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The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The epigraphs (3) are important so I will choose only one:

“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.”
-William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I like the combo of lovers and madmen and the thought of their “seethingThe Heart Goes Last brains” as well as the idea that the fantasies of these brains understand intuitively much more than is understood through reason alone.

Having read this epigraph we walk right into the first sentence: “Sleeping in the car is cramped. Being a third-hand Honda, it’s no palace to begin with. If it was a van they’d have more room, but fat chance of affording one of those, even back when they thought they had money. Stan says they’re lucky to have any kind of car at all, which is true, but their luckiness doesn’t make the car any bigger.”

And what about the lovers and the madmen? Well, Charmaine gets the back seat and Stan takes the smaller front seat but that’s because he has to be prepared to drive away at any minute in case of an emergency such as an attempted robbery by “bat-shit crazy” vandals. Stan “feels so lonely and sometimes having Charmaine with him makes him feel lonelier. He’s let her d0wn.”

They both had good jobs not so long ago. Charmaine worked at the Ruby Slippers Retirement Homes and Clinics chain. She scheduled entertainment and special events. Stan had been a junior quality control person at Dimple Robotics, “testing the Empathy Module in the automated Customer Fulfillment models. People didn’t just want their groceries bagged, he used to explain to Charmaine: they wanted a total shopping experience, and that included a smile.” Smiles were hard but if you got it just right, Stan explained, “they’d spend extra”.

Then it happened. Charmaine was declared redundant at Ruby Slippers and Dimple Robotics closed its doors and moved west. They ran out of mortgage money and their credit cards were frozen. They walked out and drove away before the car was repossessed. Charmaine got a job in a bar and her savings kept them in gas and paid for a post office box so Stan could apply for jobs and they could wash their clothes at a laundromat occasionally. Stan decides to approach his brother for a loan.

At work in the PixelDust bar, Charmaine considers turning a few tricks to increase their savings but decides it is too dangerous and would destroy Stan.

Con gives Stan two hundred dollars and offers him a job which Stan turns down because it is probably criminal in nature.

Then Charmaine, watching television at work, sees an ad which is different from the others. She thinks the presenter must be reading her mind. “”Tired of living in your car?” he says to her….”You deserve better.”” The man encourages her to recall what her life used to be like and offers a solution.

“At the Positron Project in the town of Consilience it can be like that again. We offer not only full employment but also protection from the dangerous elements that afflict so many at this time. Work with like-minded others! Help solve the nation’s problems of joblessness and crime while solving your own! Accentuate the positive!”

“The Positron Project is accepting new members now,” says the man. “If you meet our needs, we’ll meet yours. We offer training in many professional areas. Be the person you’ve always wanted to be! Sign up now.”

Sandi and Veronica, Charmaine’s fellow workers who do turn tricks on the side, also listen to the ad. Veronica thinks they should try it but Sandi says there are no free lunches anywhere. All three are seriously weighing the options available to them in their present lives.

They all sign up and they all go on the promotional bus trip which takes them some distance into the countryside where “only the gas stations appear functional”.  Eventually they reach a gateway in a high black-glass wall. Solar generation, thinks Stan. Smart, building it in like that.”

“Their eyes are scanned and their fingerprints taken and a plastic passcard with a number on it and a barcode is issued to each of them.” Then they are driven through the town of Consilience which is like a town in a movie of several years ago before most of them were born. At the Harmony Hotel they have drinks and snacks in the ballroom. The crowd thins out during the evening which Stan observes and thinks is a “discreet weeding”. The remainder receive a room reservation and meal vouchers and a carafe of wine and a meal in a restaurant called Together.

Stan has decided that it is not real but doesn’t want to spoil things for Charmaine who reminds him how much better this is that the back seat of a car.

