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Château d'Angers

After a quick stop in Montreuil (near Paris), I headed for Angers.  Angers is fairly close to where I am from; however, I had not been there since I was a young kid and the only thing I could remember of the town was the famous castle (we used to pass it when driving from Nantes to Paris).  My expectations were not really high, but I was agreeably surprised.  Angers is a really pleasant town with a great atmosphere.

A small paved street near the cathedral

I was there for a conference, but arrived the evening before.  The sun was shining and it was warm and I was at leisure to explore this charming town.  I love small and disordered streets and I enjoyed wandering in them.

Saint Maurice Cathedral

There are many old stone buildings and a beautiful cathedral, as well as some maisons à colombage.  I decided to have my dinner on a terrace facing one of them.

La Maison d'Adam

We were treated like kings at the conference and maybe it is not such a myth that the French like their food and their wine; I just did not grow up in such a family.  On both days, two hours were allocated for the lunch break, and these were indeed spent eating and drinking.  We had three-course meals in both places.  The first was only the university cafeteria, but the food was delicious.  The second day, we went to a café-bistro where we were able to eat on the terrace and enjoy a leisurely lunch in the sun.

Les Caves de la Genevraie

You might notice that I am skipping a meal here.  For the conference dinner, we were bought by bus to a village, Louresse-Rochemier, where a table had been reserved for us in a troglodyte restaurant, Les Caves de la Genevraie.  Troglodytes are houses that are built in the rock.  The temperature there can be quite low, but a fire kept the restaurant room warm and cosy.  There, we were served a traditional and earthy meal.  Each course was accompanied with some fouace, a traditional bread, which was made on the premises and served hot.  We began with a fouace stuffed with some mushrooms (grown in some toglodyte houses), followed by some rillettes.  Then, the main course arrived and consisted of a dish of white beans and rillauds (little bits of lard), which you spread on your fouace.  Being in France, we couldn’t escape a plateau de fromage, to my delight, as well as a dessert.  A filling meal, but as we took our time, we were able to fit everything.  Through the meal, we actually took a break and went to visit another part of the restaurant where the baker makes the bread.  It was a most enjoyable evening and a great food experience.

Baking the fouaces

The conference itself was also a success.  The theme of the conference was The Figure of the Author in the Short Story (you can read the programme here), a topic that I find highly interesting.  It was a small conference and consequently very friendly.  The plenary speaker, Charles E. May (whose blog you can read here) delivered a paper highlighting why the short story is a more writerly genre than the novel.  There was also a roundtable led by Tim Struthers (whose first ever interview was of Magaret Atwood) on the topic of interviews.  The highlight of the conference was a reading by Toby Litt, followed by a series of questions and answers.

Toby Litt

Here is the complete set of photos:

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For its summer issue, The Walrus asked five Canadian writers to write a short story or poem according to the guidelines provided by the other writers.  Three of them are short stories…  It is interesting to see how each writer has dealt with the guidelines s/he received.

Kathleen Winter‘s story, “Madame Poirier’s Dog”, is written according to the guidelines of Alexi Zentner.  The first-person narrator of this story lives in a nursing home and explains why she always waits with so much anticipation for the visits of her youngest son, Armand.  Whereas her other sons are kind of business-like with her, Armand chats with her.  Together they remember the past and laugh.  This is her secret pleasure, which makes her tolerate her old age.

Last week, they were talking about Madame Poirier, a neighbour from years ago who will soon be moving in the same nursing home.  In particular, they discussed her precious dog, Dentelle.  Despite wearing a chastity belt for dogs, Dentelle was twice impregnated by the narrator’s dog and died from her second abortion.  Winter actually uses the prompt that a character has “to state that he or she finds people who treat dogs like children sort of creepy” at the heart of her story.  This story, which is about growing old reminded me of Binnie Brennan’s novella, Harbour View, which I reviewed a while ago.  It is a touching story, about how to cope when you get old, and is filled with memories and positivity.

