this is not a review: elle, by douglas glover

“What do you with a girl who has journeyed to the Land of the Dead (Canada), has consorted with savages, left her soul on an island inhabited by demons, given birth to a fish, disappeared into a labyrinth of dreams and turned into a bear? At best, if I return to the place I once called home, I will be a spectacle. Now I have no home nor self nor soul.” (from Elle, by Douglas Glover, Goose Lane, 2003)

When, on p.167, I reached this passage in Douglas Glover’s novel, Elle, I thought: oh, I’m so glad someone’s put things into context because for a moment I feared I might be losing my mind…  not that that would have stopped me reading. The book was, despite my confusion at times, unputdownable for its quirky take on history and its sensuous imagery mixed with perfectly pitched satirical elements.

Its shape takes the form of an anti-quest, best explained in Elle’s words:

“… You go on a journey, but instead of returning you find yourself frozen on the periphery, the place between places, in a state of being neither one nor the other. Instead of a conquering hero, you become a clown or fuel for the pyre or the subject of folk tales.”

In a nutshell:

A wealthy and young nymphomaniac slightly bored tart living in 16th century France, who has disappointed her father (seems he disapproves of rampant lustfulness), sends her to Canada on one of Jacques Cartier’s ships. On board, she’s soon at it with a handsome but seasick tennis player—mostly to distract herself from a raging toothache (a tooth later removed by tying one end of a string to it and the other to a dog named Leon, who is then encouraged to jump overboard, taking the tooth with him).

Perceived as being more trouble than she’s worth, Elle is abandoned en route on a tiny island at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, along with her nurse and her lover. Soon after, they both die and she’s left alone to cope with the elements, hunger, and eventually a kind of weird dreamlike madness where she maybe/maybe not turns into a bear and maybe/maybe not gives birth to a fish. (One of the most beautiful scenes follows this ‘birth’ with Elle’s initial horror being replaced by love and the realization that the ‘creature’ will not live long; she then begins to tell it everything she knows…)

Eventually she befriends the indigenous people and ultimately comes to understand something of them, all of which leads to her transformation from acerbic child obsessed with trivialities to deeply thoughtful woman respectful of life and connected with the earth. It’s in this new, improved state that she returns to France to face a kind of culture shock of the soul.

What I loved:

Elle’s voice. She may be afraid, confused, possibly going doolally at times, but her delivery is consistent and crystal clear—casual almost—whether she’s reducing the most horrendous or inane events to brilliant satire, or being philosophical on the deepest level.

(Also loved the cover photo of a statue in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris; cover design by Chris Tompkins)

Favourite Character:

Richard, the tennis playing lover who does little more than build a tennis court (and rebuild it each time the tide goes out). He has almost no dialogue but is clearly, and cleverly, drawn by his actions; every scene with him in it made me laugh.

What I Questioned:

Possibly a few too many dreams. The story can be confusing at times—though this confusion parallels Elle’s experience, is essential, and works beautifully. However the dreams, and certainly the number of dreams, began to  detract from the surreal-ness of her experience by virtue of their mundane-ness (I mean, we all have dreams).

Three Impressions Overall:

Memorable characters. Beautifully strange journey. Smart, subtle, and delicious humour.


From the Re-Run Series: originally posted March, 2010.


—Purchase Elle online at Blue Heron Books.

this is not a review: what happened later, by ray robertson

My favourite books are always those where not much happens except entire universes quietly change. Both the characters’ and mine.

Ray Robertson’s What Happened Later is such a book. I read it twice last year. Each reading brought me deeper into the language with layers yet to be discovered.

It’s all about the sentences.

Written in two story lines—the first, a fictionalized account of Jack Kerouac’s last road trip, a kind of going home, to find his ancestral roots in Quebec. The second, a fictionalized account of a boy named Ray Robertson who’s trying to get away from home—1970’s small town, Ontario—and find a copy of On the Road.

