Daydreams of Angels by Heather O’Neill

Daydreams of AngelsThis is the most entertaining collection of short stories that I can recall reading: I am not someone who gravitates towards short story collections but once I started this one I actually wanted to continue and that is very unusual. In fact, I don’t think it has ever happened to me.

In The Gypsy and the Bear when a child is telling a story to his toy soldiers about a Gypsy and a bear “who equally knew nothing about country life” and forgot to put any money in the Gypsy’s pockets so that “from the get-go” he and the bear were forced “to earn their own keep.” O’Neill seems to turn the traditional worlds of story-telling on their heads in subtle ways that sneak up on the reader and produce similarly subtle chuckles which sometimes break out into loud guffaws. For example, when they ended up renting a room on the top floor of a brothel and the Gypsy suggests he will go into town to find a schoolgirl, “the bear told the Gypsy that if he tried to leave the brothel, he would find him and he would kill him.” Not your traditional Gypsy-bear story.

In The Gospel According to Mary M, the narrator explains that she and Jesus were in Grade Six when they first met and she was the “only girl in class who had a pair of high heels, and for my birthday my mother bought me a ton of black bracelets with studs on them. Other people’s parents said I looked like a whore, and they didn’t want my whore cooties or something.”

But these stories are not just entertaining: quite frequently there are insightful observations which will make your head snap back so that you can reread what you just read. In Swan Lake for Beginners  scientists are engaged in the Nureyev Experiment to create a “bunch of Nureyevs” in order to “open shows every night in every major city in the world.” By 1961, the first lot of twelve Nureyevs were cloned. Most of them had very little interest in dance. Success continued to vary with more clones. The one thing that all the clones had in common “was the desire to defect from a place that suffocated them and impeded their civil liberties”.  Similarly, in a letter from Pooh Bear to Piglet (nicknames used by two of the protagonists in the story, The Holy Dove Parade, this observation about childhood is presented by another protagonist:  “it was generally the state of childhood – to find yourself in a home that you didn’t like and to be subjected to the random laws of ignoramuses. Parents go through their children’s psyches looking for contraband ideas that way that guards toss apart prisoners’ cells looking for items that they might have smuggled in. All children were being raised in prisons of one sort or another, according to Edward.”

“Dolls” is one of my favourite stories. It is about dolls at a rummage sale who start chatting the minute they are put together on one of the tables.  “The dolls all knew how it went. You were taken home and told you were special. You were defined by being loved. Love exposed you to lonliness. Love gave you a personality but damaged you, too.” One of the dolls, Mary, had lost her red jacket and trousers. “The worst thing is to be a naked doll. She was terrified that she would be mistaken for garbage.” It is very hard to miss the implications here.

In Where Babies Come From, a grandmother tells her grandson and granddaughter that back when she was a girl,” babies were washed up from the ocean when the tide went out. You would see their little bottoms peeking up from out of the sand, and if you dug them up quickly, they would be yours to keep.” The grandmother uses the story to explain to the children why their mother is special: she was a night baby. Night babies were found after swimming in the night ocean and they had extra hours of dreaming and she tells the children that is why their mother “weeps when she hears music she likes on the radio, and why she waters flowers in the middle of the night and is always doodling stars on the margins of her paper” and why, of course, she is a poet.  A lovely twist to the story.

The Man Without a Heart is another of my favourites: it’s about Andrea and Lionel and Michal. Lionel is an addict, Michal has an e missing from his name and Andrea is a single mother working ten hours a day in a grocery store.

The title story is a mix of ten thousand angels in Normandy and one cherub in Montreal, sex and soldiers and landing craft, fathers and daughters, dread, prayer and peace: Daydreams of Angels indeed.

This is followed by The Isles of Dr. Moreau based on tales a grandfather once told his grandchildren.  Robotic monkeys listen to and comfort weeping orphan boys and the genetic makeup of humans is combined with that of hippopotami, gorillas and parrots. One of the highlights is Grandfather’s liaison with a swan-girl. He is quick to point out to his grandchildren that they are obviously part-monkey which is demonstrated in their habit of running about the house all day like “lunatics”.

