Sunday, April 23, 2017

Short Thoughts on Short Stories: two recent reads

Like many readers, I sometimes find short stories a hard go. But I try to follow Mavis Gallant's maxim to read one story and take a break before reading the next. This makes them stand out more individually, and means that I can actually finish a whole collection without it becoming a blur. 

Thus I have two collections to share, one which I finished a while ago but have just revisited, and one forthcoming title that I've just finished in an advance reading copy, which should be available in a couple of weeks, by May 9.

A Three Tiered Pastel Dream / Lesley Trites
Montreal: Vehicule Press, c2017.
213 p.

First, here is the forthcoming title, a debut collection put out by Montreal's Vehicule Press. It's by an author from New Brunswick who now lives in Montreal, and both of those aspects appear in her stories. There are 11 stories in this book, many of which deal with the moments in women's lives that change the direction they're headed in: unexpected pregnancies, split second decisions to leave their mundane life, deaths and breakdowns.

Some of the stories are set in the Maritimes, others in generic big cities. They are all well constructed, with complete story arcs and lots of good writing in evidence. Unfortunately to me they also felt very much alike, with the main characters very similar to one another. The narrative voice kind of blends in and I felt a bit like I was reading the same story being told in different ways - as I often find happening in short story collections, especially debuts. 

There are enough moments of interest that I do think a reader who enjoys stories would still like this book, some illuminating commentary on modern life to think about. And this cover is lovely and directly relevant to the title story.

Sweet Life / Linda Biasotto
Regina: Coteau Books, c2014. 
160 p.

Here is another debut collection that is equally focused on the moments that send lives off in new, unexpected directions. And with similar destruction of sweets implied by the covers! 

This collection has 13 stories, broken up into three thematic sections. It works well, as each feels distinct. Again, it's a look at mostly female narrators facing some kind of change - sickness, widowhood, marriage, deaths, and so on. They're all doing things that they normally wouldn't, otherwise, shaken up by these unexpected events. 

Most of the stories have conclusions, or at least don't leave you hanging. And many of them are wryly funny in a quiet way, alongside the pathos and folly of each life described. The writing style is lively, it doesn't fall back on passive voice much; it's also not experimental at all, just focused on telling a story.

I liked this one - its central section focusing on stories of Italy was especially interesting - it felt new to me, something a little different. Most of the stories were well written and had strong characters, and it was really readable, even if there isn't one story that stands out to me above the others. While I'm not raving about it, it was still a solid collection that provided a good read. 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Poetry & Grief: Selah & Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths

Another two poetry collections that I read this month resonated with one another quite strongly: both deal with the grief of losing a spouse, a parent, a relationship through illness. And while stylistically they are quite different, they hold that space of grief in words.

Selah / Nora Gould   
London: Brick Books, c2016.
58 p.

This reminded me of another recent read, Sharon Butala's memoir of loss, Where I Live Now. Both authors are strong farm women who face the loss of their spouse and the lifestyle they'd expected to last, though in different ways.

Gould's story is one of living with a husband recently diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia. She writes of her repressed reactions to this diagnosis, maintaining a brave front for everyone in the family; she talks about the tiny details, the clues that have been there for a long time; she shares decisions she had to make about how to live and who to tell. It's heart-rending and yet she also celebrates the strength of relationships and the dignity of individual lives no matter what. 

There are some beautiful lines in this book, but also clear and honest narrative. This style of plain speaking allows the emotion at its heart to resonate.

And I also think that this cover is exquisitely suited to this collection. It says so much in an apparently innocent image that echoes the tangles of dementia, in this farm setting.

Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths / Susan Paddon
London: Brick Books, c2014.
131 p.

The impending loss of a mother is interspersed with Chekhov's life and death in this debut collection.

Both Chekhov and Paddon's mother suffer from pulmonary illnesses. When she returns home to help care for her mother, she is also reading Chekhov and this series of poems flickers between the two.

There are poems as letters between Chekhov and his mostly absent wife Olga, and between Chekhov and his sister Masha. The relationships between them turn on both his brilliance and his constant illness, and Paddon is able to capture a Chekhovian flavour very effectively in her poems. 

