Calla & Édourd by Kathryn MacDonald, an excerpt

This novella, set in Eastern Ontario, bubbles with the details of everyday life. The cycle of the season is reflected in the lives of the central characters. It is a hymn/lament for that which is passing and that which is past. (Alistair MacLeod, author of two collections of short stories: The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and Island; and the award-winning novel: No Great Mischief, cover copy)

Calla & Édourd cover
Hidden Brook Press (HBP); ISBN 978-1-897475-39-3; 2009

It is a sad day when a book goes out of print. After ten years, this is the fate of my novella, all 23,000+ words, 129 pages.

From readers, Calla & Édourd garnered comments such as, “I was hooked after having read only the preface (as well as the entire book that same evening) [L.S.]. “I could see everything like a movie running through my head” [P.C.]. “I loved the explanation of perfection for Édourd on page 96 and the stories ‘…steeped in the tea of superstition and Catholicism’” [G.M.].

Chapter 1 begins:

Calla moves like a wave, from tree to tree, down the steep incline toward the water’s edge. Her left arm wrapping itself around rough-barked trunks. Her feet, beneath deep snow, searching for secure footing. Downward. Down to a spot where the water bubbles every day of the year from a silent, hidden spring.

Overhead, the sound of squabbling breaks the quiet. Lifting her face to the sky, Calla’s eyes find two black-capped chickadees. They slip from the sky to a tree branch where they hop over each other, reminding Calla of childhood games of leapfrog. The birds move along the branch away from the trunk before flying westward, their voices becoming lost in the distance. The momentary stillness soon fills with the rapid rat-tat-tatting of a downy woodpecker. It circles a birch tree; its head bobbing rhythmically; its black and white feathers blending into the birch. Without the movement, it would seem invisible.

Calla continues carefully downward, testing with her feet for buried rocks and broken branches beneath the snow. Slowly, she moves toward the white-crusted marsh. The red-winged blackbirds, that months ago perched on cattails, had now flown south, leaving the brown expanse of stalks and tails deserted.

The story begins when Calla is in the early throws of dementia. Then the backstory unfolds with innocence and love, the birth of children and their growing up and leaving home. But the unraveling of Calla’s mind cannot be avoided and takes a toll.

If you’re curious about the reference made by G.M. to the “perfection” passage:

Ah, but expectations of perfection was not something that plagued Édourd. He had grown in the shadow of Papa, a man shaped by the realities of the seasons and he knew that perfection came only masked as miracles. Perfection came with dark-bottomed cumulus clouds carrying rain in spring and with a clear dawn during haying season. It presented itself in the shifting colours as goldfinch feathers changed from drab olive to sunshine yellow, also in spring. Similar magic arrived with the return of the mallards, and shortly afterward, the arrival of ducklings in the marsh. Whether a miracle appeared to satisfy survival or to cause his spirit to leap, Édourd welcomed them like he had welcomed Papa’s stories.

In addition to Alistair MacLeod, Evelyn Bowering wrote cover copy: “Drawing their sustenance from past generations, Calla and Édourd’s love endures when traumatic loss gives way to fragmentation of memory, and past, present and future merge into one. MacDonald creates word paintings of nature and domestic life that linger after the last word is read. This is a beautiful story.”

I blush at the praise and thank everyone who bought books and a special thank you to those who sent their thoughts to me.

I am grateful to my publisher, Richard (Tai) Grove, Hidden Brook Press for taking the risk of publishing my first fiction. At that time, Tai was a new publisher and I was largely untried. We’ve both learned a lot in the intervening ten years.

Thank you for indulging my journey down memory lane.

Please share your experiences of publishing your first fiction and your thoughts if your book, like mine, has slipped out of print.

 

 

River of Hidden Dreams by Connie May Fowler: Book Review

This island is far more full of life than I had thought. Animals I cannot name are beginning to make themselves known. I hear twigs snap, and cries filter now and again from woods to sky. I wrap up tighter and try to concentrate on Mama and Mima. I think of that day Mr. Sammy decided he had turned old. His sudden despair and Miss Raison’s drowning weren’t the only life-changing events in the forest hideaway that stormy afternoon. Mima conceived my mother in the middle of all that lightning and rain (186-7).

I often buy used books from volunteers staffing “Friends of the Library” shop at the entrance to Belleville’s library. This is where I found River of Hidden Dreams by Connie May Fowler. (Purchases support our public library and often great finds can be made.)

