Friday, September 30, 2016

We're All in This Together

We're All in This Together / Amy Jones
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, c2016.
432 p.

From my last review (The Widows by Suzette Mayr) with three women going over Niagara Falls together, to this novel, in which Parker family matriarch Kate goes over Thunder Bay's Kakabeka Falls in a barrel --with the youtube video of the feat going viral -- there are plenty of women trying, as Jones says in this book, "to be remembered for something".

The Parker family is a bit of mess in the first place. Serafina (Finn) Parker lives an orderly life in Mississauga, but heads back to Thunder Bay once she realizes that her mother is in a coma following her Kakabeka Falls stunt.

She's been estranged from her twin sister & adoptive brother for a while now, after misunderstandings and personality clashes since childhood. She and her sister Nicki have always been opposites -- Nicki is rough and careless, has 3 children by different fathers, is now married to a bootlegger, and has never left Thunder Bay. Finn is single and lives alone, but she also has some rough edges that she prefers to ignore, pretending she's moved onward and upward.

The Parker family must deal with their own dysfunction, while at the same time acknowledging their mother Kate's dementia, something they've all been trying to avoid doing. Over the course of four days, we get to meet 10 narrators, from Finn & Nicki to their parents, brother, sister-in-law, nieces and more. There is a lot folded into this story, with each character facing some kind of existential crisis. It mostly works, even if it felt very chaotic to me as a reader. It's very based in the emotional reactions of all the characters to various events and interactions, and I find that tiring in real life as well as in my fiction!

But overall this was a fun, contemporary read. It's full of real people, and the very real sense of living in a small town that you either love or hate, that you either want to stay in forever, or leave posthaste. The pace of the story makes you feel like you're going over the falls yourself -- it's rapid and bumpy, and might leave you a little battered. But it's an adventure.

If you like family dramas with a bit of humour, pathos and personality thrown in, give this new book a try. As a bonus, you'll get a strong sense of place (Thunder Bay) and perhaps even feel a craving for some Finnish pancakes...


Further Reading:

Books set in Thunder Bay are thin on the ground, but another relationship-based (if slightly implausible) read set there is Michael Christie's If I Fall I Die, about a boy and his agoraphobic mother. It gets very epic near the end, with hero Will Cardiel being swept up into the criminal world almost as soon as he first leaves his house (at age 12) but is a fast-paced book that also looks inside its characters.

Another read that reminds me of this one is Daria Salamon's The Prairie Bridesmaid. It is also contemporary and sardonic, mixing humour & pathos, and is heavily centred in its location - in this case Winnipeg. Prickly main character Anna is similar to Finn, as she goes home again and has to deal with family drama and exes, in her own way.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Suzette Mayr's Widows

The Widows / Suzette Mayr
Edmonton: NeWest Press, c1998.
248 p.

I picked this book up secondhand this summer, after looking for it fruitlessly through interlibrary loan for a few years now! Luck was with me. So of course I had to read it right away.

It was a good read, one that I'm glad I was finally able to get my hands on. As the extremely succinct plot summary says on Goodreads:

Daring to defy a world that believes old women should not be seen or heard three women steal a barrel from a travelling show and plan to go over Niagara Falls.

But it's so much more than this. 

Hannelore and Clotilde are sisters in Germany; they've lived through a lot together. But now Hannelore's son has moved permanently to Canada, and they don't see Cleopatra Maria, her granddaughter, very often. They send lots of parcels and packages:

"Cleopatra Maria Schmitt," she wrote on the front, the name so long it went from edge to edge. "KANADA," she wrote and underlined the word twice. Once, Hannelore shortened the name to "Cleopatra." The last time "Maria," a less exotic, more appropriate name. Babies could smother under the wrong name, long names like a cat sitting too long on a face.

But they're not there to live alongside her son and his family. So Hannelore decides it's time for an adventure, and they pick up and move to Canada. 

Unfortunately, due to a lack of geographic awareness, they end up  in Edmonton, far away from Hannelore's beloved Niagara Falls. And living there, they realize nobody is really all that interested in older women or their daily lives.

Hannelore finds work as an usher at a local theatre, where the other ushers are also mainly older women. She catches the attention of Hamish, a randy theatre tech, though she's mostly using him for access to his Niagara Ball, not his body. He has created what he says is the perfect padded sphere that would allow someone to go over the Falls safely. Hannelore wants it, and so a crime caper is born.

While all this is going on, they meet Frau Schnadelhuber via their visits to a local German deli, and she and Clotilde quickly form a romantic relationship. The three women, with the help of 26 year old Cleopatra Maria, launch their plan to steal the Niagara Ball and head cross-country to make history as 3 old women going over the Falls.

