Tag Archives: coming of age novel

(T)he novel is about a young woman who learns to draw on inner strength she didn’t know she had to overcome dramatic challenges on her journey to adulthood. | Q&A with author Catherine Graham on her first novel “Quarry.”

Quarry Cover from Natalie jpeg

 

Catherine Graham’s poetry has won numerous awards and garnished huge praises from all sorts. Now Graham has turned her skilled craft towards a novel, something many people have been eagerly talking about in many of my circles. Graham was kind enough to answer a few questions about her first novel “Quarry.”

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1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of “Quarry.”

It’s a fictional account of what an introverted young woman discovers about herself on a journey that starts with an idyllic upbringing with her parents in a house beside a water-filled limestone quarry and moves through tragic loss, love and the family secrets that emerge.

2) This is your first published novel. Was there much of a ‘jump’ for you from writing poetry to writing a novel?

Yes and no. The imagery that powers my poetry is still present in the novel, but writing prose has so many more opportunities for detail and well, completeness. Some readers of early novel drafts were also fans of my poetry and I wasn’t sure how they’d like the book. Thankfully the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. I think I was able to find the right balance between the lyricism of poetry and the narrative form demanded by long prose.

3) Was there something specific that inspired you to write this novel?

Ultimately, the novel is about a young woman who learns to draw on inner strength she didn’t know she had to overcome dramatic challenges on her journey to adulthood. Those who know me will see parallels with my own life, but Caitlin Maharg’s story is not mine, nor is mine hers. So I guess you could say the inspiration for the novel has been with me forever.

4) “Two Wolves Press” seems like a unique publishing house. How did you get involved with them?

Alexandra Leggat is a fellow instructor at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. She started Two Wolves Press with a fiercely independent desire to publish a few carefully curated books each year that would bring fresh voices to the Canadian literary scene. Having Two Wolves pick up Quarry for publication was a match made in heaven. I loved Two Wolves’ approach to publishing and thankfully, Alexandra loved Quarry. (Link to Two Wolves Press Blogspot site)

5) Are you planning any public readings/discussions of “Quarry?” If yes, any specific dates that you are excited to be partaking in?

The novel launches June 1 at The Tranzac Club in Toronto.  IFOA and Two Wolves Press have partnered up for the event as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series (Link to the event’s website here). After a short reading, Mary Lou Finlay, radio and television journalist, will interview me on stage. There will also be music from the soundtrack of the novel and other special features. Then on June 4, I’ll be doing a Q & A at the Calgary Memorial Library as part of Spur Festival Calgary. (Link to event’s website here)

I’m thrilled to be partaking in both events and all are welcome to attend. I’m also looking forward to reading in the UK this August as part of The Shaken and the Stirred group—readings in London, Manchester, Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Link here), Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Belfast’s Linen Hall Library and Bangor’s Open House Festival.

6) You mentioned in a past Q&A a few years ago that you just signed on to Twitter. And you have an active role on Facebook. How do you like using social media in relation to your writing?

It’s interesting you should ask. Social media was a bit of a foreign landscape to me at first, but it’s actually more fun than I thought it would be. To that end, I’ll be making some exciting changes to my social media presence in the near future, so stay tuned to the website (www.catherinegraham.com), Twitter (@catgrahmpoet) and Instagram (catgrahampoet) to see what’s cooking.

7) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

Right now, I’m focused on making sure people enjoy the novel launch and know where they can get a copy of the book (Ben McNally’s Bookstore in Toronto (Link here) and Shopify (Link here).

But regardless of how busy I am, scribbled ideas always seem to be appearing in my notebook, so in a way, you could say I’m already at work on the next novel. Or poetry collection. Or something. Speaking of poetry, my seventh collection, The Celery Forest, will appear this fall with Wolsak & Wynn. (Link to their website)

Author Bio:
Catherine Graham is the author of five acclaimed poetry collections. Her most recent collection, Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects, was a finalist for the Raymond Souster Award and CAA Poetry Award. Winner of the IFOA’s Poetry NOW competition, she teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto where she won an Excellence in Teaching Award. Her work is anthologized in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol IV & V, The White Page/An Bhileog Bhan: Twentieth Century Irish Women Poets and has appeared in The Malahat Review, Gutter Magazine (Scotland), Poetry Daily (USA), The Glasgow Review of Books, Poetry Ireland Review, The Ulster Tatler, The Fiddlehead, LRC, Southword Journal (Ireland), CBC Books and elsewhere. International reading venues include Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016 and 2017, University of Westminster, Bowery Poetry Club NYC, International Anthony Burgess Foundation (Manchester), 4th International Congress of Language and Literature Linares (Mexico), Seamus Heaney HomePlace (Northern Ireland) and the Thessaloniki International Book Fair (Greece). She publishes two books in 2017, her sixth poetry collection, The Celery Forest, and her debut novel, Quarry. Visit her at www.catherinegraham.com.

