Book Review: What Echo Heard

13000539Fernie, British Columbia. Do you know where to locate that on the map? I will freely admit that I did not know. Now however,  I’m all about this little city nestled in the Rockies of British Columbia. I need to go there! Fernie is home to Oolichan Books. They contacted us wishing to send us a book from their catalogue, would we be interested? Oolichan Books…now that’s an interesting name isn’t it? Here’s what it means (taken from their website):

Our name is taken from the small fish, once plentiful in West Coast waters and a staple in the diet of First Nations people to whom it was sacred. The oolichan, often referred to as the candlefish, is believed to possess healing powers and guarantee longevity. Continue reading

Book Review: news from heaven: The Bakerton Stories

15819061Thank you once again to Edelweiss for advancing us the copy of Jennifer Haigh’s short story collection, news from heaven: The Bakerton Stories. 

Last year I discovered the talents of Jennifer Haigh after reading Faith, which became one of my favourite books read in 2012. After finishing, I quickly added all of Haigh’s books to my TBR pile, and thanks as well to Aaron over at Typographical Era, I won a copy of Bakers Towers! news from heaven is based in the same mining town of Bakerton, PA as Bakers Towers, which I haven’t read yet, and features the Novak family. Members of the Novak family are also sprinkled throughout this short story collection. I’m sure reading these snippets of their lives will only enrich my reading experience when I do (finally) read Bakers Towers (which will now be pushed up towards the top of the pile.) I did not feel at all as though I was missing something for not having read Bakers Towers first however, if that is something that might cause you some concern should you read this story collection first.

Once again, Jennifer Haigh has created characters so endearing, you immediately fall in to a delightful trance from the first paragraph. Not one of these stories felt too short or ended disappointingly too soon. Not at all. As they were all located in Bakerton, and profiled the townsfolk that had left  and/or returned to Bakerton, many of the stories were connected in some way, either through the characters or following certain family members through the generations. For instance we heard about Sandy and his struggles in life and the long left town of Bakerton and of the only person who truly cared for him, his sister Joyce. We again read about Joyce when she is attending Sandy’s funeral. And once again we join Joyce following the death of her long-time husband.

All these stories were heartfelt, wonderful and richly written. I think my favourites were the very first one where we meet a young woman from Bakerton sent to work in a Jewish home in New York. The Polish Jews preferred Polish speaking girls to cook their Kosher meals. The reader is only given glimpses as to the real reason for the abrupt departure, but years later we encounter the son of this young girl, returning home to quietly confront, but to also celebrate the wedding anniversary of his mother and her husband, known as “Pop” for his whole life.

Regardless if you read Bakers Towers or news from heaven: The Bakerton Stories first, you will be delighted in the rich and endearing people you encounter in Bakerton, PA. Thank you again Ms. Haigh for the treat of your wonderful, wonderful writing. A definite Literary Hoarders approved read! 4-stars!

Book Review: Shout Her Lovely Name

In case you’re wondering, I hate you.”

“Yes, but she used to love me.

Here is book #2 in the Net Galley Knock Down Challenge done and dusted! Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Net Galley for the opportunity to read this collection of stories.

This 11-story collection is about varied mother & child relationships. Ah, yes, we all have a mother, and some of us have a daughter or daughters. It is this relationship between a mother and a daughter that can range in such massive complexity you can imagine walking through a mine field to be a walk through a patch of daisies instead of the roads travelled between a mother and daughter.

This collection of stories examines many of the varied and wide-ranging types of women that become mothers, it ranges from the trepidation of first learning of pregnancy and the decisions to face about keeping or letting go of a child to coping with brand new motherhood. Primarily, it is a suite of stories centered around two characters, Ruby and her daughter Nora.

In Shout Her Lovely Name, a mother and daughter are at war over food. The food her daughter will no longer eat. The story takes place over the course of a year with the mother trying to help her daughter overcome anorexia, or disordered eating.

Ruby Jewel is the second in the series and centres around a father and daughter drinking at the bar upon her return from college. They are prolonging their trip home to see her mother, and often talk of her in the past tense. Both Ruby and her father are alcoholics and her mother is a saddened resigned woman. This story does not focus so much on the mother as much however. My guess is that it is more about the mother as a background, resigned role.

