47. The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

Tags

, , , , , ,

Published by Del Rey in 2013.

Would you care for a bit of inter-species, mixed faction romantic mingling, housed in a travelogue-formatted space odyssey? That’s at least some of what Barbadian writer Karen Lord is getting up to, in her second novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds.

What’s remarkable about Lord’s oeuvre is that it’s near-unmatched: very few Caribbean writers, resident in the Caribbean, commit themselves to speculative fiction. Lord tells stories that are not only fascinating emotionally and anthropologically, but she’s doing it in a singular literary field.

Lord’s first novel, Redemption in Indigo (Small Beer Press, 2010) was longlisted for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. In its unpublished manuscript format, the novel won the 2008 Frank Collymore Literary Award. The Best of All Possible Worlds also received the Frank Collymore award, in 2009.

As with so much speculative fiction, the ambitions of Lord’s second novel are vast – and for the most part, they find confident footing. The story is narrated principally by Grace Delarua, a plucky biotechnician and resident of polycultural planet Cygnus Beta. Delarua is assigned to a social research expedition in service of the Sadiri, a proud, intellectually advanced race whose home territory has been obliterated. Represented by their chief councillor, Dllenahkh, the Sadiri seek out potential mates most similar to their own core temperament and physical appearance, on the many separate homesteads scattered throughout Cygnus Beta’s outposts and provinces.

Perhaps Redemption in Indigo bore more easily recognizable hallmarks of folkloric treatment (unsurprisingly, given that it’s a creative retelling of a Senegalese folk tale.) However, the avoidance of monoculturalism is gratifyingly strong in Lord’s second work. Cygnus Beta is described as “a galactic hinterland for pioneers and refugees,” and is populated with a diverse set of races, each with their own identifiable quirks and passions. Dllenahkh’s Sadirian measured equanimity finds a consistently pleasurable foil in Delarua’s Cygnian matter of factness and emotional volubility. The two give every indication, in the novel’s earliest stages, of being well-suited to the kind of romance that not only links two people, but solidifies tenuous bridges of cultural commingling.

This seems to be one of the central premises Lord works out in the novel. The universe’s various citizenries enact premeditated (and often brutal) acts of separatist violence against each other: witness Ain’s cavalier destruction of Sadiri, and the massive devastation this genocide left in its wake. Despite unfathomable loss and crippling exile, Lord prompts her central characters deeper into an understanding, and appreciation of, mutual dependency. Almost all of the novel’s players express strong attachments to concepts of home, kinship and domestic succor. Delarua says it herself, during an unexpected trip to her sister’s homestead:

“Blood is blood, you know? There’s too much shared history and too many cross-connecting bonds to ever totally extract yourself from that half-smothering, half-supporting, muddled net called family.”

It is perhaps slightly ironic, then, that Lord suggests that the connections we make, rather than those into which we are born, hold greatest sway. This isn’t a novel concept, but it’s engagingly transmitted through the writer’s exploration of psychic bonds, particularly the psionic linkages that Delarua and Dllenahkh test with each other. It’s not an especially groundbreaking way to talk about sensual or sexual intimacy in science fiction, but Lord recycles it well. Through these episodes, it feels like we see the potential couple most clearly, wherein they allow themselves to interface with vulnerability and trust. As Dllenahkh puts it, there can be a certain

“transcendence to bonding… feeling the bones, tendons and nerves of another being – not as a puppet master but like a dancer fitted to a partner, able to suggest a movement with a light press of silent, invisible communication.”

The novel’s greatest flaw is also one of its most affecting charms: it is both episodic in nature (as opposed to tackling one core issue head on in the plot), and it wants to say a great many things about a great many things. If the best of all possible worlds, according to the aphorism, is the one we’re living in now, then reading Lord grants us pathways to other places no greater than this Earth, but no less captivating.

This review first appeared in its entirety in the Trinidad Guardian‘s Sunday Arts Section on April 6th, 2014, entitled “Confident new Caribbean sci-fi novel.”

“The Love of a Good Woman” by Alice Munro

Tags

, , , , , ,

Inspired by Buried in Print‘s indepth and illuminating story-by-story analysis of Alice Munro’s collections, I’ve decided to read Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman (1998, McClelland & Stewart) in same spirit of individual story appreciation, delight and scrutiny. I’m beginning with the first (and titular) story of the collection, “The Love of a Good Woman”.

This is how my introduction to the world of Alice Munro’s writing begins – with a drowning. A man, an optometrist named D.M. Willens, loses his life to the Peregrine River in 1951. The reader learns this through the object that opens “The Love of a Good Woman”: a red box of optometrist’s tools, which contains, among other things, an ophthalmoscope.

Munro wields this object with dual stylistic purpose – in her deft hands, it is both a promontory and a point of multiple divergences. We are allowed to trace the history of the ophthalmoscope backwards through time, to the quiet, sturdy town of Walley (in whose museum of quaint domesticities the device is housed). We get to breathe Walley in; we’re allowed to take its unremarkable temperature. We peer into the lives of three boys who, while surveying their riverbank domain, happen upon Willens’ car, buried in pond mud like a light blue absurdity. We stay with each lad awhile, privy to the small and considerable distresses and merriments of their lives, until they tell Walley that the optometrist has drowned.

Time passes. The boys grow up, and Willens’ death becomes part of Walley’s remembered history. We meet and spend time with a woman who is admonished by her mother for throwing herself towards sainthood. She’s called Enid, and she is tending to Mrs. Quinn, who is dying of a rare illness whose symptoms are both grotesque and medically fascinating. On her deathbed, trapped in the resentment of her prolonged, focused misery, Mrs. Quinn contains secrets. When she shares one of them with Enid, certain things once held as true begin to fray, threatening to dredge up old drownings with new, sharp interrogations.

Majestic flourishes of language don’t typify how Munro tells this story. It’s more like the language is majestically suited to a series of nimble purposes. She captures the impetuous shock (and its robust aftermath) that goosepimples the skin of the boys, who dive into the Peregrine:

“So they would jump into the water and feel the cold hit them like ice daggers. Ice daggers shooting up behind their eyes and jabbing the tops of their skulls from the inside. Then they would move their arms and legs a few times and haul themselves out, quaking and letting their teeth rattle; they would push their numb limbs into their clothes and feel the painful recapture of their bodies by their startled blood and the relief of making their brag true.”

Alice Munro, it turns out, is like this stealth rogue who shivs you with at least ten difficult-to-name emotions when you weren’t even expecting to feel your heartbeat race. A full repertoire of individual sorrows and contemplations, plus the collective memory of a town that’s no quieter than its ghosts are silent and well-mannered, resides in this telling. There’s the consideration of all these lives from multiple, age-tiered perspectives. Munro feeds us slices of devil-may-care, boyish bravado, and injects us with doses of a nurse’s calm equanimity; she does both while winning our absolute belief that she keenly sees each person we meet in her pages.