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Link to Catherine Graham’s website

Link to Two Wolves Press Blogspot site

The Universal Complexities of Coming of Age | Review of “Child Wonder” by Roy Jacobsen – Translated by Don Bartlett with Don Shaw (2011) Graywolf Press

Child

I have always found something enlightening about exploring the list of authors that make up the longlist of nominees of Man Booker International Prize. Even if their nominated works are not readily available to me, reading an earlier work from a writer from that list seems to engage my senses in new ways.  The 2017 longlist this year includes Norwegian writer Roy Jacobsen and I am completely enthralled by his coming-of-age book Child Wonder.

(A time when) “men became boys and housewives women

I was glad to see numerous of previous reviewers had loved the phrase quoted above from the book. Jacobsen has set this story in the beginning of the 1960s and that phrase seems to be the continuing theme going through the book as the protagonist Finn and his mother go through life in a suburb of Oslo. The duo are set in their ways until a half-sister that Finn never knew about joins them and Finn attempts to deal with not only the new situation but a flurry of thoughts and emotions that come to rise within him.

Page 26-27

Ten minutes later. Mother is sitting on the new sofa with a cup of Lipton’s tea and I am in the armchair with a bottle of Solo lemonade, even though it is the middle of the week. We are getting on better than we were ten minutes ago. We are on the same wavelength. A new wavelength, for I am still a changed person, I am just a bit more used to the change, it is all tied up with Mother’s new confidentiality, because she has changed too, we are tow strangers speaking sensibly about how to cope with another stranger, a girl of six called Linda, the daughter of a crane driver who also happened to be my father.

I know that it cannot have been an easy decision to make, in her earlier life Mother had not been full of kind words about this widow and her daughter, but now she has clearly been imbued with a sense of direction, solidarity some might well call it, but we are not the highfalutin kind here, we live on credit and we are inscrutable. And in the course of these two weeks Mother has not only calculated the costs, she now tells me, but she has also considered what people would say if we did not take the girl in. And how we would feel. As well as how she would feel being in a children’s home. Besides, and I would come to appreciate this in later life, would it not be preferable to be the widow who managed to do what had to be done rather than the person who threw in the towel and shunned her responsibility because of something as idiotically self-inflicted as drug addiction?

This, I have to admit, smacked of a victory for Mother over the person who had gone off with her crane driver and who was perhaps the indirect cause of him falling to his death, the man whose memory still caused Mother such pain that photographs of him had to be buried in a locked drawer.

Even though this book is set in Norway and some of the phrases are awkward, the feelings and emotions are universal and the read is wonderfully complex. This is definitely not a book to rush through or a book to be given to somebody who doesn’t appreciate reading fiction. It is a book to be pondered over and savored. And certainly a book to be discussed, no matter in what language or location on the planet.

Pages 223-224

The many phases and hues of punishment, I thought I knew them all by heart, the guilt and the abyss, Mother who doesn’t ask as I come indoors, although she can see it on my face, Mother who doesn’t want to know, and me who says nothing, but munches his supper with a different body because she doesn’t want to know  – besides, I don’t understand her.

I go to bed before the others and watch Linda climbing up the little ladder to peer at me from over the edge of the bed.

Oh, the time it takes for it to happen, half of Monday has gone before we are summoned from the classroom and hauled before (the headmaster), where admonitions and grave solemnity hang in a thick smoky fug from cigarettes and radiators on far too high a setting. But the standard procedure has already been upset, perhaps because we don’t look as petrified as we should, even though for once this is serious.

Child Wonder by Roy Jacobsen is  a wonderful coming-of-age novel filled with wonderfully complex thoughts and emotions. An engaging read and a great piece of literature. I am looking forward to reading his Man Booker 2017 nominated read The Unseen.

*****

Link to Graywolf Press’s website for Child Wonder

Link to the long list of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize

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Learning Along with Prue | Review of “Freight” by Kathryn Mockler (2015) Found Press Media

Freight

There is this difficult notion in society that families are suppose to be this perfect unit that provides us comfort and nurturing. Yet the truth is that families are made up of individuals whose personalities are impossible to deal with. When we try to deal with those people as children, the impression they leave on us can be damaging on us for the rest of our lives. But we need to openly reflect on those people in our adult lives to deal with those traumas they caused us. And reading literature helps us reflect on our own families and our upbringings instead of repressing angers and pains. And Kathryn Mockler’s ebook Freight is a great example of such a story.

