Supplementary reading

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I should be reading books from my 50 Book Challenge list. I’m far enough behind already that I shouldn’t even be looking at other book covers let alone cracking the spines. But I couldn’t help myself when I heard about the release of The Name Therapist by Duana Taha.

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Taha is a television screenwriter and a contributor to the gossip site Lainey Gossip, which is how I first came across her work. She writes a column called Duana Names in which she offers, you guessed it, naming advice to expecting parents (and the occasional pet owner). The column is equal parts informing, amusing, and reassuring as she digs into a vast personal bank of names to suggest or, more often than not, tell people they aren’t going too far by picking a name not familiar to most ears. (Although, her column talking a soon-to-be mother of twins out of naming her son Kale is what put her in my must-read pile.)

So I’m sure you can understand why I jumped at the chance to read Taha’s book. With a name like Bryony, I’m often the one holding the “Friend” mug while everyone else has a personalized cup from which to sip their morning coffee, and I’ve written about my name and the novel from which it came before. But, now, I had the chance to read the experiences of another unusually named child.

For those of you familiar with Taha’s column, this book will feel like a deep dive into the topics and issues she only gets to briefly discuss there. For the uninitiated name nerds, you are missing out, as you will learn when you read this book.

The Name Therapist is partly a name memoir, but she uses her own experiences and “name pain” from having an unusual name as a starting point to discuss the stories behind how we name our children; living in a multicultural naming playground; naming trends, influences, stereotypes, and nightmares; and if we are defined by the name we have no say in choosing.

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Just like in her column, Taha’s absolute delight in talking about names is evident. She makes no apologies for her name obsession, more frequently wondering why no one else cares about names with the same intensity. Her writing, while informative and candid, is also light and quickly paced, which may be the only draw back as I wished she could have spent a more time fleshing out some topics such as the white-washing of non-European names or, on the other side, the trendiness of some cultural names to the exclusion of others (especially in light of increasing discussions of cultural appropriation).

Still, I was hooked in Chapter 2, Where Do Duanas Come From? when she names – first and middle – two people, just based on the time they were born, and I know people with those names! I wonder if she is asked to use that skill as a party trick? Come on, Duana, 20 questions and then guess his name. Plus the conversations she has with unevenly named siblings or the bit about Mormon names (I had no idea!) – the section on the name Jennifer alone is worth the read. Taha leads you through all the things you never realized if you have a name easily found on key chains and coffee mugs or has you nodding your head and saying “yes!” if you either carry a unique moniker or have kept a name diary since childhood.

And, while my name never came up, I won’t hold that against her. I’d like to keep Bryony out of the top 100 names anyway.

I am Seaweed

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As I read more of the books from my 50 Book Challenge, I find I am responding to them personally instead of intellectually. By which I mean, my reading feels like listening, like someone is telling me their story and I am there not to judge but just to listen.

I certainly felt that way as I read Arnold’s story in Road to the Stilt House by David Adams Richards. This is the first of seven of his novels I will be reading as part of my 50 Book Challenge (and Richards’ fourth novel overall) and, as I’ve read his books, I’ve developed the suspicion that I am one of the people he is chastising for their good intentions. I’ve read and not really understood why his characters make the decisions, poor decisions in my mind, they do. I’ve enjoyed the stories he tells, the craft of his writing, but the characters have been largely unlikeable. I have, as Richards has accused his critics, mistaken nice for good.

But, with Road to the Stilt House, I felt like I was starting to understand Richards’ point.

20160125_120015Stilt House tells the story of Arnold and his family. They are extremely poor. They fight. Randy, his younger brother, has just returned from being placed in foster care. His mother is ill. Her boyfriend and his mother poke and prod for sport. They are unlikeable and difficult and yet to pass judgement on them would only feed the source of their struggle.

The novel is one of Richards darkest but I found it made his point more clearly, largely due to the shifting narrative viewpoints from first and third person: being able to see inside Arnold’s head opens up a lot of understanding not because things are spelled out for the reader but because his feelings behind his actions are more evident.

Also, the personal toll of Arnold’s life – events outside of his control, illness, and universal sorrows – help retain empathy for him when he spits harsh words and lashes out at those around him. And they are not excuses for his behaviour; they are the roots of understanding him. His depression, ignored by those meant to help his family and used as a weapon by those within his family, holds him in place.

