Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder

“All my life I’ve been going somewhere, aimed toward a fixed point on the horizon that seems never to draw nearer. In the beginning, I chased it with abandon, with confidence, and somewhat later with frustration, and then with grief, and later yet with the clarity of an escape artist. It is far too late to stop, even if I run in my mind only, out of habit.

You do what you do until you’re done. You are who you are until you’re not.

My name is Aganetha Smart, and I am 104 years old.”

These words are from the Prologue which is full of wisdom and insights. It closes thus:

“There’s no starting this race over again. And still I run and I run, without rest, as if even now there is time and purpose and I will gain, at last – before my spool of silence unwinds – what I’ve yet to know.”

And so Aganetha’s story begins at the end for the reader. Having met her when she is 104 we go back to when she was 10. We meet her and her sister Fannie on a visit to the family plot in the graveyard where Fannie tells stories of the boys who are Aganetha’s half-brothers and of their mother Tilda. They speak of Robbie who is away at the war. Aganetha would like to know more about the boys Robbie writes about who suffer from foot rot. Fannie and Edith were born after Robbie. Edith has already married. After Edith, more babies died in childbirth. When the last brother,George, was born, Tilda died. Fannie and Edith were seven and six at the time. Robert Smart married the woman who would give birth to Aganetha before the next spring. The visit to the graveyard with Fannie  was a regular thing for Aganetha and it is a powerful connection for her with her family history as well as with Fannie herself who was almost a mother to Aganetha.

Memories of Fannie and home and her mother and father come back often to Aganetha in the nursing home and one day when a young man and a young woman come to visit to take her out for a stroll she does not at first recognize either of them but when the young woman touches her hand she is reminded of someone. “Fannie. Fannie is still so young, She’s stayed the same … she walks effortlessly across the undulations of my mind, hair loose, hips broad, apron bleached white.” And so Aganetha slips her hand into the hand of the young woman.

Inside the story of the young woman and the young man, Kaley and Max, who have come to pick Aganetha up and have something important to ask her, is the story of Aganetha herself. The young woman is a runner who wants something from Aganetha and as the story develops the reader becomes more and more interested in what the connection is between the old woman and the young one.

Girl RunnerAganetha was a runner;  she would run rather than walk. When George asked her how she did it she replied that it was easy. “Motion comes lightly to me. Maybe this is how others feel about calculations and equations, or about words, or about their feelings, about choices, about right and wrong. Maybe this is how my mother feels when she’s helping a woman bring a new baby into the world. Maybe this is how my father feels when he’s building one of his inventions.

What I make can’t be seen. It vanishes the instant its created. It can never be made just the same way again. How can I ever grow bored of it?”

Through Aganetha’s memories as she accompanies Kaley and Max, we experience her brothers’ participation in WWI, her family’s pain and grief due to the Spanish flu epidemic, her employment at Packer’s Meats and then in a candy factory (Rosebud Confectionary) owned by P.T. Pallister.  Mr. Pallister announced in the Toronto Daily Star that he would personally guarantee girl athletes would win gold for Canada in Amsterdam at the 1928 Olympic Games.  Aggie is invited to train on the grass track behind the confectionary.

And here Aggie’s story coincides with an interesting historical event which you can read about here. Aggie’s olympic experience differs from that of the actual Canadian women (check here  for a link to a photo of the 1928 Canadian relay team that won gold) who participated but it poses difficulties for her: “I do not know what to do with the love and admiration of strangers. I mistake it for something personal. I believe that it is I who am loved and admired, rather than the girl in the newspaper photos. I don’t understand, yet, that I’m not really that Aganetha.”

This novel is a satisfying summation of an entire life. There is a point at which Aggie wonders who will write her obituary because no one is left from her family to tell her story. No need to worry: her story is here in full and told with compassion. And there is also a mysterious side to that story: who are these people who have come to spirit Aggie away from the nursing home and why have they risked taking a 104 year old woman out and about when they so obviously have no experience caring for such a person?