Page 5

My grandmother is the type of woman that always remembers to stand up straight and to tell others to do the same. On our yearly visits to Peterborough, I try to avoid my grandmother as much as possible. She doesn’t think I’m very bright. She doesn’t think my mother works enough with me, and so, in the week we spend there, she is determined to make me smarter. She brings out flash cards and makes me do spelling bees for money.

-Look, Vera, look at that. She can’t add, my grandmother says. -Prue, don’t count on your fingers.

I give mother “the look” until she finally says, -Leave her alone. She gets enough of that at school.

We are dropped into Prue’s life just as she is becoming self-aware and questioning the world around her. And there is something wrong with the world around her or at least with the people who should be caring for her in this world. But what is it? As we follow through Prue’s visit with her grandparents, we read as she begins to realize perhaps no one is perfect.

Page 10

My mother gets herself another beer from the cooler. I watch my mother watch Dermot puts his arm absentmindedly around Margaret’s shoulder.

-She drives me crazy too, I say.

My mother laughs. -It doesn’t really affect you because she’s not your mother. You’re just lucky I tried so hard not to be like her.

I don’t know when I noticed my mother getting drunk. Maybe it was when she started talking to that man, a friend of Dermot’s. It seemed like one moment she was fine and the next she was slurring her words. It’s the slurring that bothers me the most because then everyone else knows how drunk she is.

There is a complex therapy that seemed to happen when reading this simple coming-of-age story. We build an empathy with Prue but we also ponder our own lives when we back in Prue’s age. We carefully consider our upbringing and the people around us at that time. And we then look at ourselves now. Do we act better? Do we behave better to the youngster around us now?

Page 12

I feel a bit sorry for my grandmother. She probably has hurt feelings. When my mother leaves the room to get ready, I don’t follow her. I’m glad my mother is going out. I don’t even want to look at her.

I think my grandmother has sensed that something is wrong because she doesn’t bother  me all night. No flash cards or spelling bees. We have a light supper and watch TV.

Kathryn Mockler has a great way of making readers seriously consider their world around themselves with her words and that is exactly what she has done with Freight. Not only do we build empathy with the character but we ponder our own existence on several levels. In short, doing what any piece of literature should do.

*****

Link to Kathryn Mockler’s website

Link to Found Press Media’s website for Freight

 

A Gritty yet Familiar Coming-of-age Novel | Review of “What We Salvage” by David Baillie(2015) Chizine Publications

Salvage

Thank you to J. H. Gordon Books of Hamilton, Canada for making this book available (Their link here)

As time marches on for all of us, there remain a detritus of memories that haunt us. We dwell on those memories with either regret or joy over and over again. David Baillie has his protagonist pondering his life in his novel What We Salvage and the gritty memories that comes forward in it are shockingly familiar.

Page 11

Tonight, the mods are scattered all over the north end of the Hammer – Hamilton, that is, our steel city home wrapping around the western tip of Lake Ontario. The north end is mostly industrial, but there are a few haunts scattered throughout. We were collectively vomited out of one recently, in fact, forced to make our way back to calmer waters by slogging through unfamiliar terrain. A shite portage, but you play the hand you’re dealt, I guess.

Or just don’t play the game at all, but that never occurred to us until later. When you’re sixteen, a carefully constructed identity is everything.

This is an honest, gritty and sometimes brutal coming-of-age novel that is frank and honest in its language and descriptions. Baillie has documented a reality that may be shocking to many English teachers but is reflective to many of us who struggled with our youth. His use of Hamilton, Canada as a setting is brilliant and unique yet also very familiar to many readers.

Page 22

Glasgow, Aberdeen, Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, Belfast – many of us are right off the boat, or were raised by those who were. And, of course, there’s no one as rabid as the expatriate. Hamilton’s replete with pubs that echo those of homelands left behind: dark wood and close quarters, house darts and cribbage board behind the bar, Belhaven and Tartan and Boddingtons and a dozen others on tap. Much of our own vocabulary, just echoes of street slang imported, too, apologetically mixed with Canadian vernacular.

The line in the sand’s been imported, too, boot culture divided neatly: mods, rudeboys and Trojan skinheads on one side, and a menagerie of racist bigots on the other.

Not that lines aren’t crossed.

