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.

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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

A wish, a dream, a concrete plan

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I love structure and organization. I get excited when I see pretty boxes and I have different coloured pens and papers for making notes. So why I never wrote out a plan for my blog is a mystery to me. I had ideas. General expectations of when and about what I would blog. This hasn’t worked out for me too well as the consistency of my blogging is not strong, to say the least.

For 2016, one of my goals is to change that and to that end I am putting together a real plan with weekly scheduled posts, complete with topics, for the next few months. I am on an organizing kick and I must say it feels pretty good.

The first step in my plan is to make a commitment to the 50 Book Challenge. I will read 50 books over the next year, roughly a book per week, and blog about them for re: read pages. Knowing myself, I can’t just leave that to chance, so I am compiling a list in advance. I’m aiming to have a diverse list, with a balance between heavy and light reads (to give myself a break). I am keeping my focus on debut novels, historical fiction and David Adams Richards, but I’ll also try some books outside my usual interest, such as non-fiction and YA.

I am somewhat limited by my desire/need to source my books from either the library or my bookshelf as buying 50 books is not something I am prepared to commit to, thanks. This means that I probably won’t be reading the hot new title of 2016, unless I get a gift card this Christmas or score the top spot on the library’s hold list. But, in my mind, a good book is a good book no matter the year, so that shouldn’t hold me back.

I’ll share the complete list in a post to kick off the new year.

I think having a concrete goal with stages and objectives will really go a long way to helping me stay on track and be a more consistent and productive reader and writer. I’m hoping that the results I see will spur me to better work overall.

  1. I’m already excited.

All work and no reading make me something something

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I spend the winter sitting by a desk only going outside when the sun hasn’t risen or has already set. Every year I think I know what I am getting in to but somehow I find myself surprised by my lack of time.

This year was no different. I started off strong. I used my commute to read and to send emails to family and friends in an attempt to maintain the resemblance of a normal life. I think that lasted two weeks. Then my book just turned into another object I hauled back and forth between home and the office and emails to friends turned into emails for work.

But now it is spring. Now is the time to crack the spine of a new book. Now is the time to sit by the lake and plot the next chapter in my novel. Now is the time newness and growth.

I already have a couple books lined up to read.Come Thou Tortoise

First up is Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant. This novel is the first I am reading as part of a book club that I joined through my local library. It is Grant’s debut novel and sounds delightfully unusual as one of the narrators is a 300-year-old tortoise.

I also have David Adams Richards’ Road to the Stilt House (1985) in my to-read pile for April. I’m excited to get back to Richards’ novels, though this has been called his darkest novel so I am preparing myself for a challenging read.

As for my novel, I have no specific goal except to write every chance I get and to work to give myself those chances. To that end, I’ve given up all but one of the time-sucking websites I use to frequent, which has already opened up so much more time in my day, and I’ve made good use of the focus view on Word – the extra step to look online makes me think twice about random browsing.

Spring is a hopeful time for me. My hope for this spring is to read a few good books and write a few memorable lines.

I’ve also made the leap to Twitter, so I hope I get to chat with more people about reading, writing, and all things books. Find me @rereadpages.

BJL

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.

Structure vs. Chaos

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Lately, I’ve been feeling like one of those inflatable tube men that are put up in front of businesses that are having sales – flailing my arms, full of hot air, and not accomplishing much. Re read pages was supposed to help me focus on my writing by getting me to actually write, but I feel like it has become just another thing for which I’m not writing enough.

October is going to be different. And since I don’t just want to hope I’ll be different this month, I am making an October writing plan and giving my writing goals for re: read pages and my novel (a lot) more structure.

This is what I will have coming up this month:

Books to Read

Lives of Short Duration by David Adams Richards – Richards’ third novel, time to get back to reading my way through his works

Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart – this will be the second time I’ve read this novel; Stewart died this past May at the age of 97

The White Deer by James Thurber – another reread, this is a novel I first read with my mother when I was little

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville – a debut novel and historical fiction, my two favourite things

On Writing Wednesdays

I will also restart my discussion of various aspects of writing. To help support my novel writing, I’ve decided to dedicate each month to an area I am interested in/struggling with in my novel. For October, the topic will be description, and I plan on talking about examples of great descriptions, cutting unnecessary fluff, using description to add foreshadowing, and getting the details correct, and offering a sample of what I feel is my best bit of description produced in October (yikes!). I’m flipping my Wednesday and Friday schedule for this week, just so I can introduce my plan, so Friday will be a post on description, but next week everything will be back to (the new) normal.

My Novel

The goal for the month is 14,000 words, dispensed in 500 words (minimum) per day segments. This is doable. I’ll update my progress every Friday, including the weekly word count (yikes 2.0!). I really need to get words on a page because, as Jodi Picoult has said, “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

The hard part will be making it a habit to sit down at the same time each day (at the end of the day when the kids are in bed) and hammering out those words. Hopefully I will become a more efficient writer with each evening’s work.

So there is my October writing plan. I’m hoping making a game plan will keep me more accountable, but feel free to shout at me if I start missing deadlines or if you have some suggestions about how to keep on track I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

– BJL