this is not a review, this is a list…

 

I read Karen Hofmann’s What is Going to Happen Next  while in Ottawa, where, when I wasn’t reading or eating I was at the National Gallery….. stickers from which I stuck onto the back of the book so the two are forever connected now.

I loved this book about a family that falls apart and the siblings who find each other, whole or in fragments, many years later. Hofmann’s writing is gorgeous, her characters are so real, so well-developed, the story so engaging that I would rush back from the gallery each day just to see what they were up to.

“There are a few dozen seconds, maybe a couple of minutes, Cleo thinks, when one meets someone one hasn’t seen for a long time, when they appear as strangers, and their faces must be read objectively. And then there is a switch thrown in the mind, and the physiognomy suddenly becomes familiar again, recognized, seen now subjectively as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts. And more significantly, this new face is superimposed in the visual memory over the old, so that it disappears, and only the new now exists in that catalogue or whatever it is of known facts.”

~~~

Next Year for Sure , by Zoey Leigh Peterson, came to me from the library initially because it was there and it was easy and because this is often my way, to test run a book and then buy it only if I fall in love. (fyi, not only do I now have my own copy, I’ve given the book as a gift or recommended it to so many people.)

More than a great story, it’s a way of thinking about our relationships, intimate ones especially… how are these things defined and by whom and must it be the same for everyone?

The conversations, the honesty of feelings that span all kinds of spectrums, the wide open qualities that characters possess, lifestyle possibility, curiosity, generally, as well as ever shifting perspectives… all of if making every minute of reading such a joy (have read it twice now)… ‘joy’ as in hanging out with these people just to see what ideas we’d be tossing around today. Such excellent company. A rare thing to find this level of emotional authenticity.

In a nutshell… a wonderfully imagined, beautifully written story of how friendship endures, though relationships may change, all of it wrapped in the insecurity we feel despite what we know to be true.

“And he remembers wondering what it would be like to kiss someone who used the word indefatigable.”

~~~

I bought A Pillow Book  on someone’s recommendation and then let it sit on my TBR shelf for a couple of years. I liked the cover, and the slim size appealed to me and I was often tempted to open it but for some reason (even though I’d read reviews) I had the idea it was about pillows in a way that I couldn’t muster up enthusiasm for. And then one day I just opened it and began reading about pillow history and pillow trivia, which immediately felt less like history and trivia and more like the memoir it actually is, propelled by tiny truths that are simply triggered by pillows in some form or other.

“Without dreams, we die quicker. No one quite knows the reason for this. We know less about what happens on our pillows at night than we know about the dark side of the moon.”

Sprinkled throughout are really quite wonderful lists of unusual things, the sort of lists you might recite in your head on a sleepless night (if you were extremely creative). From one called ‘Altered Proverbs’… When in Rome, stay at the Ritz, or To forgive is human, to forget divine.

Another nice touch are references to the original Pillow Book which was written in the year 1002, as observations in poetic, prose and other forms, by Sei Shōnagon. It’s this book, and its intentions in a way, that Buffam pays tribute to in her style and structure.

“There are times when the world so exasperates me, recalls Shonagon, that I feel I cannot go on living in it for another moment and I want to disappear for good. But then, if I happen to obtain some nice white paper, Michinouku paper, or white decorated paper, I decide that I can put up with things as they are a little longer.”

Long story short— LOVED it. Can’t bear to re-shelve it just yet so it sits on my coffee table to be dipped into whenever the whim strikes. And now that I know what it’s about, it strikes often.

“Pillows, I say, when people ask what I’m writing about… It’s a book about someone who can’t sleep… who’s writing a book about pillows. The more pillows I write, however, the more strongly I suspect that what I’m writing about pillows is as much about pillows as last night’s dream about getting lost in an underground parking lot at the mall was about getting lost in an underground parking lot at the mall.”