The writer shows us that the boys aren’t just brash; they’re also beset by varying degrees of domestic trauma, over which they may or may not feel duly traumatized. She peels away the nurse’s graceful routine by night, summoning up for her a host of sleepless hours, and private agonies over choosing what’s right, what’s useful, what future might be hers based on speaking, or else saying nothing at all.

“The Love of a Good Woman” ends as so much of it is conducted, with quietness blanketing one’s orbit, while the world continues its indifferent geographical circuitry. There is no easy way to know how Enid will fare, at the story’s close – what is clear is that she won’t end. The ambit of her drama will continue to lope, and loop; one feels intensely that her life is happening to her even now, while dinners are being made in the real world, while blog posts are being written. She is the real world, Alice Munro tells us, and her life is just about as unremarkable and miraculous as any of ours, whether we are helping someone breathe, or watching them falter, seeing them sink with other secrets to the lake’s still bed.

Here’s Buried in Print’s incisive analysis of “The Love of a Good Woman”. Next up, I’ll be discussing the collection’s second story, “Jakarta”.

46. Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Tags

, , , , ,

Published in 2011 by Tor Books.

There are various iterations of his accursed name, but in Slavic folklore, Koschei the Deathless augurs ill, particularly for the beautiful, chaste maidens he lures into his lap. As the ancient stories have it, Marya Morevna is his opposite: a steel-tempered warrior woman who brings the immortal, undying Tsar to heel, with chains and with stratagems. Russian children cut their teeth on these parables, and in their imaginations, such figures are hewn from the stardust of reality, fashioned in the space where our inherited stories possess, in their childhood telling, the greatest strength.

Valente has claimed the tales of Koschei and Marya to enact the fable-ornate, revisionist tableaux of Deathless. Young Marya, her head filled with any number of strange, otherworldly things, lives in a house on Gorokhovaya Street, St. Petersburg, where she peers from her window out onto the street below. A husband, who begins his visitation to her as a bird, waits in her future. His arrival will confirm that she’s meant to step over the veil that shrouds the Other World from easy sight. It is a realm in which she, so unlike her sisters three, belongs. She cannot predict that her husband will be Koschei himself, cloaked in the raiment of a young man’s beauty. Though Marya has not bargained for Koschei’s hungry entreaty — that she follow him into the wide maw of uncertainty, far away from her home — she goes, making the bargain for ill, or good.

Deathless spans the Russian Soviet Union history of the 1920s through to the 1940s. The reader sees St. Petersburg become Petrograd, morphing into the Leningrad that endures the unspeakable grief, and human cost, claimed by the over two-year long Blockade. Marya is present, her consciousness superimposed over the multiply-tiered storylines of this Russia, and another: the undying lands of Buyan, Koschei’s kingdom where everything lives, even walls of responsive skin and fountains ceaselessly spurting arcs of blood. In this realm, the one to which Marya has been stolen away by her immortal lord, the human maiden blossoms into a hard-won womanhood, thrice-tested by the wicked tasks that Baba Yaga, Koschei’s demon sister, the Tsaritsa of Night, commands.

Those unfamiliar with Valente’s writing style will fall headfirst into the thicket of her prose, as adorned and intricate as ever it’s appeared — though perhaps considerably less breathless, less prone to swoops and sky-curlicues than it appears in the dizzyingly lush Palimpsest. The order of the narrative, through the intoxication of the language used to tell it, is stamped with the austerity of Soviet Russia. It’s a bureaucratic severity that seeps even into Koschei’s domain, as Baba Yaga herself reminds Marya, there’s always been a war, in and out of one girl’s reckoning with the war that shapes her, personally and politically.

Though it cleverly considers the landscapes surrounding an origin story (and the ways in which such terrain might be respectfully, usefully subverted), Deathless runs on fable. The structures of fairytale, principally the (re)occurrence of triumvirates, knit one Russia to the other, knit Marya’s one warrioress life with her domestic decisions in another realm. There is a necessary repetition to this that’s worth the occasional strain it puts, on the rate at which the braided stories canter along to their final destination.

Books like these are bold by default, because of the territory they excavate in order to achieve their own world: they cannot escape claims of cultural appropriation, nor should they. Deathless is a pulchritudinous, seductive fable that supplants emotional hierarchies of how Koschei, Marya, Baba Yaga and the Slavic folkloric contingent are perceived. It’s not written by someone to whom this folklore is native, and this will always be problematic for some of the indigenous recipients of the work, and the ways in which they come to bear on it.

I can’t claim to have my own compass points on cultural appropriation finitely fixed. It’s a dangerous thicket in which emotional and spiritual navigations can shift on the reassignation of a scrap of sacred ground. If you are of Russian lineage, if your ancestors lived, or else died, in Communist Leningrad, you may thrill to Valente’s fictive perceptions, or you may despise them. This, I think, remains your right.

Corsair Books, 2012 edition.

Corsair Books, 2012 edition.

Perhaps this makes my own task easier, less fraught with personal demarcations of inheritance, and resultant ownership. In every regard, Deathless is fiercely beautiful. It is assiduously researched, devotedly formatted, with attention lavished upon the stories, rituals and conquests of old.

What I love best — and there is no dearth of it throughout the worlds Valente helms in this moribund mythology — is the constant countermanding of what’s deemed “normal”. Weird love howls for triumphs, too, and in this territory, the surreal is as credible and palatable as the bread & buttered obvious. If you’re a feral adherent to that which is fanged, dark and plasma-patinated, then you’ll adore what passes between Koschei and Marya. Witness the scene in which he declares her unquestionably his, in the lull of a bitter quarrel, conducted in his smoky-pillared Chernosvyat:

“I will tell you why. Because you are a demon, like me. And you do not care very much if other girls have suffered, because you want only what you want. You will kill dogs, and hound old women in the forest, and betray any soul if it means having what you desire, and that makes you wicked, and that makes you a sinner, and that makes you my wife.”

If you’re wondering whether Marya and Koschei have lived out this scene through countless lives, don’t wonder: Valente makes it plain, using Baba Yaga, the novel’s most rollickingly well-managed auxiliary character, as mouthpiece. Auntie Yaga, not-uncruelly, tells Marya in plain terms:

“That’s how you get deathless, volchitsa. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you’d have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.”

Death’s immutability is the novel’s garnet-studded spine, and the writer bestows gnawing, hungry pleasures for the reader who invests herself in unfurling its viscerally satisfying (albeit repetitive) revelations. If you come to the table famished, Deathless will ply you with loaves and wine, asking that you remember this story when you’re through, when you go fur-collared into glacial streets, to kiss your own Death on its grinning, strong mouth.

For a taste-test of Valente’s style: consider her short story “How to Become a Mars Overlord”, one of my Story Sunday posts. One of the principal characters in Valente’s Palimpsest is the answer to a Bookish Question I asked myself: When last did you catch an incontrovertible glance of yourself in fiction, and did you like the way you looked?

