The Break by Katherena Vermette

29220494[Goodreads synopsis] When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break — a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house — she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.

In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim — police, family, and friends — tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night. […] Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed.

I went into The Break with the expectation that it was going to be sad, and at times hard to read, but I did not expect it to knock the wind out of me the way it did. I read a lot of sad books, but this one really got to me.

We have all been broken in one way or another.

Set in Winnipeg Manitoba, The Break is a novel about abuse, violence, and racism. But it’s also about how our connections with each other help us to heal from these experiences. In this case, it’s a group of Indigenous women from the same family who are at the heart of the novel.

All these women holding each other up.

But what happens if you have no one, or if your someone(s) can’t even take care of themselves? The answer to that is also in this book.

The crime that the story is centered around is heinous, the gang violence is disturbing, and the conditions some people have to live in are terrible, but it was the blatant racism that horrified me the most.

Shortly after reading The Break, I heard an interview on the CBC Radio about Carl Seier, who, after reading in MacLean’s magazine that Winnipeg is the most racist city in Canada, decided to go out and talk to strangers. One year later, he’s talked to hundreds of people and posted 40 stories on his Facebook page, The Stranger Connection Winnipeg. Now when he hears the stories in the news. they are more than just facts and statistics; they have meaning and a human face.

Also one year later, the city of Winnipeg is on a mission. Obviously it’s going to be a long journey, for Winnipeg and the rest of Canada, but stories like The Break and the life stories told to Carl Seier, that tell us what it’s really like without  the sugarcoating, are essential to the process.

Candy Palmater believes this, too, as she has chosen The Break as the “one book Canadians need now” in the 2017 Canada Reads competition. Here’s what she has to say about it…

 It’s a very cold winter night in inner-city Winnipeg, and young Stella looks out the window and sees a crime taking place, and she calls the police. From there, a very well-crafted, well-written book, a story that will not let you go but will tell you the story of different generations of Indigenous women. You get to know not just the victim but the perpetrator, and you understand how colonization has created this entire situation. Every Canadian needs to read this to understand relations.

This book was so gut-wrenching and hard to write about (I’ve been writing and re-writing for a while now), that it would have been easier to just leave it. But I loved it too much to do that. It’s a tough read, but it is so worth the effort. And there are moments of hope and beauty and strength and inspiration. Just have some tissues handy, and maybe be ready to pick up something light for your next read.

Further Reading:

Katherena Vermette‘s first book, North End Love Songs, won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry. The Break was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Rogers Trust Fiction Prize and is now a finalist for Canada Reads.

Another beautiful book about Indigenous women is Birdie by Tracey Lindberg.

Katherena Vermette on the writing of The Break, in which she explains, among other things, the ‘magic numbers’ involved in the structure of the book.

Katherena Vermette on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers.

Buried in Print’s review of The Break: “The perpetration of abusive and devastating cycles also leads to relentless anger and addiction. Nonetheless, despite the horrors, the overwhelming tenor of The Break is resilience and endurance.

The Winnipeg Review: “Vermette is skilled at writing with a language that is conversational and comfortable and with a poetic ease that makes the hard things easier to swallow. The result is a book that is at times emotionally demanding, funny, suspenseful, and always engaging.”

The Globe and Mail: “The Break is an astonishing act of empathy, and its conclusion is heartbreaking. A thriller gives us easy answers – a victim and a perpetrator, good guys and bad guys. The Break gives us the actual mess of life.”

 

‘Glass Voices’ by Carol Bruneau and ‘The Memento’ by Christy Ann Conlin

2155102Glass Voices by Carol Bruneau (2007)

I read this book as part of my little unofficial Halifax Explosion fiction project, which includes other books, such as Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan, Black Snow by Jon Tattrie, and The Blue Tattoo by Steven Laffoley. This book made a nice compliment to the others in that it’s more about the long term effects of the explosion on one family’s life.

Lucy and Harry had only been married a couple of years when the explosion rocked their lives. They lost their parents, friends, and first child as a result of the explosion. Lucy went into labour for their second child that night. She and Harry are eventually re-united, but their lives will never be the same. Not only will they grieve for what they’ve lost, but memories of that day will haunt them their whole lives.

Soundlessly, a jet scores the spreading blueness overhead. Its plume links the clouds, cutting the path, perhaps, that fiery bits of metal once did. Parts of a ship, and souls sprayed like milk and eggs and perfume, invisible as a sliver in the heart, or a baby about to enter the world, leaving behind snug darkness.

It’s not clear how well matched Lucy and Harry are to begin with, but the trauma they suffered and the loss of their first child hits them hard. Their different ways of grieving drive them apart until their marriage hits rock bottom. Harry spends his time drinking with his buddies, gambling, and hanging around other women, while Lucy grows more isolated and depressed. Their son Jewell is a product of this rocky marriage, and Lucy is always worried about him.

