Monthly Archives: November 2015

To Perchance to … | Review of “Sleep” by Nino Ricci (2015) Doubleday Canada

Sleep

It is one of the most common activities we do. It is one of the most important functions we need to do everyday. And it is something we all have had trouble doing at times. So what happens when it completely fails a person? Nino Ricci examines that notion in his novel Sleep.

Page 6

He feels the dull throb of a headache beginning from the spike in his medication. For the next few hours, his heart will pound like a battering ram. He takes advantage of the stalled traffic to gather up the pills still scattered on the seat next to him: stupid to have let Marcus see them, to risk his mentioning them. Right from the start David has kept Julia in the dark, has passed the blame for his symptoms onto insomnia, late nights, overwork, has hidden from her the doctors’ visits, the clinics, the pills. that is his default with her now: to hide any sign of weakness, anything that might give her ammunition.

His mind keeps circling back to the instant when the crash felt inevitable, trying to sort out what saved them, though already it is hard to say how much is real in what he remembers and how much is the illogic of whatever dream he had slipped into. A deep brain disorder. That was how Becker put it, his sleep doctor, a fleshy Afrikaner with the hectoring twang of an apartheid politician and the parboiled look of a village butcher. A bread down in the border that separated waking from sleep. As if sleep were some rebel force that David had let overrun him, leaving him condemned now to live in this place of constant incursion, where nothing was safe, nothing was certain.

Ricci has either put a lot of a lot of research into the condition of his protagonist David Pace or he is quite familiar personally with the circumstances of insomnia. Whatever the case may be, he has documented an important element of the human condition in this book. Readers could be easily reading about themselves as they follow Pace go from a successful academic and family man meltdown to a slave to his emotions and medications.

Page 63-64

This was something David hadn’t reckoned on going into the divorce, how much it would cost him. Even though hew as told by everyone who card to offer an opinion that divorce was a fight in which there were no winners except the lawyers, still he forged ahead and committed every error, animated by what in retrospect seems to have been a kind of derangement. He wasted a lot of money up front on idiocies, taking his lawyer’s advice that he not move out of the house because it would prejudice his claim to Marcus but then paying for an office downtown to have a place away from his students to work and maxing out his credit cards on restaurant meals and dry cleaning and hotel stays. Then right from the start Julia’s father had got into the act, calling in chits from every quarter to make sure Julia was properly lawyered. Almost weekly, David was served with some new motion or disclosure order. The worst was the forensic accountant her father set on him, who made his every smallest excess seem to sigh of a criminal profligacy.

If David had been smart he would have accepted from the start how outgunned he was. Instead, with each setback he dug in his heels, firing lawyers and hiring new ones, firing those and representing himself, somehow convinced at each stage that if he fought hard enough it would prove he was in the right. One by one, the judgements went against him. He was forced to move out of the house, was left on the hook for both child and spousal support, was assessed a big whack of Julia’s legal fees because motions of his own that the court deemed frivolous. Through a couple of loopholes Julia’s lawyers even managed to get almost the entire value of his condo thrown in as common property, though he’d had it for years before the marriage, so that when the final balance sheet came in, what Julia ended up owing him for his share of the house – the house she had insisted on, on which she had indulged her every whim, that had cost him every penny he had earned from his books – had barely been enough to cover his legal bills.

There is an uncomfortable truth in this book. We have all witnessed someone self destruct in a slow and methodical manner and ask ourselves ‘What are they thinking?’ Here, at least,  we can actually enter the mind of David Pace and get a glimmer of his thought patterns.

Page 114-115

He is running on pure bravado now, without a plan, at once desperate to keep her here and wishing she’d go, and so spare them the aftermath of whatever train wreck it is they are headed for. Her puking into his toilet or passing out on his couch; him nodding off in mid-sentence or suddenly spazzing out in one of his fits. Or worse, the two of them falling into bed and fucking in some pale simulacrum of what he has imagined, both of them blunted with wine and him fighting the whole time to stay hard. By now he can no longer ignore the small dark bead of self-destructiveness in her, reassuring, in a way, something that joins them, yet also setting off every alarm, like a siren call to his most depraved under-selves. Like permission.

“You?” he says. “Any marriages yet? Lesbian hook-ups? Psycho-killer ex-lovers?”

Her laugh, a bit too ready now, too compliant.

“Nothing that exciting, sorry to say. Just your typical boring academic.”

Barely a foot and a half of couch separates them at this point, Jennifer still in her lotus squat though growing more and more askew, now her hem riding up, now some kink making her shift a butt cheek or thigh. Meanwhile the wine wears away at his brain, blurring its borders. He sees himself lean in to her to take her wrists, slender as a child’s. Sees her pinned beneath him as he thrusts.

