this is not a review: ‘five roses’, by alice zorn

 
So much of how life feels lies in the phrasing,
in the way a thought starts, then turns back upon itself
until its question hangs unanswered in the breeze.”
— from ‘North Point North’, by John Koethe

When I read these lines in Koethe’s poem I immediately thought of Alice Zorn. It’s such a perfect description of how her new novel, Five Roses, is written… all rhythms and patterns, loops, questions and connections that satisfy in surprising ways while leaving us with yet another question we’re only too happy to contemplate until the loops and connections bring us to the next answer. And so on.

It’s a delightful ride.

The story is set in Montreal, in the working class neighbourhood of Pointe-Ste-Charles where Zorn has lived for close to fifteen years. (In the spirit of disclosure may I say that I have the pleasure of calling Alice Zorn a friend, which allows me to confirm that she knows well, and loves, this part of the world. And her humour is delicious.)

“The women in tight skirts standing at the corner of Wellington, leering at the traffic, weren’t waiting for the bus.”

Not only is the story set on her home turf, but this funky ‘hood is pretty much one of the characters—a neglected and, in many ways, unknown part of town. Apparently bus service didn’t even arrive until 1992. A place of historic but crumbling townhouses once home to the workers that built the Lachine Canal, Pointe-Ste-Charles has only in recent years been ‘discovered’ and is still being gentrified. But Zorn has not written about the now. Her interest is in that sliver of time between the 1970’s when the hippies were still there, to the early 2000’s, when life in these increasingly derelict houses just trundled along, when police avoided the area and “People… knew to ignore what didn’t concern them.”9781459734241

And the people are as richly drawn as the ‘character’ of place. One man “…chewed gum with his front teeth.”  In another case “A comma of shaving foam hung from one earlobe.”

In a tiny but telling scene, a woman rides her bike to a corner shop, outside of which sits an eccentric old man in a battered kitchen chair. “She said hello so he would know she knew he was there and expected him to watch her bike, which she leaned against the storefront.”

No words are exchanged yet the moment says so much about the community that exists here and the importance of knowing how to navigate it.

Of course not everyone knows the rules of navigation and part of the happy trip of reading Five Roses  is being privy to the learning process, watching the naifs and the newbies try to ‘get it’.

Fara and her husband are two such newbies. They’ve purchased their first home, thrilled with the bargain price. The catch is that a former resident hung himself in the front room. Not a detail easy for anyone to overlook but, for Fara, it serves as a constant reminder that her sister also killed herself several years before, something she has yet to come to terms with, the guilt of the survivor. “… it wasn’t ghosts that haunted people. It was memories.”

There is Maddy, who we first meet in the 70’s when, as a naïve teenager, she finds herself living with hippies in a Pointe-Ste-Charles flophouse where “…They weren’t homes but steps toward homelessness.”  The hippies ultimately leave but Maddy stays, eventually owning the house and working as a *baker at the nearby Atwater Market. It all sounds nice enough but survival, unlike so much in The Pointe, doesn’t come cheaply and she’s made some hard choices over the years.

Last, is Rose. Named for the iconic Farine Five Roses sign. A young woman raised in a cabin in the woods north of Montreal. (Who even imagines woods north of Montreal?) She comes to the city, a complete innocent, totally unfamiliar with ‘society’, hardly able to converse; her greatest comfort being time spent weaving on a loom back at the cabin (a loom she eventually moves to an empty factory she uses as a studio; squatting is big here). One of my favourite lines, a playful adaptation of Woolf: “A loom needs a room of its own.” (And there is a stunningly beautiful description of weaving that I can not now find… but will add when I do.)

The women well represent the burden of secrets and private lives that each of us carries. Meanwhile the neighbourhood, The Pointe, where it’s assumed there are secrets (what’s life without secrets?) is a mecca of mash ups and messed up lives within which a unique community is formed. Both the women and the neighbourhood share a history of harshness, yet there’s forgiveness at the same time. Whatever you call it, there’s comfort there once you accept it, and it accepts you.

The book reminds me that every kind of neighbourhood, no matter how unassuming, has its own vibe and perhaps even draws a certain kind of person to it for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s so the person can give something to that particular place, other times it’s because they need to receive something that could come from nowhere else.