K. Jared Hosein’s Top 20 Book Influences – Part Two

Tags

, , , , , , ,

To kickstart Novel Niche’s year in litblogging, I invited emerging Caribbean author K. Jared Hosein to share the top twenty books that have most influenced his writing: here’s part one of that post, featuring his first ten picks. Today, we round up the list in K.’s company, and find out what he’s most recently been up to in the literary world.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Díaz) chronicles the lives of the titular character, Oscar Wao; his sister, Lola; his mother and grandfather. Oscar must deal with being overweight, a virgin and a Dominican still haunted by the ghost of the dictator, Rafael Trujillo. What lands this book here might be a strange one. It’s mainly because of the numerous accolades Díaz has received for it. Normally, I didn’t think people cared for the type of brash and vulgar storytelling employed in Oscar Wao. And honestly, it was right down my alley (writing-wise). When I saw that Díaz’s work could be accepted by the Pulitzer committee, I thought, “Why not mine?” As I said, strange reason. But it’s a damn unique and interesting book, nevertheless.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Jean-Dominique Bauby) is a memoir ‘written’ by a man who has locked-in syndrome. See, Mr. Bauby had been debilitated by a stroke, which rendered all but his left eye motionless. He blinked to the rhythm of a cautiously rearranged alphabet, and with a very, very patient nurse, this book exists. Just being able to read the book is a miracle, if you ask me. Within it contains the musings and memories of a man that thought he would be stuck in the deep, blue sea for the rest of his life. But now, from behind the steel cage of his diving bell, we can hear his voice. If this doesn’t readily reassure your belief in the power of the written word, I don’t know what will.

BoyBoy (Roald Dahl) is the first part of the autobiographical work by Dahl (the second part being Going Solo). It almost reads as an epistolary novel, as Dahl pastes clippings of letters, photographs and other family documents to relate his past in a whimsical manner. The chapters in Boy relate to a prank gone wrong at a candy shop, a grisly car accident and warming the toilet seats for the older boys at a school in Derbyshire. Despite its bursts of humour, it is the most serious book I’ve read from the author. Boy does not overshadow his fictional works, but it made me think: Life is remembered by how you tell it. If that makes sense.

Miguel Street (V.S. Naipaul) is my second favourite Caribbean book (the first being Oscar Wao). My first encounter with the book, if I remember correctly, was a chapter featured in a primary school “Reading Book”. The chapter was about B. Wordsworth, a mysterious man who “felt like a poet but could never be one”. The story was strange and heartbreaking in its feeling of incompleteness. But there was nothing more to be said of B. Wordsworth, and the story was over. I think this was the first time I had read a truly sad ending to a story. The collection of stories in Miguel Street is well worth it, but I won’t forget that experience with B. Wordsworth.

The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner) is the hardest book I’ve ever read, that I’ve ever finished (the hardest book I’ve never finished is The Scarlet Letter… trust me, fucking ridiculous!) Fury was my introduction to the much-beleaguered writing style known as stream-of-consciousness. In prose, anyway. Does Beat generation poetry count? It centers around the Compson family, sections devoted to various family members. The two that stood out the most to me were Benjy and Quentin. The non-linear narratives that rely on Benjy’s diminished mental capacity and Quentin’s disjointed and emotionally affected recollection of his family and his sister, Caddy, require multiple re-readings. I remember being on campus, busily dissecting the book during Biology lectures. It was my first experience with frustration that somehow felt rewarding simultaneously. Once you are willing to decipher it, it’s worth it.

Disgrace (J.M. Coetzee) was a novel I received for free at a writing workshop when I was twenty. We were given a week to read the book for an upcoming book-club type discussion of character and theme. The story itself concerns David Lurie, a college professor fired for misconduct, who loses most of his reputation and integrity in the process. Yes, it is as depressing as it sounds. But there was one thing that stood out for me as I read this book: the present tense. I had never given it much thought before that. The present tense is quite effective once used properly. Not necessarily to build suspense or (no pun intended) tension or anything, but just to hold the reader in that moment of disarray and imminent disarray. I’ve been trying to re-create that ever since.

Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides), to me, is the paragon of a bildungsroman (a coming-of-age tale), especially one that involves identity (most of them do, though, don’t they?) It’s a thick book, but that’s because it goes into so much detail with our protagonist, Cal, and his family’s migration from Asia Minor. The hook? Call is intersexed, afflicted with a genetic condition known as 5-ARD. The males are often mistaken for females all the way up to puberty, and are raised as such. The question isn’t about how this can be fixed, but: should it be fixed? Now, Eugenides’ style is verbose, be warned. But from the two books I’ve by him, it’s fitting and beautiful. When it comes to the dense, thorny theme of identity, I don’t think there could be enough words.

The Virgin Suicides (Jeffrey Eugenides) is a shorter book than Eugenides’ Middlesex, but it’s no less loaded with purple prose. The story is told by a group of men as they recall and muse upon the sudden suicides of the reclusive Lisbon girls in their neighbourhood. Their actual interaction with them was minimal, so they resort to filling in the blanks with theories of domestic horror. However, The Virgin Suicides never wanders into any gruesome vision. It is probably the least angsty book about suicide I’ve read. Instead, the story focuses on teenage whimsy and puppy love in light of what has happened, as if the girls themselves were pixies perched on mushrooms, or some other magical beings. The book feels like magical realism, though entirely grounded in drama and disillusioned romance. Why this book is here is because it holds that intangible quality that separates melancholy from melodrama. It remains my key to written emotion.

The Road (Cormac McCarthy) concerns a father and son’s journey across a wasteland, the near-shell of a once-verdant world. The technique employed by McCarthy to show the stark emptiness of this situation? The abandonment of punctuation. While I had experienced the fiddlings of grammatical structure before, like with ee cummings, I never reckoned any operative utilisation of it with a novel. Like The Call of the Wild, The Road is written with a complex simplicity (you’ve probably figured out that I’ve an inclination for this odd oxymoron). It describes desolation in brief whispers. Hopelessness in dying breaths. No need for abundance of any sort here.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon) concerns Christopher Boone as he plays detective to discover who stabbed his neighbour’s dog, and ultimately uncovers the dark secrets kept by his family. Christopher, however, lives with an autistic spectrum condition and experiences great difficulty accepting the hard realities of his findings. The book is told from first person and is much easier to read than Benjy’s portion in The Sound and the Fury and is more on par with the emotional journey in Flowers for Algernon, though it does require patience when Christopher’s OCD steps in and prevents the plot from advancing. This is all done for effect, however, and works most of the time. This book lands a place on this list for its ability to integrate Christopher’s medical condition into the narrative, not as a gimmick or technique, but to show how different people process different situations. How I may have reacted to Christopher’s findings might have been much different, but this is his story. And everyone should have a story, shouldn’t they?

Here’s a lagniappe for you: for a limited time, K. Jared’s debut book, Littletown Secrets, is available for free as a Kindle download! The author has also produced a lovely, spooky little trailer to accompany the book’s e-release:

(The download link’s in the description section of that video, so don’t be shy about grabbing your free copy, while you can!) You can also keep up with the author’s updates, via his official Facebook page, Littletown Secrets.

Parts One and Two of this post were originally shared by the author on his Tumblr, under the title “Books, Writing, Ideas, Growing Up.