One scene in particular stands out. Throughout the book, Arnold deals with bad teeth. They are rotting and falling out. They have cut his mouth and his gums bleed. Finally, he works up the courage to ask the social worker assigned to his family to help him get his teeth fixed. She is embarrassed and asked why he didn’t go to the dentist years ago. I felt such rage toward her for asking that question. To punish him instead of helping. She waves it off by saying they cut back on teeth and he makes light of the problem but he is deeply hurt by the exchange:

And now Seaweed too. Even Seaweed was asking her favours!
He went upstairs. He sat down on his bed and put his head in his hands. His chest shook and shuddered.

He refers to himself in the third person by his nickname, which only highlights his perception of worthlessness, as a thing instead of a person, and hates himself for asking her to do her job. This woman is meant to help him and instead she increases his shame, his sense of powerlessness, his sense of being stuck. That kind of systemic failing is what I believe Richards’ is trying to impart. The problem isn’t Arnold, it is those who would judge him for something over which he has no control, including the reader.

While Arnold does eventually get new teeth, this, of course, does not repair all the damage in his life. It is a cosmetic fix that does nothing alter the circumstances that led him to need them in the first place.

By the end of the novel, Arnold loses control over his life and, in fact, loses his life. His loss of control is reflected in the novel’s structure as his cousin finishes telling Arnold’s story for the last 28 pages.

I can only hope that Richards, as he frequently does in his novels, picks up Arnold’s tale and fills in the how and why of the end of his life. To be left as he was at the end of Road to the Stilt House is an unfair conclusion to his life. But perhaps that is also point. That the structures in place that contributed to his end are the same that will brush his life and death aside as inevitable. That we shouldn’t care or look too closely at Arnold’s death.

After all, it was just Seaweed.

And now a word from DAR

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I’m working on my post for David Adams Richards’ Road to the Stilt House and came across an interview with him from 1990. At this time, he had five novels published, the last being the Governor General’s Award winning Nights Below Station Street, and was soon to release Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace.

Well worth the read even if you aren’t familiar with Richards’ work as he discusses the book trade in Canada, a writer’s relationship with academia and critics, and the lives of his characters.

The interview is conducted by Kathleen Scherf for the journal Studies in Canadian Literature. Here is a little quote to pique your interest:

KS Speaking of shaping Canadian literature, what about the debate over government funding of the arts: does it encourage mediocrity, or provide for excellence? Is it possible to be a writer in Canada and to make a living without government funding?

DAR No. If no one got funding, then there might be two writers in Canada: Margaret Atwood and Pierre Berton. And as respected as these people are, I’d still like to see some others write, so government funding is necessary. And sure there’s going to be grants given at the wrong times perhaps for the wrong reasons to the wrong people, but there are going to be grants given to other people who certainly can use them and who will write fine work.

KS Some people make money by writing for film and television.

DAR Yah, well, I wrote a film script, but when it was finally produced it wasn’t very much like the film script I wrote, so I won’t even talk about it, but I did a CBC script for Nights Below Station Street.

KS Is there an art to writing television?

DAR Well, it’s the art of getting along with people because it’s so communal, and I’ve never been able to do that.

The link is below. Hope you enjoy!

Interview with David Adams Richards

A Journey of 50 Books

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Happy New Year!

I hope everyone got in some good reading time over the Christmas holidays. Sneaking in some time for a few pages of a good book is how I de-stress in the midst of multiple big holiday gatherings.

Finding more time to read is one of my goals for 2016 and to that end I am I taking part in a 50 Book Challenge. I spent some of my December putting together a list.

I have already organized which books I will read in each month (though not in any particular order) so that could build in reading breaks between heavy subjects or longer reads and will be able to prepare for what is coming up. Also, I primarily use the library to get books and, as good as the Toronto Public Library is at having a lot of copies of in-demand books, I didn’t want to have to worry about my holds coming in on time, so I don’t have any new fiction coming out in 2016 on my list.

With so many great books from so many lists and recommendations I had to narrow my choices. Here are some of the deciding considerations I used to make my list of 50 books.

A lot of my choices came in groups of six to help get me going without overwhelming me if I didn’t take to any particular group.