She reaches to the coffee table for another cigarette.

“You must want to quit. I mean, after your father.”

“Quit?” he has no memory of mentioning his father. “But I’m just getting started.”

He gets up to empty the ashtray so he can pop another IR. If he isn’t careful, he will lose it. If he isn’t careful, he’ll slide into some twilight self like a Jekyll and Hyde.

While Sleep by Nino Ricci is not the type of novel you want to read while trying to drift away with at night, it is the type of book that will keep your mind pondering for lengths at a time as you try to rest. It is a book that engages the imagination and creates discussion.

Link to Nino Ricci’s website

Link to Penguin/Random House Canada’s website for Sleep

 

 

Our Relationships With Others| Review of “The Journey Prize Stories” 2015 Edition McClelland & Stewart

Journey

As we go through our lives, we need to interact with other people. But in many cases those interactions are not easy activities. We are dealing with people  with different ideals or personalities that are different from our own that we often become uncomfortable or even confused in our thoughts and actions. I realized this as I read the 2015 collection of The Journey Prize Stories how difficult relations are in the human condition and how literature helps to explore those relationships.

Page XI – Introduction by Anthony De Sa, Tanis Rideout, and Carrie Snyder. Selection committee for the 2015 Journey Prize Stories

Perhaps the greatest surprise can be found in how these stories affected us. Some of the stories grabbed us from the very beginning, while others rippled out like water disturbed by a pebble. Regardless of how they took hold, they all engaged us with their richness – the layered and nuanced telling of more we appreciated how beautiful or smart or gritty these pieces were.

This couldn’t have been an easy task for these three to pick out 12 stories that were gripping in their writing and style. Each of these three are strong writers in there own right and certainly they must have been aware of more than 12 stories for them to choose from. Yet these selections are strong ones that move and enlighten readers and writers alike.

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Page 3-4 Fingernecklace by Lori McNulty

Donny’s greasy jeans are tucked into oil-stained work boots in the living room of the care home. He checks his watch, pacing. Crew’s on site. Fuck. Shit. Piss. He’s got the engineer’s change orders. Cost overruns. Goddamn job is killing him. Looking up he sees Gus lumbering down the stairs still wrapped in his white terry cloth robe. Big as a hollowed oak, premature belly spread. Donny shakes a full prescription bottle at him.

“Don’t skip out on me, Gus. You know what happens.”

Donny watches his younger brother’s eyes dart around the room, taking inventory. He sees Gus freeze at the sight of his work boots.

Gus bunches the terry cloth belt in his palms, squeezes, lets the fuzzy ball drop to the floor. He yanks it back up like a fishing line, absently lets it drop. Donny pats the couch cushion, coaxing his brother over.

“Look, Gus, we can’t do our usual pizza run this aft. Got a date with a wrecking ball.”

Gus bunches the belt in his lap, blinks wet, wandering tears. Donny wraps his arms around his big old stump of a baby brother, tries to hold the roots down keep the disease from spreading. Root rot. Runs in the family.

Gus sobs into his brother’s neck. “I want to come home.”

Donny holds him close, tries to stop twenty years of trembling. Five years, six major episodes, a thousand pills and private dreams between them.

We have all seen all sorts of human-interest news stories about families who deal with members who have metal illness. But McNulty short story gives a true essence of what the situation is like. Using bold and frank language she shows the relationship between the two brothers and describes the hard emotions they each must deal with.

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Page 14 Mercy Beatrice Wrestles the Noose by K’ari Fisher

Ghost-Mom has been hanging around me all evening, smoking her cigarette. When she was alive she always had a pack of her fer shit sake sticks nearby in case of an emergency. Now that she’s dead, a machine-rolled Du Maurier hangs endlessly from her lips. She sucks on it pathologically. In the last few months, I’ve yet to see her need to light a new one.

“Why are you here, Mercy Beatrice?” she says. Her see-through body bristles up like a used scrub brush. ” I told you to stay away from this place.”

Here is Bodie, British Columbia. Bodie used to be a self-sufficient whistle-stop along the Canadian Pacific Railway during the lure of Gold Mountain. When the rush was over, they flooded 920 hectares of forest to power the twin turbines running the aluminum smelter on the other side of the cordillera. Now all that remains is my father, his junkyard that operates off scrap brought in on the train, and Pauley.

This is a brilliant short-story written in the first-person. A young woman tracks down her estranged father and learns the skills involved in the pro-wrestling circuit. We follow the protagonist through not only the lessons of wrestling but a wealth of emotions involving her strange family.

