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Featured Books: August 2011
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Featured Books: August 2011

By 49thShelf
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New releases we highlighted in August 2011.
A Trick of the Light

A Trick of the Light

A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel
also available: Paperback

ANew York Times Notable Crime Book and Favorite Cozy for 2011
APublishers Weekly Best Mystery/Thriller books for 2011

"Penny has been compared to Agatha Christie [but] it sells her short. Her characters are too rich, her grasp of nuance and human psychology too firm...." --Booklist(starred review)
"Hearts are broken," Lillian Dyson carefully underlined in a book. "Sweet relationships are dead."
But now Lillian herself is dead. Found among the bleeding hearts and lilacs of Clara Morrow's garden in …

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A World Elsewhere

A World Elsewhere

also available: Paperback

Beloved author Wayne Johnston returns to the territory of his #1 national bestseller The Colony of Unrequited Dreams with this sweeping tale of ambition, remorse and hope.
A World Elsewhere has all the hallmarks of Wayne Johnston's most beloved and acclaimed novels: outsiders yearning for acceptance, dreams that threaten to overpower their makers, and unlikely romance. It is an astounding work of literature that questions the loyalties of friends, family and the heart. At the centre of this stor …

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Landish Druken lived in the two-room attic of a house near the end of Dark Marsh Road that was in no way remindful of any other place he’d ever lived. A mile away, in a twelve-room house, his father lived alone. Under the terms of what Landish called the Sartorial Charter, his father had let him keep his clothes but had otherwise disowned him. When he was too hungry and sober to sleep, he walked the edge of the marsh in the dark, smoking the last of his cigars, following the road to where it narrowed to a path that led into the woods.
He had gone to Princeton, where father-made men spent fathermade fortunes. Now they were back home, learning the modern form of alchemy, the transmutation of sums of money into greater sums of money. He’d told them that this was, at best, all they would ever accomplish.“Whereas,” he’d said, “I will write a book that will put in their places everyone who has ever lived. It may take me as long as a month, but I will not falter.”
It was five years since he’d made the boast and he’d yet to write a word that he could resist the urge to burn.
He’d had but one real friend at Princeton, Padgett Vanderluyden, who went by Van. They’d met while Landish was sitting on one of the benches that ran along both sides of the path that led from the centre of the quad to the steps of Nassau Hall, smoking a cigar under a gauntlet of oak trees from which a steady shower of leaves fell despite the lack of wind. Van had sat down beside him.
Landish’s first impressions had been vague ones—pale, thin, elegantly dressed. He turned and saw his benchmate in profile: a pale, unblemished face, the sort of vein-marbled temples Landish had always associated with fragility and even weakness in men. Removing a cigarette case from inside his coat, the young man opened it and offered it to Landish until he noticed his cigar. His hands shook so badly he almost dropped the case.
“You’ve chosen the only occupied bench on the quad,” Landish said. The fellow held his cigarette between his third and fourth fingers, pressing his whole palm against his face as he inhaled. His body shook and his lips trembled though the day was unseasonably warm. Landish wondered if he might be ill.
“I’m Padgett Vanderluyden,” he said as he looked away from Landish. “Van, I like to be called. And you are Landish Druken. I hope you don’t like to go by ‘Lan.’ That wouldn’t do. Van and Lan.” He attempted to laugh but wound up coughing smoke out through his nose and mouth. Landish, the back-of-beyonder who scored unaccountably high grades in all his courses but was not, and was never to be, affiliated with any of the clubs, had been sought out by a Vanderluyden. Vanderluyden. Landish felt like demanding that the fellow prove it by presenting his credentials.
But then Van made the first of several odd admissions: he had stayed up half the night rehearsing what he would say to Landish. “I didn’t want to come unarmed. But I’ve forgotten everything that I rehearsed.”
“You stayed up all night preparing to meet me?”
“Yes, I did.”
“It was smart of you to choose a battle of wits. If you’d used your hands, you might not be nearly so gracious, or conscious, in defeat.”
 “You see? How am I supposed to answer that?”
Van’s voice quavered so badly that Landish felt a tinge of regret for having spoken to him as he had. He extended his hand and Van shook it. Van next told him that his sister, Vivvie, had died just shy of the age of two. “I had a breakdown over it. I’m thought by everyone, including my father, to be inherently given to breaking down. My father once told me that I would be presumed guilty until I was pronounced dead. Here you are now conspicuously sharing a bench with me in front of witnesses.”
“Guilty of what? Witnesses to what?”
Van told him he was joking.
“Well, at least you acknowledge having parents. Most of the fellows here never speak of whatever predecess pool they crawled out of.”
“All night I tried and could not come up with one line as good as that. I am not only not quick-witted—I have no wit at all.”
“You’re very forthright,” Landish said. “Sometimes it takes more nerve to be forthright than to be wittily ironic. I keep people at a distance with my wit and wind up in solitude—that is not always as splendid as it seems.”
Van smiled and blushed.
