Saturday, July 21, 2018

Hot Off the Press, Part 4

by Jean Roberta

Michael Ondaatje is an award-winning novelist who seems fascinated by the details of history which are often hidden or forgotten. His own life reads like a novel: he was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1943 of Dutch, Tamil, and Sinhalese ancestry to parents who split up soon afterward, and left him with relatives. At age 11, he was sent to join his mother in England. As a young man, he emigrated to Canada, and never left. He has won numerous awards for his historical fiction, including The English Patient, which was made into a highly-praised movie.

Canadian references to Ondaatje usually define him as a Canadian writer and academic.

Warlight, his most recent novel, probably draws on some of the events of his own childhood. It is told from the viewpoint of Nathaniel Williams, a 14-year-old boy with an older sister, Rachel. During the Second World War, Nathaniel and Rachel are moved out of London for safety, then they are told that their parents have to go to Singapore and live there for a year, for unspecified reasons. Their mother packs a trunk while assuring her children that she will come back on schedule. The parents leave separately, and the teenagers are left in care of a man they call “the Moth,” who introduces them to his friend, a boxer called “the Darter.”

Actually, the children are sent away to separate schools where they aren’t happy. Knowing that their parents are too far away to help, the children escape and return to the family home where the “Moth,” “the Darter,” and other Dickensian characters (including Olive Lawrence, an upscale intellectual who shows up as “the Darter’s” girlfriend) are the only parent-figures available to them. Rachel has alarming seizures (later described as symptoms of epilepsy) that Nathaniel is unable to understand or to help with. She finds their mother’s trunk in the house, and Nathaniel openly asks the “Moth” whether their mother is still alive. “The Moth” says she is, but Nathaniel is unsure what to believe.

The “Moth” tells Nathaniel an anecdote from the boy’s early childhood about his violent, troubled father, who apparently never recovered from the First World War. According to “the Moth,” he was a neighbour of the family, and little Nathaniel ran away to live with him after his father killed Nathaniel’s pet, a beloved cat who liked to “sing.” (The father clearly considered this sound unbearable yowling.) Teenage Nathaniel doesn’t remember any of this, and claims he doesn’t like cats.

The events of Nathaniel’s teenage years give rise to philosophical riffs about the un reliability of memory and the simple explanations that adults give to children to disguise morally-ambiguous reality.

All through the first half of the novel, I was afraid that the mysteries would never be resolved, though Nathaniel’s work in a restaurant (arranged by “the Moth”) and his involvement in “the Darter’s” greyhound-racing scam are exciting in themselves. Nathaniel even acquires a girlfriend in the restaurant, and the two of them have romantic trysts in empty houses where they can be alone. On one occasion, they keep a pack of restless greyhounds with them overnight, hoping the barking won’t lead to their discovery. Animal sounds are clearly dangerous.

Whether Nathaniel’s actual father is in Singapore or not, he never returns. Their mother Rose, however, is shown to have been near her children all along, and her own shadowy career is the stuff of legend. She has a reason for remaining hidden, and the children’s adult caretakers are her colleagues.

Eventually, every loose end is tied up. By the last scene of the novel, Nathaniel is a grown man living in his mother’s childhood home in Sussex. He has learned the truth, but it hasn’t set him free. His mother, his sister, his girlfriend, “the Moth,” and “the Darter” are all permanently gone from his life for reasons that seem inevitable.

This novel is full of local colour and suspense. It reveals the ugly fact that wars don’t really end when one side is declared the winner, since reprisals continue for years afterward. The revelations that shed light on Nathaniel’s teenage years are dramatic but plausible.

Unfortunately, I can’t imagine most of my first-year students enjoying this novel as much as I did, so I decided not to choose it as a textbook.

