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

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Next Step on Desire Lines: The Page Proofs!

The page proofs for my new short story collection, Desire Lines: Stories of Love and Geography have arrived from Oberon Press! 

Very interesting to go over the text after several months away from it.  The pub date for the book itself is Nov. 1.  There will be details about the launch later.

Desire lines, urbanists say, are paths that people take whenthey want to go somewhere. They frequently have no relationto the formal layout of roads and sidewalks. They sometimeslead to new places. They are often maps of the heart. The photo is of such a path, such a "desire line," in the Champs des possibles that got me thinking.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Best Book My Bookies Won't Read Next Season:Lobbi, a Slacker's Excellent Adventure

It's always difficult to make up reading lists for book discussion groups.  You want to have a certain balance, include a few books that will challenge the reader plus others that are simply a pleasure to read.  And then, if you're working with libraries, you usually have to make sure there are enough copies for everyone to be able to read it.

 The Greenhouse by Ava Audur Olafsdottír was one I put on the lists for my three English groups this year, having done it previously for my French groups.  Unfortunately, though, it hasn't made a big enough splash in the English-speaking world for there to be enough copies in libraries around here for the groups to read it.

What a shame!  This is a book that should have a wide audience.   A coming of age story by an Icelandic writer, it  was  a best seller in Europe, but was only tardily published in English by  Amazon.com.  The big on-line book seller may have been looking for another Scandnavian blockbuster like the Kurt Wallendar mysteries or the  Millenium Trilogy.
What they got is something quite different, but I think more interesting.

Lobbi is 22 years old, just finished with a stint on a fishing boat, and ready to follow his dream which is to grow roses.  He has an unpaid job restoring a medieval rose garden waiting for him in an unamed southern country, and as the book opens he sets out, full of angst and unfocussed lust and not quite sure what lies before him.

So far it sounds like a slacker's excellent adventure, but things are more interesting and complicated than that.  He also has a six month old daughter, the fruit of a 20 minute tryst with a friend of a friend whose picture he shows to all the young women he's attracted to.  The child's mother wants to continue her studies and tracks him down in his mountain top garden, saying, in effect, 'okay, it's your turn to look after the baby.'

By the end of the book, he's fallen in love with the mother of his child,  restored the garden and shown the monks who had let it go to ruin the beauty of nature.  The ending isn't a feel-good one, though, since he's left with the child and we don't know what will happen next.

Furthermore, the novel can be read on many other levels: as a feminist view of the diety, as a reworking of many myths, and as a comment on the relevance of conventional religion (Lobbi has a monk as a mentor who never quotes scripture but always has advice taken from old films.)

If this sounds interesting, please suggest it to your library: it would be great to discuss it with my bookies some other season.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Dollmaker: A Novel about Detroit--and Ordinary Courage--During World War II

It took me a couple of days after the announcement of Detroit's very close brush with complete bankruptcy to remember Harriette Arnow's novel about life in Motor City during the Second World War, The Dollmaker

First published in 1954, the story centers on Gertie, a strong, capable woman who  moves with her husband and children to Detroit so he can work in the war industry.  As a gripping story of  what it was like to move from Appalachia to a big, crowded city, the book has few peers.  It opens with Gertie, whose hobby is whittling dolls, doing a tracheotomy on her little son who is choking with diptheria.  From then on, the reader is hooked.

I first read the book after Joyce Carol Oates wrote about it in The New York Times in 1971. It had more or less been forgotten, even though it had been a big best seller when it was first published.  Whe I read it, I found it engrossing.  The image of the steel mill Arnow paints has stayed with me ever since.

Oates's essay apparently is now an afterword for an edition that is still in print: a  paperback edition was published in 2009.  To judge from the number of teacher's guides on-line, the novel must also appear on reading lists for a number of high school and junior college English classes.

That should not scare you away, though.  Read it to get a feel for what it was like to work in the factories of Detroit in the city's heyday, to understand what ordinary folk were up against, and to appreciate the strength of the women who had to stand by their menfolk.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The First Atom Bomb Test: "Now I Am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds"

Today is the 68th anniversary of the first Atom Bomb test in New Mexico.  At the time the US had made enough fissionable material for three bombs: the test one, and two to drop on Japan.

When I was a teenager I had a friend whose father worked on the project in the utmost secrecy.  The scientists--mostly very young--brought their wives and children to a Los Alamos, a small town that officially didn't exist.  They couldn't say what they working on, but my friend's father told his wife on July night in 1945 to take the kids in the car and drive on this heading and that heading so they could witness a world-changing event.