  • David Adams Richards: I love his writing and want to get through more of his work but the stories are not easy reads in content or style so I wanted to space them out every other month.
  • Non-fiction: I am challenging myself to read more non-fiction since I so rarely pick any up
  • Young adult: To balance out the non-fiction, I found six interesting young adult books to read. I don’t really read YA, but so much great work is coming out of this group that I didn’t want keep missing out.
  • Canadian: Even with Richards on my list, I added six additional Canadian writers to bring my country home
  • TBR: I have books on my shelf that I have never read, so six of them got added for this challenge

The rest are all a mix of books I found just in looking for this list, rereads of old favourites, and recommendations from one friend or online list or another. I’m really looking forward to tackling this project and sharing all my reads with you.

Let me know what you think of my list, if there are any books you loved (or hated) on there, and if you’re taking part in any reading challenges this year.

Happy reading!

50 Book Challenge Sword in the Stone

Sword in the Stone

50 Book Challenge 2016

January

Road to the Stilt House by David Adams Richards

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

The Sibyl by Par Lagervist

Getting Things Done by David Allen

 

February

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

 

March

Nights Below Station St. by David Adams Richards

Looking for Alaska by John Greene

An Orange From Portugal Editor Anne Simpson

The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu

The Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel

 

April

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

The Feast of Roses by Indu Sundarsan

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

The Devil You Know by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

 

May

Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace by David Adams Richards

The Last Great Dance on Earth by Sandra Gulland

Cosmopolis by Don Delillo

The Hours Count by Jillian Canter

 

June

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

After Alice by Gregory Maguire

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell

Scary Close by Donald Miller

 

July

For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down by David Adams Richards

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

All the Rage by Courtney Summers

Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg

 

August

60 by Ian Brown

The Imperialist by Sarah Jeanette Duncan

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Artic Summer by Damon Galgut

 

September

Hope in the Desperate Hour by David Adams Richards

Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

This Can’t be Happening at MacDonald High by Gordon Korman

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

 

October

An Inconvenient Indian by Tom King

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

 

November

The Bay of Love & Sorrows by David Adams Richards

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

What We All Long For by Dionne Brand

 

December

Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards

Outline by Rachel Cusk

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

All I Need is Love by Klaus Kinski

Book club report

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The consensus from the book club on Come, Thou Tortoise was that it didn’t live up to the hype on the book jacket. The novel got a solid Okay from the rest of the book club. Some enjoyed all the wordplay. Some, like myself, found it a little too much. But we all said it wasn’t as funny as advertised.

Come, Thou Tortoise

Come, Thou Tortoise

The overall story was well received, even if its telling didn’t impress as much. We all seemed to think that the pay off for the book didn’t come until very late in the story’s telling and that, ultimately, the conclusion was underwhelming. As I said during the meeting, you may enjoy it but if you have a better book as an option you may want to give Come, Thou Tortoise a pass.

My favourite comment from another member posited that all the animals in the book had a human equivalent, not just the bond between Winnifred and Oddly – for example, Uncle Thoby is Wedge the hamster. I had noticed the frequent animal interaction, but didn’t directly overlay them with a person. Thoughts like this are the reason I wanted to join a book club, to get another perspective that I may have overlooked, and I really enjoyed my first real book club experience.

Next month is another Canadian novel: The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner.

 

I’m with the tortoise

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I decided to take my reading out of my home by joining a book club at my local library. I went to my first meeting last month to discuss Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I read it when it first came out in 2012, but went to the meeting anyway as I had enjoyed it and wanted to hear other peoples’ thoughts.

This month, we read Come, Thou Tortoise, the debut novel of Jessica Grant. I thought I would put my reaction to it here first before talking it out in book club.

Uneven. That is the first word that comes to mind when thinking back on this book.

There were moments when I couldn’t stop reading and moments when I thought I could put it down and never pick it up again. I reached page 150 before I had a genuinely pleasurable moment. If not for the book club, I may have set it aside.

But I am glad I pushed through. The traits that bothered me grew fewer in number as the plot deepened and the main character came out of herself.

Come, Thou Tortoise tells the story of Audrey “Oddly” Flowers, a young woman with a below-average IQ, dealing with the death of her father and the loss of her Uncle Thoby, who lived with them for most of her life and who abandons her after the funeral.

