Annette Lapointe: How’d We Get All the Way Out Here?

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Annette Lapointe, Giller-nominated author of the novel Stolen, returns with a new short fiction collection, You Are Not Needed Now, populated by characters who find themselves in strange and unexpected places. Lapointe's recommended reading list, "How'd We Get All the Way Out Here?" is made up of characters who are similarly lost or stranded...until the reader finds them. 

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Company Town, by Madeline Ashby

Madeline Ashby writes gorgeous, thoughtful science fiction, and I particularly love this novel set on a drilling platform off the coast of Newfoundland in the not-too-distant future. The platform is both a corporate entity and a living city. Hwa, the heroine, is the last “organic” (unaltered) person in the community. She is recruited to serve as a bodyguard to the corporation’s teen heir-apparent. Hwa’s unaltered status marks her as an outsider, but we come to understand she also lives more or less without a face (literally as well as digitally), and without status in a society in which everyone is coded into a set role.

Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood

This short story collection is one of Atwood’s best. If it has a unifying theme, it might be "how did we get so old?" Artists and writers, socialites and adventurers find themselves not just middle aged, but actually elderly. The three protagonists of Atwood’s novel The Robber Bride return as little old ladies in “I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth.” Winter storms afflict characters, turning their Toronto homes into remote outposts. The theme of menacing winter culminates with the title story, in which seniors on an Arctic cruise revisit a crime committed more than half a century earlier.

Hostage, by Guy Delisle

Christophe André was kidnapped in 1997 while working with Médecins Sans Frontières in the Caucasus region and spent three months held prisoner and almost entirely alone. Delisle’s non-fiction graphic story follows André through the ordeal, chronicling his fear but also his grinding boredom. The grey-scale palette reinforces the emotional pressure of the book, and conveys André’s disorientation as he moves from one blank room to another in an unknown country, held captive by people whose language he doesn’t understand.

Astray, by Emma Donoghue

This book of 14 fact-inspired stories turns on the question of what happens to those who transgress cultural boundaries. Donoghue’s talent for adapting historical records into gripping human tales appears here in brief explorations of complex individual lives. From the seventeenth century to the turn of the twentieth, characters travel, grave-rob, and murder their way to freedom. Sexual dissidents cross-dress and love across boundaries of race and gender. The stories are arranged in three movements: Departures, In Transit, and Arrivals and Aftermaths.

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Book Cover Flesh and Gold

Flesh and Gold, by Phyllis Gotlieb

Skerow is a middle-aged woman, monastic in her habits, working as a judge. She experiences brief telepathic contact with a woman, Kobai, being held in a brothel, driving her to investigate a kidnapping, “human” trafficking, and reproductive slavery. The story has crucial implications for modern Canadian culture, but it’s space opera: Skerow is a sentient dinosaur; Kobai is a genetically-altered mermaid. This phenomenal SF novel explores how capitalism devours resources, and how both money and technology set boundaries on who gets counted as “human.” Beyond that, it’s a tense thriller, pushing the story forward through the two women’s determination and terror.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

After the world ends, there’s nothing to do but keep staging Shakespeare. Half the novel is set in the “past,” the last days before civilization is ended by the “Georgia Flu.” A production of King Lear at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto brings child actors into contact with talented adults, and launches the “career” of Kirsten Raymonde. Twenty years later, Kirsten works with the “Travelling Symphony,” itinerant players who travel the Great Lakes region, visiting settlements and towns. They encounter a violent, charismatic cult leader, and Kirsten’s life is only saved because she can recall a few words of a graphic novel she’s had since her Toronto childhood, on which the cult leader has based his own persona. But the graphic novel was an obscure short run: how did the two of them both come to know the same story, and what does it mean?

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Irma Voth, by Miriam Toews

Most of Miriam Toews’ novels are set in Manitoba, exploring the lives and frustrations of contemporary Mennonite women. In Irma Voth, though, the title character and her family left Canada in the night while Irma was still a young teenager, and they have retreated to a conservative Mennonite enclave in Mexico.  There, they live in isolation, speaking Low German while their neighbours speak Spanish. When filmmakers arrive to start a project, Irma becomes entangled with their bohemian lifestyle, and begins to break free of her father’s control. Lingering throughout the book is the terrible question: why did they have to flee Canada? Was the threat outside their family, or was it within?

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Waiting for Saskatchewan, by Fred Wah

This poetry collection is a long-standing favourite of mine. Wah traces his family’s migration from Hong Kong to Saskatchewan, and their travels across the prairies. Wah’s poetry is jazz-influenced and breath-oriented, and plays with sound and rhythm, emphasizing the haibun form, which begins with a rushing prose poem and terminates in a single-line epigram. The book explores what it meant to be Chinese-Canadian and mixed-race in 1940s Swift Current, Saskatchewan, but it also engages with the life of the family, and Wah’s relationship with his deceased restauranteur father, whose memory he seeks in in travels through Canada and Asia.

About You Are Not Needed Now: 

Often set within the small towns of the Canadian prairies, the stories in You Are Not Needed Now dissect and examine the illusion of appearances, the myth of normalcy, and the allure of artifice. Lapointe presents characters who are extraordinarily real. They are often strange, vulgar, or messy: collecting blood-stained cotton pads and hairs from shower drains, slicing through skin to get more urgent medical treatment for testosterone withdrawal, storing the heart of a dead infant in a glass jar, kneeling on the dirty wet floors of a bathroom stall to perform oral sex. 

Despite the diversity, strangeness, and complexity of her characters, Lapointe illustrates a remarkable understanding of each one. She knows them so intimately, and gives her reader the gift of knowing them, too. Lapointe is adept at looking closely, and exposes her characters' faults and vulnerabilities, humiliations and vanities, in illuminating and surprising ways. Trapped in this inescapable place-life-her characters linger somewhere between apathy and obsession, compassion and disregard, conflict and avoidance. 

This is a bold collection of stories, rich with nuance, originality, and depth.

September 12, 2017
Books mentioned in this post
You Are Not Needed Now

You Are Not Needed Now

edition:Paperback
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Irma Voth

Irma Voth

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback Paperback
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