Readers do witness the book/punk/street culture of the time but we also witness the maturing of a teenager into an adult. We see the hurt and the anger that comes with the passing of a friend or the loss of a love. And we see the continual anguish that continues to hurt us no matter how much time passes and causes us to reach for that extra drink or another puff. Yes, empathy for the characters happens quickly because Baillie has documented elements of the human condition in a simple fashion.

Page 76

Debbie is elusive, accompanying Jimmy that spring to the occasional practice, the occasional gig. But nothing more.

I ask Tribal in confidence, see if he has any insight.

“So,” I begin. He’s half hanging out the only window of the single miserable room we share, muttering and cursing as he works to splice our upstairs neighbour’s cable. We rent the room from an old Italian couple – they own the four-storey building and rent out every possible square foot, from the vintage clothing shop at street level to an illegal makeshift firetrap of an apartment tucked into the goddam rafters.

“Pass me the pliers. No, other ones. The red handles.”

I comply and try again.

“So, what’s your take on Debbie, eh?”

“What do you mean, ‘my take’?”

“I mean, why isn’t she around very much?”

But Tribal pulls himself back in and gives me a long hard look.

“Don’t you have a girlfriend?” he says. Then he crawls back out onto the sill.

A warning, and well meant. Staying faithful isn’t what Tribal means, that sort of thing not really a pressing concern amongst our lot. It’s about staying loyal, a reminder about crossing lines. Jimmy’s claim is ambiguous, but it’s there.

As for the girlfriend comment, this not exactly true. Not yet, anyway. But close, I think.

 What We Salvage by David Baillie is a gritty and honest coming-of-age novel. It is frank and brilliant and reflects a reality that is familiar to many of us. A great read.

*****

Link to Chizine Publications’ website for What We Salvage

Coming to Terms with the Ghosts of the Past | Review of “Eddie’s Bastard” by William Kowalski (1999) HarperCollins

There is a certain enlightenment when reading a great coming-of-age novel. No matter how dire or downtrodden a character seems to be in that book, there is a strong sense of empathy a reader has for that character because they can relate to their own upbringing. And then the reader gains a sense that they are not alone with their pain. That is certain the emotions that will occur to any reader of Eddie’s Bastard by William Kowalski.

Page 1

I arrived in this world the way most bastards do – by surprise. That’s the only fact about myself that I knew at the beginning of my life. At the very beginning of course, I knew nothing. Babies are born with minds as blank as brand-new notebooks, just waiting to be written in, and I was no exception. Later, as I grew older and learned things – as the pages of the notebook, so to speak, became filled up – I began to make certain connections, and thus I discovered that among children I was unusual. Where others had a mother, I had none; father, same; birth certificate, none; name, unknown. And as soon as I was old enough to understand that babies didn’t just appear from mid air, I understood that my arrival was not just a mystery to myself. It was a strange occurrence to everyone who knew me.

Readers are vaulted in the life of Billy Mann as he is deposited on the doorstep of his grandfather’s decrepit  estate in New York state. We follow Billy’s twist and turns from his infancy to his childhood to his teenage years. He experiences the usual items and chaos that occur to any male during that period of life but he also must endure questions about his troubled background, which make for a gripping drama.

Page 105-106

Second grade passed for Annie and me in this manner, and so did third and then forth, and the years rocked along like the cars of a speeding train. None of my classmates seemed to mind that I was a Mann; the Fiasco of the Ostriches, it appeared, had been forgotten by everyone except Grandpa, and nobody made fun of me for it. And Annie’s hand stayed in mine right up to the year we turned thirteen, or so it felt, which was when things of note began once more to happen. Perhaps the holding-hands part is merely my imagination, because thirteen was when I began to feel shy around her. But shyness notwithstanding, we were together, and before I knew it we were in eighth grade, which was the year of The Steamroller.

Early each morning of that year, just as she had every morning for the last several years, Annie walked down the hill from her house and met me at the corner of Mann Road and the County Road. The County Road never had a name except for just that: the County Road. It was like everything else in town: The Square, The Oak, The School, The Steamroller. In a town the size of Mannville, where there is generally only one of everything, there’s not much point in giving things a proper name; everyone knows what your talking about.

Annie’s father didn’t know she and I were walking to school together. If he had, he would have found some way to stop us, maybe even by forbidding her to come to school altogether. He hadn’t spoken to me since the day Grandpa slipped on the ice, six years ago now. That was because I’d my best to avoid his presence, never going into the house  or any nearer to it than I needed to let Annie know I was waiting. He sat in front of the television all day, leaving the house only to buy beer, which he drank on the couch until he passed out. I knew this only from Annie, of course. I hadn’t dared to set foot inside the Simpson house again. His belly, according to her, was growing larger, his skin turning the sallow  shade of death, his eyes smaller and beadier and more and more like the devil’s. She shuddered when she spoke of him. I learned not to bring him up.

