this is not a review: ‘1979’, by ray robertson

 

I’ve said this before but am always happy to say it again:  my favourite books are those where nothing happens, except that whole worlds change.

Ray Robertson is brilliant at this seemingly nothing but really everything  approach to storytelling, most recently in his novel, 1979.

In a nutshell, the book is about a year in the life of Tom Buzby, 13 year old paper boy in small town Ontario. He has a mother, a father, an older sister, lives in an ordinary neighbourhood, has ordinary friends and pretty much lives the ordinary life of a thirteen year old paperboy in small town Ontario.

That’s the bit where nothing happens.

And it’s essential.

It’s the yin to the yang.

The yang being the part where whole worlds change, the part where you pay attention to life or you don’t. The book is about paying attention.

Three things are happening in the novel:

1— Tom Buzby goes about his ordinary life… ordinary for him, delightful for the reader… this is a kid who loves books and music  and is having his horizons expanded in both departments. Being privy to his inner thoughts is a joy in itself… so honest are his meanderings it’s hard not to flinch a wee bit as we recognize our own young selves (especially if we, too, were kids who loved books and music and our own company and felt a little different, a touch insecure and out of step with all the ‘supposedly’ cool kids). Tom’s the kid with the North Stars when everyone else is wearing Nike.

2—Tom’s family goes about their business. His mother has found god and run away with the local preacher to open a courier company. His dad is currently making ends meet as a tattoo artist, and his sister is figuring out a way to get to Toronto so she can lose her virginity. When she nearly dies Tom uncharacteristically says a prayer and plays (recently discovered) Glenn Gould “…because it’s the closest thing to religious music I owned.”

3— And here’s the best part… characters we never meet, or meet very briefly, also go about their business.

And we’re privy to that through regular interruptions to the the larger story by way of headlines and light journalistic type slice-of-life pieces (that you would love to read in actual newspapers) about people who appear in the book (and in our life) like extras in a movie. Those surrounding us in our communities, towns and cities, whether we know them or not, and whether or not we even notice them.

What it seems Robertson has done is create his own version of Spoon River Anthology,  by Edgar Lee Masters, a book that uses poetry to chronicle the lives of residents in a small town. Tom is introduced to the book by the friend of his older sister (and I’m introduced to the book by Robertson’s book, by this  book). The process feels a little like what’s known as the Droste effect, where the image you’re looking at is holding the image of what you’re looking at and so on. Like the old Pot of Gold chocolates cover.

These headlines are the stories we’d like told about ourselves… or that would be so useful to know about the ‘extras’ on our own movie sets. The waitress, the cashier, the history teacher, the widower, the lawyer (who, hilariously, if you like lawyer jokes, pretty much has no story), the guy who whistles for no apparent reason, the Camaro that drives too fast down a side street.

And the old woman who lives in a shack… and who one day dies “she just died… and there was no need to find out when or where she was born or what her last name was… and the only ones who really missed her were the cats… until they, too, forgot all about her.”

Even death gets its own headline, its own ‘voice’ through which it offers advice for the living, which could easily be cliche but doesn’t come off as such in this context. If anything, it’s a reminder. If you’re lucky, an epiphany.

Robertson also nails the era through language, music, politics, clothing, food and drink, the change to metric, the way the indie corner stores slowly became Mac’s Milk and how the product lines, the shelving, the lighting just looked and felt so different. He conveys small town Ontario, with its factories and clotheslines, beautifully, and with a nod of obvious affection, which it so richly deserves and too rarely sees in literature.

“Paul Lynde was our Oscar Wilde. Hollywood Squares was our Algonquin round table.”

A small part of the book but not a small part of the story is Tom’s near death experience in a sewer, which everyone assumes he must have learned so much from but which wasn’t the case. “It felt as if I’d be letting them down if all I told them was the truth.”  And therein lies the nub of it all, the thing every single one of us can relate to… this idea that on some level we’re fake, not good enough. As if the ordinariness of our lives just doesn’t quite cut it.