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Page 29 – Renaude by Charlotte Bondy

Mischa and I met on the second day of grade nine when our French teacher mistook him for a girl because of his long dark hair and cheekbones like Kate Moss. Everyone giggled and Mischa flushed red down to his shirt collar. After class I found him in the the hall and told him I was jealous of his curls. I also told him this story about when I was twelve and had a terrible mushroom cut. My mom took me to the Gap to buy a pair of velvet pants. The salesperson kept trying to steer us to the men’s section, away from all the leggings, until my frazzled mother eventually pointed at me and yelled, “She’s a girl!” After I told him this, Mischa gave me his special look, the one where his eyes squeeze shut like a smiling Buddha. Then he asked if I wanted to eat lunch with him and that was that.

Adolescences is always a difficult time for many people. Trying to fit a certain identity while dealing with set norms that society is trying force us into is not an idyllic experience. Charlotte Bondy explores that setting for three teenagers trying to come to age in a modern city.

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Page 41-42 Cocoa Divine and the Lighthouse Police by Georgia Wilder

Dad complains that Diefenbaker scrapped the Arrow and that Trudeau, French and effete, joined Ed Sullivan’s conspiracy. “Beatle-mania, Trudeau-mania, Mob psychology,” he says. “All those kids screaming like rabid animals. No discipline. Is that roasted chicken? Damn that rock and roll and those crazy hippies. What we need is another war. Pass the green beans. Please! What do you think about this women’s lib, malarkey, Brownwyn?” It’s not a question. It is a test for The Amazing Kreskin. He wants me to read the secret answer his head, not tell him what I really think.

I dress like a boy because girls can’t do shit if they dress like girls, and what I really think is that Dad can take a great word like liberation and make it sound like a bad taste in your mouth, like something loud and fat and embarrassing: lip or lipid or libido. I haven’t heard the term hippie since grade five, and Trudeau is old, and malarkey comes from the kind of braid that’s been mummified in a Canopic jar. There’s a new indie punk glam scene that comes in from campus stations late at night on my clock radio, and those new rocker chicks and club queens and androgyny philosophers are taking over from white-boy cock-rockers like The Who and The Stones and Rush and Styx; and I’m trying to figure out why all the cool black rock-and-rollers are selling their souls to disco, and why the hell Grace Jones is singing synthesized Broadway tunes when she could be kicking ass with real skin drums. My dad says there’s a generation gap. It’s the fucking Grand Canyon. All he sees is this freckled kid who doesn’t say what’s in her head and he makes her feel dumb and small.

Another great story dealing with identity and family relationships. Many of us look back at our upbringings and try to deal with reflections of people who tried to push their views on us. Wilder not only uses frank language but terms from the period which makes this story realistic.

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Page 61-62 The Perfect Man for my Husband by Andrew MacDonald

I put my piece of bread back on the plate and asked my husband, “What do you mean, no hope?”

“Exactly what it sounds like.” He drank some carbonated water, sucking it through his teeth. By the face he made, I could tell he had trouble getting it down his throat, as if it hadn’t gone all the way to his stomach and had chosen his Adam’s apple as its home instead.

This was our Cancer Dinner – what we’d call it over the next few months, when the endlessly multiplying cells really started ransacking his body. I would come to grow fond of this moment, the way Eve must have grown fond of the second before she bit into the apple and damned us all. It’s rare in life you can point definitively to The Moment Everything Changed. We could do that.

Palming a piece of bread into a tiny ball, I threw it across the table at his chest. I pretended his chest was the universe, that the ball of bread was a missile with such potential for catastrophe that it would end all moments. The bread ball bounced into his glass of water. We both looked at it sadly as the water molecules slowly pulled it apart, the bread falling open like a strange underwater flower you needed grief to discover.

A great story in which a wife not only has to deal with her husband’s terminal illness but also the fact that he admits that he is attracted to other men. McDonald has capture the dynamic between a husband and wife brilliantly which gives great insight to the state of couples in our modern era.

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Page 81 -82 – Moonman by Sarah Meehan Sirk

“My aunt is going to stay over the nights that both Chris and I are working,” she said into the receiver. “I don’t know, Fran. It’s going to be tough for a while, but I think it’s only temporary. I mean, my hours and his  . . . situation.”

And then she laughed in that conspiratorial way mothers share while talking with one another about their husbands and children. A laugh, it seemed to me that rarely involved joy.

I couldn’t tell her that she’d been wrong. It didn’t matter that she was home when we went to bed and when she got up for school in the morning – her nighttime absence echoed through the halls. We always knew when she was gone. i lost the feeling that children are supposed to have when they drift off to sleep: that knowledge that their parents, their mother, is in the house somewhere, her protective warmth flowing from room to room in the dark. Without it, I lay awake for hours listening to every creak, every rustle, and every snore that rose up from Great Aunt Audrey, who slipped into an impenetrable slumber on a chair in front of the television minutes after the front door was pulled shut and the key turned in the lock.