I picked the book up because of the cover – a photograph that I might have been smitten to take – an egret in long, marshy grasses. The narrative, which identifies as fiction, is dedicated to two women who seem very much like two characters in the story. However, the blurb on the dust jacket almost put me off – romance (the romantic, not the historic variety). Nevertheless, I was drawn in.

Fowler’s book reminds me a little of Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (2018). What the two books share is a boat on a river, water that hides mysteries and danger, and consciousness more surreal than real. Johnson’s story is far more complex and more beautifully executed…and much more surreal and daring. But Fowler’s story was published 24 years earlier. Johnson’s story centres on the intricate relations of a mother and daughter; Fowler’s focuses on a woman’s memories of her mother, grandmother and grandfather who tell their own stories. To my mind, the intervention of Carlos and a mummified baby spoil what might have been a much more interesting tale.

River of Hidden Dreams fought with me (or I with it). I threatened to toss it aside. Then I turned the page again. The orneriness of the grandmother and granddaughter parallel became a bit too much…but then I continued reading. The handsome, perfect, prince-charming Carlos is polar-opposite of his miserable, mean Mamacita/Saidie. Perhaps someone told the author, “you’d better include a love object and sex.” Still, the pages kept turning.

What works: Mr. Sammy, the trawler, the river, the Everglades, and the ancestors speaking their own stories for the eerie, jarring, sensuous impact. Fowler’s descriptions held me enchanted. I slipped into her river-world where time became untethered. The story may have happened last century or last year; it doesn’t matter. I felt its immediacy, its reality in a surreal kind of way.

River of Hidden Dreams by Connie May Fowler has earned my toughest review. Now that it’s written, I’ve checked what others have said…and everyone loved everything about it. Now you might want to read the novel and make up your own mind. Do let me know…please.

71 River of Hidden Dreams

Available through your local bookstore or online: River of Hidden Dreams

(The hardcover is listed for Cdn $248.72 – you may want to visit your library to borrow a copy.)

Ru by Kim Thúy (translated by Sheila Fischman): Book Review & Writing Tips

In French, ru means a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge — of tears, of blood, of money. In Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby, to lull.

In the previous blog, Away, I looked at the journeys of poet Andrea MacPherson who ferreted out people and places of ancestors who had emigrated from Ireland and Scotland a generation or two earlier. In this post — Ru, a poetic fictionalized memoir by Kim Thúy — we experience the harrowing journey of refugees fleeing Vietnam for Canada, escaping Saigon for Montreal. From war to an escape by boat, from a refugee camp in Malaysia to snowy Montreal, Thúy shares both the intimate and the universal realities of escape and renewal.

When NPR interviewed Thúy (“A Refugee’s Multilayered Experience in Ru”), they said that the “novel unfolds in the way a flower casts off its petals: one small scene after another.” On the page, the novel looks like a prose poem or perhaps the concise pages of a journal. Yet the narrative flows smoothly and coherently.

It begins with a ten-year-old girl, but like memory that doesn’t necessarily reveal itself chronologically, the story called Ru flows back and forth in time as one experience triggers another. It does so as the name suggests, as gently as a lullaby. This is extraordinary given the intense and often devastating experiences of the refugees. At the books core, Ru is a story of survival against all odds (Thúy has said the family expected to die) but it is also a beautiful story of a girl who becomes a woman almost in awe of the way lives unfold and people grow and blossom.

Near the middle of the book, Thúy introduces Monsieur Minh who gave me the urge to write. And we can see how writing flings windows wide open, creating space for seeing:

He was saved not by the sky but by writing. He had written a number of books during his time in the re-education camp—always on the one piece of paper he possessed, page by page, chapter by chapter, an unending story. Without writing, he wouldn’t have heard the snow melting or leaves growing or clouds sailing through the sky. Nor would he have seen the dead end of a thought, the remains of a star or the texture of a comma (88).

Later, we meet the grandmother who chose withdrawal into prayer as a way to cope:

Today, my grandmother is a very old woman, but still beautiful, lavishly so, like a queen. When she was in her forties, sitting in her parlour in Saigon, she epitomized a whole era of an extreme kind of beauty, of opulence.…

After the markets had been cleaned out of merchandise and merchants, after her Communist tenants had taken the contents of her safe and her lace scarves, she learned to dress in the long grey kimono worn by the faithful.…

She’d let her two youngest, a boy and a girl, leave with my mother despite the uncertainty. My mother asked my grandmother to choose between the risk of losing her son at sea and that of finding him torn to shreds in a minefield during his military service in Cambodia. She had to choose secretly, without hesitating, without trembling, without perspiring. Perhaps it was to control her fear that she started to pray. Perhaps it was to become intoxicated with the incense smoke that she no longer left the altar (116-117).

