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If I Fall, If I Die: Be(ing) Afraid

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There are many things to fear. We are taught and reminded and encouraged to fear what we don’t know, who we don’t know and to never ask questions about the things about which we are told to be afraid. The things we should be afraid of – car accidents and sitting at desks – are trumped (or are Trump) by hyperbolic headlines of xenophobia and a capitalist impulse to make us buy our way out of anxiety. Michael Christie’s excellent, If I Fall, if I die (which until now I remembered as ‘If I Fall, I die’ – a telling slip of my memory) asks us to reconsider how we come to be afraid and the bravery of encountering those fears (and what motivates us to do so: loyalty, love, stubbornness).

Our story follows Will (a clever naming as so much of the character is about choice, what he will do and what he wills himself to do) and his mother, who experiences agoraphobia, along with many other and cascading fears, to a degree that she raises Will within her childhood home in Thunder Bay. The plot takes off when, in the first chapter, Will finds himself Outside and begins realizing the way his mother has constructed their world as one filled with fear bears little relationship to the reality of what is, or should be, threatening.

The novel’s exploration of the way fear is made (rather than natural or inherent) is fascinating. In one scene Will is attacked by a wolf (for real) and because his sense of what should be frightening has been so skewed he doesn’t seem to realize that a wolf. attack. is the sort of thing one really ought to get a raised heart rate about. The novel takes on questions of the social construction of fear in little ways (why are we expected to fear teenagers on skateboards?) to big fear (the circulating anxieties about race, poverty and mental illness that have material and ideological consequences for those we make objects of fear and those who fear them). It is a sophisticated at yet propulsive exploration of the emotion/state of fear.

It is also decidedly Canadian literature in its setting and theme (*cough* Survival!). Thunder Bay and the politics  (of fear) around indigenous land claims and resource extraction are at once particular to the setting, but made wider points of consideration in the exploration of how such fear is created and perpetrated by state officials (the police and schools, in particular) and economic/social policies. The first few chapters had the feel of a somewhat over-workshopped first novel with abundant similes and hamfisted diction, but either Christie eased up, or I got used to the style and stopped be distracted by the writing (I might even go so far as to say I found some sentences well observed. Might).

All this to say you’d do well to pick this one up. I suspect Chapters will put it on Heather’s list, or someone will put it on your Books to Read This Summer because it’s hard to not enjoy the story (the characters are loveable and peculiar in ways that make them objects of fascination: how unusual! agoraphobia!). I’d urge you to look past what could be construed as a plot gimmick, to see that the book is about a whole lot more.

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A Little Life: The Best Thing You Will Read. Emphatic plea for you to read this book.

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It’s been hard to write about Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Hard to find words for how affecting I found the novel, how much I appreciated it. I really, really, emphatically, as loud as I’ve ever claimed it, think this is a brilliant novel. It’s not worth it to have best lists, I get it. But if I was someone who kept best lists (okay, I do) this one would be near the top. I can’t think of a book in recent (or any?) memory that has lived so fully in my mind, has occupied such a significant place in my thinking while – and after – I was reading it. Note I didn’t say “enjoyed” – it’s a hard story to live within, and you really will live within it (and for days and weeks after you finish it – it’s still following me around). It’s a long book, but you won’t notice the length, except maybe the anxiety of realizing you only have half of it left, the worry that eventually the last page will come. It’s a book that wants you to feel deeply and succeeds through masterful – truly – narration and character development in making you feel so. much. Continue reading

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Far to Go: Literary blindspots

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I joined a book club for the friends, but the real value of the club has been the introduction of new authors and titles that I’d not have found myself (Okay, bit of a stretch, the friendship (and wine) has been pretty valuable, too….). Don’t despair if you’re not the book club kind of person, you can get the same direction to new kinds of reads from your librarian, your independent bookseller, or *cough* your favourite book review blogger.