There are those who may only see 1979  as a book where not much happens… but they’d be missing the whole point. It’s actually more of a clever trick wrapped in a book and what it does most brilliantly is show us how we’re conditioned (in literature and in life) to notice only the shiny objects, the noise, to watch the magician’s hand, even though we know full well that’s not where the magic is.

Different Yet Similar….

Ray Robertson’s 1979 , and Brother, by David Chariandy. Totally different books in structure, voice and experience, and yet… similar in how they successfully use place as character, the attention to details that are never over done, but feel true, and the surprisingly and sensitive perspectives of young boys boys who are not like everyone else around them.

~j

Available online from your favourite indie booksellers, or mine…
Blue Heron Books
Hunter Street Books

 

this is not a review: ‘magnificat’, by k.d. miller

One of my annual pleasures is Steven Beattie’s, 31 Days of Stories, a tribute to the short story form by way of highlighting and reviewing a wide variety of work, from current to classic. I try to make a point of reading the daily posts (printed out on paper even) with tea each morning. I’m a little behind.

Just got to ‘Magnificat’ from K.D. Miller’s gorgeous collection All Saints.9781927428634_Cover_
It’s been a while since I read it but I didn’t remember it quite as described.

So I read it again.

And this is the most wonderful part about art of any kind, that there are several takes to be taken. The artist’s. Yours. Mine. And the millions of yours and mine’s out there reading/hearing /seeing/experiencing the same thing.

This never fails to fascinate me.

As a writer I enjoy hearing various takes on my own work, the way something I thought so obvious is missed or, conversely, something I hadn’t even seen appears to someone else as THE WHOLE POINT.

Who’s to say what’s right? The artist’s version, in my world anyway, merely counts as one opinion, one vote for ‘what it is’. It may appear to carry more weight because it has all that intention attached, but what it becomes when it flies through the atmosphere of our individual experience, can’t be denied.

And so, with ‘Magnificat’, for instance, my take is a little different from the one I read this morning…

In a nutshell–

Julia, an unattached, never married, middle-aged woman with blisters on her feet and a pretty ordinary life notices a young couple, Cathy and Gabe, having it off in the park. Only something’s not right about the scene and it makes Julia remember an incident of sexual abuse at the hands of a man who recited religious passages, which caused her to sing the Magnificat … essentially, a  survival technique.

“She remembers lying in bed, imagining herself the Virgin Mary.     Imagining the eyes of the angel on her. And his next words, the ones that would change her life forever, giving her cause to sing the Magnificat. My soul doth magnify the Lord…”

Beattie saw Julia as someone who has not experienced sex on any level and who witnesses the rough play in the park between Cathy and Gabe with a kind of lust. Whereas I see her watching with a sense of helplessness. Because of her own experience, she senses Cathy’s complicity in the situation and knows there’s no point in intervening and no crime to ‘report’. That for whatever reason people, often women, feel they deserve abuse of various kinds and, in order to survive it, are able to find a twisted sort of pleasure therein.

This experience of abuse may be the very thing (coupled with her parents’ cold relationship) that put her off the idea of marriage. Oddly, it may also serve as one of the reasons she’s drawn to the church… a convoluted means of putting things right that were made so wrong in *god’s* name.

That she sees not taking a husband as a “choice”, I think is a reference to burying the memory of the abuse. Anything that triggers it, is a source of discomfort.

And yet… she follows this strange couple, Cathy and Gabe, into a remote area of the park. She is afraid as she does so,  “… In a queer, thirsting way.”  The way she takes off her shoes, puts them on her hands to relieve her blisters, daring herself to continue past the pain… mirrors, in a way, what Cathy is doing, allowing herself to be drawn into the relationship with Gabe, hating it, fearing it, yet fearing it might end.

I see this as Julia wanting, at last, to confront her demons.