Alone as She Felt All Day: Can’t say I cared much for this story at all. It’s about Ruby, who awaits confirmation of her pregnancy in the doctor’s office and spends the rest of her days finding ways to rid herself of it.

Free to a Good Home: This one takes up after Ruby has told the boyfriend, Marco, of their “unfortunate circumstances” (as written). Ruby has the baby early and is torn and pushed in many directions towards giving her daughter up for adoption (Marco’s choice, and would mean Marco stays) or leaving Marco and raising the baby alone with family. With $25 left and a note of apology, Ruby names her daughter Nora and takes the latter choice.

This is So Not Me: This story was quite good and amusing! One of my favourites in the collection. A tale of a couple with a newborn dealing with a long flight delay and the cranky passengers it invokes along with other cauterwaling babies on board. It is also about the woman and her newborn “progeny” and how this life came to be with her professor, now husband, whom is 25 years older than her.

Manx: Here we find ourselves further along in life with Ruby and her daughter, Nora. Manx is a type of cat that is naturally mutated by having a shortened or no tail, and Ruby has brought one home for Nora hoping it may improve her life some. In this story we see how other’s view Nora as a mother and the hardscrabble life she has been living and how the cat, Phil Donahue, becomes an example or metaphor I suppose of the relationship between Nora and her mother Ruby.

Take Your Daughter to Work: Is another story about Nora and Ruby. Basically Ruby is a train-wreck and I’m wondering if the author is subtlety suggesting that those many years ago that the boyfriend Marco was right in saying Ruby should have given Nora up for adoption to a more stable family. Or is the author perhaps suggesting that this is their particular family arrangement and one cannot judge who’s a better or more fit person to be a mother? Here we see Nora coming to age and trying to find herself after moving to so many different schools and adapting to her mother’s haphazard lifestyle.

A Whole Weekend of My Life: Here, Nora meets her father (Marco) for the first time in her fourteen years of life. Nora stands in the airport staring at the man that is her father and realizes that when Ruby decided to keep her, this is what she lost. And this is the man that Nora lost as well, that her life wasn’t full, “it had plenty of room for lawn mowers, half sisters and a dad.” This was a very sad story, as Nora must realize that her father, while open to meeting her, has and will not include her in his life – she will remain a secret.

Plum Tree: We see the unfortunate upbringing that has defined Nora in this story. Nora is hanging out with the “wrong crowd” and doing drugs and skipping school. Nora is in the mindset that she is rebelling against Ruby, that she is nothing like her mother and she can make her own new and unique mistakes.

Rate my Life: Ugh, by this point I’m just weary and fed up with the train wreck Nora’s life is becoming as well.

Developmental Blah Blah: Finally, a story that did not feature the Ruby & Nora Show but again, by this point I was so detached from these stories I didn’t read it.

This collection simply did not appeal to me. Since many in this collection centred around Ruby and Nora, I found myself hyper-judgemental about Ruby as she is a mere flake and a floozy who bounces from man to man like she’s changing underwear. She is/was neither mature or stable enough to raise her daughter in an environment or lifestyle one would deem suitable. Perhaps I am being overly judgemental and critical here, but the stories and sad, pathetic lives they lived did not connect with me.

Mennonites Don’t Dance by Darcie Hossack and The Divinity Gene by Matthew J. Trafford will remain my favourites for the time being.

3 stars overall I suppose for Shout Her Lovely Name.

If you wish to read two wonderful collections of short stories, I highly encourage you to pick these two:

Review: Mennonites Don’t Dance

Ever since reading The Divinity Gene, I cannot get enough of short stories! And does it seem only to me that Canadians are at the forefront of producing excellent, high-quality short fiction? Admittedly, I’ve only been reading Canadian short fiction, but with each collection completed, I feel they keep getting better and better!

What originally drew me to Mennonites Don’t Dance is this haunting and beautiful cover. But the moment I began reading, I just could not put it down! The Globe and Mail review says it is “arresting, mesmerizing, authentic, stunning”. Yes, yes, yes and yes!

I do believe this is my favourite collection so far. Again, as the G&M says, the characters and stories are so authentic. I couldn’t agree more with that word – authentic. Because every character written in this collection is genuine and well, yes, authentic. Each person is perfectly portrayed in a perfectly described setting or situation.

