I feel like I have some pretty major loose ends to tie up – good books I read last year that I didn’t end up writing about. Why am I able to get my thoughts down about some books and not others? Why do some books get pushed to the back burner while others get moved to the front? Your guess is as good as mine. I think these are great books or else I wouldn’t be writing about them now.
There is one book in this pile that dates back to 2021 – The Sound of Fire by Renee Belliveau (Nimbus Publishing). I read it for a book club I joined on Facebook for alumni of the university I attended in the 90s. The books chosen for this book club are all connected to the university in some way.
Set in Sackville, New Brunswick, Belliveau’s book takes on the devastating historical event of the men’s dormitory fire at Mount Allison University in 1941. The author uses multiple narrators to tell the story from many perspectives, including: male students from the dormitory as well as female students across campus at the Lady’s Academy, townsfolk, faculty members, family members, and local reporters. The chapters are short, changing narrators each time, making the pages fly. Although all the names are fictional, many of the characters are based on individuals who were there at the time, including Alex and Rhoda Colville. Belliveau also takes on the the voice of the fire itself, an element that–for me–brought the book to another level. Not only is it about the 1941 fire, but it also reminds us that there is a war raging in Europe. The university president has lost a son to the war, the local reporter suffers from PTSD, and Lilian is one of the many British children sent to Canada for safety. Admittedly, as a Mount Allison graduate, I might be biased, but I was fascinated as I read this book, by the history and the compelling way the story is written.
From my essence sprung embers, blinking amongst the stars in the blackened sky. They floated, curious about the sounds the winds carried over the marshes, the voices that echoed in the night. Do you hear them? Those cries, those sudden shouts. They call my name.
I transformed again, this time into smoke. Parts of me evaporated, trailing higher into the sky, merging with the clouds. I nestled between the shadows hidden there and felt myself lengthen, filling the sky. While my flames were finally doused, I hung low over the heads of those who would rather forget me. And I listened.
At the very beginning of 2022, I finally read Always Brave, Sometimes Kind by Katie Bickell (Touchwood Editions) – a book sent to me by the author that I had been meaning to read for months. What a great title.
This book is made up of interlinked stories that take place in Alberta between 1990 and 2016. The type of book many of us love, characters from one story will show up in others, allowing us to see how everyone is connected whether they know it or not. The stories explore topics such as: teenage pregnancy, First Nations adoptions, Alzheimer’s, overworked doctors, Y2K (“From a tabletop radio, East Coast voices sing it’s the end of the world.”), motherhood, trying to make ends meet, and addiction (“In the last year, more Albertan lives had been taken by opioids than by car accidents and no one had suffered as much as addicted mothers and their children.“). They examine what it means to be human in a world that can seem uncaring and disconnected.
Besides, knowing everyone’s just made of dust–of dirt, basically–well, it makes everything a little easier to deal with… Like, Patty knows life is awful. Terrible things happen all the time… But when she reminds herself that everyone’s made of dust, things are put in perspective, like those shitty things might as well happen to a rock or a pebble or anything because even though people have feelings right now, we’re just nothing when all’s said and done. Or maybe we’re everything. Or, whatever–we’re the same as everything else. We’re just history. Stardust: sparkly, but in the end, just dirt. As in, nothing really matters, so Patty shouldn’t worry about everything so much.
Then I read two volumes of short stories generously sent to me by Freehand and Biblioasis: Great Adventures for the Faint of Heart by Cary Fagan and Shimmer by Alex Pugsley.
In Great Adventures: a man gifts his Picasso to the step-daughter from his second marriage; a man drives his girlfriend’s young son home over a 3-day drive and is privy to a disturbing confession; a teacher is arrested in front of one of his students for hitting his cousin (“High School Teacher Charged With Assaulting Orthodox Jew”); a woman goes on a date to a poetry meeting for which her date is one of the readers; a hippie family are in the habit of letting the homeless stay at their house; a couple who are known to have never-ending yard sales on their lawn are starting to receive complaints from their wealthier new neighbours. A bunch of yummy snippets of people’s lives, with captivating first lines like “They came into my classroom to arrest me…”, “They had been secretive children…”, “My family wasn’t like others in the neighbourhood…”, “It was early October dark but the house across the road was so bright, it looked as though a helicopter was pointing down a spotlight.”
He touched the brim of his hat and went down the porch steps. He would have liked to jump up and tap his feet a la Charlie Chaplin but didn’t think he could manage it. So without turning around he raised his cane in salute and then went on his way, heading off for what he called to himself a great adventure for the faint of heart. To make wild art, to entertain the sad and lonely and merely bored, and to be home in time for supper.
Reading Fagan’s short stories prompted me to read The Student which had been recommended to me by more than one friend.