In alternate chapters and distinct voices, the stories weave back and forth through time—and not much happens. Except life. On every page, in very sentence—every word is full of what feels like absolutely raw truth—not fact necessarily (it’s fiction, right?), but truth. 

The chapters play beautifully off each other—from the innocence and simplicity of Ray’s life and his introduction to Jim Morrison:

“Before Jack Kerouac could change my life, Jim Morrison had to save it. Every Almighty needs an ambassador down below to do his dirty work. Mine wore tight brown leather pants and shouted out his rock and roll couplets like it somehow actually mattered.” 

—to Kerouac’s bennies for breakfast, falling down drunk with booze and resentment, guilt; his brilliance in offering up what every story needs:

“… a flesh and blood body on the other side of the book telling the story and not just a bunch of nouns and verbs and adjectives held together under house arrest by a bully bunch of rules of composition some mastermind mammon cooked up to keep everybody talking and thinking and living the exact same way. Because ask yourself this, Mac: Were we born and do we suffer and do we die just so we can all sound the same? What a spit in God’s eye, that.” 

The book begins close to the end of Jack’s life and close to the beginning of Ray’s, but ultimately, we’re left mid-stream in both, knowing how each will end. Along the way we see Kerouac in a new light as he mourns the loss of a Georgia pine, holds a kitten up to see the moon, asking aloud how science could explain that; we discover tenderness, vulnerability, and a man whose greatest desire was “…to be Cervantes alone by moonlight.”

I can’t think of a better shape or tone for this book. There’s an almost physical sense of movement with each chapter—from the jaded ‘star’ who’s had anything but a normal life, desperate to get away from society’s narrow-minded idea/treatment of ‘fame’—

“Remember how last week you were a spontaneous prose poet, a singular bard of bop, a lyrical visionary declaiming a previously unknown hipster-rich American underbelly? Yeah, well, now you’re a sloppy, undisciplined, self-indulgent media creation prone to sentimentality, immorality, and obvious sensationalism. Next, please.”

—to Ray, living in this tiny, loving world of grandparents, leather sleeved sports jackets; where he so sweetly sings the national anthem to his father in the bathroom; a place where his greatest career challenge is climbing the ladder of the Sears sales team; a world of wry observations—when he accidentally kisses his own shoulder while making out with his first girlfriend, he reflects “…but that’s okay too…”. This mini philosopher, obsessed with finding the answers to life through Kerouac—all such delicious irony.

Despite my love of the fiery, gorgeous, richly written Kerouac chapters—at the close of each, I found myself turning the page, eager and curious to read more of young Ray, and immerse myself in the very different but just as honest tempo of his life. In many ways it’s Ray’s story, but not completely, because to tell either of the two on their own would render both less.

—This is my part of the movie, let’s hear yours.  Jack Kerouac, Tristessa  (Epigraph, What Happened Later, by Ray Robertson, 2008, Thomas Allen)


From the Re-Run Series:  originally appeared in February, 2010.

a few canadian words worth repeating

I don’t do book reviews. At best I occasionally air thoughts on something I’ve read… and then not always the whole book, but one story, one essay, an aspect that strikes me. A sentence maybe. Recently I’ve begun a Q&A series, which I enjoy because I can pretend the chat is happening over food and drink. I even note the appropriate food and drink for the book. (Online is such nerdish tiny-personal-universe fun, eh?) Most of what I read, however, goes publicly unbabbled—for reasons due mainly to timing and whim.

Having said that, I like what John Mutford is doing over at The Book Mine Set, especially his annual Canadian Book Challenge, so have gathered and submitted a collection of CanLit babbled about on Matilda over the past year.

The art of reviewing I respectfully, and happily, leave to others.


