‘Alone in the Classroom’ a Globe Best Book 2011

“Through the figure of a beloved schoolteacher aunt, Hay’s narrator in this splendid novel sets out to discover the experiences that shaped her parents, and herself. In 1929, Connie Flood encounters, while teaching in Saskatchewan, a grim principal, self-important and determined to castigate. Antagonist to this sadist is a dyslexic boy whom Connie tutors.”

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‘Alone in the Classroom’ an Amazon Best Book of 2011

Read about it here. This list represents Amazon’s top ten Canadian fiction books in 2011.


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Phil Hall’s ‘Killdeer’

Tomorrow my mother turns 92. Yesterday she was so agitated and confused. “The day has been sloppish, sloppish!” she said. “Just sloppish.” My lovely little crooked bird of a mother. I persuaded her to let me wash her hair in the bathroom sink and from under the tap, her face nearly pressed against the basin, she said, “I miss your Dad.”

She looked so much better with her hair washed and combed and pinned with three bobby pins instead of the usual ten or twenty she jabs into place. I got her to stretch out on the chesterfield and rest her head on a pillow, and I read to her. Usually I read things she has written herself, her painting memories or her memories of her childhood lake near Renfrew, and she gives me credit for writing them no matter how often I say, “No, all of the credit goes to you, Professor Higgins.”

I know what I’ll read to her next. Killdeer, Phil Hall’s new collection of poems, which I’m reading now with such love and envy. She will respond to them as she responds to music. In these realms she is as discerning as ever. We took her on Saturday to the live broadcast from the Met of Philip Glass’s opera about Gandhi. At the end she reached for my hand and said in a choked voice, “That was beautiful. It was just wonderful.”

Though her mind misplaces so much – she even misplaces who I am at times – she remembered the opera two, three, four days later.

The poems in Killdeer will do the same. They’ll clear away all the debris in her mind.

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In Celebration of Bookstores

Two weeks ago I drove to a small miracle of a bookstore in the Ottawa Valley, the Arnprior Book Shop forty-five minutes northwest of Ottawa. Then last week I dropped into the London Review Bookstore near the British Museum. In each case, lovely cafés were attached – good coffee and cakes – the pleasures of the flesh matching the pleasures of the mind. Both shops had the feel of relaxed but heady village life. They were cozy, yet full of doorways to all sorts of worlds.

In the London Review Bookstore, I found a book I’ve wanted to read ever since my literature-studying son raved about it a few months ago. Not The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, the new Booker winner, but the original The Sense of an Ending published in 1966 by the critic Frank Kermode. Barnes borrowed the title and who can blame him. It’s a great title. Given the struggle I have with endings, I fell for it hard.

I bought poetry too, a couple of books by Louise Glück, whose work I admire deeply. In London I always reconnect with my fifteen-year-old self, the girl who moved with her family to England for a year and discovered one day in grammar school that she could write poems of a sort, and thereafter wanted to be a writer.

During that year in England, 1967, the world also opened up for my mother. She comes from the Ottawa Valley, not far from Arnprior, and grew up wanting to be a painter but never had the chance. In London that changed. She took art classes every day for the first time in her life. She was 48. These places, London and the Ottawa Valley, fold us together into one aspiring story. “I spent the year doing what I wanted to do,” my mother said to me yesterday. “That’s why it was so wonderful.”

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On the road

What I take with me when I travel. Ear plugs. Sleeping pills (each divided in four). Books. This time American Pastoral by Philip Roth, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Tylenol.

Umbrella, since I’ll be in Vancouver for several days. Blackberry with charger. Lip balm. In my carry-on bag, a streamlined wardrobe for ten days.

An extra notebook in case I do more writing than I usually do when I travel.

Coral necklace for good luck.

Certain phone numbers, even ones I have by heart, since fatigue destroys memory.

Elegant boots. Cold cream in a small enough container that airport security doesn’t confiscate it. French magazine and dictionary in order to work on my French, though I wonder if I will open them.