The Story of Little O (A Portrait of the Marquis de Sade as a Young Girl) is the tenth story in this collection of twenty. Once again it includes a grandfather, Joe, whom Little O was dependent upon until she was 10 when he became more dependent upon her. It seems she had been abandoned by her parents and her grandfather was on welfare. When she was eleven she “noticed that boys noticed her” and she began to feel “a magical sort of lonely feeling” when she realized some boys were in love with her. This story reminded me at times of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.Girl Who Was Saturday Night - Copy

The tone of the stories seems to change with the title story: they remain creative and fast-paced but there are subtleties that sneak up on the reader and sometimes seem to gloss over some slightly darker tones and sometimes are laced more heavily with sadness. Or is it just reality?

The last half of the book is equally enjoyable and quirky. I think my favourite might be The Dreamlife of Toasters which takes place in 2089 and arises from “unprecedented advances in the field of bioengineering” and the invention and introduction of androids into the general population. Have you seen the robotic lawn mowers in your neighbourhood yet?

You might just want to add this title to your TBR list:  it’s on the 2015 Giller long list and it’s fun!

 

The Crooked Maid by Dan Vyleta

I sat down just to sample this book because my library copy had 75 holds on it and I thought I should get started if I intended to finish on time. It was a finalist for the 2013 Scotia Bank Giller Prize and I had waited three and a half months to get it from the library. Well the sampling turned into 90 pages and I had read Book One Part One and it was lunch time. This was my first work by this writer.

There is a short two page background on the battle of Stalingrad and then the story begins: “The train was running late.”  There had been “several unscheduled stops between Basel and Zurich”.

“She had been on the train now close to fourteen hours.” Initially, the conductor had Crooked Maid (2)been very attentive and been in and out of her first class compartment offering tea and a variety of explanations to account for the unscheduled stops, all somewhat different but equally boring to the passenger. The woman’s companion in the compartment was an eighteen year old boy in black clothing who did not say a word in the first six hours. He had a wonky eye and shiny black shoes. It was unclear whether he was a boarding school student or a clerk. He was very short.

The boy appears to want to open a conversation or, rather, he smiles occasionally and gives that impression. He has retrieved a sketch book from his knapsack and the woman observes “a callus on his middle finger such as is formed by the routine use of a pen”. Their eyes keep returning to the other person’s eyes and finally he says to her “I got into a tussel.” Thus he explains to her how he got the wonky eye, introduces himself as Robert Seidel and asks her if she is any good at sports in reply to which she laughs and says that she is forty and “too old for games.”

Their conversation ends when a group of men dressed in French uniforms smelling of alcohol and tobacco  push into the compartment and arrange themselves on the remaining seats. They began flirting with the woman and teasing the boy. The men speak only French and begin to use the boy as a translator so that they can speak to the woman. Thus we learn that she is married and her husband was a soldier. She joins in the game for awhile but tires of it and eventually addresses one of the men in perfect French and makes it clear that his advances are unwanted and his commanding officer might need to be contacted. The men leave in the direction of the second class seating and the boy and woman laugh over her expertise in French and talk more about her husband’s war experience and the boy’s eye injury and his step-family and why he is going home. He also tells her his biological father was a famous detective with the last name of Teuben.

Once they arrive in Vienna the story begins to come from alternate points: from Robert Seidel and from Anna Beer. We are given more and more fine detail as we journey with each of these persons and they try to reestablish themselves in Vienna.Robert has been off at boarding school in Switzerland for several years while the war changed the face of Vienna and Anna has also been abroad where she left after a marital disturbance. She has not seen her husband for nine years but still has her key to the apartment they lived in and returns there to find he is not there although he had notified her that he would be returning there.

Robert arrives at his home to find his mother in a state and the home in charge of a crippled maid (the crooked maid of the title) named Eva and in complete disarray. His step-father is unconscious in hospital from a fall out a window apparently after an argument with Robert’s step-brother Wolfgang. In one of the bedrooms he also finds Poldi, a woman apparently married to Wolfgang, bedridden and listening to opera music on a victrola. It would be a challenge to imagine a more bizarre set of circumstances. His mother appears more interested in claiming his wallet and the money therein than in his journey or his state of health.

