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!


The Birthday Lunch by Joan Clark

Hal and Lily McNab have been married thirty-three years and have a creek outside their bedroom window which is a tributary of the Kennebecasis, itself a tributary of the Saint John whose source is in the Appalachians and which empties into the Bay of Fundy. Hal is a virulent man and he and Lily have an active sex life. Lily’s sister Laverne has a small apartment which used to be the servant’s quarters of the house.

“After their mother died, Lily pronounced as she held her sister’s hand: “When we are grown up, Laverne, you and I will live in a little white house by the sea. There will be lupines and wild roses and a white fence.” For years Laverne held on to that dream until Hal entered the picture and the prospect of living in the little white house vanished.”

In later years, however, the two girls combined their inheritance and they and Hal purchased The Old Steadman House which had already been subdivided into apartments. Laverne moved out of her trailer, Hal and Lily took the upper apartment and a family friend, Sophie Power, moved into the lower apartment. The appeal to Laverne was to live close to her sister and have a garden of her own.

Sound ideal? Well, almost. Laverne and Hal have never been “friends”. She had been very specific about what she expected from male companions and had rejected a number of potential partners. She believed Lily deserved better than Hal had to offer and she didn’t hide her opinion. She co-signed the mortgage agreement on the understanding that the expenses for the renovations of the servant’s quarters would be shared.

The characters of Laverne and Lily and Hal are sufficiently developed early in the story for the reader to invest in each of them and to care what happens to each one. The discomfort between Laverne and Hal has a universal quality to it as does Lily’s position as person in-the-middle.

the birthday lunchThe story begins the day before school summer holidays and Laverne takes a day from work to celebrate Lily’s fifty-eighth birthday with her by making her a special lunch of asparagus and Stilton soup and Coquille St. Jacques with a bottle of wine.

As you might anticipate, Hal has also made plans for Lily’s birthday. He has booked lunch at Adair’s and planned a special birthday surprise after that. When Lily explains that Laverne has already asked her for lunch, Hal replies: “Your sister isn’t calling the shots today. After you went to bed, I telephoned her and told her I would be taking you to lunch at Adair’s.” The conversation continues and Hal puts Lily in the middle by asking her whether she wants to have lunch with Laverne or with him. One can imagine the tension and also becomes aware that in several years these three have not worked out a resolution to this relational conundrum. The reader senses trouble ahead.

Hal has to make a furniture delivery the morning of Lily’s birthday and sets off in his Chevrolet Impala to do that. The delivery is in Waterford where many years ago their daughter Claudia “pointed to a tiny house with a grass roof tucked into a hillside. “Frodo lives in that house,” she said, and was immediately corrected by he brother. “A hobbit would never live near a church,” Matthew told her. “Hobbits believe in wizards, not God.” Hal had never heard of hobbits and Lily explained that hobbits were hairy-footed little creatures who were much nicer than people.” Don’t you just love it when authors use allusions to childhood reading to illuminate their characters?

Anyway, Hal’s furniture delivery is complicated by a problem with the Chevy Impala and after checking everything he can, Hal calls his mechanic at Northrup’s Garage and learns it will be a good hour or more before someone can drive out with the tow truck.

Hal told Lily he would pick her up at 12:30 to go to Adair’s for lunch. He had called Laverne AFTER Lily had gone to bed and told Laverne “that she would have to cancel tomorrow’s lunch with Lily. My wife is having lunch with me,” he said  before hanging up the telephone. He felt ashamed and didn’t go to bed until he was sure Lily was asleep.

He tries to call Lily from Waterford but there is no answer and he is well aware that Lily must be downstairs having lunch with Laverne. His anger intensifies knowing that Laverne has defeated him once again and also because he has never once been invited to Laverne’s apartment for a meal although she eats upstairs with them on a regular basis. “Whenever he complains to Lily about the unfairness of the situation, she tells him that Laverne’s apartment is so dreary and strange it would upset him to see it.”

Hal does eventually reach Laverne’s apartment and Lily answers sensing that it must be him. “Laverne hears her say that she understands Hal’s disappointment, that he is not to worry, the delay won’t spoil her day and there is no need to apologize. Apologize? Laverne has never known her brother-in-law to apologize. ” Laverne believes Hal is deliberately keeping Lily on the phone and she hears enough to indicate that Hal is insisting Lily get a taxi to take her to an appointment and not let Laverne drive her there and back. ” Lily is annoyed. Laverne will drive me to the hospital,” she says and hangs up before Hal can get in another word. Pleased that her sister has stood her ground, Laverne savours the moment and when Lily returns to the table, she congratulates her for standing up to Hal.”

So how do you think Lily responds? Can you choose the words she might use given the fact that she is consistently loyal to Hal?

These relational dilemmas are common in many families and sometimes they get worked out and sometimes not. And sometimes we don’t pay sufficient attention because we think we have all the time in the world and then some.

