Sunday, July 27, 2014
Subterranean Homesick Blues
(a work of fiction based on real events)
by Joan M Baril
A light step on the wooden sidewalk outside wakes JJ from the old nightmare. In it, he’s twenty-three years old, sitting with the entire family on the long couch in the rec room and watching TV. Ed Sullivan disappears from the screen and, a heartbeat later, a picture of his New York townhouse appears.
Walter Cronkite’s words streak through his brain like a line of fire.
At first the authorities believed the explosion was caused by a gas leak but now it appears dynamite was involved, perhaps some sort of bomb.
His father, ever the news reporter, leans forward. “Oh, my God,” he says.
His little brother Bob, five years old, kicks at JJ and yells, “Hey! Put back Ed Sullivan. I want Ed Sullivan!”
His grandmother half turns. “Don’t you live close to there, JJ dear?”
No Grandma, I do not live close to there. I live in there. My friends live there. That is my house; my dynamite. He does not say these words out loud.
But now, twenty-seven years later, JJ, in his basement room in his house in Vancouver, feels the dream shredding as he tunes into the sounds outside, the foot steps on the long wooden walkway from the street. He lies in his lounge chair, swaddled in sheep skins, a ridiculous fifty-year-old mummy, the blessed morphine pump near his shoulder, his lap top on the swivel tray, his cell phone beside it within reach, or whatever is left of his reach.
He’s never played a radio in his basement room, never a TV. The wooden sidewalk outside tells him all he needs to know.
Steps move lightly around the house. One person. He releases a breath. The pigs come in pairs. The ambulance dudes trundle a gurney, but there’d be at least four of them after what happened last week. They’d be bringing in the reinforcements.
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Trying to Judge Short Fiction
By Joan M. Baril
The Antigonish Review asked me to be a judge of short fiction for the Sheldon Currie Prize. After a while, a large package arrived.
Great story after story. How can I possibly judge which is the “best?” Unlike the tales from other story judges that I have read on line, none of these stories show the faults so often mentioned there: no horrible grammar, terrible spelling, crossed out words or porn or manuscripts written in pencil. The exception was one piece full of run on sentences and I reluctantly put it aside.
Being a judge of a story contest requires that you ask yourself the fundamental questions. What makes a good story? What are its basic elements? You think about the usual stuff: plot, theme, character, writing style and voice. You ask, why was this story written? What is the point of it? Is there really a point here or am I missing it? Should I read it again but I really do not want to. Why is that? This one, on the other hand, I will read again. Why is that? None of the above questions have good answers.
A friend advises. Read again the one that stays with you, that has lodged itself in your brain and pops up there in the morning. Good advice. Great stories latch on like leaches. Who can forget Chekov’s children playing cards or The Lady with the Little Dog? Or Munro’s Albanian Virgin? You think of Kathleen Mansfield and Denis Johnson and Pushkin and Mavis Gallant. Or The Dead, the greatest story written. These stories have nothing in common. Yet they float. They float.
All the stories sent from the Antagonish Review were good. Every one. But some stood out because they were odd, quirky and yet seemed plausible, part of the quirky world as we know it. Our bonfire of inanities. You say to yourself, yes, this is what could happen, this is what it feels like to be an ordinary person in ancient Rome and know the barbarians will be arriving any moment. This story about a party in Ireland examines the strangeness of life, examines it closely and in detail, does not flinch or look away but lifts the knife to the patient, etherized upon a table.
Maybe I am asking the wrong question. What makes a perfectly good story sink? In many cases it is a fact left out, a disconnect. If a gun is in the purse, we have to know why. And if it sits there in the first paragraph it has to be used before the last. Otherwise we feel cheated. We were counting on that gun. If Tommy ties his dog to a tree before he confronts the bullies, he has to untie the dog later. He can’t leave it there. A bit of our heart has settled on the dog and we don’t forget him. We want to yell at Tommy as he runs home victorious, “The dog, stupid. You forgot about the dog.” If Mary believes the house is haunted we have to know something about Mary’s character, what makes her jump to ghosts and not mice or scratchy branches or the neighbour’s bagpipes. We think, “what a dim bulb is this Mary, who thinks there are ghosts whenever she hears a strange noise.” A good writer would make us believe in Mary and her ghost-a- phobia. A good writer would make us believe in three handed flying forks with faces.