Her father, Walter, was a scientist trying to find the key to immortality by teaching cells to remember how to be young. Complex ideas like Walter’s work, or Uncle Thoby’s history, or how not to be afraid of airplanes are all presented through the explanation that makes most sense to Oddly. As her capacity to fully understand all that is occurring is diminished, so is the readers.

tortoise, Jessica Grant, CanLit

photo by Peter Pearson (bit.ly/1JLD0tH) License: bit.ly/1jxQJMa

Mixed into this story is the experience of Winnifred the tortoise as told from her perspective as guest of Audrey’s friends (she is left behind when Audrey returns home) and as companion to Audrey and others over her long life. I really enjoyed Winnifred’s sections; her concerns for her own well being and for Audrey or other former housemates blend well with the larger narrative. Winnifred also provides a relief from the oddness of Oddly. Think about that. The narrative of a tortoise is more normal than the thoughts and actions of the human protagonist.

Mostly this is a result of Grant’s use of wordplay. Oddly loves puns and uses them as a way to deal with or deflect from difficult situations – calling her father’s coma a comma, which I misread every time, or using French words in place of English, which worked well. The device is over used at the beginning of the novel, perhaps to help establish Audrey’s personality, but it got old pretty fast and I was glad when the plot made it more difficult to work the puns in organically. At times it is difficult to trust the narrative. Is it true or just wordplay?

I like humour in my books, but often find books that are meant to be funny to be the least funny things I read. Maybe it is the expectation that I should be laughing at every page, but most often they are disappointing. While I laughed at times while reading Grant’s novel, I think it is a disservice to the story to present it as funny book. The heart of the book is the relationship between Audrey and the two men who made up her family.

Walter’s death opens up many questions for Audrey, most of which have nothing to do with what you or I would consider important. A missing hamster. An arch-nemesis. Audrey takes for granted the stability of her family life, until Uncle Thoby’s disappearance forces her to look more closely at the people nearest to her and those she would keep at arms length.

Even with (and perhaps because of) the unanswered questions, the centre of Grant’s story and Oddly’s life holds – a family is made by love:

But my dad had explained this to me. That sometimes there is only one parent. Sometimes there are two. Sometimes there are three. But what it comes down to is who wants to be. And if someone doesn’t want to be, they shouldn’t have to be. And if someone does want to be, like my dad, who really really wanted to be…or like Uncle Thoby, then that person should be allowed to be.

And that kind of love is something you should not say no to.

Book club is tomorrow. I’ll be sure to update you on how other people took Come, Thou Tortoise. For more of my thoughts on this novel, check out my Twitter feed @rereadpages for my live tweets from reading this book under #comethoutortoise. If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

BJL

#tbt book nerd style

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Some books are like warm hugs. You always feel good when you read them no matter how many times you’ve read the same words. When I was younger, that book was Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke.

Oke is a prolific and beloved author of Christian children’s books. Published in 1979, Love Comes Softly is Oke’s first novel and the first book in a series of eight following the same family. From that one book, Oke launched her career, which now includes over 70 books and several awards.

Set in the 1800s, Love Comes Softly tells the story of Marty and Clark Davis. The two meet under tragic circumstances after Marty’s husband dies in a horse-riding accident. Alone on the frontier, Marty, newly pregnant, has nowhere to turn until Clark, father of a one-year-old daughter, who also recently lost his wife, proposes a marriage of convenience. He even promises that, come spring, if Marty is unhappy, he will pay for her return east if only she brings his daughter with her so she can have a mama.

Christian Children's Books, Janette Oke

Feels like a warm hug

And so begins a year of challenges, frustrations, growth, and, of course, unexpected love.

Love for a little girl, for a new baby, for an unplanned couple and for God.

I grew up in a Christian household, and the rhythms of prayer, reading the Bible, and Sunday rest found in Clark’s home, which are completely foreign to Marty, echoed the atmosphere of my own home.

Over the course of the book, Marty realizes a love for Clark and a love for God. These great loves are the heart of the whole Love Comes Softly series.

Reading Love Comes Softly is like climbing back into the chair in my parents’ living room, when I was small enough to be enveloped in its cushions, feeling secure and sure of the world and my place in it. Perhaps it is time for a reread.

Do you have a book that feels like a warm hug?

A pain that I’m used to

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Lives of Short Duration, Richards’ third novel, is not an easy read, not in story nor in form. Once again Richards places his tale in small-town New Brunswick, this time following the lives of  several generations of the Terri family as well as their extended family and friends.

