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‘The Orange Grove’ by Larry Tremblay ***

Prolific French Canadian author Larry Tremblay’s The Orange Grove is number 23 upon the Peirene Press list, published as part of 2017’s series, East and West.  It has been translated from its original French by Sheila Fischman, and has sold over 25,000 copies in Tremblay’s native Canada.  Longlisted for the 2017 IMPAC award, and the winner of eight others, The Orange Grove looks at ‘personal costs of war in the Middle-East’, and engages with ‘themes of the family and grief in general’.  Meike Ziervogel, founder of Peirene, says of the novella: ‘This story made me cry…  [It] reminds us of our obligation to forgive – ourselves as well as others’.

9781908670366The Orange Grove focuses upon twin brothers, Ahmed and Aziz, who are living on their grandparents’ orange grove in an unnamed Middle Eastern country.  When their grandparents are killed on their homestead in a bombing attack, the boys ‘become pawns in their country’s civil war’, leaving their parents with the devastating choice of which son they should save. Soulayed, an acquaintance of Ahmed and Amir’s father, takes the boys away from his family with their father’s permission, after saying just how important the small boys are to the war effort.  He tells them: ‘”Do you see now what you’ve accomplished?  You found a road to lead you to that strange town.  You’re the only ones who’ve done it.  Others who’ve tried to do so were blown to smithereens by the mines.  In a few days, one of you qill go back there.  You, Aziz, or you, Ahmed.  Your father will decide.  And the one who is chosen will wear a belt of explosives.  He will go down to that strange town and make it disappear forever.”‘

The writing, particularly that which deals with violent scenes and aftermaths, is rather matter-of-fact; sometimes, it is even rendered coldly, and is almost entirely devoid of emotion.  This can be seen when the twins discover the mutilated bodies of their grandparents: ‘Their grandmother’s skull had been smashed by a beam.  Their grandfather was lying in his bedroom, his body ripped apart by the bomb that had come from the side of the mountain where every evening the sun disappeared’.

Much of the prose, in fact, is simplistic, but sometimes deceptively so.  There are flickers of beauty at times with regard to descriptions.  Of the twins’ mother Tamara, for instance, Tremblay writes: ‘Some nights the moon made her think of a fingernail impression in the flesh of the sky.  She liked these moments when she was alone before infinity’.  The novella’s dialogue, on the other hand, is often rather profound.

I was reminded of another of Peirene’s publications, Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake, whilst reading The Orange Grove.  Whilst the novella undoubtedly tells an important story, there is the same simplicity to it at times, and the same kind of detachment.  I never felt as though I truly learnt much about the characters who people Tremblay’s work, which comes across almost like a contemporary fable.  The boys are both naive and knowing; an interesting contrast, which I cannot help but think more could have been made of.   Regardless, The Orange Grove is a timely work, which raises questions about choice, family, religion, society, grief, loss, revenge, and deception.  A lot is packed into the pages of this very human novella, and the whole could easily be extended into a much longer novel.  Overall, I found The Orange Grove an important read, but ultimately a slightly underwhelming one.

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The Book Trail: Swinging to Nightbirds

We begin with a very thoughtful and compelling work of Miriam Toews’ for this particular Book Trail!

1. Swing Low by Miriam Toews 17846957
One morning Mel Toews put on his coat and hat and walked out of town, prepared to die. A loving husband and father, faithful member of the Mennonite church, and immensely popular schoolteacher, he was a pillar of his close-knit community. Yet after a lifetime of struggle, he could no longer face the darkness of manic depression.  With razor-sharp precision,Swing Low tells his story in his own voice, taking us deep inside the experience of despair. But it is also a funny, winsome evocation of country life: growing up on farm, courting a wife, becoming a teacher, and rearing a happy, strong family in the midst of private torment.  A humane, inspiring story of a remarkable man, father, and teacher.’

 

2. Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner
From an emerging master of short fiction and one of Canada’s most distinctive voices, a collection of stories as heartbreaking as those of Lorrie Moore and as hilariously off-kilter as something out of McSweeney’s. In Better Living through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner delivers a powerful second dose of the lacerating satire that marked her acclaimed debut, All the Anxious Girls on Earth, but with even greater depth and darker humour. Whether she casts her eye on evolution and modern manhood when an upscale cul-de-sac is thrown into chaos after a redneck moves into the neighbourhood, international adoption, war photography, real estate, the movie industry, motivational speakers, or terrorism, Gartner filets the righteous and the ridiculous with dexterity in equal, glorious measure. These stories ruthlessly expose our most secret desires, and allow us to snort with laughter at the grotesque world we’d live in if we all got what we wanted.