Another great story looking at the relationship between parents and child. A bit of a conspiratorial feel to this story which gleefully draws the reader into the piece.

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Page 96-97 Last Animal Standing on Gentleman’s Farm by Emily Bossé

After vomiting in the sink where we clean the blenders, I decide I need to get the hell out of this city. If I ever get my face tenderized again, it’s going to be over something I really believe in. Not a day’s worth of wheatgrass profits. When I get home, there it is: a big brown envelope with a note from my mom written on kitchen stationery and something from LANDE & WOLFE on legal letterhead. I open the legal letter first, and it say my uncle Phillip died and left a lot of his estate to me, something about property, something about chattel, a meeting, turnover, so on, so forth. The not from my mom is shorter, saying something along the same lines, but also God knows why Phil would leave this to me as he hasn’t seen me since I moved away, and I just don’t know the first thing about husbandry, but it’s just a hobby farm, really: a little more than a dozen chickens, eight pigs, one goat, a rooster, and a dog. Maybe it would be good for me, and if I can stand the thought of going back to Devon it’s mine. Then, at the bottom: P.S. – tell Paul I say “hi.” Yours, Mom.” I’ve never heard of another mom who signs her letters “yours.” Good old Eva.

I’m on the next bus out with as much as I can stuff into the duffel bag I stole from my deadbeat roommate. For a second I think I see Joanna sitting about six rows in front of me, slack jawed and stringy haired, her roots about six inches of grey fading into an orangey urine colour. She’s looking straight ahead just like she rides the bus over and over back home, but I can’t imagine Paul letting her out like that, and he’s been in charge of her since Mrs. Estey died. We stop at some trucker place called Chatter’s and I call Paul collect. It’s around 3 a.m. back home, but he picks up the phone on the second ring. I tell him my uncle’s dead and I guess I’ve come into some land or something, and I’m coming home toot sweet. Paul inhales and exhales noisily into the phone.

“Paul. Seriously. this is some Jane Eyre shit.”

We all have had those mixed feelings of nostalgia and guilt when we try to return back to the regions of our upbringing.  Yet there are little disasters that occur in those visits that tell us that “going home again” just isn’t a great idea.  Bossé explores that notion in this brilliant and engaging story.

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Page 117-188 – Lovely Company by Ron Schafrick

I was at work, finishing up for the day, when I got a call from my father. It scared me a little, seeing his name on the screen like that in the middle of the afternoon. Usually I was the one who made the calls, nearly every evening since my mother passed away three years ago. He only ever phoned when he was upset about something, often lat at night when his eighty-year-old mind started playing tricks on him, getting him wound up into thinking that so-and-so was trying to take away the hose, or that someone else was siphoning money out of his bank account. And so it naturally fell to me to reassure him, often unconvincingly, that everything was all right, that no one was stealing from him, and that certainly no was trying to take away the old farmhouse he had built more than forty years ago, the house I’d grown up in and where he continued to live.

“What’s wrong?” I said.

“Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “Something’s got to be wrong for me to call?”

I leaned back in my chair.

“You know what?” he said. “I think I got a girlfriend now.”

I personally could relate to this piece on so many different levels. I have had to deal with elderly parents in this situation so many times that it felt like Schafrick was writing an element out of my life.

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Page 147 – Maggie’s Farm by Charlie Fiset

When Diane leaves, the girl and the boy search their new home.

“Look here!” the boy calls. “What the hell is this thing?”

The girl finds him in the bedroom, touching a bundle of dead leaves that are wrapped in string and hanging from the ceiling.

“It looks like voodoo,” the boy says.

“Voodoo? They’re just dried herbs. That’s how my mom hangs them.”

The girl reaches up to touch a sprig of mint but withdraws her hand when she sees that the slivered, pale green leaves are wrapped in cobwebs and blanketed in dust.

“Come look at the kitchen,” she says, taking the boy’s hand. “Look at all the food Margaret bought us . . . “

We have all taken those extend vacations where we need to interact with different people of different cultures and values. In such journeys do we not only learn about others but ourselves and the people we think we know and care about. This story is brilliant, especially in the fact the protagonists are never named. (Always referred to as “Boy” and “Girl”) This allows the reader to easily imagine themselves in the clothes of the travelers as they go through each experience.

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Page 182 – Achilles’ Death by Madeleine Maillet

I twisted up a tress of wet hair and imagined I could wring the lice out. I let it go and it clung to my neck, like a disgusting thing. If I were a Medusa I wouldn’t have lice. But I knew I wasn’t brave enough to be a Medusa. And I wanted to be pretty. I wondered what I would look like when I was a woman.