Noticing his embarrassed expression, Landish was again about to amend his remark when he noticed a man sitting on a bench on the opposite side of the walkway, six benches along perhaps. He sat side on, smoking a cigarette, staring at them. Not even when Landish’s eyes met his did he look away. He wore an overcoat and gloves and his hat lay on the bench beside him. He seemed to squint appraisingly at Landish. Even now, on Dark Marsh Road, eighteen months since Princeton, Landish found himself looking over his shoulder, especially at night, to see if he was being followed by Van’s bodyguard, Mr. Trull. “I don’t need a bodyguard,” Van had said. “But my father wants people to think I do. Mr. Trull used to be a Pinkerton.”
Mr. Trull, who carried two pistols, stayed out of eavesdropping range but followed Van and Landish everywhere, unselfconsciously conspicuous, a cigarette-smoking sentinel, staring at the ground. Landish imagined him running towards them, a pistol in each hand.
Van had declared himself. How odd. I want us to be friends. Landish knew that he would have graduated Princeton without ever having made a friend if such a declaration had had to come from him. For most of his time at Princeton, he had thought he would remember their meeting as one of the great events of his life.
The closest thing to work Van had ever done was ride a horse. He said he was a good rider and asked what sort of rider Landish was. Landish said he would let him know as soon as he found out.
Landish sat alone, in silence, in the taverns of St. John’s, spending the hundred dollars in “compensation” that had recently arrived from Van. Other than that word typed on a piece of paper, there had been no note of explanation, nothing but the money. He had thought of— and then thought better of—sending it back.
He drank and considered the bargain he had made with his father: send me to Princeton for four years and I will return and give you the balance of my life. The real terms of the bargain were: send me to Princeton so that, for four years, I can pretend that I am not the son of a sealing captain, pretend the man who paid my way does not exist, and I will come back and follow in your footsteps, low though my opinion be of where they lead. Four years of hoping against hope that something will come up so that I don’t have to do for a living what the father I’m ashamed of did to pay my way through Princeton.
When Landish told his father that he wished to be a novelist instead of the skipper of a sealing ship, his father said that a novel was about people who never lived and all the things they never did.
Captain Druken had first taken his son with him to the hunt when Landish was twelve. Landish had sailed on the Gilbert many times by then. Short trips, mostly in the summer. His father began to teach him about the sea long before he stepped on a boat. Landish’s maiden voyage was in a dory that the boy rowed out to the Gilbert. He still remembered how it felt, an inch or two of wood between the water and his feet. It was like standing on a sea-surrounded seesaw.
He’d never been swimming. His father had forbidden it. He said that knowing how to swim would do him no good if he fell into what he called “real water.” It would only make him less afraid of it and someday that might lead to carelessness and mean his death.
“The water is your enemy,” he said. “It has things you want that you will have to take from it by force. It will give you nothing and no matter how little you take from it, it wants nothing in exchange except your life.”
When Landish finished high school, he had come to imagine for himself a life other than the one that he was born to.
“You were born with sea legs,” his father said. “You can’t go against your nature. You can walk the Gilbert in rough weather day or night as well as any sailor. And make your way across the ice as well as any sealer. I didn’t teach you that. It can’t be taught. I’ve seen you in a storm of freezing spray, your hands bare so that you could better feel the wheel, your knuckles blood red from the cold. And look at you. The size of you. You could stand eye to eye with any horse.
Hands and fists as big as mine. As broad across the shoulders as the doorway of a church. A head so big it should be on a statue. You need a chair for each half of your arse. And you think you were bred for writing books?”
Landish couldn’t help but like Van who, minutes after they met, had confessed that he was widely regarded as a “dud.”
“My father thinks I’m one,” he said.
Who better than the richest man in the world to spy out a dud among his children?
But Van said he was going to surprise everyone by doing something “big” with his life.
Landish had doubted it. He guessed that not every graduate from Princeton would practise the modern form of alchemy. It was true of some that the more generations removed they were from the source of their wealth, the less able and inclined they became to increase or maintain that wealth. Landish called it the Law of Layabout Descendants. Van said he was going to build, “cause to be built,” a great house in North Carolina.
Landish told him that, when he was nine, he had caused a campfire to be built and then caused it to be lit.
Van said, “I discovered the site of the house in 1887. The excavations are completed. I plan to live there, alone if I have to, far enough from Manhattan to forget the place. It may sound morbid, but I have to wait for my inheritance to begin the main work.”
It was 1893. Van was building Vanderland now. Landish had read about it in a week-old edition of the New York Times. The Carolina Castle, it was called in the article. There had been a picture of Van reclining on the forest floor at the feet of a team of famous architects and engineers. Van, his elder by several years, looking his age at last. Landish bought drinks for those of his tavern mates who were not afraid to ask him to. They must have thought he was spending Druken money, that his father had relented.