On the way to school Annie and I compared lunches, and if she didn’t have enough I would give her some of mine. She packed her own lunch every morning, but often there was little to put in it: a hard-boiled egg or two, or a peanut butter sandwich. Doritios were her favorite. Mine too. They were the only thing I was jealous of giving her. Anything else I had was hers unconditionally, even my fried baloney sandwiches.

Kowalski does a great job of weaving the confusion around Billy Mann’s life into a great story. His words here are simple yet at times lyrical. A reader can easily follow the story and the mind’s eye easily envisions the people and places created here. And the range of emotions that are brought out at times are vivid as well.

Page 110

Just as Annie walked away, I saw him. The Corvette was cruising like a hungry shark down Frederic Avenue, which ran in front of the main doors of the senior high building. I neither slowed nor hurried my pace, but my heart began to thump rapidly and I felt hot blood pulsing through every inch of me. It was definitely David Weismueller. I knew that car well. Dreams of him in his Corvette were beginning to supplant the dreams of soldiers chasing me through the woods.

A moment later he saw me, stepped on the gas, and roared up to where I stood. Then he unfolded himself from the driver’s seat and stood before me, a splendid example of Homo erectus more than Homo sapiens, but bent over considerably so that he could push his face threateningly into mine.

“What did you say?” he said.

This was his most common opening, to pretend I’d just said something to him that no man of honor could ignore. It was useless to protest, although I usually did anyway. But this morning I was feeling different. My eyes swept him from toe to head, taking in his sneakers, his jeans, his letterman’s jacket, and finally his eyes, which were as vacant and glaring as two laminated meatballs.

“I said your mother sucks large dicks,” I replied. “She sucks for bucks. Ten dollars a pop. I think you’re the only guy on the football team who doesn’t know.”

David Weismueller’s neatly shaved jaw dropped about three inches. I knew it would be wise to shut up, but it was already too late. I threw caution to the wind.

Eddie’s Bastard by William Kowalski is a brilliant coming-of-age novel. The prose is lyrical and simple and the plot is well-constructed. It is an enlightening and engrossing read.

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s website for Eddie’s Bastard

Link to William Kowalski’s website

 

When The Truths Around You Come Crashing Down | Review of “A Sack of Teeth” by Grant Buday (2002) Raincoast Books

Teeth

Parents, spouses, jobs, friends, teachers,  heroes and so forth are suppose to be nurturing and stead-fast pillars for us to believe in. But they do fail. And when they do fail, we falter. So do we grow and move on when they fail? Or do we fall with them? That is the type of journey Grant Buday explores in his novel A Sack of Teeth.

Page 16-17

While Jack was in the suitcase, his father and mother, Ray and Lorraine, were drinking rye and seven and watching the news. They were seated on the Danish modern couch, separated by copies of Chatelaine and Life and a bowl of Liquorice Allsorts.

Ray was watching KVOS, the one U.S. station their rabbit ears picked up. President Johnson announced that the U.S. now had 200,000 ground troops in Vietnam. Ray whistled and shook his head in admiration and said, “Jesus.” Various leaders gave their opinions, including Castro, who shook his fist at American imperialism. Ray said, “He’s the bastard who killed Kennedy.”

***

Ray took the glass bowl of Liquorice Allsorts and occupied himself by picking out the triple-layered ones, peeling them apart, eating the filling then eating the liquorice itself. Sometimes he collected all the triple-layered ones and hid them on Jack and then presented them to him as a gift because Jack loved them, too. It occurred to him that Jack should be in bed soon. He turned to say something to Lorraine but was diverted by the start of Rat Patrol. The opening sequence of jeeps cresting a dune made Ray’s heart vault. An industrial engineer who’d learned about ordnance in the army, Ray didn’t so much watch Rat Patrol as study it. When the first bout of shooting started he spotted a flaw.

The beauty of a good coming-of-age novel is that we can empathize or at least learn from the pain of the characters. And that is what one can do with this book. The story is set in September 1965 and it is Jack’s first day of school. But it also the day that Jack’s mother learns of her husband’s affair while trying to deal with the suicide of their downstair’s tenant (And her secret love.)  Buday divides the narrative of the of the book between the voices of the three family members to brilliantly make the reader hear and feel the confusion and anguish of the lifestyle that exists in that cohesion.