I like walking around neighbourhoods, seeing how they’re laid out, where do people buy bread, how far is it to the library? I like getting a glimpse of life through the windows and wondering who lives there and who lived there before. It’s less the way a place looks that strikes me as how it feels. And this is what Alice Zorn does she takes the reader by the hand and says see this house, this street? Let me tell you the story of it. And it’s not a story you hear or even read so much as feel.

You know an author has done her job when you close the book and for a while you continue to wonder what the characters are getting up to, you miss them a little, that guy in the kitchen chair (is he still watching bikes?)…

So, yes, if there’s ever a Five Roses  walking tour, sign me up.

 

Not incidental that before moving to Montreal, Zorn worked at a Toronto bakery where, among other things, she learned to make creampuffs. In a  promotional postcard for the book she shares a recipe that must not be missed. (I don’t even bake and they were flawless.)

 

Support Indies!

Five Roses  can be ordered on-line from Blue Heron Books.

tour de blogs

I love a tour. And so I was especially pleased to be invited to join this mad literary romp, blog-style, where we answer a set of questions in our own merry way. Many thanks to the always madly wonderful Alice Zorn over at Rapunzel’s Hair for asking. Alice is the author of Arrhythmia, the short story collection, Ruins and Relics, and often translator of Grimms fairy tales.  Among other things, she blogs about her travels and her beloved Montreal neighbourhood, Pointe St. Charles. Her contribution to the game is here.

So… bon voyage, and here goes…

 

—What am I working on?

I tend to go through phases of working at more than one thing at a time. Currently I’m revising a few stories to send out, preparing a collection of essays and occasionally checking on the brine in which my novel manuscript is marinating… It often needs more salt.
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—How does my work differ from others of its genre?

It occurred to me recently that I’m not a good rule follower. Not because I’m a renegade or anything as quaint as that, but simply because I’m often not aware of the rules. And even when I manage to figure out what they are, I can hardly believe it: those are the rules??  I have a hard time talking with people who want to discuss trends. I have no idea *what* is popular. Nor do I want to belabour any knowing. I recently wrote a story from the perspective of a chair.
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—Why do I write what I do?

One of my interests is relationships, especially those within the constraints of family. I realize I’ve been watching various families all my life—my own of course and those that lived on my street as a kid; aunts and uncles that weren’t, or were; the families connected to friends as I grew up; the manufactured ones through marriage and children, or no marriage and no children, or some other configuration therein or thereof. I’m fascinated with the way roles are assumed and played out to various ends and for what reasons and how we judge it all… and how we pretend it doesn’t matter and how it matters so very much. I’m interested in what’s remembered and how in a family there’s nothing even close to a consensus of truth. My writing often pokes about in this tender territory, trying to make head or tail of things. Why??  Who the hell knows.
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—How does your writing process work?

A large part is thinking out loud. Also known as talking to myself. I run through scenes, interview myself, ask myself what is the point of such and such… what is the point???… until I either come up with a point or scrap the whole damn such and such. I write in a journal most mornings, about dreams and grocery lists initially, but eventually making my way to the day’s work and what I want to accomplish, which inevitably leads me back to the such and such and the point, and pretty soon I’m no longer writing but talking to myself…

Best places to work through a problem: in the car, on a walk, weeding the garden.
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~

The tour continues with Barbara Lambert, author of The Allegra Series,   A Message for Mr. Lazarus  and The Whirling Girl. And Maria Meindl, author of Outside the Box; Maria’s essay ‘Junior’ appears in the anthology The M Word. Thanks to both for bravely accepting this mission. Am looking forward to visiting their blogs in the coming weeks and will post links here.

Stops on the tour include:

Theodora Armstrong
Ali Bryan
Marilyn Bowering
Janie Chang
Jaime Forsythe
Susan Gillis
Jason Heroux
Cornelia Hoogland
Ellen S. Jaffe
Eve Joseph
Susan Juby
Anita Lahey
Barbara Lambert
Steve McOrmond
Maria Meindl
Sarah Mian
Elise Moser
Kathy Page
Julie Paul
Pearl Pirie
Shelagh Plunkett
Ryan Pratt
Jael Richardson
Devyani Salzman
Cassie Stocks
Ayelet Tsabari
Patricia Young
Julia Zarankin
Alice Zorn

ruins and relics and truth or lies, oh my! (darling)

Imagine picking three books at random—three short story collections—from your ‘favourites’ stack. Imagine having read these books before and this time you just want to read one story from each, to compare styles. Random is the key word here. There’s no rhyme nor reason to any of the choices.