In her apartment, Anna finds the living room sofa made up as a bed and “a pair of boots stood at the end, dirty socks stuffed in their shafts”, “a rumpled blanket flung over the backrest” and “spotted with filth”, a photo “above their marital bed, of a young woman in a negligee, lying propped up on cushions”, “a palm-sized smudge, more black than red” below a light switch, “a roll of Reichsmark, now defunct” and a noisy row going on two floors below.

Conversation with Eva tells Robert that she came from an orphanage where she lived for seven years. Robert has been away at school for six years. Eva keeps an eye on Robert’s mother as far as the reader can discern but she doesn’t cook or clean. A nurse at the hospital tells Robert that gossip has it that both his step-father and his step-brother made use of Eva sexually: : “It happens in the best of families, you know.”

And as if this is not enough, Robert finds himself being followed by a vagrant man wearing a red scarf and whom he first saw at the station when he arrived in Vienna.

The entire book continues at this pace and it is very very hard to put down. When I read the following in the Acknowledgements I realized what was somewhat familiar about the style. Vyleta writes

“Structurally, the book owes much to Dickens. I read Our Mutual Friend early into its writing, and took note of Dickens’s daring in stacking incident upon incident (and coincidence upon coincidence); of his ability to connect characters high and low through crime, family scandal, and the brittle threads of chance; of his book’s unstable tone that drifts from comedy to tragedy and back and is capable, despite its author’s much-decried sentimentalism, of calling forth real emotion; and of his deft management of the book’s vast cast (Dickens would have made a good film director).

An extremely satisfying read. I am looking forward to reading both Pavel & I and The Quiet Twin.

Caught by Lisa Moore

“He lay there, flat on his back, chest hammering, looking at the stars.  It was as far as he had been from the Springhill penitentiary since the doors of that institution admitted him four years before.  It was not far enough.

He’d heaved himself off the ground and started running.

This was Nova Scotia and it was June 14, 1978.  Slaney would be twenty-five years old the next day.

…          He’d broken out of prison and he was going back to Columbia. He’d learned from the first trip down  there, the trip that had landed him in jail that the most serious  mistakes are the easiest to make.”

Slaney and Hearn. They were a pair. They walked home from school together every day. Who’d have thought they would be the perpetrators of what the local newspapers called “the biggest bust in Canadian history”? There had been a picture of some of the bales of weed being hefted into the courtroom on the shoulders of the court clerks. The young men were “folk heroes in the making. They were the new thing, as it had manifested itself in St. John’s in 1974, where they had stood trial for importing two tons of pot. They’d been searched for weapons on the court house steps, the first time in the history of the St. John’s courthouse anyone had been patted down before a trial. Hearn had revelled in it, his arms raised, as if addressing a crowd.”

Hearn’s father had liquidated his business and got a second mortgage on his house and put it all up for Hearn’s bail. Hearn jumped bail and two months later his father had a massive stroke: Hearn escaped prison and his father was “lost in a prison of his own body”.

David Slaney had a relationship with a young woman named Jennifer who had a child named Crystal.  David wanted desperately to see Jennifer again and to re-establish their relationship even though he had heard that Jennifer was now married to a man named Fred Decker and living in Ottawa. David buys a large doll in a pink box and purchases a ticket to Ottawa and looks up Decker in the telephone book. “Slaney caught her hand just before it struck her face. That was in the hall when she opened the front door.” Slaney explains that he wants to make a life for the three of them and wants to be forgiven. Jennifer tells him that she had been visited by Social Services to see if she was a fit mother since she had been associating with a drug smuggler. She came close to losing Crystal to foster care. Slaney counters with a claim that they are meant to be together. Jennifer’s response was very clear: if David will walk away from the drug business she and Crystal will pack and leave with him. Slaney says he will come back for them.

