"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Books to Read in 2018-2019


It's that time of year again: the lists for the book groups I lead in Montreal libraries are now just about finalized.  As you see below, they're quite eclectic, but contain a lot of good reading. 



A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Bone and Bread  by Saleema Nawaz
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Lost in September by Kathleen Winter
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble
The Human Stain by Philip Roth
Indian Horse by Richard Wagemese
Daughter of Fortune by Isabelle Allende
The Widow by Fiona Barton
The Door by Magda Szabo
419 by Will Ferguson
Larose by Louise Erdrich
The story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Exposure  by Helen Dunmore
Indian Horse by Richard Wagemese
The Women by T.C. Boyle
The Free World by  David Bezmozgis
The Road Past Altamount by Gabrielle Roy
A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
 Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
 Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Sélections en français


Nana de Émile Zola
Petit pays de Gaël Faye.
Le Mystère Henri Pick de David Foenkinos
La servante écarlate de Margaret Atwood
Le plongeur de Stéphane Larue
Un pedigree de Patrick Modiano
Un long retour de Louise Penny
L'heure mauve de Michèle Ouimet
Les sirènes de Bagdad de Yasmina Khadra

Monday, April 30, 2018

When You Write ahead of the Curve: A Short Story

There are times when your concerns circle around and around.  The news this morning, with a caravan of refugees at the border between the US and Mexico at Tijuana, seems to be one of them.  You'll find below a story I wrote in the mid-1990s and which was published in my collection Finding the Enemy, (Oberon Press, 1999) that followed a lengthy visit to my parents in San Diego.