Winter also makes a brilliant portrait of the characters, especially Madame Poirier and Armand’s wife, without describing them physically (another guideline).  The characters are not described as such, but evoked through their actions and what they say; however, Winter creates a vivid picture of these people, whom we might have ourselves encountered in our lives.

Another prompt is “evoke warmth without mentioning the sun,” but I let you discover how she does that…

Sarah Selecky‘s story, “The Cat”, is written according to the guidelines of Kathleen Winter.  The topic of this story might seem awkward as it is about the reincarnation of the narrator’s father into a cat.  One of her guideline was “The story should have at least one paragraph that contains something the author personally finds subversive and hilarious.”  Selecky explains on her website that this prompt gave her a liberation and “permission to write something ridiculous, inappropriate, terrible, or otherwise WRONG.”  This is a story that will really speak to cat lovers, but I must admit there is something disturbing in imagining that the cat is actually the narrator’s father.

Talking about her cat makes her remember her father when he was still alive.  She shares childhood memories (another guideline for her story) about going fishing with him when she was young or that time when he brought back live snails for dinner. 

I also liked her wink at Winter when she mentions that the cat spilled a glass of water on her copy of Annabel.

Alexi Zentner‘s story, “The Rules of Engagement”, is written according to the guidelines of Sarah Selecky.  Zentner begins his story as prescribed in a sunny location where three women are flirting with three locals, one of then being nicknamed “Fork” (another prompt) because of his pronunciation of the word “fuck”.  The women meet up the following morning and discuss their night, which is the occasion for the omniscient narrator to tell us a bit more about them and their affective lives. 

This might not be my favourite of the three stories, but I think that Zentner manages the guidelines very subtlely.  I actually really like the way these women are represented through their actions and the dialogue.  Although the narrator provides us with more information, very little is actually said about these characters; yet, we are able to get a clear idea of who they are. 

Short Story Monday is hosted by John at The Book Mine Set.

With this story I reach the end of my Canadian tour (you can find links to all the stories I’ve reviewed here).  Yukon is another territory for which I have had difficulties to find a story, but John at The Book Mine Set came to the rescue and suggested “Vegas Wedding” by Ivan Coyote (1969-), which he had previously reviewed and is available online here

John warned me that it is a personal essay, but said that it reads like a story, and it does!  This made me think about an essay by Douglas Hesse I read a while ago, “A Boundary Zone: First-Person Short Stories and Narrative Essays”.  According to Hesse, “a precise boundary line between essays and short stories does not exist”, thus leading many works to belong to the “boundary zone”.  At the heart of his essay if the issue of labelling and expectations.  One of the expectations we have in reading each genre is that one relates to fact, the other to fiction: “Reading a work as key to some more general truth involves a different set of perceptions than reading it as representing some action, however meaning laden.  We expect an essay story to show the way things are, a short story the way things happen.”  Furthermore, he states that “[t]he fundamental issue is reference.  Essays are supposed to refer to a real world beyond the page; short stories are not.”

Although “Vegas Wedding” reads more like a story than an essay, especially because of the extensive use of dialogue, presenting it as a personal essay implies that the piece is a true story, not a fiction.  This seems relevant considering the seriousness of this piece’s topic: same-sex marriage.  This is not fiction, such intolerance really happens in our world.

As it is told in the first person, the reader who is not familiar with Ivan Coyote only becomes aware that the narrator is a woman quite late in the narrative, Ivan being a name most often used for men.  This is when the story starts to become more challenging.  At first, it just seems to be the story of a couple deciding to get married in Vegas on impulse during a road trip to the death valley.  However, as you might have guessed from my previous remark, this is more difficult than it might seem at first, even in Vegas where anybody can get married in the space of a few hours.  Indeed, they are denied a license at the court-house because gay-marriage is not legal.  The narrator highlights the unfairness of the situation by claiming that there is more love between the two of them than between many of the heterosexual couples in the queue.

