Category Archives: Reviews

A Slim Green Silence, by Beverly Rycroft

With literary life force Kimmy Beach at the guest reviewer controls, we’re not only in for a treat, but we’re going to learn a lot. First, let’s meet our bookish guide:

Kimmy Beach’s fifth book, The Last Temptation of Bond (The University of Alberta Press, 2013), was chosen as one of the best five poetry books of the year on Quill & Quire’s 2013 Readers’ Poll. The book was longlisted for the 2013 Alberta Readers’ Choice Award, and was featured on CBC Radio One’s The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers.

Kimmy’s poetry, fiction, articles, and reviews have appeared in journals across the country and in the UK, and she has read across Canada. Her second book, Alarum Within: theatre poems, has been adapted as a full-length stage play by both the University of Toronto and the Red Deer College Theatre and Film Studies Programme. She’s working on a novella about a giant puppet, and a novel featuring 1970s romance comics and This is Tom Jones (1969-1971). Kimmy holds a First Class Honours Degree in English from the University of Alberta, and lives in Red Deer, Alberta with her husband, Stu.

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Constance (Connie) West is the narrator of Beverly Rycroft’s first novel, A Slim Green Silence. Connie has died, but she’s not yet left Scheepersdorp—her small South African town. Don’t worry; I’m not giving anything away. We know this within a few sentences as Connie herself tells us. Rycroft gives us this fairly familiar premise in which to place her narrative and its central character. Connie says, “Below this cluster of roofs are all the people I ever loved.” But A Slim Green Silence is far more than the story of an earth-bound soul peering in on her loved ones’ lives going on without her, and trying to decipher why she’s still here. It is also an allegory for a country on the verge of redefining itself.

Rycroft’s drawing of Connie is sharp and unflinching. Despite her declaration of love for the people she’s left behind, Connie makes no bones about her ambivalence when her daughter Marianne is born. She actively ignores the child, and is happy to let everyone else raise her. Everyone else includes her sister Sheila, her “uncle” Harry, and their domestic worker, Princess, who rules the place with an iron fist.

From her vantage point outside the windows of her former home, Connie’s spirit watches life carry on without her. She grows more affectionate toward those she took for granted: particularly Marianne. A boatman accompanies her, waiting to take her to the other side. The image of the boatman (or ferryman) is a common figure in narratives of this kind, in which a dead character is tied to the place he or she lived and needs to be ferried to the other side. Rycroft’s boatman, however, differs in that he himself has been wounded. Rycroft writes that he “doesn’t seem to notice the red-black stain seeping through the blue fabric on the left side of his chest.” The boatman stays by Connie’s side and gives her until half past six that evening to find what she needs to set herself free.

The idea of this time limit appeals to me, and I like that Connie (and perhaps the boatman as well) is on the clock and yet powerless to make her former friends and family move more quickly to help her discover what will release her. As the family prepares for Connie’s memorial, Rycroft gives us flashbacks to when Connie was alive. Now, she searches for meaning and for the missing puzzle piece that will set her soul free.

~

The image of an unruly, almost unbearably loud pandemonium of parrots runs through the book, humorous and lyrical at turns. The parrots roost in an ancient yellowwood tree on Connie’s property, on an untended plot of ground that is a point of contention between Connie and her neighbours. The parrots fly out of the yellowwood at 6:30am every day to strip Harry’s pecan trees bare: “immediately, the sky will cloud over and a rippling orange-green carpet of parrots will tear through the valley to drop to the plot below.”

Wild parrots are largely unfamiliar to a North American reading audience, but the image of noisy birds in organized packs is nothing we haven’t seen. On any July morning in a tree-filled suburb in Alberta, the families of baby magpies would try the patience of Saint Monica. Rycroft speaks to the universal with images like this, and reminds us that birds are birds and people are people, no matter where they are. Connie remembers her mother, who “didn’t seem to care what [we] did, so long as we did it outside.” I had an instant flash of recognition remembering my own mother’s admonition when we claimed—dramatically—that we were dying. “Die quietly,” she’d say. “And do it outside.”

These touches—and the strength of the story itself—do not alienate the reader from the South African setting. Rather, they draw us in with their reminders of our shared experience. Beverly and I connected via social media and briefly discussed my reading of her book. I point to the wide-reaching accessibility of her narrative as during our conversation, she had expressed a touch of worry that the Afrikaans and Xhosa phrases might be off-putting for a North American reader. Because there is no glossary in the book, she offered to translate the phrases for me if I stumbled on anything I didn’t understand. I told her I felt confident that because I’d read a good number of South African books, I was sure I’d be able to read the expressions in context.

As a great believer in meeting an author halfway and not wanting to have anything spoon-fed to me, I went into the book with my Afrikaans dictionary nearby. But I didn’t need it. That’s not a commentary on how many words I know; rather, it shows Rycroft’s tremendous skill in giving us a little of the language without the need for a glossary. Her sentences are seamless and incorporate other languages without the narrative losing pace or drive. Even if a reader knew not one word of Afrikaans, I don’t know a reader anywhere who would not understand this: “As they reach the back step of the stoep, the dogs inside the house start to tjank.”