There is an interesting subplot dealing with art and the Dutch Masters, in particular Pieter de Hooch’s work titled Woman and Child in an Interior which Laverne saw in the Rijkmuseum and was captivated by to the extent that she incorporated a version of it in her apartment when it was newly renovated. The insides of the front and back covers of the book are reproductions of this work and add an interesting dimension to the character of Lily’s sister Laverne.

Have you read any of Joan Clark’s novels? The Victory of Geraldine Gull? Latitudes of Melt? An Audience of Chairs?  She has written many others including two collections of short stories and several novels for young adults.

She was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2010 and received the Marian Engel Award for her body of work in 1991. She lives in Newfoundland and was raised in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

I have read the three titles listed above and recommend all of them. I will read Eriksdottir next.


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!


These Good Hands by Carol Bruneau

There are two particular sets of hands in this story in addition to the hands referred to in the epigraph:

Only in our doing can we grasp you.
Only with our hands can we illumine you.
The mind is but a visitor:
It thinks us out of our world.              
Rainer Maria Rilke

The sets of hands belong to Camille Claudel, a French sculptor and to a nurse, These Good HandsSolange Poitier who, as the story begins, is travelling to Montdevergues Asylum near Avignon on a September day in 1943.  Solange will become the chief caregiver for Camille who was committed to the asylum by her brother with her mother’s consent in 1913. “Hands” could also refer to or represent the many letters written by Camille from the asylum in an attempt to reestablish some form of contact with the outside world and/or to get someone to rescue her. She wrote many letters to her younger self as well: the only person she believed would listen to her or hear her or, perhaps, could share what she had been through.

Camille’s hands would also represent the work she had done in her earlier years: she was known to be good at hands and feet and it was believed she may have sculpted the hands and feet of the men represented in one of Rodin’s most famous works, The Burghers of Calais completed in 1889. It is said that the hands she has sculpted seem to be reaching out at times and trying to grasp something and that they appear to be reaching for a connection. Her hands it would seem have brought a living quality to the bodies she sculpts and gives a sense of an emotional life to the subjects according to some who have studied her work.

Claudel was born in 1864 in France: her father was a civil servant and her mother a housewife. She had a brother Paul and a sister Louise. Her relationship with her mother was tumultuous it would seem since she was headstrong and rebellious. She writes in her later years about how her mother “remained steadfast…in refusing to let me sculpt her.” When she did do a portrait in pastels of her mother, the latter found fault with it saying she looked too stern and her eyes were too far apart.  :”For a time Maman’s portrait hung above the vanity in her bedroom. “So this is how I look to you, my girl?” she said one night as she was brushing her hair, its darkness barely threaded with grey. “And I thought a daughter loved her mother.” Always, it seems, there was tension between them and Maman did not approve of a woman doing what Camille wanted to do and insisted upon doing regardless. She recalls how when she was very young she had “delved with both hands into muck and murk, shaping faces out of mud, to Maman’s great disgust. All I had thought of was the chance, ooh-la-la, to study with a great artist, even persuading Papa to move our family – Maman, our brother, sister, and me – to Paris.”

When, at eighteen, she and her friend first go to the atelier where Monsieur sculpts they experienced “a tenacious joy”: “Everywhere, stacked and scattered over worktables and shelves, were body parts shaped from clay or plaster-cast. Torsos, heads, arms, legs. A limbo of fragments, as if plucked from a battlefield. My friend was agog. In this purgatory of white lay paradise.”

And so Camille’s work began in earnest. She writes in one of her letters about Rodin’s hands: “His hands were those of an angel. I let myself think, that strong and graceful. Our strength and grace – call it what you want – burned into whatever we touched.”

Camille became Rodin’s mistress. Needless to say, her mother was violently opposed. Her brother cautioned her. The objections meant nothing to her: she was driven forward by her passion for her work and for Rodin himself inspite of her awareness that he had a “wife” with whom he lived and whom he had no intention of leaving. When that “wife” (Rose) visited Camille and warned her, Camille could not hear Rose for the anger that overwhelmed her.

It was a recipe for disaster and Camille is committed. Carol Bruneau’s novel about Camille’s years in the asylum is told alternately by Solange Poitier and through letters from Camille.  There are excellent sources of information on Claudel and her work on the internet, there have been movies produced but the best are only in French or will not play in North America or are very expensive it seems but there is this site where Carol Bruneau discusses the process and the book.

Whether Camille Claudel and her work is new to you or whether you are aware of it, you will enjoy meeting her in this book.

The last words go to Solange Poitier:

There’s nothing to fear, nothing that’s too painful to bear when you’re in good hands, so the midwife-sister had assured me. Yet fear had muscled in, of course, in the greyness of my lying strapped to a gurney. Never forget the pain, though;remembering it might keep you out of trouble, might even help you. It did, too,making it easier, maybe, to imagine myself being inside the skins of some patients.”