What I love about this book is the narrative voice; it's fun and snappy and shows us three women who are in their 70s but are still clever, busy, engaged in life, having sex, and making plans for madcap escapades. The author's voice feels fresh; the older women seem more interesting than the younger characters, which seems rather the point. Hannelore and Clotilde don't care anymore what people think -- they'll have a cigarette, talk about sex in front of Cleopatra Maria, eat what they want, dress like they want, and do what they want. It's very earthy, and very much about women finding a place to be women together. And even with the rapid-fire style, Mayr also folds in issues of racism, history, homophobia, ageism...all very naturally.

I also enjoyed how the sections of the book are interspersed with snippets from true stories about people going over Niagara Falls, especially Annie Edson Taylor, another no-longer-young women who made history in 1901 by surviving a trip over the Falls in a barrel (and who is a particular hero of Hannelore's). It's an engaging structure, with humour, pathos, great writing, and a very satisfying conclusion. I really enjoyed it. 


Further Reading:

If you are looking for other stories centred around Niagara Falls, of all genres and moods (both serious and more light-hearted) try any of the titles on this Niagara Falls booklist I put together a while back. 

You may also want to try other stories of older women taking control of their own lives in Western Canada -- meeting a farm woman with attitude in A Recipe for Bees by Gail Anderson-Dargatz, or following a sombre reconciliation between a sister and brother whose long estrangement has been caused by homophobia in Jane Rule's classic The Memory Board.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Duo by Jacques Poulin

Translation is a Love Affair / Jacques Poulin; translated from the French by Sheila Fischman
Brooklyn: Archipelago Books, c2009.
144 p.

English is not a Magic Language / Jacques Poulin; translated from the French by Sheila Fischman
Montreal: Vehicule Press, c2016.
180 p.

I first read Jacques Poulin way back in my university days, when I was introduced to Volkswagen Blues, which I absolutely loved - and lost, and found again, a story I've told before. And since then I've read a few more of his books, finding them okay but not as strong as the first, until I got to Autumn Rounds -- which I also loved.

But as fellow Poulin enthusiast Charles-Adam Foster-Simard said in a 2013 blog comment, "Autumn Rounds and Volkswagen Blues [are] examples of where his material (beautiful melancholy, deceptively simple writing, quiet romance, love of books) comes together most successfully."

I agree. These elements -- plus cats, always cats -- exemplify what is best about Poulin's writing. So when I saw that there was a new novel being released by Vehicule Press of Montreal (English is Not a Magic Language) I had to read it! And I did, and then realized that there was an earlier novel which I'd missed, Translation is a Love Affair, which began the story completed in this new novel.

Both of these books are brief; they fall into Poulin's regular style of short novels, sparingly told, starring an older man and a younger woman (who is usually described via the male gaze, as a young nubile woman, even if there is no romance involved), featuring one or more cats, and with a bookish focus, always.

In Translation, we meet up again with Jack Waterman, a writer featured in Poulin's earlier works (who is often thought of as a loose alter ego for Poulin) and his new translator Marine. In English, they are joined by Jack's younger brother Francis, who works as a professional reader -- yes, reading aloud to others.

In all Poulin's books there is a melancholy strain, with characters aging, feeling lonely, quietly living quiet lives... but there is also a sense of connection among disparate and eccentric characters, who form relationships almost unintentionally. It's a particular charm of his books. Added to that, most of his characters are bookish in some way -- writers, translators, librarians, readers! 

I found that despite the pellucid writing style and the reintroduction of Jack Waterman (both of which I enjoyed) Translation is a Love Affair was brief and not so memorable overall. Jack and Marine are introduced, they begin their platonic association, and together they solve a mystery begun by an SOS message tucked under a stray cat's collar. At the end they end up rescuing Limoilou, a troubled young woman who Marine takes responsibility for, and who is an important player in the next book as well. 

As we get into English is Not a Magic Language, we see more deeply into the motives of all three previous characters, from Francis' viewpoint this time. I found more to hold on to in the second novel, even while it's really just a straight on continuation of the first. The interplay between Marine's job as a translator -- with discussion of what it feels like to translate something from French to English, as well as commentary on how to choose just the right word -- and the knowledge that Sheila Fischman, Canadian translator extraordinaire, is doing that exact thing to allow you to read it, well, it was quietly satisfying and amusing.

I also enjoyed the addition of some comic relief in this second novel, via the little girl who lives down the lane with her grandfather. It's a fairy-tale-like element, reminding me of Pippi or Little My from the Moomins, and was a great break in the more serious narrative. 

Both books are worth reading together to follow this storyline through to its conclusion. If you haven't yet read Poulin, these are a gentle start, even while I do still recommend the longer novels mentioned above to see him at the height of his style. While there are elements I don't love about the way women appear in some of his novels, he's still a writer worth exploring. All of his books touch on one another in some way, so the more you read, the more you will be able to trace characters and connections, and add to the enjoyment of reading Poulin.

Monday, September 26, 2016

All the Things We Leave Behind

All the Things We Leave Behind / Riel Nason
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, c2016.
240 p.