~

A Slim Green Silence is set in 1994: the year of South Africa’s first democratic election following the end of apartheid. I think it’s no accident that Connie dies that year. The transformation she undergoes as she tries to understand why she cannot leave seems to parallel the great changes 1994 brought to South Africa.

Constance’s name is in itself a metaphor, I believe. The elections of 1994 brought about an end to the troubled but constant rule of apartheid. Constance’s death coincides with the death of the oppressive structures that had been holding South Africa and its peoples hostage for decades.

Connie is able to stay near her family long enough to know that they will be preserving the overgrown plot of land, including her beloved yellowwood tree. If the plot of land represents South Africa itself (as I think, on one level, it does), then she is earthbound until she knows that her loved ones and her home—her country—are safe.

As the ferryman rows her away:

For the first time, he smiles.

      It’s like the sun coming out. It’s more like a flash of lightning in a midnight storm. For those few dazzling seconds, the landscape ignites and everything is clear and comprehensible: the lake, the murky sky, the last pinpricks of light from Scheepersdorp. Even the darkness crawling towards us from the nearby shore. […]

      The Boatman can see all this, too. His sloe eyes are larger than the moon. They see everything. They contain everything. I want to lean forward and brush my fingertips against the skin of his hand, but already the edges are starting to dissolve.

If Connie’s plot of land represents South Africa, I like to think of the ferryman as the wounded heart of that country setting Connie and itself free at the same time.

In 1994, there will be challenges and difficulties for the family in the preservation of Connie’s plot of land, just as there will be challenges and upheaval as the edges start to dissolve in her post-apartheid country. Without being heavy-handed, Beverly Rycroft parallels Connie’s personal search for meaning and eventual freedom with the birth of a new South Africa.

A Slim Green Silence by Beverly Rycroft (Umuzi/Random House, South Africa, 2015)

My thanks to Helen Moffett for her editorial eye on this piece.

~~

See also:

Guides, Drinks and Stacks of Books: My Journey into South African Literature
By Kimmy Beach
(first published in WestWord: Magazine of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta, 35:6)

Heaven sent
Samantha Gibb is enthralled by A Slim Green Silence, Beverly Rycroft’s beautifully crafted debut

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

bookcover-alittlelifeThe term “fairy tale” describes circumstances or things notably blessed with great happiness and good fortune, such as a fairy tale ending or a fairy tale wedding or romance.

In the centuries-old form of oral and written storytelling, those unjustly harmed, downtrodden and beleaguered are rescued and showered with rewards and love. The compensation arrives by various forms of magic and divine intervention. Modern fairy tales focus almost exclusively on the glorious rewards and glosses over the cruelties that precede them. Before fairy tales evolved into children’s entertainment (and further, were cinematically Disney-fied), they were actually as macabre and violent as anything Quentin Tarantino could wickedly concoct.

And that’s where I arrive at a way of encapsulating and working my way to some kind of recovery from the reading experience that is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Days since my eyes slipped from the end of what did not feel like page 720 because it went so swiftly, I’m still digesting and reeling from what is essentially a fairy tale, with an intense concentration of abuse and sorrow thrown up against an equally dense compression of transcendent joy, accomplishment and love encompassed in this book.

Four young men graduate from a small Massachusetts college and remain friends as they pursue their lives and careers in New York. The book traces the relationships of actor Willem, artist JB, architect Malcolm and lawyer Jude from post adolescence to late adulthood. The era in which their story unfolds is not specific, but is contemporary. As the friends move from youth to maturity and to notable measures of success, theirs is literally and figuratively a rich universe, strangely cloistered from or devoid of financial considerations or the influence of technological change or world events. (Set in New York City and environs, a notable historical event is almost startlingly absent.)

The relationships of the four young men intertwine and at times unravel, then spool back, in believable and organic fashion over the years. Increasingly implausible, however, is the tolerated mystery around the horrific traumas in Jude’s early life, which inform and affect his savagely self-abusive behaviour as an adult. As readers, we learn more than Jude’s friends, adoptive family and ostensibly close circle about the nature and extent of these traumas, making his behaviour and secrecy perversely understandable, but as frustrating for knowing it as not.

Simultaneously frustrating and awe-inspiring is Jude’s contemplation later in life, when it would be fair to say that life has continued to test with rollercoaster alternations of happiness and grief:

“It had always seemed to him a very plush kind of problem, a privilege, really, to consider whether life was meaningful or not. He didn’t think his was. But this didn’t bother him so much.

“And although he hadn’t fretted over whether his life was worthwhile, he had always wondered why he, why so many others went on living at all; it had been difficult to convince himself at times, and yet so many people, so many millions, billions of people, lived in misery he couldn’t fathom, with deprivations and illnesses that were obscene in their extremity. And yet on and on and on they went.”

