Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

The inhabitants of Amgash appear to have invaded the imagination of Elizabeth Strout, not satisfied with being mere peripheral characters in her excellent novel My Name is Lucy Barton.

That book, which was a novel to us, is a memoir to them, one that a few of the characters we encounter in this set of stories will buy and read, one of them even attending a book signing near Chicago and meeting her again many, many years post their shared childhoods.

The characters vary in their kindnesses and quirks, in the opening story Pete, Lucy’s brother, resents his neighbour Tommy’s visits, carried out with heartfelt intention and yet perceived as a kind of torture, so much of what occurs between people is misunderstood due to the lack of communication or misreading of intentions.

In a voice without belligerence, even with a touch of apology to it, he said, “Look Tommy. I’d like it if you didn’t keep coming over here.” Pete’s lips were pale and cracked, and he wet them with his tongue, looking at the ground. For a moment Tommy was not sure  he heard right, but as he started to say “I only-” Pete looked at him fleetingly and said, “You do it to torture me, and I think enough time has gone by now.”

We find out what happened to the pretty Nicely girls, whose mother left the home after a brief affair that went wrong and lived a quiet life of regret nearby for years afterwards. Through Patty, we meet Lucy’s niece Lila, who has never met her Aunt but shares strong opinions of her with Patty, her school guidance counsellor.

Patty said, “That’s a nice name Lila Lane.” The girl said, I was supposed to be named for my aunt, but at the last minute my mom said, Fuck her.”

Patty took the papers and bounced their edges against the desk.

The girl sat up straight, and spoke with suddenness. “She’s a bitch. She thinks she’s better than any of us. I never even met her.”

Dottie runs a Bed and Breakfast and the steady churn of customers keeps her busy and entertained with company. Sometimes she meets the wealthy who wish to confide in her, it turns out they can be lonely too.

The next morning at breakfast Shelley did not acknowledge Dottie. Not even a thank you for the whole wheat toast.  Dottie was very surprised;  her eyes watered with the  sudden sting of this. But then she understood. There was an old African proverb Dottie had read one day that said, “After a man eats, he becomes shy.” And Dottie thought of that now with Shelley. Shelley was like the man in the proverb, having satisfied her needs, she was ashamed.  She had confided more than she wanted to, and now Dottie was somehow to blame.

In a later story though we become aware of a change, often there’ll be just a passing reference to the character who inhabited the previous story, one that informs us of what followed on, and gives a kind of quiet closure, in this respect it reminds me a lot of Yoko Ogawa’s stories in her collection Revenge, there is that thread that connects the stories, it creates a little frisson of excitement when you spot it.

It is such a pleasure to spend time within the pages of Strout’s imaginary characters, who move from references into fully formed characters with such ease, this collection had me wondering if one of these characters might push in on her and demand a novel too. Tt wouldn’t surprise me – who is in control here, the characters or the author? I have a feeling her characters have a strong will of their own, and that this book was written to try to keep a few of them quiet, so she could move on to the next story that’s no doubt already brewing.

Anything is Possible recently won The Story Prize (for an outstanding work of short fiction) and a cash award of US$20,000. The judges praised the book for its “subtle power,” and described Strout as:

“a specialist in the reticence of people, and her characters are compelling because of the complexity of their internal lives, and the clarity with which that complexity is depicted.”

Today the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced (at midnight), it will be interesting to see if this collection will be nominated, I certainly hope that it will be.

Further Reading:

My Review: My Name is Lucy Barton

My Review: The Burgess Boys

Buy a copy of one of Elizabeth Strout’s books via BookDepository

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Granta 141: Canada – Mangilaluk’s Highway by Nadim Roberts

Granta 141 Canada

The first Granta journal of 2018, issue number 141 is focused on Canadian literature, whether it’s fiction, memoir, reportage, poetry or photography, each issue combines something of each of those categories, with new writing/work by known and little-known talent, around a common theme.

As guest editor and author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien shares in the opening introduction, (and fellow guest-editor Catherine Leroux, writing in French), their only parameter for submissions was ‘What is being imagined here, now?’

Canada being a land with sixty unique Indigenous language dialects and more than two hundred languages reported as a mother tongue or home language, it was a wide-ranging brief.

Language becomes its own landscape in this issue of Granta. Language falls apart, twists, reformulates, shatters and revives itself. Animal and self, unfinished history, land and waterways, colonisation and dispossession, settlement and refuge – all these nouns are part of the truth of this place.

Apart from Leroux’s introduction, all the work is either in English or has been translated from English, however all work in translation is available to read on Granta.com in the original French.