It's the summer of 1977, and seventeen-year-old Violet has been left in charge of The Purple Barn, her family's antique shop in tiny Hawkshaw, New Brunswick. Her parents are "on vacation" -- actually, they are on the trail of her older brother Bliss, who disappeared a few days after his high school graduation.

Violet has to navigate running the antique store, keeping an older employee within the limits of her role, negotiating for the purchase of a local and much coveted estate, hanging out with her boyfriend Dean, sharing a cottage with her best friend Jill, and managing her memories of Bliss and her guilt at letting him disappear without a word. 

She figures out a lot about herself and her close relationship with her beloved brother in the few weeks that she is left to manage on her own. But she's never really on her own; part of the story is centred in the relationships that she has, those that help her continue on despite her guilt and uncertainty about her part in Bliss' leaving. Her friends and some of the people she knows through their store, including the staff and a local hermit who makes twig furniture for them to sell, are all part of her wider support system, whether she recognized that at first or not.

The antique shop serves as both a marvellous, realistic setting (Nason was once an antiques dealer herself) and a perfect metaphor. Violet notes that many customers simply love buying antiques because they desire something that has a history, that holds the past in tangible form. For herself, though:

Having a reminder, a souvenir, to help you remember is great, but I think the best memories are through a special door in your mind that you can open without a key.

Through the process of opening this mental door and accessing the memories, Violet gives us the history of her family's past, in a warm, thoughtful way, full of sensory and emotional detail. She is a strong character, able to carry the weight of this entire narrative. Their family is drawn clearly, and each of them is shown as a believable and complex individual. Bliss' struggles with a darkness that sweeps over him are explained, and connected to the image of the boneyard, the repulsive burying pit deep in the forest in which the Department of Transportation dumps roadkill -- the boneyard which Bliss and Violet stumble across when they are 9 & 10, an experience which never leaves them.

There are multiple threads woven through this story, from Bliss to Violet to others in the community, including the Vaughns who disappeared a decade ago after a family tragedy, and whose estate Violet is now hoping to buy. There is also a strong thread linking Violet's story to that of the drowned town of Haventon, flooded out by a dam project a decade previously -- the story of which is the focus of Nason's first book, The Town That Drowned. 

There is a lot more in this book, but you'll have to read it to get the full immersive experience. It is redolent of the 70s, so if you like the idea of summer, the 70s, a coming of age story, family dynamics and lots and lots of quilts and antiques, pick this one up. It's full of vibrant images, both horrible and beautiful, that stick with a reader. 


Further Reading:

This kind of reminds me of Vicky Grant's Small Bones, another Canadian novel (set in 1964 however) which features a strong young woman living at a resort-like place (this one in Ontario), dealing with her boyfriend and family secrets over the length of a summer. It is less haunting than Nason's but also an enjoyable read.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Clay Girl by Heather Tucker

Clay Girl / Heather Tucker
Toronto: ECW Press, c2016.
352 p.

First things first: this cover is gorgeous. So simple and stark and perfect.

Second things: I wanted the book to be gorgeous as well. Sadly, it's not quite what I'd hoped.

Ari Appleton is the youngest of a family of girls, all with "J" names until they get to her, inexplicably named Harriet. She carries her imaginary best friend, a seahorse named Jasper, in her pocket everywhere she goes.

And she needs a sensible seahorse to tell her what's what after her childhood. Something terrible has happened to her sisters, and their father has died. But their sad and incompetent mother is no use, and so the girls are farmed out to relatives.

Harriet, age 8, is sent alone by train all the way out to Halifax to live with her Aunt Mary, considered an outcast for her decision to live with her potter girlfriend Nia. Harriet finds love in this new home, and a new name as they call her Ari, lion-heart.

But of course all does not go well; she is called back to Toronto to live with her mother, who has found herself a new husband, a gentle man whom Ari considers a father. Sadly, that also ends badly, and Ari's mother moves on to a nasty, brutish, and cartoonish villain, a corrupt policeman who is physically violent to his own sons, to Ari, and to her mother. Ari holds out for her 16th birthday when she will be free to leave and live on her own, aiming to return to her aunts on the East Coast. But -- you know that won't go well either; at the point of her own freedom and her chance to live with her aunts and her true love on the ocean shore, she martyrs herself to others, giving up her freedom now for a shot in the future.

This is all happening in the 60s, which I was reminded of now and again when a detail was thrown in to prove it. The feel of the setting and the way the characters interacted and spoke did not feel like it was set anywhere in the past, so I didn't think that aspect was necessary -- if it was so easy to forget that it was supposed to be the 60s, then why bother trying to remind a reader?

And the clear division between "goodies" and "baddies" in this story was a bit harsh. The good ones, Ari's supporters, are all liberal and artsy and kind and intelligent; they all treat her with respect and talk to her in high-minded language even when she's a precocious child (who is rather annoying actually - I was glad when the baby talk stopped). The conversations she holds with her aunts, her teacher/mentor, her one true love... they are all very stagey and not very real-life-like. Every word considered and well placed. No boring small talk there.