Mom asked Nadine to put the radio on and it was smooth and she moaned along. Alan Almond played Sade, Marvin Gaye, that kind of thing. My favourite part was the requests. Someone loves Linda, in Flint, and so the listening audience knows that Linda, of Flint, is loved.

The phone rang. This time my mom just left the comb hanging in my hair while she talked to Papa. After, she asked us about our funeral clothes and we pretended not to feel like funeral clothes are weird and boring to talk about. When they played “My Girl” we all sang along. Mom had the most gusto and Dini had the best voice and all our voices together made a mood.

We didn’t talk for a while. I asked Mom how much hair she’d done and she drew a line on my scalp with the comb, way beneath the crown. My sister drew the same two-and-a-half storey house with a fence that she always drew. The sun and the seagull were there, in each corner of the sky. Looking at her drawing, she asked, “What’s for dinner?”

Again, childhood is the setting for this brilliant story. We all suffered from all sorts of traumas and excitements that shape our psyche in our adult lives. Maillet’s piece here is a great exploration of some events and the interactions of a child.

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Page 193-194 – Red Egg and Ginger by Anna Ling Kaye

On the day of Baby’s full-month party, Mei wakes with a sore chest. She takes off her nightshirt in the bathroom and checks her profile in the mirror. It is amazing to think of herself as pregnant. There is nothing different about her soft skin, her smooth stomach. Except her breasts feel different. they are stiff and sensitive in the hand. Mei imagines them swelling with milk, like water balloons, nature’s prank on unsuspecting mothers. Mei decides not to consult the literature from Family Planning hidden under her mattress. She walks into the living room to look for her cigarettes.

Her roommate, Ching, is sitting on the couch in a long T-shirt and eating a bowl of ramen noodles. She had Styrofoam bowl balanced on her bare knees, lifting it occasionally for a slurp of soup. The smell of salty broth fills the tight space, making Mei’s empty stomach turn.

“Afternoon, bed-head,” Ching says. “No work today?”

“I couldn’t open my eyes.”

“Romeo called for you. You are so lucky. I need love.” Ching flicks a log of burgundy-dyed hair out of her soup and gives a dramatic sniff. “I’m going to be alone forever. Not like you and Prince Charming.”

Mei chews the unlit cigarette in her mouth and notices she doesn’t want to smoke. In fact, the thought of smoking right then makes her gag. “You think he’s a prince?” she asks. She tries to sound bored, keep the hope out of her voice.

“Of course,” Ching says. “He’s cute, he’s got a good job, he adores you. He’s tall, too. He’s the pot of gold.”

Mei puts the cold cigarette on the table and looks at Ching.

“So your mom would let you marry a white ghost?”

Ching’s scandalized laughter is all the answer Mei needs.

Growing up in a difficult culture can produce difficult hardships. But also many of the pressures are similar to our society. Anna Ling Kaye has documented an interesting situation about a girl in modern Hong Kong society. The rituals that her protagonist seem foreign to us but the pressures but on her family are quite familiar.

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Page 205-206 The Wise Baby by Deirdre Dore

Hi. Is Darryl home? she said

I said, No.

A few nights before, after I got off shift, I had come home and found Darryl lying on the couch, smoking a joint. I took off my shoes and threw my clothes into the washing machine. I am a philosophy student-slash-server. He is an artist-slash-server and was my boyfriend for four years. He painted large female nudes in oil and hope to get noticed one day.

Busy? Darryl asked.

Slammed, I said. If I wash my shirt now, do you think you can iron it for me in the morning? I really, really, need to sleep in.

Darryl said, Vivian? Listen up.

He had two things to tell me. One, that his art was the most important thing in his life. And two, more important even than his art, he might be gay. I laughed. I said, Oh great, I’m thirty-three years old, ready to start my life and I’m stuck with a boyfriend who is having a heterosexual melt down.

Being gay is one thing. Not being gay is another thing. But not knowing, well, that’s something else.

I told him, Do me a favour, go sort yourself out somewhere else.

The next morning he moved up the mountain to his parents’ condo in Whistler, to paint, wait on tables, snowboard, and sort himself out somewhere else.

I didn’t mention any of this to the woman on my doorstep, who introduced herself as Deb and said she had come to return a stamp she had borrowed from Darryl.

This is probably the funniest story in the whole book since it reflects an honest slice of reality. It seems something annoying always pops up when one is trying to deal with an important crisis in one’s life. In this case, after a break up, an overworked philosophy major deal with a couple of neighbours who continually intrude into her life. The concept of relationships and interactions are a strong feature in this short story.

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The 2015 collection of The Journey Prize Stories was a great look at some of the relationships and interactions that make up the human condition. It also provide and great introduction to some new writers that will hopefully continue their craft and allow us to interact with their writings in the future.