I chose The Marrow Thieves, a 2017 novel by Cherie Dimaline, a Metis author (of mixed indigenous and French ancestry) in a future Canada which has largely been destroyed by climate change. Most of the institutions of urban society have broken down. A sign of the collective trauma is the general inability to dream, from which indigenous people seem to be immune. Their life-saving physical and spiritual ability to enter different narratives in sleep is thought to be located in their bone-marrow. Of course, those in power want to capture the dreamers and extract their marrow in a liquid form, thereby killing them on operating tables in institutions described as “schools.”

The biology of all this is sketchy, but it’s not the point. Throughout the novel, a makeshift “family” of survivors must camp out on the run, developing traditional survival skills while protecting the oldest and the youngest among them from the “Recruiters” who try to capture them. The action is shown from the viewpoint of “Frenchie” (Francis), a teenage boy who comes of age while learning words in indigenous languages, developing hunting skills, and falling in love with Rose, another teenage survivor. The de facto leader of the groups turns out to be a gay man who quietly grieves the disappearance of his “husband” while encouraging everyone else in the group to tell their “coming-to” stories.

I can already hear the complaints from my first-year students:

This novel is racist against white people,
It is based on an unbelievable plot-premise, and
A major character is sexually perverse.

However, there is no way to please everyone. I think most students who graduated from an English-language secondary school could understand the author’s straightforward writing style, and I like several of the messages in the novel. There might be a recent novel that I would like better, but I needed to make a decision and go on to do other things.

As some of you probably know, I write reviews for The Gay and Lesbian Review, based on lists of recent publications sent by the editor to a stable of reviewers. I chose the ironically-named So Lucky by Nicola Griffith (ex-pat British lesbian fiction-writer living in the U.S. with her partner, also a writer).

Not for the first time, the editor told me he didn’t actually have the novel on hand, so he asked me to order it from Amazon, promising that the Review will pay me back. (I hope so. I get paid for my reviews in subscriptions.)

Luckily, the novel is slim and concisely written. So far, it shows what happens to a successful woman when her wife leaves her, her best friend announces her departure for New Zealand, and she receives a devastating medical diagnosis. This is not easy reading for any person of a Certain Age, though the central character is actually much younger than I am now. I’m comforting myself with the thought that at least I live in a country that believes in universal health care.

Hot Off the Press, Part 3-and-a-Half

by Jean Roberta.

Have you been counting the number of titles I mentioned in Hot Off the Press, Part 1?

I've finished describing the four upcoming titles from Lethe Press, but I had even more reading to do. I had to design syllabi for the three classes I am scheduled to teach in September.

In the English Department where I teach, it is a rule that students in a first-year literature-and-composition class have to read an assigned novel on their own and write an essay about it.

An allegorical Canadian novel from 2015, Fifteen Dogs, seemed to me to be a good, thought-provoking choice when it was new, but then I discovered that a growing number of reviews and critiques make it easier for students to plagiarize. So I set out to find something even more current.

I wanted to stick with Canadian content. I ordered a library copy of Warlight, the most recent novel from a prestigious author, Michael Ondaatje, through Interlibrary Loans. (It arrived within days from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. The university where I teach started life as a local branch of this institution.)

Warlight is an impressive achievement, but I thought it too historical, too complex, and too subtle for the kind of first-year students I usually get. Many of them are from faraway countries, and have a sketchy grasp of English, while some of the locally-sourced are the products of a public school system that seems increasingly reluctant to fail any student for any reason.

I looked for recent Canadian novels with indigenous characters, and found The Marrow Thieves, a YA novel from 2017. Stay tuned for a longer description.

Hot Off the Press, Part 3

by Jean Roberta

Perennial: A Garden Romance by Mary Anne Mohanraj includes a sweet romance between a lonely divorced man (half-Scottish and half-South Asian) who runs a flower shop, and a lonely woman (apparently White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) who is diagnosed with breast cancer in a leafy town where she moved from New York City because her late uncle left her an older house which she decided not to sell.