It features writers such as Margaret Atwood, Lisa Moore (her novel February reviewed here), Alexander McLeod, Krista Foss, Naomi Fontaine, Kim Fu, Anosh Irani, Paul Seesequasis, Anakana SchofieldJohanna Skibsrud,  and many more…

I’m reviewing here the first story and may share other’s with you as I select randomly from the journal over the coming months.

Mangilaluk’s Highway

The opening story is a mix of reportage and a retelling of the story of Mangilaluk Bernard Andreason, who when he was 11 years old, slipped out of the Inuvik residential boarding school he’d been sent to, along with two friends Jack and Dennis, to avoid being punished for stealing a pack of cigarettes, and spotting newly hung power lines, decided to follow them home to Tuktoyaktuk.

Nadim Roberts writes about Bernard’s journey in the present, interspersed with narrative reports on his own visit to Tuk in June 2017, forty-five years after Dennis, Jack and Bernard began walking that 140 kilometre stretch home. Robert’s by contrast, completes the journey from Inuvik to Tuk in thirty minutes by plane.

He tells of successive attempts by the government to build a road across the Arctic Circle, to facilitate oil and gas exploration and a stretch of highway that would connect Inuvik to Tuk.

 From the plane I could see occasional glimpses of a new, near-finished road. This was the long awaited Inuvik-Tul all-season highway that would open in a few months.

Chief Mangilaluk

We learn that Tuk was a town founded by survivors from Kitigaaryuit, an Inuit settlement, that in 1902, after contact with whalers was cursed with a measles epidemic which drastically decimated their population. One young man, Mangilaluk, departed and went looking for a new place to live. His choice, a site on the edge of a harbour, would become what is now known as Tuk. He became chief and is still talked of today. Some believed he was a shaman who could shape shift into a polar bear.

In July 1961, two decades after he died, Mangilaluk’s granddaughter Alice Felix, was eight months pregnant. While home alone one evening, she heard a knock on the door. She wasn’t sure if she was awake or dreaming when the door swung open. A three-metre-tall polar bear stood in the doorway. It walked up to her, put its snowshoe-sized paw on her pregnant belly, and began to speak: ‘If it’s a boy, you name it after me.’

The story reminded me immediately of Doris Pilkington Garimara’s Rabbit Proof Fence, a tale of indigenous Aboriginal children removed from their parents (following an Australian government edict in 1931, black aboriginal children and children of mixed marriages were gathered up by whites and taken to settlements to be assimilated) and put in  a boarding school. The three girls in this true story followed a fence built to keep rabbits out of farming land, knowing that it passed close to their home.

Before 1955, fewer than 15 per cent of school-aged Inuit were enrolled in residential schools. Most children still lived on the land with their families, learning traditional skills and knowledge.

By 1964, more than 75 per cent of Inuit children attended residential schools. Their values, language and customs were supplanted overnight by a culture that saw itself as benevolent and superior, and saw the Inuit as primitive beings in need of sophistication.

Nadim Roberts interweaves Bernard’s story, his grandfather’s story and the current issues facing indigenous and local people in the region, in an evocative portrayal of one boy/man’s courage against the odds to make something better of his chance at survival.

Nadim Roberts Source: Author Provided

It’s an excellent piece of writing and combination of narrative and reportage, bringing attention to this one man’s story and the plight of both his people and the environment in which they live.

You can read Nadim’s story for free at Granta, just click on the link below:

Mangilaluk’s Highway by Nadim Roberts

Nadim Roberts is a journalist from Vancouver whose work has been published in Walrus, Maisonneuve and the Globe and Mail.

Further examples of his work can be viewed on his website NadimRoberts.com

Have you read any recommended works by any of the authors mentioned or others featured in Granta 141?

Foster by Claire Keegan

Foster‘Early on a Sunday, after first Mass at Clonegal, my father, instead of taking me home, drives deep into Wexford towards the coast where my mother’s people came from.’

She wears light, worn clothing and brings nothing with her. The girl is left with the Kinsella family, the father returns to her mother, soon to give birth again. There is no goodbye or word of when he might return. This is Ireland. Remember Nora Webster and all that is unspoken?

So begins Claire Keegan’s long, short story Foster, a vivid telling of the period following a girl being fostered into a family in rural Ireland. In the stranger’s home she finds an atmosphere unlike that which she is used to, one she enjoys and becomes used to, though always there is the presence of that feeling that it might soon all be taken from her.

‘When I follow the woman back inside, I want her to say something, to put my mind at ease. Instead, she clears the table, picks up the sharp knife and stands in the light under the window, washing the blade under the running tap.’