God have mercy, for the sins of the fathers and mothers too, and give us hope, even if it’s pinned on things nobody will ever see.

Despite Harry’s infuriating behaviour throughout most of the book, when he has a stroke in his later years Lucy is desperate to have him home again, warts and all. And after all this time, they are still not done with the twists and turns of living.

This book is not an easy read; there is detail to pay attention to in the characters and the layers of the story. The narrative goes back and forth between the couple’s early years and the time of Harry’s stroke. Many, if not all, of the characters are hard to like; at times they are weak, vulgar, useless, helpless, and maddening. But they are human, and they put a face on real Haligonians as they struggled to put their lives back together after surviving a disaster that killed and injured thousands of people, and left many more homeless.

The paper never fails to dig up a new tale each year, things trotted out that she can barely stand to imagine or relive. As long as there are survivors, there will be stories… though it stops her breath to think of herself that way, a survivor, like someone washing up from the ocean.

For a thorough and thoughtful review, read Sarah Emsley’s review: “It would be possible to write a novel about the Halifax Explosion that focuses on the disaster and despair of the moment, or one that offers a sentimental version of recovery. Bruneau has accomplished the much more difficult task of showing just how hard life is in the years after the Explosion, while also demonstrating how it may be possible to find hope even when every aspect of life seems to disappoint.”

My review of These Good Hands, Carol Bruneau‘s latest novel.

 

29858044The Memento by Christy Ann Conlin (2016)

Fancy Mosher is the twelfth born child, and heir to the “family memento”; the ability to see ghosts. She works at Petal’s End, the Parker family’s estate by the Bay of Fundy, where her mother worked before her, and where, more than any ghost, past events and family secrets haunt them all.

“What you don’t know is that you’re just like your Grampie. Oh yes you are. You’re the twelfth-born, just like him. Today you turn twelve years old. But this is my day… And this year you will see what your Grampie could see and you will see your little brother for me and you goddamm will speak with him because that is what you were born to do. It’s the only reason I had you.”

The Globe and Mail calls The Memento a “classic spine-tingler, centring on a haunted house and children hovering between evil and innocence, power and vulnerability.” The adults are tight-lipped about the past, and the children are left to wonder and discover the terrible secrets on their own. It’s painful to witness the loss of their innocence as the secrets multiply and tragedy befalls the characters like falling dominoes; poisonings and drownings, crushed fingers and broken dreams. And the mystery of what happened on the island – only the children know, and they will never tell.

None of us knew then, on that summer day, how all the lives and secrets wove together.

An overwhelming desire to see the truth came over me for I wanted to be free.

The Memento is an atmospheric book made up of a cast of eccentric characters; a delicious tale of family dysfunction, secrets, and ghosts. I highly recommend it for when you’re in the mood to sink into a big book and savour it.

Once, a long time ago, you asked me what I was afraid of and I told you I wasn’t afraid of one single thing. That was not true. I was afraid of many things but talking about them only made it worse. I was never afraid of the dark, nor of animals, or creatures that howl in the night. But I was afraid around my mother because there was no fixing her. Stiff and old in my chair, I am only afraid now of what will be in your eyes when I see you, if you come out from wherever it is you are waiting. Afraid of the judgment, I suppose, same as what Ma feared she’d see in my eyes. It’s the details, isn’t it, that we remember? The eyes, the sound of the voice, the scent of the air, the way the light dapples through leaves onto the grass, or the perfect shadow of the winter branches on the snowy field, and how the child’s footprints on the sand are always washed away. This is what we remember.

My review of Heave, Christy Ann Conlin‘s first book, in which we are first introduced to Fancy Mosher.

Christy Anne Conlin on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers

Origin Stories: Chrsity Ann Conlin at Atlantic Books Today

“I realized for all the travels I’ve done, the most exotic place in the world to me still was the mountain and the valley where I came from,” says Conlin.

 

Emily Readalong: Emily of New Moon

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Many people are familiar with Anne of Green Gables, but Emily of New Moon is not as well known. I’m not really sure why this is… but an article at Literary Hub suggests it’s because “Anne has always wanted us to know her; Emily has never been sure.”

One of Anne’s characteristics is that she is friendly and open, always on the lookout for a “kindred spirit”. Emily is more reserved, watchful, and intent on her own ambition.

According to Mary Henley Rubio’s book, “The Gift of Wings“, after WWI Montgomery was ready to write something more “serious”. She wanted to “show how women had to fight against cultural expectations that curtailed their aspirations”. (p. 290) So she wrote Emily of New Moon, and declared it to be “the best book I have ever written”. (p. 293)

And fight Emily does. She fights against the “Murray pride” and “traditions”, she fights against her family’s ridicule of her writing ambitions, she resists anyone who tries to tell her she must marry rather than become a writer, and she resists the insults hurled at her from her relatives. She stands up to her friend’s tirades, she stands up to her teacher’s ridicule of her poetry, she stands up to Aunt Elizabeth when she believes her to be in the wrong, and she helps her friend Teddy stand up to his mother.