By the time Landish’s story had made it back from Princeton to St. John’s, there were many versions of it, in all of which he had cheated, not to help a friend but to keep from flunking out.
The full four years at Princeton and he came away with nothing, people said. The Druken who imagined he was born to a better fate than captain of a sealing ship. After so many Drukens went scot-free for greater crimes, their name was ruined because it was proved that the family’s first intellectual, the would-be man of letters and refinement, had cheated on a test. The shame was that so many Drukens had died of old age in warm beds before the boy that brought them down was even born.
“You have been played for a fool,” his father said. “Come back to the world in which you count for something. It doesn’t bother me that you didn’t graduate. It doesn’t bother me why you didn’t. If cheating at school is the worst thing you ever do, you’ll be the first saint in the family. I gave you your four years. You said that you would give me the balance of your life.”
But Landish told him he would never set foot on a sealing ship again. “So it doesn’t matter that you cheated your own father. It only matters that some rich man cheated you. Because I deserve to be cheated and you don’t?”
His father was right. That was how Landish had squared it with his conscience. A necessary transgression by a son against his ignoble father to achieve a noble end—which might never be achieved. But he could make amends only by relenting to a life that would destroy him. Even had he been inclined to look for one, he could not have found a job aboard a ship or on the waterfront. Neither his father’s associates nor his enemies would have anything to do with him. His father was the last Druken who could afford not to care what people thought of him. He applied to every newspaper in the city for a job. He sent in samples of his writing and they sent them back.
He found employment in a beggars-can’t-be-choosers kind of school. One day he went there drunk and fell asleep. He woke up to find that all his students had left, his classroom was dark and empty, and a note of dismissal was pinned to the pocket of his coat. Van had told him of the rhyme which other boys used to chant when they saw him: “Padgy Porgie, pudding and pie/Killed the girl who made him cry/When the boys came out to play/Padgy Porgie ran away.”
 “Killed?” Landish said.
“One of the rumours is that I so hated my infant sister for supplanting me as the baby of the family that I did away with her and that it was all hushed up by my father. It’s absurd, but there you are.”
There you are. The under-built, slender-built Vanderluyden who his father said could not look their lowest servant in the eye, the dud with the long, pale, slender fingers that bent back to touch his wrists, was said to have killed his sister out of spite.
When Van’s father died, he left Van six million dollars, as well as stocks and properties worth about four million. Each of his three older brothers got ten times as much.
Ten million. Henry Vanderluyden’s notion of disownment. “I get it after I graduate. I will sink all of it into Vanderland if I have to.”
“I should marry for money,” Landish said. “No worries then about making a living as a writer. Matrimoney.”
“My mother married for it.”
“Your grandfather made a name for himself. Your father bought one.”
“As I suppose I shall have to someday.”
In the attic on Dark Marsh Road, Landish calculated that had he been thus disowned, he could have given his landlord a seven-hundred-andfifty- trillion-year advancement on the rent.
Though Van had all his life been mocked and hectored by his father, his death left Van so dejected that Landish thought he might fall ill. One day, as they passed a haberdashery, he pointed and said: “Full fathom five thy father lies/those are pants that were his size.”
He was ridiculously pleased when Van, finally, could not suppress a smile. In the middle of his junior year in the spring of 1890, Landish moved out of his dorm room and into Van’s house in town. They were inspired by Tennyson’s poem “The Lotus Eaters” to call the hilltop house and its spacious grounds Lotus Land. Van insisted on paying all the rent for a house that was bigger than the Drukens’.
“You could fit this house into one room at Vanderland,” Van said.
“Is the idea of building this Vanderland all that keeps you going?”
“Isn’t that enough? The greatest house in the world?”
They each had a storey of the three-storey house, Van the upper one, Landish the middle. Mr. Trull lived in three rooms on the ground floor. He had his own entrance and there was no connecting passage between his rooms and theirs. “He keeps an eye and ear out in case I leave, I suppose,” Van said. “I doubt he ever really sleeps.”
Van chose as his bedroom the one at the opposite end of the house from Landish’s so that, he said, he wouldn’t be kept awake all night by the footsteps of “a stomping insomniac who can’t compose a word without roaring it out loud.”
“And then I burn the words,” Landish said. “So far, I haven’t left a single word of my book unburned.”
“You really are writing a book — I thought you were kidding and just reading your assignments out loud. What’s the book about?”
“I can tell you it will be a novel. I know little more than that about it myself.”
“You speak so often of Newfoundland, I’m maddened by your infatuation with the place. It’s just your childhood you miss, not Newfoundland,” he’d say. “Your childhood when everyone was nice to you, when you had no enemies and there was no one who was out to bring you down.”
“Perhaps,” he’d say, and then start in about Newfoundland again. He told Van that he remembered the smell of ripening crabapples borne up by the wind from the street below his house in late September.