Have you read Carrie Snyder’s second book, The Juliet Stories, which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award? It was a wonderful read. I want to try her first book of stories now, Hair Hat: the title alone is full of promise! Happy Reading!

P.S. The mentions of Bathurst Street in Toronto and Sunnyside Amusement Park were tiny treats for me: so lovely when an author helps one revisit locations well known to her readers.


JacobTwo-Two Series by Mordecai Richler

From Wikipedia:

“Jacob Two-Two is the central character in a series of children’s books, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1975), Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur (1987) and Jacob Two-Two’s First Spy Case (1995) written by Mordecai Richler, and Jacob Two-Two on the High Seas (2009) written by Cary Fagan.

Jacob is the youngest child of five and has to say things twice because people do not hear him the first time. Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang has twice been filmed, in 1978 and in 1999, the latter film starring Gary Busey. The titles by Mordecai Richler have inspired an animated TV series produced by Nelvana, and seen in Canada on YTV (English) and VRAK.TV (French), and in the United States on Qubo.

The character is said to have been inspired by Jacob Richler, the author’s youngest son. Every character in Jacob’s family has the same name as their counterpart in the real Richler family. However, despite the names, Richler stated that the characters were not based on his family.

In September 2009 Tundra Books, the publisher of the Jacob Two-Two series, released a new fourth book titled Jacob Two-Two on the High Seas. Mordecai Richler had always planned to write new adventures and had started a fourth book before he died in 2001. With the full support of the Richler family, the new book was written by Canadian author Cary Fagan. It is the prequel to the first three books with the family sailing back to Canada from England after Jacob’s father writes an important novel.”

Jacob Two-Two has his own website which is associated with the television series based on the books and it describes all the episodes in detail and lists and identifies the main characters along with a picture gallery and downloads which include printable colouring pages.

I had no idea there was such a wide Jacob Two-Two world.  I read the books because I thought I should be more familiar with them because they were written by a major Canadian author! What is more I read the first three all in one day and I was rewarded several times over by the sheer delight (much of which derives from the clever manipulation of language) and humour found in these adventures.


J Two-Two Meets the Hooded FangIn Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, we are introduced to Jacob: “He was two plus two plus two years old. He had two ears and two eyes and two arms and two feet and two shoes. He also had two older sisters, Emma and Marfa, and two older brothers, Daniel and Noah. ” He very much wanted to do things his older siblings did but things were getting better gradually. “Only two years ago, when he was a mere two times two years old, Jacob Two-Two didn’t even know what a day was, where yesterday had gone, and when tomorrow would come. Waking up one morning, he had asked his mother, “Is this tomorrow? Is this tomorrow?”

He got so upset one day when  “his brothers and sisters didn’t want him. His mother didn’t need him” that he went to find his father and asked to run an errand and when his father said he was too small, he burst into tears. So his father sent him to Mr. Cooper, the green grocer and told him to get two pounds of firm, red tomatoes. He was a little frightened but he set off for Mr. Cooper’s shop. His encounter with Mr. Cooper did not go well for a number of reasons. This is when Jacob meets the hooded fang and characters such as Louis Loser and Mr. Justice Rough and ends up going to children’s prison on a marshy island where the sun never shines. The warden was known as The Hooded Fang. The prison is very Dickensian but Jacob poses serious problems for the warden who concludes that Jacob is a stinker and was “brought up not to believe everything he reads” and who confused The Hooded Fang by not admitting his age always saying that he was two plus two years old and not answering his cell door unless The HF knocked two times!J Two-Two and the Dinosaur

In Jacob Two-Two Meets the Dinosaur, Jacob’s Aunt Good-For-You comes to care for the children while their parents went to Kenya for two week on safari. She took the children to the Museum of Fine Arts and Jacob learned about dinosaurs. I think this was my favourite of the trio because it includes Professor Wacko Kilowatt and Prime Minister Perry Pleaser who wanted “all the people to love him at least as much as he loved himself”. The prime minister had “three yes men and three yes women”.  “Yes people are highly recommended. It is the duty of yes people to say yes to everything you suggest, no matter how foolish. So when Perry Pleaser arrived at his office each morning and broke into his famous smile and sang out, “Don’t you think I’m absolutely, totally, one hundred percent wonderful?” Yes, would say the yes men, and the yes women would call out yes, too.” Early lessons in understanding politics perhaps?