I wanted to like this book a lot - and I did read it all in one go, so it was certainly interesting enough to hold me. But there was all the bad news piling on, though, and so this really felt to me like an after-school special, if they made those as a miniseries. Redemption comes through giving oneself over to others, to stoically persevering through terrible behaviour. I'm afraid I couldn't agree.

I can see that many people would love this character and her trials and tribulations, but I found it just a little too idealistic for me, shading over into sentimentality more than I personally prefer. I like the Canadian setting, and the idyllic East Coast summers compared to Ari's nasty city life reminded me a little of LM Montgomery's Jane of Lantern Hill, though the content is vastly different. Jane's grandmother isn't a patch on Ari's awful stepfather.

I thought this was a good enough read to finish it, though it was also problematic in many ways. The plot threw the characters around, rather than the characters determining the story. It was simultaneously bleak and depressing, and hopeful in an Oprah-ish way.


Further Reading:

Church of the Dog by Kaya McLaren  for its style and the reliance on mannered language and high-minded though eccentric characters -- and for the presence of a character who needs to be 'saved' by our important main character.

Dean Koontz' Odd Thomas books despite the difference in genre because of :
Ari's sense of purpose; her uncanny way of being the centre of all the action; her sense of being the person, the only and essential one, who needs (or is able) to fix things despite any danger to herself -- this reminds me of Odd Thomas himself, that and his narrative voice is similar to some of the dialogue in this book.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee

The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee
Toronto: ECW Press, c2016
272 p.

When you imagine having to clean out your parent's house after their death, there are a lot of things you might anticipate - but 2 bodies in the bottom of a freezer in the basement probably isn't one of them.

Jessica certainly didn't expect to find a foot under the frozen goods she was discarding after her do-gooding social worker mother, Donna, died of cancer. But that is what she and her father uncovered. The bodies belong to two troubled teenage sisters that they had fostered many years ago, Casey and Jamie Cheng. And now the memories come rushing back.

Sookfong Lee described the macabre discovery well; she showed the horror and the disbelief that one might feel in real life, which is often missing in crime novels. This is not a crime novel, per se, despite the dead bodies and police involvement. And so there is much more about the relationships, the secrets, the small moments in the lives of all these characters as they interact in the past. And about bigger issues of race, culture, and the foster system.

As the police proceed with their investigations, Jess does also - she searches out records of her mother's foster children, particularly these two sisters. She struggles to understand why and how this might have happened. And she falls into a temporary kind of relationship with the investigative officer, discarding her wimpy social worker boyfriend.

Jess' reaction to all this is interspersed with the story of the sisters, how they came to be placed with Jess' family in the first place, and how their disappearance was not made into a serious concern. Their family life is part of a larger societal story of Chinese families in Vancouver, both the strict immigrant parent with high standards and an unforgiving work ethic, and the urge of the younger generation to escape. Added to this we have ever-present, casual racism and the limitations that this places on the future of these two young girls. We get to know both of them, and their parents, and the trouble that ensues when the older daughter, only just into her teens, starts a clandestine relationship with a family friend. As the publisher's blurb concludes,

...this riveting novel unflinchingly examines the myth of social heroism and traces the often-hidden fractures that divide our diverse cities.

This story revolved around women; it is a story of mothers and daughters in all of their raw relationships. Jess has a difficult time understanding Donna, who is turn has an icy rapport with her own emotionally distant mother. Casey & Jamie have the same lack of emotional support from their own real mother (who is busy working two jobs to keep her children and husband afloat) and as it eventually turns out, from their foster mother as well.

As I've said, I did enjoy this read. It was fast moving and emotionally fraught, with a lot of great descriptive writing. I had a few reservations: why would Donna, who died a lingering death from cancer, not dispose of the bodies which had by then been in her freezer for many years, rather than leaving them for her husband and daughter to find and deal with? I could understand perhaps if she'd died suddenly, but she had lots to time to think about it. And why did the disappearance of two young foster children not seem to cause a blip in anyone's consciousness?

I also found that the conclusion of the story left many loose ends. We never really discover clearly why or how Donna was involved - how did this happen? What will the consequences be for the remainder of her family? The ending was abrupt -- I was reading this as an e-galley and briefly wondered if I had missed the last chapter in my version. I would have liked to have had a bit more from the perspective of the sisters, especially nearer to the final events, and bit of closure! Even though this isn't a "crime novel" I think there still needed to be some explanation of what exactly the crime was, and how it happened.

This book definitely gave the sense of two worlds colliding, and how the disruption to both families caused something terrible in the end. It was a mix of literary and crime tropes, though definitely falling more into the literary side, and involved some strong though dysfunctional women. It's well-written, with a fresh eye on a story I haven't really heard before. If it had only been a little longer, with a some solid denouement, I would have appreciated it more.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Couple Next Door

The Couple Next Door / Shari Lapena
Toronto: Doubleday, c2016
320 p.