K. Jared Hosein’s Top 20 Book Influences – Part One

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Happy New Year, Novel Nichers! May it bring you an abundance of good, thought-provoking, stay-up-all-nighting reads. I’m thrilled that my first post of 2014 isn’t actually *mine*: it’s a guest post from K. Jared Hosein, author of Littletown Secrets (Potbake Productions), in which he discusses the top twenty books that’ve influenced the vein, tone and weight of his own writing.

I recently named Littletown Secrets one of the best Caribbean books of 2013 in a Trinidad Guardian article, so it’s safe to say that I’m a fan of Hosein’s writing. I’m so intrigued by his picks that it’s motivating me to make a top 20 list of my own. More of that later — for now, here’s K. Jared!

You can’t write well if you don’t read.

And I would like to say that if there were ever some objective Euclidean list of axioms for literature, this would be at the top. But literature does not deal with absolutes, theorems or laws, but rather codes of conduct. Literature remains subjective and every person gravitates (or falls victim) to their own taste. I have never been the biggest fan of classical literature. There are some I enjoyed, but of my opinions: A Tale of Two Cities is egregiously over-written; The Scarlet Letter is barely readable; The Last of the Mohicans is dreadfully boring; and I’d prefer watch Kenneth Branagh do Shakespearean adaptations on the silver screen than actually read Shakespeare.

I grew up not liking to read, because these were the books presented to me as a child. I finished a book, like I would finish a plate of lentils. I didn’t enjoy it, but I knew it was probably good for me. It was actually the storytelling in 90’s role-playing fantasy videogames that first piqued my interest in the craft. It was from there that I wrote a story, which was published for the local Sunday Guardian. The “payment” I received was a book of my choice from a select store. I wasn’t too thrilled with this.

K short story

But when I went, the lady at the counter recommended what she had probably recommended for every little boy my age: Enid Blyton. I devoured it in one sitting. Pretty soon, I had a stack of Blyton books. As I got older, my preference changed. And it’s still rapidly changing. I think that must be a sign of maturation. Not an evolution of taste, I would say, but the hunger for different styles, tones and grooves marks the moment to further oneself. I stress, literature is anything but absolute, which is what makes it even more exciting to explore.

I’ve snapped a picture of twenty books that I believe have influenced my feelings and ideas about writing. They are not the best books I’ve ever read. But a book doesn’t have to be Pulitzer material for it to affect your belief in some way. I try not to idolize any work too much, as I fear finding myself craving to “live up to something else”. Though ambition and inspiration usually join hands and the craving is, thus, inevitable from time to time.

These books span from my childhood to just one year ago. I’m going to append each title with a mini-rationale for its placing.

The Pleasures of the Damned (Charles Bukowski) is a collection of poems by, well, Charles Bukowski. In my review for this book, I said that Bukowski is overbearingly honest in most of his poetry. He creates dystopia without apocalypse. The ordinary degenerate. There’s nothing else to it, since basically he was a degenerate. The collection, however, made me view poetry in a different light when I first discovered Bukowski at fifteen. Poetry didn’t have to be embellished or written with finely curled letters. It could be simple and ugly. Not even well-articulated hatred, like Sylvia Plath. Just raw, pithy imagery about toughness, like a one-eyed cat, a tough motherfucker, chasing blind mice.

Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut) concerns Billy Pilgrim, who becomes “unstuck in time”. After being abducted by a strange group of aliens, Billy finds that he can see his entire life (and even past his death, until the end of the universe itself). I read this in university and it changed my perspective on how science fiction could be written. Vonnegut, to me, seems to write with an extraterrestrial readership in mind. There is a certain humour in the simplicity we take for granted. Vonnegut captured that here. It is something I hope to also.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie) concerns Arnold Spirit, as he grows up in the ‘rez’ (Indian reservation), surrounded by disillusioned, drunk and temperamental Native Americans. This is the quintessential young-adult book, yes, complete with bullying, falling in love and illustrations. And it is quite remarkable. Young-adult authors engineer their books to extract an emotional catharsis, I believe. Finding humour in degradation. And the great fear that settles when one is told of their own home, “This place will kill you.” Living in a crime-ridden country, I can relate. Also, who knew comic strip cartoons could go so well with prose?

CatcherThe Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) is a book we all know, or should know. It is a polarizing book, not for its content so much, but because it has been read by some of the most irritating people. Holden Caulfield has been kicked out of Pencey Prep and wanders around New York City for a few days before returning home. He also wears a red hunting cap. That’s it. That’s the book. And I’ve read it, no exaggeration, about ten times. I read this when I was fourteen after I borrowed it from my school library. Didn’t know anything about it when I did, but damn, it was hard to do my homework the night I started it. I don’t love Holden. I don’t even like him. But I realise: I don’t have to. It helps, yes, to feel something for a narrator. But I realised that they don’t always have to be affable. Just intriguing, as character is the greatest tool we have to elevating plot.

Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo) is similar to another book I have on this list, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, though they are both here for different reasons. Joe Bonham awakens in a hospital and eventually deduces that he is basically a living torso. Yes, his face is gone and his appendages have all been blown off by an artillery shell. He’s a prisoner in his own body. It is a poignant and extremely depressing novel. It is here because of its attention to sensory detail and use of flashback during the recall of Joe’s life and family. It also shows the influence the written word can have against a behemoth such as World War I.

The Gunslinger (Stephen King) is the first book of the Dark Tower series, the magnum opus of King’s career, and I’ve put it here to represent both itself and the series. Though I’ve only read up to its fourth installment, the series is a detailed and expansive work that treads through the wasteland of a world that can only be described as where “the rest of the world has moved on”. Characters from previous novels make appearances, affecting the plot and reinforcing the idea that all King’s work is set in one universe. A haunting western setting along with deliberate anachronisms showed me that there really is no boundary to the worlds you can conjure up. Everything is acceptable, once done calculatingly and professionally.

Everything’s Eventual (Stephen King) is a short story collection, of which I wish to discuss only the titular story. “Everything’s Eventual” concerns Dinky Earnshaw, who has the ability to construct symbols that elicit strong suicidal feelings for those who view them. Dinky doesn’t understand his ability, and doesn’t use it until he is convinced to do it to rid evildoers in his city. I was thirteen when I read this, and I had never even imagined that such a Jedi-like mind trick could be taken seriously out of a Star Wars setting. King made it work, however. From an early age, because of this story, I realised how limitless writing really was. Sorcery could exist in suburbia, and that was fine.

Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes) is an epistolary novel (and I actually didn’t know what that meant until I read it) about Charlie Gordon, a mentally challenged janitor whose rapidly increasing intellect affects his life and those around him. As it is an epistolary novel, the story takes place in entries from Charlie’s journal. The result is quite effective, as it shows both Charlie’s own changes in his thought processes, and clarity of events in hindsight. I came across this in a second hand book kiosk while I was in high school, and I actually had no idea at the time that books could be structured that way successfully.

