From the Library: some laughs, some crime, a coma, and a narrative meditation

The first thing I have to say about these books is that each one deserves it’s own post. So very good in their own unique ways. Three from Atlantic Canada, one from Quebec.

Are You Kidding Me?! by Lesley Crewe, Nimbus Publishing

Lesley Crewe is wildly popular here in Nova Scotia. Her books at the library are constantly going in and out. I often see people with several of her books at once heading out the door. I personally have only ever read her first book Relative Happiness, which has since been made into a movie. I have been meaning to read another one since, and in fact, own a couple more. So when Are You Kidding Me?! came out, a collection of her finest newspaper columns from over the years, I thought it would be a good chance to get to know her better.

And I was right. If you don’t fall in love with Lesley Crewe through her funny, sweet, homey essays about everyday life, there’s something wrong with you. She must have everyone knocking down her door wanting to be her best friend.

I gave up very quickly jotting down my favourite lines from her book, because there are just too many. Here are only a few (which were easily obtained by just flipping through the book)…

When you write about ordinary things people understand you.

In my bio, it says that I got into writing as a way to avoid housework. People think I’m being funny when I say that, but it’s the absolute truth. I’d rather write a novel than dust the two bureaus in my bedroom.

Open concept: With this floor plan, you are now privy to people trimming their toenails, doing squats in front of the television, picking chip crumbs off their shirt and eating them, and watching the dog loll all across the furniture, cleaning his behind.

Nothing in the history of the world causes as much angst as the realization that the bathing suit you’ve had for twenty years is now see-through, frightens small children, and is probably against the law.

Is it just me, or does every woman on the face of the planet hate the thought of what to make for supper?

Hubby doesn’t care if I’m grey. The only time we look at each other is when one of us is falling on a patch of ice.

Throwing good food out is a sin, but leaving it so long in the fridge that it develops a thin film of crust or mucus-like substance absolves you of that sin. You are now a good person who doesn’t want to poison your family.

I’m positive my hubby has a list as long as your arm about the weird and ridiculous things I do in the run of a day, but he’s not a writer and he’s not looking for material for a column.

There is nothing sexier than your partner outside at 6:45 am in a snowstorm scraping off your car and defrosting your windshield.

The quickest way to divorce is wallpapering with your old and cranky spouse, so our walls will remain dull and lifeless, like us.

Once you see November on the calendar, you realize you really have missed your spring-cleaning deadline.

Halifax Nocturne by Steven Laffoley, Pottersfield Press

I was first introduced to Steven Laffoley’s books through my Halifax Explosion project. He wrote an impressive book called Blue Tattoo. Then I read A Halifax Christmas Carol, and, although crime novels are not usually my thing, I took a chance on his newest novel Halifax Nocturne. At this point, he has earned my trust. (He has a new nonfiction out called Mean Streets, and there are several of his backlisted books I’d like to check out.)

Probably because this isn’t your typical mystery/crime novel, Halifax Nocturne turned out to be a page-turner for me. I was completely drawn in to his portrait of 1950s Halifax and the life of police detective Ray Vargas. The sense of time and place were strong, and the historical elements critical to my enjoyment of the novel. For me, the crime was almost beside the point.

A dark, gritty story that takes place against the background of the construction of the Angus L. MacDonald bridge between Halifax and Dartmouth. Ray parks with a view of the bridge, a mickey in the glove compartment, and contemplates whether he should cross the bridges in his own life, or burn them.

The city, old as she was, had never seen a structure like this bridge, modern in its design, elegant and grand, a span that would stretch across the harbour and usher in something new, a quick departure, an escape from the city’s past of Victorian houses and Empire thinking and all the ugly memories that came with them.

Ray Vargas is not a likeable character, and I don’t believe he is meant to be. He’s had a rough go and made some poor decisions in his life, but even he didn’t deserve the additional punch in the gut he gets near the end of the book. Then again, few of the characters deserve the hand they’ve been dealt.

I imagine life in the police force is never easy. In Halifax Nocturne we see how closely policing and politics are intertwined, as well as the police violence that seemed to be the norm back then. (Not that these things have really gone away.)

Not to be forgotten, in this novel, is the presence of Louis Armstrong and his music. Ray spent time with Armstrong when he came to Halifax in 1951, and continues to hear their conversation in his head throughout the book.