We, the reader, must not be distracted, not for an instant but alas, our fickle minds are made for distraction and we live in a shotgun society pelleted with distraction. So the author must fight distraction at every turn. Also a good editor is helpful.
At last I have settled on three stories, the so-called “best.” The others, products of hard work and talent, visible evidence of the internal creative struggle, go into the shredder, a horrible fate for good writing. I feel like Tony Soprano.
The best will get fed-exed away. I will miss them. Maybe I will read them one more time before they disappear into the envelope.
The best will get fed-exed away. I will miss them. Maybe I will read them one more time before they disappear into the envelope.
I do not know who wrote any of the stories. But thank you anonymous and talented writers. Thank you all.
Monday, July 14, 2014
Douglas Gibson (with Joan Baril)
As Canada's most celebrated editor and publisher, Douglas Gibson has helped shape the country's literature for over four decades. And boy, does he have the stories to prove it. We were fortunate enough to sit down with him recently to glean some of the wisdom that just a few of his many colourful literary friendships have brought him.
From Alice Munro: Always tip the waitress
The question I’m usually asked about Alice Munro is 'What is she really like?' And I answer that by saying, 'You know what Alice Munro is really like.' She's the author of Who Do You Think You Are?— she's straightforward, modest, no fooling around, no fancy stuff. Ordinary nice person. And it's very unusual to find artistic genius, which is precisely the word for Alice Munro, genius. Other writers don't know how she does what she does, but that artistic genius to be allied with this genuine ordinary niceness, it's just extraordinary.
"I’ll give you an example of the niceness with the following story. An American tourist was in Alice Munro country, in the little town of Blyth. He was at a chicken supper which was to raise funds for the Blyth summer theatre festival. And like all little theatre festivals, it runs on volunteer time, and chicken suppers, and raising funds. He had enjoyed his chicken supper and he said to the waitress, a grey-haired woman: 'Now I understand that there is a very famous woman novelist who lives nearby, could that possibly be her over there?' And framed in the window was a very dramatic looking woman with great coils of auburn hair, and she looked wonderful and very very impressive. So the harassed waitress clearing off the dirty dishes looks in that direction and says: 'I'm not sure,' she leans closer to the picture, then, 'Yes... maybe, that might be her...' And then, Alice Munro, the waitress, clears the dirty dishes away, takes him back to the hot kitchen where the other volunteers are hard at work. That's Alice. A part of the community, literally getting her hands dirty in a good cause, but also with that wicked sense of humour."
Friday, July 4, 2014
Very pale pink peonies. Photo taken in my garden July 2013
A Meditation on Peonies
by Joan M. Baril
The peonies own July in the North and they make the most of it. They start strong and never let up. In the early spring, they arrive as a clump of fat red shoots, unmistakable and not to be trifled with. If they are stepped on, they do not sulk and go bloomless for the season like the picky lily shoots. Instead, bent or broken, they revive.
Peonies need cages early and big cages too. Only young peonies are happy with regular size tomato cages. The cage that is composed of a single metal ring and a few legs to hold it up is, in general, a laughable and useless item except for the youngest plants.
Mature peonies need a big peony cage but, alas, no cage yet made will contain a mature plant in my garden. So, I make do with the fat cages and set them upside down with the prongs pointing upwards. The very large and tall tomato cages do for the taller, thinner plants. The greenery soon fills and overflows these constraints. Occasionally, in the course of the summer, the cages start to lift on one side because of uneven ground or because these muscular plants push them around. The best anchor is a sandbag made of a green or dark plastic bag the size of a grocery bag and filled with sand and tied with a twist. This sort of bag sits heavily on the ground wire and holds the lower wire of the cage in place better than a brick or even a stone. A peony can lift a cage held down by a stone or brick but not a sand bag or two.
