how Lahey’s critic work is complemented by the personal essay included at the end.
The whole book was so good that it makes me fantasize about my female critics series more than ever. Sometimes I fear that in spending so much time lamenting the voices that are missing that we’re neglecting to pay attention to the few that are there. Kudos for Palimpsest Press for making this reader pay attention.
February 28, 2014
I reviewed Know the Night: A Memoir of Survival in the Small Hours by Maria Mutch in the National Post, and writing the piece was like building something out of materials which are more exquisite than anything I’ve ever worked with. The book is weird, wonderful and enthralling, and to call it a memoir about parenting or autism is to reduce the book to something finite, which it isn’t. The book is bigger than all of that–it’s about books, jazz, lists, loneliness, the whole world, and it’s a love story too.
‘”There is nothing quite like caring for a child alone, while the rest of the world is sleeping. In the dark, reality loses its shape, time slows as the clock ticks towards sunrise. It is easy to become unhinged. In her first book, Know the Night, Maria Mutch documents her own experiences during what she calls “the small hours.” For two years her oldest son, Gabriel, slept very little. She was either up caring for him, or, anticipating he would soon awaken, be unable to sleep herself. It was an arrangement Mutch calls a product of “parenting’s alchemical gist: the love for the child … mitigates everything else; what would seem anathema to others becomes … the status quo.’”
February 24, 2014
I think I’ve finally got the hang of how to read a poetry collection, or at least one which is not structured around an overarching narrative. And the way to read such a collection, I’m learning, goes a lot like the advice of the late Mavis Gallant on reading short stories: “Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.”
So I’ve been reading poems from Lynn Davies’ How the Gods Pour Tea over the past couple of months, shutting the book, coming back later. It’s a thin book too, one I’ve been tucking into my coat pocket to read while I’m watching Harriet’s swimming lessons, or waiting for her in the playground after school. Its a beautiful book, printed in Toronto at Coach House, but in its travels with me the edges of the cover have become worn, the baby has chewed on it once or twice. I was reading in the park on Friday when snowflakes started falling, and they left tiny prints on the page, and this was so absolutely perfect for this book in which the line between books and nature seem to have been obliterated: “The squirrels have pulled apart my diaries for their enormous nest…” from “In the Bookstore.”
Though in a way, there is an overarching theme to this collection, which is a sense of sadness and being bereft, there being an absence which has shifted things and made the narrator pay close attention to things she hasn’t noticed for awhile. Nature as something almost monstrous, certainly wondrous. When I started to read the book, I was reading the poems in order, deciphering each one for a central message, a sign. I almost managed to catch “On Mercy” in a net, and I loved the poem for my accomplishment. I was besotted with “On My Knees at the Strawberry U-Pick,” this poem about scattered pieces of conversation eavesdropped on, Davies’ lines like, “How the boys lay down/ to ponder infinity, how the idea of fruit flies/ spurs me on.” The way these poems manage to so perfectly and curiously mingle the ethereal and down-to-earth, moving from one place to another with such ease.
But then I put the book down because to decipher each poem was too much. I was starting to realize that these weren’t poems that would ever make perfect sense, no matter how much I broke down line-by-line. And when that was finally understood, it all was easier, and I would pick up the book and flip randomly for a page that seemed to call me, and these callings were alway so perfectly timed.
Reading “Ice Storm” just before Christmas: “We’re blinded/ by the extra light/ knotted in trees,/ our feet pulled/ out from under/ us again.” “Power Poles” which poses questions about a pole with the same reverence we’d give a tree, its wild cousin, who is not “bristly with staples and bits of old post.” The end of “Alone”: “I leave books open/ in every room/ of our house.” Reading “The Golden Roofs” this past week, about images of Kiev. Reading “How Much?”, which wonders if equations can be posed for anything, which is the same conceit as France Daigle’s For Sure, which I’m reading right now.