Page 44-45

Ray got in the car and closed the door. It shut with a solid sound, a thick chunk of a sound that he called “the sweet sound of quality engineering.” Lorraine watched the electric window whirr down and Ray slide the steering wheel over. That always struck her as unnatural and dangerous. Ray said it locked when you released the footbrake, yet to Lorraine it was a frightening reliance on technology. What happened if the steering wheel started doing that when you were driving? Ray said that was impossible. She didn’t believe it, which frustrated him. Everything frustrated him these days. He slid the key into the ignition with an almost sensuous touch that made Lorraine envious.

“I want to drive,” she said.

“Drive what, nails?”

Lorraine didn’t bother responding.

“Fine,” said Ray. “Get your licence.”

“Okay.”

“But you’re not touching the Bird.”

“Why?”

“Why, why, why.” You sound like Jack.” He started the car, causing a great rumble of sound to gurgle up around the. Listen to that. It’s a V8.”

“So?”

“So that’s why you can’t drive this car. You don’t appreciate it.” He could just imagine her with the Bird; she’d end up in San Francisco smoking Mary Jane with the hippies.

“You’re trying to control me.”

Buday’s words here are simple and concise. The language has a direct point and the sentences are simple. The mind’s eye of the reader has a clear impression of the points Buday brings across as soon as it is read.

Page 116-117

Jack tugged at the unravelled fence and realized he could escape. His heart thumped against his chest. He looked back at the school where Mr. Gough was waiting with his yardstick. Jack ducked through the hole in the fence and stood in the weedy grass on the other side. It felt different over here. He felt fear and relief and was breathing fast. He wasn’t supposed to be outside the fence. Steve McQueen wasn’t even supposed to be near the fence in The Great Escape. He stood very still waiting for someone to yell at him, but no one did, no one was even watching. Those Grade 7s were kicking a different boy now and kids were still eager to snap sticks of Ivor’s hair. Jack quietly crossed the street that had bottle caps embedded in the tar and waded into the high fragrant grass, avoiding the spit bugs. Soon he was hidden amid the trees and smelled sap and wood.

A Sack of Teeth by Grant Buday is a brilliant coming-of-age novel. One can clearly empathize with the characters as they struggle in with the crises and failures around them. A brilliant read.

*****

Link to Raincoat Books website

 

Tasting the Flavour of the Delta Mud | Review of “Music of the Swamp” by Lewis Nordan (1991) Algonquin Books

Nordan_MusicOfTheSwamp_jkt_rgb_web_HRI received a copy of this book via a promotion on Librarything.com

Childhood is suppose to be this special magical time for us but in many cases it is not. When we need heroes we are provided with fools. When we need shelter to grow up in, we are given rotting walls instead. And when we need friends to play with, we are sickly playmates who are dealing with worse situations than we are. That is the reality that Lewis Nordan documented in his book Music of the Swamp.

Music of the Swamp – page 3

The instant Sugar Mecklin opened his eyes on that Sunday morning, he believed that this was a special day and that something new and completely different from anything he had ever known before was about to jump out at him from somewhere unexpected, a willow shade, a beehive, a bird’s nest, the bream beds in Roebuck Lake, a watermelon patch, the bray of the iceman’s mule, the cry of herons in the swamp, he did not know from where, but wherever it came from he believed it would be transforming, it would open up worlds to him that before today had been closed. In fact, worlds seemed to be opening to him.

Nordan descriptions around the life of Sugar Mecklin are vivid. We can sense what Sugar is feeling and seeing quickly with the words he crafted around his protagonist’s life. And the story can be both funny and heartbreaking within reading a few paragraphs.

A Hank of Hair, A Piece of BonePage 67

I watched my father and mother dance in the dim light of the dance floor, the only two dancers that night, and I fell in love with both of them, their despair and their fear and also their strange destructive love for each other and for some music I was growing old enough to hear, that I heard every day in the memory of the woman in her private grave. My father was Fred Astaire, he was so graceful, and my mother  – though before this night I had seen her only as a creature in a frayed bathrobe standing in the unholy light of my father’s drinking – she was an angel on the dance floor. The simple cotton dress that she wore was flowing silk – or was it red velvet?  – and her sensible shoes were pointed-toed leather slippers with a silk boot. I understood, seeing them, why they continued in their mutual misery. Who can say it was not true love, no matter how terrible?

There is a clear impression of a melancholy frame of mind here. Nordan explores the state of mind of a sensitive boy who sees the sadness in his world and knows there is nothing he can do about it. It is a well-written collection of vignettes of a boy’s life growing up in the Delta.