This novel probably doesn't need any introduction to my readers as this point; it is on the top ten bestsellers lists in the UK, Canada, and the US. It's Lapena's first thriller, but third novel. (Her previous two novels, Things Go Flying and Happiness Economics, were both comic literary novels, both of which I really enjoyed, btw)

In this domestic suspense novel, we have a couple, Anne and Marco Conti, who leave their infant daughter Cora alone in the house while they go next door for dinner -- against Anne's instincts, but since they take the baby monitor with them, and check on her every half hour, they think it will be okay. 

It isn't. 

When Marco goes to check on her at 12:30, Cora is gone. 

As the investigation begins, they are all suspect. Secrets from Anne's past re-emerge; Marco's financial status is laid bare. Anne's family, who have never much liked Marco, take the chance to drive this home now that their granddaughter is missing. Lots of hateful and devious interchanges occur between them all, with their trust in the other eroding. Inspector Rasbach, experienced at these kind of things, knows they are hiding something. 

As the story spins ever faster, we learn so many things about all the characters that we can't be sure any of our suspicions or impressions are right, or even close. While eventually I did guess what must have happened, the final conclusion shocked and surprised me. But it was perfectly supported by what had come before. 

While this kind of read isn't my usual fare, it's obvious by its overwhelming reception that thriller readers are eating it up. I certainly read it in a rush, wanting to know what was going on. I did find the writing style quite choppy and fragmented, reflecting the content, I suppose. I always gravitate toward character and writing in my favourite books, and this one was definitely plot based -- different from her earlier work, but already very successful as a thriller.

So, if you like this genre, this is definitely a must-read. Best-seller lists everywhere agree ;)


Further Reading

This novel fits in with the current craze for domestic suspense & spouses who don't really know what the other is up to. Any of these other top books in this genre would match the feel of this novel: The Widow by Fiona Barton, Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, or The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Running On Fumes

Running on Fumes / Christian Guay-Poliquin; translated from the French by Jacob Homel.
Vancouver: TalonBooks, c2016.
187 p.

The electricity goes off one day, giving our narrator an early release from his job as a mechanic in a nameless but obvious Fort MacMurray setting. But, it doesn't come back on. After a build up of some panic and unrest, our nameless mechanic jumps in his car, feeling driven to reconnect with his estranged father, back in Quebec.

And thus begins his journey of 4,736 kilometres, the return of the prodigal son, anxious to get to his father before the unexplained power failure and/or his father's dementia prevent him from gaining some closure in their relationship.

His anxiety about his father, and the growing panic on the roads -- lack of gas, looting, people forming tribal groups & suspicious of outsiders, just to name a few -- force him to keep driving, with as little sleep as he can manage. Eventually picking up a female hitchhiker, and then another passenger, his route is delayed and rerouted more than he'd planned. This road trip felt like one of those awful nightmares when you're running and running and not getting anywhere.

The metaphor of a labyrinth, with its minotaur at the centre waiting for him, is brought up a few times, suggesting that the engine of the car echoes the sound of the hooves of the minotaur tracking down the hero. Unfortunately, I didn't think that the metaphor was all that strong; it felt forced, and not fully applicable. 

And there were other things that kept me from enjoying this book as much as I wanted to: the action was limited to the main character's experience, and most of that was driving a car. It unfortunately dragged at times much like a lengthy road trip can in reality. His passengers were odd, and I had my suspicions about them from the first; the explanation for them once he reached Quebec was unsatisfactory. And the conclusion of the story -- argh! It was unnecessary melodrama that robbed the story of any meaning, for me; it took away the goal and the purpose of the entire premise which drove the book. And it felt too faux ironic, too much of a writer's hand moving the pieces than an organic conclusion.

Another issue I have is with the translation itself; Homel explains in a translator's afterword that he changed the novel from present-tense, as-it-happens narration (which he says is a common French style) into a past tense English version - which he also says is a more traditional way of telling these kinds of stories in English. But I don't want a revised English edition, I want the French text told in the way the author intended. And I don't agree with the idea that the original French style is unusual; I've read many contemporary novels in English which use the same style. Personally, I like a more direct translation. I suppose it's another reason to brush up my French so that I can read literary novels in the original...a long-term goal, perhaps.

It sounds like I hated this book -- I didn't. I'd give it 3 of 5 stars; there were interesting ideas in it, and some good descriptive passages - it covers a lot of ground, quite literally. But these elements that I've mentioned really did lessen my enjoyment of it, and so my overall impression was just, well, meh.


Further Reading:

While Homel mentions many manly road novels in his translator's note, I feel he missed out on one of the best apocalyptic travel novels of the recent past, Station Eleven. Unlike this novel, the characters in Station Eleven are not loners; they band together and work communally to survive. And so they do.