When she is reminded by her father’s housekeeper that she is “not of much importance” to anyone, she declares: “I am important to myself.” The girl has pluck. It’s easy to see why so many readers move on from their infatuation with Anne and fall in love with Emily.

However, after going through my notes, I think Anne and Emily have many things in common.

They are both orphans who have come to live in a home with one stern guardian, and one more sympathetic. And, like Anne and Marilla, Emily is eventually able to win Aunt Elizabeth’s affection and respect, although the battle is a lot tougher than it ever was with Marilla. Marilla seems like a softie next to Aunt Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Murray had learned an important lesson – that there was not one law of fairness for children and another for grown-ups.

Both Anne and Emily have huge imaginations and a gift for seeing beauty. They both love to give names to places and things; Anne had her Lake of Shining Waters and Lovers’ Lane, while Emily has the Wind Woman and “the flash”.

It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside – but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting world beyond – only a glimpse – and heard a note of unearthly music.

Anne is decidedly more preoccupied with her looks, but Emily hasn’t entirely escaped this weakness (and small wonder when you read about all the remarks she hears from other people about her looks).

Is it wrong to want to be handsome, dearest father. Aunt Elizabeth says it is and when I said to her, wouldn’t you like to be handsome, Aunt Elizabeth, she seemed annoyed about something.

Emily and Anne both desperately want to change their hair. Anne went so far as to dye hers a different colour (with drastic consequences); and against Aunt Elizabeth’s wishes, Emily decides to give herself “a bang”. But then she feels so guilty about it that she cuts it off!

Most people find both Emily and Anne likable, and neither of them seem to have much trouble making friends. Anne is more vocal about her longing for a “bosom friend” or a “kindred spirit”, but Emily too wants to be loved. It may be, though, that Emily has a more intrinsic ability to love herself than Anne does at first. Perhaps having had a loving parent for the first ten years of her life makes the difference.

Anne likes to write, but Emily can’t do without it. Anne had her reflection and her echo to talk to when things got hard for her, but writing things out is how Emily deals with difficult feelings. During her first couple of years at New Moon, after her father died, she wrote him many letters about everything that happened. When she was treated meanly or unfairly, she wrote long, unflattering descriptions of the offender, or created  stories in which she could exact her revenge.

My copy.

My copy.

Secondary characters

One of my favoruite things about LMM’s stories are her wonderful array of characters, and Emily of New Moon has its share of them. There is proud Aunt Elizabeth and kind Aunt Laura. Cousin Jimmy who composes poetry and is “not all there”. Emily’s “wild” friend Ilse who runs around in bare feet, uses “unladylike” language and doesn’t believe in God. Emily’s artist friend Teddy who has a disturbingly jealous mother. Their friend Perry who is determined to someday be both Prime Minister of Canada and married to Emily. Lofty John who caused Emily hours of agony when he told her she had just eaten the apple he had poisoned for the rats. Great Aunt Nancy who tells Emily she’s no beauty, but with the sum of her body parts, she could “pass as one”. And Dean Priest who rescues Emily from falling off a cliff , befriends her, then makes sly comments about “waiting” for her (he is 35, she is 12 – did anyone else find this creepy?).

Darkness and shadows

Overall, Emily of New Moon tends to feel darker than Anne of Green Gables. LMM writes about Emily with compassion and humour, but during this re-read I was really struck by the ill treatment of Emily by her relatives. And I thought to myself that it’s a wonder she manages to turn out so well. She’s called “difficult”, “spoiled”, “weedy looking”, a child of “very little feeling”, “sly as a snake”, “shameless”, “ugly”, and, worst of all, “stupid”.

But LMM’s heroines are nothing if not resilient.

Another dark shadow that runs through Emily of New Moon is the mystery of Ilse’s mother. Emily’s friend Ilse is far from the sweet Diana Barry. She grew up with a father who has been angry and neglectful since losing his wife when Ilse was still a baby. Ilse is left to her own devices. However, Emily quickly discovers that she makes a fun and affectionate playmate. While visiting with Great Aunt Nancy, Emily overhears the story of Ilse’s mother. The story deeply distresses her and is so awful that she doesn’t believe it can possibly be true, and determines to prove that it is not. This storyline leads to grave illness, nightmares, and dead bodies.

Mrs. Kent, Teddy’s mother, is flat out disturbing. I don’t remember thinking this as a child, but now I find her behaviour shocking; she’s jealous of everyone and everything Teddy loves, including his art, his pets and his friends. She even goes so far as to burn some of his artwork and poison his cats. But he claims she’s as sweet as can be when they are alone. The older he gets, the more he feels confused and angry about his mother’s behaviour. A storyline to watch…

Another storyline to watch as the characters grow older is the tension between Emily and Ilse as they vie for Teddy’s attention. It’s subtle in this first book, but still hinted at.