That said you probably don’t need me to introduce you to Alison Pick. Because (unlike me) you probably know about her: Far to Go was nominated for the Man Booker, she’s won a bazillion important prizes, been on all of the lists of best books, identified as “the” up-and-coming Canadian author. Oh and she’s an alumnus of the University of Guelph. So… I had a little literary blindspot. Tiny.  So thanks book club friends for getting me sorted. Now that I’ve found her writing I’ll not be forgetting it (or stopping at this novel). All this to say Far to Go is excellent and you should read it, too. If you’ve not met Pick’s writing yet either, let this be the moment of unexpected pleasure. If you’re already familiar then I have to know: Why didn’t you tell me sooner? (An aside – why aren’t all of you sending me recommendations all the time? I could stand to have more variety pointed my way… Anyway.)

So the book. Set in Czechoslovakia in 1939 it follows the story of Marta, a governess for a rich, secular Jewish Bauer family as the Nazis seize control of the country. Woven throughout are short passages of the narrative of a contemporary researcher in Canada who researches the lives of the Kindertransport: Jewish children ferried out of occupied countries at the outbreak of war.

These short contemporary flashes make explicit the constructedness of the imagined life of the past, the sort of hiccuping self-awareness of historical fiction’s reminder to readers that we know history through fragments, and we create a pieced together narrative from these fragments, filling in gaps with fictions so that we can have the assurance of plot. Serving more than the usual ritual of historiographic metafiction, the attention to the holes of history work here as a thematic expression of the loss of life and attendant story that the Holocaust represents: the absence in the present that can only ever be filled by imagination.

The bulk of the narrative is given over to Marta and her commitment to the Bauer family (a parallel to the way the contemporary narrator is similarly invested in the families she chronicles in her research), with questions of how Marta defines her worth independent of this family. Marta’s actions and motivations are rich, complex and entirely fascinating. The Bauer parents – Pavel and Annelise – are somewhat less fully developed, but are nevertheless compelling. Marta’s young charge, Pepik, is a brilliantly captured five year old. The novel rarely leaves the household – either literally or figuratively – yet it doesn’t feel claustrophobic; rather it reveals the way the grand historical moment is experienced in the small, domestic.  Taken together the family and their impossible choices that they must nevertheless make what could feel sweeping feel heartbreakingly particular.

The writing is extraordinary. I often complain about writing that is trying to be literary and so comes across as overly workshopped (I’m still trying to figure out how to best describe this writing – all I have right now is ‘knowing it when I see it.’) Far to Go is a beautiful example of not this effort-ful beauty. It is just. beautiful.

 

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Fourth of July Creek: The Unexpected Delight of Rural Montana

Rural Montana Storm Clouds

With a name like Smith Henderson, you’re probably thinking, this author is mixed up. He has a last name for a first name. How could he possibly write a compelling, gripping and fascinating novel about rural Montana in 1980? Probably he made up the name Smith Henderson to sound more rugged. Whatever. It works. Fourth of July Creek is a brilliant novel.

The novel opens with Pete Snow, a social worker, arriving at the home of one of his clients. Pete’s initial characterization as a man who cares deeply about the welfare of children remains consistent throughout the novel. What changes is the initial impression of him as a wholesome, got-his-shit-together-even-if-no-one-else does man. As the novel unfolds we explore the complexities of Pete’s past, his fraught relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, the degree to which we are all in need of some kind of support, even (and perhaps especially) those in care-giving roles.

You’re thinking *yawn* we don’t care about another fascinating character study, E. Well, fine. Fourth of July Creek just happens to also have a fascinating plot delivered through detailed, show-don’t-tell description in a realist fashion that somehow leaves room for experiment and play (thinking specifically here of the chapters with Rachel and… discuss). So what do we have? A libertarian/fundamentalist family living in the mountains. Threats on the president. Crime. The chance to save them all. The slow and steady build to a climax of sweeping proportions. A deep care for the characters involved.

Arg. It’s just so unexpectedly good. I really thought setting out that I wasn’t interested. But heck but if this isn’t why we read fiction I don’t know what is: I don’t have to have (or think I have) any relationship to the plot/character/setting/ideas of the novel in order to be utterly absorbed and enriched. So for what it’s worth, Smith Henderson, you have a silly name, but an incredible first novel.

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