And yet… another reference to angels, this time from Cathy’s perspective in the middle of the aggressive and degrading sexual act:

“The grass is chafing her knees. Her fingers dig into the dirt… But she is surrounded by angels… Gabe. And Owen. And now this lady who is watching her… She is in a blue robe and a kind of white headdress, like a nun’s. Her feet are bare. She is wearing shoes on her hands.”

Julia watches the scene unfold as Cathy (also dressed in virginal blue and white) is undressed.

“When she saw the blue tunic come off, she pressed her palms flat to her heart. Prayed through dry lips… Then when the white T-shirt and the flesh coloured bra were shed, she wrapped her arms around herself to stop the swaying of the freed breasts.”

Julia begins to sing the Magnificat, and Cathy receives it with gratitude while her fingers dig into the dirt during the sexual act. This brief and unspoken connection, this understanding between the women is powerful, transporting Julia back to her childhood and when she comes back to reality, she finds herself checking to see her clothes are intact, “clutching at herself” as if to protect Cathy from the hands of this man, and herself from the hands of the abuser in her past.

Note: The Magnificat is a hymn of praise to god, in which god recognizes “the lowliness of his handmaid”. A song, no doubt, written by a bloke.

UPDATE: Was gob-smacked to find Steven Beattie’s re-visit to Miller’s story; even more gs’d to know my interpretation resonated. Because, well, what do I know?? Anyway, this is CanLit at its best: stories, discussion, open-minds.

I doff my cap.

All Saints  is available for purchase online at Blue Heron Books. 
Show indies some love.

this is not a review: malarky, by anakana schofield

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: my favourite books are the ones in which nothing happens, except that whole worlds change.

Anakana Schofield’s Malarky  fits the bill perfectly.

The world in question belongs to a middle-aged widow as she speaks to a counsellor, this after having become ‘confused’ or possibly temporarily off her nut [though she strikes me as saner than most] following her husband’s death. Between what she tells the counsellor, who she refers to as Grief, and what she tells us and what is told us via third person narration, we learn that she, Philomena, aka Our Woman, some years previous, and quite by chance, meets the mistress of her cattle farming husband, known as Himself. Turns out said mistress [The Red Twit] feels compelled to share details of the dalliance that Our Woman would be happier not to know.

And it’s not as if her head isn’t already full up with images of her son and another lad having it off in the pasture, after which he joins the military and she, Our Woman, knows, just knows, he won’t be coming back in one piece. And there’s no consolation to be found in her husband. Even if he weren’t indulging himself with The Red Twit, she cannot discuss the simplest things with him, much less anything of an emotional nature. Certainly not anything beyond cows.

In fact, he blames her for the son being ‘soft’.

So she keeps much inside herself, does Our Woman. Or, I should say, she keeps much from the people in her life. With us, the reader, she’s very good at sharing.

“The thing people don’t realize about patchwork women like me is how given to exasperation we are. On the surface, we fuss over the cleanliness of a work surface, or kitchen counter top, we notice the scum around the bath, we may, the most desperate amongst us, brasso the door handles each week, but do not for a millisecond misbelieve that as we are doing this undulating task we are not awash with rage and salty sentiment the likes of which would sting the eyes of out of the most coarse rumped pig.”

Soon enough she meets a man who is driven by strange curiosities about the mechanics of reproduction from a woman’s point of view, and, although he is slightly younger than would have been ideal, his interest in practicalities, in the anthropology of sex rather than the emotions, suits her in many ways, not the least of which for its quality of distraction. She begins an affair with him, partly to even the score but mostly to understand her son.

“Jimmy’s absence taking all of it, more than I wanted gone. No sooner is something gone than we must know more of it. Why’s that? I often felt this same way when a cow leaves to the factory. I’ve no interest in the animal, but once missing, a hole forms for her. I look for her. I miss her in a whole new way.”

It should be said the book is not about sex.