I don't know if she did, but the story haunted me for years.  It became the jumping off point for my first book of short stories Finding the Enemy, published by Oberon Press in 1997.  You'll find it below to mark this sad occasion. The "enemy" in question in the title comes from the comic strip Pogo who famously said, "We have met the enemy and he is  us." (If the story doesn't display properly, click on each page for an enlargement.)

The book is still available from Oberon, I think, and I have a lot of copies in my basement, should anyone want to buy one.

And Oberon, I'm glad to report, will be publishing my new book of short stories Desire Lines: Stories of Love and Geography this fall.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Royal Babies: The Commoner While We're Waiting for Kate to Give Birth

There's been a lot about the impending birth of the new third in line to the British throne: the Duchess of Cambridge, the former Kate Middleton was due to give birth July 13, but didn't.  Probably a good thing because the British press reports that Prince William was out playing polo on Saturday.

But as the royal watchers wait with bated breath, I've been thinking about an American novel about a royal couple who have a very difficult time producing an heir.  The book is The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz and the throne in question is the Chrysanthemum Throne of Japan.  It's not a novel I would have picked to read, but it was on the list for a book group I began leading last year: the previous leader had chosen it.

Not that it was hard going.  Told from the point of view of a young woman of good but not noble family who falls in love witht the Jap
anese crown prince, the novel is arresting and well-paced.  Schwartz seems to have done his homework assiduously:a little rummaging around on the Net reveals just how closely the story follows what happened to the current Empress Michiko. 

Schwartz gives us a great deal about Japanese royal politics as well as the Emperor's changing role since the end of World War II.  But the heart of the story is struggle of the narrator  to find a place in the court and--most importantly--to conceive an heir.  When she does and the baby is in effect taken away from her to be raised by courtiers, I imagine many readers will shed a tear or two.

The novel has  a certain fairy tale quality--after all, the commoner is seen from afar by the Crown Prince who persues her and wisks her away to a life in a castle. But the real unbelievable episode comes at the end.  That is when the narrator helps her daugher-in-law, another commoner, escape the oppression of royalty. Not very likely that would happen, it seems to me.

I haven't been able to find out if the book has been translated into Japanese, but I doubt it has.  Imagine what hackles would rise among the British Royal Family's friends  if a Japanese writer wrote a novel about Princess Diana and her unhappy life.

Or about Kate Middleton, who seems to be doing much better than her husband's mother did. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Remembering Gaétan Soucy: Four Novels by the Weirdly Lyrical Quebec Writer

The news this evening is the Gaétan Soucy, one of Quebec's most interesting and original writers, died Tuesday of a heart attack at the age  of 54.  The winner of several big prizes in the Francophone world, he published four strangely haunting novels. The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (translated masterfully by Sheila Fischman) was the first French language novel in recent years to reap accolades and good sales in translation.
The best known,

At the time I reviewed the book for Quill and Quire, and what I said there still holds true:

 "Margaret Atwood could have been thinking of  Soucy's novel  when she called the chapter about Quebec literature "Burning Mansions" in Survival, her groundbreaking work of CanLitCrit. 

"Cleansing fires which destroy old ancestral houses, she pointed out, occur frequently in Quebec novels and seem to reflect a collective  desire to cast off the past in order to build something new.  Nearly 30 years later,  this symbolism still touches the Québécois soul, it seems, to judge by the enormous success of Soucy's little gothic tale...
"It opens  with the narrator, a very strange adolescent,  describing what happens the morning that the patriarch of the family is found dead by his children.  They must deal with the world for the first time, and as they do,  they are forced to  try to make sense of what has happened in the family over the previous 15 years.  Terrible secrets  and horrendous misunderstandings come out.  Before the final conflagration more people die and small animals are killed in grisly ways.
"All this would be depressing and unrelievedly weird were it not recounted by this bright child/adult who loves words but whose use of them is delightfully unusual.  For example, someone who writes things down is a "secretarious," an epileptic convulsion is a "stoppit" and a coffin is a "grave box."  Birds, flowers, the forest, grass and music are all described lyrically too.  In the end the originality and clarity of the descriptions transform the story from being merely grim into something having the weight and appeal of those bloody fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm."