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Better the Devil You Know

Better the Devil You Know

also available: Paperback Paperback

Set in Vancouver in 1907, Better the Devil You Know is the outrageous tale of three unique and curious characters: the small-time con man who passes himself off as an evangelical preacher, the scrawny street-worker whom he reluctantly befriends, and the five-year-old hellion left in his care by a former lady friend. In the course of their adventures, these three misfits become involved with a larcenous lingerie salesman, a Klondike miner bent on recovering his stolen poke, a madam intent on reve …

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A Credit to Your Race

A Credit to Your Race

tagged : literary

A longtime resident of Surrey, Truman Green wrote 'A Credit to Your Race' (1973), in which a fifteen-year-old black porter's son falls in love with, and impregnates, the white girl next door. Set in Surrey, circa 1960, 'A Credit to Your Race' is a disturbing and convincing portrayal of how the full weight of Canadian racism could come to bear on a youthful, interracial couple. "If Isolation is a key theme of black B.C. writing," says social historian Wayde Compton, "Green's protagonist Billy Rob …

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Glass Boys

Glass Boys

A novel
also available: eBook
tagged : literary

With vivid and unflinching prose, Nicole Lundrigan has created a suspenseful and deeply human saga of the persistence of evil and the astonishing power of love.


When Roy Trench is killed in a drunken prank gone wrong, his brother Lewis sees blood on the hands of the man responsible: the abusive alcoholic, Eli Fagan. Though the courts rule the death an accident, the event opens a seam of hate between the two families of Knife's Point, Newfoundland.


Desperate to smother the painful past with love, …

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Return, The

Return, The

also available: eBook
tagged : literary

From the Prix Medicis winner comes a haunting meditation on the nature of identity.


Dany Laferriere's most celebrated book since How to Make Love to a Negro, The Return is a bestseller in France and Quebec and the winner of many awards, including the prestigious Prix Medicis and the Grand Prix du livre de Montreal.


At age 23, the narrator, Dany, hurriedly left behind the stifling heat of Port-au-Prince for the unending winter of Montreal. It was 1976, and Baby Doc Duvalier's regime had just kill …

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also available: Paperback
tagged : literary

A spellbinding and wise coming-of-age story, Shelter draws readers into the precarious world of two young sisters in search of their mother, and brings to life the breathtaking B.C. landscape through which they travel.
Maggie Dillon lives with her family in a small, roughly furnished cabin in B.C.’s Chilcotin region, where the land and the native peoples who’ve always called it home have taken in both pioneer settlers and latecomers like the Dillons. Her sister, Jenny, is the elder of the t …