The chapters of the romance are interspersed with simple, almost childish drawings, and free-verse poems. Here is one:

“Friends rush in for overdue mammograms, even the ones who were resisting going at all, afraid of what they’d find.
Husbands are kinder to their wives, hold them tight at night, seeing a future without them.
It can make you cranky; this should be about you, but now it’s also about them.
You let it go.
May something good come of this— more check-ups and kisses. We should all be kinder to each other, to ourselves.”

This little book seems to have been inspired by the author’s own bout with breast cancer in 2016 as well as her interest in gardening. (Both the progress of her cancer treatment and the development of her garden have been extensively posted about on Facebook.) This book would make an appropriate gift for a convalescent who needs reading-matter with a happy ending.

Read by Strangers, a story collection by Philip Dean Walker, is much more unsettling, and I wouldn’t recommend giving it to anyone who has already received bad news.

Confession: I haven’t finished reading the whole book, so my generalizations should be taken with caution. So far, I haven’t found any supernatural elements in the stories, but real life in middle-and working-class American families is shown to be sufficiently uncanny.

In the first story, “Unicorn,” a group of kids explore an abandoned farmhouse their parents have warned them to stay away from. One bedroom is still incongruously decorated with images of unicorns. The barn (now burned to the ground) was the site of a tragedy: the teenage daughter tried to ride a horse which she had been forbidden to ride, and since the horse didn’t know her, it kicked her in the head, killing her and leaving the imprint of a hoof on her forehead. There is evidence in the house that she had been trying to escape from something unspeakable.

In “Revolution,” Anna is in a long-term marriage with Hank when she suddenly discovers a sister she never knew about before: her mother’s first, unplanned child, who was raised by an adoptive family. The intrusion of the sister, Billie, changes the dynamics in Anna’s own family.

In the wittily-titled “Hester Prynne Got an A,” the mother of a teenage daughter seduces the male English teacher on whom the daughter has a crush, discovers that her son (the daughter’s twin brother) is gay, and shows that the welfare of her youngest child (a daughter who seems eerily calm and cheerful and therefore abnormal) is more important to her than trying to recapture her reckless youth.

Another wittily-titled story, “Brad’s Head Revisited, ’94,” shows the long-term effects of homophobic bullying in high school on one of the bullies (or a sidekick of the ringleader) rather than on the victim. Here the narrator seems disarmingly direct:

“I fuck for money and I like it. The studio tells me how good I am, how much money I bring in, how I look even hotter on film, like a god. Just like a fucking Adonis.”

Do you detect a note of defensiveness? This story is discomforting, especially considering the allusion to Brideshead Revisited, a novel of privileged English life in the 1920s, in which an envious outsider shows the lifestyle of a titled family from which the gay son is exiled.

The narrative voice in Walker’s stories is clear and unadorned, and much of the explication takes the form of dialogue. Most of the characters seem to be trapped in unsatisfying situations, and they can’t find a way out. Even in the first-person stories, an omniscient, well-read narrator seems to be hovering above the characters, unable or unwilling to give them enough perspective on their lives to provide them with any relief.

The stories are well-crafted, but if read in bed, they lead to depressing dreams.

Hot Off the Press, Part 2

by Jean Roberta

Does It Show? By Paul Magrs (second in the “Phoenix Court” series) focuses on the residents of a housing estate in the actual town of Newton Aycliffe, northern England, in the 1980s. The story is a rollicking sit-com in print in which the locals call their children “bairns” and sometimes exaggerate their Geordie accent for effect. It’s a kind of northern Coronation Street with fairy dust and a 1980s soundtrack.

Here is the “Prologue:”

“Penny had always been a bright kid. She was born on the ninth anniversary of the first moon landing. Her father wrenched her from the incubator and ran to the steps outside, by the car park. It was a warm summer’s night.

He held her out to the moon, swaddling clothes draped down to his elbows. ‘You’re going there, Penny,’ he said, face shining. ‘You’re going to the moon, you are.’