They still decide to try to get married at the chapel, but are refused because they do not have a license.  However, the narrator is now determined to get married to her girlfriend, Karen.  The irony of the situation reaches its peak when a priest watching porn also backs down when he is told they are lesbians because he finds it immoral, but would however accept to perform the ceremony against a fee of 500 dollars.  Finally,it is the photographer who offers to marry them and gives them a lovely ceremony.  Even though he is not prejudiced, we can still feel how he represents a majority of the population when he says “life partners” instead of “man and wife”.  In the end, the two brides are married happily ever after…

The story is entertaining and told in a light tone, but also problematises a serious issue of our contemporary society.  Not only does it show the incongruity of the legal system regarding same-sex marriage, but it also highlights the prejudice still existent in our society.

As a way to celebrate Canada Day, which was on Friday, I have been posting a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week, and will keep doing so during the weekend in an attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).

I had been looking forward to reading a story by Audrey Thomas because I have read a few essay comparing her to Atwood.  I can see how they might be compared, not only in the themes and techniques of their stories, but also in their sarcastic humour.  Thomas was born only four years before Atwood, in 1935, and currently lives in British Columbia.  However, the story I consider today is not set in British Columbia, but in Montreal, although the character comes from Vancouver.

There is a story behind the story “Bear Country”, but I had never heard of it.  Feminism is at the heart of this narrative, but was also the reason why Marc Lépine shot six women at the Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal, before killing himself in 1989.  The “massacre” is still present in the mind of Wilma, the main character of “Bear Country”.

Wilma has moved from Vancouver to Montreal, where she works as a secretary in Concordia university, writes plays for a small theatre company and learns French at the YMCA.  The gender of French words is something that intrigues Wilma and her plays have a strong feminist agenda.  For instance, she wrote a skit that caricatures a comment she had overheard from a professor saying that “Canada was putrid with feminism”.  In her play, she created a feminism Pollution Scoreboard similar to the one in McGill metro station.

She is obviously affected by attacks against feminism, so her anguish grows when the French course for which she has just applied is relocated to the Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal.  As she takes the bus to go up there, she cannot help thinking about the “massacre”.  She worries about going up that staircase when the evenings will be dark in December.  During the class, she is lost thinking in French about how it would be if a man with a rifle walked in.

The story ends with another play Wilma wrote during the summer.  The play is another feminist take.  She uses the French word for “bear”, “ours”, to make a statement on gender imbalance.  The women in the audience pronounced the famous leaflet advertisement “We are in Bear Country”, while the men are supposed to respond with “This country is ours”.

The story is an overt critique of patriarchal discourses and a social commentary on feminism and anti-feminist sentiments.  It is humourous and shocking at once, especially since it is a response to a dramatic real event.

As I was saying on Monday, yesterday was Canada Day.   As a way to celebrate, I have posted a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week, and will keep doing so during the weekend in an attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).

 (1963-) is a good author to make the transition between Alberta, where she was born, and British Columbia, where she lives.  She is also the youngest author in the anthology I own and I was eager to read her story, especially after reading an excellent review of her novel The Sky is Falling (great title!).  “The Chmarnyk” is also a story about the sky. 

I found this story difficult to read, but I will try to do my best at reviewing it.  It is told by a first-person female narrator who recounts her family’s story, or should I say disasters?  The story opens with the death of a dog in 1906, which led the family to move from Dakota to Manitoba “into safety”.  However, there, Mama’s baby is impaled.  The family moves again to escape the curse, but the death of the father makes them realised that it was him who was cursed.  When Teo, the narrator’s brother, dies, the mother exclaims that he has inherited his father’s curse.  There are many religious references and superstition can be seen as one of the main themes of the story.

Yet, we can tie these superstitions and religious references to the family’s origin.  From the term “Baba”, used to designate the grandmother, I would deduce that they are possibly Eastern European immigrants.  The family is depicted as always on the move, fleeing the curse of the land, but maybe also trying to find a place where they will be accepted as the narrator mentions that “they said we were worse than Jews” and that “Baba said she could smell hatred”.  It seems therefore that the family and their superstitions are not understood by the other inhabitants (in the same way the reader might be confused by these beliefs), but, and most importantly, are not accepted because of them.  The curse on the family might then act as a metaphor for the way the family is rejected.