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Jenny was the one who asked me to write all this down. She wanted me to sort it for her, string it out, bead by bead, an official story, like a rosary she could repeat and count on. But I started writing it for her, too. For Mom, or Irene as other people would call her, since she abandoned a long time ago whatever “Mom” once meant to her. Even now there was no stopping the guilt that rose up when we thought of her. We did not try to look for our mother. She was gone, like a cat who goes out the back door one night and doesn’t return, and you don’t know if a coyote got her or a hawk or if she sickened somewhere and couldn’t make it home. We let time pass, we waited, trusting her, because she had always been the best of mothers. She’s the mother, that’s what we said to each other, or we did in the beginning. I don’t know who started it.
That’s not true. It was me. Jenny said, “We should look for her.” I said, “She’s the mother.” When I said it, I didn’t know the power those few words would take on in our lives. They had the sound of truth, loaded and untouchable. But they became an anchor that dragged us back from our most honest impulses.
We waited for her to come to get us and she never did. There was no sign that this would happen. I know people always look for signs. That way they can say, we’re not the type of people things like that happen to, as if we were, as if we should have seen it coming. But there were no signs. Nothing except my worry, which I think I was born with, if you can be born a worrier—Jenny thinks you can.
Worry was stuffed into the spaces around my heart, like newspaper stuffed in the cracks of a cabin wall, and it choked out the ease that should have been there. I’m old enough now to know that there are people who don’t feel dogged by the shadow of disaster, people who think their lives will always be a clean, wide-open plain, the sky blue, the way clearly marked. My anxiety curled me into myself. I couldn’t be like Jenny, who was opened up like a sunny day with nothing to do but lie in the grass, feel the warm earth against her back, a breeze, the click of insects in the air. Soon, later, never— words not invented. Jenny was always and yes.
As I say, there was no sign of anything that might go wrong in the small, familiar places that made up our world. The bedroom Jenny and I shared was painted robin’s egg blue and the early morning sunlight fell across the wall, turning it luminous, like an eggshell held to the light. I watched how it fell, and after a while tiny shadowed hills rose up and valleys dipped in the textured lines of the wallboard. Morning in that land came slow and slanted with misty light, waking into the glare of day.
Our house in Duchess Creek had a distinctive smell that met me at the front door: boiled turnip, fried bologna, tomato soup, held in the curtains or in the flimsy walls and ceiling or the shreds of newspaper that insulated them. It was a warm house, Mom said, but not built by people who intended to stay. The kitchen cupboards had no doors and the bathroom as separated from the main room by a heavy flowered curtain.
Electricity had come to Duchess Creek in 1967, the year I turned seven and Jenny eight. A saggy wire was strung through the trees to our house a few months later. But we had power only occasionally, and only for the lights.
The small electric stove had been dropped off by one of Dad’s friends who found it at the dump in Williams Lake. It was never hooked up and Mom never made a fuss about it, though her friend Glenna asked her about twice a week when she was going to get the stove working. Glenna said, “Hey, aren’t you happy we’ve finally joined the twentieth century?” Mom said that if she wanted to join the twentieth century, she’d move to Vancouver. Glenna laughed and shook her head and said, “Well, I guess you’re not the only one who thinks that way. There’s people who like it that Williams Lake is the biggest town for miles and miles in any direction.”
In the Chilcotin, where we lived, there were the Indians, the Chilcotins and the Carriers, who had been here long before the whites came. Their trails and trade routes still crisscrossed the land. And there were the white settlers whose histories were full of stories about pioneering and ranching and road-building. Then there were the late-comers, like our family, the Dillons.
Dad had left Ireland in 1949 for America and ended up in Oregon, then had come north. Others came to avoid marching into wars they didn’t believe in, or ways of life they didn’t believe in. Some came from cities, with everything they owned packed into their vehicles, looking for a wild place to escape to. They were new pioneers, reinventing themselves following their own designs. Dad had a friend named Teepee Fred and another named Panbread. When I asked Dad what their last names were, he said he’d never bothered to ask.
Mom didn’t care much about the electric stove because she had learned to cook on the woodstove. She cooked out of necessity, not pleasure, and stuck mainly to one-pot stews that she could manage without an oven. We didn’t have an electric fridge, either. We had a scratched old icebox where a lonely bottle of milk and a pound of butter resided.
There was a pump in the backyard where we got our water. Someone before us had made plans for indoor plumbing. There was a shower and sink in the bathroom, and a hole in the floor, stuffed with rags, where a pipe came in for a toilet, but none of these worked. We pumped our water and carried it in a five-gallon bucket that sat on the kitchen counter.