Seen and heard from the perspective of the girl, we learn the circumstances of both families that led to this situation. They fall into a regular routine, life settles in this new family and nothing appears to happen to destroy the ease with which the girl has come to know.

There is a strange atmosphere throughout the book, it is the anticipation of something, we, like the girl, are wondering and waiting for it to happen. For she seems like the pawn on the chess board, her parents on one side having handed her over, the foster parents on the other having received her. Each move, every event that is outside the daily routine, ignites in the girl heightened powers of observation, developing an acute awareness of even the most subtle changes in those around her.

‘Kinsella looks at me and smiles a hard kind of a smile then looks over to the window ledge where a sparrow has come down to perch and readjust her wings. The little bird seems uneasy – as though she can scent the cat, who sometimes sits there. Kinsella’s eyes are not quite still in his head. It’s as though there’s a big piece of trouble stretching itself out in the back of his mind. He toes the leg of a chair and looks over at me.’

Author, Claire Keegan

Author, Claire Keegan

A touching and yet eerie telling of a story that begs to be read and reread, the writing is exquisite in its depiction and ability to create a taut atmosphere without significant plot, it showcases an author with an immense talent for the short story and makes the reader want more.

Claire Keegan is an Irish writer highly regarded for her award-winning short stories, she has published two collections Antarctica (1999) and Walk the Blue Fields (2007) which I have read excellent reviews of.

Have you read any of Claire Keegan’s work?

Women in Translation #WITMonth

During August many I will be reading novels by women that have been translated from a language other than English. It’s an initiative created by Meytal Radzinski at Biblibio, Life in Letters and can be followed on twitter using the hashtag #WITMonth.

WITMonth15

Literature in translation represents less than 5% of published works in the English language, compared to nearly 50% for example in France and of works translated, approximately 30% is attributed to women.

I have gathered together a stack of books I already own that are works of translation and it is from this pile that I will be reading this month. It coincides with my interest in reading what I call cross cultural fiction, or literature from another perspective than that which we have grown up and/or been educated around, which in my case was very Anglo-focused.

WIT Month

If you have a favourite book by a woman, that has been translated, please tell us about it in the comments below so I can add it to my list for next year.

So far in 2015, I have read and reviewed the following books by women that have been translated: (click on the title to read the review)

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (Spain) translated Laura McGloughlin, Paul Mitchell (Catalan)

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (France) translated Adriana Hunter (French)

Tales From The Heart, True Stories From My Childhood, by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) translated Richard Philcox (French)

Ru by Kim Thuy (Vietnamese-Canadian) (read in French, available in English)

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer (Austria) translated Shaun Whiteside (German)

Victoire: My Mother’s Mother by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) translated by Richard Philcox (French)

Happy Reading All.

Art in Nature, Tove Jansson #TOVE100

Coming out of any intense, dramatic period of living can make it hard to choose appropriate reading material.

Recently I found it difficult to sustain reading as it all seemed too far removed from life’s demands that I be very present and attentive to the needs of those around me.

It made me reflect on what and who can I read I turn to during these kinds of periods. Short stories and/or non-fiction. Tove Jansson and The Dalai Lama.

TOVE 100 © Moomin Characters™

TOVE 100
© Moomin Characters™

I chose Tove Jansson (translated by Thomas Teal), because even her stories feel like they haven’t strayed too far from the reality within which they were inspired. I find immeasurable comfort in reading the words of this talented artist, the short form allowing a brief respite without requiring an ongoing commitment of a novel, when concentration spans are short.

Art in NatureArt in Nature is an intriguing collection of character studies, characters who happen to be creative, eccentric, obsessive, all curiously flawed in some way and Tove Jansson observes them in a situation until the cracks appear. They are a slice of life short narrative and any one of them could easily have morphed into a longer story such as her novel The True Deceiver I recently reviewed here.

The first story Art in Nature is about a caretaker watching over an exhibition of work in open air.

“He slept in the sauna down below the great lawn where the sculptures were set out among the trees.”

The day has its rhythm and characteristics and the evenings belong to the caretaker, the quiet contemplative time when he is alone among the unmoving silent works, still, post creation. He observes everything, every inclination, every watcher, he categorizes them and becomes attached to how things are.

“Almost all the feet moved respectfully. If they were with a guide, they’d stand still for a while, all turned in the same direction, and then they’d change direction all at the same time to look at something else. The lonely feet were uncertain in the beginning, then they’d move slowly at an angle, stop, stand with legs crossed, turn around, and sometimes they’d lift one foot and scratch with it because there were lots of mosquitos.”