The story is set during the depression, at a time when the Prairies were experiencing a drought (as in Ross’s “The Lamp at Noon”).  Most the story revolves around this lack of water and the efforts made by the inhabitants to survive.  The narrator even says that she was afraid to cry for fear that people would lick her face.  The title of the story is also a reference to the rain.  “Chmarnyk” refers to the narrator’s brother and is the name given to a rain-man in Galicia, the narrator explains.  In the story, the brother tries to find ingenious ways to survive despite the dryness.  When he dies, there is a thunderstorm: he has finally managed to make it rain.  The mother decides then that he has inherited his father’s curse.  The inhabitants claim that he has been struck by lightning; however, the story clearly suggests that he was shot by a farmer.

I find this story complicated and I believe each new reading will reveal more meanings and subtleties.  By reading on Caroline Adderson, I discovered that she writes about various historical periods and in the voice of various characters; she is not actually of Eastern European origin herself.  This story is well-crafted and I believe she must have done some careful research for it.  I think that knowing more about the context, but also about Eastern European customs would be enlightening.  However, the story can still be appreciated without prior knowledge.

As I was saying on Monday, today is Canada Day.  As a way to celebrate, I will post a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week and attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).

Choosing Thomas King (1943-) to illustrate Alberta is quite arbitrary as he was born in California and currently resides in Ontario.  However, when he initially moved to Canada, in 1980, it was to teach in Alberta.  King is of Cherokee and Greek origins and is considered as a spoke-man for indigenous populations.  “One Good Story, That One” reflects these concerns.

The story is told in the voice of an Indian who sets to narrate a story to three white anthropologists.  At first, he begins to tell them anecdotes about his friends, but his friend, Napiao, insists that he recount a good old story, a story of origins, “how the world was put together”.  And so the narrator begins in a typically white-man fashion: “Once upon a time…”

The story he tells is no other than his own version of the Genesis.  He has God creating the world, including a television and a grocery story, and a “not so smart” Ah-damn and a clever Evening, “she be Indian woman”.  In his version, Ah-damn and Evening are also expelled from the garden of “Evening” – “just like Indian today” – by an angered God because they ate the “mee-so” and Ah-damn lied about the number he ate.  He nearly forgets the snake in the story, but remembers to add it at the end, hissing because Evening has stuck an apple in its mouth.  His version also includes coyote, the trickster, to whom the white men are compared at the end of the story.  However, in this story, it is them who have been made fun of.  They wanted a traditional indian story, but all they got was a subversion of their own myth of origin. 

This parody of the biblical myth is hilarious and the story as a whole is funny and clever.  King denounces the way white men appropriate Indian tales and properties in a humourous manner.  The first thing that struck me was the rhythm, probably reminiscent of the way native storyteller would narrate a story.  The English is broken and interspersed by numerous Indian words, but this only adds to the pleasure this story gives.

As I was saying on Monday, this Friday is Canada Day.  As a way to celebrate, I will post a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week and attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).

“Where Is the Voice Coming From?” is my second story from Saskatchewan and was written by Rudy Wiebe and published in 1974.  It is probably one of the most famous Canadian stories and I had meant to read it for a long time.  I have seen it so many times mentioned in essays that I consider it as an essential Canadian read.

I am sorry to report that I did not enjoy reading it.  I started it about three times and read it in two sittings, something I avoid doing with short stories.  I cannot figure why it did not appeal to me.  I enjoy reading about this story, but not reading it.  I found the writing quite alienating.  Maybe is it because of the longish descriptions? or the fact that it seems to oscillate between essay, history and fiction?