At this pre-bloom stage, peonies will not fall down or be blown over by storms; nevertheless, it is always easier to put the cages on in late May than wait until the plant fills out. By June, the gardener must keep her eye out for the first flower buds and have the tie wire ready. The peony throws up a long stem for its flowers. In my garden this stem can be four feet tall or more.
Tuesday, July 1, 2014
The Red Shoes writing group uses prompts. They meet at Northern Woman's Bookstore and so it is easy to reach for a book, open a page and choose a phrase. One day, not long ago, up popped the words "washing machines" and so expanded to "appliances" and then the pens flew.
Samantha Najarro describes her two grand mothers, one Polish and the other Spanish.
The members of the writing club and members of the audience shared their meditations on laundry, on treadle sewing machines, new fangled washing machines, dishwashing and so called "labour saving devices."
Katja Maki relates how that old treadle clothed her sisters until one sister took it over to become fashionable.
Friday, June 27, 2014
Author Rachel Mishenene and her son Jade at launch of The New Smoke Signals: Communication is a Digital World
Every time you wake up the story begins anew. Our lives are a continuous story. Rachel Mishenene wove stories into her book about social media and told us some last night. She also told us a few of her own stories: for example, she used to be called Joanne. Who knew? And along the way, she did a mean imitation of local dialects.
The book, The New Smoke Signals: Communicating in a Digital World, gives tips and explanations about the most popular social media sites - Twitter, Facebook, Linklin. Written for adult literary students and launched last night at Waverley Library, the book produced sheer delight in everyone who rifled through the pages. I note here the illustrations and the general layout were also a delight. The cover is a stand-out.
Rachel and son Jade are off to a new job in Toronto and so her story continues. Ours ends on a sad note. Thunder Bay will miss her talent, honesty and her warm smile.
Thursday, June 26, 2014
Sunday, June 22, 2014
Poet Erin Stewart
The Boy Nobody Liked
St. Catharines, 1981
In kindergarten, I remember
the boy nobody liked:
unkempt hair, unclean face
uncared for heart.
A slice of baloney
in a puddle outside
- rejected lunch perhaps,
from his invisible mother.
In kindergarten, I remembr
the boy nobody liked.
Maybe his mother
loved him more than
and fancy soap.
Possibly his heart was
cared for, no monetary
In kindergarten, I remember
the boy nobody liked...
The baloney in the puddle
an unlikely moon,
its reflection sure to shine yet
from murky waters.
Thursday, June 19, 2014
Once I had a wringer washing machine. It lived in the basement and claimed every morning of my life, such as it was at the time. Now Northern Women's Bookstore salutes appliances. I was chained to the wringer washer but I knew it was better than the wash tub and scrub board. Still, my gratitude was luke, luke, warm.
Join us Mon. June 30, 2014
Stories and poems about appliances and other electrical, mechanical or digital machines.
Bring your own stories or poems to share! (10 min. max).
The evening kicks off with the RedShoes Writing Group
--Samantha Najarro, Michele Proulx, Katja Maki & Taina Maki Chahal--
reading their stories about washing machines.
All stories, poems, songs or rants about women and machines welcome!
At the Northern Women's Bookstore, 65 S. Court Street, Thunder Bay. 7 pm or would you rather be ironing?
Monday, June 9, 2014
Grace Street, 1946
By Joan M. Baril
The streets of Port Arthur go up hill and down and behind them, hidden, are the back lanes, even more twisted than the streets. Often they run through fields or around rocky outcroppings. Sometimes there are houses back there, shacks, or garages that were turned into houses during the war and sometimes regular houses all alone on a long stretch of lane like boats cast up by the waves.
Evadne’s house is like this. It’s perched on a stretch of flat rock behind Grace Street. I am passing it now on my way to the police station to deliver my father’s lunch. It’s an unpainted two-storey that leans slightly. Evadne and her family, her mother and two older brothers, moved in about a month ago.