We had an outhouse, but at night we set a toilet seat over a tin pot and Dad emptied it each morning. Just at the edge of the bush behind the house, Dad had rigged up a heavy, old claw foot bathtub especially for Mom. Underneath he had dug a hole and in that he’d make a small fire. He ran a hose from the pump to fill the tub. The water heated nicely and Mom sat in there on a cedar rack he’d made so she wouldn’t burn herself. Some evenings we’d hear her out there, singing to herself, her voice lifting out of the dark on the steam that rose from behind the screen of fir boughs he’d wound through a piece of fence.
Sometimes I sat on a stump beside her, trailing my arm in the hot water. Bats wheeled and dipped above us, just shadows, a movement in the corner of the eye. Stars grew brighter and as thick as clouds of insects while the water cooled. I thought that if she needed any proof that Dad loved her, that bathtub was it.
There must have been a time when I sang myself awake, trilling up and down a range of happy notes as a beetle tracked across the window screen and cast a tiny shadow on the wall. But I don’t remember it. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t look at the world and feel apprehension chewing at the edges. It wasn’t our mother I worried about, though. I felt lucky to have a mom who took us camping, wasn’t afraid of bears, loved to drive the logging roads and what she called the “wagon trails” that wandered off Highway 20 and into the bush. We found lakes and rotting log cabins and secret little valleys; it felt like we were the first people to find them. Our measure of a good camp was how far from other people it was. “No one around for miles,” Mom would say, satisfied, when the fire was built. She was the constant in our lives, the certainty and the comfort. It was Dad I worried about.
He had to be approached like an injured bird, tentatively. Too much attention and he would fly off. If he was in the house, he was restless. He would stretch, look around as if he was an outsider, and then I’d feel the sting of disappointment as he went for his jacket by the door.
Sometimes he whistled, made it seem casual, putting his arms into the flannel sleeves. Then he’d go outside, chop wood for a few minutes, like a penance, then disappear into the bush. He’d be gone for hours. Worse days, he’d go to his bedroom and close the door.
I listened with my ear against the wall of my room. If I stood there long enough, I’d hear the squeak of bedsprings as he turned over. I don’t know what he did in there. He had no books or radio. I don’t think he did anything at all. When he came back from his working day in the bush, he liked to sleep in the reclining chair by the oil drum that was our woodstove. I wanted him to stay asleep there. If he was asleep, he was with us.
But sometimes he pulled the chair too close to the woodstove. One afternoon, I tried to get him to move it back.
“Don’t worry, Maggie,” he said. “I’m not close enough to melt.” And he fell asleep with his mouth open, occasionally drawing a deep breath that turned to a cough and woke him briefly. I wasn’t afraid that he would melt. I was afraid that the chair would burst suddenly into flames, as the Lutzes’ shed roof once did when Helmer got the fire in the garbage bin burning too high.
At the counter, my mother stood slicing deer meat for stew. I watched, waiting for his eyelids to sag, flicker, and drop closed again. Mom peeled an onion, then began to chop. Jenny and I had our Barbies spread on the sunny yellow linoleum. Jenny’s Barbie wanted to get married and since we didn’t have a Ken, my Barbie had to be the husband. I tucked her blonde hair up under a pair of bikini bottoms. Mom turned to us. Her eyes streamed with tears. For some reason, we found her routine with the onions and the tears very funny. We put our hands over our mouths so we wouldn’t wake Dad. Mom never cried. Maybe that’s why we found it so improbable that something as ordinary as an onion could have this power over her.
She moved to the woodstove. The sweet smell of onions frying in oil rose up and then Mom dropped the cubes of deer meat into the pot. A pungent, wild blood smell that I didn’t like filled the house. But it only lasted a minute, then the meat and onions blended to a rich, sweet fragrance and Mom sprinkled in pepper and reached for a jar of tomatoes.
She struggled with the lid and turned to look at Dad to see if he was awake. She wouldn’t wake him. She wouldn’t break the spell of all of us being there together by asking him to open a jar. Instead she got out a paring knife, wedged the blade under the rim and gave it a twist.
Smoky fall air spiced the room, drifting in through the kitchen window that was kept open an inch whenever the woodstove was going. The warm yellow linoleum heated my belly as I stretched out on the floor and Mom stood solidly at the counter, her auburn hair curled in a shiny question mark down the back of her favourite navy sweater. She wore her gingham pedal pushers, though it was too cold for them, and well-worn moccasins on her bare feet. Her calves were strong and shapely. Something about the knife and the jar made the easiness radiating through me begin to crumble.
Mom had tacked up cloth decorated with brown Betty teapots under the sink to hide the drainpipe and garbage. This became part of my worry, the flimsiness of it. Maybe it meant that we didn’t intend to stay, either.
Near the woodstove, black charred spots marred the washed yellow of the floor. Jenny teased me whenever I rushed over to stomp out the embers that popped from the stove when the door was open. Dad would tell her not to bother me about it. “Mag’s like me,” he’d say. “Safety first.” Dad worked with Roddy Schwartz on a Mighty Mite sawmill near Roddy’s cabin. Roddy had brought the mill in from Prince George on a trailer. It had a Volkswagen engine that ran two saw blades along the logs and could cut almost any tree they hauled out. They usually spent a few days felling and limbing trees, then skidded them out to where the mill was assembled. Dad didn’t like the skidding, because they couldn’t afford a proper skidder. Instead they had an old farm tractor with a chain that they wrapped around the logs to pull them out of the bush. Dad worried about the logs snagging on something and the tractor doing a wheelie.
I had listened to him talking to Mom about the work one evening when they were sitting out on the porch.
“I don’t trust Roddy when he’s hungover,” he’d said. “He gets sloppy like. Says I’m bitching at him. Like an old woman, he says. Claims he knows the mill inside out, could do it with his eyes closed. I keep telling him, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it. You let your guard down, one of those boards’ll take your fingers off so fast you won’t know what hit you.”
“Oh, Patrick,” Mom shuddered. “Don’t even say that.”
“I know, but he’s a law unto to himself. Cocky bastard, that’s what gets me. These are thirty foot trees we’re fooling with.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“You don’t need to worry about me.” Dad raised his voice a little when he saw me standing at the screen door.
“Mr. Safety,” he said, and winked at me.
It was Dad’s nickname. It wasn’t just our family who called him that. His friends did too, irritated by his careful checking and rechecking of his guns, his gear, his methodical testing of brakes before descending the Hill to Bella Coola. The Hill had an 18 percent grade and a reputation for turning drivers’ legs to rubber. The local habit was to fuel up with liquor before making the attempt. But Dad was disgusted by that.
“You can’t rush Mr. Safety,” his friends teased, lighting another cigarette to wait while he put an air gauge to each tire in turn.
Now as he slept in his reclining chair by the stove, I went over to hold my hand flat against the green vinyl. It was almost too hot to touch. I didn’t know which I wanted more: to have him stay asleep and with us or to have him wake up and get out of harm’s way. I stood behind his chair watching the whorl of his red hair quiver as he breathed. At the crown where the hair parted, a little patch of ruddy scalp showed.
I pulled a kitchen chair over to the counter and got down the biggest glass I could find. Then I scooped water into it from the bucket and, as Mom watched me, took a little sip. I carried the tall glass of water over to the chair where Dad slept and I stood on guard.
A few minutes passed calmly as I pretended to be interested in the top of Dad’s head. Suddenly he drew one of his deep ragged breaths and his whole body went stiff, then jerky, with his hands pawing the air and choking sounds rising from his throat.
“Mom!” I called as she dropped her knife and whirled.
 “Patrick, wake up,” she said. She knelt by his knees and took hold of his hands. He cried out then, making the most un-Dadlike sound I’d ever heard. Like a baby. Like a cornered animal.
“Patrick!” Mom said again, then, “Give me your water, Maggie.”
I handed her the glass and she brought it to Dad’s lips.
“Take a sip, Patrick. Have a drink. It’s nice and cold. There you go, there you go.”
He opened his eyes and coughed as he swallowed.
Mom said, “It’s okay now, girls, he just had a terror.”
“I had a terror,” Dad said. That’s what they called them, these fits of Dad’s. Apparently, his father had had them too—seizures of fear that took possession of his whole body when he was on the edge of sleep. He drank down the water and shook him - self awake. His messy red curls were damp with sweat.
“Don’t look so worried, Mag,” he said and pulled me onto his lap. “Nothing’s going to happen to me. I’m Mr. Safety, remember?”
Dad smelled of tobacco and woodsmoke and the outdoor tang of fall leaves. I began counting the freckles on his arms. “Do you think I have as many freckles on my arms as there are stars in the sky?” he asked.
“Maybe more,” I said. It was what I always said and it was what he always asked. As long as I was counting his freckles, he was my captive.
Nothing bad had happened. It was only a terror. Still I worried.
As I walked to the school bus each morning, shuffling my boots along in the fresh snow to make my own trail, Jenny already a powder blue beacon by the power pole at the highway, I worried about leaving Mom at home alone, about the wild way she swung the axe when she was splitting kindling and the way Dad nagged her to be careful. One of these days she was going to chop off her own foot, he said. And when we got off the bus at the end of the day, just before we rounded the final bend by the bent pine tree and our little house came into view, I worried that I’d see it engulfed in flames, or already a smoking heap. And each time it stood blandly, paint peeling to grey, smoke rising from the chimney pipe, I felt my tight muscles loosen and I broke into a run.
We were a normal family; that’s our story. Our days were full of riverbanks and gravel roads, bicycles and grasshoppers. But you think a thing, you open a door. You invite tragedy in. That’s what my worry taught me.