Link to The Writers’ Trust of Canada’s website for The Journey Prize

Link to Penguin/Random House Canada’s page for 2015 collection of The Journey Prize Stories

Suspenseful and Light Reading | Review of “The Night Thief” by Barbara Fradkin (2015) Raven Books

Thief

There is a certain beauty in brevity when one writes a narrative. To keep things simple and yet to keep the attention of a reader is a difficult challenge. Barbara Fradkin manages to do that with a certain grace with her novel The Night Thief which makes this book not only a quick read but also an interesting one.

Page 1-2

It was supposed to be a perfect October night. The moon was huge and the sky was so clear. I could see all the way across the field to the woods.

But after less than an hour, I was freezing to death. My toes had gone numb. My back ached and I couldn’t feel the tip of my nose. Good move, O’Toole, I grumbled to myself as I eased my stiff fingers from the shotgun. You couldn’t wear a warmer jacket?

I was lying in wait for the night thief. for more than three weeks now, I’d been trying to stop him from raiding my vegetable patch. My usual scarecrows and whirligigs had been useless. So first I’d welded together a tall fence using every piece of metal I could spare. Bits of car hoods and chicken wire. it wasn’t pretty, but I thought it would do the trick.

I have read several of theses “Rapid Reads” series and have always found them entertaining in some way. This book is no different. They service a need for a certain type of reader who may have limited reading skills or just wants a quick book to read over a short time. The writing here is light and breezy without being condescending or childish. The story deals with Cedric O’Toole. Something appears raiding his farm and he is determined to find out what it is. Oddly enough it is a boy who appears to be homeless. Cedric’s own past doesn’t trust outside authorities to take care of the boy, but as the story goes on, he must decide to get help for the boy or trust his own instincts.

Page 13-14

By the time we got back to the farmhouse, sunset had stolen all the heat out of the air. I was shivering. Robin trailed about twenty feet behind me, but when he saw the house, he stopped to stare, like he’d never seen it in the daytime. Now, I admit my house is a funny sight. Two walls are painted turquoise and the other two orange, because that’s what was handy. Both paints were rejects from someone else’s bad mix jobs – kind of like me.

At first Robin wouldn’t even come up the front steps. Instead he headed for the barn, sending the hens squawking in all directions. So I told him I was going inside to feed Chevy, and soup would be ready in a few minutes. When I peeked outside again, he was down by the barn, feeding the hens. I could see him smiling at them, but when I called to him, the smile disappeared.

Even when my mother had remembered to feed me, she was never much of a cook. So early on I’d figured out how to use a stove and grow a few vegetables. My soup wasn’t fancy but the smell was enough to get Robin inside the house. He took the bowl off the table and curled up on the kitchen floor beside Chevy. He emptied his bowl even faster than the dog would have. I put a refill on the the table, be he took it down onto the floor too.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

There is also some deep feelings, thoughts and emotions here. Fradkin has obviously captured some scenarios from her work as a child and school psychologist into this story, making it a great piece of literature by giving insight to the human condition. The ending isn’t at all a ‘happily-ever-after’ one but one one that reflects reality. Bittersweet yet life continues.

Page 43-44

I studied the drawings carefully, hoping for a clue to his past. There was only one, a small, one-story, house that looked nothing like mine. It had a front porch with what looked like a rocking chair on it. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. Was it time to tell Jessica the truth? And get this kid back home with some real help?

Instead, I stalled. I admit, I kind of liked his company – and his help. I had a busy couple of days paneling the living room in a cottage near the village. so Robin was left to do the chores and keep himself busy. He spent hours in my junk sheds, fiddling with things. He played with Chevy and the goat, even enjoyed watching the hens. But he hardly talked. Every night I put him to bed in my mother’s bed, and every morning I found him asleep in the shed. He ate like a football player, but during the night food still disappeared. Not only food, but my mother’s sweaters, more towels and spare cushions from the couch.

So one night I woke up at 2:00 AM and went to peek in my mother’s room. Sure enough, the bed was empty. I peered out the window. The moon was on the wane but still cast enough pale light that I could see a shape running toward the woods. Toward the mystery cave I had found a few days earlier.

What the hell was this boy up to?

While it is a light and ‘rapid’ read, The Night Thief by Barbara Fradkin is an engaging one. Filled with emotion and suspense, it is a read that engages for whomever reads it.