 

3. Open by Lisa Moore
498084Lisa Moore’s Open makes you believe three things unequivocally: that St. John’s is the centre of the universe, that these stories are about absolutely everything, that the only certainty in life comes from the accumulation of moments which refuse to be contained. Love, mistakes, loss — the fear of all of these, the joy of all of these. The interconnectedness of a bus ride in Nepal and a wedding on the shore of Quidi Vidi Lake; of the tension between a husband and wife when their infant cries before dawn (who will go to him?) and the husband’s memory of an early, piercing love affair; of two friends, one who suffers early in life and the other midway through.  In Open Lisa Moore splices moments and images together so adroitly, so vividly, you’ll swear you’ve lived them yourself. That there is a writer like Lisa Moore threading a live wire through everything she sees, showing it to us, warming us with it. These stories are a gathering in. An offering. They ache and bristle. They are shared riches. Open.

 

4. Luck by Joan Barfoot
Philip Lawrence, a robust and pleasure-loving furniture-maker, dies suddenly at the age of forty-six. Though that’s terribly young by most standards, he’s lucky to have passed presumably peacefully in his sleep. Less fortunate, however, are the three women he leaves behind to make sense of his loss.  There’s Nora, his wife of seventeen years, who wakes up next to his dead body. A fiery visual artist, Nora’s feminist re-interpretation of biblical themes stoked fundamentalist outrage from her small-town neighbours. Now, as her emotions run the gamut, she must confront solo life in a place she despises.  Nora shares the house with Sophie, a buxom and bossy redhead, who works as the couple’s housekeeper and personal assistant. A recovering virtue addict, Sophie turns to menial tasks as a way to suppress painful memories of her two-year stint as an overseas aid worker. Philip’s death leaves her quietly reeling.  And then there’s the pliable and vacuous Beth, a former beauty queen, who serves as Nora’s live-in muse and model. She mourns not Philip so much as the loss of a haven from her own creepy past.  The novel follows the three days immediately after Philip’s death. Privately, each woman deals with memories and emotions, secrets and uncomfortable revelations, while at the same time preparing for the public rituals of mourning (including a funeral like no other). The narrative moves seamlessly from one perspective to another with delicious dark humour and wry insight into the nature of death, love, mourning, fundamentalism and luck.

 

5. Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa 2454933
At the heart of this collection of intimately linked stories is the relationship between a father and his son. A young fisherman washes up nearly dead on the shores of Newfoundland. It is Manuel Rebelo who has tried to escape the suffocating smallness of his Portuguese village and the crushing weight of his mother’s expectations to build a future for himself in a terra nova. Manuel struggles to shed the traditions of a village frozen in time and to silence the brutal voice of Maria Theresa da Conceicao Rebelo, but embracing the promise of his adopted land is not as simple as he had hoped.  Manuel’s son, Antonio, is born into Toronto’s little Portugal, a world of colourful houses and labyrinthine back alleys. In the Rebelo home the Church looms large, men and women inhabit sharply divided space, pigs are slaughtered in the garage, and a family lives in the shadow cast by a father’s failures. Most days Antonio and his friends take to their bikes, pushing the boundaries of their neighbourhood street by street, but when they finally break through to the city beyond they confront dangers of a new sort.  With fantastic detail, larger-than-life characters and passionate empathy, Anthony De Sa invites readers into the lives of the Rebelos and finds there both the promise and the disappointment inherent in the choices made by the father and the expectations placed on the son.

 

6. The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan
At the turn of the twentieth century, newly arrived to the countryside, William Heath, his wife, and two daughters appear the picture of a devoted family. But when accusations of embezzlement spur William to commit an unthinkable crime, those who witnessed this affectionate, attentive father go about his routine of work and family must reconcile action with character. A doctor who cared for the young Lillian searches for clues that might penetrate the mystery of the father’s motivation. Meanwhile Rachel’s teacher grapples with guilt over a moment when fate wove her into a succession of events that will haunt her dreams.  In beautifully crafted prose, Mary Swan examines the intricate and unexpected connections between the people in this close-knit community that continue to echo in the future. In her nuanced, evocative descriptions, a locket contains immeasurable sorrow, trees provide sanctuary and refuge to lost souls, and grief clicks into place when a man cocks the cold steel barrel of a revolver. A supreme literary achievement, The Boys in the Trees offers a chilling story that swells with acutely observed emotion and humanity.