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The Cat's Table

The Cat's Table

also available: Paperback
tagged : literary

From Michael Ondaatje: an electrifying new novel, by turns thrilling and deeply moving -- one of his most vividly rendered and compelling works of fiction to date.

In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy boards a huge liner bound for England. At mealtimes, he is placed at the lowly "Cat's Table" with an eccentric and unforgettable group of grownups and two other boys. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys find themselves imm …

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He wasn’t talking . He was looking from the window of the car all the way. Two adults in the front seat spoke quietly under their breath. He could have listened if he wanted to, but he didn’t. For a while, at the section of the road where the river sometimes flooded, he could hear the spray of water at the wheels. They entered the Fort and the car slipped silently past the post office building and the clock tower. At this hour of the night there was barely any traffic in Colombo. They drove out along Reclamation Road, passed St. Anthony’s Church, and after that he saw the last of the food stalls, each lit with a single bulb. Then they entered a vast open space that was the harbour, with only a string of lights in the distance along the pier. He got out and stood by the warmth of the car.
He could hear the stray dogs that lived on the quays barking out of the darkness. Nearly everything around him was invisible, save for what could be seen under the spray of a few sulphur lanterns—watersiders pulling a procession of baggage wagons, some families huddled together. They were all beginning to walk towards the ship.
He was eleven years old that night when, green as he could be about the world, he climbed aboard the first and only ship of his life. It felt as if a city had been added to the coast, better lit than any town or village. He went up the gangplank, watching only the path of his feet—nothing ahead of him existed—and continued till he faced the dark harbour and sea. There were outlines of other ships farther out, beginning to turn on lights. He stood alone, smelling everything, then came back through the noise and the crowd to the side that faced land. A yellow glow over the city. Already it felt there was a wall between him and what took place there. Stewards began handing out food and cordials.
He ate several sandwiches, and after that he made his way down to his cabin, undressed, and slipped into the narrow bunk. He’d never slept under a blanket before, save once in Nuwara Eliya. He was wide awake. The cabin was below the level of the waves, so there was no porthole. He found a switch beside the bed and when he pressed it his head and pillow were suddenly lit by a cone of light.
He did not go back up on deck for a last look, or to wave at his relatives who had brought him to the harbour. He could hear singing and imagined the slow and then eager parting of families taking place in the thrilling night air. I do not know, even now, why he chose this solitude. Had whoever brought him onto the Oronsay already left? In films people tear themselves away from one another weeping, and the ship separates from land while the departed hold on to those disappearing faces until all distinction is lost.
I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was. Perhaps a sense of self is not even there in his nervous stillness in the narrow bunk, in this green grasshopper or little cricket, as if he has been smuggled away accidentally, with no knowledge of the act, into the future.
He woke up, hearing passengers running along the corridor. So he got back into his clothes and left the cabin. Something was happening. Drunken yells filled the night, shouted down by officials. In the middle of B Deck, sailors were attempting to grab hold of the harbour pilot. Having guided the ship meticulously out of the harbour (there were many routes to be avoided because of submerged wrecks and an earlier breakwater), he had gone on to have too many drinks to celebrate his achievement. Now, apparently, he simply did not wish to leave. Not just yet. Perhaps another hour or two with the ship. But the Oronsay was eager to depart on the stroke of midnight and the pilot’s tug waited at the waterline. The crew had been struggling to force him down the rope ladder, however as there was a danger of his falling to his death, they were now capturing him fishlike in a net, and in this way they lowered him down safely. It seemed to be in no way an embarrassment to the man, but the episode clearly was to the officials of the Orient Line who were on the bridge, furious in their white uniforms. The passengers cheered as the tug broke away. Then there was the sound of the two-stroke and the pilot’s weary singing as the tug disappeared into the night.
What had there been before such a ship in my life? A dugout canoe on a river journey? A launch in Trincomalee harbour? There were always fishing boats on our horizon. But I could never have imagined the grandeur of this castle that was to cross the sea. The longest journeys I had made were car rides to Nuwara Eliya and Horton Plains, or the train to Jaffna, which we boarded at seven a.m. and disembarked from in the late afternoon. We made that journey with our egg sandwiches, some thalagulies, a pack of cards, and a small Boy’s Own adventure.
But now it had been arranged I would be travelling to England by ship, and that I would be making the journey alone. No mention was made that this might be an unusual experience or that it could be exciting or dangerous, so I did not approach it with any joy or fear. I was not forewarned that the ship would have seven levels, hold more than six hundred people including a captain, nine cooks, engineers, a veterinarian, and that it would contain a small jail and chlorinated pools that would actually sail with us over two oceans. The departure date was marked casually on the calendar by my aunt, who had notified the school that I would be leaving at the end of the term. The fact of my being at sea for twenty-one days was spoken of as having not much significance, so I was surprised my relatives were even bothering to accompany me to the harbour. I had assumed I would be taking a bus by myself and then change onto another at Borella Junction.
There had been just one attempt to introduce me to the situation of the journey. A lady named Flavia Prins, whose husband knew my uncle, turned out to be making the same journey and was invited to tea one afternoon to meet with me. She would be travelling in First Class but promised to keep an eye on me. I shook her hand carefully, as it was covered with rings and bangles, and she then turned away to continue the conversation I had interrupted. I spent most of the hour listening to a few uncles and counting how many of the trimmed sandwiches they ate. On my last day, I found an empty school examination booklet, a pencil, a pencil sharpener, a traced map of the world, and put them into my small suitcase. I went outside and said good-bye to the generator, and dug up the pieces of the radio I had once taken apart and, being unable to put them back together, had buried under the lawn. I said good-bye to Narayan, and good-bye to Gunepala.
As I got into the car, it was explained to me that after I’d crossed the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, and gone through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, I would arrive one morning on a small pier in England and my mother would meet me there. It was not the magic or the scale of the journey that was of concern to me, but that detail of how my mother could know when exactly I would arrive in that other country.
And if she would be there.
I heard a note being slipped under my door. It assigned me to Table 76 for all my meals. The other bunk had not been slept in. I dressed and went out. I was not used to stairs and climbed them warily.
In the dining room there were nine people at Table 76, and that included two other boys roughly my age.
“We seem to be at the cat’s table,” the woman called Miss Lasqueti said. “We’re in the least privileged place.”
It was clear we were located far from the Captain’s Table, which was at the opposite end of the dining room. One of the two boys at our table was named Ramadhin, and the other was called Cassius. The first was quiet, the other looked scornful, and we ignored one another, although I recognized Cassius. I had gone to the same school, where, even though he was a year older than I was, I knew much about him. He had been notorious and was even expelled for a term. I was sure it was going to take a long time before we spoke. But what was good about our table was that there seemed to be several interesting adults. We had a botanist, and a tailor who owned a shop up in Kandy. Most exciting of all, we had a pianist who cheerfully claimed to have “hit the skids.”
This was Mr. Mazappa. In the evening he played with the ship’s orchestra, and during the afternoons he gave piano lessons. As a result, he had a discount on his passage. After that first meal he entertained Ramadhin and Cassius and me with tales of his life. It was by being in Mr. Mazappa’s company, as he regaled us with confusing and often obscene lyrics from songs he knew, that we three came to accept one another. For we were shy and awkward. Not one of us had made even a gesture of greeting to the other two until Mazappa took us under his wing and advised us to keep our eyes and ears open, that this voyage would be a great education. So by the end of our first day, we discovered we could become curious together.
Another person of interest at the Cat’s Table was Mr. Nevil, a retired ship dismantler, who was returning to England after a patch of time in the East. We sought out this large and gentle man often, for he had detailed knowledge about the structure of ships. He had dismantled many famous vessels. Unlike Mr. Mazappa, Mr. Nevil was modest and would speak of these episodes in his past only if you knew how to nudge an incident out of him. If he had not been so modest in the way he responded to our barrage of questions, we would not have believed him, or been so enthralled.
He also had a complete run of the ship, for he was doing safety research for the Orient Line. He introduced us to his cohorts in the engine and furnace rooms, and we watched the activities that took place down there. Compared to First Class, the engine room—at Hades level—churned with unbearable noise and heat. A two-hour walk around the Oronsay with Mr. Nevil clarified all the dangerous and not-so- dangerous possibilities. He told us the lifeboats swaying in mid-air only seemed dangerous, and so, Cassius and Ramadhin and I often climbed into them to have a vantage point for spying on passengers. It had been Miss Lasqueti’s remark about our being “in the least privileged place,” with no social importance, that persuaded us into an accurate belief that we were invisible to officials such as the Purser and the Head Steward, and the Captain.

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