Manifest Destiny


The car doors were locked.  Even from where she stood at the edge of the embankment, Lucy could see that the buttons were pushed down. Her mother would be all right.  She had the radio on, there was no one around besides the park maintenance crew cleaning the bathrooms.  It wasn't too hot, it wasn't too cold. 
    Yes, her mother would be all right.  She had even agreed she would be.  "Go take your walk," she'd said.  "Don't worry about me."
    Nevertheless Lucy stifled the impulse to check again.  Bad conscience acting up.  But for Lord's sake, she ought to take advantage of this.  When was the last time she'd taken a walk by herself?
    She turned to look for a path that led to the beach.  Too long, was the answer.  Two weeks at least.
    That was when she caught sight of the seal, swimming north.  At least she thought it was a seal:  a dark sleek form just beyond the breakers, barely visible through the morning fog, still hanging over the water.
    She found herself smiling for the first time in a while.  The last time she and Gordon and the kids had been down to San Diego, they'd watched a harbor seal basking on the deck of a small sail boat.  A thief who took bait off fishermen's lines, who wouldn't be chased away, who appropriated any small boat it pleased, according to the man who ran the hot dog concession.  But the kids had wanted to come back and see it every afternoon.
    They still talked about it, four years later.  They'd wanted to come too, this time, but of course it was out of the question.  They were in school and Lucy had too much work to do, moving her mother.   The move into the residence was done now, Lucy would be going home in a few days, she would see them all. She shouldn't be resentful that her mother wanted to come with her this Sunday morning, too, when she'd promised herself one last walk on the beach.
    But this beach couldn't be a good place for seals, though, Lucy realized as she watched the animal rise and fall in the surf. The State Park was the most extreme south-western point in the Continental United States. Ocean  currents here swept sewage up from Tijuana, and from the embankment, Lucy could see that the beach was littered with black splotches of oil from off shore drilling.  She also white plastic bottles, small plastic tampon applicators, long strings of kelp, a pile of feathers that probably was a dead bird.
    Lucy shivered and not just from the fog remaining in the air.  She pulled her sweater tighter around her shoulders, and held her car keys so they projected through her fingers like the spikes on brass knuckles.  She was sure there was no reason to be afraid,  this was a well-patrolled State Park, there was absolutely no other car around, nobody would walk two miles from the road  in Southern California even to get a beach.  Maybe even especially to get to a beach, since there were so many of them.
    Which of course brought up the question why she had chosen this beach to come to. 
    Partly to annoy her mother, she had to admit, because she had really wanted to go to the beach by herself.  But her mother had assumed she was going too, and Lucy had given in without arguing.    Certainly, if her mother's aim had been to annoy, she'd succeeded.  Moreover, as soon as the woman had seen the freeway signs for the south county towns, she'd started in again about how Ava had deserted her, how you couldn't trust people like that, how the country would be better off without any of them, how it was bad enough in towns but down here near the border....
    Lucy, however, was not going to think about Ava or her mother right now.  She started down the path that lead to the beach.  No, it was not a deserted path, obviously people used it a lot.  Not only was it well worn but also it was littered with soft drink cans and the bright scraps of corn chip bags...
    Lucy avoided looking at the litter and concentrated on the other sensations.  The air smelled of licorice and rot.  The first came from the foliage, the second from the river which the road into the park had followed, past barren strawberry fields, past places where water pooled in the river bed.  Some water must flow all year round. 
    That surprised her.  Growing up, the place had always seemed dry.   The tap water, imported from Colorado over 200 miles, tasted of magnesium.  She remembered gasping at the taste the first time she came back.  But she also remembered seeing the names of streams on the map: the Otay,  San Diego, San Dieguito, Santa Margarita and San Luis Rey rivers.  All those streams  coming out of the dry hills, stream beds lined with greenery even in the summer.  Ending at the bay, which here owed its existence to the sediments deposited by the streams and which formed a long barrier peninsula.  She had a sudden vision of how inviting the land must have looked two hundred years ago when Spaniards set up their missions, when the Indians hunted and gathered. 
    She pushed on.  The plants muffled the boom of the surf, and when the sun broke momentarily through the fog, she felt the heat un-tempered by a breeze off the water.  Suddenly, just when she wondered how long the path could go on, she found herself at the edge of a bulwark of rocks.  Below  lay a short stretch of beach.  Beyond that: the breakers.  Where a head still bobbed, half hidden by a swirl of fog.  The seal?
    No, no, not a seal, but somebody body-surfing, she told herself.  Somebody who couldn't resist the long expanse of sand, running northwards so beautifully.   But even as she began to invent the idea of such a somebody, she thought of sewage in the water.    She would have gagged, but the rustle in the reeds stopped her.   She froze.  She searched with her eyes, suddenly too afraid to move.
    There was a man was watching her.  There, over there, half hidden in the reeds.  His hair was black, and so was his skin except around his eyes, where his real color showed through,  The pupils were dark too, but the whites glowed.   He wasn't as tall as she was, and he was hunched over as if trying to make himself smaller.  He was bare foot and wearing only  a black tee shirt and jeans..  His arms had been greased like his face: camouflage, she thought.  What you did when you didn't want to be seen at night.