 

 

 

 

 

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

(at) eleven with fran kimmel: the shore girl

They’re everywhere. A certain kind of young mother, single, unemployed, pushing prams, kids in tow as they walk and walk… yet something suggests there’s no real destination—that hours, days, years, are merely something to get through… until… what?  More kids maybe, another guy, another unfortunate choice. Because for some people life is a series of unfortunate choices or, worse, unfortunate events. Whatever the reason, they keep moving, these mothers, as if in the hope it’ll all somehow ‘become’ right. They’re recognizable—not by any expression of hope—but by their sadness, sometimes by the look of fear in their eyes. We worry about them for a moment but mostly do nothing. We wring our hands for the children: what chance do they stand?
and then we drive on by…

This is the impression we take. We of the narrow minds.

Fran Kimmel either doesn’t have a narrow mind or is just a lot brighter than many of us. Or more aware. Her book The Shore Girl, the story of Rebee Shore, shows the world of single The%20Shore%20Girl_1motherhood and their kids from the inside out, through a child’s eyes and [in dedicated chapters] through the eyes of everyone who is—by blood or choice—connected to her.

But there’s a difference: Rebee’s mother [Elizabeth, who prefers to go by Harmony] isn’t a pram pushing sort of mum. She’s on the run, rejecting her past and doing her best to dodge the present, which happens to include her daughter. From infancy into her teens, Rebee’s life alternates between moving constantly from van to motel to trailer to relative’s couch. “… Harmony gets restless. For her, a new place has a three-month expiry date, same as fruit bars.”

And if she’s not moving with her mother, she’s being temporarily abandoned by her.

In other words, the kid has every reason to be angry, to follow suit, to make a mess of her life. She has the excuses. But that’s not what happens. Rebee is one of those miracles who, instead of becoming resentful, learns through the very debris of her childhood that she has to be strong because her mother is preoccupied just keeping them alive.

“I thought how rage must hurt in the beginning,
but a person gets so used to it, she thinks it’s
a heat a body’s supposed to feel.”

She gets it.

It’s why she keeps a box of fingernail clippings, mostly Harmony’s, the various shades of nail polish reminding her of places they’ve stayed; it’s the only constant in her life, the only thing that reminds her of where she’s been and the only part of her mother that she can protect from disappearing.

“We rumble along the highway under a watery sky, past wheat rolled into giant soup cans, cows frozen in muck. I think about where we just came from. I can’t remember the colour of the walls or feel of the curtains or shape of the bathroom sink. Blank as water, like on a test day in a new school and I end up at the fountain, gulping, drowning… I slip off my runners and slide my toe across my bag until it touches my nail box. We’ll get to wherever we’re going tonight… I’ll wait awhile. Sprinkle the brittle bits on my blanket. Sift them like seashells.”

While often told from Rebee’s perspective, it’s very much Harmony’s story too, one that has her cemented in shame and anger.

All that and yet… The Shore Girl  is ultimately hopeful. It’s about connection, the small and unfathomable ways we touch each other and thereby save each other. About reclaiming what’s ours and how family comes in various forms. It’s about getting beyond what’s ‘normal’. About using the scraps you’ve been tossed.

Above all, it reminds us that our story is never obvious to others, nor is it entirely ours alone.

**

As is customary with the (at) Eleven series, a meal of my choosing—appropriate to the book—follows the Q&A, because… “Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our consciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.”  ~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book

And now, without further ado, may I introduce Fran Kimmel… who I thank so very much for her time, her insight and her kind heart.

**

1.   What literary character did you most identify with as a child?

FK—As a young kid, I devoured Trixie Beldon books. I loved all her insecurities and her grumbling about chores and homework and brothers.

2.   Can you recall one of your earliest pieces? (Crayola poem, a finger-painting storyboard…?)

FK—Okay, here goes:

Across the shadow of the moon and ever so slowly gliding

Through the leafy-figured trees, a starlit shape was sliding

Up and down with swirling streaks, across the snowy hills

With patterns of rejoicing grace, and lacy moving frills

It’s so bad, it’s memorable. This poem won a contest in Grade 4 and I had to read it in front of the whole school on assembly day. I cried a lot beforehand, trying to get out of going on stage, but neither my teacher nor my mother would give in. I made it to the end without collapsing, but this marked the end of my poetry career.  (Likely a good thing)

3.   What were you reading at fifteen?

FK—Girl gets boy stories, killer gets caught stories, town goes berserk stories, world on verge of collapse stories. Lots of junk sprinkled with a hearty dose of the Bronte sisters, which I could not get enough of back then.

