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.

 

The Candy Darlings by Christine Walde

Epigraphs:

“There is no such thing as just a story.” -Robert Fulford

“Narration is as much a part of human nature as breath and the circulation
of the blood.”     -A.S. Byatt

EUGOLORP       I like word puzzles! Is this a remnant from my adolescence or just something that has always been a part of me and probably always will be? In any case, I thought it was an appealing opening strategy.  It is prologue by the way in case you aren’t into word play (and that’s okay). The prologue is titled “The Real Story” and it starts like this:

“Once upon a time (oops! should we be suspicious already?), I saw the world the way I thought I was supposed to: as a place where the normal reigned and the weak perished under the strong. But I was wrong. And this is the story about that story. One of the many tales that I must tell.
Megan would have been proud of me. For it was she who first made me seethe candy darlings differently. She turned the world into one of stories – candy-coated, candy-colored, sweet and raw and square and round – composing words I would consume and devour, take whole inside my mouth and suck down into nothing.
What I didn’t see was that there was something more behind them. More than what I had been told. More than what I had been made to understand. Because Megan made me believe that that was all they were. Stories. (check first epigraph)
In the end – whatever the truth is – this I know: whatever Megan told me, I believed it because I wanted to. Not because she made me. Megan was only doing what she had to. I was the one who didn’t want to see what other truth there was.  What the real story could be.”

TRAP ENO  THE GNINNIGEB  The back story is that the narrator’s mother died in April after a long illness. Her daughter used to watch the glucose drip through the apparatus beside her mother’s bed and she imagined the solution “as a kind of liquid candy”. She thought of the liquid as an “invisible fire” burning inside her mother. Images of the glucose line dangling along the floor the day her mother dies…” sugar water dripping slow as tears” …left her believing that “glucose had been the disease, the sugar water the true cause of my mother’s death. She had died full of liquid candy.”

She promised herself never to eat candy again.

Father and daughter move to a smaller town and make the attempt to recover and find a new way of being. They had a house in a quiet subdivision. They both wanted to move. They were seeking normalcy after an irreparable loss for both of them. They were in need of a house “with no trace” of wife or mother.

Our narrator’s hope was that she “could transform into anyone” she wanted to be. “Her plan was simple. Be popular. Be cool. Fit in. No matter what happened: be normal.”

Things started out well enough. She met Tracey Reid and Blake Starfield whom she was warned to stay away from because “he’s weird”. Blake had a lazy eye and sat behind our narrator.

She met three girls who represented the epitome of normal and she knew she wanted to “be a part of them”. They were beautiful and their names were Meredith, Angela and Laura. She met them after school and went to Meredith’s house where the girls talked about boys and admired each other’s clothes and called Tracey a loser and thought about doing something “to her”. Our narrator had “actually thought Tracey had been okay but she wasn’t about to reveal that to  the others.They decide to send a letter to Tracey from Blake and then they decided that our narrator would be the one to deliver it.

“After all, it was your idea,” Angela said. In reply to Meredith’s “That’s OK with you isn’t it? ” Our narrator, neatly trapped between the three of them, swallowed nervously and replied “Sure…I can do that.”

For a week she hung out with the three girls and although she “should have been proud of what [she’d] done…[she] wasn’t”. She felt awful. BUT….she was liked, she was part of a group, she was almost normal and almost happy.

And then she met Megan Chalmers.

When Megan was introduced to the class and Mr. King asked her to tell the students something about her background,  “She flashed the class a fuck-you grin and took her seat.” Because she kept staring at Megan, Mr. King appointed out narrator to show Megan around the school. Megan is sucking on a lollipop and offers our narrator some. The latter refuses of course. They get into a conversation (mostly one-sided) about the school and, in particular, about Meredith, Angela and Laura whom Megan has christened MAL and whom she has identified as controllers of the social dynamic of the whole, a control that arises from their privileged standing at the school and in the community.

Megan tells our narrator that she has recognized her as different from these clones that dictate social policy to the whole school. She examines our narrator’s palm and identifies her recent loss and tells her she is lying about who she is. Megan says they are destined to be friends. Our narrator tells Megan she doesn’t believe in fate or destiny. Megan says “Sure you don’t. And monkeys fly out of my ass.” Megan thanks her for the tour and goes her own way.

It only gets better after this. The friendship itself is fascinating and the adventures the two girls have are packed full of life lessons that all girls the same age probably have but not everyone learns as much from their experiences as these two do. My favourite experience is the one the girls have when they volunteer at St. Teresa’s Hospital where their responsibility is to take the candy and magazine cart around to all the rooms and see who wants to buy some. It is there they meet Edie who has potted plants all over her room and all kinds of candy including scotch mints, butterscotch melt-aways, Russell Stover chocolates, Jelly Belly jelly beans and raisin Glossettes, M & M’s,Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups etc. etc. Edie takes many pills and she says the bottles say take with food and she has determined that candy is the best for that purpose.