A bar of chocolate and a bag of almonds so as not to be stranded by hunger.

Compare this with Huckleberry Finn. “I took the bucket and gourd; took a dipper and a tin cup, and my old saw and two blankets, and the skillet and the coffee-pot.”

Travelling light.

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Six Books I’m Rereading

First posted on Canadian Bookshelf canadianbookshelf.com/

The Man from the Creeks, Robert Kroetsch, 1998, New Canadian Library

  • Kroetsch’s sudden death in June made me pick up his last novel once again. I came to it for the first time a few years ago, ten years after it was published (I often come late to books) and fell in love with its tender, amused and desperate tone. What underlies the novel/adventure/yarn/love story is Robert Service’s ripping poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” The poem calls to the storyteller/poet in Kroetsch and the resulting 307 pages are perfect.

Secular Love, Michael Ondaatje, 1984, Coach House Press

  • Summer poetry – open, sensual, secretive, full of motion, full of love and humour. People often remark about the poet in the novelist when they speak about Ondaatje, less so about the storyteller in the poet. This collection gives us characters and place in all their dramatic singularity: marital breakup, drunkenness, sudden love, deep and lasting attachments to rivers, farms, fields, friends. I’ve read it many times and I am always seduced, inspired and envious.

The Outlander, Gil Adamson, 2007, Anansi

  • The Some Like it Hot of novels with a great beginning that gallops all the way home to a great ending. It’s a tale of a runaway widow being hunted by two vengeful brothers-in-law and it brims with natural poetry and action. On every level it is electrifying and unforced. I’m rereading it to see how she pulled it off, and what I might learn.

A Long Continual Argument, The Selected Poems, John Newlove, 2007, Chaudiere Books

  • I open this book in the middle and wonder why I read anyone else. He was a very difficult man (he liked to say that for his sins he lived in Ottawa) with such a pure voice, mordant and aching. He says things no one else says, and that I don’t realize I need to hear until I hear them. This is an excellent posthumous collection published by a small, valiant Ottawa publisher.

The Elizabeth Stories, Isabel Huggan, 1984, Oberon

  • Isabel Huggan, who grew up in Elmira, Ontario and lived for a time in Ottawa, now has her home in the south of France. She made her name with this first collection of stories that still snap my head around with their own particular cockiness. There’s such a sense of letting the traces go, of throwing caution to the winds and getting at the real truths of family and small town life. I read it to remind myself to be funny and brave, and, above all, to believe in what I’m writing.

Enchantment and Sorrow, The Autobiography of Gabrielle Roy, trans. Patricia Claxton, 1987, Lester & Orpen Dennys

  • Another book I love. No one writes more directly and effectively from the heart than Gabrielle Roy. I reread her autobiography for the details of her childhood and for her extreme attachment to her mother from whom she would have to extricate herself in order to become the writer she became. The quality of her emotions, the laying bare of relationships, the hard-won escape to France – it is all gripping and wonderful. The price she paid for her independence, and the price her mother paid, breaks my heart.
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On September 6, I wheeled my bicycle past the bed of zinnias at the front of the house and rode downtown to the National Art Gallery. On the second floor I went looking for Van Gogh. There are two small paintings – zinnias and geraniums in a green bowl, and zinnias and geraniums in a vase. 1886. His zinnia year. I look at these paintings every time I come. On the adjoining wall is a painting of irises. 1889. No vase; they grow straight out of the ground of the mental asylum where he was living. His iris year, when he was in more distress than ever.

My father was very ill on September 6. He was much on my mind as I looked at the flowers, not least because he loved to garden. Then passing through the long gallery of early European art, I saw my father in the flesh and stopped. It was a painting of Job, 1631, oil on canvas by Jan Lievens. There he was, an old and depleted man in a grey loincloth, with thin arms, sunken chest, white beard, bare purply feet, supplicating hands and eyes. I sat down on the bench and stared, took out my distance glasses and looked some more. I realized that I would always be able to visit my father in the final days of his life by coming to this painting.