Even frustrated and repeatedly pummelled along the way, the reader is drawn so inexorably into this extended, grim fairy tale of a story. A Little Life (the title itself is many-layered, and appears as a phrase in one of the book’s most wrenching scenes) is dream-like, but like the most haunting dreams, it is pervasive, puzzling, tormenting and deeply moving when one wakes … or when one closes the book. It is a sprawling, horrendous, heartwrenching, uplifting Cinderella story – where, fortunately and marvellously, the evil step-parent trope is upended.

There is much one can clinically criticize or dissect about A Little Life, but so very much one cannot emotionally or even spiritually dismiss.

What I read (and where I read it) in 2015

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Here are the books I read in 2015, with links to reviews (here on this blog or on Goodreads) where I have them. (I confess that I didn’t get many books fully reviewed this past year. I’ll try to improve in that department in the upcoming year.) As I’ve done in previous years, this is an exhaustive, “all of” list, not a “best of” list.

I continued my commitment in 2015 to a daily devotion to at least one poem … and usually more, as friends on Twitter continued to generously share their poem choices and reflections via the #todayspoem hashtag. Now four years in, I haven’t missed a day, both contributing and enjoying selections from others in this edifying and vital communal experience. I’ve now pondered the works of well over 800 unique poets, writers, songsmiths and wordsmiths I’ve revisited or unearthed myself, and countless more via others wielding that often revelatory hashtag. On into its fifth year, I’m continuing with my #todayspoem habit every day heading into 2016, and I hope many will continue or join anew.

I also celebrated some uniquely beautiful books in 2015, including:

Here are the books I read, reread and read aloud in 2015. Wherever I go, I try to carry a book with me, so for each book, I’m also going to try to recall where I was when I was reading it.

  1. The Gallery of Lost Species
    by Nina Berkhout
    (reread)

    I read this book at my desk in my home office, as I prepared the readers’ guide / book club questions for this book, offered by House of Anansi Press.

  2. Mrs Killick’s Luck
    by Christina Fitzgerald

    As this book is in somewhat delicate condition, I never took it out of the house. I read this book at my desk in my home office and at the dining room table.

  3. Hard Light
    by Michael Crummey
    (reread)

    I toted this book everywhere – on the subway, on the streetcar, in coffee shops while waiting to meet up with friends.

  4. Fire and Air
    by Erik Vlamincky, translated by Paul Vincent

    This is another book I recall reading on transit.

  5. The First Bad Man
    by Miranda July

    Not only did I take this book with me on transit, but I was finishing the last few pages as I took the subway to see Miranda July at an Appel Salon event at the Toronto Reference Library.

  6. 10:04
    by Ben Lerner

    I was so wrapped up in this book that I had it with me when we went to see The New Pornographers at the Danforth Music Hall in early February, and I was reading it before the show started.

  7. Life is About Losing Everything
    by Lynn Crosbie

    I was definitely reading this book on the subway.

  8. The Devil You Know
    by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

    I read this book several times on the subway, including when I went to the Rowers Reading Series to hear Elisabeth de Mariaffi read from it. (She read a section I’d already read, if I recall correctly …)

  9. Into the Blizzard
    by Michael Winter
    (read aloud)

    This book was our (my husband and I) read aloud book over winter 2015. Typically, I read aloud while my husband concocts wonderful dinners for us – he’s an amazing chef. So, most read aloud time is in our cozy kitchen, around the cooktop island, accompanied by a glass or two of wine.

  10. Breathing Lessons
    by Andy Sinclair

    Both the engrossing story and the neon book cover brightened up a few subway rides.

  11. Backup Singers
    by Sommer Browning

    I remember reading this poetry collection in the kitchen and at the dining room table.

  12. Her Red Hair Rises With the Wings of Insects
    by Catherine Graham

    I took this poetry collection with me on a few errands, and I recall dipping into it while in the vet clinic waiting area, for example.

  13. Safely Home Pacific Western
    by Jeff Latosik

    This poetry collection accompanied me on several subway rides.

  14. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
    by Michael Chabon

    I read this book in my home office as I followed along online as part of the One Book, One Chicago reading sprints. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a lively, addictive read perfectly suited to that participatory format. Our dog Fionn was often my company during reading sprints.

  15. My October
    by Claire Holden Rothman

    I recall reading this book on a restaurant patio on a surprisingly warm spring evening while waiting for a friend.

  16. The Road In Is Not The Same Road Out
    by Karen Solie

    I won a copy of this at the Anansi Poetry Bash, and started reading it on the subway ride home that very evening.

  17. Human Voices
    by Penelope Fitzgerald
    (reread)

    This is another delicate book not allowed out of the house. I recall reading it snuggled in my favourite reading chair and in bed.