Meanwhile, she reflects on her mother, their past and the unthinkable future without her. Tiny domestic details stand in for much larger meaning, as with Chekhov's storyline. The collection is divided up into monthly sections - April to September, and After. The conclusion is clear; there are two tragedies happening here, and the end is inescapable. But Paddon takes moments from the months spent together and captures them with precise language, with an attention to detail and a knack for just the right turn of phrase. The poems are never sentimental, though some are of course almost unbearably sad.

I felt the balance between these two threads was finely tuned, and that this whole collection was very striking. I read it slowly, as I had to put it down sometimes to let something sink in, to take a small breather from what was coming. It felt very much engaged with the present moment in each poem, and so much presence came through each one.


And since both of these titles are from Brick Books I'll remind you again that until the end of April, there is a massive sale of pre-2017 titles bought from their website: $10 each. This is a great chance to pick up some of Brick's always excellent publications.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Poetry Month: Thoughts on Two Titles

Before Poetry Month ends, I want to be sure to share some thoughts on a few more collections I've been dipping into over the past few weeks. Some have been brand-new, some a bit older; and some have really spoken to each other thematically. Here are two I've finished most recently.

Auguries / Clea Roberts
London: Brick Books, c2017.
103 p.

This is a newly released title from Brick Books, one of my favourite poetry houses. It's one of the titles from their spring releases, coincidentally all by women. This is Clea Roberts' second collection, after her well-received and award-nominated first book, Here is Where We Disembark. 

I have not read that one, but now that I've been introduced to her work through this new volume, I may have to go back and look for it. Her writing is spare and beautiful; the cover of this book reflects the spaciousness and the sense of "augury" that is revealed in both poems and title.

As the publisher's copy says about this book:

"Written during a period in which Roberts both became a parent and lost a parent, the poems in Auguries lend themselves to prayer, surrender, celebration, reconciliation, meditation, and auspice."

It's true that there is both life burgeoning and ending in these poems, both in relation to her family and to the wider world as well. Poems set during the stillness of winter, in spring which uncovers "the dull carcass / of the neighbour's cat/ emerging from the melting/ snowbank" alongside the new shoots and growth, over long summers. Though the poems are mostly brief, both in actual length and subject, there is a feeling of expansive attention throughout. The natural world is made present, in perfect balance with the small and domestic moments between parents and children. 

I enjoyed the way that domestic, textile references were sprinkled into Roberts' descriptions of both nature and abstract notions: 

They made it through / to spring that way, with duty / stitched onto them like a / button  (from "Getting Wood"

setting your stories / out for the last time, /  reupholstering those that / would allow you to lie / more peacefully  (from "Storytelling")

there was no path at all, / just the forest's worry of branches, / knitted together and waiting.  (from "A Small Legacy")

This was a lovely and quiet collection that draws out evocative imagery with simple, clear effect. It's one I'll revisit. 

Lake of Two Mountains / Arleen Paré  
London: Brick Books, c2014.
83 p.

Another Brick Books volume, this one is a bit older and an award-winner (2014 Governor General's Award). I read it way back then... and I have just reread it, enjoying just as much this time. 

I think it is just as much about a place as Auguries is; about the way a family inhabits its place, through both memories and movement into the future. In this volume, Paré examines her family's history with the Lake of Two Mountains - the summers they spent there as children, the fraught ideas of ownership (especially in "Whose Lake?"), the history of the land itself. 

She describes the physical landscape with as much detail and care as she does her family stories, and adds in stories of the Trappist monastery across the lake. There is a jumble of historical fact, a naturalist's eye, emotionally drawn moments, and awareness of the future. There are poems about the Oka Crisis of 1990 and related issues of human presence on the land. This book is like a busy painting that at first glance looks clear and serene, but as you get closer you see more and more detail in it. 

And it's also full of beautiful language, with metaphors from the natural world colouring the family's descriptions. The lake is breathing, alive. This is another collection that presents sharp, memorable images to the reader, revealed like innocuous dull stones that shine once they're gathered wet from the shore. 

If you'd like, you can find more reviews of this title and a recording of Paré reading from this book, over at the publisher's website. 

And, just until the end of April, Brick Books is having a big sale of all pre-2017 titles -- you can order them for only $10 each. What a steal! I recommend checking it out; I've found some real gems at Brick Books. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Game of Hide and Seek

A Game of Hide and Seek / Elizabeth Taylor
London: Virago, 2008, c1951.  
306 p.