This is only the beginning of course and it is dystopian fiction. You can take it on a number of different levels. If you so choose, you can see it as an absolutely crazy, wild, highly imaginative romp though a world of Marilyn Monro and Elvis Presley clones who appear in groups to entertain the clients in Ruby Slippers retirement homes along with a subplot with people who live and work in Positron/Consilience spending alternate months as staff employees in the facility and prisoners in the same facility where possibilibots were manufactured. Or, you can take it much more seriously realizing that the best comedy is always very serious.

The logic behind the project: “it was time share taken to its logical conclusion.” “Think of the savings, with every dwelling serving two sets of residents!”

If you were living in your car with no hope what do you think would be your reaction to the television offer? Seriously…Could it happen? Heard of any folks losing their homes in recent history? Oh, you think it couldn’t happen here? Well, let’s hope not.

 

I Crawl Through It by A.S. King

I Crawl Through ItThis novel was a very positive surprise. It operates on two quite different levels: the level at which most of us function most of the time and the level at which some of us operate some of the time in order to manage to survive.

On the level on which most of us function most of the time (or all of the time) there is a another life which exists which we don’t acknowledge to most of our friends. This is the level upon which the key characters in this novel function most of the time in order to be able to tolerate the rest of the world. The latter includes their parents.

The main characters are Gustav and Stanzi and the secondary characters are China Knowles and Lansdale Cruise. There are some minor characters and these include Patricia and Ken.

The first division is a prologue divided into three sections. Each section begins in a slightly different way:

1. Gavin is building a helicopter.
2. Gavin believes his helicopter is invisible, and because he believes it, it is so.
3. Gavin is building a red helicopter. It is not invisible. If I want I can see it on Tuesdays.

The above three divisions are all written by Stanzi who is Gustav’s best friend.  Stanzi believes that Gustav is a genius but her mother, Mama, believes that Gustav is “mad crazy”. Mama “says lies about Gustav like “That boy isn’t right in the head” or “He’s going to end up in the looney tunes if he’s not careful.”

Stanzi’s parents, Mama and Pop, take vacations. Sometimes they take Stanzi who is a senior in high school. When they went to Newtown, Connecticut they wanted to go alone. They asked if she could heat up her own TV dinners and stay safe overnight. Newtown was where the 2013 Sandy Hook massacre was. Stanzi can’t go to anymore such sites. She has been to Columbine and Red Lake, Minnesota and even to Dunblane, Scotland. She can’t go to anymore.

“China says she can feel her cells. China is my best friend. China is inside out, so I bet she knows more about her cells than anyone.”

“Halfway to Gustav’s house, a man steps out from behind a bush and asks me if I want to buy an H. I say I do not. …How about a K? he asks. …I keep walking…but I can see the details that tell me he is an animal.”

“Sometimes when I look at Gustav, I can picture him twenty years from now with a wife and kids – all of them flying around in his helicopter. I write them letters. The whole family. I write them postcards from my parents’ creepy trips.”

The school has been getting bomb threats. The most recent one has been in a box and was sent with two things: a hex nut from a helicopter kit and a dehydrated frog liver. Suspicious? After the recorded message is finished, the students are escorted outside. The bomb threats come daily, sometimes twice daily. There is always a police car outside the school.

“I am China – the girl who swallowed herself. I just opened my mouth one day and wrapped it around my ears and the rest of me. Now I live inside myself. I can knock on my rib cage when it’s time to go to bed. I can squeeze my own heart. When I fart, no one else can smell it.

I write poems.

They look like those Salvador Dali paintings I saw in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”

“Since the day I swallowed myself, I haven’t been in any trouble. I quit smoking. I don’t kiss any more boys. I got away from my skanky friends and I don’t log onto the Internet. It’s probably the best thing I ever did for myself apart from that time I ran from Irenic Brown last summer. But that’s another story, and girls who swallow themselves can’t tell stories. But I ran fast. I ran so, so fast.”

China continues: “Gustav told me in physics class yesterday that he’s not afraid to die. I thought about it all day. I think he’s bullshitting.
Gustav once wore snowshoes for a week because he learned about string theory and didn’t trust the molecular makeup of matter, and he says he’s not afraid to die? How can he think he’s fooling anyone? Everyone is afraid to die.”