Q&Q had me review his other three novels too.  Also interesting is his Vaudeville!:

"The time is a 1929 that never happened.  The place is a  New York where the Order of Demolishers is tearing down buildings, and the Demolished are looking for shelter wherever they can find it.  At a Demolition site Xavier, a young apprentice Demolisher, finds a little casket a with talking, singing female frog inside.  He takes her back to his tenement room, and it looks for a while as if she will be his ticket out of his troubled life if he can work her into a vaudeville act.
 "But all is not as it seems in Gaétan Soucy’s third novel which is sometimes very funny and sometimes creepily prescient.  The frog is not a cartoon character transplanted to a novel nor is Xavier the immigrant from Hungary he thinks he is. It turns out he is not even Xavier, but a creature just as unnatural as the devastated landscape left behind by the Demolishers.
"Soucy has spent much time in Japan, and began the book in Nagasaki, site of the second A-Bomb detonation in 1945.  The destroying civilization he describes in Vaudeville is completely concordant with the one which developed nuclear weapons, while the New York he paints looks like the pictures taken near Ground Zero after September 11, 2001.  Subplots like the one telling the interwoven stories of a pretty hairdresser and a bed-wetting super-macho Demolisher only  make the novel more complex and compelling.  The ending, as Soucy’s fans have come to expect, is surprising, disturbing and weird.... "

Not to mention, The Atonement:
" Gaétan Soucy’s novel Atonement is as carefully put together and as disturbing as a painting by Belgian artist René Magritte. Although the surrealist painter meticulously represents a familiar world, Magritte’s universe, like Soucy’s, seems ordered by unnatural laws of physics. Soucy describes concrete, physical things such as food and snowballs, but these objects constantly change their form and context, creating the impression that they are all part of a dream.

"Initially, the entire storyline appears straightforward, told in clear, well-constructed sentences. On a brilliant December day shortly after the end of the Second World War, 44-year-old Louis Bapaume travels toward a village in Quebec where he lived as a young man in order to atone for a past misdeed. En route, he falls asleep and dreams that he is five years old and seeing his father for the last time. But when he’s jolted awake, he discovers that the car he’s travelling in has become stuck in the snow. Bapaume must be in Montreal in time to play the organ at the Notre Dame Basilica for Christmas Eve, so he enlists the help of Canadian soldiers who are deployed at a railroad station.

"That’s a simple enough beginning, but early in the story Soucy sows the first hint that all is not what it seems. “Louis’s dream had plunged him into such a state that he was still waiting for proof that he was well and truly awake. What was happening now didn’t convince him. Perhaps he’d emerged from one dream only to enter another.”

"When the incongruities and strange coincidences multiply, the reader begins questioning the difference between reality and memory..."

And finally, The Immaculate Conception:

"Anyone interested in French Canadian literature will want to read Gaétan Soucy’s The Immaculate Conception.  Not only does it deal with many of the themes which preoccupied Quebec writers during the second half of the 20th century—Montreal slums, sexual repression and fires which sweep away the past—it is a road map indicating where the prize-winning Soucy was headed from the beginning.
 "The novel, published in French in 1994, was Soucy’s first, but it is the last of his four works to be translated into English. The complicated story begins with a letter written by an undertaker to a friend in New York, detailing  a massive fire that swept through a bar in Montreal’s river front industrial area and killed at least 30 people.  The next morning a bank clerk takes his paraplegic father to see the ruins and is observed by three boys and a teacher,  Clémentine Clément.  She is sure that the boys are up to no good, and warns her school’s principal, a handsome priest whom she has loved for years.  The book ends a week or so later on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  She is pregnant, possibly by the brother of the undertaker or perhaps by one of the boys or maybe (who knows in a book like this) by the Holy Spirit.
"Soucy used many elements of  this story in his later novels—fires, snowstorms, males who maybe female, wraith-like little girls, young men mistaken about their origins.  Two bit players in The Immaculate Conception—Rogatien W. and Justine Vilbroquais—are even at the center of Vaudeville!, Soucy’s most recent fiction.
"The Immaculate Conception lacks the splendid word play, lyrical observations and convincing weirdness of Soucy’s best-selling later books, though.  It is as if he were learning his trade here: in fact  he gives some of the best  descriptions—the fire victims die with “cackles of agony” and red hot building stones are “glaciers of blood”—to an undertaker’s helper named Soucy.  No doubt someone will use this fact in an academic literary analysis of Soucy’s work.  In the meantime the book gives Soucy fans much to puzzle over, which is part of the pleasure of reading him. "

It is a sad that we will have no more of his weirdly lyrical fictions in the future.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Well Brouight-up Indian Girls and the Weight of the World: Lahiri and Badami Compared

Jhumpa Lahiri's short story collection Unaccustomed Earth kept me up reading late recently, and this despite the fact that I'd read four of the eight stories previously in The New Yorker. The book continues to explore a circle of character types she has written about before: upper middle-class, educated Indians and their children living in the United States. Full of carefully-observed detail, the stories present the dramas that resonate with those of many of the people who read The New Yorker. Children succeed or fail disastrously, parents die, love comes or does not: there must be tens of thousands of intelligent readers who can sympathize with Lahiri's people.