J Two-Two's First Spy CaseIn Jacob Two-Two’s First Spy Case, Jacob attends school at Privilege House where the much-loved headmaster is replaced by Mr. I. M. Greedyguts who is, as his name implies, always stuffing food into his mouth. The students, as might be expected, do not get the same food that the headmaster is served. Their lunches are prepared by Perfectly Loathsome Leo Louse who lives with his mum: he two of them prepare meals that are guaranteed to be “tasteless, horrible, or downright disgusting.” The exciting part of this story is Jacob’s new neighbour, Mr. X Barnaby Dinglebat, Master Spy. He introduces himself this way:

“I am a world traveller. A man who has done many astounding things. I have had a bath in Turkey and eaten turkey in a city called Bath. I once gobbled a sandwich in the town of Rainy River and later waded in a rainy river in the Sandwich Islands. You are looking at a chap who once went out with a fair maiden called Florence in the city of Adelaide, and then kept company with another, called Adelaide, in the city of Florence. I have, in my time, gorged myself on Toulouse sausages in the Canary Islands and kept a canary in a city called Toulouse. Long ago, in my days as a struggling young man, I went hungry in the city of Hamburg,but, by Jove, I lived to eat hamburgers in Hungary,” he said, and then he handed Jacob Two-Two his card.”

Jacob Two-Two on the High SeasAnd this is just the beginning of Jacob and Barnaby’s adventure addressing and ending the injustices at Jacob’s school and using Barnaby’s skills as a spy including some superb disguises.

The fourth Jacob Two-Two book is my next read. It was written after Richler’s death in 2001 (see opening paragraphs above from Wikipedia). It is a prequel and goes back to the time before The Hooded Fang when Jacob’s family moves from England to Canada and travels in the SS Spring-a-Leak with Captain Sparkletooth. After my recent experience with the first three books I am really looking forward to this one!

Have you read any of these, maybe back in the seventies or eighties? Do take time to revisit them: you will find they have definitely stood the test of time with much to offer readers of all ages.  Happy reading!

Ammonites & Leaping Fish by Penelope Lively

As Lively writes in the Preface, “This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age.”

“And a view of old age itself, this place at which we arrive with a certain surprise – ambushed, or so it can seem. The view from eighty, for me. One of the few advantages of age is that you can report on it with a certain authority; you are a native now, and know what goes on here. That, and the backwards glance – the identifying freight of a lifetime.”

Only the author’s words do justice to this book because it is a very personal commentary and reflection upon a long life, much of which has already been documented in her work. It is also much more in that it teaches about memory, it offers comfort and it provides help for those concerned about their possessions or “the accretions of a lifetime”. In Reading and Writing, it provides much food for thought about one’s own reading and encouragement regarding the value of that experience.

More from the Preface:

“Towards the end of my own stint I find myself thinking less about what has happened to me butAmmonites & Leaping Fish interested in this lifetime context, in the times of my life. I have the great sustaining ballast of memory; we all do, and hope to hang on to it. I am interested in the way that memory works, in what we do with it, and what it does with us. And when I look around my cluttered house – more ballast, material ballast – I can see myself oddly identified and defined by what is in it: my life charted out on the bookshelves, my concerns illuminated by a range of objects.”

“These, then, are the prompts for this book: age, memory, time, and this curious physical evidence I find all around me as to what I have been up to – how reading has fed into writing, how ways of thinking have been nailed.”

“And my own context – the context of anyone my age. The accompanying roar of the historical process. I want to remember what those events felt like at the time, those by which I felt most fingered – the Suez crisis, the Cold War, the seismic change in altitudes of the late twentieth century – and see how they are judged today, with the wisdom of historical hindsight.”