The novel is unrelenting in several ways. The Terries are a family falling apart and nothing feels solid and dependable, not family bonds or social structure. The narration reflects this undependability as the story is told largely through the blurry perspectives and reminisces of characters that are either drunk or suffering from illness and dementia. As a result, the story spills out in a boundless form, slipping from past to present in a timeless stream of consciousness. The dense, unbroken text continues on and on, only divided up by four section headings and the occasional one-line break. As a result, you feel as caught up and stuck as the characters are in their own circumstances, circumstances that are often appalling, painful and unfortunate.

Lives of Short Duration opens with a party that is starting to sour. The Terries are hosting, though the familial ties are difficult to unknot, even for the Terries. George, the father, is drunk and acting up. His daughter, Lois, a mother of three young children, also at the party, yells at him after he threatens to set a bridge, which connects their property to that of a life-long friend, Lester Murphy, on fire, “Goddamn George, you ruin everything,” Lois shouted. “But ya aren’t ruinin my fun, you hear that—you aren’t ruinin my fun.” Later, you discover that her words are an echo of her mother’s, who moved away from the area after leaving George. Finding fun, at the expense of others and often to their own detriment, is a reoccurring justification for their decisions.

Once the span is on fire, the RMCP arrive to inform George that the body of his father, who had been missing for a year, has been found in the woods, and that Lester Murphy has been struck by a car and died. From this party, the story spins out along the timeline, past and future, of the Terries’ lives and of the region. Midway through the novel, the perspective changes and story restarts from the hours of the opening pages as seen by the doomed Lester Murphy.

The characters that populate this novel are not easy to care for or even like. They are self-absorbed, destructive, violent, cruel, grasping people. While you begin to understand their actions, it is difficult to really sympathize, not that they would want you to, either. The struggle of their lives overwhelms the small breaks of happiness, and they constantly return to a place of frustration, “To wake in the night in the midst of a shuddering hangover when the dismal past threatens you, when faces form in slow motion before you, so every particle of their flesh breathes misery…”. The misery is pushed down and swallowed up by drinking, drugs, and casual sex. These activities cover the growing distance between the characters, between people and their history, and between individuals and themselves.

The only character who elicits any sense of hope is Packet Terri, the eldest child of George and his ex-wife, Elizabeth. The other members of the Terri family seem to yearn for him (though they also resent him for their longing). At the party, George, after burning the bridge and his hands in the process, expresses anger at Packet’s choice to skip the party, and, once the RCMP arrive, Packet’s absence is even more noted, “There was a terrible thing happening. Everyone was saying that they needed Packet there.” Packet is set apart from the other characters both physically and emotionally. He leaves the area to work in the North, earning a decent living, though not escaping the violence of his home, and he moves around, even across the country to Victoria , BC .

He manages to break away from the destructive cycle in which his family is stuck, but he also returns to them. He sees in his family the good that the police, outsiders, and even the reader, would overlook in the face of all their struggles and destructive behaviour. Packet’s understanding and acceptance of his family is seen with his brother Little Simon, who is named after their grandfather, “And he was gone through the dry field in an October afternoon, with his hands in his pockets, his cap over his ears—and Packet would love him entirely, and be sad.” Little Simon is a drug addict and dealer. He is violent and often cruel, though he excuses it as a little fun teasing, and despite his illegal activities manages to elude the police for a long time. Both old Simon and Little Simon die as they lived – Old Simon in the woods where he lived for 60 years, Little Simon in a game of Russian roulette, a bit of fun played too seriously. Between them is Packet, the one who survives.

Reading Lives of Short Duration is a challenge, and I wish I had known what I was getting into before I started reading it. The experiences of the Terries are almost buried in the form, and I feel like I missed a lot by wanting to impose an order and untangle the messiness of their lives. I missed the good in the Terries and, therefore, I believe, one point that Richards is trying to make.

 

On a side note, this past weekend I had the great pleasure of attending of reading of Richards’ newest novel, Crimes Against My Brother. The short passage that Richards shared held all the traits that I love about his writing: controlled pacing, anticipation, the quiet sorrows and joys that life holds. His reading style was matter of fact; there was no need to add emphasis to the meaning built by his words. Afterwards, I stood in line, full of excitement and terror, to get his signature. I even managed to express some sort of appreciation for his work, though I was comically tongue-tied in front of such a great wordsmith.