And as the nurses came bustling through Reception to retrieve her, Penny glanced up at the moon, then witheringly at her father.

‘Fat chance,’ she said. ‘I know where I’m going.’”

This little scene contains the flavour of the whole saga: kitchen-sink realism with intrusions from a supernatural realm.

The first few chapters introduce the residents of Phoenix Court, the place where Penny arrives as a teenager with her apparent single mother, a diva named Liz. (Hint: Liz has a big secret.) Penny’s father seems to have disappeared, and her childhood has been punctuated by her arguments with teachers who tried to force her to scrub the black off her fingernails, not knowing it was permanent. Penny’s dreams show a certain clairvoyance which becomes clearer to the reader as the unknown people she has dreamt of appear in her life.

The narrative is told in a knowing third-person voice which includes the thoughts of the character under discussion. For long sections, Penny is kept in the background while the ongoing tensions within Phoenix Court are explained.

Penny, like all the adult characters, hopes to “fit in,” and she is the new girl in school. She meets Vince, another outsider who returned as the new English teacher to the purgatory of the school where he was bullied as a student by the physical-education teacher, who is still there. In due course, there is a satisfying confrontation between the two men.

Vince strikes up a friendship with Penny which is debatably inappropriate, but she is not the object of his lust. Penny’s companionship gives Vince the courage to reconnect with his first lover, Andy, who lives over a dusty shop full of dead, stuffed animals. As the two men agree, this is all very Victorian, especially since the shop owner is Andy’s benevolent relative, a taxidermist.

Liz’s abandonment of Penny for a romantic getaway with the local bus driver is debatably irresponsible, but as he reassures Liz, seventeen-year-old Penny can take care of herself.

The novel ends with an apparent non sequitor: an anecdote about an old woman on the estate who finds an actual pot of gold coins amongst second-hand donations to a charity shop. When she asks aloud how much the treasure is worth, she is answered by the ghost of a child on a hobby-horse who torments her with questions: Are the coins made of real gold? Would old Charlotte be safe if she kept this treasure for herself? If she took it to the bank, wouldn’t someone there be tempted to cheat her, or to turn her in?

Life is queer in this novel, and not only in a sexual sense. In the working-class world of Newton Aycliffe, the familiar tropes of childhood fairy tales don’t necessarily lead to happy endings, but the plot always thickens.

This novel is more-or-less self-contained, but since it is part of a series, I suspect everything in Volume 2 makes more sense to those who have read Volume 1.

The quirky inside-cover photo of the author as a thirtyish man smoking a cigarette suggests that he is already at work on the third novel in the series. It would be interesting to follow the lives of the whole cast of characters.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Hot Off the Press, Part 1

by Jean Roberta

For the past few weeks, I’ve done more reading than writing. I’ve plowed through six recent books, and started reading a seventh.

Steve Berman of Lethe Press often sends me gifts through the mail: uncorrected advance proofs of Lethe books that aren’t available to the public yet. He doesn’t ask me to review them, but the request seems to be implied.

The latest batch consists of:

1) Forget the Sleepless Shores, a collection of stories by classics scholar and poet Sonya Taaffe (from New England).
2) Does It Show? A novel in the “Phoenix Court” series by Paul Magrs from northern England.
3) Perennial: A Garden Romance, a slim volume by fiction-writer and cancer-survivor Mary Anne Mohanraj of Chicago.
4) Read by Strangers, a collection of stories by Philip Dean Walker (who lives in Washington, D.C.)

All these books are scheduled to be released in August.

Forget the Sleepless Shores is the one I read first. The title put me off because I thought it looked pretentious, and it has no clear relevance to any of the stories. Another aspect that both charmed and irritated me was the author’s poetic style in fiction. She clearly prefers to “show, not tell,” and is unwilling to “murder her darlings” (clever turns of phrase that don’t advance a plot). There is so much description of water in this collection that I felt as if I had to dry out between stories.