Until one evening when a couple overstays, middle-aged adults breaking the rules, having a domestic argument. He intervenes, listens to them argue, provokes them with his own thoughts on the mystery of what art is.

Tove Jansson's Atelier © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson’s Atelier
© Moomin Characters™

The Cartoonist is a mysterious, insightful look into the daily work of an illustrator, a job that Tove Jansson’s mother did and one she dabbled in herself, making me wonder how much of this was inspired by the environment and circumstance of her mother.

A famous newspaper cartoonist has quit suddenly after 10 years and a new artist is required to assume his role without a break in the cartoon strip, without his fans knowing. The new artist slips easily into the role but becomes plagued with needing to know why his predecessor quit.

The Doll’s House is brilliant and shocking and quite different from anything else of Jansson’s I have read. Like The True Deceiver, it shows her deftness at spotting signs and cracks in character that over time can grow from barely visible flaw into raging psychological dysfunction when neither checked or dissipated.

Two recently retired men who have lived together and shared the same respect for the beautiful objects that surround them, are adjusting to the new routine of no longer having demanding day jobs. Alexander is a craftsman and Eric a retired banker.

“Alexander was an upholsterer of the old school. He was exceptionally skilled, and he took a craftsman’s natural pride in his work. He discussed commissions only with those customers who had taste and a feel for the beauty of materials and workmanship. Not wishing to show his contempt, he referred all the others to his employees.”

In the beginning they have difficulty adjusting to this new way of life, discovering that in such close proximity their interests aren’t as fine-tuned or in harmony as they had appeared when their time was absorbed by outside demands. Eric begins to take on more of the domestic role and Alexander begins a project to build a miniature house. He seeks the help of an electrician called Boy, who becomes his trusted helper.

“Boy came back almost every evening. He often brought little table lamps, sconces, or a chandelier that he’d found in some hobby shop or toy store. He came straight from work in his jeans and trailed street dirt over the rugs, but Alexander didn’t seem to notice – he just admired what Boy had brought him and listened gravely to his suggestions about improvements to the house.”

Just rereading these two quotes, makes me realise what clever insights Tove Jansson’s places into the text, the clues into character are there from the beginning and the simple daily events that follow turn these insights into something raw and dangerous.

Another excellent collection of stories from the Finnish artist and writer who would have been 100 years old next month.

Absolutely gripping!

Check out her books and events at TOVE100.com

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov
© Moomin Characters™

 

Scattered Dreams by Karin Crilly

On March 4th I sent an email to Karin Crilly about a competition being run on The Good Life France. I saw this competition mentioned on twitter  @lifefrance and thought of Karin as I knew she was writing a memoir about her year in Aix-en-Provence and I thought it would be a good idea for her to send something out into the world.

The Good Life France is an independent online magazine that celebrates life in France and attracts a number of writers and contributors who write on a wide range of subjects, keeping visitors and residents informed about France and all things French. The competition was to celebrate the 2nd anniversary since their inception and they invited contributions of work up to 1000 words on France or French related.

Good Life

Karin replied and said she would be very interested in entering the competition and asked if I would like to read the extract she had chosen, from the first chapter of her book.

Unbeknown to us both at the time, it was the beginning of the two of us working together. I read her work, made some suggestions and she polished her already excellent prose into a shape resembling 1000 words of an evocative experience in Paris that did indeed wow the judges, moving some of them to tears yet uplifting them at the same time.

Earlier this week, to our great joy, we learned that Karin had won the competition, ahead of more than 100 other entries and her story Scattered Dreams in Paris has now been published on The Good Life France.

You can read the story here by clicking on the title. Watch this space for news of the book when it comes out:

Winner of 2014 Writing Competition The Good Life France!

Scattered Dreams in Paris by Karin Crilly

CIMG2976

 

Congratulations Karin and  Bonne Continuation!

Daphne’s Dilemma – Part II

Click here To Read Daphne’s Dilemma – Part I first

Annie was my first horse. No thoroughbred, she was what some might call an ‘old nag’, not tall enough to be called a horse, just an unexceptional, somewhat lazy pony.

Chocolate brown and rotund, she liked to spend her days grazing in the paddock getting fatter and fatter. She was slow and patient and a good pony for my sister and I to ride on, though she did have a couple of stubborn habits. Sometimes she would turn her head when we put our foot in the stirrup and try to nip us on the backside.

She also had a habit of pulling her head down quickly to eat grass if we paused for a few seconds. Knowing this, we kept a firm grip on the reins to prevent her from eating, to which she would retaliate by throwing her head forward with a sudden jerk, flinging the reins out of our hands. Sliding down her neck to rest behind her ears, the reins then became impossible to reach without dismounting. We had to climb off, lead her alongside a log to give us extra height so our feet could reach the stirrup, or find a sheep track on a steep part of the hillside so we could jump back on, hoping she didn’t move while we attempted such daredevil tactics.