My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish, by Karen Shenfeld (poetry)

BoYs,  by Kathleen Winter (short stories)

Join the Revolution, Comrade,  by Charles Foran (personal essays)

Close to Spiderman, by Ivan E. Coyote (short stories)

The Cat’s Pajamas, by Wallace Edwards (children’s picture book but really so much more…)

Comfort Me with Apples by Joe Fiorito (extremely delicious essays on food)

Stunt, by Claudia Dey (a novel, which I nearly didn’t finish, then loved madly for reasons I am only too happy to explain)

Player One, by Douglas Coupland (Massey Lectures in the form of a novel, sort of…)

Room, by Emma Donoghue (a novel, read in a garret)

Seeds of Another Summer, by Beth Powning, (essays on nature and gardening and life)

CanLit Food Book, edited by Margaret Atwood (beautifully odd assortment of food-related bits by Canadian authors, including recipes, essays, excerpts, drawings, random thoughts, directions for making toast…)

reading canada

I like what the LRC has done in the July/August issue, ie. offering up a list of thirteen books that epitomize each province and territory—as chosen by writers from said locale.

Not saying I’m going to read every one of them (and why exactly not? I ask myself…) but I’ll keep the list handy. I am, however, very intrigued with two of the titles. Joan Thomas’ choice: The Two-Headed Calf, by Sandra Birdsell, representing Manitoba, which interests me because—ever since, a couple of years ago, I was hugely and pleasantly surprised by what Winnipeg has to offer (extraordinary art gallery, especially its collection of Inuit carvings; smoked fish, best eaten with thinly sliced red onions, rye bread, and washed down with ice cold vodka; great restaurants in very funky neighbourhoods; Fringe Festival; fabulous kids’ theatre arts program; annual lit festival: Thin Air; the North End; the downtown library; the freaky and beautiful Masonic architecture of the Legislative Building; the Forks, especially Tall Grass Prairie Bread Co. & Deli)—I’ve been very into that province generally.

Also want to read my friend Steven Mayoff’s PEI choice—My Broken Hero and Other Stories, by Michael Hennessey, about which he says, in part:  

“Hennessey’s prose adopts an easy, anecdotal tone…There are also dark streaks of violence… complex undercurrents thrumming beneath what is widely known as the ‘Gentle Island'”.


And because I also love B.C.—and occasionally spend part of my year there nestled in a small trailer in the woods—I may also have to read Lee Henderson’s choice: The Invention of the World, by Jack Hodgins.

Because how can I resist this—

“…about B.C., but also about the bigger ideas of heaven and earth, earning a living, human nature and the supernatural. It is a portrait of the B.C. way of being and one awesome read.”

Then there’s Denise Chong’s pick: Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, which I’m embarrassed to say I have never read. Madeleine Thien’s choice for Quebec is also intriguing. And I know nothing about New Brunswick and Saskatchewan and I want to know more about Newfoundland (Lisa Moore suggests Michael Winter’s The Architects are Here) and the Yukon and NWT and Nunavut. And how could I not want to read the definitive book of Nova Scotia? I love NS.

And let’s not forget Alberta, a province I lived in for three years and know practically zippity doo dah about except it’s a 40 minute flight from Edmonton to Calgary.

So, yeah, I’ll keep the list handy.

But I’m not saying I’ll read every book.

I’m really not saying that.

I think.


canada eats


Am celebrating the 143rd birthday of our grand beau pays with my favourite things: words and food. Specifically—words about food. 

As far as I’m aware (not that I’ve done an extensive survey) I’m the only person I know who has a copy of The CanLit Foodbookwhich, a few years ago, sprang into my arms from the ceiling high stacks at one of my favourite secondhand shops.

Why it’s taken me this long to crack it open, I haven’t a clue.

Assembled in the late 80’s by Margaret Atwood for P.E.N. International and The Writers’ Development Trust, it’s a collection of real and twisted recipes, essays, studies, poetry, fiction, thoughts and observations about food and eating and cooking, as well as reading and writing—about food and eating and cooking—from over a hundred Canadian writers. Or, as Atwood describes it: part cookbook, part “…literary symposium on the subject of food.”