Imagine! Yet the story is so sensitively written that the horror fails to leap out and grab us with a scream. Instead, it silently builds and haunts long after we’ve read the last page.

Ru has won a string of prizes, including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Grand prix littéraire Archambault,  the Prix du Grand Public Salon du Livre/La Presse, the Grand prix littéraire RTL-Lire (France), and the Mondello Prize for Multiculturalism (Italy). In addition, it was the 2015 winner of “Canada Reads” (CBC Books/Canada Broadcasting Corporation).

Writing tips:

Structure: the lesson here is to not fear innovation. Choose the format that best suits the telling of your story. Think about how different the reading experience would be if the novel had been written in the usual chapter format, all those transitions and unnecessary details.

Consider the power being concise. In an interview or talk (I can’t be sure where), I heard Thúy say that whatever country that she has traveled people have related their unique journey through war and escape. I believe, in large part, that the brevity of her narration opened space wherein readers filled in their reality. You may want to take a longer piece you’ve written and streamline it down to essential; then consider the impact of each style.

68 Ru by Kim Thuy

Available through your local bookstore or online: Ru

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson Book Review and Writing Tips

The places we are born come back. They disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia. They are the way we sometimes wake falling….

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson is the story of a daughter, mother, and digging into memory:

If I really cared about you I would put you in a home for your own good. Floral curtains, meals at the same time every day, others of your kind. Old people are a species all of their own. If I really still loved you I would have left you where you were, not carted you here, where the days are so short they are barely worth talking about and where we endlessly, excavate, exhume what should remain buried.

It is the story of words: their creation, meaning, and power:

Occasionally we find those old words sneaking back in and we are undone by them. It’s as if nothing has ever changed, as if time doesn’t mean a jot. We have gone back and I am thirteen years old and you are my awful, wonderful, terrifying mother. We live on a boat on the river and we have words that no one else does. We have a whole language of our own.

And it is a story about fear: naming it, running from it:

One night I wake and you are screaming and screaming. I skid along the corridor, knock you door open, put on the light.

The Bonak is here, you say, and for a moment—because it is night and I am only just awake—I feel a rise of sickening panic.

Johnson’s story reverberates from the present to the past and it balloons into more than a mother’s dementia and a daughter’s search to find meaning behind the words, truth.

Some mornings I am cold with certainty that only some ancient punishment will do, a stoning or a blinding, leaving you out for the wolves. You tell me that you didn’t know and we grow silent and wonder if either of us really believes that. Again and again I go back to the idea that our thoughts and actions are determined by the language that lives in our minds.

Truth is elusive, stretching to include a run-away youth: Margo/Marcus. And it becomes tangled like the weeds beneath the boat, knotted into words woven into the Oedipus myth.

Daisy Johnson has created an original page-turning story that was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2018. Fall into Everything Under and let her laden words carry you like the river’s current.

Reading as a writer:

  1. Gretel, the daughter-narrator, is a lexicographer. Pay attention to the role words play in the story and why Johnson made her a word person. As you read, also consider the naming of people and objects in Johnson’s story. What is the importance of Gretel’s career choice and how does it impact or layer the story? In your writing, what do character’s names bring to your stories? What do their roles contribute?
  2. Can you read “Gretel” without thinking of the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel? What does this allusion bring to Everything Under? Gretel is as lost in her own way as her mother is lost in dementia. Another literary reference is made to the Oedipus myth. Think about your own literary references and ask yourself if they are integral to your story, layering it and deepening the meaning, or if they are superficial and ostentatious.

63 Everything Under

Available through your local bookstore or online: Everything Under

Japan across time (Tale of the Gengi by Murasaki Shikibu)

“She was clever for her age, and she interested him. Difficult and unconventional relationships always interested him.”

In some ways, The Tale of Genji is a coming of age story. A handsome and charming youth, Genji has a way, as they say, with the ladies.

What is old—and this story is old—is new again. Written in the 11th century in the milieu of the political court of Japan, Murasaki gives us a story that is timeless. Just remove it from the privilege of palaces and the political intrigue and we have a story that could have been written today. Murasaki has managed a story that isn’t dated in language, style, or content.

The Tale of Genji has been compared to Gilgamesh and to The Iliad in timeless appeal, and it has the force of Shakespeare. As Shakespeare’s plays are interspersed with poetry, so too is Murasaki’s prose:

He plucked a few notes on his koto, but the sound only made him sadder.

“The waves on the strand, like moans of helpless longing.
The winds—like messengers from those who grieve?”

