Lemon by Cordelia Strube

6539583Lemon completely took me by surprise. First, I wasn’t expecting to love it (and her) so much. Second, I wasn’t expecting it to break my heart. And third, I wasn’t expecting it to be so relevant. Lemon is a coming-of-age story that deals with bullying, violence against women, and a search for a place to call ‘home’.

Even though Lemon (Limone) has three mothers, she feels like she has no one. This could have something to do with the fact that her adoptive mother is depressed and suicidal, her adoptive step-mother is out-of-order since getting attacked by a student at work, and her biological mother has only just decided to make herself known. As for Damian, her adoptive father, he keeps flitting from woman to woman. Not to mention his helpful comments… “If you wore some decent clothes you might even be pretty.”

The thing is, as the reader, and as an adult, we know that the grown-ups in her life aren’t as bad as she thinks they are. One in particular even seems to know what she’s doing. But that doesn’t stop Lemon from feeling alone in the world. And before things can get better, of course, they have to get worse.

When I was eight I decided to stop reacting to humans. Reacting gives them power, which they can use against you. Registering nothing shields you. The attackers throw jibes and punches but go unrewarded. You’re still inside your body feeling the pain, but the ass-faces can’t see it.

Lemon goes to a party with her friend, a friend she has known for a long time but who has recently morphed into someone she doesn’t recognize. “She looks in the mirror and frets about what guys will think of her. What she thinks of herself doesn’t matter anymore.” But she still cares about her and worries for her, so goes with her to the party. And this is where bad things happen (are kids in real life really this mean?!), things she keeps to herself, and on top of another sad event in her life, she is sent into a downward spiral of despair.

Which all sounds completely depressing, doesn’t it? But it’s not, really. Lemon’s voice and her thoughts are so interesting to listen to; she’s smart and she cares about stuff, even if she acts as though she doesn’t. She volunteers at the sick kids hospital and gets attached to the kids who need her most. She cares about her friends and the state of the world and even her mothers. And I think that it’s all this caring that wears her right out. She so desperately wants to belong, to have a home, to be loved.

You have to wonder if all children were loved, I mean really loved not just owned, controlled, spoiled and gloated over, we’d have a better world.

The fact that she loves to read will be attractive to other readers. She talks about the books she’s reading, and takes what she learns from them and applies it to the world she sees around her. (She almost ruins Jane Eyre for me.) She’s an observer, and comments on everything she sees going on around her. Through her eyes, we see how absurd and stupid humans can be. She also knows a lot of historical facts and keeps up with what’s going on in the world right now. She ‘collects’ morbid stories, ones that make her feel better about her own life, and rattles them off to people (who don’t appreciate it as much as I did).

… I just can’t see how it’s possible not to go nuts. That’s if you think about anything for more than five seconds. If you can stop thinking after five seconds and move on to some new topic, you’ll probably be alright.

One of these days the tech world’s going to short-circuit and we’ll be surrounded by computer geeks who won’t know how to grow food or make soap or talk to people.

… the perils of faking it. I mean, if you fake it long enough you must lose sight of the real thing. Faking gets you places but then you have to lie there with your legs over your head oohing and aahing for like, forever. Maybe you stop expecting to feel anything. Maybe it becomes normal to spend all your time making somebody else feel good.

Our classical literature is all about women who end up serving some schlep.

… I have to admit it’s alright having a man around. You breathe easier and don’t jump at every sound. Maybe women put up with crap from men because they want bodyguards.

What’s so great about control is what I’d like to know. Why can’t we LEAVE EACH OTHER ALONE?

I read this book around the time of the Women’s March, and as I was reading and despairing about violence against women, I was able to watch all those women marching together and all those amazing signs they carried. But, of all the signs I looked at, this is the one that stood out to me that day and gave me back some hope.

Lemon was longlisted for the 2010 Giller Prize, and nominated for both the 2010 Trillium Book Award and 2010 ReLit Award.