Slaney’s relationship with Hearn is a complicated one that Slaney has obviously not examined very carefully. Hearn jumped bail and Slaney went to prison for four years. Hearn tells Slaney “I’m sorry for the way it went down. I’m sorry you went to jail.” But Slaney can’t see that Hearn is setting him up as a fall guy. Or is he? What can I say? Did Lisa Moore use Caught as the title because being caught was a oax it into the open. cleverly, in fact, that the reader actually thinks Slaney might get out of this mess yet.  Slaney is a very likeable character and I really hoped he would not get caught.Caught Medium

I  appreciated Moore’s use of the word “caught” in a number of places where it was unexpected but totally appropriate. So many of the characters are caught in situations over which they have little or no control.

Another very interesting character is Patterson, a staff-sergeant in the Toronto Drug Section, marked for promotion if he can bring in Brian Hearn. Patterson has a serious perspiration problem: “It could bead up on his forehead in a meeting. His cheeks would shine under office light. It dripped down his temples very slowly and it was all he could do not to touch it, not to draw attention.” His strategy is to follow Slaney and let Slaney lead him to Hearn.

Slaney is a rich  character who, in spite of having served four years in prison, remains likeable and I find this is one of the strengths of the novel. Slaney would translate well to the movie screen and make a credible anti-hero. Slaney makes me think of a young rebellious James Dean. That the story and/or plot remains interesting, in fact, compelling, to the end, is another  strength of Moore’s writing.

Here are a couple of Slaney’s reflections on his situation early in the novel :

“…he knew the nature of mistakes. They were detectable but you had to read all the signs backwards or inside out. Those first mistakes had cost him. They meant he could never go home. He’d never see Newfoundland again.

Everything will happen from here, he thought. This time they would do it right. He could feel luck like an animal presence, feral and watchful. He would have to coax it into the open. Grab it by the throat.”

Lisa Moore is from St. John’s, Newfoundland. Her novel February was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, named a new Yorker Best Book of the Year and a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book.

February remains my favourite of her works so far but I very much enjoyed Caught and the level of crafting it demonstrated. You have to write well to keep your readers’ attention when you have given them what appears to be the plot in the title!

Her other works include Alligator (finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and winner of the Commonwealth Fiction Prize) and the story collection Open (finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and a national bestseller).

Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter

Note from Wikipedia: A minister without portfolio is either a government minister with no specific responsibilities or a minister who does not head a particular ministry. The sinecure is particularly common in countries ruled by coalition governments and a cabinet with decision making authority wherein a minister without portfolio, while he or she may not head any particular office or ministry, does have the right to cast a vote in cabinet decisions. In some countries where the executive branch is not composed of a coalition of parties and, more often, in countries with purely presidential systems of government, such as the United States, the position (or an equivalent position) of minister without portfolio is uncommon.

The above definition is helpful to have in mind while getting to know Henry Hayward. Winters has chosen an epigraph from W.B. Yeats for us to ponder as well in preparation for our journey:

But Love has pitched his mansion inMinister Without Portfolio

The place of excrement;

For nothing can be sole or whole

That has not been rent.

And so it begins: “She told him there wasn’t another person…and of course he was in her house, he was the one who would have to physically leave…they talked it over…she returned to what was not an ultimatum. I’m leaving you now can you please leave.”

“But I love you, he said.”

Rather than disagree, Henry “caught himself and understood that the previous words were the best words to leave on. But I love you. They would give him the high ground and he could really dig a good ditch for himself now and remain unshaven and unwashed and drink himself into a narrow hallway with no door at the end, he could do that and search for commiseration.”

He seeks and finds the commiseration with his friends, John and Sylvia and their two children, Clem and Sadie. Then John tells him there is a job in the Middle East which starts in March. John said Henry needed to break his relationship with the land because “the land is her land or it’s your land together and you can’t walk it any more alone.” The contract, John explains is in Afghanistan and they would be working with Tender Morris. “Tender Morris was in the reserves and now he’s stationed in Camp Julien.” John and Henry had gone to trade school with Tender. John decides to go with Henry to Kabul.

Tender’s real name was Patrick “but he’s been called Tender since high school – he’d been their hockey goalie.” Later in the book you will learn more about the nickname. Tender is the one who first refers to Henry as minister without portfolio. On Labour Day at the base there was a disco and they got to playing pool and there were some Americans who were going to try and take over their table because they were tired of waiting. So Henry says (loudly enough to be overheard): “What if we were Americans.