A good balance between entertainment and thoughtful insight. I would recommend it for young women capable of extracting, or craving, life lessons from their reading.

 

 

Martin John by Anakana Schofield

“It was a time when people didn’t ask as many questions.
That was the time it was.”

This book will take you to another place: one you don’t often go to or may never have been. Prepare yourself: check out the Index on the first page.

Index

1. Martin John has made mistakes.
2. Check my card.
3. Rain will fall.
4. Harm was done.
5. It put me in the Chair.

Think about the index. What mistakes has Martin John made? What kind of a card does he carry? Is the rain significant? In what way? To Whom was harm done? What is “it”? What happened in the Chair and how did “it” put someone in the Chair?

Wait a few minutes or longer then read the next page and think about the illustration and the words. “What they don’t know: Flashing is a very angry act.”

Then read the flip side of the page:Martin John

“Rain will fall.
Check my card.
I never tasted bread like the bread in Beirut.
I don’t read the fucken Daily Telegraph.”

You can keep going slowly if you aren’t sure that you want to continue. At this point I was completely hooked: I wanted the details. I wanted the answers to all my questions.

The next section with the same illustration and the text “What they know” with a flip side and this text: “Martin John has not been to Beirut. He has only been to London and to visit his Aunty Noanie.” Then, on the next page: “The dentist’s waiting room shaped Martin John’s life. A simple room, nothing to suggest it contained the almighty power it did.”

Why has the author chosen to arrange the text this way? She introduces us to Martin John in bits and pieces you might say. Is his mind full of bits and pieces? Is he perhaps as confused as we are? Is he able to connect the bits and pieces or are they a mystery to him as they are to us so far?

The illustration is a simple diagram representing different railway stations and is directly related to the circuits Martin John refers to …he makes circuits…and he has a particular station that he favours…Euston Station.

There is another voice you will read mostly from Martin John’s perspective:
“Once, early on, in London, Martin John was vague about the time he went to sleep. Mam told him straight: Get a job at night.
Get a job at night or else I’ll come for ya.”

“He has the bike.
She doesn’t want him on public transport.
Don’t go near the buses, they might see you on the buses and don’t go down on the Tube for you could go into a tunnel and never come out.
D’ya hear me Martin John
?”

Thirty or so pages into the book, there is additional information about Martin John’s Mam:
“…she recognizes that there are many mothers out there trying puzzling things out. She will have to be a mother who puzzles. Except she is not the type who puzzles. She prefers to head, bang, to a conclusion. In this case: I was not that mother. I am not that mother. I didn’t raise my son to rob a post office. So what did she raise him to?”,

and a further explanation of the Index:  “The Index tells us there will be five refrains (listed in opening above)…there are also subsidiary refrains…We will do as the Index tells us this time…When will she tell us exactly what they mean? She may not, since the mother may not ever know why he did what he did, or why it was her son and not the woman up the road’s son. There are simply going to be things we won’t know. It’s how it is. As it is in life must it be unto the page. There’s the known and the unknown. In the middle is where we wander and wonder.”

Besides Mam’s directions, “the newspapers will always matter to Martin John.
He won’t be a day without it and it won’t be a day without him.
It mattered before “the difficult time” and it matters today. The stability of it, the regularity, the newspaper women sustain him.

It’s why he calls into Euston on his way to work. Or, first thing every morning, if he’s not working, he’ll cross to the newsagents on Tower Bridge Road…there are photos and headlines and certain words that worry Martin John and he will not buy what worries him…he never buys a newspaper if he notices a headline has petrol in it. Or pervert. He’s not keen on P words.” The first thing he checks is whether any of his letters got through and then he checks the crossword clues…if they’re terrible – determined by reading 3 across and only 2 of the down…then he chooses a different paper. The newspaper determines many things in Martin John’s daily life.”

Every Wednesday at 2:30 pm he catches the train to Hatfield to visit Aunty Noanie : …”he checks the weather before he departs very, very carefully and examines the sky, to help him predict whether rain may fall or if he might need to cancel the visit.”

A difficult book that reads very quickly.  It will not always be easy to understand but then, there is so much we don’t understand. Every word is worth the effort. Highly recommended to those who want to better understand their world.