Further Reading:

Lucky for me, Cordelia Strube has written quite a few books, her most recent being On the Shores of Darkness There is Light.

Kevin from Canada liked it: “The coming-of-age novel may be a bit of an acquired taste; if it is, you can count me in as an aficianado. I am grateful to the 2010 Real Giller Jury for including it on the longlist because I would have missed it otherwise (it has been out for a year); I would not have been critical of them if they had included it on the shortlist. I am sure that some of the incidents in Lemon will be popping into mind for some time to come.”

So did The Mookse and the Gripes: ” I think a lot of these types of books sound the same; I’m prejudiced because I think the voice of an angsty teen is easy to mimic, though rarely feels genuine. I was fully prepared to dislike this book. In fact, while reading it, I actually kept thinking that eventually it would fall apart in my hands, validating my preconceptions. But that never happened.”

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.”

 

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!

 

Under the Visible Life by Kim Echlin

23231115From what I have seen so far, Under the Visible Life has not been getting the attention it deserves. Thanks to Susan at A Life in Books, I bumped it up my list, read it over the Holidays, and loved every minute of it. Both Susan and Naomi (The Writes of Woman) included it on their Best of 2016 lists. Perhaps you’ll see it on my Best of 2017 list in another 11 months…

Under the Visible Life is the story of two women, their friendship, and their individual quests for independence. Mahsa and Katherine come from different backgrounds, but have three things in common; music, a mixed heritage, and a fierce determination to be free and independent (from societal norms and family circumstances).

The most radical thing a woman can do is live.

25734151Katherine: Katherine was born in Ontario, Canada to a single mother in 1940. Her father is Chinese and married her mother, but had to return to China. At birth, Katherine was taken away from her mother (and her mother was incarcerated for “incorrigibility”) under the Female Refuges Act. Her mother fought to have her back, then fought to earn enough money and raise her as a single mother in the 40s and 50s.

Katherine grew up vowing never to be like her mother; a lonely woman smoking in a dark basement apartment. She saw marriage as a way to avoid ending up like her, but Katherine’s marriage resulted in its own set of troubles, and Katherine was left (much of the time) to raise her three children on her own.

What I love most about Katherine’s story is that motherhood is not swept aside for her career – and neither is her career ended because of motherhood. Despite her struggles with money and marriage, she finds a way to go after her dreams while raising three children. She puts a priority on both herself and her children and shows us it can be done.

This music is what marriage could be, playing solos at the same time and ending up together.

You have to keep doing it all. You have to keep chasing your favourite things. Don’t stop. Don’t wait. Keep going.

29394815Mahsa: Mahsa was born to an Afghan mother who had run away to Pakistan with an American. For the first 13 years of her life, she knew love and happiness, until her parents were murdered by her uncles. As a result of this, Mahsa had the idea that “women who married got murdered by their families”, and decided to do her best to avoid marriage.

Mahsa was sent to Montreal to study, where she got a taste of freedom and independence, but in the end could not avoid the marriage her family wanted for her. She tried to make the best of it, but felt trapped and confined, and at times betrayed.

I believed I could do what I wanted if no one saw… I believed in a hidden life for women.

Both women are in marriages that are wildly different and fascinating. I could write a whole other post on just their marriages alone.  (Literary Wives, keep this one in mind!)

31195605I highly recommend this book to anyone, but especially to readers who like stories about women, marriage, and friendship. In a world where we so often tear each other down, it’s nice to read a book about women building each other up. Kim Echlin had me mesmerized.

To live, you must risk calamity. Abandon old ways to create something new. Love the life under the visible life.

Further Reading:

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Kim Echlin explains why she wrote Under the Visible Life:

Under the Visible Life is about love and I wanted to think about how the hidden lives of our families and cultures – our mother tongues, our customs and laws, the lives of our parents, grandparents – thread through our own lives whether we know them or not. I wanted to think about the resistances we face when we live authentically.