The Cellar of Runt Conroy –  Page 103-104

It was a good night for me to spend the night away from home. A steady rain had begun to fall and the clouds were dark and as low as the cottonwood trees in the bare grassless yard. Roy Dale and I sat alone in his room and played cards with a greasy deck of Bicycles and listened to the rain in the trees and on the roof and heard it puddle up in the yard. Life in the Conroy family went on and rarely touched the two of us. Supper was never mentioned, and my stomach gnawed on its own emptiness. It felt good to be hungry and to expect no food to relieve the hunger. It was easy to pay the small price of a night’s hunger for the sweet isolation that Roy Dale and I were allowed to share. It frightened me to enjoy these moments with a white-trash child who, until now, I had believed was put upon earth only for my manipulation.

This edition of the book also includes a section where Nordan talks about his childhood and his fiction. It is interesting to read his thoughts about the connection (he passed in 2012) as he tried to come to terms with both items.

The Invention of Sugar – An Essay about Life in Fiction – and Vice Versa – Page 205

And yet I began by saying that these fictions are so much a part of me that I scarcely know which are true and which are not. many times I have claimed that my stories were autobiographical in detail when most assuredly they were not. I wasn’t lying. I thought these things happened to me. I thought I jumped on a freight train and rode many miles. I thought I fished for chickens. I thought I was given a funny sex education lecture. But to imagine that written down stories are somehow history as well is not so surprising, I think. It’s easy enough to believe that an author lives with characters for a while and then takes them on in the way an actor takes on a role he or she is playing. There is nothing so amazing about this.

Lewis Nordan crafted a gritty reality of childhood in Music of the Swamp. It is a stunning read and one that is hard to forget. I will be reading more of his work for sure.

Link to Algonquin Books page for Music of the Swamp

” The reaction has been very, very favourable with many reviews remarking on the character of Egg, her resilience and her vulnerability” | Q&A with author Tamai Kobayashi

Tamai Kobayashi has brought a new voice to her coming-of-age novel Prairie Ostrich. (Link to my review) and is no doubt going to be one of the best novels released in 2014. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.
*****
 
 
 
 
1) How has the reaction been to Prairie Ostrich so far?  Has there been any particular memorable feedback to the novel so far?
 
 
 
 
A: The reaction has been very, very favourable with many reviews remarking on the character of Egg, her resilience and her vulnerability.  The ostriches have been a hit, with discussions of the role of birds in the book.  Readers have pointed out the “fresh take” that Prairie Ostrich gives to the coming of age novel.
 
 
 
 
2) Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?
 
 
 
 
A: I love reading Anne Carson, her poetry and her essays.  Have just finished Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being.  Donna Tartt’s Secret History is waiting for me on the shelf.  I am a fan of Junot Diaz and Haruki Murakami.  I loved Hiromi Goto’s Darkest Light – a YA title.
 
 
 
 
 
3) When you write do you get inspiration from your own life or from the lives of others for your stories?
 
 
 
 
A: Any inspiration from my life or from the lives of others, from films and novels – all this gets twisted in the maw of narrative.  Transformed in the guts of writing.
 
 
 
 
4) Have you done any public readings of “Prairie Ostrich” If yes, how was that experience for you?
 
 
 
 
A: I have done several readings, in Toronto, in Waterloo, in Hamilton.  Each reading was different.  But it is still difficult, to find that perfect read, that pace.
 
 
 
 
5) Has Prairie Ostrich been read by any book clubs as of yet? If yes, did you participate in the discussions at all?
 
 
 
 
A: I believe it is being read in Edmonton, or will be read soon.  I haven’t received any feedback yet.
 
 
 
 
6) You seem to have a presence on Facebook? Does being on FB help you with your writing at all?
 
 
 
 
A: It is more a connective line to other writers, to events and readings.  Some go to meetup/writeups but I don’t think that is my kettle of fish.  Interesting, though.
 
 
 
 
 
7) Are working on any new writing right now? If yes, are there details you can share with you fans?
 
 
 
I am trying to write 1) a speculative fiction dystopian novel 2) a collection of children’s short stories.  Trying.
 
*****

Sharing the Confusion and Pain of Coming of Age | Review of “Praire Ostrich” by Tamai Kobayashi (2014) Goose Lane Editions

The coming-of-age novel is a very important type of book. Not only is a reader given an outlet to share their pain they received from when they grew up but others learn how to avoid causing upset to others. It is great to see new voices creating new coming-of-age novels using the 1970s and 80s as settings for their stories, giving new awareness to problems of the human condition. One such novel is Prairie Ostrich by Tamai Kobayashi.