The 200 or so pages are divided into sections [with illustrations by Atwood] such as: ‘Preprandial Prologue: Food as Metaphor’; ‘Cracked Dawns: Breakfast for Barbarians’; ‘Teatime; Strange Innuendoes Over the Cups’; ‘Eating People is Wrong: Cannibalism Canadian Style’; ‘Shindigs: Cocktail Parties, Weddings, Christmases, Funerals and Other Social Disasters’.

Each contribution receives its own brief preamble [again, by Atwood], such as ‘Graeme Gibson’s Right Way with Oatmeal’, about which she says:

Graeme Gibson learned to cook this in Scotland, and does indeed eat it while striding about the room.

Or her introduction to Salutin’s instructions on making toast and tea:

Playwright and journalist Rick Salutin used to have a phobia about cooking, until he mastered this recipe. After that, he went on to other culinary triumphs, such as Heating up Frozen Coffee Cake.

Margaret Laurence makes cauliflower soup, Timothy Findley serves fresh peaches and explains how to cream rodents, while Michael Ondaatje jellies them and Erica Ritter offers an essay on food and dating. There are foodish excerpts from known and not so known novels, precise directions for making Pierre Berton’s version of the perfect black Christmas turkey as well as corned beef hash; Catherine Parr Traill describes the means by which fish are caught and Alice Munro shares her recipe for Maple Mousse.

There is this from Paulette Jiles:

Paper Matches

  My aunts washed dishes while the uncles
squirted each other on the lawn with
garden hoses. Why are we in here,
I said, and they are out there.
That’s the way it is,
said Aunt Hetty, the shrivelled-up one.

  I have the rages that small animals have,
Being small, being animal.
Written on me was a message,
‘At Your Service’ like a book of
paper matches. One by one we were
taken out and struck.
We come bearing supper,
our heads on fire.


And that’s just for starters.

Speaking of which, I’m going to begin the reading today with a piece by Mavis Gallant who writes about a meal with one of my favourite painters. And the cooking will begin with Rudy Wiebe’s ‘Warm Potato Salad’…

A happy ‘grand beau pays’day to one and all.

Bon Appetit!

things read in the shade

I probably spent just a little too much time reading on the weekend under this umbrella (no, I take that back; actually, I didn’t spend nearly enough time).

I’ve been thinning out my bookshelves recently, and coming up with some odd and interesting titles in the process—things I’ve either not read or can’t remember reading. (Which makes me think of the old Born Loser comic strip where the husband is increasingly frustrated by his middle-aged forgetfulness, can’t find his glasses, etc., and his pragmatic wife, who says:

“Think of the positives—soon you’ll be able to hide your own Easter eggs.”)

But the point is…

Oh yes. The books.

One of the more unusual titles I’ve unearthed is Just Add Water and Stir, a collection of essays by Pierre Berton, most of which appeared in the 50’s in what was then The Toronto Daily Star. The book is described by the publisher (McClelland & Stewart) as… “Being a random collection of satirical essays, rude remarks,used anecdotes, thumbnail sketches, ancient wheezes, old nostalgias, wry comments, limp doggerel, intemperate recipes, vagrant opinions, and crude drawings

What often strikes me about writing from this era is the intelligent humour, that black and white Gable and Lombard rat-a-tat pace that’s clever without the need for cynicism or the homogenous drum rolls in which much of today’s humour is packaged. People then, it seems, weren’t afraid to be subtle.

I’m also struck by the whole Hey-Honey-Get-Me-a-Coffee-Willya mentality and the (shudder) girdles-riding-up image that conjures.

For example, there’s a section titled “Seven Men and a Girl”. Not a ‘woman’— a girl. Not boys, men. Seven of them. Some of whom include Glenn Gould, Charles Templeton, Russ Baker (“last of the world’s great bush pilots”), Robert Service, Milton Berle. Then there’s the girl—the sole representative of half the population—a prostitute named Jacqueline.