    It was daylight, though.
    Someone shouted, louder than the roar of the breakers.   She looked toward the noise, south, toward.  One of the maintenance crew was waving his arms, calling something she couldn't understand.
    She tried to see what he was calling too, but she heard another rustle in the grass, saw the glint of the knife as it was drawn.  The blackened face split in the middle as the man stepped toward her, grimacing. 
    She wanted to scream, but she couldn't.  All she could think of was what her mother would say about her being killed on a beach near the border.  Her mother would find it either embarassing or ridiculous, would blame her for doing something that reflected badly on the family,  or on some standard of behavior that no one had been able to define in 30 years.
    Poor old woman, Gordon said after Ava left and Lucy's mother had telephoned in a panic. Ava had come to clean and cook only three days a week, but without her help the old woman was locked inside her arthritis and her memories. Poor Ava, too, he added; too bad she never got her immigration status fixed. But, he added, your mother needs your help, go and get her settled in some place decent.  I'll hold down the fort. 
    Lucy had already decided she wouldn't tell him about everything her mother said: how she called his father an old drunk (true enough but never said aloud), how she accused him, Gordon, of instability because he'd changed jobs a half dozen times, how she railed against Ava for deserting her, even though it seemed pretty clear Ava had only left because Immigration was after her and her husband.
    Lucy wasn't going to say anything about the underwear either.  She had found mounds of it when she began to pack her mother's things.   Three dresser drawers were filled with pants and slips and camisoles which her father had given her mother over the years, some of it still wrapped in tissue paper.  Beautiful stuff but there was no point in keeping it, Lucy decided.  None of it would fit because her mother was  a shadow of what she'd been.  Besides she doubted if her mother even realized it was there: Ava had done the laundry for the last three years, Ava put the every day things in one drawer that Lucy's mother could reach without getting out of bed.  
    So Lucy wrapped it all up with sweaters and old blouses and what remained of her father's clothes and gave them to Ava's church for its next rummage sale.  Ava was gone, nobody admitted knowing where she and her husband were hiding, but Lucy knew of no better place to get rid of the stuff. 
    The night before the move, however,  Lucy heard a noise well after midnight.  When she got to the doorway of her mother's bedroom, she saw her standing, crying, holding on to the edge of the dresser as if she would fall otherwise.  "My things," she said, "my pretty things."  She looked up as Lucy entered.  "That slut took my pretty things."
    "What slut? What things?" Lucy said.  She knew, though, but she couldn't bring herself to explain just yet.
    "Ava, the Mexican slut," her mother said.  "She ran away, she deserted me. And she took my things."
    It was pathetic.  Even after Lucy explained what she'd done, her mother didn't understand.  But then maybe being old was pathetic.  This was not the time to reflect on the pathos of age, however.  She had the man in front of her now.  And his knife.
    She took a deep breath.  "You don't want to hurt me," she said.   She took a step backward, trying to decide which way to run.  Back to the parking lot was sure safety but she would have to go through the weeds again.  As long as the workman was up there, looking at the ocean, she'd be better off going toward the water where she'd be seen. 
    The man in front of her said nothing, and she realized that probably he didn't know much English.  An illegal, a wet back: what else could he be?  Same thing for the seal, the supposed-surfer out there in the water, she reaslized suddenly.  Not a seal at all, another one trying to slip across the imaginary line out there, the border between the two countries.  Greased up like Channel swimmers, they must have started down the coast, and swum north.  
    Lucy stood up straighter.  She reached out her hand to the man.   "Give it to me," she said.  She saw she probably could not win a fight with him because, although he was thin and obviously exhausted, he was desparate, and she wasn't.   Neverthless, she kept her hand held out and repeated; "You don't want to hurt me.  Give it to me." 
    On the little bluff, the man from the park crew was screaming something.  One of the other crew members was hurrying toward the edge too.  She looked toward them, her concentration disturbed.    The man in front of her shifted his weight, as he saw her distraction.  "No," she said firmly as soon as she perceived his movement.  "Don't do it."
    The man's eyes held hers.  Dark brown eyes with flecks of green in the irises.  Tired eyes.  She sensed just how much he resented her clean clothes, her well-fed aspect, her English, her perfectly legitimate right to be in this country, on this beach, part of the Anglo world.  To demand that he give her something, as if it were her right to take.
    The workmen had begun to jump from the low bluff down the beach, however, and the man looked over at them.  This time she moved in the moment of distraction. She stepped forward on her left foot and brought her right knee up hard! into his groin.  He bent over, still holding the knife, but she turned and ran toward the beach.
    The sand was soft, and she stumbled.  She gasped for breath, and willed her legs to thrash forward because she was sure the man was behind her, ready to attack her.  It was not until she reached the hard, wet sand where it was easier going, not until she was nearly even with the park workmen, that she realized the man was not likely to move out of his shelter.  Especially not if he could see what was happening at the water's edge.
    There the black thing she had thought was a seal washed back and forth where the waves, having broken their backs on the sandy bottom, beat raggedly on the shore.  The taller of the two workmen was sitting down on the sand, taking off his boots, and rolling up his trousers.  The other man was yelling something at him. 