But the poetry she inserts is not hers. It is attributed to Chinese and Japanese poets of the past (that is, previous to the 11th century). And, like haiku, the quotes are pithy, descriptive, and timeless, and they totally relate to the passages they enhance.

My reading has taken place during the period of recent “Me Too” revelations and accusations. Clearly, while many of the women in this novel were willing participants and, like Genji, shed tears when the affair took a hiatus, there’s often that awful power imbalance. At least in one instance, there are uncomfortable circumstances involving a young girl he’s raising like a daughter. Genji’s behaviour can create shudders, yet Murasaki paints a feeling, sensuous young man who makes his way through a convoluted, political maze and … (ah, no spoiler here).

As to how I happened across such an ancient story, I read an article by Joe Fassner published on Atlantic online, January 23, 2018 in which he discusses The Written World, by the Harvard professor Martin Puchner who calls The Tale of Genji a “foundational text.” Fassner quoted Puchner:

The book was written about 1,000 years ago, at a time when a lot of literature was still produced by scribes, collected from various sources and cobbled together by editors. The foundational epics and religious texts in circulation then were very different from the reading material we’re used to. In that context, Murasaki’s diary felt to me like a turning point in the history of literature—it sounds so recognizable, so intimate, so modern. The fact that someone living in an extremely different time, halfway around the world, a thousand years ago, could whisper in my ear in that way—it’s magical.

And that is what Murasaki did for me: she whispered in my ear during nights of bedtime reading.

She wrote her story at a time when women were not taught to read and write (apparently by listening from behind the paper screens to her brother’s lessons). Her topic is modern in subject and theme. The writing is accessible, despite the gap of eons and culture. And, adding to the magic, the story is illustrated with woodcuts that were first published in the 1650 edition of the Illustrated Tale of Genji. The world’s first novel is also one of the greatest, even if you’re not a Japanese aficionado, but if you are, you are in for a special treat.

31 The Tale of Genji

Note: I cannot locate a source for the edition I borrowed from the library (Vintage Classics Edition, June 1990) that is annotated and illustrated. The link (kindle edition) I’ve provided is also copyrighted by Edward G. Seidensticker and is most likely the closest to the version I read.

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Tale of Genji

Secrets & the Father (The Only Café by Linden MacIntyre)

“In war and politics there is a selection of facts.”

I opened this novel-based-on-facts three days ago and whizzed through all 418 pages. From the epigraph by James Joyce – “Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned” – I was hooked. Linden MacIntyre’s The Only Café is a book of secrets, secrets kept, lost, delved into, and secrets like ghosts that haunt.

At the story’s heart are war, Lebanon, a son bereft of family, and the strange turns life takes, turns that seem to be life-saving but that become life-destroying. It is also the story of that man’s son and the unraveling of a mystery. Clues come in a request, read as an addendum to a will, for an out-of-character “roast” to be held at The Only Café. They also come in clippings tucked into twenty-years of diaries that are in sparse notes-to-self jottings.

Like all good stories, this one has more than one thread running through: they intersect; split apart. And the story contains echoes. One that particularly haunts is the image of a woman with a basket of children’s clothes and pins that go flying.

Themes and sub-themes also run through. Like The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar (memoir, recently reviewed) this story explores the impact of an absent father. Pierre Cormier, however, was absent even before he disappeared.

One of the most disturbing threads exposed and returned to in the story is the massacre at Sabra and Shatila camps, the numbers beyond comprehension. And although a civil war was playing out in Lebanon, Lebanese are far from the only culprits in the unfolding of horrors. And this is where Ari comes in. Like Pierre, Ari has Middle Eastern roots, although Canadian-born. With Ari the mystery deepens and questions darken.

As in The Return, The Only Café makes me aware of how superficial my sense of history and politics is. I knew scant facts about Libya’s politics and revolutions except perhaps about the Lockerbie bomb and its link to Libya and a bit gleaned from the news about Qaddafi’s dictatorship. I know even less about Lebanon, although I attended a reception at the Lebanese Embassy in in Washington D.C. while participating in an international conference. My dearth of knowledge is an uncomfortable admission. However, these two books have filled in many gaps.

Readers learn details of life in Lebanon, hints about the secrets refugees carry, and the complexity of memory (how facts shift and half-truths are essential for survival), about marriages that fail and those that hold promises, about the world of work and friends and lovers. Linden MacIntyre’s The Only Café can be read on many levels, but regardless of whether you skim or do a bit of side-research, you’ll think about the characters he creates on history’s slate and see that the essential truth in fiction is truth.

(Linden MacIntyre was host of the fifth estate and a distinguished journalist as well as an award-winning author.)