And now from Stanzi:  “Truth is, my name isn’t Stanzi. I only call myself Stanzi after watching the movie Amadeus too many times with Gustav. Truth is, my name doesn’t really matter. I’m a character in a movie. In your book. In your mind. I play tug-of-war. I am a coward and a soldier. I am a pacifist and a warmonger. I am behind the bush with the man who sells letters, and I tell him secrets about who sends bomb threats to the our school every day….Constanze was a braver woman that I am….I dare you to go back to 1779 and be seventeen years old. You would be searching for light switches and toilets. You’d kill for a thermostat. A refrigerator. A telephone. You would pray for a 50% survival rate for your babies, and when you were blessed with one who lived through infancy, I bet you would do more than standardize it with tests or plop it in front of the TV.”

Do you get it? Well, all of the above is only in the first 34 pages of the book so you have pages and pages to go before you sleep.

 

Two Novels by Deryn Collier

Deryn Collier’s first novel was Confined Space and it was shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis Award for best unpublished first crime novel by the Crime Writers of Canada. It was published in 2012. The novel takes place in Kootenay Landing, British Columbia and Collier’s bio states that she has worked in a brewery. The latter caught my attention because it adds to the author’s credentials for me somehow. The Bugaboo Brewery is one of the main employers in Kootenay Landing.Confined Space

The investigator turns out to be the coroner which is another interesting choice. The police participate of course but the coroner is a more multifaceted individual and interacts with the community in a fuller way. The reader meets Bern Fortin in his garden where he is crouching down tapping yogurt container lids into the soil at the end of rows of late-harvest spinach he is growing for the food bank in time for Thanksgiving. In each of the plastic lids he is pouring a dose of Bugaboo Brew in an attempt to control the slugs who are attacking the spinach.

Bern was a former soldier (Lieutenant-Colonel) who had served tours in Rwanda, Bosnia and Afghanistan. His native language was French and he had been in Kootenay Landing six months. His house was a tiny bungalow which he had modified to suit his needs. He could see the brewery from his front door.

Gardening was like therapy for Bern: he needed the peace associated with growing things and in beauty, colour and life itself.

His neighbour, Mrs. Kalesnikoff, had turned out to be better than any therapist he might have found. Flowers ran riot over the fence between Bern’s and Mrs. K’s property and he had been made welcome at her kitchen table any time of day. She made cinnamon buns the size of a person’s head. She says Bern doesn’t let the dead go (“She always said the exact number of words needed to get her point across, and never more.”

We are introduced to Bern and Mrs. K and also Gavin and Belinda as well as Evie Chapelle, Safety Manager, Bugaboo Brewery and Conrad Scofield. Collier does this introducing particularly well in my opinion. She gives enough information to acquaint us with each individual sufficiently to provide a basis for investing in them as individuals: sort of fits us into the community so to speak as if we had been there for awhile.

She sets us up by having Evie receive a certificate indicating that the Bugaboo Brewery has been given a Safety Award in recognition of 500 accident-free days.

And then the accident is discovered. An accident in confined spaces. More than one accident in confined spaces. But are they  accidents?

The second Collier novel, aka the second Bern Fortin novel, is Open SecretsOpen Secret and like Confined Spaces there will be more than one secret involved:

“He looked back at the cranium on the rock and knew that it was related to everything else that was going on. Gary’s disappearance, Seymour’s death, Gia on the deck with a shotgun. Lennon’s shout: “The asshole is dead!” Even Holly Forsberg and her unspoken pain. They were all related – but how? And how much of it was his responsibility to sort out?
Who died, how they died, when they died, and by what manner. There was no room for doubt in the coroner’s crib sheet. That Gia was intelligent and witty, that he liked talking to her and admired her garden, that he did not want to cause Holly Forsberg more pain, that Dr. Sinclair did not want to be inconvenienced – these things didn’t factor in. It was a simple question: he had to find out the truth. Everyone’s secrets would come to light.
And if he was to expose their secrets, he had no business hanging on to his own.”