At CBC Books, Kim Echlin explains how she wrote it:

The book started when I discovered the Female Refuges Act… During the Second World War it was used to discourage women from cross-cultural dating. I was fascinated by how recently it had been repealed. My grandmother and mother had been born into it. I had been born into it, although I was too young to be subject to it. It was startling to understand the degree of legislative control our Canadian laws have had over women.

I wanted to work with alternating first person narration because I wanted the two main characters to tell their own stories, but to reflect on each other’s as well…

 

 

Novellas in November 2016

Novellas in November is hosted by Laura at Reading in Bed.

22181611The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thériault, translated by Liedewy Hawke

This book could just as easily be called The Lonely Life of a Peculiar Postman. Either way, it was the perfect escape from the election results; I curled up by the fire and read almost the whole thing in one sitting. (I don’t think I can say that I’ve ever read a whole book in one sitting – two is as good as it gets for me.)

Poor Bilodo just wants to be left alone at night to his secret hobby – steaming open other people’s letters and reading them. He doesn’t feel too bad about it since he always seals them back up and delivers them when he’s done. But there is one writer, in particular, that he is enchanted by; Ségolène. He has fallen in love with her letters to another man, all composed in Haiku.

But above all there were love letters. Because even after Valentine’s Day, love remained the most common denominator, the subject linking the greatest number of pens. Love in every grammatical form and every possible tone, dished up in every imaginable shape: passionate letters or courteous ones, sometimes suggestive and sometimes chaste, either calm or dramatic, occasionally violent, often lyrical, and especially moving when the feelings were expressed in simple terms,  and never quite so touching as when the emotions hid between the lines, burning away almost invisibly behind a screen of innocuous words.

In a twist of fate, Bilodo gets a chance to protect the continuation of this correspondence and to practice his own Haiku skills. But just when he thinks things are going along nicely, his secret becomes jeopardized and life plays a cruel trick.

I tended to feel that Bilodo was both pitiful and kind of creepy (creepy but harmless). But Theriault explains in an interview at the end of the book that, in his view “Bilodo is an eminently modern character: he is isolated in his personal bubble, takes refuge in the small virtual universe, so comfortable, which he created for himself; in this twenty-first century, I believe that many of us resemble him. Bilodo fears people, and love frightens him – he prefers to live in the wonderful imaginary world that he has invented…” I guess you never know what people are doing behind closed doors. Bilodo’s “hobby” is probably pretty tame compared to some.

Swirling like water / against rugged rocks / time goes around and around

I highly recommend this Haiku-filled gem of a novella.

Winner of the Canada-Japan Literary Award (2006) I didn’t even know this award existed. Here’s a list of past winners.

Quote from Denis Theriault on writing: “… when you write, the best part is never what you had planned but what you discover on your path.”

 

30079906Wenjack by Joseph Boyden

I can tell which niijii, which friend, ran away from the school this week by the long red marks on his back. Ever a lot of red marks. Ever a lot of friends who ran away this week. But Fish Belly teacher has Fish Belly friends who go out and catch them. We have a secret path, but maybe it’s not so secret anymore. The Fish Bellies are good at catching Indian children. One day I will run. One day they won’t hurt me anymore.

Wenjack is a fictionalized story of Chanie Wenjack who, in 1964, was taken from his home at the age of 9, and sent to a residential school 600 miles away. Two years later, after attempting to run away, he came home in a casket.

We follow now, we follow always, not to lead but to capture. Someone, yes, will capture this boy’s life.

The narrative alternates between the boy and the spirits around him; following him, watching and waiting, taking the form of critters such as crows and mice, owls and fish.

This novella is short, but powerful. The brevity of the story is perfect for students or anyone else who may not want to read a longer book on the same subject. Hopefully, this story will get widely read and passed along, so that we do not forget.

From the Author’s Note:

From the 1870s until 1996, when the last school closed its doors, more than 150, 000 Indigenous children over seven generations were removed from their families in an attempted cultural genocide. Chanie, for me and for a number of others, has become a symbol not just of this tragedy but of the resilience of our First Nations, Inuit and Métis people – which is why I use the word “attempted”. Our cultures were forced underground for a long time, but they have re-emerged despite the odds. And they are thriving once more.