“Fireworks” is like “On Mercy”, which is that I can’t quite pin it down, but I understand precisely what it’s grasping at—the closest these poems get to clarity: “Could be the rowdy city/ cousins of aurora borealis. /How the Gods pour tea.” And ending with. “A parachute/ for all the nights ahead of us.” (I think that with these poems I’m also finally beginning to understand “sublime.”) There is a poem about cheese, about the space between blue cheese and cheddar, a daughter’s perspective of a father “who so rarely pretended or played at anything.”
Reading “Footins” in the park the other day,” Three-headed February and freezing rain/ coats the road. I’m reading Chekhov and Gilbert/ and cookbooks.” Which becomes a trip through the dictionary: “What sea did f cross to get here,/ that failing grade…”
I don’t know what a “footin” is, or why February has three heads. Who is Gilbert? Why the squirrels are in the bookstore either. I haven’t read all the poems in How the Gods Pour Tea, but I’ve realized I don’t have to, or at least not in order. This is not a book that will be caught in a net, but instead, I’ve let it live alongside me, carried it in my pocket. These are poems that will cast spells in their own sweet time. Indeed, these are poems that can wait.
February 22, 2014
It almost seems remiss now to admit that I’ve read Middlemarch just once, and not until I was too old for it to become the foundation of my being. Because what a foundation, its purview so large and dense, the force of its moral sweep. Middlemarch is the novel that New Yorker Staff Writer Rebecca Mead has returned to again and again, as she sets out to explain in her new book, My Life in Middlemarch.
Not simply a celebration of George Eliot’s novel, however, Mead’s book is a testament to the strange alchemy of the reread. “A really good book can speak to you at a different stage of your life,” she told me during a recent telephone conversation
“With a book as complex as Middlemarch, literally there are different stories you can appreciate at different times,” she says. And even the same stories and characters are subject to change. While in her early experiences with the novel, Mead identified with Dorothea Brook’s inchoate longing, years later, it would be Casaubon who she’d view with sympathy. “You realize that he was just a very sad, middle-aged man who messed up. You can’t but read him in middle age and see the stripes of that in your experience.”
In Middlemarch, Mead sees stripes of Eliot’s experience as well, My Life in Middlemarch emerging as a curious blend of biography, autobiography and literary analysis. It’s the kind of approach to a novel—particularly a classic one—that university trains out of most of us. (The day after our conversation, Mead tweeted: “recurring question theme from Canadian interviewers: Did you ever think “how dare I write this book?” #thingsAmericansdontask”.)
But it was an approach that came naturally to Mead. “I studied literature at university and became aware that the way that scholars think and talk about books isn’t the way that ordinary readers do.” She wished her book to be an acknowledgement that “a sense of recognition is where a lot of the pleasure of reading begins.”
She continues, “Why do ordinary people read? They read because they feel that the stories they’re learning are enriching their lives somehow or they’re giving them a way to think about their own experience.”
While My Life in Middlemarch is concerned with Mead’s own experiences though (in love, work, parenthood, in relation to her parents, and her native England), her autobiography remains peripheral to the book’s central narrative. “I was happy with balance I struck,” she said. “Some people wanted more and wanted less. The book is very personal, but it’s not confessional. I think I must have been, without consciously thinking about it, channeling this sense of Victorian restraint.”
Ultimately, the richest life story in My Life in Middlemarch turns out to be Eliot’s own, Mead using the novelist’s biography (which was highly unconventional by Victorian standards, and even our own) to draw out the novel’s subtle underpinnings. Few critics have mined Middlemarch for what it has to tell us about motherhood, except perhaps how motherhood can come between two women, as it does for Dorothea and her sister, Celia.
On the basis of her own experience, however, Mead is able to see more deeply into the novel. An uncanny connection (of many) has Mead herself become the stepmother to three boys, just as Eliot was (by her husband, George Henry Lewes). And Mead shows how Eliot’s experiences as a stepmother are echoed within the stories of Middlemarch and its structure, these echoes revealing just how deeply a woman who never had biological children was able to intuit motherhood after all.
