We are transitioning this week from our September theme of the return to school, to gratitude, our theme for the month of Thanksgiving.
After running around like a madwoman all September, I am ready to sit down and create some space for myself and to reflect on what has kept me sane for the past month. What keeps me sane is my bulging bookshelf of books to be read. More than sane. It delights me. What I am most grateful for in this month of Thanksgiving is the incredible talent of the Canadian women whose work has made my down time such a joy.
In spite of the insanity of the blur that was September, I still managed to read a lovely pile of books. I recommend one and all and hope that you, too, will find something to love and to be grateful for.
Toronto: Anansi, 2014.
I have reviewed Carrie’s work here before. Her Juliet Stories are a favourite of mine, and I could not wait to read her latest. Girl Runner is everything I had hoped it would be. It is crisp and smart and lyrical. It is a page-turner. Last, but not least, there is a gorgeous illustrated map at the beginning of the book. It reminded me of Ernest Shepard’s map of the Hundred Acre Wood. It has beautiful little houses, neat rows of crops and trees, and a lighthouse in the middle of farmland; a mystery in the middle of a rural landscape. It is preparation for the mystery at the heart of the story of the novel’s protagonist, 104-year-old Aganetha Smart. Olympic runner. Nursing home inmate.
The book begins on the day that Aganetha is sprung from her nursing home by two strangers claiming to know her. The novel then progresses with flashbacks of Aggie’s life as they take her home to the farm where she grew up. Aggie’s girlhood on the farm, her working life in the city, her training as a competitive runner and her winning Olympic gold for Canada in the 1928 Olympics, her friendships, work and ambition.
What I most loved about the book is the description of Aganetha’s ambition. I don’t think there are enough stories about female ambition. Snyder describes ambition not as something hard or calculating, but as if it is something organic, born and not made by the goal-setting cheers of the chorus of life coaches that seem so loud in the 21st century.
Aganetha reflects that
Somehow it never went out of me–the desire to compete, to line up against others, win or lose, part of a rhythm larger than myself. One turning wheel in a crowd of effort.
That image of gears could stand equally well as a metaphor for how the book is constructed, with successive gears setting each other in motion, and when you arrive, breathless, at the end, the final gear clicks into place and the whole story makes a different and piercing kind of sense.
Toronto: Harper Collins, 2014.
When Caroline Adderson set out to write this book, she did so with a particular goal in mind: to write a book that walked and talked like a novel but that could be taken apart into standalone stories. Ellen in Pieces. Ellen. In Pieces. She knocked it out of the park.
The cover art is especially apt because not only can the novel’s structure withstand being fractured, the book looks at the fragments of a woman’s life and at how romance, motherhood, friendship and a sense of self can all survive being shattered. And it has to be said, there is shattering. There is also humour, sex, and some damn fine writing about the frustrations and difficulties of being a single mother:
She met the American novelist in the restaurant of the Hyatt to review his schedule. Interviews, bookstore signings, then the grand finale, the Reading. He asked straight out, “Did you love my book?”
“I did,” Ellen said. She’d only read the beginning and the end and some of the middle bits. “It’s brilliant.” It was middling, actually, but you don’t feed two children on honesty.
Ellen is not an entirely likeable character. This also has to be said. But I really enjoyed seeing how Adderson made her character succeed in spite of her faults. She is feisty and often selfish, but she is loved, and her friends are loyal, and I found it a marvel to watch how they rally around her.
Toronto: ECW Press, 2014.
Interference, another novel in stories, takes its title from the rules of hockey: a penalty is called if an opponent impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal, obscures too aggressively his line of sight. Sight, obscured and predatory and sinister, is what this book is all about. How do we see? How are we seen? Who is watching? The book is a collection of short stories about the inhabitants of a small Canadian town: the members of the Senior Ladies Leisure Hockey League, local teens, a mysterious man with a disfiguring scar. The stories are interspersed with written ephemera: letters to parents from the school principal, a list of myths about cancer, emails and legal Cease and Desist letters. Sometimes, though, these bits of information raise more questions than they answer. I absolutely loved how the book kicks off with a letter from the principal:
Dear Parents and Guardians,
This morning we became aware of an incident that occurred at another school this week. We are forwarding this information to you, because we know you need to be aware of what is going on and we need to have an open dialogue between staff and parents. We have found that if we don’t have this kind of discussion some of our parents get very upset. Last year’s incident with the ice cream and the hermit crabs was just such an example of this.
In effect, “Parents, we are watching you. We don’t like how you gossip. This is the one true version of events. Everything is under control.” The letter goes on to describe an incident of a possible attempted abduction, and the threat of a pedophile lurking around haunts the rest of the book. Everything is decidedly not under control, and disquiet hovers. But, damn, all I wanted to know on page 1 was what happened with the ice cream and the hermit crabs!
Toronto: Random House, 2014.
All the broken things includes my heart. This novel tells the story of Bo, a refugee from Vietnam, his mother Rose, and his sister, who is severely disfigured from the effects of Agent Orange. It tells the story of Teacher, who tries desperately to do the right thing for Bo and his family, having sponsored them through her church, but failing utterly to understand how hard it is for Bo to accept her goodwill because he feels proud and alien and 14, for Pete’s sake. It is about Emily, Bo’s schoolmate and neighbour, who has an otherworldly wisdom and an ability to connect with his hidden sister. It is about getting swept up in putting on a school play, the story of Orpheus, and it is, improbably and perfectly reasonably, about a Vietnamese boy finding a home in Canada by performing in the theater of the circus: bear wrestling. He is given his own cub to raise, and like the great writhing mass of his emotions, he has to keep her hidden from sight.
The story broke my heart because Bo has too much responsibility and wrestles with too much loss for one so young. He is swept up in so much turmoil, and while the pathos is never gratuitous, I found it so very moving to read about a boy still so adrift after making landfall in Canada. When Teacher invites Rose to help make the costumes for the play, Bo chafes at seeing his mother at school:
He wasn’t embarrassed. He was ashamed. And he wasn’t ashamed of Rose. It was something deeper. It was the shame Teacher conveyed, by trying to fix things. He wanted to shout that these things were just broken. He wanted her to understand about the pride of broken things.
That Bo is simultaneously so wise and so lost is the story’s best and, yes, most heartbreaking, tension.
Please share the book love! Tell us what you’re reading and what we should read, too.