 

Link to Barbara Fradkin’s website

Link to Orca Books’ page for The Night Thief

 

The Realm of Coming-of-Age |Review of “Bitter Rose” by Martine Delvaux/Translated by David Homel (2015) Linda Leith Publishing

BitterRose

We all have those traumatic moments during our lives where elements seem beyond our control. And even if we never discuss them at great lengths, they haunt our consciousness forever. No doubt, these moments do need to be considered by us once in a while and that is the beauty of the coming-of-age novel. Reading one allows us to remember certain moments in our lives and reflect on them AND to realize we were not alone in our predicament.  Hence Bitter Rose by Martine Delvaux is such a great example of a coming-of-age novel.

Page 2-3

On the evening of July 1st, my mother would wake me up to watch the colourful explosions of the fireworks, I was half asleep at my bedroom window so high in the sky that it floated. That was before the village. That was before my second life. I was still wearing my blue flannelette pajamas, I carried my pink blanket with the satin ribbons everywhere I went, it was cool to the touch, its silky weave was full of bumps, a kind of popcorn stitch you make if you knit very very tight. In that world, men were pale stars in the blind stain of the universe. People said that life was a thing you had to face on your own, you couldn’t expect anything from men, or not very much. There was the story of the one who had left. That was no secret for us, it was a secret for other people, a story full of holes. People said he was tall, he had green eyes like a lake whose bottom is invisible, algae between you toes and soft, gluey mud you sink into far enough to be afraid you’d get stuck. People said it wasn’t the first time, he’d done that kind of thing before, he’d known his share of girls. People said he wore wooden shoes and came from houses that waltzed upon the water. People said he had yellow hair and that he must have gone back to his country, where everyone had yellow hair the way he did.

There is a beauty in the ambiguity of this story. We witness the protagonist go from one situation and one place to another in different stages of her life yet we really get no concrete idea about her life. Her life is somewhat of a muddle and she is trying to figure it out yet quite can’t. And we as readers are along for the ride as we witness her confusion.

Page 20, 21

My village was the kind of village where people were proud to say that everyone knew everyone else. It was a village like any other, like any other place where people keep watch and claim they love one another. It was that way, and sometimes worse than that. You had to work hard to protect a secret. You had to be skilled, and sneaky, you had your hands full. It was a little like carefully building the plot of a detective novel, and afterward, for weeks, you lived off the effort.

It was the kind of village you were better off forgetting, and even when you tried, you were haunted by the hot dog stand on the main street and the swimming pool at the campground that was stuck out by the exit to the highway, where villagers streamed when July rolled around. Families left the grid of the centre of the village and set up shop one kilometre away, at Camp Kittawa, one next to the other in tents and trailers, they spent their weeks’ vacation there and of course every weekend, from Friday evening to Sunday.

***

As the summer days went by with the chlorine treatments, the skin of my nose would peel off in slices, worn-out skin that I pulled off, underneath was the pale pink of fresh flesh. We would forget the sunscreen and our hats. For the duration of the summer, the children turned into crustaceans forced head first, their arms flapping, into boiling water. My stained face was discoloured, like an old car whose doors had been eaten away by rust.

While it is a short novel (only 105 pages) it is a complex and gritty read at times. There are thoughts and emotions (especially angst)  that are complex and they are given detailed descriptions to ponder over. It is a read that shouldn’t be dismissed or breezed over for sure and one that should be re-read again.

Page 53-54

School was over, and I lived in the heat of hay and mosquito bites. My mother complained about a referendum, then brightened up when an actor became a candidate for the presidency of the United States, and when we decided to boycott the Moscow Games, since everything was a mess everywhere. She spread out the brochures on the kitchen table, and sung out the praises of horseback riding, sailing classes, mountain climbing, but I shook my head and categorically refused her idea, no matter how quality the campers were said to be. I told her, “The problem isn’t leaving here, it’s being with people and having to sleep, eat, wash, play and talk with them, all the time, rain or shine.” She said I was a hopeless case.

I remembered the summer of 1976, that summer of perfection, the Olympic Games on television, Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10s, the whole world watched in amazement, the contortions of that small body, her little ponytail held in place by a soft cloud of cloth, the arc of her back, she was like a feather, an angel. Soon we missed the little girl with the dark eyes on the beam in Newsweek.

Bitter Rose by Martine Delvaux/Translated by David Homel is a perfect example of a coming-of-age novel. It is well-written and complex. Not a quick read but one that engages the mind with thoughts and reflections.

Link to Linda Leith’s webpage for Bitter Rose

What Roads will the Needs of the Human Condition Lead us Down? | Review of “The Heart Goes Last” by Margaret Atwood (2015) McClelland & Stewart/Penguin Random House Canada

Heart

Margaret Atwood has long been trusted as a writer who knows how to document the human condition. Her novels have been read with zeal by her fans for that reason and they are the centre of discussions and debates long after they have been published. And, no doubt, her latest novel The Heart Goes Last continues her well-earned reputation.