On old age itself: “We have to get used to being the person we are, the person we have always been, but encumbered now with various indignities and disabilities, shoved as it were into some new incarnation.  We feel much the same, but clearly are not. We have entered an unexpected dimension; dealing with this is the new challenge.” …There is this interesting accretion – the varieties of ourselves – and the puzzling thing in old age is to find yourself out there as the culmination of all these, knowing that they are you, but that you are also now this someone else.”

And this: “Consider those figures, (in 1961, there were 592 people over 100 years old in this country (England I assume) and by 2060 there will be 455,000) and gasp. Old people were of interest in the past simply because there weren’t that many of them – the sage is a pejorative term suggesting that old age necessarily implies wisdom. That view may have changed radically towards the end of the twenty-first century, I’d guess, when the western world is awash with centenarians. Goodness knows what that will do for attitudes towards the elderly; I’m glad I shan’t be around to find out. I am concerned with here and now, when I can take stock and bear witness.”

On Reading: “Reading in old age is doing for me what it has always done – it frees me from the closet of my own mind. Reading fiction, I see through the prism of another person’s understanding; reading everything else, I am travelling – I am travelling in the way that I still can: new sights, new experiences. I am reminded sometimes of the intensity of childhood reading, that absolute absorption when the very ability to read was a heady new gain, the gateway to a different place, to a parallel universe you hadn’t known was there. The one entirely benign mind-altering drug. …So I have my drug, perfectly legal and I don’t need a prescription.”

There is a fascinating section on memory which defines procedural memory, semantic memory and episodic or autobiographical memory. She describes the latter as “random, non-sequential, capricious, and without it we are undone.” I found this section particularly helpful.

The most interesting section for me was that entitled Reading and Writing in which the author states: “What we read makes us what we are – quite as much as what we have experienced and where we have been and who we have known. To read is to experience.”

The last section of the book is called Six Things and it addresses the matter of “the accretions of a lifetime”. It too, is very helpful as well as comforting. Those readers out there who might be trying to reduce those “accretions of a lifetime” will find this a useful reflection that might be put towards one’s own personal decisions. Lively writes here of being an “agnostic who relishes the equipment of Christianity: its mythologies, its buildings, its ceremonies, its music, the whole edifice without which ours would be a diminished world. I would like to attend a service. I am a church-visiting addict, with cathedrals the ultimate indulgence.” There is also a wonderful piece about her Gayer-Anderson cat which is well worth reading by itself.

She sums up the book and her accretion of things in this way:

“To have the leaping fish sherd on my mantelpiece – and all those other sherds in the cake-tin – expands my concept of time. There is a further dimension to memory; it is not just a private asset, but something vast, collective, resonant. And all because fragments of detritus survive, and I can consider them.”

A rare treat and a comfort to read and read again.


Tell by Frances Itani

In this novel, set in Deseronto, Frances Itani returns (same time period as in Deafening) to the period following World War One, with a story of told and untold secrets.

TellThe story opens in Toronto in November of 1920 in a room with “oak floor, oak desk” and shelves stuffed with black binders. There are four women in the room, a man and a six week old baby. Mrs. Davis oversees some neatly arranged papers. “A low rumble from the street railway outside seems far off”. “There had been no advertisement (outside) for the office used by adoption officials, only a number beside the door at street level, which matches the number of the room where everyone is now tensed, waiting for the proceedings to end.” One woman holds the sleeping baby and manifests considerable stress as she leans forward to sign the papers. Once she has signed she hands the baby to the young couple who, after embracing the woman, exit the room with the baby. After a few moments, Mrs. Davis wishes the mother a safe journey to Oswego and speaks the words “somehow, we manage to survive.”

Then the story goes back one year to November 1919 and the author proceeds to tell us what happened, what brought those four women and one man to that office on November 1, 1920.

Items from the local Deseronto Post are used to enhance the setting and familiarize the reader with the community. One of these early items informs us that plans are being made “to set up a scholarship to commemorate students of Deseronto High School and other young men of the vicinity who took part in the “World’s Great Struggle” just brought to a close, and especially those who made the SUPREME SACRIFICE in said war.” The same issue of the Post reported a runaway horse on Mill Street Tuesday afternoon. And there was an ad for Windsor Salt “on sale in the local stores.”