Armstrong looked out the side window of the ghostly two-story houses, weather worn and dull, even six years after the war had ended. They seemed to speak to the city’s soul – tired and beaten down by time and habit, just trudging along without the will to find light and hope.

In an e-mail exchange with Steven Laffoley, he told me that he is a “long time jazz fan and a passionate Armstrong fan.” Inspiration for his novel was born from “a fascination with the “old” bridge, the oldest cold case murder in the city, and a ticket to a concert at the old Queen Elizabeth High School.

(Interestingly, Halifax Nocturne is set around the same time as another book I recently read and reviewed–The Wings of Night by Thomas Raddall. They have very different feels to them–one set in urban Nova Scotia and the other in rural NS–but both highlight the decline of prosperity felt by people after the war.)

If You Hear Me by Pascale Quiviger, translated by Lazer Lederhendler, Biblioasis

The nudge I needed to read this one came from Marcie who wrote a stunning review of it here

David falls from a construction site and lands in a coma, instantly changing the lives of his wife, son, and parents. I have read books about comas before–each author’s take on the subject is interesting–but I was not expecting to be sucked in so wholly by this book. It was almost a relief when it was over and I could get back to normal life.

Each characters’ response to David is different. Caroline, David’s wife, is numb and angry and doesn’t want to touch him or talk to him – he’s not the David she knows.

Caroline, too busy digesting David’s absence, does not want to hear about his presence.

There’s no way to imagine how dreary Beaver Lake appears to her, how grey and tired Montreal looks from the Belvedere. Even the sun seems defective; it takes forever to reach its zenith and just as long to go down again. She misses David. Each of her cells miss David. She’d like to talk to someone about it, but who? To David. She’s like to talk to David about how she misses David, how she worries over him.

She’d like to know where he is, exactly.

Bertrand, their 6-year-old son, lives to visit his dad everyday where he talks to him, touches him, brings him drawings, and keeps him up-to-date on everything for the day David “wakes up” from his “sleep”. Yet Bertrand also shows signs of anxiety/trauma in his little life–behaviours that Caroline struggles to help him with while dealing with her own grief.

His life is like a film for grown-ups that she took him to see by mistake.

Something that struck me about the story is the way in which the hospital becomes a fixture in their life; they get to know each of the staff–who’s favoured and who is to be avoided–the smells, sounds, routines, other patients, the view out the window, and the choices of food in the vending machine.

In a big glass wall, sliding doors open and close automatically, exit to the left, entrance to the right. Beyond it, cars go by, and pedestrians and cyclists. A large park behaves as if nothing has happened. The mirage of a world intact. 

At first, going to the hospital feels almost urgent every day, but as time goes on it becomes something they limit to a few times a week in an attempt to keep it from overtaking their lives.

As David’s condition slowly changes, so too does his family. With great attention to detail, Quiviger shows them going through shock, anger, grief, guilt as they gradually adapt to their new normal.

Deeply sad, deeply touching, and beautifully life-affirming.

And I Alone Escaped to Tell You by Sylvia D. Hamilton, Gaspereau Press

And I Alone Escaped to Tell You gives voice to the varied experiences and circumstances of African Nova Scotians, past and present. Sylvia Hamilton used historical sources to inform her poetry, as well as her own lived experience and imagination. As a result, this collection radiates pain and beauty as it educates.

We did not know the future / would not be ours.

The first section of the book is dedicated to those who were enslaved in Nova Scotia; from Windsor to Shelburne, Liverpool to Digby. On Gull Island, a woman “walked the sand out to the island / taking her footprints with her.” At Cape Negro, a woman named Hannah has had enough: “Hang me now or sell me. None of you safe / long as God give me breath.” And on Refugee Hill, Little Sarah blind from the measles: “Snatched and dragged along the ground, the ragged piece of cotton she tore from her mother’s dress held tight in her tiny hand.

An advertisement from a 1769 Halifax newspaper reads: “On Saturday next, at twelve o’clock, will be sold on the Halifax Beach, two hogshead of rum, three of sugar and two well-grown Negro girls, aged fourteen and twelve, to the highest bidder.”

Section two moves ahead to the 1960s, a time when the elementary school readers included offensive language, high schools held “slave auctions” as fundraisers, and you could find wanted ads in the paper for “coloured girls” needed for housekeeping and childcare.