  18. A Serious Call
    by Don Coles

    I recall that this poetry collection was my calming companion when I got stuck on the subway for a protracted delay one evening.

  19. One Night in Mississippi
    by Craig Shreve

    I distinctly remember reading this book at the cottage in early spring.

  20. Close to Hugh
    by Marina Endicott

    I got in some late spring/early summer porch reading with this wonderful book.

  21. Daddy Lenin and Other Stories
    by Guy Vanderhaeghe

    I remember reading this book in the comfy reading chair in our loft bedroom at the cottage.

  22. I Shall Not Hate / A Gaza Doctor’s Journey
    by Izzeldin Abuelaish

    I recall the bright sunshine at the cottage contrasting sharply with this somber but ultimately inspiring book.

  23. Something Crosses My Mind
    by Wang Xiaoni, translated by Eleanor Goodman

    I remember reading this poetry collection both at the cottage and at home.

  24. Tell
    by Frances Itani

    I definitely remember reading this book while relaxing on the dock at the cottage. In fact, I was so engrossed in it at one point that when I glanced up, a loon was swimming very close to the dock.

  25. Just Kids
    by Patti Smith

    This is another book I gobbled up while relaxing on the dock at the cottage.

  26. Where Did You Sleep Last Night
    by Lynn Crosbie

    I vividly recall reading a large chunk of this book on a long drive home from the cottage.

  27. Split
    by Libby Creelman

    I read this book at the cottage, on the dock, on a sunny rock, and indoors when the bugs were fierce.

  28. Loving Day
    by Mat Johnson

    When I’m alone at the cottage, I read while I’m eating. I recall reading this book at the cottage dining room table, with sunlight trickling in through the trees at the front of the cottage, with the pages of the book propped open with a chunk of quartz that I keep expressly for book-propping-open purposes.

  29. The Green Road
    by Anne Enright

    Not only did I savour this book while alone at the cottage, but I had a wonderful discussion about it with one of my cottage neighbours while walking the dogs one morning.

  30. Wrapped in Plastic – Twin Peaks
    by Andy Burns

    I have very fond and vivid memories of reading this book, accompanied by a mini binge watch of Twin Peaks on DVD, over a few rainy days alone at the cottage. I set up a portable DVD player in the loft bedroom, curled up in a comfy chair with book, popcorn and bourbon, and had myself a wonderful, spooky time with Agent Cooper et al.

  31. Daydreams of Angels
    by Heather O’Neill

    I remember reading this book in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. I’m always very glad to bring my own reading material to waiting rooms …

  32. What You Need
    by Andrew Forbes

    I definitely recall reading this book on a number of subway and streetcar rides.

  33. Fifteen Dogs
    by Andre Alexis

    This book was another much appreciated transit companion … although the book rendered me verklempt more than one in public.

  34. Outline
    by Rachel Cusk

    This book was my travel companion on a sunny autumn day when I took the subway to Harbourfront for Word on the Street, then took the Spadina streetcar and subway to the High Park Reading Festival, and then took the subway home in the evening when the High Park poetry readings were over.

  35. Martin John
    by Anakana Schofield

    Is it kind of ironic that I read this book on the subway?

  36. Malarky
    by Anakana Schofield

    This book was another constant transit companion.

  37. Arvida
    by Samuel Archibald, translated by Donald Winkler

    I carried this book with me to and fro on the subway to International Festival of Authors (IFOA) events, and often read it between events, too.

  38. Sideshow Concessions
    by Lucas Crawford

    In addition to Arvida, I also had this poetry collection with me during IFOA visits. Before a reading, I recall sitting upstairs in the Queens Quay building, gazing out at Lake Ontario, reading a few poems from this collection, alternating with stories from Arvida.

  39. How You Were Born
    by Kate Cayley

    I remember purchasing this very fine short story collection at IFOA. I remember reading it during a wintry visit to the cottage.

  40. Twoism
    by Ali Blythe

    I distinctly recall reading this poetry collection on the subway, and getting a look from a young woman across from me of that special recognition that readers give each other.

  41. The Good Dark
    by Ryan Van Winkle

    This poetry collection was another fine transit companion.

  42. His Whole Life
    by Elizabeth Hay

    I tend to drift off after just a few pages when I read in bed, but this book held my attention and often kept me awake, but in a good way.

  43. Dear Leader
    by Damian Rogers

    I distinctly recall reading this poetry collection while sitting in a pub, having a beer and waiting to meet my husband for dinner. I was especially grateful to have those poems for company, as all the screens in the pub, which normally showed sporting events, were all tuned to some infuriating and violent breaking news about which I’d had enough.

  44. Makarska
    by Jim Bartley

    This novel was an excellent and absorbing subway companion during a week when I had a lot of appointments, meetings and errands to run.

  45. Confidence
    by Russell Smith

    I was reading (and being charmed by) this book at a restaurant while waiting to meet a friend for dinner, followed by the Tafelmusik rendition of Handel’s Messiah at Koerner Hall.