These happen to be among the few serious sketches about lifestyle, achievement and personality, based on interviews Berton conducted. The one about Jacqueline is meant to dispel the theory that all call girls are unhappy. Unlike so many others, Jacqueline, evidently, “has it made”, mostly because—

“…she’s met a man who has given her his name and expects nothing from her but her love. One may well ask why, under this odd arrangement, he too is happy. And again the answer must be that happiness is not an absolute. Jacqueline’s husband spent ten years in prison. Now he has a steady job and a wife who looks after him. For him, this is enough.

Berton writes that when Jacqueline was asked about quitting “her profession”, she said she’d quit tomorrow if her husband told her to.

“But he hasn’t told her, though perhaps some day he may. And I don’t think Jacqueline really wants to quit, anyway.”

In addition to the ‘serious’ stuff, there are parodies and take-offs of society, of education, the press, bureaucracy, smoking, marketing. Smart satirical re-tellings of fables and fairy tales and recipes. Opinions on Dick and Jane, racial origins, thought control.

More than anything, it’s a fascinating romp through a not really that long ago—yet in another lifetime—era.


At the other end of the spectrum, I read a poetry collection recently purchased for my nieceThink Again, by JonArno Lawson, (Kids Can Press, 2010). Beautifully illustrated by Julie Morstad, with simple pen and ink line drawings that just so perfectly capture the essence of emerging adolesence—all beauty and innocense mixed with tension and confusion mixed with childlike joy and what’s left of that fleeting childlike wisdom that they are perfect just as they are.

The poems, written as quatrains, may be a little too angsty or introspective on their own, but complemented by the drawings, the book reflects something pure about the young teenage mind that, as grownups, we’d do well to be reminded of now and then.

What I Want

I’ve objected and complained/But it hasn’t done any good—/I don’t want to be explained/I want to be understood.  (from Think Again)


letting truth lie

Truth is merely a perception. Memory, a feeling. Right?

In other words, does it really matter that (you think) your sister always got the extra spoonful of fried bacon on her polenta, or why your mum was draped over the ironing board, weeping, that bright Saturday afternoon in June (or was it August?) the year you turned nine or maybe seven and came home with a tadpole in a jar. Or was it a bee?

It´s what we take from it that counts. It´s the part that remains that has all the punch. Even if we made it up.

I´ve been thinking about this kind of thing since reading Lynn Crosbie´s Liar, (Anansi, 2006). Though not about being nine or bees in jars—it´s about adult love betrayed—the same principle applies. We remember what we need to, and if we´re lucky we figure out a way to do something with it that allows us to move on.

In this case, Crosbie has chosen to write a poem that reveals love in all its dimensions, including the kind that lingers as something important yet also suddenly somewhat irrelevant

It would surprise you, how seldom I think of you…not hating you as much as what you have done.\ You could be anyone.

Never whiny or even slightly cruel, her prose shows us the world she lived in through the prism, the remnants, of perception; a looking ´back´ at love once it´s  morphed into something clearer, more honest. It´s all memory and feeling; truth and lies in various forms.

It is unpleasant to see people change. It feels contagious, it feels as if it is their own fault.

I am tired of watching women who, in their terror of being left, are changed also.

Large women, as insistent as thunder, made small, their allure recast as repulsion, all of them looking for dust in the corners, freezing sauces, probing themselves with sharp instruments.

Crosbie shares what it´s like to be both betrayed by someone and by oneself. The things we tell ourselves in order to keep what destroys us. We protect the liars by lying to ourselves.

The piece is focussed throughout, without slipping into notes of revenge,  imposing hurt, or issuing blame. Even references to sexual intimacy are muted as if to respect the former lover´s present life.

Clearly, this is not about The Other, it’s about Self. A much harsher truth to face.

Deception itself is pleasing, because it alters you, entirely.\ Then things resume as they were.

Despite knowing her relationship (with the unnamed beau of several years) is crashing, and even though she has, by now, forgotten him ‘in theory’…. It is our life I cannot cross over, as though we sunk our savings into a business that leaked money, that bled us dry.

Heaving, you  began to speak and  blocked out my past.

And then, the end, only realized by his new  beginning and…the tiny anchor of her diamond.