Marcel Theroux' Far North also gives me the same sense as this novel. It has a narrator alone in an apocalyptic future, making a living from the scraps of human existence, facing an undetermined breakdown of society. And then he goes on the road to find others. I found it more complex and satisfying than Running on Fumes, with a less claustrophobic narrative.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie / Jean Rhys
New York: Penguin, 1977, c1930.
138 p.

Unlike many other readers, I was not a huge fan of Jean Rhys' most famous work, Wide Sargasso Sea. So I thought I'd give her another try with this novel.

I found it much more satisfactory, even while it's a very sad and hopeless story. As Rebecca West said of it when it was new:

"It is a terrible book about the final floundering to destruction of a friendless and worthless but pitiful woman. It is terrible, but it is superb."

I can recognize the superb structure and writing, and the strong characterization, but it really is a terrible premise. Misery abounds, as our main character Julia sinks lower and lower, after leaving her last lover. Because she is aging (she is now, gasp, over 30), because she is tired and needy, she no longer has the support of her various lovers. Poverty and loneliness is getting her down. She intends to have it out with Mr. Mackenzie, but all that accomplishes is her remaining allowance from him cut off in one last large payment.
She heads to England, to see her mother and disapproving sister; that simply highlights how tawdry and tired her life has become. She hits up a few of her previous lovers from before Mr. Mackenzie, and gets a few pounds, and the brush-off. And a bit of sanctimonious sermonizing - as Julia sighs after one encounter: 

It's so easy to make a person who hasn't got anything seem wrong. 

This novel is full of despair, angst, uncertainty, and no redeeming or uplifting light at the end. In fact, Julia just keeps on drinking to blunt the pain of being alone and unwanted. Rhys paints a pitiless picture of a woman left to her own devices, cast aside once she's no longer considered desirable or useful. And Julia herself has no personal resources, it seems, neither emotional nor financial. 

It's a story of pathos and the plight of this specific woman in her insalubrious era. While I don't think Jean Rhys will ever be a writer I turn to again and again, I did admire what she was able to do with this character.She was able to evoke compassion for what many might consider an unlikeable character, and lay bare the society that allowed her to suffer.


Further Reading:

Krane's Cafe by Cora Sandel (trans. Elizabeth Rokkan) also shows the inner turmoil of a woman ground down by societal expectations and poverty (this time in Norway) who is finally saying what she has been bottling up, thanks to some strong drink.

The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig tells a visceral story of the agony of poverty and limited options, through a young woman who is thwarted at every turn, and finds her own way out of those societal norms.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Teva Harrison's In-Between Days

In-Between Days / Teva Harrison
Toronto: Anansi, c2015.
168 p.

This book is like nothing I've read before. It's a memoir by Teva Harrison, diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 37. It's in graphic novel format. And she tells her story in a raw, honest way that also reaffirms the glory of life. It's hard to capture the exact tone she uses but it is powerful, moving, and yes, heart-breaking.

She uses her distinctive black&white style to express the emotional aspect of her diagnosis, and the way it came up against the normal expectations of life: her assumptions that she'd be living into old age alongside her husband, the possibility of children, all of that. All the taken for granted kind of thoughts for the future. And she shows how even with the fear and illness that comes with treatment, life is still precious. 

She also doesn't hide any of the realities of treatment -- how she can look fine but not feel it, how her friends have to learn not to expect her at events even if she's said she'll attend, the lonely hours facing her physical limitations, and the sorrow of her family. But she does it in a way that welcomes the reader in, that allows us to more deeply understand what those we love who are undergoing such a passage might be feeling, might be needing from us. 

She also includes memories and stories from life pre-diagnosis - stories that are charming, hilarious, and simply compelling. It's a reminder that cancer is not her entire identity.

She has an unsentimental voice and a beautiful, generous eye, and together these gifts create an unforgettable book. While I wholeheartedly wish she had never had reason to write such a book, she has looked at her life unflinchingly and created a stunning book that should be shared widely. 

(you can also read her thoughtful words at her blog)

Friday, September 09, 2016

The Spawning Grounds

The Spawning Grounds / Gail Anderson-Dargatz
Toronto: Knopf, c2016.
300 p.

This new novel by Gail Anderson-Dargatz was well worth waiting for. I just raced through it in two days. 

On the face of it, it's an uncomplicated, quick read with lots of drama, all about a family who has lived in the Thompson-Shuswap region of British Columbia, along the shores of the Lightning River, since the gold rush of 1860 -- and across the river from Shuswap territory.

It's about the salmon in the river, and the careless behaviour of farmers, ranchers, settlers, all those who've added to the increased silting, decreased water flow, and resultant decrease in the ability of salmon to return to their spawning grounds.

It's about one family, the Robertsons, and the difficult love between parents and siblings, as well as their varied romantic entanglements. 

It's about the history and the present situation of the Shuswap in the face of more development on their land, and their relationship with those who settled there in the past.