30 The Only Café

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Only Café

Journeys: a Writer’s (incomplete) Oeuvre (Prose: One Room in a Castle 1995; The Lizard Cage 2005; Burmese Lessons 2009; The Change Room 2017. Poetry: The Border Surrounds Us 2000; and Grace & Poison 1990 by Karen Connelly)

I know this. Our lives begin and end with journeys made alone.
“The Lid Over Europe” (100-101), One Room in a Castle

Karen Connelly makes many journeys. Travel introduces us to strangers and both her poems and prose reveal ways of understanding the other and experiencing ourselves.

In her 2017 novel, The Change Room, she notes two paths toward knowing: listening and storytelling. “Listening,” she writes, “was a way of pulling a stranger toward you without touching.” And so is storytelling: Shar or Shaharzad or Sheherazade – the great storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights – is the siren of enticement in The Change Room and the sensual “amazon” of the story. Listening and storytelling, strangers and borders, are common themes in Connelly’s oeuvre.

Writers’ recurrent themes interest me. I like their unfolding like fans, and their closing tight. I like the way they spread across continents and genres – always surprising, maturing, shifting but remaining, in important ways, the same. In Karen Connelly’s writing, the travellers and lovers among us glimpse ways of knowing ourselves and the other. This holds true from her earliest stories to the most recent novel.

In Connelly’s stories, strangers often become intimate in a variety of ways, sensuality being one. In “Esmeralda, a story” (One Room in a Castle 36-67), readers glimpse insights into what has matured into the novel The Change Room.

From Castle: “Our greatest similarity was our love of water, the freedom of motion it creates. ‘It’s flying,’ Esmé said. ‘It’s the closest we’ll come to being free of our bodies.’ We began to meet in the change-room before swimming….” Esmé swims; she is also a musician. Music, like water, is freeing and sensuous: “She closed her eyes, bent herself over the piano, and laid her hands on its black surface…. Then I leaned forward and kissed her eyelids.” These themes sown in Castle dominate in Room.

In The Change Room, the writing is more complex, layered and mature, but in the early work, we glimpsed seeds that later became mature fruit. (For more on recurring themes of individual writers, please also see my review of Bicycle Thieves by Mary di Michele.)

Connelly writes across genres, which leads me to think about truth in nonfiction and fiction. One Room in a Castle, for example, was published as nonfiction – purportedly as correspondence and travel. The Change Room – 22 years later — as fiction. It begins with an Emily Dickinson quote:

“Ourself, behind ourself, concealed,
should startle most.”

And we are left wondering about the difference between reality and imagination – a conundrum for writers and readers. Connelly does provide hints. For example, in “Extrah-dinary” (Castle 33-35) she writes “It is difficult to get to the truth of one’s self; how much more difficult to create an imaginary world and reveal its truth.” Still…. (For more on this topic of fact and truth, please see my review of Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel.)

I was introduced to Connelly’s writing through a book club reading of her mid-1990s memoir, Burmese Lessons, which still pops into consciousness despite the time lapse. But it’s the poetry collection, The Border Surrounds Us, which remains my favourite – especially section II – which I’ve read over-and-over again.  It is only recently that I discovered Grace & Poison, a compilation of Connelly’s first two poetry books. Even in 1990 her themes were clear and her voice strong. From that collection, a prose poem – “A Story for Suradev, In Bangkok” – stands out. In it we find her mature themes of intimacy/compassion, strangers/self. The closeness of her observations stand stark.

Her passion for travel and imagining the experiences of those she meets into story is continuous. Perhaps Connelly’s most intense book is The Lizard Cage, published in 2005, which drew me back to Burmese Lessons. Burmese Lessons is essentially a love story/a political story. The Lizard Cage is darker, taking readers inside a Burmese prison and into the isolation of an ancient man and a small boy, cruelty beyond comprehension, love, and survival. Somehow Connelly manages to maintain dignity, love, compassion, and beauty.

Karen Connelly began her writing career with the idea of borders, journeys from the known into the unknown: “Our lives begin and end with journeys made alone,” she wrote in her early twenties. In between life’s bookends, many other journeys are made and borders crossed: some geographic and cultural; some social and political; most intimate and sensual. They are all crossed personally, alone, and usually with risk of one sort or another. The intimacy with which she crosses borders can challenge us; she touches the heart, the soul, and the body.

22 Connelly Bks LR (1 of 1)

Various publishers have put Karen Connelly’s writing into print. Search her name or the name of one of her books and that will take you to a source. Most are available through your local bookstore or online.