Not in the slightest.

It’s about language. The way we speak, the way we hear, what we communicate and why and how and how we pick our moments to reveal the things we do. And to whom. And then we’re back to why.

Why do we marry, love, befriend, hate? Are these even choices? What do we accept, what do we hope to change? And then we’re back to the how.

“Everything about widowhood is exhausting because you’re trying to recall, unable to recall and then expected to explain why you cannot recall. It is not as simple as living. It is not as simple as being irritated. Being alive and married is like sanding a windowsill. Maybe it is dusty, it may get in your eyes or knick your fingers but you can look at it and see there’s a windowsill. You can look at your husband and feel no need to say anything to him.
“The curse of the widow is the non-stop chatter outside and around your head. Like a television talk show where you loathe the questions, but cannot turn it off.”

I adore the way Our Woman notices the details of life even as its biggest boulders are falling on her head, the way a character “…ponders how it all went wrong, while her biro did a word search.”

Schofield’s use of language, the playfulness of it, including local dialect and turns of phrase [the story is set in the countryside outside Dublin], as well as clever stylistic choices, all conspires to convey the message of how we communicate—and is pitch perfect. Gorgeous in fact. And even though I’ll admit the sometimes unusual sentence structure and occasional [intentional] missing punctuation annoyed me at first, I couldn’t stop reading. Much like meeting up with someone who rattles on and on and you think, god, how do I get out of this, but then, something in their eyes, some gesture, some honest inflection in their voice makes you hear, really hear, what they’re saying and it’s so real and they’re sharing it with you and you realize that’s no small thing and so you listen and before you know it you’re leaning forward across the table, yes, yes, go on, you’re saying… and when it’s time to leave you make a date to meet again soon and as you walk away in separate directions, you notice not much is different except a shift in the world… by just the tiniest degree.

Reading Malarky is like that.

savoury sentences from several sources — part 1

 

“A single moment, a day, can shift into something profound by the reading of a single perfect sentence at the perfect time.” ~ Matilda Magtree, aka me

“The boy was said to be a cousin of Kathleen Burnham and was up from New Hampshire, working at the sawmill, though he was no bigger and looked no older than an adolescent sugar maple.” ~ from Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout (Random House. 2008)

“Physical pain, like a poultice, has a way of drawing out what is hidden in the heart.” ~ from the essay ‘A Container of Light’, by Lisa Martin-Demoor, TNQ, Fall 2011

“What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors.” ~ from Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen (The New Press, 1995)

“She sits at the edge of the narrow cot, neatly made and covered tautly with a white embroidered blanket, the kind that, if you run your hand over it with your eyes closed, feels like a skin disease, tiny white embroidered circles that pop up like pimples.” ~ from ‘A Well-Imagined Life’, in the collection Can You Wave Bye Bye, Baby?, by Elyse Gasco (McClelland & Stewart, 2001)

“It was the kind of party where no one ate the chicken skin.” ~ from The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright (McClelland & Stewart, 2011)

“Because she is ten years old under an open blue sky, because there is not reason ever to arrive anywhere, because she has never felt exactly this way before—this loose in the world, this capable of escape.” ~ from The Juliet Stories, by Carrie Snyder (House of Anansi, 2012)

“Jake and I grew up without a mother, which wasn’t that bad, although we ate a lot of boiled peas.” ~ from the story ‘After Summer’, by Alice Peterson (The Journey Prize Stories,  2007)

“It was no more than a peep, the sound you might make if a butterfly lands on your hand.” ~ from the story ‘A Bolt of White Cloth’, by Leon Rooke

“There’s aggression even in the way they kiss each other so flagrantly, like they’re trying to suck the other’s gums out, like an old horse chasing a lost scrap of ginger nut biscuit down the palm of your hand and up your sleeve.” ~ from Malarky, by Anakana Schofield(Biblioasis, 2012)