My favourite quote from the book:

“Martin John would find that suspicious. A man having an erection on the verb to be, and at a question too. He would find that suspicious. He wouldn’t appreciate it in a crossword clue. So you should know that. You should know the things he does and doesn’t appreciate, if we are going to carry on with this. If not – well, hang up now, as the operator would say.
That’s aggressive, but you see this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us.”

Also by this author: Malarky (published in 2012)

Note: Martin John has been shortlisted for the Giller award to be announced in November. Read what the author had to say recently about the writing of Martin John.

 

His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay

His Whole LifeI think I love this book mostly for the conversations! The latter are so natural and so interesting that, as you read them,  it almost feels like you are right in them and there is an eagerness to contribute which is not something I experience that often while reading. The book begins with a conversation between mother and son in which the son, while on a car trip in their old Chevette,  asks his mother, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

The mother, Nan (short for Nancy) temporarily avoids the question using humour: “Well”, she said, “there was that murder I committed last year.”  The question reappears throughout the remainder of the book. How would you answer it?  And for how long have you been burdened with the answer?

Nan does eventually offer this: “It seems to me the worst things are my thoughts, not things I’ve done.” When she asks her son Jim the question, he replies: “I don’t know.” Nan wonders what it is that is weighing down his thoughts.

Jim and his parents, Nan and George, are driving to his mother’s brother’s place on the lake of many bays. The Chevette had a bullet hole in its side. It had been parked on New Amsterdam Avenue (New York) and the bullet had travelled through eight volumes of Jim’s grandmother’s Encyclopedia Britannica which had been “occupying the back seat”. Nan had saved the bullet.

Jim’s father George had a ready answer to Jim’s question about the worst thing he’d done. It was about bullying another child at school when he was eight. Nan and George’s exchanges in this brief conversation tell us much about each of them.

My favourite parts of books are those which include literary references and there are many such references in this book. Jim and Nan are both readers and so is Nan’s friend Lulu who is an actor. Over martinis the women are catching up and Lulu says what she likes best in Albee’s A Delicate Balance is the line “Wow, what a good martini” and Nan explains to Jim that that is from a play. Later Nan recalls a dream in which she was caught in a flood and  felt like the old servant at the end of The Cherry Orchard. While sitting with Jim and Lulu she says “My life is out of Chekov” and Jim knew it was something she “liked to say and said often.” In the same conversation about martinis, Nan refers to an Alice Munro story and quotes the line, “Forgiveness in families is a mystery to me, how it comes or how it lasts.” They are both thinking of a major rift between Lulu and her brother Guy who has a property adjoining Nan’s brother’s cottage on the bay.

George returns to New York and work while summer begins for Jim: “the outstanding summer of his childhood when he had two dogs and two happy women who wanted his company. He didn’t miss his father as much as he thought he should, but he talked to him regularly on the phone and pitied his pale, unrugged days.”

As in all our lives there are undercurrents beneath the tranquility. Nan worries that Jim wouldn’t tell her his worst thing. She thinks something happened at school. She worries about other things as well: “How does a marriage that’s stopped working start working again?” And she worries about her first son, Blake who was named after Lulu, and who doesn’t want to be around her.

She worries about her mother: “her mother was going backward” in time and wearing clothes Nan used to wear when she was much younger like a trench coat she had when she was sixteen and a jacket she had when she was twelve. “And so pieces of her past went fishing in the rain” because the cottage had become “a repository for parts of their childhood”. She worries about Lulu and her relationship with her brother Guy.

She even worries about Quebec: she took Jim to the Canadian Museum of Civilization. She called Quebec “the other country” and explained to Jim how deep the English-Canadian insecurity went for those like herself who felt “ashamed, resentful, unforgiven”. “But for Jim it was another country inside another country. He was an American in Canada, and Quebec was not a problem. It was where Lévesque came from (Jim admired Lévesque). Trudeau too.”

She asks Jim “Would you like to live at the lake year-round and go to school in Lanark and learn French?”

Nan meets people she used to know many years ago: a school friend in particular that she didn’t have positive memories of. She “forgives” this person without thinking and then realizes that the person does not share Nan’s memories of the past. “Janet exerting her version of events. Janet painting herself as the beloved, sought-after one while she, poor Nan, had to knock on doors, begging for scraps of attention.” Nan tries to resolve this so as to make sense of it. “Get over it, she said to herself. But my God, the pain was shocking.”

There is so much more in this book than I have covered here. It is titled His  Whole Life but it actually includes several whole lives. It definitely includes Nan’s whole life and a good chunk of Lulu’s life except the years of her acting career, George’s whole life and a chunk of Guy’s life and Guy’s daughter Ducky. Oh, yes the lives of a couple of great dogs named Pog and Moon.