It was Simon's 1951 Club that finally got me reading this book, which has been on the TBR for longer than I can remember. For some reason, I'd got the feel of Elizabeth Bowen's House in Paris mixed up with my impressions of this novel by Elizabeth Taylor (oh, those many Elizabeths) and so had been a little resistant to picking it up. Fortunately I had this lovely Virago classics edition to read this week.

The book does have the same sense of a doomed love affair though; it opens with young Harriet & Vesey, who've known each other since childhood but are now in late adolescence and suddenly aware of one another. Harriet falls hard but they are both awkward and inarticulate, and can't express their new feelings at all. The book is coloured by their inability to be open, by the habit of both of stifling all expression. He leaves; they are separated for the next fifteen or twenty years. 

Harriet eventually shows some spine and gets a job in a dress shop. This is where some of the funniest bits come in, elements which may play into a comparison with Barbara Pym. Taylor describes each of the "ladies" that Harriet works with so amusingly, their situation quite funny (until much later when we learn the fates of a few of them). Harriet herself seems to expand in this milieu, but then she becomes involved with Charles, a lawyer twice her age, and marries as a good girl should. Jump cut -- part two -- Harriet is now in middle age, with a 15 yr old daughter (though she must in reality be only in her mid-30s, hardly into decrepitude). In any case, Vesey returns.

And they start a mild affair. I can only say mild because they are both as uncertain and awkward as ever. Vesey is a poor object of affection, but Harriet carries that torch. It's at the end, an uncertain and endlessly interpretable end, that he seems to show a spark of unselfish redemption in his character. 

This novel reflected the culture of suburban British life in the 50s effectively -- its strictures and norms, the stifling expectations, the strange modern habits like adults drinking excessively at local dances nearly weekly, the gossip. It's a sad and pinched kind of story, but the writing itself is very fine. Taylor can capture a character in a gesture, in a phrase, whether a main character or an incidental one. She is darker than Pym but with the same eye for social interaction. I found it started slowly, throwing the reader into the midst of things and thus feeling a bit muddled at the start, but by the time I was partway through I was completely involved. 

Aside from Harriet and Vesey, the story moves into the present/future with Betsy, her daughter, and a Dutch girl, Elke, who lives with Harriet's family and observes, though understanding little. There is quite a lot to observe in this novel, and the compression of time between Harriet's suffragette mother's youth and her own modern daughter's teen years is startling. Definitely a social novel worth the effort, with many quotable bits. I'll leave you with one about the vagaries of time:
If we do not alter with the times, the times yet alter us. We may stand perfectly still, but our surroundings shift round and we are not in the same relationship to them for long; just as a chameleon, matching perfectly the greenness of a leaf, should know that the leaf will one day fade. 

See more 1951 books and reviews at Simon's 1951 Roundup Post

Friday, April 14, 2017

North End Love Songs

North End Love Songs / Katherena Vermette
Winnipeg: J. Gordon Shillingford, c2012. 
108 p.

This poetry month, I must share some poetry. Here is a book I picked up after reading Vermette's The Break, to hear more from her, even if this was written first.

It's a collection looking at  life in North End Winnipeg, the same setting as her novel. Again, she is excellent at evoking a setting, a sense of place with just a few words, a few images. Here we have young girls walking down the middle of the road in summer, with slushes in hand; and I was instantly transported back to my own early teen years. She focuses on the relationships between young women, and on describing various girls using bird metaphors in one section, which I found especially appealing.

Her poems are short, and sparely written -- her style is simple but carries a lot within in. It's an honest voice, and realistic. The simplicity of the voice allows for the emotional connection to the story that's unfolding. In the second and third sections of the book, she delves into the life of her missing brother, just another young man who didn't make it home, and no law enforcement seemed very concerned about it at all. Small details of their relationship, like his heavy metal music playing all throughout the house, or asking to borrow his sweater the last time she saw him, add resonance to his absence.

The depth of character and straight talk about the political realities faced by the Indigenous community in Winnipeg is straightforward but reveals unexpected moments, like a spotlight aiming at a frozen moment - the same effect she created in her novel, though with (obviously) more narrative continuity there. I think this is an easy read in the sense of its structure, but with currents of content that will catch at a reader's emotions and perceptions.