 

All quoted passages from Richards, David Adams. Lives of Short Duration. 1981. McClelland & Stewart, Toronto.

Don’t take my word for it

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Blood Ties by David Adams Richards

Richards’ second novel, Blood Ties, came out in 1976 and is also set in Miramichi Valley, which was introduced in his debut novel, The Coming of Winter. This time the MacDurmot family gives the reader a glimpse at life in small-town New Brunswick, though characters from the previous novel make an appearance as well. Blood Ties takes place during the period from July 1967 to October 1969 (so just before the beginning of The Coming of Winter; see my discussion of that novel here).

The most frequent viewpoint is that of Cathy, a young woman finishing high school, but the story is also told through her family members’ experiences, including her mother and father, Irene and Maufat; her half-sister, Leah; and her brother, Orville, and through some of the other men in and around the MacDurmots’ lives.

The voices of the characters are very strong, and the cadence of the area runs through all their conversations and thoughts. This pattern of speech does more than localize the speakers. It reflects where they are and where they are expected to go in their lives.

There is a lot of repetition in this novel; the characters repeat the same phrase in a single conversation and they have the same conversation over and over. This repetition leaves the impression that the characters are stuck – verbally and developmentally. They think and speak more than they act, as if the forming of words could take the place of action.

Near the beginning of the novel, Leah complains about her husband, Cecil. He is a drunk and abusive, and she has come to her parents’ home after Cecil has thrown their young son against the stove. It is clear that Leah has been there before for the same reason. After venting to her family, Leah makes to return home but her family prevents her, not because of what Cecil did, but because of the hour. Leah claims that if Ronnie wasn’t around she would have left Cecil already, but her words are empty and no one responds “because everything was said and they couldn’t say anymore.” Talking is Leah’s only action and no real change is expected to occur.

The next day, Maufat returns with Leah and Ronnie to their home with plans to set Cecil straight, but after Maufat asks why he roughed up Ronnie, he leaves without confronting Cecil directly:

He hadn’t said it, not said it at all. He turned and started out the door….He went out from the stale heat of the house into the bright of the day, the burning of it. “Shit,” he kept thinking. “Shit.” He went out the gate and began walking up the highway, the grasshoppers stiff and silent and deadened in the heat. He kept thumbing cars that passed him as he walked. “Shit,” he kept thinking. “Shit.”

So Leah and Ronnie stay with Cecil, and Maufat goes to work like any other day, which, for them, of course, it is. The fighting, even the violence, between Leah and Cecil is accepted as just being part of their relationship and, more generally, anticipated from men in their town.

Cathy, experiencing her first real relationship with John, the same character from The Coming of Winter, follows the pattern set by her half-sister. She ignores or explains away John’s negative behaviour. He calls Cathy names, makes fun of her in front of other people, refuses to come into her home, doesn’t call when he says he will, talks about his ex, and, on their first date, pressures her in to jumping a fence rather than paying to enter a fair. Yet, Cathy keeps dating him despite knowing she wants better:

She felt desperate and angry with herself, and yet she clung to his arm. When she clung to his arm he moved to open the door and she said: ‘No, don’t go,’ and he turned back to her rubbed his dark hand across his black hair and straightened.

John’s behaviour isn’t unexpected. If Cathy stays in this town, it goes without saying that men like John and Cecil will be part of her romantic future. But Richards provides hope alongside the struggle. Cathy, after a shocking revelation from John, decides to head west with a friend, and Leah, after her own particularly painful encounter with Cecil, works up the courage to leave as well. But more than that, Richards provides an example of a dependable man who remains in the town.

Near the end of the novel, Richards includes a beautiful flashback to the early days of Irene and Maufat’s relationship as they go on a walk together. It is almost dreamlike in its telling, hazy with summer heat; the thickness of the memory makes his behaviour seem like a mirage, but the real love Maufat offers Irene is clear. He, among so many poor romantic examples, is trustworthy and supportive and Irene bares herself to him literally and figuratively.

Richards then proves this mirage to be reality using a bit more repetition. Throughout the book the MacDurmot family hitches rides in cars and even school buses to get around town. Maufat keeps saying he will have to get a car, but by the end of the novel the reader is conditioned to expect that he will do nothing more than talk getting a car. Except, then he does.