 

1337973The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa

The Diving Pool is broken up into 3 novellas (which could arguably also be called short stories). All three carry a theme of isolation, neglect, and their psychological ramifications.

In The Diving Pool, a young teenage girl lives at an orphanage that her parents run. She is treated and lives in the same way as the other orphans, but is the only one who will never get to leave. She has strong feelings for her foster-brother, but is not able to show them or act on them. Feeling neglected and emotionally stifled, she gives into her urge to be cruel to one of the youngest children.

My desires seemed simple and terribly complicated at the same time: to gaze at Jun’s wet body and to make Rie cry. These were the only things that gave me comfort.

Aya’s “comforts” make the reader feel discomfort, her cruelty make us shake our heads in consternation. But the most uncomfortable thing about this story is the reflection of ourselves that we may be able to see in it.

He would never dive into the pool inside me, clouded as it was with the little girl’s tears. The waves of regret were gentle, but I knew they would ripple on forever.

In Pregnancy Diary, a young woman lives with her pregnant sister and brother-in-law. Already the third wheel, she feels irritated and drowned out by her sister’s extreme moods and cravings. Instead of voicing her frustrations, she starts making grapefruit jam (which made me want to make grapefruit jam), knowing that the fruit for this jam may be contaminated. She makes a pot of it for her sister to eat everyday. As Aya does in The Diving Pool, she acts out her frustrations quietly and cruelly, without remorse.

The baby haunted the shadow that fell between us.

In Dormitory, an isolated housewife, whose husband is working in another country, takes pleasure in helping a young cousin move into her old student dormitory. She begins visiting the caretaker (who is a triple amputee with one leg) regularly. The student who lived there before her cousin has gone missing, and now her cousin is said to have “gone on a trip”. She continues to visit the caretaker out of kindness, but there is a strong feeling of something sinister going on; a humming, a dripping. The ending made me think of The Nest.

I never knew how to describe it [the sound]. Still, from time to time, I attempted analogies: the icy murmur of a fountain in winter when a coin sinks to the bottom; the quaking of the fluid in the inner ear as you get off a merry-go-round; the sound of the night passing through the palm of your hand still gripping the phone after your lover hangs up… But I doubted these would help anyone understand.

Although I won’t pretend to have understood everything going on in these novellas, they were easy to fall into and be entranced by. I found them unsettling, even mildly disturbing, but wrapped up in a package of beautiful, seductive prose.

I first read about this book at 746 Books, where Cathy has written a more thorough review of it.

Have you read any novellas lately? Or anything by these authors?

 

Guy by Jowita Bydlowska

29599074About Guy:

  1. Easy on the eyes..
  2. And knows it.
  3. Eats well.
  4. Works out every morning.
  5. Rich and successful. Owns a house on the beach.
  6. The beach that he likes to walk his dog on, and watch women look at him.
  7. He rates these women on a scale of 1 to 10.
  8. His prefers 3s, 4s and 5s. Plain women who can be made to feel more beautiful than he believes they really are.
  9. He likes a challenge, enjoys the game.
  10. He’s good at hiding his real thoughts.
  11. He’s good at telling women what they want to hear.
  12. He’s good at making women feel good.
  13. Until he leaves them and moves on to the next one.
  14. However, he ultimately believes he’s doing these women a favour. He believes that, after he leaves them, they will continue to feel better about themselves than they did before because they were once with him – a perfect male specimen.
  15. One day, though, he will meet his match.

I went into this book ready (and looking forward to) despising this character. And at times I did despise him, absolutely. But by the time I got to the end, I no longer knew what to think. It’s hard to completely despise someone who genuinely seems to believe he’s helping people out; making them happier, even if only temporarily (and even if it’s a big fat lie).