“If I could ask George Eliot any question,” remarks Mead, “it would be to ask her about not having children herself, whether she always knew that it was something that she didn’t want. For me, having a child has been most important thing I’ve ever done, for her not to have had that intensity of experience…”
One area in which Eliot did have intensity of experience, however, was in her relationship with Lewes, which Mead depicts as a love story far too perfect to ever work in fiction. “Their relationship was a real inspiration,” she says. “They had their ups and downs, but were intensely compatible. They had this amazing writers’ companionship. Their relationship was especially moving because they met well into middle age. They were both mature and seasoned, had experienced disappointment.”
While Eliot’s biography is indeed central to My Life in Middlemarch, it is the novel itself that structures the book, whose eight chapters are titled for the eight books of Middlemarch. Such a structure came about organically.
“As I was taking notes and figuring it out, it became clear that the titles were so suggestive, perfectly apt for describing aspects of [Eliot’s] life [“Old and Young”, “Waiting for Death”, “Three Love Problems”, etc.], and from that, the book flowed very easily. I haven’t written anything on this scale with such a structural conceit before, and I’m delighted by the aesthetic shape of it, very happy.”
“There were moments,” Mead notes, “writing this book where I was so deep in it everything fitting together, and I felt either I’m really inspired or I’m psychotic; it all meshed.”
It was pointed out to Mead in a recent interview that the connections might go even deeper, that her own book manages to recapitulate the moral story of Middlemarch, the journey from self-centredness into wider empathy. My Life in Middlemarch starts off with Mead’s own story and her connection to the novel, to conclude with a deeper understanding of her parents’ lives and relationship, through the story of Fred and Mary. Mead was thrilled to see this. “What a joyful experience it was to write it,” she says.
The book is a joyful experience to read as well, as attested to by the terrific buzz it has generated. That buzz is all the more remarkable for how much this isn’t the sort of book that any of us these days are meant to be interested in anyway, a celebration of reading a book that’s more that 140-years old, not to mention so much longer than 140 characters.
The response to her book, says Mead, “maybe speaks to a yearning people have to slow down. People are responding to my taking the time to slow down with Middlemarch, to go through it and to read so carefully.”
And not just read it, but reread it. Mead agrees here with my suggestion that there is particular relationship between rereading and the Victorian novel. “That attempt at a whole panorama… There is destiny, ambition, scale and pace that allows one to go back and revisit.”
But what a challenge is rereading with so little time for reading at all.
And here, Mead shares an anecdote about a character she encountered during her Middlemarch research. One of the eight original Middlemarch novellas had come up for auction, and she went to the sale. The book sold for $35,000. Mead told the buyer, “I wish I had that kind of money to spend on a book.”
She says, “And he told me, ‘You do. You just need to rearrange your priorities.’ With rereading, it’s the same.”
- Check out Middlemarch for Book Clubs
February 2, 2014
While I loved Keavy Martin’s review of the Inuit novel Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk (transliterated and translated from Inuktitut to French by Bernard Saladin d’Anglure, and translated from French to English by Peter Frost in this new edition by University of Manitoba Press), a review which placed the novel in its context but also took it beyond the context—this is not “merely” a novel written by somebody who’d never read one, but a work of literature onto itself, something to be understood or even just experienced rather than contextualized—, I do think she overstated the challenge this book poses for the inexperienced reader. All set for a challenge was I, but instead I found myself enjoying myself, not so lost in an unfamiliar environment. The novel comes with a glossary of terms, but I could deduce most words by how they were used. The novel’s foreword by Bernard Saladin d’Anglure set the story up well for me, and in terms of the novel’s episodic nature? Well, obviously this was just an Inuit version of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (I am only being half facetious here), so I knew what I was getting into.