It’s what I call a “comfort” read : one that helps me sort out my own world and experience the comfort that others bring sorting out their worlds. Rather like having an extended conversation with someone you trust who doesn’t claim to have all the answers but who has learned how to navigate through some of the tough spots and who cares about the journey. Put the kettle on and prepare to sink into this one.

 

The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

“James Hunter falls through morning.

He swings from his parachute harness as the plane drops below him, the The Evening Chorusbroken shell of the bomber sinking into the Channel fog.

The water is as jarring as solid earth, and shockingly cold.”

James is a pilot in the RAF. He hopes he might get picked up in the Channel by a British ship but “when he sees the shine of a black boot resting on the gunwale and above that a gloved hand holding a pistol” he gives up that hope. The soldier grins at him and says, clearly, in English:

“For you the war is over.”

The camp is deep inside Bavaria and has a limestone building that houses the Germans and eighteen one-storey wooden bunkhouses each of which houses 112 men in fourteen rooms each with a coal-burning stove, a table and four bunks. James used some slats from his bed to fashion a small desk. The prisoners use the knotholes in the pine wall boards to hide small things they know the Guards will confiscate. Their inadequate meals are buoyed up by Red Cross parcels. On three sides the camp is surrounded by dense forest and on the third is a river. There is a tripwire around the camp and in front of the river and fences topped with barbed wire.

Prisoners who are officers do not have to work but some seek out something to occupy their time and minds. “Escape is the most popular pastime” and tunnelling uses many hands preferably of small men but the risk of discovery is high.

James was captured in the winter of 1940 and in the spring he starts to frequent the part of the camp facing the river. He studies the river at first noting that it has widened and increased in volume, covering the rocks that protruded in the winter. It moves quickly and he studies how fast the leaves move downstream and around the bend. He considers making a study of the Redstartriver but restricted access is discouraging. He hears a bird singing and “all his thoughts are silenced”.  He locates the redstarts on a stone wall and “the beauty of their song and the splash of red on their tails made him decide to study them for the length of time he was to be kept in the camp.”

One of the things he contemplates is the question of whether some birds are “better singers than others, and if this constant song was a rejoicing in their abilities.” He takes note that their song “begins as a melody and ends in dissonance, as though the song itself come undone in the process of singing it, finishing up with all the right notes presented in completely the wrong order. ” He realized he needed to document what he is observing and begins to come regularly with a notebook and pencil and to sit quietly and not draw the attention of the guards.

James married Rose six months before he was sent overseas as a pilot. They lived in a small cottage near the Ashdown Forest that was once a shepherd’s hut. James tells his bunk mate that his feelings for and about Rose are private. “Harry snorts with laughter, slaps James on the shoulder. “Have you not noticed where you are? he says. “There’s nothing here that’s private, old chum.”  James believes that “by keeping his feelings private, he keeps them active.””  The men sometimes get letters from home in which wives and girlfriends tell the men they have found someone else and James dreads getting such a letter.

The Kommandant learns of James’ study of the redstarts and sends him a German guide to birds which James tries to return but the Kommandant encourages him to keep it if only to improve his German. He reads to James from the entry on the redstart: “The heart of the redstart beats at fourteen times the rate of the human heart,” reads the Kommandant.  This is approximately 980 beats a minute.” He encourages James to keep the book.

The Kommandant read Classics at Oxford and taught at the University of Berlin. He tells James “Like you, I am not a soldier.”

Unusual relationships develop sometimes in places they might seem  least likely to be found and their short duration may make them particularly meaningful.

James has a sister named Enid whose flat is bombed in London and who must move to stay with Rose briefly. Another relationship of short duration. Enid and Rose both write to James but they talk very little about him. We learn much from their letters.

All the data James collects in prison will become a book after the war. Will the characters in the story do as well?

There are some actual events in the story which did occur and upon which the story is loosely based.  From the Author’s Note:

“There was a Wellington bomber that crashed on the Ashdown Forest during the Second World War, killing all members of the six-man crew.

There was a German prison camp Kommandant who took a prisoner to see some cedar waxwings in a nearby forest.

And there were birdwatchers during the way in some of the prison camps. One of these wartime birdwatchers, John Buxton, wrote a book about the redstart that is still regarded by many as one of the most comprehensive single-species  studies ever undertaken.”

A soothing, calming, sad and inspirational wee book. If you haven’t tried Helen Humphreys’ work this is a perfect place to start but there are many others too: The Lost Garden, Afterimage, Leaving Earth, The Reinvention of Love, The Frozen Thames, Coventry and more. Enjoy!