A certain thing happened at New Moon because Teddy Kent paid Ilse Burnley a compliment one day and Emily Starr didn’t altogether like it. Empires have been overturned for the same reason.

Even the teachers in this book are a more sinister variety. Miss Brownell is more cruel than Mr. Philips could ever be (he wasn’t really cruel – just a fool). She mocks Emily and her poetry in front of the class. And Mr. Carpenter, who Emily feels intimidated by at first but grows to like, is known to be a failure and an alcoholic.

At the end of the book, Emily has grown older in many ways, and demonstrates this with her decision to put away her letters to her father and start writing for herself instead.

I am going to write a diary, that it may be published when I die.

Bits and pieces

I love dreaming up the ‘lives’ of derelict houses I see when I’m out. I will never know if it’s something that I share with LMM’s characters, or something I learned from them. The Disappointed House…

Why had it never been finished? And it was meant to be such a pretty little house – a house you could love – a house where there would be nice chairs and cozy fires and bookcases and lovely, fat, purry cats and unexpected corners…

When I was young, I used to stare at wallpaper to make it ‘pop’. Imagine my delight when I read about Emily and discovered that she liked to do this, too…

By a certain movement of the muscles of her eyes, which she could never describe, she could produce a tiny replica of the wallpaper in the air before her – could hold it there and look at it as long as she liked – could shift it back and forth to any distance she chose… It was one of her secret joys when she went into a new room anywhere to “see the paper in the air”.

Upon discovering that Emily has been reading one of Dr. Burnley’s anatomy books…

This was worse than novels. Aunt Elizabeth was truly horrified. Things that were inside of you were not to be read about.

As a reader and a blogger, something I can really relate to…

[In a letter to her father] I should not write fassinating again because you told me I must not use the same word too often but I cant think of any other that deskribes my feelings so well.

Some good lines…

It would hurt her with its beauty until she wrote it down.

So many jolly things seem to be unladylike.

I like to hear a storm at night. It’s so cozy to snuggle down among the blankets and feel it can’t get at you.

I can bear it when other people have a bad opinion of me but it hurts too much when I have a bad opinion of myself.

If everybody had always been happy there’d be nothing to read about.

Emily over the years

Like the post I wrote about Anne of Green Gables, I’ve gathered up as many Emily of New Moon book covers as I could find, so we can have a look at Emily over the years. It’s interesting to compare them to the Anne covers – there are not as many, and they are generally not as bright and cheery.

First covers (1923):

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I like the second one, with the Wind Woman in the tree. But, how did they make the mistake of spelling Anne without an ‘e’?!

1970s (I don’t know what happened between 1923 and 1970)

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Many of the covers show Emily either reading or writing.

1980s

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The second one here is my favourite, because it’s the one I grew up with.

1990s

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2000s

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2010s

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Once again, I’m a fan of Emily reading/writing under a tree. 

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Not a fan of the orange-y one.

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Hmm… isn’t Anne the one with the red hair?

Which cover is your favourite? And, tell me, do you have a preference between Anne and Emily? Maybe you’re new to Emily – what do you think of her? Maybe you haven’t read Emily since you were a child – have your impressions changed? Let me know in the comments, or leave me a link to your own posts about Emily!

Coming in March: Emily Climbs

Further Reading:

“I am important to myself”: Emily of New Moon by Sarah Emsley – “The Emily novels have served as an inspiration to many young women who dreamt of becoming writers, as Benjamin Lefebvre notes in The L.M. Montgomery Reader: Volume Two. He mentions, for example, Munro, Atwood, Margaret Lawrence, Astrid Lindgren, Rosemary Sutcliff, Jean Little, and Carol Shields.”

Back to Blair Water: #ReadingEmily as an Adult by Jaclyn at Covered In Flour –  ” As I knew I would be, I was immediately plunged back into the world of New Moon, Blair Water and Priest Pond.  Most of the reading experience was very similar to my childhood reading of the Emily books – immersive, intense, and altogether delightful.  But there were definitely nuances that I picked up on as an adult that completely escaped me as a child...”

Rosy Retrospection & #ReadingEmily by A.M.B. at The Misfortune Of Knowing – “L.M. Montgomery understood this memory bias, giving Emily the gift of remembering her final weeks with her father as beautiful when the “pain had gone out of their recollection.” Perhaps it’s no surprise that I remember the magic of Emily’s vibrant world instead of the sadness. That’s just the way memory works.

 

Playing Catch-Up: Kate Evans and Beatrice MacNeil

Layout 1The Inward Journey by Kate Evans (2016)

Sylvia is not yet 70, but she is going blind and in a nursing home, and fighting it every step of the way. She complains about the food, the care, and refuses to try new ideas to learn how to cope with her loss of vision. In the style of The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, and with a proud and bitter voice not unlike Hagar Shipley, Sylvia tells us her story.