And it's about the river mystery, a spirit who has caused much tragedy and uproar over the years in its singleminded focus on its own purposes - even to the point of suicide by those whom it has inhabited.

So as you read and reflect, it doesn't seem so uncomplicated after all. The surface of the story is deceptively calm, like the Lightning River, but the story holds a deep mystery as well. Hannah and Brandon Robertson are the latest generation to live at the family homestead; Brandon in high school and Hannah in university. But their childhood friend from across the river, Alex, is now turning into more than a friend for Hannah, and is instrumental in the action that flows from Brandon's encounter with the river mystery.

Anderson-Dargatz has woven together environmental concerns about the river and salmon levels, which Hannah is heavily involved in trying to measure and fix, with the spiritual and myth-based explanations that Alex brings forward from Shuswap tradition. She holds the tension between the two belief systems and makes them equally important to the narrative. The Robertson's family story is entangled with the stories of the river, and only Alex's storytelling can make sense of it.

It's a great read, and perfect for this time of year, with its tales of the spirit world and the dark and stormy nights that the spirit brings on while Hannah and Alex fight to rescue Brandon and save their communities. Really interesting read, and one with a very strong sense of place.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Parkour & Philosophy

Parkour & the Art of Deplacement / Vincent Thibault; translated from the French by Casey Roberts.
Montreal: Baraka Books, c2013.
162 p.

I recently picked up this little book that someone, sometime, had mentioned on their blog. I had noted it then as a "to read" on my Goodreads account, and good thing too, otherwise I'd have completely forgotten about it. As it was, I couldn't quite recall why I'd wanted to read it, but thought I'd look into it since I must have had some reason to add it to my tbr.

Now I realize that the original post must have made reference to the way in which Thibault talks about parkour almost as a spiritual practice, as a kind of martial art that shapes one's whole approach to life, not just as a physical training activity.

It's an interesting read. Thibault references the originators of parkour (or the art of deplacement, or freerunning - he uses the terms equivalently here) Sebastien Foucan and the Freerunning Academy & Yamakasi and ADD Academy, and talks about the purpose of parkour. He comments that watching youtube videos of parkour does not constitute the practice of parkour; one of the principles of parkour is that it is not done for show, as performance, rather it's about the process, not the product.

Since much of what I'm interested in generally are activities which are all about process over product, activities that induce contemplation and/or mindfulness, I found this intriguing.

I had also assumed that this book was written in France French, since France seems to be the source for parkour -- so was pleasantly surprised to find that Thibault is actually Quebecois. His take on parkour is deeply embedded in philosophy, on the interior effects of this practice as akin to a martial art.

Despite Thibault's focus on the internal practice of parkour, it has become a bit of a performance activity out in the world; I have seen examples in films like James Bond's Casino Royale - but that is definitely a performance that comes from the deep practice of parkour, by someone with expertise - in this case Sebastian Foucan, founder of freerunning. See for yourself (especially at 2:38 to hear the philosophy behind freerunning)

Thibault really draws out some of the more "personal development" areas of this practice, though -- he refers to the habit of persistence and effort here:
We are talking about a culture of effort; in any case we must understand that its benefits go far beyond the athletic context. What we call effort applies to all aspects of life, from the most trivial everyday problems to the most daunting challenges. According to the dictionary, effort is the mobilization, by a conscious being, of all available resources to move past an obstacle, to solve a problem, to achieve a goal or to overcome psychological or environmental resistance. It follows that a person who regularly mobilizes effort and enjoys doing so, at least to some extent; a person who is not too invested in results, as long as he or she gives it everything they've got; someone who knows that one of the highest truths of life is that the process is the objective; in short, anyone who embraces the concept of effort will be better able to cope with life's difficulties.
It's true, and tying that kind of athletic effort to a wider, life work made this book much more meaningful to me. I am extremely unlikely to attempt any kind of parkour activities myself, although I do admire those who can do it, but I can appreciate the wider context. As Thibault adds in one section,
When we talk about openness, affection or compassion, we must nevertheless keep in mind that our contribution to the city or the community may seem trivial but may actually be essential. In fact, anyone who does his or her job, whatever it is, with good and noble motivation contributes to the equilibrium of the world. 
This was an affirming, positive and thoughtful read, which I now recommend in turn. It would be a wonderful thing to share with younger people who are drawn to urban spaces and physical activity such as parkour. It's really about living in balance with your surroundings, whether those are physical or your human community. Thibault includes simple checklists of the principles of freerunning and Yamakasi ADD in an appendix at the end, and they are clear and succinct; respect, inspire, be positive. There is a lot to think about in this book and in the wider world of parkour - and a lot to respect as well. 

Monday, September 05, 2016

Miss Petitfour & Her 16 Cats

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour / Anne Michaels; illus. by Emma Block
Toronto: Tundra, c2015.
144 p.