The Chrysalids (John Wyndham) is a book that most high school students around my time might have done for their O’ Level Literature class. Though I didn’t study Literature, I read the book anyway. I was probably thirteen at the time. The story concerns David, one of a group of telepathic children whom live in Labrador. The people of Labrador believe that any deviation of the human anatomy (or ability) must be banished to the “Fringes”. It’s one of those classical allegory stories that youngsters are told to read, like Animal Farm. And while Animal Farm carried a strong message, it didn’t affect me as much as Chrysalids’. It carries one that is central to literature itself: never stop analysing everything.

The Call of the Wild (Jack London) concerns Buck, a domesticated dog that has been sold to become an Alaskan sled dog. The language is straightforward yet descriptive and the primal themes retain power in their simplicity, so when I read this at a very young age, it hit hard. It’s probably one of the most effective books I’ve read. It doesn’t miss a beat and the theme of “returning to nature” will always be relevant to literature, to society, to any persona one may hold. We all must be animals when the time comes.

Stay tuned — soon, we’ll be visiting the second half of K. Jared’s list — plus catching up on what’s new in his own writing world!

45. Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn (Patrick Melrose # 1)

Tags

, , , , , ,

Published in 1992. This edition: Picador, 2012.

I feel compelled to share with you that my hands are shaking, a little, as I write this down. Reading books like these pry at the elusive answer to the unspoken question of how deeply an experience, literary or otherwise, can mark us, until we begin to chafe gracelessly against the semaphore of its instruction.

Never Mind is the first of British author Edward St. Aubyn’s novels centred on his alter ego protagonist, Patrick Melrose. I came to these books because I was curious about Patrick, about what fictional forces have led to the concretization of his status as one of contemporary English literature’s most formidably-hewn characters, and his author as one of the best living English writers producing work in that language.

I stayed out of horror and awe, both infused with the kind of reverence you don’t even realize you’re giving up willingly while you read. Whether you levy your slackjawed, glassy-eyed admiration freely or with begrudging restraint, it takes no more than a very few pages to realize that prose, in St. Aubyn’s hands, is effortlessly sovereign. He writes with the sort of sleight of hand beauty that might make poets weep, and he has the good grace to wipe his plate clean of indulgent treatments in diction, in the assignation of flasks to purses, of wineglasses to fiercely shaking digits, of bespoke canes to corridor umbrella stands,  immutable and indifferent, receptacles cast in porcelain, green glass and untraceable decay.

Though the origins of decrepitude evade certain timelines, the origin points of disease in the novel’s chief players are subject to a much more rigorous scrutiny. St. Aubyn uses fiction like a paring knife, cunningly training the blade on a single day in the lives of five year old Patrick and his parents, David and Eleanor. The Melroses are expecting a small contingent — two other couples — of dinner guests, a pleasant, intellectually undemanding evening at Eleanor’s family house in the South of France.

Cognizant of the frequently baffling starts and stops of adult humours, the self-sufficient Patrick easily ventures into his private world of childhood play, roaming the grounds of a vast garden that extend into the Melrose holdings. In the imaginatively fertile clutches of this verdant terrain, Patrick is the undisputed king. There is an unashamed curiosity, fringing on tenderness, that the young boy conducts with members of the animal family — behaviours notably missing from his interactions with his parents, or the vaguely warm yet mostly distant maid, Yvette.

“…Patrick had only seen the tree frog twice, but he had stood still for ages staring at its sharp skeleton and bulging eyes, like the beads on his mother’s yellow necklace, and at the suckers on its front feet that held it motionless against the trunk and, above all, at the swelling sides which enlivened a body as delicate as jewelry, but greedier for breath. The second time he saw the frog, Patrick stretched out his hand and carefully touched its head with the tip of his index finger, and it did not move and he felt that it trusted him.”

On this day, Patrick doesn’t espy his favourite lucky tree frog. A different sort of visitation awaits him, one that will alter the pattern of his internal weather, not simply for the remainder of the evening’s social pleasantries, but for a time we cannot, with the limitations of our gaze, yet glimpse.

It would be difficult enough to bear if Patrick’s parents were uniformly, homogeneously wicked, but the inverse is true. Eleanor mires herself near-constantly in drink, to escape the cruelty meted out by David, who administers amoral punishments in line with what he considers his judicious purview. During the course of the miserable spectacle of a dinner party, Eleanor’s miseries are relentlessly pursued across the page. The stifling tedium of her emotional subservience to David is measured out as if in stiff fingers of drink, each furtive gulp of liquor entering her gullet an ineffective balm against days and nights laced with peaceable terror.

Reading David is a master class in pain – in the gnarled roots of its provenance, and in the steady, wincing gait of its unsteady yet triumphant time on earth. We learn more, reading David, than is easy or comfortable to hold, and the more we know about him, the less we wish we knew. In the crucible of his motivations, he reads like an aged Briton of a Patrick Bateman, with his bloodlust diverted into a series of grotesque amusements best served over a course of game and unpalatable, expensive wine. During dinner, having perceived himself vaguely slighted by the antics of his subordinate colleague’s comely-but-gormless girlfriend, David plots.

“Never mind, thought David, I can get her later. In the pursuit of knowledge, there was no point in killing the rabbit before one found out whether its eyes were allergic to shampoo, or its skin inflamed by mascara. It was ridiculous to ‘break a butterfly upon a wheel.’ The proper instrument for a butterfly was a pin.”

Immediately following a calculated act of brutality upon which the novel’s scope and shape hinges, I shared this feverish message with a St. Aubyn devotee: “Reading the first of the Patrick Melrose novels is destroying me in the most delicate of increments. I feel like I’m being precisely gutted, every nick and scrape of my emotional defenses perfectly tallied in this… god, this assiduous, bare-but-gleaming prose. It’s beautiful and terrible, and in the full vein and spirit of so many things I want to do with my own writing that I could weep. It’s a treasure. It’s like reading horror stories in the bright sunshine and feeling ghosts slide up and down your spine like inky regrets. I can’t wait to see how Patrick survives, what he survives. What he becomes. I dread it and I long for more.”

It’s true. It’s all still true. What St. Aubyn proves, in Never Mind, is that there be monsters everywhere, verily, in the safest of places, in the most simperingly polite of cloistered alcove repartee. The writer, you feel, is pinning down an entire poisoned institution to the mat, forcing it to rap its perfumed knuckles to bitumen, snarling at it to give.

44. The Shining by Stephen King

Tags

, , , , ,

First published in 1977. This edition: 2012, Anchor Books)

Cradled in the majestic, foreboding arms of the Colorado Rockies, the Overlook Hotel seems like nothing so much as a salvation/sanctuary, a real boon for the Torrance trio. Jack Torrance, patriarch, middling writer of possible promise (he once had work published in Esquire, which is saying something) and forcefully-retired preparatory school English teacher, knows that managing the Overlook during its sealed-up winter months is an ace of a job. For reasons that make him sick to his stomach to contemplate, performing commendably here, for six sequestered months, is his last chance in a variety of ways. He’s determined not to muck it up, and with the emotional support of his cheerful wife Wendy and dutiful son Danny, Jack thinks his first tenure at the grand hotel could be just the chance he needs to solidify his autonomy and finish the first draft of his three-act play.