Syliva was born into Irish aristocracy, but falls in love with a man from Newfoundland who is in Dublin studying to be a doctor. Breaking ties with her family, she settles in Newfoundland with her new husband. Except that she has trouble settling. She keeps herself at a distance from the rest of the community. She seems only to survive from day to day, just waiting for her life to change, get better, for someone to recognize her importance. But in Newfoundland, that’s not going to happen, and her story takes us on her sometimes painful journey of discovering this for herself.

… my expectations of what to expect of life in this new world were distorted and unrealistic. I constantly looked for more because I believed that was my right, but what I got was never enough.

I thought this book was excellent, which just makes me even more sorry to tell you that Kate Evans passed away in 2016. Like Silvia, Evans came to Canada from Ireland and made her home in Newfoundland. I hope she found it easier to settle in than Sylvia did. She may not be writing any more books, but I will be sure to check out her first one, Where Old Ghosts Meet.

This book has also been reviewed at The Miramichi Reader, where it has earned a spot on his 2017 longlist for the “Very Best Book Award” for fiction.

 

Layout 1The Geranium Window by Beatrice MacNeil (2016)

The Geranium Window is about a family in peril; in peril from the husband/father, the regrets of the past, and the actions yet-to-come. Alfie, a young neighbour, observes it all, photographing what he can. With his camera, he captures the lost years of Rosie, the pain of Arthur, the doubts of Anntell, and the hidden beauty of Joseph. Upon the death of her husband, Rosie thought they might finally be free, but the worst was yet to come.

They saved all their regret for the edge of their graves.

I found this story engrossing (she can spin a good depressing tale!), but the language was too “flowery” for my taste. (“Rosie Briar spun the hard wheel of misfortune with the hand of innocence well hidden under a soft Sunday glove.”, “Why did she leave Arthur alone to collect his own rage like a child in the wilderness gathering wild berries to fend off starvation?”) I also found that near the end I was anxious for Alfie and Anntell to find each other in a more timely fashion.

I know that Beatrice MacNeil has many loyal fans, and no doubt they will be happy with her latest novel. This is my first time reading one of her books, but I intend to read more, perhaps starting with Where White Horses Gallop, which is sitting on my shelf.

For a more detailed review, pop over to The Miramichi Reader.

Thank you to Breakwater Books for sending me a copy of each of these books for review!

 

Literary Wives: The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

literarywives2-1Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

394255The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-five thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquility. Just like our marriage…

After years of Joan feeling stifled and under the shadow of her well-known and successful husband, she has decided to end their marriage. She has gone with him on this last trip, the pinnacle of his career, to receive the Helsinki Award for a life-long contribution to literature. Then she’s going to break it to him.

But how has she gotten to this point? Being a promising creative writing student herself, how did she end up in this situation for so long?

1) Joan met Joe when she was one of his students. From a very early point in their relationship, she was in awe of him and wanted to please him. And it continued, became a habit.

I was meek, I had no courage, I wasn’t a pioneer. I was shy. I wanted things but was ashamed to want them. I was a girl, and I couldn’t shake this feeling even as I had contempt for it. This was the 1950s, and then it was the sixties, and by this time Joe and I had ironed it all out; we had a rhythm going, a style, a way of life together.

2) When it came to her own writing career, for many years she believed that it was next to impossible for women to become successful writers. She gets this message early on, as a student, from a semi-successful female writer at the time (1950s).

“Don’t do it,” she said again. “Find some other way. There’s only a handful of women who get anywhere. Short story writers, mostly, as if maybe women are somehow more acceptable in miniature.”

3) At the beginning of their relationship, Joe pretty much told her that living their lives any other way (i.e. Joan the successful writer and Joe the husband of a successful writer) was unacceptable.

“What am I supposed to do, be your little houseboy? Sit here and wash the clothes and cook a crown roast while you become a literary sensation?”

To which I say… why not? (Except, perhaps, I’d rather have a lasagna.) 

1491975Joe’s not made out to be a ‘bad guy’; we’re told that he loves his wife and he loves his children. But his actions don’t match up. We’re reminded of the era, and the expectations of men and women of this era. But is that an excuse? He is primarily concerned with himself, but doesn’t recognize it or realize the impact of his actions (or non-actions). It’s interesting that I have read two books recently in which the husband/father is an egotistical writer (the other being Swimming Lessons). If you throw in Hemingway (from our last Literary Wives read), that’s three.

There were moments during our marriage when Joe seemed unaware of his power, and those were the moments when he was at his best.

Joe once told me he felt a little sorry for women, who only got husbands. Husbands tried to help by giving answers, being logical, stubbornly applying force as though it were a glue gun. Or else they didn’t try to help at all, for they were somewhere else entirely, out walking in the world by themselves. But wives, oh wives, when they weren’t being bitter or melancholy or counting their beads on their abacus of disappointment, they could take care of you with delicate and effortless ease.