Before I start in on some spooky RIP Challenge reads, I have to share this utterly charming illustrated chapter book that I just discovered via my public library. Somehow I missed this one last fall when it was released, but one of my coworkers was returning it to the library and told me to read it, that she thought it might be something I'd enjoy.

And it certainly was! Charming illustrations, quirky frocks, 16 cats, tea, books, stamps, cake, jumble sales... why yes, it does have everything I love in it. 

This is Anne Michaels' first book for children -- she's much better known for her serious adult novels and poetry -- but despite any trepidation I may have had, she gets children, and how to write for clever young ones. I would have loved this book when I was young; the wordplay and silliness is at just the right level, and the charm oozes from it. It makes me wish I had a few preteens to give this one to. I'll just have to buy a copy for myself.

The book is made up of a quick introduction to Miss Petitfour and her sixteen cats (by name) just so you'll be able to recognize them in the rest of the book. Following this are 5 brief tales about their adventures. Miss Petitfour likes to travel by air, using one of her many patterned tablecloths like a sail, with her 16 cats in a chain behind her. She goes where the wind leads, so errands get done in a somewhat random fashion. One of the many places she goes in town is to Mrs. Collarwaller's bookstore, arranged in two sections, the Hum and the Ho Hum. Mrs. Collarwaller knows that some people love adventure, but:
Mrs. Collarwaller herself mostly liked books where people sat knitting by the fire with a plate of biscuits and a mug of steaming cocoa beside them, dreaming about the day Lord Somersault or Lady Hopscotch would come to tea, with detailed descriptions of all they would eat... Mrs. Collarwaller loved books in which people talked a lot and thought aloud, had dreams, discussed recipes and looked at each other with affection. She liked books full of interesting facts that would never come in useful and were therefore always the most fascinating sort of facts to know... Mrs. Collarwaller had many good ideas, such as printing an entire story on one's pillowcase, so that there would always be something to read if one woke in the middle of the night... 
I am essentially Mrs. Collarwaller. 

The level of whimsy in this book is high, but there is also a warmth to it. Miss Petitfour encounters Mr. Coneybeare, of Coneybeare's Confetti Factory, to add a touch of romance to the proceedings. But the quirkiness never heads off into twee, at least not for my tastes. 

Michaels also takes time to explain what she's doing narratively -- explaining long words, or how the story is constructed, all in a perfectly fitting way. The wordplay never talks down to a child reader, and it is a lovely, and funny, touch. Anyone who is equally in love with words and cake will adore this book. 

This is a sweet story, full of tea and cakes, but never got too sweet for consumption. Still, like petitfours themselves, I'd recommend taking this collection in small bites, the better to savour it. One story a night would be a gentle treat for the reader needing a palate cleanser between heavy, dense books, or even just the news. 

Read an interview with illustrator Emma Block, from before she worked on this book, and then check out her website for more images from this tale!  Be sure to keep clicking to see all six in the gallery.


Further Reading:

Janet Hill's Miss Moon:Wise Words from a Dog Governess is the obvious match for this book. While there is much less text in Miss Moon, the dog lovers will find it counterbalances the 16 cats that cat lovers will adore in Miss Petitfour!

And if you're looking for other tales of Misses for young readers, equally charming but perhaps with a soupcon more realism to it, try Miss Happiness & Miss Flower by Rumer Godden, a story of two dolls who help a young girl adjust to a new life with English relatives.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Fall is here... because RIPXI is beginning!

This is what I love about the book blogging many enthusiasms! One reading month ends, another begins. And what a challenge this one is.

The RIP Challenge is a great one - so easy to follow along with. I've been reading along for a few years now, as the challenge matches perfectly with the feeling at this time of year; the end of summer, the beginning of perhaps cooler days, fall sweeping through, and by the end of the Sept 1 - Oct 31 of this challenge, definitely the sense of spooks and darker nights.

So I'll be reading along again this year, as Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings leads the 11th Round of his RIP Challenge. I hope you'll consider joining in too!

The parameters are simple:

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XI takes place from September 1st, 2016 through October 31st, 2016.
There are only two expectations if you want to participate with us:

1. Have fun reading (and watching*).
2. Share that fun with others.

There are multiple levels of participation so that you can imbibe as much, or as little, as you desire/as time permits, and still consider yourselves a part of this community event.
What are RIP books? Simply, anything considered as:

Dark Fantasy

The level that I'm choosing to sign up at is Peril the First: read four books from any of the above categories. And then share them at the RIP Review Site.

While lists and pre-made choices are not required, here are a few that I hope to get to this RIP round.

Running on Fumes / Christian Guay-Poliquin
Confessions / Kanae Minato
Motion of Puppets / Keith Donohue (because what's RIP without creepy puppets?)
The Alchemist & the Angel / Joanne Owen

And I'm sure I'll come up with many more...I'm always open to suggestions too.

Welcome Fall, and welcome RIPXI