Soon before departing for Floridian warmth, empathetic Overlook cook Dick Hallorann assures Danny, “I don’t think there’s anything here that can hurt you.” Halloran also gives a name to the prescience Danny’s always had, calling it “the shining”. Though Dick shines on a lesser level, Danny’s psychic powers are starkly, eerily majestic, revealing both Jack’s ever-pressing compulsion to drink and Wendy’s crushing anxieties. Danny’s shining is the brightest spark the Overlook has encountered in an age, and the hotel wants him. The spectre-lined chambers know just which desperate, drink-deprived man they can use, to help draw little Danny deeper into their carpeted, chandeliered clutches.

No, this isn’t like the Hotel California, since, in addition to not being able to never leave, you really can’t check out any time you like, either. King situates the glacial furnace of the novel’s primary activity in a place where retreat is nigh-impossible, where the hope of external rescue hangs as precariously as a loose tooth from a bloody thread of gum. Further to this, the storyboard conflicts – Man vs Nature, Man vs Self – are so orderly, so cleanly hewn in their make that they might have popped straight from the pages of a “How to Storytell” primer. Therein lies the ghoulish, fantastic rub, though – this is aching, jealousy-makingly-good storytelling. King’s third novel sees him harness deceptively simple constructs and then stun us between the eyes with the consistent power of worldmaking that fires on all cylinders.

First Edition cover, Doubleday, 1977.

First Edition cover, Doubleday, 1977.

What works well for The Shining is a discernible dearth of heavy turns, though the narrative does occasionally pat itself on the back with unnecessary, sometimes corny insertions. (If I were as tremendous a third book as this one, I’d probably be stroking my own spine with inky compliments, too.) We feel, when we read Jack, that we *are* Jack, from the moment we’re fidgeting in Ullman’s office, hating the officious little prick’s guts, promising vindictive retributions that our new boss might not quite deserve, but by God, it’s the principle of the thing, it’s to do with being humiliated and just how unjustly one can turn the knife back on one’s oppressor matters, it does. When we’re reading Wendy, we’re Wendy, a woman who fiercely adores her son, a woman who’s timed the steady degradation of her marriage against the repetitive clink of scotch and gin bottles, a lady who’s startled by the surges of her own uncommon intelligence. She stifles her own better judgments with hausfrau-esque personal admonitions that resonate with a sickly thud of commingled girlish naiveté and calculated despair, measured out in mental hair twirls through restless, well-manicured fingers.

Perhaps most astonishing and gratifying is the fact that when we read Danny, we are Danny. We’re five, and not too far gone from nights of bedwetting. We regress to thumbsucking states when confronted by the ire-fuelled interactions of the Mummy we cherish and the Daddy we idolize. We want things to be right, knowing from the very beginning that the Overlook is wrong, and we learn far sooner than we should about all the slithering, Room 217-dwelling manifestations of just how wrong wrong can be. King’s embodiment of Danny’s precarious, nuanced mental journeys is stunningly navigated. We’re there with him, fumbling in the labyrinths of his exceptional mind, our hands held up to fend off bogeymen of corporal and ethereal formations. We’re there with him even when we most want not to be.

2006 edition cover, Hodder.

Certainly, this book is scary. It’s more than a scream-by-numbers investigation, though. At its best, The Shining pierces through to the telltale heart of psychological decay, of the most earnest of human intentions lain low by a roque mallet. It’s a portrait of personal devastation as convoluted as anything Dorian Gray could conjure, and then some. Jack’s progressive decline is the novel’s snarling beast, and it’s even more terror-inducing than encounters with topiary creatures in feet of fresh snowfall, because Jack is you, and me. Jack is anyone who’s fought tooth and nail against the siren call of the thing they most love and fear. In his hubris, his clever arrogance, his petulant protestations against situations his own shortcomings have engendered, you know that he’s you on the days you want to erase from the ledger. Jack is proof that we can’t outrun ourselves, and oh, how brutally and systematically this reminder thuds from the pages.

If you’re new to Stephen King, as I was (and still am, since one novel doesn’t an adept make), maybe you might not want to read this one in the dark. Maybe it’ll come for you in the dark regardless, like it did for me, demanding to be read in silence, with a light borne aloft, while the rest of the house slept. Read about how this inhuman place makes human monsters, of how imaginary friends can reveal the truth lingering in a chiaroscuro world running parallel to this one. You might dismiss the horror as not supernatural enough, maybe. Or, like me, you might find your body blistering with wintry fear when you learn that King’s paranormal horror beats (bleats?) with the dogged persistence of a very human heart.

Don’t be surprised if surviving The Shining catapults you into the dimly-lit corridors of King’s considerable oeuvre. At the very least, it’ll make you want to take your medicine.

Story Sundays: “The Gun” by Lisa Allen-Agostini

Tags

, , ,

Lisa Allen-Agostini

Lisa Allen-Agostini

Justin is a good boy. He minds his little sister, Lichelle, when their mother teeters off the edge of responsibility, when her presence at either the dinner table or the ironing board is conspicuously absent after a night of unspecified work. It is Justin who fastidiously readies Lichelle for school, Justin who hands over twenty of his own dollars for a textbook she needs, a textbook she will be physically punished for not having. Brother and sister pass by the enterprising young Pedro on their way to school, Pedro’s faithful, mange-riddled pothound Mackie trailing in their wake. Pedro, with his dapper threads and ready supply of crisp notes, is well disposed to treat Justin kindly: it is thanks to Pedro that Justin wears a pair of spotless Clarks to school. After classes, Justin goes to check Pedro at the latter’s request. While liming beneath a mango tree, Justin accidentally dislodges Pedro’s gun from its concealment cubby. The gun in Justin’s hands is dense, a previously unknowable entity coming to life in his hands, a thing of great promise and dread.

Allen-Agostini’s biting use of urban Trinidadian vernacular reads like a welcome two-fingered salute against the edicts of writing dialogue by conventional, powdery-wigged standards. The narrative is arguably at its strongest when it issues directly from the mouths of Pedro, Lichelle and Justin, as well as the story’s more peripheral characters: the overbearing schoolteacher haranguing Justin over his tardiness; the elaborately coiffured receptionist who somehow manages to conjecture that Justin has been late six days in a five-day schoolweek. What the characters say becomes entrenched in the manner in which they say it, and the writer is good at fuelling the exchanges of direct speech with just enough spatial context to sell us the scene convincingly, while steering away from an expository paint-by-numbers approach. Witness, for instance, Pedro’s gentle admonition towards his less fiscally endowed friend, when the latter refuses the chance of an evening toke.

“If is money you ain’t have, you know that is not a problem, faddah.” Pedro slipped the bag backing into his pocket and flicked away a seed from the handful of weed he had been cleaning as he leaned against the mango tree. “You know you’s my boy. Ent we play pitch together? Ent I give you them Clarks you does wear to school? A ten dollars ain’t nothing, faddah.”