Hmm… sounds like an insult wrapped up in a compliment. But mostly just an insult. However, it gives us an idea of what he thinks of women/wives and their role.

18006389What was Joan’s role as Joe’s wife, and her experience of being in that role?

This question can be answered by using nothing but quotes from the book. Joan tells us exactly what she thinks. And it’s not all bad… In the end it’s a question of how much ‘bad’ she is willing to take along with the ‘good’.

Power…

I was the wife. I liked the role at first, assessed the power it contained, which for some reason many people don’t see, but it’s there.

To please (even motherhood was driven by this)…

My desire to have a baby was swaddled in the need to make Joe happy.

To comfort…

Wives are meant to be sources of comfort…

Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives. Wives tend, they hover. Their ears are twinned sensitive instruments, satellites picking up the slightest scrape of dissatisfaction. Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies. We know just what to say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble taking consistent care of themselves or anyone else.

Motherhood…

Whenever I was nursing, I felt as if there was nothing else in the world I needed to be doing. It didn’t matter to me in those moments that I had no career of my own, no standing in the world.

Resentment…

We gave them everything we had. All our possessions were theirs. Our children were theirs. Our lives belonged to them. Our weary, been-through-the-mill bodies were theirs, too, though more often than not they didn’t want them anymore.

Everyone knows how women soldier on, how women dream up blueprints, recipes, ideas for a better world, and then sometimes lose them on the way to the crib in the middle of the night, on the way to the Stop & Shop, or the bath. They lose them on the way to greasing the path on which their husband and children will ride serenely through life.

Putting up with infidelity…

I ignored it whenever I could. It never occurred to me to say, Okay, here’s your part of the deal: Control yourself…. But they can’t, these men, can they? Or can they, and we simply don’t require them to?…    What if he left? I knew I didn’t want that, so why harangue him since he seemed incapable of change?

The generational gap…

In her worldview [Joan’s daughter], bad marriages were simply terminated, like unwanted pregnancies. She knew nothing about this subculture of women who stayed, women who couldn’t logically explain their allegiances, who held tight because it was the thing they felt most comfortable doing, the thing they actually liked… A figure you never strove toward, never worked yourself up over, but simply lived beside season upon season, which started piling up like bricks spread thick with sloppy mortar. A marriage wall would rise up between the two of you, a marriage bed, and you would lie in it gratefully.

Which of these quotes resonates with you? Which have you had experience with? Which ones ring true, and which ones don’t?

 

On the first Monday in April:  Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Theresa Fowler

 

 

Playing Catch-Up: Yasuko Thanh, Jared Young, and Margaret Atwood

I read these books back in December, and was hoping to find more time for each of them, but they are starting to get away from me…

25894037Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains by Yasuko Thanh

This book is Yasuko Thanh’s debut novel, and was the winner of the 2016 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Award. The story takes us to Vietnam in the early 20th century when the French were in control. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about Vietnam that didn’t take place during the Vietnam war.

Dr. Georges-Minh is our guy. He’s well-off, but thinks his life would be easier if he wasn’t. He feels guilty about what his French connections have done for him, and finds himself involved in a group of men plotting against the French.

Georges-Minh has a medical degree from the Lycée Condorcet, Paul Verlaine’s University. What he owes to the French, and how they’ve f*cked up his country, together carve rifts in his psyche, and he is slowly going mad.

This book is full of poverty, politics, and prostitutes. It is well-written and engaging. The only thing I found missing from it, for me, was a sense of time. I had to keep reminding myself that it was 1908. But, then again, I don’t claim to know what Vietnam was like in 1908, or any other time.

Yasuko Thanh is definitely a writer to watch.

Our country is in crisis… Men abandon their families and leave their wives in charge of feeding the children. The women have no money and they do what they must to survive. This country was the possession of the Chinese, and now is the mistress of the French. For a thousand years we’ve lived under the dominion of others. It’s why everyone’s going mad.

 

28932518Into the Current by Jared Young

This book starts out with the MC, Daniel, on a plane that is crashing. And it’s really crashing. It’s somewhere over the ocean and he’s watching everything just fly out – magazines, bags, seats, people, and his comic books (which come to play a part in his predicament). But before he falls to his death, the world freezes and he finds himself hanging out in mid-air, alone. The rest of the book bounces back and forth between memory flashbacks of his life up until this point, and trying to figure out why he is stuck and what to do about it.

What I Liked:

  • The writing is excellent. I was surprised to learn that Into the Current is Jared Young’s first book. Young was able to make me feel and experience every detail, like when he describes eating an orange on page 363. And there are some beautiful and insightful passages, like his memory of being held as a baby by his mother on page 205.
  • The originality. I really had no idea what was going to happen, which is another thing that kept me reading.
  • The ending. It was the way it had to end. (And I was fretting about this – a different ending could have ruined it for me.)