I am not quite finished this second book so I can’t reveal all those secrets. And I wouldn’t anyway of course!

If you enjoy accompanying the investigator every step of the way and trying to fit the pieces together as they are discovered, you’ll enjoy Deryn Collier’s books.  I think you will also find Bern Fortin refreshing as a character. His background is one of the secrets in this second book adding an extra dimension to the story.

 

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt

Under Major Domo MinorThis is the story of Lucien Minor or Lucy the Liar who left his parents’ home at age seventeen: neither he nor his parents had shed even a small tear at their parting.  He was going to work for the Baron von Aux in a remote castle as undermajordomo. His mother does wish him good luck and asks him to let her know how things turn out for him.

He took stock of his life before he left sitting on his suitcase and practicing smoking the pipe he’d bought the day before he left. He regretted not having an audience. He recalled the time six months before that he nearly died. The priest had administered the last rites. Lucien’s father sent the priest away.

In the night an old man wearing a shapeless sack sat in the rocking chair and Lucien told him that he was bored. The old man knelt beside Lucien and put his mouth to Lucien’s ear and inhaled. “And as he did this Lucy felt all the heat and discomfort leaving his body. The man exited holding his breath and walked down the hall to Lucy’s parents’ room.A moment later Lucy’s father suffered a coughing fit.” Lucy’s father died the following evening. Lucy’s mother held him partly responsible; Lucy never told his mother about the old man who came in the night.

Lucy’s letters in search of employment were all unanswered except one: “penned by a man named Myron Olderglough, the major-domo of one Baron Von Aux’s estate in the remote wilderness of the eastern mountain range. Mr. Olderglough had been won over by Father Redmond’s romantic description of Lucy as an “unmoored soul in search of nestled safe harbour “.  An offer of employment and terms of payment finished off the letter. The position was listed as under-majordomo and was lowly with a pay mirroring that status, however, Lucy accepted the offer.

When he arrives at the castle, he learns that the mistress has been gone a year and Mr. Olderglough is still missing her. Lucy is cautioned not to speak to the Baron if he should see him. “The Baron goes where the Baron wishes. And often as not he wishes to go nowhere at all.”

When Lucy explains that he would like to go and thank the Baron for his appointment, the major domo replies that “The Baron has no knowledge of your appointment. In fact he hasn’t the remotest interest in the mechanics of the castle. Six days out of seven he won’t even leave his room. Seven days out of seven.”

When Lucy says he will wait to thank him then Mr. Olderglough explains that “You don’t understand what I am telling you, boy. Don’t speak to the Baron if you see him. As a matter of fact, don’t see him at all, if you can avoid it. That is to say, don’t let him see you.”

After a brief discussion about the villagers (“The villagers are like children, and children can be dangerous entities in that they have no God…if there are no consequences for a person’s actions, what might his motivation be to do right by his fellow man?), Olderglough leaves this as the guiding principal regarding Lucy’s task in the house: “in the simplest terms, your foremost function is to anticipate my needs and to see to them.”

Then Mr. Olderglough takes Lucy to his room: “a cramped space with a slanted ceiling and a small window located in the centre of the lone exterior wall. The furnishings consisted of a two-drawer dresser, a rocking chair, a modest bed, and a potbellied stove pushed into the corner.” Mr. Olderglough suggests that the boy might be tired and need some rest: Lucy agrees. And so he leaves him be but returns almost immediately: “I forgot about the letters.”

He explains that every morning there will be a letter written by the Baron to the Baroness which he is to take to the train station and meet the nine o’clock train which does NOT stop. He must hold it up so that the engineer can grab it. Lucy discusses how this has been arranged and then they discuss what would happen if there were an answer(which has never happened but might).

It is also explained that Lucy is to lock himself in his room after 10 p.m.

Well, this is only the beginning. You will enjoy reading to the end. Oh, and yes. You will meet the Baron and the Baroness, Klara and Tomas, and Memel and Mewe and Agnes and one or two others. Enjoy!