Pedro’s mannerisms reveal his practiced swagger, his fingers dismissing the seed a tiny testament to previously-acquired proficiency with handling the marijuana. One gets the impression that ten dollars may be ‘nothing’, perhaps, but that all manner of transactions between the two, those which attest to Pedro’s magnanimity — whether over a ten dollar spliff or a pair of shoes worth hundreds — will be catalogued, mentally recorded and set down in an invisible ledger of accounts. As the story’s suggestive antagonist, Pedro is a formidable piece of characterization: affable, kitted out in the respectable accoutrements of his profession, young, far from unintelligent, and deadly.

Yet the treatment of villainy in Allen-Agostini’s story is far less simplistic than holding up one streetwise little boy for vilification. A single juvenile weed-peddler may do well for a less involved treatment of the roots of urban domestic decay, but not here: here, the finger-pointing can justifiably waggle in multiple directions. For all that she is conspicuously absent in the story, Justin and Lichelle’s mother’s weighty shadow dominates the children’s familial disarray. Nothing is even remotely intimated of the pair’s father. What we absorb of the mother is revealed through her off-stage actions: the sounds of her slapping her daughter, the sight of a sequined bra sticking out of an overflowing clothes barrel, the silence that Justin uses in response to “Eh heh? And where your mother was?”

As with the best writing that knows how to cleverly conceal its bruise-making declarations, “The Gun” is good at knocking you where you least expect it. Consider the markers of measurement used by Justin to gauge the gun’s weight.

“Hefting it in his hand, he thought it was about the weight of his sister’s bottle, which he still had to make her every night even though she was going on six. No, it was heavier than that. Maybe the weight of the pot he made her porridge in, a battered old iron pot with fat, round handles on either side. The gun’s barrel was smooth. He had never felt anything like it.”

Virtually every experience endured by the protagonist is filtered through his solicitude for his sister. He categorizes his interest in the death-delivering weapon through the objects he uses to help keep Lichelle alive. We want nothing more than to root for this solemn boy-adult, flung unceremoniously into the daily duties of a grown man. He is less of a cape-collared, stolidly-hewn hero against Trini lower class wars, and more someone who does what he must because no one else does, or can, or will, in a series of meticulous, stoic gestures that make him all the more heroic.

“The Gun” reminds the reader of the often-vacant desperateness of hope: we hope that Justin will continue going to school, even though his needs seem insufficiently and obliquely-met within those walls. We hope that he will not abandon his painstakingly pressed uniform to sidle alongside Pedro’s dubious, pistol-toting ranks of sequined shirts and solid blocks of ganja. We hope that even the most starved and runtish of common-breed puppies will survive to endure another uncertain day, and we wonder at the quality, consistency and base worth of hope as a precious, limited virtue.

You can read “The Gun” by Lisa Allen-Agostini here. (sx salon) Author photograph by Richard Acosta.

Story Sundays was created by Fat Books and Thin Women as a way to share appreciation and engage in discussion on the short fiction form, which often receives less attention than full-length works. All stories discussed are available to read free, online. Here’s Fat Books and Thin Women’s Story Sunday archive, and here’s mine.

Charting Children’s Literature: Rosa, Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

A special, ultra-vibesy shout-out to Novel Niche’s official illustrator (and my dear friend), writer and artist Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné, whose newly-commissioned artwork for NN filled me with a burst of creative zeal, inspiring me to relaunch this particular series. Thank you, Danielle! :) *showers you with leaves*

Rosa, written by Nikki Giovanni, illustrated by Bryan Collier. Published in 2005 by Henry Holt and Company.

This story first came to me in my mid-twenties.

RosaIt’s December 1st, 1955. After a day of work at her seamstress’ job in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks boards a city bus from its hateful Coloureds entrance, and takes a seat in the vehicle’s neutral section, where both blacks and whites can sit. Looking forward to returning home and cooking her husband something special, Parks’ positive daydreaming is interrupted by the bus driver’s belligerent demands that she surrender her seat to a white passenger. As anyone with a smidgeon of knowledge on the African-American Civil Rights Movement will tell you, Rosa Parks refused – not with equal hostility, but with a calm, undaunted resolve that has etched her name into history books, monuments and national holidays. Giovanni’s faithful, poetic retelling of Parks’ story takes the reader onto that very bus, and beyond it, to the Montgomery Bus Boycott that her actions springboarded into life. It includes the nomination of Martin Luther King, Jr. as the official spokesperson for anti-segregation laws, sparking a nonviolent movement towards equality in the Constitution of the United States.

What enchanted me?

Rosa Parks’ story isn’t, or shouldn’t be, new to most adults with any cognizance of the struggle against segregation in the U.S., but it might be in danger of being forgotten, if the story ever ceases to be told. This feels like a difficult concept for me to swallow, but several conversations with young people have assured me, repeatedly, of how easy it is to forget — and I balk to think at all the truthful, useful things I myself have forgotten.

Giovanni frames this true encounter with racism’s snarling maw in a way that glides effortlessly off the page. She fills up the narrative with impressions of Rosa as she was: calm, grounded, honest about her motivations in refusing unfair treatment: not because she was physically tired, but because she was exhausted of being trampled by an unfair hierarchy. Books such as these are a boon to young readers, who interface with history’s heroines and heroes, as well as to the adults who read them aloud. For adults, they act as pillars of printed remembrance, of real stories that ought never be forgotten.

A 2006 Caldecott Honor Book, Rosa is beautifully illustrated in watercolour images and collage treatments by Bryan Collier, creating warm and immersive effects. His pictoral imaginings of the life that Parks led, up til and beyond her powerful act of resistance, complement Giovanni’s clear, strong prose. Collier received the 2006 Coretta Scott King Book Illustrator Award for his work in Rosa. 

Lines for Life:

“She sighed as she realized she was tired. Not tired from work but tired of putting white people first. Tired of stepping off sidewalks to let white people pass, tired of eating at separate lunch counters and learning at separate schools. [...] She thought about her mother and her grandmother and knew they would want her to be strong. She had not sought this moment, but she was ready for it.”

This book would be best-beloved by:

♣ An avid junior historian who’s curious about investigating the past, and not hesitant to name pioneers for social justice as her role models, in lieu of pop stars.

divider 2

Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night, written by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Rick Allen. Published in 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.

I was in my mid twenties when these poems fell into my palms.

This collection begins with a nocturnally winsome invocation, “Welcome to the Night”, in which these dark hours are described with as much liveliness and imaginative engagement as any merry daylight revel:

“The night’s a sea of dappled dark,
the night’s a feast of sound and spark,
the night’s a wild, enchanted park,
Welcome to the night!”

Subsequent poems are dedicated to specific woodland creatures: snails; moths; owls; trees; spiders; porcupettes; crickets; mushrooms; efts; bats, and the moon. Each poem reveals the ways in which these night companions investigate and explore their domain, during the hours between evening’s first footfall and the dawn’s pearly herald of a new day. For every poem, too, there is a column of accompanying factual text, detailing the physical properties, habits and characteristics of the poem’s subject.