Last Thursday, after school, my friend Elsie and I go with Evadne to play in her house. It’s an interesting place. There are many rooms but hardly any furniture. Evadne has a big room to herself, the lucky duck, and she sleeps in her own bed. She keeps her clothes in cardboard boxes lined up along the wall, a neat way to do it, I think.
We three girls run around screaming, in and out the empty rooms. When we get to the bedrooms of Evadne’s brothers, we jump up and down on their mattresses which are on the floor. We land on our knees and then with another leap, land on our backs, rumpling the smoothed blankets. The elder brother, Albert, has movie star pictures tacked to the wall, so we take a crayon and draw mustaches on Rita Hayworth and Carmen Miranda. Henry, the second brother, has a pile of Batman comics beside his bed, and these we fan out and hide under his mattress.
One of the cardboard boxes in Henry’s room contains a pair of pants and a blue plaid shirt white with dust. “My brothers work at the elevators shoveling grain,” Evadne says. “Watch.” She picks up the shirt, tosses it into the air, and grain dust like tiny snow flakes fills the sunlight and makes haloes around our heads. We throw up our arms and dance in the pretend snow as Evadne flaps the shirt up and down. A thin sheen settles on the dark linoleum and I write DUSTY in it with my finger and then, boldly, LOVE, JANET, and this gives us the giggles.
We pelt down the back stairs and up the front stairs, stopping at the landing half way to peek through a place in the wall that has a hole to the outside, a spy hole, where we can check on the world, although there’s nothing to see—just the wide flat rocks and patches of grass that take up the area behind Grace Street. On the third circuit, we spy Evadne’s mother huffing up the lane from the hospital where she has just finished her shift in the kitchens.
Life is so strange I think, as I study the house on the way to the police station. For example, how come I didn’t know, until just a few minutes ago, that Evadne is an Indian?
Friday, June 6, 2014
Here are a few suggestions:
Riel Street by Colette Maitland. A very Canadian family. The four children are realistic, brats sometimes, angels sometimes. The Bouchard family copes but just barely, held together by the grit and tenacity of mother Shirley. Maitland's writing is clean, strong and never sentimental as she chronicles small triumphs and larger tragedies. This is a great follow-up to Keeping the Peace, Mailand's fine collection of short stories which also explores the fraying edges of relationships.
Toby's Room by Pat Barker. Set in England inWorld War I, the young artist, Elinor is inconsolable when her beloved brother, Toby, is reported missing. She has to find out the truth and turns to her fellow artist and former lover Paul Tarrant for help. Another artist friend, Kit Neville, is horribly wounded in the face, turning him grotesque. But is her quest for the truth misguided? This book follows Barker's novel, Life Class but can be read on its own. A tender and searing look at the ruins of war.
The Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland. Top notch historical by a top notch Canadian writer, remembered for her wonderful Josephine B. trilogy. Young Claudette, a member of an acting family, meets a lovely girl of the upper classes. The girl becomes Madame de Montespan and then the mistress of Louis IV, the Sun King. Claudette is drawn into court life with all its dangers and delights.
Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam, a British writer. The first two books in the trilogy should, I believe, be read in order. Barrister Edward Feathers, sometimes called Filth (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) looks back on a seemingly uneventful life but many secrets are held under his conventional exterior. The second book in the series The Man in the Wooden Hat, deals with the story of Filth's beloved wife, Betty and her attraction to rival barrister Terry Veneering. Only three main characters, wonderfully drawn, each one living unusual lives. Gardam's prose is sparse, fast paced and exciting. The British class system informs every action. The third book in the trilogy, Last Friends, is, in my opinion, not as well done as the first two. Gardam is a prolific writer and the local libraries have lots of her works.
Plainsong by Kent Haruf A mesmerizing book about a few characters in the small American prairie town of Holt. Lyrical writing tells great stories in a compassionate manner. I enjoyed this book very much.