He stood and went to the fridge again and she looked out the window. Then he brought the beer over and went to open it, but she [Irene] threw her arms around his neck and at first she was laughing and then she was crying, feeling herself sink against him. He put his arms around her. She was shaking and crying.

“Told ya I’d get a fuckin car, didn’t I – told ya I’d get a car, didn’t I?”

The verbal repetition continues but this time it is accompanied by action, the buying of the car. Furthermore, Maufat promises to help Cathy and her friend leave town by upgrading their train tickets. After Maufat follows through about the car, the reader is left feeling hopeful for the MacDurmots and, more generally, for the characters in the town.

All quoted passages from Richards, David Adams. Blood Ties. 1992 McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronto

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

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I apologize for the delay in posting (a round of sickness swept my house and we were all down for number of days). Thank you for your patience. I hope you enjoy this response to a long-loved book of mine.

I don’t remember why I first read Fifth Business, it wasn’t for school, I just remember that reading it changed my life. When I first read Fifth Business, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I devoured this book and have many times since that first reading. Every time I read Fifth Business, I find something new to admire whether it be a turn of phrase or a foreshadowed event, but, ultimately, I enjoy being in the company of the main character.

Is it strange that I, a girl of 14 or 15 years of age when I first read this novel, identified with a male character in his seventies? That’s right, Fifth Business (1970) tells the life story of Dunstan (Dunstable) Ramsay, a retired schoolteacher with a scholarly interest in saints. Told in the form of a memoir written to the Headmaster of the school where Dunstan taught, the story begins with the event that would shape the rest of Dunstan’s life – the injury of Mary Dempster as a result of being hit in the head by a snowball. The snowball was meant for Dunstan and after being hit by it, Mrs. Dempster goes into labour, delivers a premature son, and turns “simple.” The guilt he feels compels a lifelong sense of responsibility for Mary Dempster, which is fed by his belief that she is a saint.  

I feel like my description is doing a disservice to this remarkable book. It doesn’t sound like a compelling read: schoolteacher, saints and guilt. But that, perhaps, is part of the point. Fifth Business, as described in the novel, is a player in an opera who is neither “Hero or Heroine, Confidante nor Villain” but is essential to making the plot come together. Dunstan writes the Headmaster after a disappointing sendoff for his retirement. He feels his life was poorly represented and sets out to show his place on the stage. The schoolteacher is revealed as magician, decorated war veteran, lover, traveller, author, and confidant. His life didn’t change, but the way his role was cast did.

Davies develops Dunstan’s character naturally, with the voice of the elder Dunstan often reflecting on the actions of his younger self. Dunstan’s choices are explained and his thought process left open, allowing the reader to see how his decisions impacted his life. A good example of showing Dunstan’s character comes after he has survived World War I and been awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions. He is called a hero but doesn’t wholly accept that role for himself:

…I knew that I was no more a hero than many other men I had fought with, and less than some who had been killed doing what I could not have done, I determined to let society regard me as it pleased; I would not trade on it, but I would not put it aside either.

He knows he is one of many men who fought and died and that it was circumstance rather than something unique within himself that made him a hero. Still, Dunstan knows his own value, knows himself and accepts himself.

The memoir defends his life’s significance, if only to one person, “…I address this memoir to you, Headmaster, hoping thereby that when I am dead at least one man will know the truth about me and do me justice.” Dunstan’s life was not in the spotlight. He was not a major world player, he did not shine brightly, but his role was still significant, still valuable. That is something a self-conscious, awkward teenaged girl needed to hear when I first read Fifth Business and a self-conscious, searching adult still needs to hear now and again.

So this post has turned out very differently from my first look at a novel (click here to read my discussion of The Coming of Winter), but I think that is okay. We all go to certain books to fill a particular need. Fifth Business is a core novel for me; it is a pleasure to read and an inspiration for my writing, and I get something more from it with each reading.

And the ending of Fifth Business never fails to put a smile on my face. It is an end that, to me, is not unlike the ending of the movie The Usual Suspects – a slight of hand that gives Dunstan a heart attack but gives the reader great pleasure.

All quoted passages are from Davies, Robertson. Fifth Business. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1996.