What enchanted me?

A 2011 Newberry Honor Book, Dark Emperor is precisely the sort of children’s book that will be read to Baby/ies Novel Niche, should one/s ever be bouncily forthcoming. Barring that possibility, however, this remains a book for both treasuring closely and sharing widely, which is why I’ve two copies and plans to acquire more. Sidman’s poems are laden with the prancings, rustlings and winkings of these sylvan inhabitants, and each piece is a resonant embodiment of its focus. In “Dark Emperor”, from which the book derives its title, Sidman hones in unerringly on the great horned owl’s imperious majesty, wondering in verse at

“What symphonies of 
squeaks and skitters, darts
and rustles, swell the vast,
breathing darkness of your realm?”

The owl as foreboding predator; the spider as confident peddler of survival instincts; the steadfast and nurturing guardianship of the oak tree: these character sketches and several others await the reader, bound to fascinate children with any love for the earth’s wild and unexplored places. The factual supplements will interest older children who are getting their hands and chemistry sets messy with documenting their environmental observations.

Rick Allen’s relief printed lino cuts are individual vistas of panoramic and precise astonishment, allowing a revisitation of familiar animals and haunts with eyes that will appreciate the artist’s intricacy, his use of shadow and light, his measured and brilliant application of pigment. Allen’s art holds hands eagerly and elegantly with Sidman’s, and the results are worth reading and rereading: they make the perfect invitation to a night-time slumber party of imaginative revels, beneath the glow of a  moon waxing towards fullness.

Lines for Life:

“Where are the diving sweeps of the nighthawk
and where its haunting cry?
Where is the thrum of crickets,
the throbbing of frogs?
Where are the great flocks of travelers
whose soft wings whispered to me,
wave upon wave,
beating toward some distant wood?”

from “The Moon’s Lament” (an ubi sunt)

This book would be best-beloved by:

♣ A wee expeditioner with good, clean dirt beneath his fingernails, a magnifying glass hanging from a string ’round his neck, and a heart filled with investigative zeal that tracks muddy footprints right into the night forest’s teeming core.

Charting Children’s Literature is a monthly feature at Novel Niche that seeks to highlight the beauty and richness inherent in many of the books written and illustrated with the enjoyment and education of young children in mind. The feature was launched in August 2011, and is set to run for the foreseeable future (to infinity and beyond)!

If you’re interested in bringing to my attention beautiful children’s books I haven’t yet covered, feel free to leave a comment on this page. If you would like to contribute a guest Charting Children’s Literature feature, please make use of the contact form provided. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

Story Sundays: “Earl Grey” by Sharon Millar

Tags

, , ,

Sharon Millar

Sharon Millar

When we meet Leah, the central figure of Sharon Millar’s short story, “Earl Grey”, she is trying to keep her thoughts well below room temperature. The room she’s in is the sweltering, westward-facing kitchen of a Santa Cruz cocoa estate house on the mend, run by Leah and her comparatively unruffled husband, Henri. Leah isn’t given to a coolness of touch, most times, but it matters more than mildly now that she create a perfect quiche, because Henri’s mother, Sally, is visiting the estate for the first time, to have tea. To Leah’s mind, the formidable Sally, a matriarch of tea parties that manage to be both inventive and exquisite, will be expecting nothing less than perfection, and a cool-handedness that Leah hasn’t previously been able to plate up. According to Henri, all his mother will require boils down to far less than what Leah imagines. As the hour of Sally’s arrival looms closer, and Leah’s quiche takes a less-than-savoury turn for the worse, the question of what the mother in law will receive begins to linger as oppressively as the midafternoon Trinidad sun.

Sharon Millar’s writing is as necessary and brutal as a matador witnessing his first bullfight, which seems an odd analogy given the apparent domesticity of a story like “Earl Grey”. Culinary and cultivating notions infuse the narrative: Leah follows (and detracts) from a quiche recipe primed for the sublime; she savours this science of cooking far less than the pleasure of a fresh cocoa pod, brought to her by Henri as a palliative against his mother’s arrival. These ideas of growth and fruition permeate the text, signalling that the relationships between what can be harvested, and what might be prepared, aren’t always seamless or simpatico. We can engage in food-artistry that turns the stomach, even if it appears from the oven like a master-quiche maker’s dream.

Leah’s relationship with her mother-in-law both embodies and transcends the expectations of well-chronicled bacchanal surrounding two women who pick at the same and separate ribs of a man, tugging for prominence on either side. Millar conducts these palpable and unseen tensions so convincingly that we feel we’ve rather taken the measure of the sublimely awful Sally without having heard her own voice on the page. We feel for Leah, with her earnest, pathetic quiche-wrangling, whether or not we’ve got crotchety husband-or-wife-mothers of our own, lurking in the recesses of our every misstep, judging while offering platitudes that are barely half-baked. Leah’s expectations, projected onto the surface of the pastry that has not yet disappointed her, are clearly defined islands of hurt, bound up with good intentions. In her anticipations for the serene procession of the evening’s events, one reads the dismantling of past attempts at graceful encounters, of the dogged desire to be thought useful, presentable, well-manicured.

“She imagines the quiche, perfectly fluted at the edges, the pastry lightly browned, the bacon, spinach, and tomatoes in layers of green and brown and red. She has become a woman who can make a quiche and this woman has cool hands. She will serve the quiche to her mother-in-law. They will sit on the lawn. Leah will be careful to invite Sally to sit in the garden, not the yard. She will chat amicably about the small joys of the farm, the pleasures of seeing the cocoa move from jewel coloured pod to rich dark chocolate.”

What stings the worst (and therefore, the best) about “Earl Grey” that it’s a short story obliquely about cooking but persistently about failure. As Leah is forced to consider, the burnt edges of our incompatibilities with others will pursue us, even in the places we feel comfortable, even in land that’s our own to claim proudly. Nowhere, and nowhere, are we immune to the smoother, sharper hands of another, telling us all we need to know about ourselves by embodying everything that we ourselves are not. That Millar reigns in this modulated torment in even swathes of unerring exposition is a semaphore to her rich, bruising talent. The story hurts and compels, and we want more. We want to see what lies on the other side of ruined savouries and reanimated cocoa estates, what beats in the hearts of complex, guarded women offering up too much of themselves in the service of wrongsided idols. “Earl Grey” reads briskly, the length, perhaps, of a tightly palmed cup of chai, but if your pulse is attuned to short fiction that navigates delicate terrain searingly,  then you will need to read it again, with several cups of tea and many aching wonderments within arm’s reach.

You can read “Earl Grey” by Sharon Millar here. (Draconian Switch, .pdf – allow a minute or two for full issue to load.) Author photograph by Ross Millar.

Story Sundays was created by Fat Books and Thin Women as a way to share appreciation and engage in discussion on the short fiction, which often receives less attention than full-length novels. All stories discussed are available to read free, online. Here’s Fat Books and Thin Women’s Story Sunday archive, and here’s mine.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 215 other followers