To sum up, I found Sonya Taaffe to be an acquired taste. However, her work rewards perseverance.

Here is the opening paragraph of “Chez Vous Soon,” the story of a doomed sexual relationship:

“The rain was full of leaves, like hands on her hair as she hurried home. Grey as a whale’s back, the last cold light before evening: the clouds as heavy as handsful of slate, pebble-dash and mortar; the pavement under Vetiver’s feet where blown leaves stuck in scraps to her sneakers, brown as old paper, tissue-torn. There were few trees on her street, but the wind hurled through them as hungrily as for a forest.”

The viewpoint character, “Vetiver” (who prefers her middle name to her first name, Julia) is going to visit her artist lover in the run-down apartment where he is obsessively trying to capture the look, sound, smell and feel of Autumn on canvas. The word-pictures in the story illustrate his efforts to express what seems inexpressible, at least to him. Asked if he has taken his medication for mental illness, he responds that he doesn’t want to blunt the power of his mind when he is working. The distance between the lovers seems unbridgeable, and the tragic outcome seems inevitable.

Most of the stories in this collection were previously-published in various anthologies and journals of speculative fiction (the on-line journal Not One of Us ran five of them), and therefore they are inconsistent in length, theme, and impact.

The author’s literary style is excellent for creating atmosphere, and the stories about the spirit world are effectively spine-tingling, even though most aren’t clearly identifiable as horror stories. (Or at least they have little in common with the work of Stephen King.)

Several of these stories seem to channel the voices of immigrant ancestors, translated from Yiddish and various other European languages. In “The Dybbuk in Love,” a contemporary woman is the love-object of a man who is long-dead but is capable of temporarily possessing the bodies of the men in her life.

The most brilliant of the stories that invoke Jewish folklore is “The Trinitite Golem,” in which an animated bomb confronts J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who created it. Here is the clinical description of its making:

“It is easy to destroy a life. Take thirteen and a half pounds of 8-phase plutonium-239, stabilized by alloying with gallium at three percent molar weight and hot-pressed into solid hemispheres of slightly more than nine centimeters in diameter, electroplate with galvanic silver to reduce chemical reactivity and encase within seven-centimeter tamper of neutron-reflecting uranium-238.”

The recipe for the “golem” continues in detail, and is then followed by a recipe for the ruined creator, a kind of twentieth-century Victor Frankenstein:

“It is easy to destroy a life. Take one theoretical physicist who has not published a paper in four years, who a dozen years ago made himself over into a director and administrator as thoroughly and ruthlessly as he once metamorphosed a misfit rock collector from Riverside Drive into a mesmerizing polymath with quotations in nine languages at his Chesterfield-callused fingertips, the benefit being the A-bomb, the cost being the rest of his concentration, and then in open court and the public eye strip him of all authority and trust.”

All this accurately reflects the life-story of Oppenheimer and the “Red Scare” of the 1950s. (I looked him up.)

Space doesn’t allow me to discuss all the stories in the collection, but several others are also brilliant and haunting.

Did I mention water? I was intrigued by “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts,” a story based on “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by H.P. Lovecraft. Taaffe’s story was originally published in Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (Dark Regions Press, 2016).

Two of us here at the Grip have written very different versions of that same Lovecraft piece. Lisabet posted a spoof, “The Shadow Over Des Moines,” here quite awhile ago.

My version of the story, “Innsmouth Blues” (narrated by an African-American schoolteacher of the 1920s) appeared in Equal Opportunity Madness: A Mythos Anthology (Otter Libris Press, 2017). This anthology was intended to overturn Lovecraft’s prejudices.

Taaffe’s more serious version focuses on the process of transformation, in which a contemporary woman who is at least “half-deep” (descended from “the people of the sea”) comes of age by desperately trying to return to her true home in the Atlantic. The references to an incomplete genocide, from which the scattered survivors reconstruct a group identity over several generations, echo several historical atrocities.