Sanaaq is a young widow with a little daughter living as part of a semi-nomadic community in Northern Quebec. The novel’s 48 episodes show the rhythms of their daily life and its seasons, with all the usual drama implied–marriage, love, familial strife, hardship and loss, tragedy, and happiness. Oh, and tea. These characters are as preoccupied with tea, its having and its making, as characters in any English noel I’ve ever read, so I actually felt quite at home. For the reader unfamiliar with Inuit culture and traditions, the stories contained in this novel are rife with interesting details–about the hunting and storage of food, for example, or how the women in the book are always sewing and repairing their boots, and the logistics of Igloo-building. It’s not a portrayal of an Arctic idyll—life can be difficult and dangerous; I found it interesting to see how the dogs were regarded as pests, forever getting into food supplies and causing trouble, having items thrown at them. At one point in the story, Sanaaq is a victim of spousal violence, injured so badly by her husband that she must be flown to the south for medical treatment, and this is treated in the text with unflinching detail of the emotional complexity of the matter. But there is humour here too, and genuine human connections.
As we move through the novel’s 48 episodes, changes in Inuit life become apparent through contact with the qallunaat (non-Inuit people), which begins first with the sound of an airplane overhead, and then becomes more regular and embedded in ordinary experiences—Sanaaq’s husband is taken away to the south for work, her daughter becomes a Catholic convert, old people begin receiving social security payments.
The narrative skirts omniscience in a way that seems curious to the reader who is accustomed to the English novel. There is a matter-of-factness to the telling, perhaps related to its origins—it was written in a shorthand that can be written as quickly as it is spoken, and so this written novel has an oral nature. There is also a simplicity to its delivery that only comes across as such because a whole layer of the narrative is inaccessible to me as a reader (and I think that this is the challenge for this reader that Martin was writing about in her review). Saladin d’Anglure’s foreword makes clear that the apparent simplicity of Nappaaluk’s novel is undermined by the Inuit symbols and stories referenced, as well as details of Nappaaluk’s own life and members of her community. In short, this is only a straightforward story because I’m not smart enough to know it isn’t otherwise.
Sanaaq can and should be discussed beyond the story of how it was written, but the story is still pretty fascinating—Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk was asked by a missionary to write down phrases of the Inuktitut language so that he could develop his vocabulary, and what she delivered him instead was his long work of fiction, which she completed over many years. As Martin writes, “Mitiarjuk’s work has long been celebrated in Inuit communities, and… she received major honours before her death in 2007—she was awarded an honorary doctorate from McGill and was named a Member of the Order of Canada.” And now finally her work has been made available to be read by English readers, for pleasure just as much as enlightenment.
January 26, 2014
Weather-wise, it’s been a long, hard winter. The kind of season in which you think it must surely be March by now, but then it’s not even February, and there is no single month which is longer than February. The other night, we were reading Barbara Reid’s book Picture a Tree, and upon gazing on the “A tree can be a tunnel” page, I suddenly exclaimed, “I miss green leaves so much,” and then my aha moment–so that was what the title of Sara Heinonen’s book meant. It was so clear that it was strange that it hadn’t been always.
I found my way into the stories in Dear Leaves, I Miss You All in a similar way. With the first few, I had trouble finding my footing, didn’t understand Heinonen’s project. Was there even a project at all? Her places (which are mostly Toronto, and sometimes Hong Kong) are a strange borderland between here and there, apocalyptic realism. The world we know, but the sky’s a funny colour. At first, I wondered if there wasn’t much to these stories, save for some starkly defined edges nfused with clarity of vision or humour. I read “Notes from the Fallen” and it made me think of Cynthia Flood’s “Care”, but “Care” was so much more (action-packed, experimental, difficult, daring). Heinonen’s first story, “The Edge of the World,” about teenagers trying to imagine a future once the economic engine of the world had sputtered out and their parents had settled into various forms of regressive malaise (the mother who is addicted to watching owls on a web-cam. I loved this). People kept disappear into holes, sniffing poultry, falling and not getting up again. I didn’t know what to think. I was disoriented in these stories’ universe.