4.   Can you describe what was on the bookshelves, or on one specific shelf, in your childhood home?

FK—While my sisters and I usually had stacks of library books beside our beds, our family bookshelves were pretty sparse. I remember a shiny set of A-Z Encyclopaedias with more pictures than words, as well as a few volumes of Girl’s Own Annuals, leftovers from Grandma’s house. These were huge tomes from the 1930s, 800 plus pages, packed with illustrated stories and ridiculous amounts of sage advice about how to sit still,  take care of your stockings, or knit the perfect skating outfit.  Hah!

5.   A favourite passage from any book and why.

FK—This is such a hard question. Every week I read a new passage that blows me away. But here is a long-time favourite taken from Girls by Frederick Busch.

“The dog and I live where it doesn’t snow. I can’t look at snow and stay calm. Sometimes it gets so warm, I wear navy blue uniform shorts with a reinforced long pocket down the left hip for the radio. I patrol on foot and sometimes on a white motor scooter, and it’s hard for me to believe, a cop on a scooter in shorts. But someone who enforces the law, laws, somebody’s laws, fall down like that. Whether it’s because he drinks or takes money or swallows amphetamines or has to be powerful, or he’s one of those people who is always scared or because he’s me, that’s how he goes—state or federal agency or a big-city police force, down to working large towns or the dead little cities underneath the Great Lakes, say, then down to smaller towns, then maybe a campus, maybe a mall, or a hotel that used to be fine.”

This quiet, understated passage comes early on, page two. With these words alone, the reader is given everything needed to fall hard for Jack, the book’s main character. Such tension and bitter regret here, the unravelling of a life. You know Jack will get only halfway near the harsh truth, but you’re rooting for him already. My favourite passages and phrases are almost always deceptively simple.  The eight-word sentence, “I can’t look at snow and stay calm,” gives me shivers.

6.   Do you ever find recurring themes in your work, things that surprise you?

FK—I seem to want to write about life’s damages. (My husband grumbles, Can’t you try to be a bit funny?) And it does surprise me that loss keeps coming back again and again. I’m not sure why exactly, except that I’ve been forever interested in the fragile connections that hold us together and what happens when these connections are broken.  I think I’m drawn to what I don’t want to know about myself.

7.   The Shore Girl opens with the heartbreaking scene of Rebee as a toddler, alone in a motel room, thirsty for a glass of water and yet reluctant to disobey the parent who isn’t there. How do children like Rebee manage to find such resilience?

FK—I’m left speechless by what children are able to endure. I think that kids like Rebee are always on the outside looking in, which gives them a lot of time to observe and to reflect on what they’re observing.  They learn to somehow distance themselves emotionally (and physically) from the source of their heartache. Some of these kids – the lucky ones – are able to become stronger in the process. I’ve met some amazing women at book clubs who endured childhoods much like Rebee’s and they’ve gone on to lead brilliant lives.

8.   Rebee’s mother, ‘Harmony’, is a wonderfully drawn character, and the only one [of the central cast] that we don’t hear from directly. She’s alluded to, pined for, despised, misunderstood, tolerated, fallen in love with; she makes us want to give her a shake one minute and then breaks our heart the next. No matter what, she’s the ‘always elephant in the room’ There’s an expectation, a desire to hear Harmony tell her side of things, yet if she did, the book would be less. It’s the very absence of Harmony’s voice that creates the character; she emerges as both the problem and the appeal and the lack of her own platform is a kind of metaphor for her life, also her choices. The ‘silence’ fits her confusion and her abdication of so many things and, most importantly, it reflects for the reader some of the mystery, frustration and longing that Rebee feels. My question is this: how did you ever find the courage [read: wisdom] to NOT give her a platform? It surely must have been tempting to do otherwise. [and I’m guessing she probably kicked up quite a fuss!]