Page 3 Cramped

Sleeping in the car is cramped. Being a third-hand Honda, it’s no palace with begin with. If it was a van they’d have more room, but fat chance of affording one of those, even back when they thought they had money. Stan says they’re lucky to have any kind of a car at all, which is true, but their luckiness doesn’t make the car any bigger.

Charmaine feels that Stan ought to sleep in the back because he needs more space – it would only be fair, he larger  – but he has to be in the front in order to drive them away fast in an emergency. He doesn’t trust Charmaine’s ability to function under those circumstances: he says she’d be too busy screaming to drive. So Charmaine can have the more spacious back, though even so she has to curl-up like a snail because she can’t exactly stretch out.

They keep the windows mostly closed because of the mosquitoes and the gangs and the solitary vandals. The solitaries don’t usually have guns or knives – if they have those kinds of weapons you have to get out of there triple fast – but they’re more likely to be bat-shit crazy, and a crazy person with a piece of metal or a rock or even a high-heeled shoe can do a lot of damage. They’ll think you’re a demon or the undead or a vampire whore, and no kind of reasonable thing you might do to calm them down will cancel out that opinion. The best thing with crazy people, Grandma Win used to say – the only thing, really – is to be somewhere else.

There are a collection of writers that many of my English teachers wanted me to read, and Atwood was one of them. But they would have scolded me bitterly if I had brought the term ‘bat-shit crazy’ from out of the reality of my circle of friends and family and into their realm of formal teaching. It would be interesting to know if they recommend this Atwood novel based on the frank language of the book. Or do they bristle at it like other people I discussed the book with who deny that families are forced to sleep in their cars these days.

The story deals married couple Stan and Charmaine. They are desperate to survive the economic and social collapse of the world around them and the concept of moving to the town of Consilience has strong appeal to them. The closed-off community holds the fabled “Positron Project” where residents all have a job and a clean home to reside in for six months. On the alternating six months, Stan and Charmaine must enter the town’s prison and serve a six-month sentence. After the sentence, they can return to a civilian life. The concept has appeal to the desperate couple, they don’t hesitate to sign up.

Page 41 Haircut

“Have a good month outside?” asks the barber, whose name is Clint. Clint has a big T on his front because he’s playing the part of a Trusty. He’s not one of the original criminals, the ones who were still in here when the Project began: you’d never let a dangerous offender anywhere near those scissors and razors. Outside, when he’s a civilian, Clint does tree pruning. Before he signed on to the Project he’d been an actuary, but he’d lost that job when his company moved west.

It’s a familiar story, though nobody talks much about what they were before: backward glances are not encouraged. Stan himself doesn’t dwell on his Dimple Robotics interlude, back when he’d thought the future was like a sidewalk and all you had to do was make it from one block to the next; nor does he dwell on what came after, when he had no job. He hates to think of himself the way he was then: grimy, morose, with the air being sucked out of his chest by the sense of futility that was everywhere like a fog.

Atwood not only has captured a physical reality here but also an emotional reality as well. The protagonists are desperate for change and that reality is recognized by any outside organization. They sign up and – at first – all seems well. But then things change again and the couple is in an even more desperate situation than before.  Atwood uses words that are frank and vernacular which makes the story easy for many readers to grasp.

Page 136 White Ceiling

Charmaine hardly slept a wink all night. Maybe it was the screams; or they might have been laughs – that would be nicer; though if they were laughs they were loud, high and hysterical. She’d like to ask some of the other women if they heard anything too, but that’s probably not a good idea.

Or maybe her sleeplessness came from overexcitement, because really she’s super excited. She’s so excited she can only peck at her lunch, because this afternoon she gets to resume her real job. After putting in her morning session of towel-folding, she got to throw away the shameful Laundry Room nametag and replace it with her rightful one: Chief Medications Administrator. It feels blissful, as if that nametag has been lost and not it’s been found; like when you misplace your scooter keys or your phone and then they turn up and you get a rush of luckiness, as if the stars or fate or something has singled you out for a win. That’s how happy her rightful nametag makes her feel.

The other women in her section have noticed that nametag: they’re treating her with new respect. They’re looking at her directly instead of letting their eyes slide past her like she was furniture; they’re asking her sociable questions such as how did she sleep, and isn’t this an awesome lunch? They’re handing her small, chatty praises, like what a good job she’s doing with the blue teddy bears, even though she’s such a crappy knitter. And they’re smiling at her, not half-smiles either, but full-on total-face smiles that are only partly fake.

Margaret Atwood has earned her reputation as a writer who can document the human condition well with her novel The Heart Goes Last. Her language is frank and contemporary which makes this book a great piece of literature. A must-read for sure.

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s page for The Heart Goes Last

Link to Margaret Atwood’s website