Politics, societal conflict, even professional and intellectual struggles are largely absent from this world, and as I read I found myself comparing the stories with Anita Rau Badami's three novels, particularly  Can You Hear the Night Bird Call? Badami was born and educated in India, unlike Lahiri who is North-American born, but many of her characters come from the same world as Lahiri's. Her people also sometimes feel caught between two worlds, and they try to make good lives for themselves, too.

A major--and telling difference--is the way the Badami wants to understand how her characters fit into a world much larger than the one of intimate relationships which Lahiri almost always favours. Night Bird is the best example of this, because its three women characters are caught up in Hindu-Sikh conflicts that permeate a good part of Indian politics, and spill over tragically into North America. At the heart--and the end--of the novel is the Air India disaster, which until 9/11 had the unhappy distinction of being the world's most fatal civilian terrorist attack.

Outside events only intrude into Lahiri's stories once: Unaccustomed Earth contains a reference to the 2004 tsunami. It seems Lahiri is a little uncomfortable about that even. “The real event just sort of caught my character in there,” she told one interviewer. “I don’t tackle major global events. I don’t like to read about something—an event, a cataclysm—in fiction for the sake of reading it." Better to turn to non-fiction for accounts of events, she said: "that’s what good nonfiction is for. And I think that the fact there is a major global event in (my) book—I don’t know if it was okay or not.”"
I would say it most definitely is okay. In fact, the reference is masterfully set in context, and opens up Lahiri's fictional world so that it resonates far beyond the lives of her well-brought up characters. In the future, I hope she continues to tell us stories about how the people she imagines fit into a world wider than one of good schools, deadly but well-managed illness and love which sometimes is arranged and sometimes is not.

Photo: Jhumpa Lahiri, top; Anita Rau Badami, bottom.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Young Men and Fire: Recent and Past

Nineteen young firefighters were burned to death over the weekend in Arizona, and this morning we smell smoke from forest fires 900 kilometers from Montreal  near James Bay in Northern Quebec.  Both disquieting, an evidence again of the uneasy relation between fire and humans.

Norman Maclean, William Rainey Harper Professor of English at the University of Chicago and author of one of the best novels ever about Montana and the West, was marked by another forest fire disaster.

In 1949 when Maclean was in his early mid 40s, a crew of 15 elite Smokejumpers were trapped in  an immense conflagration in Montana just hours after their jump.  Only three survived, and for years afterwards Maclean was haunted by both the fire and what the young men must have gone through.  His account, Young Men and Fire: A True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire, was published two years after his death in 1990.  Long awaited, it won  the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992.

As an example of how to integrate research into  creative non-fiction it has few peers.  Maclean ferreted out the details of the young men's lives and placed them in context of the period.  He also attempted to view their experience in the larger framework of our mortality.  "It had been said since tragedy was first analyzed that it is governed by the emotions of fear and pity.  As the Smokejumpers went up the hill...it was like a great jump backwards into the sky--they were suddenly and totally without command and suddenly without structure and suddenly free to disintegrate and free finally to be afraid...

"Beyond the world of sight and soon even beyond fear, the nonhuman elements of heat and toxic gasses were becoming the only two elements, and soon heat was even burning out  fear..."

For anyone, old or young, who wonders about fire, the book is worth reading.  But for those who would like to read Maclean at his height, I can't recommend too highly A River Runs through It and Other Stories.   And the movie with Brad Pitt, directed by Robert Redford, isn't too bad.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Joyce Carol Oates on Writing

The New Yorker has started posting videos of its interviews with writers. Here's an interesting one with one of the world's most prolific writers.

 Joyce Carol Oates says that nothing is as interesting as her creations, and that she has no personality--"except my husband thinks that I do."

Very interesting. 

Thanks to Mary Evora for the link, BTW.