Annie had been pregnant and due to give birth. We had stopped riding her and Dad had put her in a different paddock from where she was usually kept. Every day she would come up to the fence so she could see the other horses in the adjoining paddocks, until that day she stopped coming.

“That’s strange” Dad had said, “I haven’t seen Annie. Perhaps she has had her foal and moved away from the fence-line to be nearer water.” Steep limestone cliffs lay beyond the trees where the soil was damp from underground water springs. It is a dangerous area, my father later agreed, but animals have good instincts he’d said.

Limestone CliffsImages of water, slippery rock and a pregnant horse left me with a sick feeling in my stomach and that racing heart. A heavy black cloud descended as we waited for Dad to return from his search, one we were forbidden to participate in. He returned alone. He had found Annie lying bloated and very dead at the foot of one of the cliffs. She had been about to give birth, he said.

I wished I had gone searching for her the day before, I wished we could have anticipated the risk, I wished so hard that we could rewind those days and she would be back up at the fence-line neighing to the other horses. I did not mind that she was bad-tempered, ate too much and tried to bite us, I just wanted her back and to remove forever that terrible helpless feeling in the pit of my stomach.

*

I walk up to the cottage when I see the distant figures of cow, man and dog disappear out of sight behind the trees between the airstrip and the shepherd’s cottage. When I arrive, there is Daphne, fat as ever but no calf. Dad leads her to the steel gate that opens into the main paddock in front of the house. Opening the gate right back on its hinges, he sandwiches her into the space between the gate and the fence. There is no chance of her bolting.

Now that she is standing still, I can see a tiny pair of hooves emerging from the much swollen, pink, fleshy area beneath her tail. I am told she is having difficulty and seems to have given up pushing. Dad rolls up his sleeves just like he would on a lambing beat, to lend a helping hand. Literally. He puts his hand inside that swollen, pink, fleshy area and tries to get a grip further up the protruding legs to assist the calf to come out. The legs emerge a little further but nothing more.

“It’s a big calf alright” he says as he tries again, “but she doesn’t wanna budge.” I walk to the corner where the gate meets the fence to check out Daphne’s face. She has an angry look, I struggle to find any glimmer of recognition in those big frowning, brown eyes.

She is flicking her tail down the other end, back and forth like a fly swat. It is easy to see she is not impressed with her captivity or the interference with her private cow parts. She will get used to it though, this is to become a familiar setting, to be locked in a tight holding area while my father sits on his small wooden stool in front of her hind leg to commence with the ritual morning teat pulling,  ‘milking the house-cow’ as we say.

After a few more attempts at hand assisted birth, Dad comes up with the idea to tie a rope around the calf’s ankles and pull it out. He knows he must be careful not to pull too quickly, as this could endanger Daphne’s reproductive equipment. He must be careful in case those contracting muscles suddenly give way, that could land him and the calf on the ground with a heavy thump, another scenario he wishes to avoid. He pulls as carefully and as strongly as he dares, but still nothing more than the front legs emerge. Daphne is beginning to protest. She starts to bellow loudly and tries to sit down. She has had enough.

“Get up you old bitch” Dad bellows back, thumping his hand on her rump. I cast him my own angry look but keep silent. I know she has to stay standing and the calf has to get out, we could lose them both if she gives up.

“Come on Daphne, you can do it” I say under my breath, just like I did two years ago while leading her around the obstacle course at the agricultural calf club day at school.

Finally Dad announces that he is going to get the tractor. The tractor! What is he going to do with the tractor?

He comes back with his old Massey Ferguson tractor and parks it in front of Daphne’s rear end. He ties the rope to the tractor, puts it in its lowest gear and very slowly inches it forward until the head of the calf emerges, followed by a loud bellow from Daphne.

Leaving the tractor running in neutral, he pulls on the hand brake, jumps out of the seat and returns to the calf just in time to catch it as it makes its first tumble into the outside world.

The calf is covered in a light, greasy film and as Dad moves the tractor away, I close the gate to let Daphne move from her confined position. She immediately turns around, puts her head down, sniffs her new-born calf and begins licking it.

The calf puts its front legs forward and tries to lift itself off the ground. The first attempt is unsuccessful; he is a little unsteady on his feet. But with the second attempt he manages to stand and begins to butt at his mother, searching for that universal elixir of life, ‘mother’s milk’.

The End

Daphne's Calf

Daphne’s Calf