 

7. The Assassin’s Song by M.G. Vassanji
1664732In the aftermath of the brutal violence that gripped western India in 2002, Karsan Dargawalla, heir to Pirbaag – the shrine of a mysterious, medieval sufi – begins to tell the story of his family. His tale opens in the 1960s: young Karsan is next in line after his father to assume lordship of the shrine, but he longs to be “just ordinary.” Despite his father’s pleas, Karsan leaves home behind for Harvard, and, eventually, marriage and a career. Not until tragedy strikes, both in Karsan’s adopted home in Canada and in Pirbaag, is he drawn back across thirty years of separation and silence to discover what, if anything, is left for him in India.

 

8. Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? by Anita Rau Badami
Set against the tumultuous backdrop of a fragmenting Punjab and moving between Canada and India, Can you Hear the Nightbird Call? charts the interweaving stories of three Indian women – Bibi-ji, Leela and Nimmo – each in search of a resting place amid rapidly changing personal and political landscapes.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have piqued your interest?

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Two Non-Fiction Reviews: Elizabeth McCracken and Margaret Atwood

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken *****

‘”This is the happiest story in the world with the saddest ending,” writes Elizabeth McCracken in her powerful, inspiring memoir. A prize-winning, successful novelist in her 30s, McCracken was happy to be an itinerant writer and self-proclaimed spinster. But suddenly she fell in love, got married, and two years ago was living in a remote part of France, working on her novel, and waiting for the birth of her first child.This book is about what happened next. In her ninth month of pregnancy, she learned that her baby boy had died. How do you deal with and recover from this kind of loss? Of course you don’t–but you go on. And if you have ever experienced loss or love someone who has, the company of this remarkable book will help you go on.With humor and warmth and unfailing generosity, McCracken considers the nature of love and grief. She opens her heart and leaves all of ours the richer for it.’

9780316027663I reread An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination for my Reading France project this year.  McCracken, whom I first discovered back in 2007 when a kind human in Waterstone’s recommended the fantastic The Giant’s House to me, is one of my favourite contemporary authors.  She is consistent, thoughtful, and striking in her prose.  This is the only piece of non-fiction which she has released to date, and it is a heartbreakingly honest work which details the stillbirth of her first son, Pudding.  The fragmented prose style, with its many short chapters made up of different memories, hopes, and dreams, is incredibly fitting, whilst giving the whole such depth.  An Exact Replica… is a beautiful and brave memorial to a lost son.

 

Strange Things by Margaret Atwood ****

‘Margaret Atwood’s witty and informative book focuses on the imaginative mystique of the wilderness of the Canadian North. She discusses the ‘Grey Owl Syndrome’ of white writers going native; the folklore arising from the mysterious– and disastrous — Franklin expedition of the nineteenth century; the myth of the dreaded snow monster, the Wendigo; the relations between nature writing and new forms of Gothic; and how a fresh generation of women writers in Canada have adapted the imagery of the Canadian North for the exploration of contemporary themes of gender, the family and sexuality. Writers discussed include Robert Service, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, E.J. Pratt, Marian Engel, Margaret Laurence, and Gwendolyn MacEwan. This superbly written and compelling portrait of the mysterious North is at once a fascinating insight into the Canadian imagination, and an exciting new work from an outstanding literary presence.’ 9781844080823

I found out about Margaret Atwood’s Strange Things whilst reading through Kirsty Logan’s blog, and noting down all of those books which she has loved.  I have read – and largely enjoyed – several Atwood books to date, but this marked my first taste of her non-fiction.  I am rather obsessed at present with accounts of northerly snow-covered spaces, in which barely anyone lives.

Strange Things, which is subtitled ‘The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature’ therefore seemed a perfect tome for me.  It is comprised of four essays, which were originally given at the University of Oxford.  Her rendering of these essays is incredibly readable, and each, as anyone who is at all familiar with Atwood’s work, is so intelligently written.  The essays, which focus upon four core stereotypical representations of Canadian life and literature, are varied and memorable, and this is a volume which I would recommend to any world traveller.

 

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Reading Around the World: Canada

The books set in Canada which I have read are largely by three authors, all of whom I have included here.  This is not a varied set of recommendations, by any stretch of the imagination; rather, they are all relatively popular and well-known books which I have just happened to enjoy.

1. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
‘”Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.” Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim? Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery.’

2. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields 9780143105503
‘One of the most successful and acclaimed novels of our time, this fictionalized autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett is a subtle but affecting portrait of an everywoman reflecting on an unconventional life. What transforms this seemingly ordinary tale is the richness of Daisy’s vividly described inner life–from her earliest memories of her adoptive mother to her awareness of impending death.’

3. Runaway by Alice Munro
‘The matchless Munro makes art out of everyday lives in this exquisite collection. Here are men and women of wildly different times and circumstances, their lives made vividly palpable by the nuance and empathy of Munro’s writing. Runaway is about the power and betrayals of love, about lost children, lost chances. There is pain and desolation beneath the surface, like a needle in the heart, which makes these stories more powerful and compelling than anything she has written before. It is the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2009.’

97818604988004. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
‘Laura Chase’s older sister Iris, married at eighteen to a politically prominent industrialist but now poor and eighty-two, is living in Port Ticonderoga, a town dominated by their once-prosperous family before the First War. While coping with her unreliable body, Iris reflects on her far from exemplary life, in particular the events surrounding her sister’s tragic death. Chief among these was the publication of The Blind Assassin, a novel which earned the dead Laura Chase not only notoriety but also a devoted cult following. Sexually explicit for its time, The Blind Assassin describes a risky affair in the turbulent thirties between a wealthy young woman and a man on the run. During their secret meetings in rented rooms, the lovers concoct a pulp fantasy set on Planet Zycron. As the invented story twists through love and sacrifice and betrayal, so does the real one; while events in both move closer to war and catastrophe. By turns lyrical, outrageous, formidable, compelling and funny, this is a novel filled with deep humour and dark drama.’

5. The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews
‘Meet the Troutmans. Hattie is living in Paris, city of romance, but has just been dumped by her boyfriend. Min, her sister back in Canada, is going through a particularly dark period. And Min’s two kids, Logan and Thebes, are not talking and talking way too much, respectively. When Hattie receives a phone call from eleven-year-old Thebes, begging her to return to Canada, she arrives home to find Min on her way to a psychiatric ward, and becomes responsible for her niece and nephew. Realising that she is way out of her league, Hattie hatches a plan to find the kids’ long-lost father. With only the most tenuous lead to go on, she piles Logan and Thebes into the family van, and they head south.’

 

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One From the Archive: ‘Lying Under the Apple Tree’ by Alice Munro *****

First published in May 2014.

As far as short stories go, Canadian Alice Munro is one of the most revered authors in the field, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature last year in recognition of her craft. Lying Under the Apple Tree is made up of selected stories, all of them previously published in some of the author’s other collections.  The tales here come from the following books respectively, demonstrating how Munro’s work has progressed over the course of just over a decade: The Love of a Good Woman (1998), Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001), Runaway (2004), The View from Castle Rock (2006) and Too Much Happiness (2009).  Many of them can also be found within the pages of the wonderful and far-reaching Selected Stories, which showcases three decades of Munro’s work. 

As one might expect, almost all of Munro’s tales are set in and around Lake Huron, where the author herself lives. Some of the stories take small towns and rural homes as their backdrops, and others are set within large and crowded cities.  The wealth of inspiration within Lying Under the Apple Tree is vast, and each story presents a clear and thoughtful slice of life.  None of the tales are similar, despite the settings which are occasionally used more than once, and the use of a couple of protagonists who carry themselves through a series of stories, rather than just one.

There are tales which include such plot details as holidays spent with families, and how such sojourns impact upon them, both as individuals and a complete unit; motherhood; grief; dementia; and those which touch upon such things as museums ‘dedicated to preserving photos and butter churns and horse harnesses and an old dentist’s chair and a cumbersome apple peeler and such curiosities as the pretty little porcelain-and-glass insulators that were used on telegraph poles’.

One noticeable element within Lying Under the Apple Tree is that the prose which Munro crafts is utterly sublime, even when she is turning her hand to describing the most mundane and everyday things.  She has the most stunning way of making both objects and events, which are so usual and are taken for granted by the majority of us in the modern world, appear afresh.  It is clear throughout her writing that she never fails to notice the magic in everything, and one gets the impression after reading just one of her many tales that she adores her craft.