And then. Reading “Walking Along Steeles After Midnight”, more of the same, I thought. Set at the north edge the city (borderlands), a banquet-hall, a woman going nowhere in her marriage and her life. She leaves the party, she’s offered a ride. It’s insisted that she takes it, but no. “I want to feel my boots sink into the thick new snow on a deserted suburban sidewalk… It’s just a matter of how to refuse the ride.” And aha, finally I get it. Figuring out how to refuse the ride, how not to be taken for one, to blaze one’s own trail, small and significant acts of courage in the dark. From this point on, I decided that I loved this book.
Also: trees. As Heinonen’s biography notes, she’s a landscape architect by trade, which might be related to these stories’ fascination with all things concerning arbour. Dear Leaves, I Miss You All—indeed, the splendour of trees, their solidity and munificence, wonderfully evoked.
The Barb and Benny stories throughout the book—were they bordering on caricature, I wondered in the beginning? But I came to understand them as funny and lovely instead, a subtly subversive and surprising riff on domestic themes set in the east end of Toronto. Barb is a neurotic environmentalist, intent on sewing polar-fleece onesies for her husband and son so they can keep the thermostat down. And now her neighbour is set on pruning (*butchering*) the horse chestnut tree whose nuts keep dropping in his swimming pool (which is now open until the end of October, thanks to global warming). The paragraph in this story that I read aloud to my husband while laughing included the line about Barb’s son, Carson: “He’d recently purchased a chinchilla without our permission and named it Gandhi.” The story ends with a party, a storm, Gandhi in a tree, diehards in a castle, bouncing and missing what’s coming.
In “The Chairs in Bjorn’s Room,” a newcomer to Toronto attempts to woo a pretentious furniture designer. In “The Bloom”, a woman contemplates a former colleague who is afflicted with a cherry tree bough protruding from her abdomen. In “The Blue Dress”, a woman who’d moved to Hong Kong on the coattails of her lover’s career makes a decision about her future, perhaps the first one of her life. I loved “Night of the Polar Fleece”, in which Barb is trying to channel her anxiety into fiction, and stumbles upon a writers’ group in a bar on the Danforth in a blackout during a snowstorm. While wearing her fleece suit, which makes it awkward to take her coat off. She is beginning to learn, through her earnest son, that sometimes you have to take a break from being the change you wish to see in the world.
“Ghost Woman” is about a widower, an immigrant from Hong Kong whose daughter has shrunk away from his control and all his dreams for her. In “Closer,” a heartbroken driving instructor projects his own pain onto a student who has a sad story of her own. And then “May Day Mayday”, Benny and Barb and it’s a silent spring. Or maybe it isn’t. “The sky has gone strange again,” says Barb. “I don’t know what to prepare for.” But inside, “the house is fragrant, vibrating with the crescendo of Benny’s heartfelt song, energized by Carson’s tapping on the computer keyboard, hopeful with ceilings I painted sky-blue.”
This is a book that ends in the kitchen, “where something good is possible.” The casserole cooking doesn’t cancel the strange sky, and anything terrible could fall apart at any time whether outside or in. But for the moment, there is dinner on the table.
This is mercy, this is grace.
I look forward to reading what Sara Heinonen writes next.
January 22, 2014
There is a mention of bunting on page 59 of Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s All the Broken Things, which Kathryn has claimed (maybe even in all seriousness) that she included in the book just for me, and from this point you should infer two things which are related: first, that I am situated too close to Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer to offer up a proper review, and second, that I am among those who are fortunate enough to call Kathryn a friend. Kathryn is smart, blunt, hilarious, a bit terrifying in her brilliance, and blessed/burdened with a huge and generous spirit. My admiration of her as a person and as a writer stretches oh, so long, and I am so pleased that her new novel All the Broken Things has garnered rave reviews in The Toronto Star and the National Post.