FK—Harmony did kick up a huge fuss. She was a powerful presence underneath everything else that went on in this book, and I was inside her head and heart all the way through. I feel a huge swell of tenderness towards Harmony, but if I had given her a voice, she would have taken over the book and the story would be hers and hers alone.  I wanted more for Rebee than that. It took me a ridiculously long time to figure this out.

9.   Was there any unexpected outcome in writing the book that you might share? (I’m thinking of characters that resisted where you wanted them to go or who walked on or off the stage spontaneously; something you discovered in research, elements that you cut/added because of info gleaned ‘en route’…)

FK—The book itself was its own unexpected outcome. I’d been writing short stories for some time and this, too, began as just that – a short story about Rebee and her fingernail clippings.  After I sold the fingernail story, I thought well that’s that, but then I’d wake up night thinking about her. I wanted to know what it would feel like to run across a girl like Rebee, a girl who stumbles out of a run-down van, bedraggled, and then just disappears again. Who would reach out to her? Who would turn away? I wrote and wrote, character after character, story after story. It wasn’t until a long way in that I started to see these pieces melding into a book.

In earlier drafts, I had a large section told from the town’s point of view after Rebee moved to Chesterfield. And a section by a crusty old neighbour named Gunther who I absolutely adored. But in the end, I cut huge swaths and whittled the writing down to this small band of characters who I felt told Rebee’s story best. On a side note, I didn’t intend for Joey to keep puking. No matter how many times I wrote that out, I’d turn around, and he’d puked again.

10.  In your opinion, what are some positives in the ‘new publishing industry’?

FK—Since the self-publishing industry has blown wide open, there is an infinitely large space for writers who want to go it alone. New spaces for writers is a positive. Some excellent books are coming online that might not have made it past the gatekeepers in the old publishing world.  This brings a crazy surplus of junk, too, but that’s a whole other issue.

And despite doom and gloom forecasts, small independent publishers are still alive and well in Canada. If I want to be assured of a good reading pick, I check out my favourite inde publishers’ new line up and am seldom disappointed.

11.  Choices:

Pen or Keyboard? Keyboard definitely. In a coffee shop, I’m one of those high-maintenance laptop users who pulls out the wireless mouse and huge portable keyboard and cushy wrist rest.

Tent or Trailer? Tent trailer.  I love the smell of canvas and all the zipping before bed, a solid floor beneath my feet and the half-aluminum door between me and the bears.

Poetry or Song? Leonard Cohen.

Theatre or Film? Film if I want to kick back and absorb. Theatre if I want to lean in and participate. I love both (but nothing coming out of Hollywood these days).

Prairie or Lake? Yellow fields and the big, open sky. Although prairie lakes are pretty cool too.

eReading or Paper?  Paper. I keep promising to buy myself an e-reader, but really, how serious can I be.

Salad or Cheese? I’ve become a bit more flexible since my tuna-salad decade, but lunch without lettuce doesn’t work for me. I throw in everything I can find, including lots of cheese.

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Matilda’s Menu for The Shore Girl:

Peanut Butter on Graham Crackers

Choice of grape juice or bottomless pitcher of cool, fresh water

Wintergreen Lifesavers for dessert

(to be eaten in the dark)

◊♦◊

Fran 2013 for CarinBorn and raised in Calgary, Fran Kimmel has worked all kinds of jobs including youth worker, career counselor, proposal writer, communications coordinator, and VP for a career consulting firm. Fran’s short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies, including twice in The Journey Prize Stories, and her first novel, The Shore Girl, was a 2013 Canada Reads Top Forty selection and winner of the 2013 Alberta Readers’ Choice Award.  Fran now writes and teaches in the small prairie town of Lacombe, Alberta, where she lives with her husband and overly enthusiastic Labrador retriever. www.frankimmel.com

The Shore Girl is published by NeWest Press.