    But he had been swimming, she told herself.   The thing I saw was moving northward,  was alive.  Unless she had seen it just in its last minutes of exhaustion, just before it gave itself up to the currents and the waves, just yards away from its destination.  Now it floated face downwards, and nothing moved except when rocked by the rising and falling water.
    The tall workman waded out and pulled the body from the water.  He and his partner stood for a moment, looking at it.  The body looked short and dark haired and greased black just like the other man in the reeds.  It also looked quite dead; the taller worker nudged it slightly in the ribs with his foot.
    Lucy knew, and she assumed the workers knew that when a person is drowning, you're supposed to turn him on the back, pull out the tongue and breathe rhythmically into the mouth.  But the men stood there, looking at the body, as if too ashamed or disgusted to touch this person, to put mouth to mouth, even though they had hurried to try to save him.
    The illogic of that annoyed her.  She started across the sand again.  Before she realized it, she was kneeling next to the man, fishing his tongue out, pinching his nostrils shut and breathing into his mouth. 
    "Hey, cool it, lady," the taller workman began.
    She looked up, and as she did the man on the ground choked, and vomitted up a quantity of saltwater.  Then, it was clear, he started breathing.
    For a second she continued to kneel next to the man.  Her hands were covered with grease and the front of her  blouse was soaking wet.  Poor guy.  Like Ava's husband.  Like Ava.  No chance at the American dream.
    She stood up, and suddenly she found herself shaking: her legs, her hands, her teeth.  She was cold, she was exhausted, she realized that probably she was very lucky.  "He had a friend, hiding in the reeds over there," she nodded her head toward the bottom land.  "He tried to jump me."  The words were hard to say.  She seemed to have lost control of part of her body: she couldn't stop shaking.
    She had to wait while the Border Patrol looked for the man in the reeds (he was gone, as Lucy was sure it would be), and then they did the paperwork.   She wondered what would happen to the other man.  Paramedics took him away, but it wasn't clear if a hospital would admit him, or if he'd just be dumped across the border.
    Twice during the wait Lucy went over to check on her mother, standing where the woman wouldn't be able to see her.   Her mother sat  staring out at the stretch of sea and sky directly in front of her, her head no higher above the door frame than that of a child. Safe behind the locked doors.
     Two brown pelicans patrolled the waves.  The tide began to turn and after a while Lucy realized the beach was growing wider and dirtier as the receding water  left behind more garbage on the sand.   Then, a half hour later, the officers were through and she could go.
    "Where have you been?" her mother said when she unlocked the door.  "I was dying in here of the heat.  I hope you got enough excercise to last  a while, because I don't intend to wait again."
    Lucy nodded. "Of course," she said, not trusting herself to say anything more.  It was only when she was behind the wheel with the key in the ignition that she looked over at her mother.
    The woman was crying silently.  Then she felt Lucy's eyes on her and she turned abruptly away.  "Don't look,"  she said.  "Don't remember me this way.  I wasn't always like this."     
    They took  I-5 up the coast on the way back, then cut over at Palomar Road.   The residence was out in what still was almost country.  Even on Sunday there were men in the fields, planting gladiolas, potting poinsettias, and, in one place wearing white contamination suits, goggles and hoods, spraying tomatoes.
    The trip took longer than Lucy expected; the traffic coming back from the beaches was heavy.  The road passed El Camino Real, passed the sign for the San Luis Rey Mission, passed a group of men waiting for the bus to take them home from the fields.  Small, dark men, of course. 
    The afternoon smog had settled in, but Lucy still could see how the upland rolled off north and south, cut by the streams she'd seen on the map running down from the mountains to the sea.:  San Dieguito, Santa Margarita and San Luis Rey rivers, San Marcos creek, Agua Hedionda.  All names, she noted, left by the Spaniards, who must have traveled the uplands when they went from one mission, one estancia to another.  Long, long ago.   
     They arrived in time for her mother to have a little nap before Lucy took her down to dinner in the dining room. 
    Her mother walked slowly, but she was out of breath before they reached the door to the dining room.  She stopped, although not (Lucy knew), not only because her old body needed to.  She looked around the room: at the polished oak plank floor, the white stucco walls, the dark beams spanning the space end to end.  At the potted plants in the corners, the yellow chrysanthemums on the tables, the white napkins, the 35 women and the three men waiting to be served their dinner.  At the white hair and walkers, the stooped shoulders and shaking hands.  And  at the small dark women who would serve them.
    Then Lucy's mother straightened up and started into the room as if she owned it.  The waitress for her table smiled.  Lucy smiled back.  It was the least she could do.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Road through Time is an Indies Prize Finalist!

Great way to start a Saturday:  An email announcing that Road through Time: The Story of Humanity on the Move (University of Regina Press) has been short-listed for the 2017 Indies Book of the Year Award in the History category!

Hosted by Foreword Reviews, these awards highlight the best books from university and indie publishers across the U.S. and Canada and were chosen from more than 2000 entries across 68 genres. The winners will be announced June 15, 2018. Got my fingers crossed! The photo, by the way, is of one of the many roads I traveled researching the book, the new highway across the Andes from Peru to Brazil. That's the bus we traveled on from Cuzco to Rio Branco.