  46. A Whole Life
    by Robert Seethaler

    I was reading this book as we drove from Toronto to Kitchener on Christmas morning to visit with family.

In 2015, I read 31 works of fiction (novels and short story collections), 11 poetry collections and 4 works of non-fiction.

Currently in progress, heading into 2016:

  • Hope Makes Love
    by Trevor Cole

  • Just Watch Me – The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau: 1968-2000
    by John English
    (read aloud)

    This book was particularly comforting and almost talismanic to read during the interminable 2015 federal election campaign.

Looking back fondly on my 2015 reading, looking forward eagerly and with anticipation to my 2016 reading, I’ll simply conclude (as I’ve done in previous years) …

It’s not how many you read that counts. It’s that you read that counts.

Wrapped in Plastic, by Andy Burns

bookcover-wrapped-in-plasticThis slim collection of essays is an infectious appreciation of arguably (well, you get no argument from me) one of the most influential and defining creations ever to come out of television, the David Lynch / Mark Frost collaboration Twin Peaks. Author and pop culture aficionado Andy Burns (editor-in-chief of pop compendium web site Biff Bam Pop!) has packed his reflections with myriad details that will captivate longtime fans of the surprisingly short-lived show, bolstered with unique interviews with Twin Peaks writers, cast members and other principals and expanded accessibly with cultural and historical references and antecedents. The book also recommends itself as a great starting point for those new to Twin Peaks, as it moves forward from the show’s 1990-91 run to current programs that were clearly influenced by, benefited from and have paid homages to the Lynch/Frost pioneering creativity.

Wrapped in Plastic is a great accompaniment to a revisit/binge watch of the original program, especially the stunning and singular pilot movie. (I know, because that’s what the book inspired me to do, perfectly timed to some rainy afternoons during a cottage vacation week.) The book also reads well with such related books as The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer by Jennifer Lynch and Lynch on Lynch, creator David Lynch’s fascinating conversations with Chris Rodley about the Lynch oeuvre in which Twin Peaks is clearly central. Come to think of it, even Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity offers insights into both his process … and even that of charming and enigmatic Twin Peaks protagonist FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper. The book is also a marvellous stopgap as those captivated by the original show await its continuation and/or resolution and/or who knows as it is reimagined by Mr. Lynch in the near future.

The Broken Hours, by Jacqueline Baker

Over the moon only starts to describe how thrilled I am to welcome Canadian writer, poet and playwright Leslie Greentree as a guest reviewer here. Her second collection of poetry, go-go dancing for Elvis, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. (Enjoy excerpts here and here.) I reviewed her short story collection A Minor Planet for You here. Oral Fixations, Greentree’s first play, co-written with Blaine Newton, was premiered in late 2014 by Ignition Theatre in Red Deer, Alberta. You want to follow her on social media, where her thoughts on things literary and theatrical are insightful and damned funny. You want to pay attention to her book recommendations and keep your ear to the ground for future literary announcements of her own …!

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1936. A bleak and rainy night in Providence, Rhode Island. An impoverished Arthor Crandle makes his way to the home of his mysterious new employer, horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Crandle is desperate for work, unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s fictions, and all too ready to overlook his employer’s idiosyncrasies. Crandle’s approach to the dark house is met with words of foreboding from a neighbour and, once within, no sign of his employer. And his initial ascent up the dim staircase becomes his first encounter with the dark presence that inhabits the landing.

The reader needs no familiarity with the work of H.P. Lovecraft to delight in the slow, delicious burn that is The Broken Hours. This work of gothic-style fiction is based in a solid knowledge of the work of H.P. Lovecraft and the final year of his life; from those points of fact, Jacqueline Baker builds her spooky world with a masterful hand, piling eerie moment on eerie moment, interspersed here and there with an uneasy, short-lived relief.

That first night, as Crandle makes his way past the landing, calling out to his unresponsive employer, he pauses for a moment, chilled at a sudden thought: “The unnatural, studied silence coming from the other side of the door was neither that of someone having just gone out nor of someone at focused work or even in deep sleep. Rather it was the stillness of someone’s strained listening, just on the other side. Watching, perhaps, through the crack there.”

The passive Crandle continues on to bed, clutching a letter that he discovers on the hall table. He adjusts to communicating with his reclusive employer through sporadic notes, and begins his work transcribing a haunting Lovecraft story. And then the beautiful Flossie arrives, bringing a certain light – and even more questions – into the house. Where is her roommate? In fact, where are all the women referenced by Lovecraft, and Crandle himself – an aunt, a mother, an estranged wife – a bevy of women just out of reach, apparently on their way back to this creaking, breathing house where the furniture shifts, where mysterious lights and figures appear and disappear? And what of the white-clad girl who drifts through the night garden?