The other thing that occurs to me is that we are inside this guy’s head and know all his thoughts. Is it fair to judge people whose every thought we have access to? Maybe we would detest just about everyone if we had access to all their private thoughts; every man who looks at a women and sizes her up, every woman who silently criticizes another woman for being too thin/too fat/too smart/too dumb. It really makes me think more about the private thoughts I’m having – are they worthy of everyone’s scrutiny?

In Shelagh Roger’s interview with Jowita Bydlowska on The Next Chapter, Bydlowska talks about the reason she started writing about a man like Guy in the first place. They talk about the questions the book raises about the culture of misogyny, as well as what it is that makes women susceptible to men like him. I was also happy to hear, because I was feeling confused about the way I was feeling about a character who I knew was clearly despicable, that Bydlowska wanted to write about Guy in a way that would confuse readers. She gives us reason to question our hate, and opportunities to feel pity and even sympathy for him.

This book was entertaining and provocative. If you are averse, however, to a lot of sex and profanity in your reading, you might want to think twice about reading it. There is a lot of sex in this book, but most of it is described the way he might describe anything else in his life – his workouts, his meal plans (the guy can cook!). In fact, much about the way he thinks and describes things sounds almost robotic – controlled and calculating, without a lot of feeling.

The biggest problem I, or someone else, might have with this book is what happens at the end. I’m still not sure how I feel about the ending… especially now, in light of many recent events. Yes, the guy is a narcissistic jerk, but does he deserve what happens? He doesn’t seem as angry as he should be, but what does that mean? What is the author trying to say with this ending? It seems kind of wacko to me. If you decide to read this book, please come back and enlighten me.

In the Globe & Mail, Stacey May Fowles uses words like “morbidly fascinating”, “disturbing”, “unsettling”, and even “pity” to describe Guy (both the book and the character). Because, yes, I do feel pity for someone who goes through life without being able to genuinely connect with other people. And she describes the retribution at the end as “more disturbing than rewarding”, for which I completely agree.

I think that I’ll be passing this book on to the members of my book club. I’m looking forward to a discussion about the intentions of men, the vengeance of women, and the reasonable limits of both.

Some passages from the uncorrected proof

Guy on women and beauty and being awesome:

My life opened to grateful girls. Girls with weight problems and with bad skin. Girls who had dreams, but who could forsake those dreams because they understood from the time they were born that the world would not give into their demands. The world was unapologetic about loving beauty, and it ignored the plain girls, if not downright rebuked them.     I had the power to be the world to them.

No one would hold me accountable for not sticking around. The plain girls simply didn’t expect it. I pleased them. The end.

If it wasn’t for men like me, many of those women would never know they’re worth more than they think they are.

… a girl who knows her value, who understands her power, is a hundred times more powerful than I could ever be.

Why do people always shit on those who admit to being awesome? I’m awesome and I won’t let people shit on me – what’s wrong with that? And I believe that I was put on this earth to bring a few girls some great memories, some happiness even – what’s wrong with that?

Guy on marriage:

And is modern marriage about love? The love evolving, maturing like some kind of alcohol as it sits in the barrel of disillusionment and misfortune, disease and ephemeral joy? The love maturing so much that it is prone to forgetting that it originated in desire, demanding the same desire to succumb to exclusivity, monogamy? And desire, this chronic viral condition, torturing monogamy with its lips and hips, its swagger and smell, its eye contact, its hands everywhere? ….Then, at home, the desire resting next to the wife’s sleeping cheek as the husband masturbates in the darkness, quietly, hideously. He is an evolved man, a man who evolved so much that he married, respected and observed the rules of modern society. And later on, his wife locks herself in the bathroom with her secret stash of Fifty Shades of Grey or some other romance fable and fantasizes about being mounted by someone else, the neighbour. Anyone but her husband, whom she finds repulsive now, after years of marriage.

Thank you to Wolsak & Wynn for providing me with a copy of this book for review!

Jowita Bydlowska is also the author of Drunk Mom, a memoir about her struggle with alcohol the year after her child was born. (my review)

A book that would go well with this one, in terms of topic and discussion value, is The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall.