Thursday, November 12, 2015

Three New Book Reviews: Fawcett, Haensel, MacIntyre

“The Little Washer of Sorrows”
by Katherine Fawcett
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$18.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-049-8
This fall I heard a new writer present at the Whistler Writers Festival and I was so enchanted by her story I requested the book (The Little Washer of Sorrows) for review. I expected I’d be in for an entertaining read, but I couldn’t have guessed what a veritable fun house this short story collection would prove to be. You dive in and at first things seem normal. Characters are realistically portrayed, their situations fathomable, then metaphorical distorting mirrors kick in. Sometimes you laugh out loud, sometimes you recoil as the lines between fantasy and reality are cleverly blurred. 

Welcome to the estimable fictional world of Pemberton BC writer Katherine Fawcett. She’s an original, beginning with her comic dedication to her parents, who “did not ruin [her] life after all”. And here’s the first line of the book (from “Captcha”): “The day I discovered my true nature began like any other day: I woke up, gave Pete a blowjob, and went downstairs to fry up a pan of bacon.” Who is not going to want to continue?    

It’s Fawcett’s playful combination that both jolts and delights: real-world relationship situations, familiar settings, and pop culture references (from Starbucks and Storage Wars to YouTube and the Kardashians) share the page with mythical creatures (ie: banshees, mermaids, sirens, Father Time) and sleight-of-hand plot twists, and she controls it all with cracking-fine language, powerful doses of humour and irony, and spot-on pacing.

Several of the nineteen stories - told from a variety of perspectives, including precocious children and Mother Earth herself - are stylistically innovative. “Dire Consequences” is only four pages long but it packs a Poe-like punch while sporting contemporary references (“Tiger-Tiger in a waffle cone,” “Japanese manga characters”) and credible teen dialogue (“I feel like we can totally read each other’s minds”). The hilarious “Representing Literature in Music for You,” about an eager teacher who takes his lackluster high school students to Tim Horton’s for class, is all written in dialogue, sans quotation marks. One truly feels for how desperately the teacher tries to engage the youths. The title story, about a couple filing for bankruptcy, is told in Second Person, and illustrates how our imaginations can get the best of us. In the MNP office – where his wife’s making conversation with Fiona, Assistant Estate Manager “as if to a friend at Curves” - Greg fears Fiona is a banshee (from Irish folklore). Despite himself he stares at her legs and “feel[s] an erection coming on.” He “look[s] at the ceiling and think[s] of golf so it will go away.”

Numerous stories contain a sexual element. When “a stout old farm lady from the Ottawa Valley” approaches a young woman at a Mexican resort, the latter thinks the former may need help “adjusting her hearing aid or putting on her circulation socks or something”. She does not expect a startling erotic proposition, and nor does the reader.

These tales are unpredictable, daring, and often out-bloody-rageous. Read them. And tell your friends.


“A Rain of Dragonflies”
Written by Regine Haensel
Published by Serimuse Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.25 ISBN 978-0-99390-320-5

Before reading a book, I wonder what new landscapes (internal and external) I’ll explore, what characters and situations I’ll be introduced to. With short stories, I’ve often found that those furthest from what I believe to be the writer’s personal experience are the most successful.

So it was with A Rain of Dragonflies, by Saskatoon’s Regine Haensel, a collection of fourteen short stories. The two that most captivated were “The Cage,” about a dumpster-diving recluse who cages a canary that’s flown into her two-room rooftop suite, and “Winter,” about a flowerchild-turned-teacher who picks up an elderly female hitchhiker during a “near blizzard,” and has her perceptions challenged. Many (if not most) writers do use “seeds” from their lives as inspiration, even when writing fiction. I don’t know how much of these particular stories was fabricated - Haensel did work as a teacher and lived in remote communities like the ones described in the book - but I do know that they really work.