The book is replete with images of damp, of bloat – a gleeful celebration of the moist and its shuddery effect on readers. Rain, damp clothing and heavy, humid skies are only the beginning. When Crandle first encounters the presence on the landing, he says that the air changed: “I do not know how else to describe it. It darkened, became more dense. The carpet grew unpleasantly thick beneath my shoes, a swollen thing.” Ugh. Lovely.

Crandle’s passivity, at first the recognizable response of a desperate man, begins to take on an eerie tone of its own: he arrives at Lovecraft’s home penniless. He’s also faint with hunger, but he sets aside the meagre and unappetizing fare Lovecraft provides. The house has no mirrors. As the narrator occasionally catches glimpses of himself in windows, he realizes he has lost weight, neglected to shave – indeed, become unrecognizable to himself.

And then there’s the letter Crandle’s employer has begged him to deliver to Lovecraft’s hospitalized mother. He can’t seem to do it; the days get away on him, only partly through Flossie’s welcome distractions. The unfulfilled mission builds anxiety in the reader’s mind even as it seems to escape Crandle’s. And the reader’s sense of unease with our narrator builds.

The creepy beauty of this novel lies in Baker’s steady, relentless build of atmosphere, a slow piling on of realizations and new questions. She sets us inside striking colour palettes: the gothic greys of dim rooms and heavy skies are offset by occasional moments of gilded light over distant buildings, flickering lights seen through night windows. And Crandle notes a lighter palette of cool purples and mauves in moments of reprieve: in the morning light, and as splashes of violet cushions and drapes that Flossie incorporates into her apartment. The same palette that offers temporary respite, however, is then mirrored in threatening skies that don’t quite rain, and – in perhaps the most disturbing scene of the entire book – in a monstrous, bruise-coloured tentacle Flossie and Crandle discover on the beach.

This is a book filled with moments where the reader feels – as Crandle does – that much of the action is happening just at the corner of your vision. Baker knows how to chill a reader more effectively than through ghouls shrieking out from the dark places. Things slither, our imagination grows: a jar of baby teeth scatters across the rug in a dimly lit room, a stone is lifted in a darkened yard, a hand passes over a nest of baby rats.

Early on, Crandle says, “I wonder, sometimes, what lives in us. I wonder what comes calling, what we invite inside.” It’s a sentiment the reader slowly catches up with – a slow and creeping recoil that leads inexorably to a twisty ending.

Crandle says, “If you want your secrets kept, they say, cloak them in candour.” On finishing The Broken Hours, you’re left with a satisfied crawling sensation, one that makes you want to wait a little while, to chew on what you saw and what you didn’t see, to move only slowly from the secrets of the moody mauve setting toward whatever candour you might find.

2015 reading list (so far)

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As I’ve done in years past, I’m taking a look at (well, near) the halfway point in the year at the books I’ve read so far, with links where they exist to books that I’ve reviewed (either here on this blog or briefly on Goodreads). As I’ve always pointed out, it’s a competition with no one but myself, but it is always useful and interesting to stop and reflect a bit where one is at with one’s reading, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Of the 24 books I’ve read so far this year, 2 were non-fiction, 7 were poetry and the balance of 15 were fiction (novels and short story collections). Three of the books were rereads. Two books were works in translation. Fifteen of the books were by Canadian writers. One book was read aloud in its entirety (er, over a period of time, not in one sitting), which is a wonderful way to share the experience with another reader/listener.

  1. The Gallery of Lost Species
    by Nina Berkhout
    (reread)

  2. Mrs Killick’s Luck
    by Christina Fitzgerald

  3. Hard Light
    by Michael Crummey
    (reread)

  4. Fire and Air
    by Erik Vlamincky, translated by Paul Vincent

  5. The First Bad Man
    by Miranda July

  6. 10:04
    by Ben Lerner

  7. Life is About Losing Everything
    by Lynn Crosbie

  8. The Devil You Know
    by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

  9. Into the Blizzard
    by Michael Winter
    (read aloud)

  10. Breathing Lessons
    by Andy Sinclair

  11. Backup Singers
    by Sommer Browning

  12. Her Red Hair Rises With the Wings of Insects
    by Catherine Graham

  13. Safely Home Pacific Western
    by Jeff Latosik

  14. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
    by Michael Chabon

  15. My October
    by Claire Holden Rothman

  16. The Road In Is Not The Same Road Out
    by Karen Solie

  17. Human Voices
    by Penelope Fitzgerald
    (reread)

  18. A Serious Call
    by Don Coles

  19. One Night in Mississippi
    by Craig Shreve

  20. Close to Hugh
    by Marina Endicott

  21. Daddy Lenin and Other Stories
    by Guy Vanderhaeghe

  22. I Shall Not Hate / A Gaza Doctor’s Journey
    by Izzeldin Abuelaish

  23. Something Crosses My Mind
    by Wang Xiaoni, translated by Eleanor Goodman

  24. Tell
    by Frances Itani

Currently in progress:

  • Just Kids
    by Patti Smith

  • Laws & Locks
    by Chad Campbell

  • Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau: 1968-2000
    by John English
    (read aloud)

How is your reading going so far in 2015?