The Student tells the story of Miriam Moscowitz in 1957 Toronto, a final year university student with a lot of ambition and a handsome Jewish boyfriend with a good job. She seems to have it all. Until a meeting with an esteemed professor rocks her confidence. She starts behaving uncharacteristically, following her whims and desires rather than the expectations of others.
Fifty years later, we meet Miriam again on her son’s wedding day. Is she the same Miriam we got to know, or has she been changed irrevocably by life’s events?
Anyone who has a secret, she thought, lives in two worlds. And the world that is new (for the secret world is always new) has a depth and a glow and a trembling life that the regular, everyday world can never match.
What is interesting to me is the question of whether a person can know one’s earlier self or if becoming a stranger to one’s own past is just a small inevitable tragedy.
Not long after that, I saw Fagan’s most recent children’s book displayed on the “new book” shelf and had to bring it home.
In Water, Water, a boy wakes up one day to find that his bedroom has broken off from the rest of his house and he is adrift on the ocean. Luckily, he has his dog to keep him company, and a way to get to the roof for fresh air and exercise everyday.
As the days go by, he watches for things to float by, like the many label-less cans that he fishes up with his makeshift net and the wooden crate full of rubber ducks. One day a little girl and her cat float up on an air mattress. The boy pulls them inside and he is no longer alone. They don’t speak the same language, but the two will continue on this uncertain adventure together.
A terrifying (for the adult) dystopian tale for kids told in a very gentle way – one that doesn’t make it feel so terrifying.
Shimmer is all about bold dialogue. These are stories that feel like scenes from a play or TV show, some with re-occurring characters. Two guys stand outside a 7-11 waiting for a ride and an alcohol delivery; a few people show up early to the after party of a fashion show; a couple of movie stars have an affair; two people in 2003 “meet” online and continue their conversation over email; a woman goes to therapy to learn “how to live”; a teen girl sits with other teens on a bus to get away from a creepy man; two women make observations at the biggest party of the year.
In an interview with Biblioasis, Pugsley describes these stories as “more like one-act plays” and says that the “stories in Shimmer are about the energies of people, the ways in which people encounter each other, and the effect of those encounters on a person’s understanding of… themself.”
A few years ago, I read Puglsey’s debut novel Aubrey McKee, a book I found very different from these stories. It’s interesting to compare the two – the stories focus on short scenes of interaction/dialogue between two people, and the novel focuses on the main character over many years – highly descriptive with very little dialogue. I wonder what will be next.
One more slim work of short stories is a volume called Little Bird Stories Vol.5, edited by Neil Smith (Invisible Publishing). These stories come from The Little Bird Writing Contest – a contest for emerging short fiction writers, put on by Invisible Publishing and the Sarah Selecky Writing School. The contest prompts for this year were: Write a scene that uses layers and layers of clichés intentionally. Write a scene that starts with the line, “Don’t you want to look sophisticated and elegant?” Write a scene about something that falls and breaks. It was especially fun reading the stories knowing what the prompts were.
The first story (with the layers and layers of intentional cliches)–Paradise–is about a group of women who move into a suburb together shortly before they start having babies. They progress through life in the most cliched way possible until they grow old and move out. “We agreed that our empty nests were proof that we’d successfully raised well-adjusted, self-sufficient children. Secretly, we hated the silence that greeted us when we got home from the supermarket or the beauty salon, and some of us took to drinking, alone, in the afternoons to fill the void. Someone joined a book club at the library and someone else started throwing pottery. Alone. We still did yoga all together on Tuesdays at the community centre, but things had begun to feel strained between us, like piano wire strung too tight. We spoke with sunshiny, overly sharp voices and we all showed far too many teeth when we smiled.“
The line “Don’t you want to look sophisticated and elegant?” is a stark contrast with the subject of The Other Rosie. Rosie and her mother were in an accident – Rosie suffered a brain injury and now lives in a group home. Her mother didn’t make it. Because the event is now in the past, however, the story is not too bleak. Rather, Rosie’s perspective and interactions she has with her remaining family members is interesting and entertaining. “Fay giggles like we used to when we’d read Harlequin Romances by flashlight under the blankets, crammed into one bed late on school nights. She doesn’t laugh around her husband, Lou, because he teases her that it sounds like a donkey’s bray. I told her he was a fat fuck in high school, but since my accident she thinks I’m too innocent to swear anymore, so I do it when she’s gone.“
In Self-Sufficient Women, the author must write a scene in which something falls and breaks. The narrator of the story is a thirteen-year-old girl–thinking about her plans to lose her virginity later that night–playing hide-and-seek in the woods with three younger kids when things go wrong. “After her husband died, Mrs. Thatcher got this idea of bringing up kids out in the woods, away from the city, in an effort to teach them something. Whether it was survival tactics or what, I didn’t know, but she had loaned my mother books on the subject. I was thirteen, nearly fourteen, so it was probably too late for me.“
This Strange Visible Air (Freehand Press) is a lovely book of essays by Sharon Butala, and my first experience reading this author. I had been reading an essay each night before bed when the book got buried under some others, drowning for a while before I rescued it. These essays examine themes such as ageing, loneliness, and friendship, drawing on the author’s own life and how it has changed over many decades.