When the book becomes publicly available next month, I recommend buying a copy.

Stay tuned for my descriptions of the rest of my recent reading-matter. I’ll try to be more concise!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Into the Woods with a Good Book #amreading

by Giselle Renarde

I have a little ritual I repeat from year to year.

Every year when we arrive at the cottage, the first thing I do is peruse the bookshelves.

The cottage is not our cottage, and so the books are not ours. The owners of the cottage are avid readers (of literary fiction in particular), and their new books quickly carve a path to the cottage bookshelves.

But, among the newer books are a host of older ones, the jazz standards of the cottage bookshelves. They're always there and I never tire of seeing them. Plenty of Canadian fiction: Robertson Davies, Stephen Leacock, Margaret Laurence.

A few years ago I read A Bird in the House. This year it was A Jest of God.

There's a reason I don't bring my own books to the cottage: I'm generally a slow reader, and choosing a book from the owners' shelves challenges me to read the entire thing in the span of a week.

You can't take it with you--the book, that is. This isn't a lending library.

So I spend the week reading.

At home, I start every day with a book. Now that I've kicked coffee, I brew a cup of tea and I sit and read for a while. But at the cottage that while stretches out, fills much of the day. Reading, eating, board games, DVDs at night. That's a family vacation at the cottage, and it's really something special.
If you'd like the inside scoop on this year's cottage vacation, I invite you to read my second book of correspondences, Hi Babe. It's just a little book of letters, the ones I wrote to my girlfriend while I was away.

This year's vacation was more eventful than relaxing--not at all what I'm looking for at the cottage. As much as I complain about the city, our family getaway proved that life follows you wherever you go. It even follows you into the woods.

Thank you, technology.

If you're at all interested, grab a copy this month from Smashwords, where you can get it for free during July's big ebook sale:


Wednesday, July 18, 2018

A Tiny Candle for the Dark

Recently at church we had a service on the subject of “the book that changed my life.”  There is a part of the service in Unitarian churches called ”The Time for All Ages”, in which the little kids gather up front and the speaker of the day tells them a wisdom story or teaches them a lesson.  My story last Sunday was of a very tiny and humble and transient book that profoundly changed my life though I’d almost forgotten it.

I don’t even know the title or if it even had a title.

From the time I was 6 years old until about 10 I was plagued by terrible dreams.  It was my greatest fear.  Looking back the nightmares seem kind of dumb, being chased around by Frankenstein and stuff, but they were scary enough.  After one of those dreams I was too terrified to go back to sleep again.  I’d lay awake all night, waiting for the dawn to come so I wouldn’t have to sleep.  I dreaded the night.  They were long nights.

I found this book in the kitchen, I suppose someone gave it to mom.  It was laying around.  You could hardly call it a book, more like a pretty little pamphlet I the shape of a book.  It was a little book, a little bitty book.   It was red, fake leather embossed, held with a single staple, and about one inch square, it could fit in a matchbox.  A tiny, tiny little excuse for a book.  It was filled with the words of Jesus and Buddha and others, talking about god and love and compassion.  No story, just their own plainly spoken words.  I could barely understand it, but the language, the sound, and the ideas spoke to me.  I continued to have my dreams, but when I woke, I could turn on the light and read this little talisman of a book and just the words and the kindness of the words dispelled these fears and I could sleep again.  This book was my friend against the dark and its terrors.  I kept it for many years and now it's lost.  I wish I had it, because there was sound magic in those pages.  It pointed me where I was going.

What I wanted to tell the kids, what I wanted them to understand is that books have their unique magic, a magic you can’t really get in a movie or a TV show or a video game.  The magic of story, yes, but also the magic of sound, the music of words, and the beauty of those musical words assuring you there is an end to the darkness, that no matter what, it’s the nature of the dark and the fear to pass away somehow.  Books, the right kind of books can do that for you.  I wanted the kids to know that.