Evergreen, by Rebecca Rasmussen

I’m delighted to welcome Celia Ristow as the latest guest reviewer to contribute to this blog. Celia is a respected technical communications professional with an abiding love for literature of all kinds. She offsets many hours spent in front of a computer with ample hammock-and-good-book time.

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At times touching and poignant, at others brutal, tragic and refreshingly honest, Rebecca Rasmussen’s Evergreen is a study in contrasts; and yet throughout, the story moves forward with the certainty and ease of time itself. Like the river that flows through the centre of this multi-generational epic, and the enduring beauty of the natural foliage for which it is named, Evergreen is a story of endurance, resilience and promise. Although somewhat overstated at times, Rasmussen carefully and skillfully develops a delicate balance between contrasting forces — contrasts in character, story and setting — emerging in the end as an unquestionable narrative of hope and redemption.

The plot opens with newlyweds, Eveline and Emil, as they set up their first home in Evergreen, a remote corner of the Minnesota woods in the 1930s. After Eveline’s somewhat unconventional arrival at their wilderness cabin — a Lady of Shalott figure, asleep in a rowboat without paddles — she and Emil eke out an existence from the land and river around them. It is a traditional, if somewhat familiar tale of two pioneers in unforgiving surroundings, full of struggle yet reward, a new baby boy, Hux, and marital happiness, until Emil must return to Germany to care for his ailing father.

The story becomes centered around a trio of characters at this point — all of whom paint a portrait of compelling conflicts and contradictions — as Eveline is sustained by her straight-talking, rough-around-the-edges neighbour and friend, Lulu, and her husband, Reddy. Rasmussen brings the characters of Lulu and Reddy to life with ease. Like her worn coonskin coat, Lulu has endured much and survived with a clear and unflappable view on the events and people around her. She accepts and cherishes Reddy for who he is — the “honourable” alcoholic who travels to town for regular drunken binges, but always returns with supplies; who once saved Lulu from a life of prostitution and now fills the role of “good father” to her son, Gunther. Within the larger story, Lulu and Reddy are two characters who have lived and continue to play out Rasmussen’s theme of hope and the redeeming power of love.

Like the somewhat tarnished pasts of Lulu and Reddy, the idyllic tale of Eveline and her friends is suddenly tarnished itself with the rape of Eveline by a seemingly charming government surveyor, Cullen O’Shea, and the subsequent birth of a baby girl. Here Rasmussen delves into the utterly dark world of a rape victim as she explains how Eveline had “never felt so deeply hated”, conveying Eveline’s shame, fear and self-blame as she cannot seem to forget the “boyish” dimples that led her to trust O’Shea in the first place. And yet throughout this dark episode and following it, Rasmussen never lets us lose sight of the beauty and reassurance in nature, whether it be the inevitable return of spring and “tender green buds” to Evergreen or the little bird, Tuna, who feeds and sings without fail outside Eveline’s cabin.

Fearing Emil’s reaction to the baby born of this violation, Eveline leaves the baby at the Hopewell Orphanage, a name fraught — perhaps not so subtly — with the same contradictions Rasmussen has evoked previously. A place of supposed “hope”, the head nun at the orphanage develops a torn love/hate relationship with the girl, bestowing one her the demon name, Naamah. Despite dreams of finding her mother, and her view of the enduring evergreens from the orphanage — “Green as far as she could see” — Namaah inevitably leaves Hopewell and winds up a prostitute.

From here, Rasmussen moves the story forward easily, re-introducing the themes hope and redemption when Hux goes in search of and eventually finds his long-lost sister. The story now focuses on a new trio in Evergreen, Hux, Naamah and Lulu’s son, Gunther, who like the previous generation, continue to live a rough but idyllic life in their (now deceased) parents’ former cabins. As the story progresses with Gunther’s marriage to Naamah and the birth of their daughter, Racina, it becomes increasingly evident that the struggles and conflicts within Naamah have not dissipated. Afraid she “will do something terrible” to Racina, she abandons her, leaving her to be raised by the rough but dependable Gunther — a slightly over-stated echo of the past with Eveline’s abandonment of Naamah, and Lulu and Reddy’s predictability, but this thread weaves the generations and the story together in a way that seems perfectly natural and in its own way, reassuring.

Throughout Evergreen, Rasmussen evokes the beauty of the wilderness with vivid detail, taking its fundamental contradictions of brutality versus beauty, isolation versus connection as a backdrop to the struggles within the characters themselves. Occasionally somewhat forced — the image of Racina running into her mother’s arms at the conclusion of the story might seem somewhat Disney-like to some — and the evergreen imagery a little insistent at times, the story is compelling. The internal struggles of the characters are well-developed, and the plot moves forward at a steady pace so that we cannot help but read on. It’s a feel-good story, an honest portrayal of troubled lives, but reassuring in its simple yet affirmative final phrase, ‘Love was’.