In this story, the narrator begins by stating that “[t]he problem is to make the story”.  He then discusses some historical facts about the Indians and how they were hunted down by the police.  He insists on the difficulty to represent history through language.  He also highlights the vagueness of the facts provided by the records, as well as the discrepancy between the photo and the official descriptions provided as a search warrant for “Almighty Voice”.  Therefore, the story highlights the difficulty in recording history, but also emphasises the fact that the history we are offered is provided by the voices of white dominant group, thus not allowing for the Indians to give their own version. 

These are themes I would usually enjoy considering in stories.  However, I could not get into this story and I know that I will have forgotten about it very soon.  I will probably give it another try at another time, and maybe I will then be able to appreciate it.  Have you read it?  What did you think of it?

 

As I was saying on Monday, this Friday is Canada Day.  As a way to celebrate, I will post a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week and attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).  Today, I have reached Saskatchewan with a story by Sinclair Ross (1908-96).

“The Lamp at Noon”, which is the title story of a collection published in 1968, is a typical Prairie story in which the setting becomes a kind of character in the story.  The dust and wind o the dry Prairie landscape during the Depression are leitmotifs in this story and they literally drive the characters mad.

“She wanted him now, the assurance of his strength and nearness, but he would stand aloof, wary, remembering the words she had flung at him in her anger, unable to understand it was only the dust and wind that had driven her.”

The story is set during a period of dryness and the land has not produced food for a few years.  The atmosphere is suffocating because of all the dust that gathers on the furniture and Ellen cannot leave the house because there is nowhere to go.  The infant has problems breathing and keeps crying.  However, Paul does not want to move to the city.  He is too attached to the land and too proud to receive what he calls “charity” from Ellen’s family.  The couple is torn by the situation created by the landscape.  Eventually, Paul begins to understand Ellen’s position, although he finds it difficult to admit it.  However, it is too late and when he gets home, Ellen has left, taking the child with her.  He organises a search and is finally the one to find her.

“The child was quite cold.  It had been her arms, perhaps, too frantic to protect him, or the smother of dust upon his throat and lungs.  ‘Hold him,’ she said as he knelt beside her.  ‘So – with his face away from the wind.  Hold him until I tidy my hair.'”

This is a very evocative and poignant story.  One can feel the love Ellen and Paul have for each other, but the landscape stands between them.  Space is often mentioned when discussing Canadian literature and I think this story is a perfect example of its importance.

 

When I decided to do this Canadian tour through short stories, I was stuck for a few provinces / territories, but John at The Book Mine Set came to the rescue.  For the Northwest Territories, he suggested “Show my Yours” by native writer Richard Van Camp, which you can actually find online (you can also read John’s review here).

At the heart of this story is a call for peace amongst people despite their differences.  The narrator explains how by wearing a leather necklace with a picture of himself as a baby he escaped bullying.  Following the incident, his aggressors began wearing a similar necklace with their own baby picture and shook hand with him.  Everybody then started following this trend.  The baby pictures become peace symbols reminding us of our innocence when we were born.

“Whites, Natives, Inuit — oh we all laughed together when we saw each other and there are just so many beautiful babies inside us all.”

The story is framed by an episode in which the narrator and Shawna look at the Northern Lights.  Shawna mentions that customs regarding Northern Lights are different in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, thus again emphasising that we are all the same even though we have different beliefs.  We are still all humans in front of this mystery that is nature, no matter how we interpret it.

There is also an elusive love story between the narrator and Shawna packed in this very short story.  They seem to have been in love for a long time, but have always been separated either by other relationships or by location; however, their relationship seems to be strong and lasting and transcends their separation.  It reinforces this feeling of love amongst people.

The story is thus at once universal in its emphasis on our common humanity and equality in the face of nature, while at the same time retaining some strong native characteristics.  The prose is quite poetic and I liked the evocation of the northern lights.  It is a peaceful story which screams for happiness.  However, a shadow still hangs in the possibility that Shawna might leave again. Yet, I believe that this possibility highlights the strong bond between the two characters even in the face of spatial separation, thus stressing once more the fact that no matter where we are on earth we are all part of the same human community.