 

Confidence:Stories by Russell Smith

ConfidenceThe first story in this collection is from the perspective of a youngish man made old by the repetitive visits to hospital of his partner Emma who has learned to speak in a “tone of resignation or melancholy that he knew to sound brave” and who tells her friend Claudia: “I don’t know what brought it on, honestly…It’s usually nothing. She gets these ideas. It’s usually something she suspects I did, like I did something illicit.” He sighed when asked for details because “it was tiring to tell” and he “hoped not to have to go into such detail.” The reader feels tired and knows the narrator will face this again and again. When he leaves the hospital, he goes to a brothel. The story is titled Crazy. Who is the “crazy” person?

The second story is about a young woman who studied pharmacology but isn’t going to think about her thesis anymore and a young man who keeps thinking he will go to the library “if only to sit in the coolness for a while, to tell himself he was there.” This reader felt like she was in a some sort of drug-induced fog-like mental state throughout the reading. At the end the young man knew that he was never actually going to go into the library again but he would move those books from apartment to apartment for the rest of his life. It is aptly titled  Research. There is a feeling of loss, waste and sadness.

Fun Girls is about Lionel who “didn’t know how he ended up with the fun girls…You never knew where they were going to be, you had to just be in their path. Sometimes they decided to take you with them and sometimes they didn’t. If they swept you up along, it was on their terms.” The most interesting was Jennifer who “lived in a condo that was all open except for a sleeping loft…there were books everywhere, and neat stacks of student essays…her computer screen spun three-dimensional silver words…he wondered what it would be like to have her as a professor or T.A.”.

Gentrification is about Tracy and Morgan who have bought a small house in a warehouse district and who have high hopes about the warehouses: “You watch…you wait…once these things are built there’s going to be a French immersion school right across the street.” In the meantime, have a read and check out Tracy and Morgan’s neighbours and their tenants and go to the local bar with Tracy. Carla Gillis in her review in Quill & Quire writes that the area in this story is “set in what will be recognizable to any Torontonian as Parkdale.

Leo is a guy who finds more meaning in a series of text messages than in the friends and women he meets in his real life. The text messages are from a number unknown to him. Go figure. The story is Txts.

Confidence includes a second appearance by Jennifer and Lionel. “Jennifer felt a little sad for herself. It would be nice if there were a point to having things with guys like Robert. She used to do it all the time. She decided she would let Robert entertain her for awhile but she would not let it get too far. She leaned towards him and said ,”Tell us all about the philosophy of poetry.” She takes on Robert’s feelings of superiority as a sensitive person compared to  “very dumb guys” : “Sensitive boys are so romantic they think they can’t be pricks…because they’re exploring themselves and they’re really articulate about it.”

Raccoons opens this way: “Mother’s Day hung over the house like an appointment for surgery.” Ivor is going to an educational policy conference in Vancouver and is feeling guilty ahead of the event which will coincide with Mother’s Day. He is standing in the garage on a Saturday morning because pile of dung have appeared recently on the front and back doorsteps and “the day before , in broad daylight, an enormous one (raccoon)had lumbered across the upstairs deck right past him…utterly unafraid of Ivor’s barking and hissing.” He saw it “force itself behind the garage(possibly into it?) and realized he had a problem to deal with immediately. He also has another problem in the garage: a box he has to find and get rid of before his wife Kara comes upon it. I think this story might be my favourite probably because it is easier to relate to while the others are farther outside my experience although nonetheless interesting in providing a view of today’s culture.

The last story I love for its title alone: Sleeping with an Elf. What’s your best guess regarding what it’s about? Clues? It takes place in a bar, involves a dangerous game and one character, Christine, is a knitter.

Perhaps not the most uplifting stories as indicated particularly regarding the first two, however, I find myself at the end having been both entertained and informed as well as thinking I would like to try Russell Smith’s novel, Muriella Pent. So there you have it.