In the third section, “Postcards Home” consist of snippets of prose. On Canada Day, 2003: “By accident of birth I walk the dyke road.” In Turtle Bay, Tobago: “Gulls and pelicans feast at the sea’s buffet.” In Kitsilano, Vancouver: “In this neighbourhood of small dogs, yoga mats and siphon-dripped seven dollar cups of java, I fool myself into thinking all is right with the world.

“Potato Lady” was written in memory of Mary Postell, a free Black Loyalist in Nova Scotia who was re-enslaved and sold for one hundred pounds of potatoes.

dusty brown potato / white eyes protruding / she turns it in / her hand, knife poised / and thinks of Mary Postell / sold for a bushel of potatoes.

Most of what I’ve highlighted is on the heavy side, but there are many moments of beauty, and even humour. Near the end is an endearing poem I think many of us can relate to about all the junk on the dining room table; papers, books, half-finished projects, coffee mugs. The narrator asks: “In a hundred years what will the archeologist decide went on here?

These books have taken me from contemporary Cape Breton to a hospital in Montreal, and deep into Nova Scotia’s past. Where have your library books taken you recently?

18 thoughts on “From the Library: some laughs, some crime, a coma, and a narrative meditation

  1. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    Those Lesley Crewe quotations are hilarious! I love the one about the stuff growing mold in the fridge. I can so relate! It’s like “I TRIED to save it, there was at least the hope that it would get eaten by someone!”

    • Naomi says:

      I do the same! And once it’s gone bad, I don’t feel quite so guilty throwing it out. 🙂
      That’s what’s so great about her book – she talks about so many relatable things!

  2. wadholloway says:

    I don’t like ‘everyday’ columnists, not even novelist Robert Drewe whom I used to see once a week back when I bought newspapers. And not even though I sometimes try to write that way myself in my blog. But. I remember back when the fathers were land crew for a kayak marathon my daughter was in and we’d swim in the river in the evenings and what those year 11 and 12 girls thought about seeing old men that they knew in tiny, sagging budgie smuggler bathers.

  3. annelogan17 says:

    I have If You Hear Me on my shelf and I really want to get to it-it’s just finding the time! Good to know it’s emotional though, I’ll have to prepare myself.

    I think I’d really like Lesley Crewe’s writing, her name sounds familiar but if I have read her, it’s probably only once. She sounds like a funnier version of Alice Munro!

    • Naomi says:

      That’s an interesting comparison! Now I wish I’d read more of her stuff to know whether or not it fits. You should try one some time and see what you think. There are so many people here who read every single one!

  4. buriedinprint says:

    First, thank you for the shout-out for my review, but even more importantly, thank you for reading this book because I was nearly desperate to be able to talk to someone else about it! (Which was spoiler-soaked, so occurred back-channel!) And thank you for emphasizing what a page-turner it is; when I read the description, I was expecting a book I would admire or appreciate, but I never would have thought that I’d read it in under twenty-four hours and be so STRUCK by it in such a lasting way. Sylvia Hamilton’s poetry is so gorgeous; I have a review of this in later November. Also, on a superficial note, isn’t the Gaspereau edition lovely? I kept running my fingers across the cover/pages! I’ve not read Lesley Crewe, and that’s probably part of the explanation for why I thought Lesley Crewe to be a male writer. I also didn’t know/remember that there’s a bridge between Dartmouth and Halifax. Look at all the things I’ve learned from just one post! LOL

    • Naomi says:

      There are two bridges! They are known as the old bridge and the new bridge. The one being built in the book is the old bridge. The new bridge opened in 1970, which is only about 20 years newer.

      I wonder if you are thinking of Lesley Choyce, who is also a well-known and beloved Nova Scotia author. And the founder of Pottersfield Press.

      Gaspereau’s books are all like that – so beautifully made! It makes you want to own them all!

      Thank you for the nudge to read the Quiviger when I was trying to decide which books to read and which to send back to the library before the due date! 🙂

      • buriedinprint says:

        Yes, I think that’s where the confession rests: thank you so much! Well, now I’ll probably confuse *which* Lesley is which, but at least I will know *why* I am confuzzled! (Really, they even have the same last initial. If they were characters in a novel, I’d suggest that one of the names be changed!)

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