Let’s not be Americans, Tender said. Let’s be outlaws. Except for Henry – he’s our minister without portfolio.

What the hell is that.

You’re not committed to anything but you got a hand in everywhere.

Henry accepted this. He didn’t know what it meant but he accepted the position, the honour, the judgment. He didn’t have a wife or a house and he was an employee. ”

Shortly after this, disaster strikes and Henry and John fly home in a Hercules with Tender Morris’ casket in the belly of the plane with them. Tender’s girlfriend Martha Groves is on the tarmac in Toronto when they land in Canada.

Now Henry has to rethink things.

“I am a good man, Henry thought, but I’m not a good man. I’m following kinky side routes that do harm to the moral fabric of many lives. What was it Tender called me – a minister without portfolio. What a disparaging comment. Let me get a portfolio.”

Funny but a title of Terry MacMillan’s just popped into my head: How Stella Got her Groove Back. Anyway, read this book because it’s entertaining, it’s full of great domestic adventures, it’s relational and the characters grow and, somehow, it’s hopeful.

page 115  One of the characters in the book says about Henry “He wants to stay home and take care of his hundred people.

Henry looked at her. What does that mean, he said. And how do you know.

It’s written all over you.”

As Henry starts to change and become interested in fixing up the house he begins to think more about what other people need and what he needs and what he might be capable of giving to other human beings such as a child i.e. “marshalling up an inner strength to help what existed outside of himself. Not a hundred people, but two.” He thinks back to his life with Norma and realizes that “he wasn’t living a dangerous life, but taking care of his hundred people. Minister without portfolio!”

There are great and hilarious tales surrounding getting electrical power to Tender’s house and the actual moving of the house, even getting trapped in an incinerator. It’s really a  very entertaining read and surprisingly uplifting inspite of Henry’s challenges. I highly recommend it and am planning on reading more of Michael Winter’s work which includes The Death of Donna Whalen, The Architects are Here, The Big Why, This All Happened, One Last Good Look and Creaking in Their Skins.

Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady

Emancipation Day is celebrated in many former British colonies in the Caribbean and areas of the United States on various dates in observance of the emancipation of slaves of African origin. It is also observed in other areas with regard to the abolition of serfdom or other forms of servitude. ” (All items in quotation marks immediately above and in the six short paragraphs below are as found in Wikipedia on October 3rd, 2013)

“The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 ended slavery in the British Empire on August 1, 1834. Emancipation Day is widely observed in the British West Indies during the first week of August.”

“Some countries observe the holiday as August Monday.”

With reference to Canada, the Wikipedia article states that “the first colony in the British Empire to actually abolish slavery was upper Canada, now Ontario. A British army officer and later the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada (1791-1796), John Graves Simcoe, passed an Act Against Slavery in 1793, which led to the abolition of slavery in Upper Canada by 1810. It was then superseded by the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.”

“While the date of the First  August Monday holiday in Canada is historically linked to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834, not all of the provinces commemorate the holiday as such.”

“In 2008, the Province of Ontario dedicated its August Monday holiday as “Emancipation Day,” which had been called “Civic Holiday” in Ontario…Toronto, the capital of Ontario, also hosts the “Caribana” celebration which occurs the first Monday in August …It is the largest Caribbean festival in North America and was started in 1967…Locally, the August Holiday in Toronto has been designated as “Simcoe Day” to commemorate Ontario’s first Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe who made Upper Canada, now Ontario, the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to abolish slavery.”

Some other items I found very interesting: ‘The District of Columbia celebrates April 16 as Emancipation Day.” “In Columbus, Mississippi, Emancipation Day is celebrated May 8” and “In Texas, Emancipation Day is celebrated June 19th” while “The United States Virgin Islands celebrates Emancipation Day, an official holiday, on July 3. It commemorates the abolition of slavery by Danish Governor Peter von Scholten on July 3, 1848.”

So all this and much, much more is the story behind the title of this book in which the author presents us with a vibrant sample of the lives of some of the people for whom Emancipation Day in the years after World War II had very specific significance.