Canada Day being next friday, I have decided to post more Canadian short story reviews during the week in order to celebrate and to finish my tour.

Short Story Monday is hosted by John at The Book Mine Set.

It was not easy to find a story from Nunavut.  I soon gave up in trying to find a short story proper and decided to try to find some legend or myth instead.  Even then, it was difficult.  The tales and myths are often associated with the people rather than the territory itself.  At first, I found a collection called Tales from Nunavut, Stories from Nunavunga by Jacques L. Condor.  It seemed perfect; however, when I looked closer, I realised that Condor wrote these stories after spending time with the people of the west coast of Alaska, which is a bit far away from Nunavut itself.  You can also find Inuit tales from Greenland and Labrador.  I must admit that I got a bit confused as I do not now the culture well enough to make the distinctions.  Finally, I managed to find a website offering tales, legends and myths from the Inuits of Nunavut (it might overlap a bit with the Northwest Terrritories, but the two were only officially separated in 1999).

Inuit Art Zone website has a page dedicated to Inuit legends.  The page actually presents myths of origin/creation.  The first myth on the page is the “Legend of Sedna”, which explains how the white men and the Indians were created, but also the sea mammals.  Sedna, the daughter of a hunter rejected the suitor offered by her father.  Feeling dishonoured, the father told her to marry the family dog.  She was impregnated and, in anger, the father sent her to a remote island where she gave birth to dog-children and human-children.  The dog-children became the ancestors of the white men, while the human-children became the ancestors of the Indians. 

Eventually, the daughter was rescued by a trickster figure: the fulmar who appeared to her under the form of a handsome sailor, ut later transformed into a bird.  One day, the father came to rescue his daughter, but as they were escaping on the sea, the fulmar caught up with them.  To save himself, the father threw his daughter overboard, but as she was clinging to the boat, he cut her fingers one by one, each becoming a different sea mammal.

Finally, the daughter sank at the bottom of the sea where she was later joined by her husband, Dog, and she became a goddess.  Sedna is thus the one who rules the sea, but also decides to release the sea animals so that the Inuits will not starve.

I read a few of the other stories on the page, and what struck me most is the fact that animals and humans are treated as equals.  Also noticeable is the presence of shape-shifters.  I particularly liked the “Origin of the Raven”.  Two birds decided to paint themselves to become more beautiful, but as one would not hold still, the other poured black paint all over him and this is how the raven came into existence.

One story also caught my attention on a site that gathers Inuit tales from Greenland: “Imarasugssuaq, who ate his wives”.  This tale is a variant of the Bluebeard tale.  In this story, the husband fattens his wives with salmon before eating them.  As with the Bluebeard tale, the husband marries the sister of his previous wife and she also has many brothers.  While he is away, she manages to go outside and eat some snow, thus slowing down the fattening process.  One day, as she is now able to move, she makes a speaking dummy and hides (as in Grimm’s version, the wife is here represented as clever).  When the husband comes back, the speaking dummy claims she cannot move and the husband stabs her.  The wife escapes and, furious, the husband chases her.  She manages to save herself by transforming into a piece of wood.  The tale ends with a dinner party at the brothers’ place where the husband comes looking for his wife and is mocked and finally killed.

The similarities between this tale and the Bluebeard märchen are unmistakable; even the dinner motif is present.  Yet, this tale retains obvious Inuit characteristics.  I wonder if any research has been made on the topic.  It would be interesting to see the relation between the two.

This is te first time I have read Inuit tales and it reminds me of the time I was introduced to Greek myths.  However, I found these tales more naive in a way.  They are certainly enjoyable and I look forward to reading more.

If you are interested in reading more Inuit tales, you can look at the two websites I have already linked to.  There is also a book of Inuit legends available online or you can order books from a Nunavut publishing company, Inhabit Media.

Short Story Monday is held by John at The Book Mine Set.

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