Page 7-8

Egg Murakami is eight years old and her feet are perfect. Not everyone can say that. She dangles her feet over the edge of the bed and clicks her tongue. The crisp autumn light spills over the ledge of her window, throwing shadows across the floor. Mornings are new, like a fresh sheet of paper. Mornings are new, without any mistakes. she can hear her mother in the kitchen, the metallic clatter of the kettle on the stove. He big sister Kathy twists the tap in the bathroom, a squeak that runs through the pipes in the floors. It is almost peaceful. Nekoneko, her puppet Kitty with the homemade eye patch, stands guard on her bedside table, gazing over the smash and scatter of Lego and dinky cars strewn on the faded russet rug. beneath her window lies the barrens of southern Alberta, the stunted grass that sweeps into the Badlands. To the right the sagging barn with its long wire pens, Left, the stubble fields that roll to the horizon. She taps her heels together. The low groan of the barn gate rumbles through the air. The ostriches burst from their enclosure, shaggy feathers hovering above the ground, legs a blur of spindly angles, as if in flight after all. Across the pen, down the line of the fence, they run with a frantic energy – then stop, stiff, as if confronted by an immovable object. The ostriches spin, twirling, their swings spread as if to greet the day, heads held high in a dizzying, exuberant dance.

Kobayashi has written an excellent story about eight-year old Egg Murakami. Her family is not quite dysfunctional but not a perfect family unit since her brother’s death. Mama Murakami drinks to excess and Papa has moved into the barn on their family ostrich farm. And big sister Kathy is in love with her best friend. The story deals with Egg’s day-to-day exploration of what life is suppose to be like and what it really is.

Page 17

The doors of the bus fly open and the aisle is a mass of gangly legs, jutting elbows, the shove and holler as the stampede to the yard begins. Egg hunkers down and waits – the rush is like rattling stones in a soda pop can. When she hears, “Last one off is a dirty, rotten egg!” she stiffens, but no that is not for her. With the big kids out of the way, Egg peeps her head above the green vinyl seats to make sure the coast is clear. Then she grabs her bookbag and lunch box.

Egg steps off the bus into the dazzle of light. First day of school and everything is new like a stack of birthday quarters. She taps her feet together. The blue whale has a heart the size of a car, and the speed of light is the fastest ever. These are facts. Irrefutable. Egg holds the word on her tongue as she steps toward the playground. The grit of the dirt crunches beneath her feet; she likes the shuffle-scratch sound. she takes a deep breath. The freshly mown scent of the football field tickles her nose and the white gravel of the baseball diamond actually seems to sparkle. A part of her, that twisty tight part of her deep in her chest, loosens ever so slightly as the warm brush of light glows against her skin. School is books too, the best Dictionary of all and Evangeline Granger in the library. A once upon a time and a happily ever after.

It’s a new year and everything can be different.

Kobayashi has documented the thoughts of a eight-year old well here. All the joy and angst, the fun and the fears, the happiness and the sorrows, the errors and the confusions are written about here as well as some new emotions other writers may have overlooked.

Page 55-56

Later that night, when Egg creeps down the stairs in her slippery socks, she sees Mama in the living room, slumped in the big chair. The television is on the late night show of Onward Christian Soldiers. A pledge of ten dollars a month gets you a Bible with a golden pin. The choir, all dressed in white, sings with an unearthly fervour “Are You Washed in the Blood?” but Mama does not stir. The electronic glow of the screen bathes her in a ghastly pallor. Dead dead dead and Egg almost screams.

“Egg, go upstairs.” Kathy’s voice comes from behind her. Kathy’s hand is on her Mama’s shoulder, jostling her.

“She’s not dead, is she?”

“No,” Kathy says with a glance at the bottle on the coffee table. “She just  . . . could you turn off the television?”

Egg clicks off the set. She can smell the acrid liquor, like the clinging scent of gasoline.

“I want to help.”

“Go to bed, Egg. You’ll be in the way.” Kathy leans forward. With a deep breath, she loops her mother’s arm around her shoulders and lifts her to her feet. Kathy eases her Mama up the stairs, the creak and stagger, the scrape along the wall, the groan of the mattress springs as Kathy rolls her mother into her bed.

As Egg hovers by Mama’s doorway, she realizes Kathy has done this all before. A queasiness shifts in the pit of her stomach.

Prairie Ostrich by Tamai Kobayashi is more than likely one of the most profound books of this year. A true coming-of-age novel that documents the  complexities of growing up. It is a must read.

*****

Link to Tamai Kobayashi’s website

Link to Goose Lane Editions page for Prairie Ostrich