Elizabeth and I were planning a combined “Thistledown Press books review”, as she has the short story collection, The Maladjusted, sent to us by the author, Derek Hayes, but I couldn’t hold out! And perhaps both these collections are deserving of their own moment anyway.

Luna, is the first and the longest in the collection. Jonah is the farmer’s son realizing that people and life aren’t as what his father feels they are,  “You’re wrong you know, Jonah says quietly to his father, you’re wrong about people.”

Beautiful, knowing phrases like, ” At barely fifty,Jonah’s father wasn’t old enough to have been busy dying for so many years.” do stun you into stopping for a few moments and pondering their meaning. Right before Jonah feels himself falling in mannerisms and jaded thoughts too similar to his father, something happens to set him back on the right path again. A moving story.

Ashes, a story of a newlywed couple living with his mother. It brilliantly relates all the hidden jealousies and misunderstandings between a mother-in-law and her new, naive, not good enough daughter-in-law. The daughter-in-law just doesn’t understand, if she only knew, if she were only stronger. The mother-in-law that is sour, jealous and bland. And then, in the end, comes complete understanding and love. It is written with such great subtlety and just absolute authenticity in the two women. Loved it.

Ice House is another story I really enjoyed, the punch at the ending too was superb. It focuses Ani, returning to her home that she shared with her mother and step-father and through flashbacks to those first years of coping with a step-father that isn’t all he was originally cracked up to be. It is the ending where Ani realizes that her mother perhaps made the biggest sacrifices and they were done all for Ani, that really gives this story its great ending.

Perhaps the most moving and possibly my favourite in this collection was Little Lamb. For one, she doesn’t paint that Mennonite father in a favourable light (or the Mennonite upbringing)! But Henry just broke my heart. Henry is the one people think may be stupid, but he’s just soft and sensitive, something that is extremely distasteful to his father. The ending of this story still haunts my thoughts.

Mennonites Don’t Dance is the second longest story. It is full of emotion. Emotions of sibling love and inability to recover from loss of a favourite brother, embarrassment of the family’s beliefs, and desperation to be an independent woman. But in the end, you cannot escape where you come from, or that need for your family and for Lizbeth, the absolute need for her mother’s love.

A few stories later we come to Magpie. I really enjoyed this one as it is a continuation of sorts from Mennonites Don’t Dance. Magda is Lizbeth’s daughter and we now experience her coming of age as we glimpsed Lizbeth’s.

Dandelion Wine and Loft each deal with siblings and their often uncertain relationship with their mothers. Each story perfectly captures the coming-of-age and awkward moments between daughters and mothers.

Undone Hero is another gem. Alec is caring for his father in his old age, his sister Cassie left town years before and will never be back, his mother dead years before. Alec is reflecting on what kind of father he and Cassie had, the good, the bad, the ugly, the Mennonite and some of the events when he and Cassie were younger. It’s a heartfelt story written in a very familiar manner for those caring for an elderly parent, whether they wish to be or not.

Nella Pea is the final story in the collection and filled with sadness. Nella Pea is what Penelope’s mother, Ada called her. We’re listening to Penelope’s story through her (never named) daughter. Penelope has died, and the daughter has returned to the house to clear out her personal items and read Penelope’s journal. It’s a story of growing up with a mother suffering from severe depression. And that depression has passed from one mother (Ada), down to her daughter (Penelope), so that now Penelope’s daughter too must remember her upbringing in a home filled with ever-present sadness.

I don’t think there was one in this collection that I did not care for. I did not feel that any of them ended abruptly or left me confused or wanting for more. Each story provides a perspective of family, many of what it is to come from a Mennonite family. Each story is a realization – the realization that you are a product of your family, you are forever shaped by and forever tied to that family. Your family is at the core of everything you do and are.  If you wish to foray in to short stories, may I suggest this collection to start with? I was so impressed and she has such great talent,  I hope a full length novel is in store for our reading pleasure in the future? Or, really, more short stories would be fine too!

That Globe and Mail Review I’ve mentioned can be found Here

You can find Darcie’s website here and she’s also on Facebook.

Mennonites Don’t Dance by Darcie Friesen Hossack was shortlisted for the 2011 Danuta Gleed Award and 2011 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for First Book, Canada and Caribbean Region. It was also shortlisted for the OLA Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Fiction.