And so the stage is set for the reader to meet Kenan Oak who was born in Deseronto and came back from the war wounded and had not left the house “since the day he’d returned and set foot in it.” He has lost the sight in one eye, his face is disfigured and his left arm useless. His experience in the trenches has marked him in other ways as well. He “wondered why one of his own eyes had been spared, the events of the carnage having been so random, so finite. There was no explaining who walked away, who returned home, who vanished into a landscape of mud roiling with bodies, dead and alive.” Kenan “did not go out into the town, because it was safer to stay indoors.” “He did not have to look at people, and no one had to look at him.”

Kenan is married to Tress: they had both grown up in Deseronto and were best friends throughout their childhood years. Kenan and Tress are both trying to adjust to the people they had become. “War changed everything. Including what went on in the bedroom.”

Tress had a younger sister who became deaf at age five. She was able to help Kenan “to recover the language inside himself, the language of words he had been unable to utter after he had come home.” Grania had helped him immensely but she had moved away when her own husband had returned from the war.

Tress worked at the restaurant her parents owned and Kenan worked at a job the veterans association had found for him at home. Tress often worked late and Kenan missed her because he had so few other contacts with people because he didn’t go out of the house. He was an orphan who had been raised by his uncle and this seemed to add to his solitariness. He and Tress were once soul mates but things had changed since the war and “there hadn’t been much laughter” although it was once a part of their lives together.

The house they were living in had been rented from the postmaster when Tress received the telegram from the War Office telling her that Kenan was coming home.He had been in hospital in England and the war was still going on when he was sent home. He was ambushed when he first entered the house: “Gates and doorways of countless billets in France had risen before him.”

The memories  of “dwellings where soldiers slept like tinned smelt on rubber sheets laid over salvaged boards, or on sandbags layered together, or on kitchen floors that were nothing more than hard-packed earth.”And other places where “the stench had made it difficult to go down into that cellar, but men were to be billeted in that place, so Kenan descended and then went outside to dig a grave behind one of the outbuildings” so that a body found in the cellar would not disturb what rest the men might be able to get. “The buildings where men slept could receive a direct hit and they’d all be killed anyway.” So, going into this new house brought back memories of his wartime experiences and how he himself used to disobey orders frequently and sleep outside in the open air where he felt safer. In his head he saw men marching by “hundreds, hundreds of thousands” “into oblivion”. He sometimes felt as though he had dropped off the edge of the world.

Eventually he dares to leave the house. He knew the town well and stays away from areas where he might meet people going instead to a farm he knows which has an abandoned barn. He squeezed “between loose boards” and ducked into a dark space which “smelled of old manure, of dust and packed earth and sweet, rotting hay.” He could see to a lighted window of the farmhouse kitchen where he saw a woman moving about. Tress had told him about her and he recalled what she had told him.

“He relaxed, leaned against the boards of the old barn and closed his good eye. His right handTell made a sound, a word. (Grania had taught him sign language.) A finger to his lips and back to his chest. Tell, it seemed to be saying, but the word was directed at himself. It was his private communication: Tell.

What was he to tell and to whom? While he was out someone had seen him from the clock tower above the third-floor apartment in the post office building. The watcher had seen Kenan grow up: he was one of the few permitted to visit after Kenan returned from the war. Could he help Kenan? Would Kenan tell him what needed to be told? What would the consequences be? How will it be connected to the four women and one man in that office? Was Kenan the man? Whose baby was it?

Much to ponder here about secrets and their impact and the significance of communication particularly in primary relationships when pain gets locked behind walls so strong they cannot be breached.


The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill

“I was heading along Rue Sainte-Catherine to sign up for night school. There was a cat outside a Girl Who Was Saturday Night - Copystrip joint going in a circle. I guessed it had learned that behaviour from a stripper. I picked it up in my arms, “What’s new, pussycat,” I said.”

And so begins this story in which there are many cats, including one little black cat in silhouette at the beginning of each chapter.  Here are some that you will meet:

“A cat that was annoyed by all the commotion leapt up onto the bureau and slipped into the mirror and disappeared.”