So you open the first to a page that’s part of a story called ‘An Evening in the Cafe’ about a woman from Montreal who is near the end of a teaching term in an unnamed German city. She has a room above a butcher shop, the smell of fleisch is everywhere, even permeating a handkerchief in a dresser drawer. The Chinese restaurant across the road teems with life, while in the café [attached to the butcher shop] where she feels obligated to take her meals, the days and evenings are quiet and predictable—as are the people, including “Oma and Opa… digging into their Schmalz, their broad knives bring up thick portions of seasoned lard from the blue-grey pottery. Now they would be spreading it on their Brot. They would be sipping at their wine and spreading Schmalz on their Brot.”
A letter arrives and creates a stir.

You open the second book at a story called ‘Plum Dumplings’ about a woman in Montreal, anxiously preparing for a [dreaded] visit from her Austrian grandmother, a woman who has nice things to say about Hitler and considers her granddaughter an idiot for living in Canada [she refers to it as keiner da: no one here]. Despite the “fairy wisps of hair” that escape her long braid she remains a tough nut, but then food plays a significant role in shifting attitudes [and is not limited to the title dish]. “Soup in the evening—true gourmandise—brought forth a more expansive Oma. Spooning up broth, folding a slice of bread in half and buttering the end each time she bit…”

Finally, the third book, which you flip open [all still very random] at the story ‘Little Bird’. A young man, an ‘entertainer’ in Berlin, is haunted by his unsettled childhood and his father’s past. He recalls the moment he’s forced to face an awful truth while living in the Caribbean where his Mutti reads Tarot cards and his father sings German folk songs, and where he’s been invited to another’s boy’s house after school, someone he has mistaken as a potential friend. The boys have a snack… “The cook took two slices of white bread from the breadbox and sprinkled them with chocolate, then put the plates in front of us.” 
And then things get ugly.

**

Imagine your delight at these odds: three exceptional stories, randomly stumbled over and each featuring Germany or Austria, the German language, an Oma or a Mutti,  references to bread and, in two cases, protagonists from Montreal.

You just can’t make this stuff up.
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‘An Evening in the Cafe’, from Truth or Lies, by Frances Itani (Oberon Press, 1989)

‘Plum Dumplings’, from Ruins & Relics, by Alice Zorn (NeWest Press, 2009)

‘Little Bird’, from Oh, My Darling, by Shaena Lambert (Harper Collins, 2013)

the long and worthwhile road…

—That leads to my bookseller’s door.

Please understand.

I don’t have to drive. I can call the store, phone in my order [and have, often], or place it online through the shop’s website. I can have it delivered to my doorstep—but I prefer the thirty minute drive to pick up the books in person, see how the shelves are stacked, see what’s in the windows, chat with staff about new favourites, gift ideas, book club picks, the best food in town, the latest author reading or event being held in Blue Heron’s studio space [where among this summer’s inaugural events was a Neil Flambe camp for kids with Kevin Sylvester], or just wander about neighbouring shops. It’s the kind of town where you feel encouraged to wander, discover things, where you end up getting back in your car with not only books but goat cheese, olives, pastries, fresh bread—the fixings for a perfect rest of the day.

The bookshop is merely the town’s heart. Stuart McLean named it among his ten favourites in the country.

Recently ordered, collected, or waiting for me, are Joe Brainard’s I Remember, Alice Zorn’s Ruins & Relics, Brenda Schmidt’s Grid, Jon Klassen’s This is Not My Hat, Alice Peterson’s All the Voices CryLorri Neilsen Glenn’s essays on poetry, Threading Light, the re-release of Sheree Fitch’s classic, Toes in My Nose, and the short story anthologies Riptides  and Bridges. 

All of which has arrived, or will, without a glitch. The phone will ring and I’ll pick a day when I need goat cheese and good bread and head out.

Lucky us for having all that.

And congratulations to Shelley Macbeth, the creative genius and owner of Blue Heron Books, who, this year, [so well deservedly] received the CBA Libris Award for Canadian Bookseller of the Year.

Congratulations.
And thanks.