Sunday, May 13, 2018

Birds, Brothers and Camp: A Few Canadian Titles

One of my reading goals this year was to read more Canadian Fiction. I recently read three very different, but excellent titles. The first, David Chariandy's Brother is set alternately in the present and in 1980's Scarborough. When Michael, a young man who works at a dead-end job at a grocery store and takes cares of his mother, is visited by his teenage girlfriend Aisha, the story dips into the past story of Michael's brother Francis. This a novel of suppressed grief, of a family undone by immigration and poverty, of parents working double or triple shifts to support a family in Canada while their "useless foreign degrees" hang framed on the walls. This is also a novel of how police behave in poor black neighbourhoods and the how the promise of a life in Canada can be undone by race and poverty. Chariandy's beautiful prose makes you read slowly and savour each word, even as the devastation of the story undoes you. 

I first came to Chariandy's work through his 2007 book Soucouyant: A Novel of Forgetting, about a young man who
returns home to care of his elderly mother suffering from dementia. Soucouyant is also beautifully written, but the novel stands out in my mind for having the best book cover ever. I love the rich blue and greens of the image, but mostly I loved the image of the over-flowing sink, the water crashing to the floor. Kudos to the designer. 

I heard about The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore on CBC's Q radio show in a segment by Jael Richardson who does Q's book pics. I don't tune into Q very often these days, but when I stumble on Richardson's recommendations I listen carefully because she always has titles I might not find myself. Richardson also chooses the kind of diverse stories that highlight different aspects of Canada that I am curious to read about.

The Lost Girls, by Kim Fu, is the story of five girls who get lost on an overnight kayaking trip from their summer camp. As a writer I read for plot and language, but I'm also endlessly curious how a writer crafts the structure of the story, and Fu does a remarkable job. The past story of the girls' camping trip is strung out in small sections throughout the novel. I wanted to keep reading to find out just how the girls would escape, and if all the girls would survive. In between these sections are stories that could be read independently about each of the girl's current lives, with the treacherous camping trip as a background influence. Each of the girls backgrounds and stories are remarkably different, and each of the stories while complete in itself, comes to a final conclusion that is not plot-driven, but open-ended, beguiling, and reveals something about how the past experience permanently imprints on them in remarkable and subtle ways. If you like the emotional complexity and attention to detail in Jhumpa Lahiri's short stories, you'll like The Lost Girls too. 

Kyo Maclear's Birds Art Life restored my faith in the Canadian reading public. Not only did I find this unusual book at Costco, but according to the cover, it is a #1 National Bestseller. And so it should be. Maclear's memoir is the story of a year in her life when she found herself unmoored, unsettled with family responsibilities, in particular to her ailing father. She decides to take up birding, which results in small, yet perfect epiphanies about art and life. I read this book during a week in which I finished a first draft of my own memoir and found myself both disappointed with the results and unsure of how to fix it. I generally find the end of a writing project to be a letdown. I like the doing, not the having done. When I am still writing, I am full of hope and possibility. When a project is done, the possibility of rejection sets in. And so, I read Maclear's book about a time she was in between projects, with empathy. The time of not doing is often rich in hindsight, but to us type-A's with our checklists and restless forward motion, it can be unnerving.

In Birds Art Life, Maclear wanders Toronto looking for birds, wonders what it means to wait for a glimpse of wildlife, and takes stock of her life. She tells us about her childhood, her parents, about her life in Toronto, about the busyness of daily life, and then the daunting task (to me anyway) of abandoning her daily responsibilities to go look at birds. In the end Maclear lists things she learned from her birding mentor, The Musician. She says, "Good shoes go a long way," and other truisms like "Don't carry more than you need." More profoundly she says, "There are no big reasons to live. Just little reasons." I turned down the corner of the page when I read the following: "There is really no one person who can give you a map for living. But this may not stop us from wishing there were. It would be nice if there were such a person or such a book, with a list of things to do and avoid, definitive directions to take and not take, cautions to navigate by. Act this way. Live that way." 

This resonated with me deeply. I think I want someone to tell me what to do, if I'm making the right choices, but I don't actually want anyone to tell me these things. I resist all advice from the people closest to me to the point where they stopped making suggestions years ago. (My mother used to say if she said I should go left, then I would automatically go right.) Maclear's book reminds us that there is no one path forward, no easy answers on how to live, only small moments to treasure. 

This past Sunday my husband and I washed our deck and set out our patio furniture. The kids raked and helped set up the trampoline. It's been a slow spring, the leaves still not fully out on all our trees. As we ate dinner on the back porch we looked for birds. A woodpecker darted around our ash tree, and a cardinal flitted among the chestnut branches. We all watched with amusement as a blue jay took a bath in the puddle at the end of our sump pump pipe. We lingered, all tired and not ready for Monday. The birds provided a few minutes of respite before heading into the house to clean up after dinner and getting ready for the rest of the week.   

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