While I am pleased, however, I am troubled that the reviews have neglected to mention how weird is All the Broken Things. You might be inclined to think it’s just another romp about a boy and his bear, Blueberries for Sal in the Junction, except with a horrible disfigured toddler who is a victim of Agent Orange (and that Sal in the Blueberries book was actually a girl). Laura Eggertson writes in the Star, “ Bo and Bear deserve to become fixtures in the pantheon of Canadian characters who live in our imaginations,” by which I picture the two of them and Anne of Green Gables bounding down The White Way of Delight.
My pictures aside, live on in imaginations these characters do. I finished reading the book the other day and have not quite discovered what I think of it yet. “I think it’s a novel meant to be deeply considered rather than summed up in a sentence or two,” is what I wrote on Sunday in an email to a friend. The novel is a peculiar shape, not quite what I am used to. I found it to be a page-turner, difficult to put down. It’s a novel that moves through time and space almost as quickly as I moved through its chapters, and I have this theory that its plotted more as an epic tale than a novel. (The myth of Orpheus is referred to in the novel, in the form of the Sir Orfeo story, and it’s intriguingly unclear exactly what maps onto what.) While Bo’s journey is certainly inward, it is demonstrated by his outward journey, from plot to plot, place to place, quests, and battles, dragons slain. Characters are not delved into deeply, which is not to say that these characters are not interesting (Bo’s teacher, his mother in particular, Soldier Man in High Park) but that their own journeys remain unclear to us, their mysteries suggested but not brought into light. There is a shallowness to the narrative which is intrinsic to its shape and to what Kuitenbrouwer is attempting (and succeeding at) in her project, which is breadth instead. This book about bear wrestling, Vietnamese boat people, CNE freak shows, and the production and effects of Agent Orange. You know?
Anyway, this is what I love, a book that provokes a more complicated response that either this is good or this is bad. I mean, this is good, of course, but even more importantly, this is interesting. And if I ever get to the bottom of what I think of All the Broken Things, I will be profoundly disappointed to be done.
Check out the book trailer for All the Broken Things by Carol Nguyen. It is also interesting, and absolutely stunning.
January 17, 2014
Poetry can be perplexing, but it’s got nothing on the poets. Many a time I’ve tried to make sense of who likes who, what and why, going straight to the source and asking poets themselves who’ve confessed they’re just as confused by the whole thing as I am. I’ve tried flowcharts, diagrams, and spreadsheets, and have managed to uncover no pattern except that having me really love your collection is generally an indication that it’s not poetry proper. I have even tried to be more discerning as a result: last year I read Personals by Ian Williams, and while I really liked certain poems, I thought, Nope. This isn’t cutting it. And then the next day it was nominated for the Griffin Prize, so there you go. But then a few weeks ago, hell must have frozen over (along with everything else, I suppose) because critic Michael Lista (whose book I liked, granted) went and picked Alexander Oliver’s Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway as one of his books of the year. A book that I’ve been reading and enjoying considerably!
Here’s how I came to this book (and be forewarned: I’m going to start talking about Book City again). I went to the Biblioasis launch in October and hear Alexandra Oliver read from her book, which is the best advertisement for this book. She was amazing. Though I didn’t actually buy the book until about a month or so ago when people were talking about it on Twitter, and the nature of my excellent life is that I can be reminded about a book on Twitter and then march straight out to purchase it at the bookstore around the corner (where of course it is on the shelf. They saw me coming a mile away). And I’ve been dipping in and out of the book ever since, intrigued and delighted.
These are poems that are deceptively simple; they rhyme. Sometimes I think that Alexandra Oliver is making fun of me, but I don’t hold this against her. These are poems about familiar situations–encountering other mothers in the park and discussing stroller models, angsty troubled romance. Proud poems about trouble—one called “Curriculum Vitae” contains the lines, “The hive of hell was crowded with my bees/ the sea of ill acquainted with my oar”. Dark, sinister, sardonic and hilarious. A poem about a camera user’s manual, and yes, the title poem, about recounting an old bully years later. “It’s been so long. They say. Amen.”