She finishes with a powerful set of "verses in many voices", a poem called "I Am A North End Girl". It's a chorus of women's stories and voices which don't hold back. The effect is to hear lives being lived, without judgement being passed. This book is another important read that I'd recommend to all Canadians in this year of reconciliation -- it's a voice of understanding and experience that is much needed. North End Love Songs won the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry in 2013, and I hope more readers will discover her now through the attention on her new novel.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Tangles: a Story about Alzheimer's, my Mother and Me

Tangles: a Story about Alzheimer's, my Mother and Me / Sarah Leavitt
Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, c2010.
132 p.

When the author's lively, clever mother starting showing signs of forgetfulness, her family thought it was probably just stress or overwork or something like that; sadly, it was the beginnings of a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's.

This fearful situation is honestly and lovingly described in Sarah Leavitt's words and pictures. The art is very basic -- line drawings, sketches -- but it captures the charming silliness and connection of this family. Somehow the very simple drawing allows for the story to emerge more strongly. 

Sarah lives far away from her family's home, so is only there part of the time, while her father and sister are more full on caretakers. This means that she sees the changes more startlingly when she does get home. Her mother Midge was an active educator, involved in curriculum design and innovations, and cared deeply about social issues. She changes dramatically, as anyone familiar with the effects of Alzheimer's will recognize -- not only memory but personality changes are she becomes fearful and distrustful. The change is clearly shown, with sorrow and love, and yes, some rage as well. 

Sarah's partner Donimo comes home with her as well, and that relationship is examined here too. They both care for Midge, in one particularly difficult scene, Sarah worries that because she is a lesbian people might think that her physical care she provides for her mother is not 'right' somehow. It's sad that this was a valid worry for her amongst all the others they were facing.

The emotional effect of this story is powerful, and makes it well worth reading for the narrative alone. Leavitt gives a sense of the results of a diagnosis like this on a whole family, not only the one suffering from Alzheimer's. It's hard to read, and terrifying, and very sad. But it's also beautiful. 

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Birds Art Life

Birds Art Life: a Year of Observation / Kyo Maclear  
Toronto: Doubleday, c2017.
272 p.

Kyo Maclear was feeling disconnected, overwhelmed. Anxious about her own career and purpose, her stress is compounded by her father's terminal illness. As a writer, she was looking for something to engage with, something that would give her a sense of purpose, a project. She found it when she discovered a local musician who was equally a dedicated urban birder. She decided to follow him around for a year and see what she could learn. 

And this small book consisting of her thoughts and meditations around this project was the result. It's a memoir of the "one year in a life" sort, so many of which exist now. But this is not an eager, do as much as you can in a year and become a better person kind of book. It's dreamy, it's circular and fragmentary. Maclear learns to really see birds; by which, she really learns to see the small particularities of the world, to identify and name what exists around her, grounding herself in a place - even if it's an urban place in which she hadn't expected to find so much natural life.

She also finds that the habit of birding brings a state of mind that might be called meditative, or mindful. The birders she encounters think nothing of sitting perfectly still for hours, in order to spot one particular bird or get just the right photo. The expanses of time in which they sit, visibly doing 'nothing', amaze her; it's so different from the habit of guilt about not being continually productive that she has been suffering from. This slowing of the pace of life is soothing, allowing her to rest, to reflect, and to write again. 

Of course, as she slows and learns to observe birds, her observations in other parts of life grow sharper as well. She relays stories about her family - her husband, sons and father - and remembers her early life. All this in brief and poetic 'chapters', really more like sections rather than neatly tied up chapters, more like the pace of thought. Perhaps it's better thought of as an extended essay. 

I've read some of Maclear's adult fiction (ie: The Letter Opener) as well as being a big fan of her children's books, and this book is something different again. It has the hallmarks of dreaminess and introspection that I've enjoyed in her other work, though; I found it just as satisfying as her novels. 


Further Reading

Readers of Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk may find some similarities in the theme of fathers, birds, and finding solace in the small things of the natural world. Mary Oliver's recent collection of essays, Upstream, similarly hints that the solution to life's expectations and anxieties lies in observing the natural world.