On the day old age strikes, our host is pouring drinks on the terrace; the hot tub is bubbling, and the sunlit mountains shine in their beauty around us. But our hearts are numb with permanently thwarted desire, our throats choked with longing for things we will never have again, and our future, we are sure, is too bleak to contemplate. We stare in terror into the abyss, and ask ourselves: Who am I now?
In old people, homesickness is usually a longing for home that no longer exists, or for a home that, even if one stood in the middle of it, wouldn’t feel like the longed-for home anyway. And that would be loneliness.
The very old, having lost every single person who knew them as children, and in their middle age, at times feel they have lost their very validation as human beings.
In old age, friendship can be at its best, the relationship where empathy is complete, and care for the other–not a relative, not a love object–is at its purest.
I was… still stubbornly working as a writer, still publishing, even though small voices in my head were whispering to me that I was done, that my time as a writer had passed, that I no longer understood the world, and anything relevant I might have to say was relevant only to us, the nearly dead…
As to this last quote, Sharon Butala is not done yet – she has a new novel coming out and I’m looking forward to reading it!
Here ends this very long post. I congratulate any of you who made it through and thank all of you who tried.
(There are still a few more later-than-planned book reviews coming up, so stay tuned!)
23 thoughts on “(Fabulous) Loose Ends from 2022”
What commitment you have to write these reviews. If I don’t write about something within a month or so I’ve lost the momentum! I enjoyed your roundup!
I tried to let them go, but I just couldn’t. I feel much better now! 🙂
I wish I knew the answer to your question about why it’s so difficult to formulate thoughts about certain books. I have a stack that I read in the last two years that were really good but I just can’t find the words to describe them. It’s often the ones I enjoy the most that prove the most challenging to review!
Water Water sounds a little like Life of Pi – boy adrift on the ocean and finds a companion….
When I read good books, I can’t let them go – I have to at least list them or mention them. Even just for myself. Otherwise it feels like there’s a gap in my record-keeping (this blog).
The premise of Water Water does sound similar to Life of Pi, but the feel is very different. It’s definitely written for kids, and has illustrations to go with the story. Beautiful ones!
Definitely loose ends worth tying up! Very taken with the sound of the Bickell, Fagan and Pugsley.
Those are all so different it’s hard to recommend one over the other – but for you, Susan, maybe the Fagan!
I don’t have anything to say about the books so I looked up Mount Allison University. Those are class sizes to die for! Leaving temperatures aside, would I have swapped with you? Maybe not – it was a lot of fun for a country boy to suddenly be living in inner Melbourne (like you, no doubt, in a residence).
Yes, nice small class sizes. And in a small town, too. That’s why I loved it so much. And now my daughter is there!
Such great questions, about why we write about some books and not others. Or not right away. I’m intrigued by The Sound of Fire, especially the voice of the fire itself as it goes through various transformations.
Hi Sarah! I loved The Sound of Fire. I might be a little biased because I’m interested in the history of Mount Allison and Sackville, but I also loved the way she told the story – something you would be interested in too, I think!
I don’t know Sackville and Mount Allison very well, but I’ve been there a few times and would be interested to learn more. Have you read Margo Wheaton’s poems? She often writes about that part of NB.
I have not – but will be looking her up! 🙂
She’s so good! (And I should add here, she’s a friend of mine.) Her new book is called Rags of Night in Our Mouths. She also collaborated with David Adams Richards on a collection called Wild Green Light.
Our library doesn’t have her newest (yet?), so I requested Wild Green Light!
I’d be happy to lend you my copy, if you like.
Oh yes, that would be great!
I’ll bring it to our next meeting!
What an interesting pile of books! I love your tale of the one getting lost, I have managed to bury a HUGE book of Icelandic sagas so I never quite get back to it …
I completely understand. When it’s on my bedside table, I find it’s especially a lot of effort to unearth the books underneath!
I remember LOVING The Student by Cary Fagan – it’s short, but so spectacularly written! Sharon Butala is a Calgary gem. She’s old, getting older, but still a fantastic writer. I saw her speak just a few months ago a book event – she had to stand on a stool to reach the mic 🙂
It’s so nice to hear that Sharon Butala is still getting out to literary events – and still writing!
Cary Fagan seems to be so versatile with his novels, short stories, children’s books and picture books. I’d like to read more!
He really does have an incredible range! And yes, Butala is a prime example of how I want to age gracefully 🙂