What didn’t work for me (but could for you):

  • I thought the book was too long. There is a lot of detail, a lot of which was great, but some of which I could have done without.
  • I often enjoy books with young narrators, or with male ones. Maybe it was the combination of them both that prevented me from being able to relate to the character. He was interesting and entertaining, but I didn’t care enough about him. However, I suspect I’m just not the target audience. (Some reviewers on Goodreads have loved this book.)
  • Even after it was over, I wasn’t really sure what Daniel’s purpose was in the book – why he needed to go through what he did to get to the conclusion. But perhaps the answer to that is right in the book…

It might seem absurd, all these dumb trivialities and their cumulative power. But just you wait and see – it will all be the same for you, too. You will write Homeric epics about the contents of your grade-school lunchbox; you will write operas about your Saturday morning fugues in front of the television; you will expend a billion breaths trying to describe the brightness that another person’s smile can ignite in the dim depths of your belly. That’s the great paradox of being alive: even though it doesn’t matter, it does matter, it will matter, it has mattered, every single crumb and twitch and exhalation.

And…

… this is the great tragedy of human life: no other person will ever fully understand what it is to be you; they’ll only ever know the abridged, desaturated, second-hand versions of our most important stories.

There’s a lot to like and a lot to talk about in this book, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Jared Young comes up with next.

Read further reviews at:

Buried in Print – “this debut novel will make your head spin”.

Atlantic Books Today – “an author who has found a way to write what we are thinking, but don’t know quite how to say ourselves.”

*Thank you to Goose Lane Editions for providing me with a copy of this book for review!

 

99649Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Thanks to C.J.’s readalong at ebookclassics, I finally picked up this old favourite for a re-read. Because this book has been around a while and many of you have likely read it, I’m going to keep this short and sweet.

Alias Grace is based on the story of Grace Marks, a Canadian maid who, at the age of 16, was convicted in 1843 for the murder of her employer and suspected of the murder of his housekeeper. Atwood first encountered the story of Grace Marks through Susanna Moodie’s book, Life in the Clearings (1853), in which she wrote about her ‘meetings’ with Grace in the Penitentiary and the Lunatic Asylum.

I love the historical aspect of the novel, but most of all, I love the writing and the wit. In case you haven’t yet read this wonderful book, I’ve chosen a few passages to tempt you.

The ‘madness’ of women in the 19th century, and life in the Penitentiary…

They wouldn’t know mad when they saw it in any case, because a good portion of the women in the Asylum were no madder than the Queen of England. Many were sane enough when sober, as their madness came out of a bottle, which is a kind I knew very well. One of them was in there to get away from her husband, who beat her black and blue, he was the mad one but nobody would lock him up; and another said she went mad in the autumns, as she had no house and it was warm in the Asylum, and if she didn’t do a fair job of running mad she would freeze to death…

I don’t want him to see my hunger. If you have a need and they find it out, they will use it against you. The best way is to stop from wanting anything.

People dressed in a certain kind of clothing are never wrong. Also they never fart. What Mary Whitney used to say was, If there’s farting in a room where they are, you may be sure you’ve done it yourself.

Dr. Simon Jordan comes to speak with Grace Marks frequently, in the hopes of being able to unlock what he believes may be repressed memories of what happened the day of the murders. Because the bodies were found in the root cellar, he brings with him each time a root vegetable to help trigger these memories…

Dr. Jordan sits across from me. He smells of shaving soap, the English kind, and of ears; and of the leather of his boots. It is a reassuring smell and I always look forward to it, men that wash being preferable in this respect to those that do not. What he has put on the table today is a potato, but he has not yet asked me about it, so it is just sitting there between us. I don’t know what he expects me to say about it, except that I have peeled a good many of them in my time, and eaten them too, a fresh new potato is a joy with a little butter and salt, and parsley if available, and even the big old ones can bake up very beautiful; but they are nothing to have a long conversation about. Some potatoes look like babies’ faces, or else like animals, and I once saw one that looked like a cat. But this one looks just like a potato, no more and no less. Sometimes I think that Dr. Jordan is a little off in the head. But I would rather talk with him about potatoes, if that is what he fancies, than not talk to him at all.

The trial…

I can remember what I said when arrested, and what Mr. Mackenzie the lawyer said I should say, and what I did not say even to him; and what I said at the trial, and what I said afterwards, which was different as well. And what McDermott said I said, and what the others said I must have said, for there are always those who will supply you with speeches of their own, and put them right into your mouth for you too; and that sort are like the magicians who can throw their voice, at fairs and shows, and you are just their wooden doll. And that’s what it was like at the trial, I was there in the box of the dock but I might as well have been made of cloth, and stuffed, with a china head; and I was shut up inside that doll of myself, and my true voice could not get out.

Is she guilty?…

He doesn’t understand yet that guilt comes to you not from the things you’ve done, but from the things that others have done to you.

Alias Grace is coming to Netflix.

Have you read any good debuts lately? What have you been re-reading?