Over the next days, watching him die, his head back, fingers fluttering at his beard, those unseeing eyes trained on the ceiling, I was watching a figure straight out of an old master’s painting. They studied the old and dying with a powerful scrutiny. Without my knowing it, they had prepared me for everything.

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The day he died, an eloquent friend wrote to say her sadness was shocking, indeed seismic; she hid herself from her less demonstrative family by descending to the basement and drowning out her weeping with the vacuum cleaner.

The same day the weather swept through with great amounts of wind and sunshine, rinsing off the world and adding an exquisite sense of wellbeing to my sadness. “It’s like a Greek tragedy,” I said to my husband, “the rise and fall of fortune.” The orange wave of New Democratic parliamentarians in May, the backwash of his rapid death in August.

“The gods sweep down,” my husband said, “and change things. Poor Jack.”

“Poor us.”

My husband has been reading The Iliad. The other day he came into the kitchen saying what a great storyteller Homer was. I asked him why and he thought for a moment. “He doesn’t rush. He takes his time to give details about every character. He has respect for the dead.”

It took time for Jack to find his feet. In the beginning I liked him, liked his optimism and energy and brashness. Then I lost my liking a couple of elections ago, turned off by his cockiness. The campaign was all about him rather than about the party, so it seemed. I reminded myself that anyone I knew who worked closely with him liked him tremendously. However, something wasn’t working in the way he came across. Then cancer dropped into his life a year ago, and his cockiness became pluckiness and his character rose above the fray.

It takes time, even as time is running out.

Don’t rush.

Revisit books you love. Revisit books you didn’t like; you might be ready for them now. Have patience with your son who seems adrift. Give him space and time (as you tell him to wake up and smell the coffee).

The night Jack died, my husband and I raised our glasses of wine on the back porch as the evening sun poured down and the temperature dropped.

“To the end of summer,” I said.

And he corrected me. “To the rest of summer.”

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The Berkshires

My son gave us names. He was Mister Deck, his father was Sneak, I was Shoe.

We were in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, bicycling by day, camping at night and taking in music, dance and theatre between times at Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, Shakespeare & Company. My two tall men bicycled straight up every hill while I chugged along behind on what felt like a tricycle, huffing, puffing, cursing, and rescued at various times by lemonade and one afternoon by a wonderful rainstorm in Stockbridge. We took refuge on the wide verandah of the Red Lion Inn and drank gin and tonics and read the New York Times.

Down the street, under tarps, a used book sale was going on and I found a slim volume about Willa Cather by her longtime companion Edith Lewis. Willa Cather Living. A lovely read, being a detail-filled account of her childhood and writing life. “[Willa] happened to mention to D. H. Lawrence that she always kept her flowers in the bathroom at night.” It made me eager to read the books of hers I haven’t read.

Now I’m happily in the middle of The Song of the Lark, impressed as always by the genius of her simplicity.

Another day we went to Melville’s house and stood in the large upstairs room where he wrote Moby-Dick with a view in the distance of whale-shaped Mount Greylock. The excellent docent supplied details that stick with me. The suicide of his oldest son; his habit of mercilessly teasing his youngest daughter; his final years as a customs inspector taking the ferry to and from Staten Island after the absolute failure of Moby-Dick and his later books to find an audience.

In the little gift shop I picked up a postcard with a quotation from one of his letters and here was the muscular, sea-tainted, human turn of phrase that makes you want to follow him around the world.

I have been building some shanties of houses (connected with the old one) and likewise some shanties of chapters & essays. I have been ploughing & sowing & raising & printing & praying, and now begin to come out upon a less bristling time, and to enjoy the calm prospect of things from a fair piazza at the north of the old farmhouse here.”

And so we stumble upon great writers and great books.

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Alone in the Classroom is a bestseller

For twenty-one weeks Alone in the Classroom was on the Macleans bestseller list!


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