Several characters are unsettled re: the way their lives have turned out, but unlike the rest, Aggie (from “The Cage”) doesn’t question her lot. “She had always accepted everything that went on around her, accepted it as the way of the world” and she “found ways to live within its limitations”. This story succeeds because Haensel never allows it to get sentimental. She portrays loneliness by having Aggie spend most of her days “listening to the cracked radio that only got local stations or looking at pictures in the tattered magazines that she collected.”
Aggie’s home decoration consists of magazine photos, her own drawings, and newspaper-clipped images of birds. She has a cracked plate and label-less tins in the cupboard, collects beer bottles, and is familiar with back alleys, where “garbage cans [spill] over with crumpled paper and old rags, boxes [smell] of rotting vegetables or wilted flowers”. These visceral details make the story credible, and the objective reportage of events allows readers to emotionally connect: we’re not being told what to feel, we’re allowed to experience it ourselves.

“Winter” succeeds because the writer first establishes how challenging Saskatchewan winters truly can be, ie “one snowfall leads to another and has to be shoveled out in the morning and sometimes again when you get home at night.” It also lasts “six months if you’re lucky, closer to seven if you’re not.” There’s a quilt in the truck because its heater doesn’t work well. (Been there).The teacher\narrator is begrudging winter and “the settled life” she’s fallen into when the hitchhiking woman appears. The teacher remembers her own days of hitchhiking – and freedom – and experiences a rainbow of emotions, including pity, and incredulity that her aged guest is bound for Winnipeg, five hundred miles hence. Where do both women belong? Suddenly, the teacher’s life doesn’t seem so glum.

Parents … spouses … a werewolf. Many characters in these fine stories have their eyes opened in one way or another; my bet is that most readers will experience the same.  

“Mahihkan Lake”
by Rod MacIntyre
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-053-5

Veteran writer Rod MacIntyre has combined his talents in scoring authentic and witty dialogue, evoking place to the point where you can actually smell it, and building both personal and physical drama in his seventh book, Mahihkan Lake. Well-known for his YA novels and story collections, now MacIntyre’s characters are all grown up and about to collide – with dark secrets and personal demons in tow – at a mouse-infested cabin beside a northern Saskatchewan lake. Cue gun shots, “a Jesus big storm,” and the cremains of a brother in a “strawberry-faced” cookie jar. Cue wolf (“‘Mahihkan’ - or a word like it - is Cree for wolf”), a gravel truck driver named Harold (with a man’s “boot in his brake hose”), and a mysterious letter. Cue a 1968 Martin guitar, a Road King motorcycle, and chaos.

Drama aside, this novel’s an existential story about self and an intimate exploration of family composed via equal shots of humour and pathos. If the book had a subtitle, it could be How Did We Get Here? MacIntyre’s also a playwright and screenwriter, and there’s a lot of talking in this tale as the characters both literally and figuratively warm. Several chapters are almost entirely dialogue between the underachieving and self-deprecating alcoholic musician Denny and his successful (her new Saab is “The colour of good dental work”) but haunted sister, Dianne. They contemplate talent, happiness, and familial history while tending to practical matters, ie: how to get the cabin’s ancient pump to work.

Denny describes himself as a “complete slob” who is drinking himself into “blissful oblivion”. He lives alone above a paint store. At the story’s inception Dianne retrieves him from his month at a rehab centre, and his fervent drinking is like a through-thread in this novel. At one point Dianne says, “You don’t have a heart, Dennis, you have an enlarged liver”. The three sections of the book - Blue, Sepia and Red - refer to his progressive states of drunkenness. In the “Red Zone,” he says he “start[s] hallucinating dead people”.

Denny co-wrote and toured two mildly successive albums back in the day. His “behemoth mega-hit” was “recorded in eighteen languages” and – in fine MacIntyre-esque comic style – “There’s a yodelling version from Switzerland that is playing on YouTube as we speak.”   

The author, who’s called both Saskatoon and La Ronge home, succinctly captures secondary characters with telling details, ie: the siblings’ father, who built the cabin, was a “terrible carpenter”: “His motto was ‘if it’s close, it’s good.’” Dianne’s husband, whom Denny refers to as “The Doink,” is allergic to leather and the colour black, and niece Kirsten is dating a guy with “Eat Shit” tattooed on his forehead.

Harold’s just plain unlucky. After the accident he sets out on his own journey across Mahihkan Lake and a) capsizes his canoe b) learns his tent’s missing a pole and sports a huge, mosquito-welcoming tear, and c) accidentally sets his tent on fire. 

Saskatchewan-style tragi-comedy anyone? Mahihkan Lake deftly fills the bill.