Her characters throughout are so very realistic, and her turns of phrase are stunning.  Each story is marvellously built, and not a single word has been wasted throughout.  Munro manages to weave the unexpected – be it a small detail, or something rather more pivotal – into each tale.  She deftly captures emotions, and shows how they can alter over time.  Indeed, Munro’s stories are so well written and crafted that even re-reading them is a real treat.  Lying Under the Apple Tree is a stunning collection, which really does showcase Munro’s talent as an author, and one which deserves to be widely read.

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The Fifty Women Challenge: ‘Lives of Girls and Women’ by Alice Munro ***

I had been so looking forward to Alice Munro’s only novel, Lives of Girls and Women, which has recently been republished by Vintage.  First published in 1971, Lives of Girls and Women was the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.  The whole is split into several named parts, each of which can essentially function as a short story in its own right, and follows the protagonist Del Jordan during her formative years.

Throughout, Del grows up within the small town of Jubilee in Ontario.  The choice which Munro has made to sculpt Del’s own voice, and her use of the first person perspective with which to do so, has been used to excellent effect.  Her past and present have been marvellously layered, and she certainly feels like a realistic character in consequence.  Munro’s other characters are, on the whole, multi-faceted, and their differences set them apart from one another, rendering them distinctive beings. The sense of place within the tale has been well evoked too, and Munro is just as perceptive here as in her short stories.  One can certainly tell that she is more used to writing stories than novels; there is almost a concertina-like effect here, in that one sub-story leads into another, and so on.

Munro is one of my absolute favourite short story authors, and I was expecting such marvellous things from Lives of Girls and Women.  Despite the strengths which I have outlined above, sadly, I found myself rather disappointed.  Whilst I loved the novel’s premise, the piece lost itself somewhere around the middle, and never really picked up the pace again.  Rather than the four or five star rating which I felt sure I was going to give it, I shall have to settle for a middle-of-the-road three.

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Classics Club #23: ‘Anne of Green Gables’ by L.M. Montgomery ****

I chose to read L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables whilst on a weekend trip to France back in February.  I had originally planned to get to it at some point over the summer, but after hearing how much Yamini loved Anne, I decided to move it up my list.  I was very much looking forward to meeting Montgomery’s young protagonist, and she certainly did not disappoint.

Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, siblings and residents of a lovely old house named Green Gables in Avonlea, a small fictional town on Prince Edward Island, have decided to adopt a child.  They think they will be getting a boy who can help around their farm, but a miscommunication means that Anne is sent instead.  A very shaky start ensues, with Marilla adamant that Anne should be sent back to the ‘orphan asylum’ whence she came and a boy sent in her place.  Matthew, however, soon finds himself revelling in her refreshing, youthful company: ‘Matthew, much to his own surprise, was enjoying himself. Like most quiet folks he liked talkative people when they were willing to do the talking themselves and did not expect him to keep up his end of it’.

Since her parents died when she was just a baby, Anne professes that she has always been ‘unwanted’.  She has consequently been batted around from one family to the next, often serving to look after young children, and merely wants an opportunity to settle down and forge a stable life for herself.  Montgomery deals, both deftly and sensitively, with Anne’s moving to Avonlea and making friends, the problems and obstacles which she comes across during the process, and the often ingenious ways in which she overcomes them.

The initial description of Anne is darling, and really gives one a feel for her character.  One of the main attributes which she has is her red hair, something which she hates: ‘“You’d find it easier to be bad than good if you had red hair,” said Anne reproachfully. “People who haven’t red hair don’t know what trouble is.”’.  Anne is so endearing, and holds all of those characteristics which are so delightful in young girls; she is wonderfully chatty, inquisitive, prone to daydreaming, and has a vivid imagination which allows her to better any awful situation in which she finds herself: ‘Because when you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worth while’.  She is spirited, kind and thoughtful, and, above all, a rather loveable protagonist.  Anne is also most open about her past, and is overall so glad of being alive, despite the hardships which have befallen her.  She is rather melodramatic, but that is all part of her charm.  She is the very best of protagonists in children’s fiction, for a lot can be learnt from her.  She has a marvellous attitude, particularly in the face of adversity, and I believe that she would make a great role model for impressionable young girls.

In Anne of Green Gables, Montgomery has created a charming and absolutely delightful tale.  Anne grows up believably through the course of the novel.  The whole has been lovingly written, and it is clear that the author cared a lot for her young character.  Anne of Green Gables is a wonderful novel to come to for the first time as an adult.  Had I read it as a child, I imagine that I would have been utterly enchanted by it.  I am very much looking forward to seeing where Anne’s adventures take her next.

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