 

savoury sentences, part 2

this is not a review: burt’s shawarma, by kathleen winter

Rhonda has been angry and unhappy for a long time. It doesn’t help that she lives on the outskirts of a town whose claim to fame is being the nation’s teenage suicide capital “…just past the point where the Pinegate Pizza won’t deliver”. Nor does it help being married to Dan, a farmer with a soul as romantic as a milking machine. God bless him though, he’s one of those guys who thinks that duty and maintaining a roof over one’s head is enough. In his own out-to-lunch way, he tries. He’s probably in as much pain as his wife but it matters to him less or it matters in a different way. He takes solace, not in conversation, not in reaching out to her, but in immersing himself ever deeper in the work of livestock, insulation, leaks in the barn. Nothing personal… these are merely the things that matter.

Part of her knows he won’t change yet another part continues to believe he’s capable—if he tried—of finding a way in. She’s waiting for the moment where he’ll sit down next to her in his cowshit covered clothes and say to her:

“…Why don’t I get a shower and make you a cup of tea? Hoffman’s elm is like us, isn’t it? I’m sorry you’ve been lonely inside. Let me touch you? Not with my paws—with the word rain, the colour green, with eating bread and sitting here till a yellow bird comes and eats the crumbs.”

She’s starved for him to merely try. 

When Dan suspects (correctly) that Rhonda is having it off with Burt, the local ‘exotic’ who runs a Lebanese cafe, and who thinks Rhonda is perfect, he buys her tulips for Valentine’s Day. This is huge in their dry and loveless union and enough to keep it going for another painful stretch, despite her apathy.

“…she no longer cares that her vinyl toilet seat has torn pieces that stick up and prickle her butt.”

While she realizes the thing with Burt can’t last, she takes some comfort in the knowledge he can be replaced. By which logic, so can Dan, albeit with a bit more difficulty and anyway, what would be the point?

“You can tell about the state of anyone’s marriage from their medicine cabinet,” she tells her sister Bett. Her own has empty calamine lotion bottles piled in with rubbing alcohol for ears pierced fifteen years ago, ancient antibiotics, blunt useless tweezers and a stack of wrapped soaps with cobwebs on them from the Holiday Inn in 1989, which was the last time she and Dan took a trip together, and that was to bring home a trailer for getting show cattle to the fall fair. She doesn’t care about the fence Dan promised to make for her garden twenty years ago. She doesn’t care that Dan had an affair when the kids were little, or that there has never been chemistry between Dan and herself. She doesn’t even care that the magic with Burt is dying out. Bett calls him an interim phase and that’s fine by Rhonda. What matters is that her anger, her poisonous anger, has drained away, thanks to Burt. She watched her mother carry the same anger, panicked when she realized she had it too, knew one day she was mad as hell at her whole life and it looked like there was nothing she could do about it. Burt stopped the time bomb with his hideout, with its cool walls and blue shadows where she didn’t have to do things from morning till night in which she had no interest. She will feel relief deep down, be able to breathe deep down, whenever she thinks of Burt even after this is over, which it almost certainly is already, with no illusion of anything permanent. No one has mentioned Rhonda helping Burt run his cafe, but not in the same way that no has ever mentioned her helping Dan run his farm.”

— excerpts from ‘Burt’s Shawarma’, from the collection BoYs, by Kathleen Winter

Three Impressions Overall: delicious ironies, entire worlds sympathetically drawn in mere pages, and the kind of truth that makes you squirm as it pulls you forward, then leaves you pretty much where you thought you’d be left for pretty much the reasons you thought you’d be left there. Only thing that’s changed is that now you’re aware of the ‘why’. It may not feel like enough but of course, truth is always more than enough. (And may I say I love the cover of this gorgeous collection.)Note: this post first appeared in May/2011 as part of Year of the Short Story (YOSS) celebrations.

Now part of the Re-Run Series.

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—Purchase boYs online at Blue Heron Books.