Wayne Grady’s characters are living the history only hinted at in the academic textbooks and the digital encyclopedias. He gives these characters three-dimensional lives and makes a reader believe she knows some or all of them. Jack Lewis is perhaps the most complicated of all the characters or at least the one whose life overlaps the lives of the majority of the other characters. That majority included his father, William Henry Lewis of W.H.Lewis & Sons, Ltd., Plasterers and his uncle Harlan who owned his own barbershop, his brother Benny and his mother Josie (Josephine Rickman) who didn’t know her birthplace, and Vivian Clift whom Jack met and married in Newfoundland and whom he nicknamed Lily White.

Jack was in a Navy band and posted in Newfoundland when he met Vivian. After his first stint at sea which was doing “escort duty, almost to Ireland and back”  he meets Vivian at the K of C hall where he is playing and they make plans to meet again at a lunch counter in the train station on Water Street. Vivian asks him “What do you do in Windsor?”

‘”Work for my father,” he said, his voice gloomier than ever. Then he seemed to perk up…”He owns a construction company in Windsor…’W.H.Lewis and Sons Limited’…There’s me and my brother, Benny, and Dad’s brother, Uncle Harley, when we need him. If we get too many houses to do then we hire more people. It’s a classy outfit. Not as big as your father’s, of course, but big enough. We did the Fox Theatre in Detroit. You ever hear of it?”‘

“Can’t say I have.”

“Huge job. Took six months.”

And so Vivian starts to get a picture of Jack’s life in Windsor. In the same conversation she learns that Jack joined up “to get away” and to escape “the work, the family, all that” but he explains that that only means that “a fella’s got to strike out on his own”. There are other uncomfortable moments in the conversation  but Vivian has been captured by Jack and misses the clues he has freely given. Her sister tells her “You only think you’re in love with him because he’s your ticket off the island.” But for Vivian  “The chief question wasn’t whether or not she would marry him if he asked her. Of course she would. The question was whether she would sleep with him first if he continued to press her to, and she was very much afraid that the answer to that was yes, too.”Emancipation Day (Small)

Besides Jack and Vivian’s relationship, there are several chapters devoted to Jack which provide his story. Two memories are particularly revealing. One occurs in Detroit when Jack had just turned eighteen. He had been playing in the Windsor Sea Cadet Marching Band also known as the Windsor All-Whites because of their white uniforms. His friend Peter Barnes played first trumpet in the band and Peter came from a rather wealthy family. On this particular night it turned out Peter’s mother had gone to Detroit and while Jack is hanging out at Peter’s place after band practice they learn that there is “a full-blown riot going on over there.” The young men head to Detroit to “rescue” Peter’s mother. Jack gets more than he bargained for: “Woodward Avenue was in ruins, smoldering and deserted.” This was the inspiration which led to Jack’s enlistment.

Another memory or set of memories which have particular significance for Jack are those associated with Jackson Park in Windsor and the Emancipation Day celebrations at that venue. A younger Jack thought the park had been named after his grandfather and was disappointed to learn that it had been named after a mayor of Windsor. His memories of the picnics and the reasons he stopped going to the celebrations are key factors in the reader’s understanding of Jack’s personality and behaviour.

There is much about music in this book as well because it is, of course, a part of who Jack is. You will enjoy recalling many familiar song titles. There are also a multitude of street names that will ring bells for anyone who has spent much time in Windsor and/or Detroit: Ouellette Avenue, Victoria Avenue, Walker Road, Walkerville, Woodward Avenue. I was personally dumbfounded when I read that Jack’s friend Peter lived on Victoria Avenue because I too lived on that street for two or three years probably about 20 years later. Perhaps you have had such an experience while reading a particular book?

Anyway, for many reasons, this is a book I would not have wanted to miss. It reads quickly and unfolds its mysteries smoothly although not without some surprise. The tension in Jack and Vivian’s relationship increases as the story advances and the reader cannot help but feel that tension. There is much to think about when the reading is complete.

I was particularly impressed by a review written for The Globe and Mail by Denise Balkissoon who is a Toronto-based journalist and the co-founder of the Ethnic Aisle blog but would recommend that it be read after you have read the book yourself.

For another great review and photographs of the British-American Hotel in Windsor where Jack’s dad and uncle spend a considerable time, check out