The moment we let someone into our lives, they come equipped with enough ammunition to destroy us,\ though the terms of destruction are unclear.

I had let him see too much. In doing so, he  became disgusting to me.

I especially enjoyed her memories of trying to integrate with him, his family…

I was following your mother around the kitchen, trying to help. Wiping the counter, re-folding the gingham tea towels.\ Have you tried this new Swiffer thing, she asked, and the intimacy of the question disarmed me.\ I was sorting through five different answers when she said, With that place it´s not likely to make a difference.

She, the narrator, remembers watching him as he slept…. watched your eyes drift like fish under your lids.

And her own insanity, her own culpability in things (and I adore her for this, especially)…

What are you doing in there, I would ask. This sort of recollection makes me understand your departure  better.

Maybe the saddest line in the book is when she refers to his marriage to someone else, and hers with him that had no ceremony, but had other markers…

…every day you rushed home to me, without stopping.

Liar is about different forms of betrayal, a love poem and a lesson.

Ultimately, perhaps, it´s a gift to self—and quite possibly the best form of revenge.

(~Read under a large umbrella, next to a small vineyard in the foothills of the Andes.)

this is not a review: help me, jacques cousteau, by gil adamson

Have just read Gil Adamson’s Help Me, Jacques Cousteau, a collection of linked stories narrated by Hazel, an adult looking back on two decades of her life from babyhood to twenty-ish (all seen in present tense, and from a weirdly almost omniscient POV, which, at times threw me off and other times had me convinced there was no other way to go).

Hazel’s family is made up entirely of eccentrics and not one of them knows it. Her father rewires the house whenever he’s nervous, an uncle collects large white animals, which he then takes for rides in his boat, while her grandfather keeps a dead dog in the back seat until he begins to smell it (which, unfortunately, is much later than everyone else does).

Through the ‘younger’ stories, Hazel merely observes and reports (perhaps too much; I would have welcomed more of her), but this, I think, is all part of the apparent ‘nothingness’ of her life as she sees it and, therefore, she’s not really a part of it. There’s a kind of unspecified disillusionment with this family that pays little attention to one another, so immersed are they in their own strange behaviours and coping mechanisms.

Despite it all, there is a strong underlying sense of love, as if everyone is doing the best they can. “My mother and I share a fondness for watching insects from a safe distance.” How they turn out is anyone’s guess.

Adamson’s poetic touches are throughout. A girl has “a mouth like a poppy.”

Clouds “resemble the sand in shallow water.”

Cousins pour out of a car “like fish from a bucket.”

In the very last stories, Hazel the character suddenly comes alive and we’re privy to her feelings and thoughts rather than just what’s going on around her. But of course it’s what’s gone on around her all her life that has shaped her.

The epigraph—”Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens”— ends up having two meanings: in one way, nothing has happened and that’s been the problem; on the other hand, how can a grandfather carting around a dead dog in his car be seen as ‘nothing’…?

c’est us, n’est pas?

Heremenegilde Chiasson’s marvellous book,
Beatitudes, begins like this:

“those who raise their heads in astonishment at the raucous cry of birds,

those who await the end of twilight,

those who ceaselessly leaf through catalogues and order nothing from life,”

—and continues, in  incomplete single sentences of a few, or few hundred, words, leading us on and on to an (incomplete) image of ourselves: funny, sad, beautiful, unsettling, always true.

“those who are euphoric about the mystery of snow crystals, delicately carrying home their unique fragility on woollen mittens,”

“those who scribble graffiti on their bodies with lead pencils, engraving their story in the secret depths of their skin, scratching themselves until they bleed, making a lie of pen and paper,”

“those who pull off their gloves with their teeth,”

118 pages of ‘those’…

Who would have thought the universe was big enough, that there were so many nuances…needs…differences…samenesses…things that unite us, tell us who we think we are, who we don’t want to become, who we may already be.

This book is a celebration of what it is to be human, a meditation, and a mirror.