Thank you to the author, Rebecca Rasmussen, for providing a complimentary copy of Evergreen.

My October, by Claire Holden Rothman

bookcover-my-octoberClaire Holden Rothman reimagines Hugh MacLennan’s Canadian literature classic Two Solitudes through the eyes and voices of an extended family touched in various ways by Quebec’s October Crisis. Rather than using her characters as symbols and thematic representations, however, Rothman creates palpably believable human beings touched by social, political and cultural forces, not just those buffeting Quebec in the 1970s, but reaching back to World War II. Beyond those external forces and influences, other connections and secrets are interwoven in the lives of prominent francophone author Luc Levesque, his wife Hannah, who is also the English translator of his works, and their troubled teenage son Hugo. There is an imperative tone to the “My” in the book’s title, driving home that what has happened in this pivotal month affects each character very differently, tests their strength and resourcefulness as individuals and challenges them collectively as a family.

Sprinting (like a super hero!) through The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

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Even bookish super heroes need sustenance on reading sprints …!

“One City One Book” community reading programs, where a city promotes to its citizenry the benefits of reading the same worthy book at the same time, are a comparatively recent phenomenon with an already lively and generally respected history. Usually promoted through a city’s public libraries, every year there are more and more activities associated with bringing readers together, giving them the opportunity to meet the author, discuss and explore a book’s themes and more.

What am I doing, sitting in Toronto (which has its own “one book” programs via the Toronto Public Library) … taking part in a “one book” program based in Chicago?

  • For starters, I have always wanted to read this particular book. In fact, I’m long overdue to get lost in a book of such immense charms.

  • I’ve been curious about online reading initiatives such as sprints (offered via different social media platforms, including using the #readingsprint hashtag in Twitter), to see if they do spark reading and discussion.

  • I’m interested in the activities and tools that the Chicago Public Library is providing to its participants to encourage coming to the book in various ways convenient and comfortable to a range of readers. (Thanks to Bibliocommons for access to the special e-reader provided to Chicago library patrons.)

And so far?

  • I’m falling in love with this vivid, compelling story that grabs all of the senses. It’s captivating.

  • I’ve intentionally booked specific times in my calendar to just focus on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. I look forward to those times, make the most of the one-hour time slots and feel like they’ve helped me establish some great reading momentum.

  • The special e-reader is a fun way of enjoying the book, because it allows you to not only easily page through, highlight and bookmark as you go along, but the sharing tools also allow you to easily capture, tweet and share passages you particularly enjoyed. From sprint to sprint, I find myself changing up between the e-reader and my physical copy of the book, which I love because it’s a fine, thick paperback that somehow feels lovely and right for the rollicking subject matter.

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  • The social media interaction via the #readingsprint hashtag has been intermittent, but is at times a nice way of connecting with other readers. (I get more responses sometimes from people curious about what I’m doing or who have already read the book and are confirming what a good choice it is.) Some of the other activities associated with the Chicago Public Library program are also featured online, the fruits of which are very interesting to see.

Will I keep at it? Yes, indeed – this has really sparked my enthusiasm. I’ll be avidly taking part in future sprints … and I’d definitely consider this approach to kickstarting my reading in future.

See also:

Life Is About Losing Everything, by Lynn Crosbie

bookcover-life-losing-everythingLynn Crosbie’s Life Is About Losing Everything is a gritty song cycle melding a dizzying array of short story, poetry, microfiction, memoir and more. The story traces a path through depression, addictive behaviours and destructive relationships, seeming to circle back repetitiously but always – sometimes imperceptibly, but always – moving forward. Crosbie wields dark humour, salted with sly, wry but sincerely passionate pop culture references and at times painful self deprecation and loathing. Through grief that is sometimes self inflicted, sometimes simply not fair, she poignantly acknowledges connection with others, even as it fails or is slipping away:

I smiled at her as the snow hit the window and the night darkened into the nights I will miss her, all my life.

She ruefully but doggedly (pun intended, for one of the most enduring relationships that bolsters her throughout …) mines for hope:

In the galaxies that reach out to heaven, my grandmother’s words are converted to stars: We are roses, she said, and must be cut down, sometimes, so that we may grow more beautifully.

By turns fragile and feisty, Crosbie/Crosbie’s heroine drives towards a determined renewal. The litany of woes and abuses is admittedly frustrating and off-putting at points, due in large part because you see the spirit and intelligence there and just want for it to fully emerge and, well, for her to get on with it. You cheer her on her journey and are grateful to her for sharing how arduous it was at times to reach her destination.

See also: Review of Life Is About Losing Everything by Kerry On Can Lit

Thank you to House of Anansi Press for providing a complimentary copy of Life Is About Losing Everything by Lynn Crosbie.