 

The Blythes are Quoted by L.M. Montgomery

6616668The Blythes are Quoted, the last book in the Anne series, is a short story collection made up of stories about people who are the friends/neighbours/acquaintances of the Blythes. In every story the Blythes are mentioned or quoted, sometimes fondly, sometimes not-so-fondly.

I would like to write everything about this book. I would love to tell you about each story and write a whole post just of quotes. But, for now, I will exert some will power and keep it short(ish).

The stories are divided into two sections: before WWI and after WWI. The ones that take place after the war make mention of the grown Blythe children, and even take us beyond the time of Rilla of Ingleside. Alternating with the stories are poems written by Anne, and sometimes by her son Walter, followed by some discussion among the Ingleside folk.

8137The Blythes are Quoted first existed as The Road to Yesterday, but had been edited at the time because of more ‘adult content’ in some of the stories. But, of course, the ‘adult content’ is one of the things that make this volume such a delicious read. In the first story alone, there are ghosts, dead kittens, an illegitimate child, a drowned child, and a suicide. Some of the darker themes in this collection include adultery, illegitimacy, despair, mysogyny, murder, revenge, hatred, and death. It also includes more familiar themes and topics such as orphans longing for good homes, marriages culminating after years of delay, and resolutions of past grievances or misunderstandings.

Despite the darker edge, it is still undeniably L.M. Montgomery. You will find gossip, scandals, mysteries, romance, deceptions and coincidences galore. I love her haunting mysteries, her sense of romance, and her wonderful characters, but I think the best part of her writing is her wit and humour.  I won’t ever forget the hilarious story of Anthony Fingold and his refusal to wear the new style pajamas that his wife wants him to wear. He can’t imagine wearing pajamas instead of a nightshirt – how shocking! And you can even see who’s wearing them and who’s not by checking out the clotheslines on washing day. Dr. Gilbert Blythe, of course, has made the switch to pajamas. I wonder if the minister is wearing them? “Why did books never tell you the things you really wanted to know?” (Like whether or not William Tell wore pajamas.)

And, of course, along with the delightful, you will find bits and pieces that will make you uncomfortable; a reminder of the times in which Montgomery wrote her stories. Even Gilbert himself (the love of my life) is heard to say, “She is one of those strong-minded women no man really cares for.” Eek. However, I don’t believe that because she writes it, she believes it to be true. I just think she writes it the way she sees it.

Remarks on the way people look…

… is it better to be beautiful when you are young and have it to remember always, even though it must be hard to see your good looks fade, than to be always plain and so have nothing much to regret when you grow old?

… rosebud mouths were in fashion then. Who ever saw one now? … the sloping shoulders… they had gone out, too. The nurse had shoulders square as a man.

Gossiping ladies at a wedding (with more remarks on the way people look)…

Amy was simply heartbroken when the engagement to Elmer was broken off… It was really indelicate the way she snapped D’Arcy up the moment Elmer threw her over.

Look at that mosquito on Mortin Gray’s fat jowl! Doesn’t the man feel it? No, he’s probably too thick-skinned to feel anything. I wish I could give it a slap…

Evelyn’s looking well, but she shouldn’t have her dress cut that way… it gives her sway back away… lordosis is the name nowadays, I believe… Evelyn is positively triumphant…

D’Arcy isn’t much to look at… his face is too long… but poor Rhea looks quite as well as the other bridesmaids. That shade of blue is so trying… probably Evelyn selected it for that reason. Marnie looks like a gypsy as usual… only gypsies aren’t quite so plump, are they? Amy will find it even harder to get her settled than Evelyn. Diana Blythe looks rather well. There really is something about those Blythe girls… though I’d never admit it to their mother.

Susan’s one-liners…

Women should not put up with everything and that I will tie to.

If you don’t get married you wish you had… and if you do you wish you hadn’t.

Mysterious and romantic figures…

She seemed like the child of twilight. Grey things and starriness were of her. She moved gently and laughed seldom but her little air of sadness was beautiful and bewitching.

Houses and the elements are characters of their own…

The old house seemed listening to the cold poison of her words. At times the gust of wind died away, too, as if the whole world wanted to listen.

And quotes that are as relevant today as ever…

And don’t be too hard in your judgments of folks you don’t know much about.

From the Forward written by Elizabeth Rollins Epperly, a theory as to what Montgomery intended when putting together this book…

Perhaps Montgomery intended this last story of Anne to be her farewell letter to a world she knew she was leaving soon. Perhaps this is why so many of the pieces are preoccupied with finding, feeling, speaking truth and why Montgomery is at pains to show there is seldom one truth only. Montgomery the artist triumphs in shaping this final book: there is no easy closure for Anne’s story, and we care how and why this is so.

Highly recommended for anyone who is a fan of L.M. Montgomery.

And, just a reminder, we’ll be starting the Emily Readalong (#ReadingEmily) in February with the first book – Emily of New Moon. Join us!