“A beige cat came down the stairs like caramel seeping out of a Caramilk bar.”

“A cat was in the corner, yawning. It looked like an insomniac in striped pyjamas.”

“A cat peeked out from behind the curtain like an emcee wondering if now was the right time to begin the show.”

Right to the very last page the cats are there – when the little black silhouette exits stage right after the narrator makes this profound observation: “You have to know that the life you have is completely yours.”

There are even more amazing and quirky insights in this book than there are cats appearing and disappearing as they do in all our lives if we are watching. The insights usually come from the narrator, Nouschka Tremblay. Nouschka has a twin brother, Nicolas, and they are the children of Étienne Tremblay and a woman named Noëlle Renaud who was fourteen years old when they were born.  They have grown up with a grandfather named LouLou and resemble what many of us might think of as “wild” children. When it came time to possibly meet their mother, Nouschka is terrified that this will change everything: “I did not want our world turned upside down. I did not want to have any actual information about our mother.”

“Étienne Tremblay had been a pretty famous Québécois folk singer in the early seventies. A  chansonnier. He recorded two albums that were everywhere. Back in the day, he could come home from a show with a paper bag filled with women’s underwear. Outside of Québec nobody had even heard of him, naturally. Québec needed stars badly. The more they had, the better argument they had for having their own culture and separating from Canada.”

Nouschka has a clear understanding of who her father was and is: “To say that Étienne’s fame had gone to his head would be an understatement.He really believed that he had a higher calling. I think he ranked himself up there with Jesus, and I’m not even exaggerating.

Oh and, how could I forget, in the middle of all this he had two kids who became famous too because Étienne always brought them on stage and on talk shows with him. He would make us come out and wave wildly at the audience and blow kisses and say adorable things that he’d written for us to the hosts. We were known to everyone as Petite Nouschka and Petit Nicolas.”

Here are some of the thoughts that Nouschka has when she first meets her mother (Nouschka is almost twenty at the time): “She had loved us on television. The same way that everyone had loved us, which was the same thing as not loving us at all. We had had enough of that type of affection. What we needed was a love that was able to shine a light on who exactly we were, so that we could be people offstage. Then we would be able to be real. Then we would be able to grow up. Then we wouldn’t be joined at the hip. This woman only knew what everybody knew about us. Of course she loved our persona. It was designed to be loved.

I wanted her to be proud of the things that nobody but a mother could be proud of. I had wanted her to be proud of a story that I had written about a swan. I had wanted her to be thrilled when I dived off the high diving board. She should have been there to cheer when I learned my multiplication table. And I had wanted to be commended for giving the flea-ridden cat a bath all by myself.  Those were the things that actually built character. They taught you that ordinary life was meaningful and made sense.”

Other insights;

from Étienne via Nouschka – “He thought family gatherings were destructive to the soul.”

Nouschka on girls from the corps de ballet – “They thought fame would make them happy. They wouldn’t have to feel bad about having been teased in Grade One.”

Nouschka on herself –  “…I was capable of things that Raphaël and Nicolas were not. They were too committed to the personas they had created when they were fourteen years old.”

Nouschka on her father – “How lovely to be in a production of your life instead of being in your life itself.” And this – “It must be nice sometimes to have an all-consuming philosophy that includes not really caring about anyone other than yourself.”

Nouschka on living downtown – “If you lived a certain way downtown you could get away without having one of your own thoughts for weeks.”

Nouschka on writing –  “One of the reasons that I wanted to study literature was because it exposed everything. Writers looked for secrets that had never been mined. Every writer has to invent their own magical language, in order to describe the indescribable. They might seem to be writing in French, English or Spanish, but really they are writing in the language of butterflies, crows and hanged men.”

Nouschka Tremblay will get into your head: you won’t want to be completely without her even when the book ends as it must.  She is sad and funny; hysterically happy and completely dejected in turn; she loves and hates passionately; she is young and she is old simultaneously.  She speaks in the  ” language of butterflies, crows and hanged men.”