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Heavyweight Titles (by Kerry Ryan)
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Heavyweight Titles (by Kerry Ryan)

By 49thShelf
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Kerry Ryan’s first collection of poems, The Sleeping Life, was published by The Muses’ Company in 2008 and was nominated for the Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for Poetry in 2009. Her poems have appeared in anthologies and journals such as Prairie Fire, Grain, Room and Carousel. Her second collection, Vs., about her foray into the world of amateur boxing, was released by Anvil Press in fall, 2010. Kerry writes: There are all kinds of parallels between writing and boxing – the mental/physical toughness, the solitariness of the pursuit, the guts (or foolishness) to get back up after you’ve hit the mat. Both offer moments of exhilaration and times when you feel like you’ve been punched repeatedly in the gut. Each, in its own way, is a fine art. Books, too, share attributes with boxers, and writers send them into the ring to fight or flounder. For this list, I’ve chosen books I consider heavyweight champs – ones that balance brawn with finesse. It is neither an exhaustive nor diverse group (it skews toward novel, prairie, kids and – appropriately enough – war), but these selections have all, in one way or another, knocked me out.
Cat's Eye
Excerpt

1.  
Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backwards in time and exist in two places at once.
 
It was my brother Stephen who told me that, when he wore his ravelling maroon sweater to study in and spent a lot of time standing on his head so that the blood would run down into his brain and nourish it. I didn’t understand what he meant, but maybe he didn’t explain it very well. He was already moving away from the imprecision of words.
 
But I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.
 
2.
“Stephen says time is not a line,” I say. Cordelia rolls her eyes, as I knew she would.
 
“So?” she says. This answer pleases both of us. It puts the nature of time in its place, and also Stephen, who calls us “the teenagers,” as if he himself is not one.
 
Cordelia and I are riding on the streetcar, going downtown, as we do on winter Saturdays. The streetcar is muggy with twice-breathed air and the smell of wool. Cordelia sits with nonchalance, nudging me with her elbow now and then, staring blankly at the other people with her grey-green eyes, opaque and glinting as metal. She can outstare anyone, and I am almost as good. We’re impervious, we scintillate, we are thirteen.
 
We wear long wool coats with tie belts, the collars turned up to look like those of movie stars, and rubber boots with the tops folded down and men’s work socks inside. In our pockets are stuffed the kerchiefs our mothers make us wear but that we take off as soon as we’re out of their sight. We scorn head-coverings. Our mouths are tough, crayon-red, shiny as nails. We think we are friends.
 
On the streetcars there are always old ladies, or we think of them as old. They’re of various kinds. Some are respectably dressed, in tailored Harris tweed coats and matching gloves and tidy no-nonsense hats with small brisk feathers jauntily at one side. Others are poorer and foreign-looking and have dark shawls wound over their heads and around their shoulders. Others are bulgy, dumpy, with clamped self-righteous mouths, their arms festooned with shopping bags; these we associate with sales, with bargain basements. Cordelia can tell cheap cloth at a glance. “Gabardine,” she says. “Ticky-tack.”
 
Then there are the ones who have not resigned themselves, who still try for an effect of glamour. There aren’t many of these, but they stand out. They wear scarlet outfits or purple ones, and dangly earrings, and hats that look like stage props. Their slips show at the bottoms of their skirts, slips of unusual, suggestive colours.
 
Anything other than white is suggestive. They have hair dyed strawblonde or baby-blue, or, even more startling against their papery skins, a lustreless old-fur-coat black. Their lipstick mouths are too big around their mouths, their rouge blotchy, their eyes drawn screw-jiggy around their real eyes. These are the ones most likely to talk to themselves. There’s one who says “mutton, mutton,” over and over again like a song, another who pokes at our legs with her umbrella and says “bare naked.”
 
This is the kind we like best. They have a certain gaiety to them, a power of invention, they don’t care what people think. They have escaped, though what it is they’ve escaped from isn’t clear to us. We think that their bizarre costumes, their verbal tics, are chosen, and that when the time comes we also will be free to choose.
 
“That’s what I’m going to be like,” says Cordelia. “Only I’m going to have a yappy Pekinese, and chase kids off my lawn. I’m going to have a shepherd’s crook.”
 
“I’m going to have a pet iguana,” I say, “and wear nothing but cerise.” It’s a word I have recently learned.
 
Now I think, what if they just couldn’t see what they looked like? Maybe it was as simple as that: eye problems. I’m having that trouble myself now: too close to the mirror and I’m a blur, too far back and I can’t see the details. Who knows what faces I’m making, what kind of modern art I’m drawing onto myself? Even when I’ve got the distance adjusted, I vary. I am transitional; some days I look like a worn-out thirty-five, others like a sprightly fifty. So much depends on the light, and the way you squint.
 
I eat in pink restaurants, which are better for the skin. Yellow ones turn you yellow. I actually spend time thinking about this. Vanity is becoming a nuisance; I can see why women give it up, eventually. But I’m not ready for that yet.
 
Lately I’ve caught myself humming out loud, or walking along the street with my mouth slightly open, drooling a little. Only a little; but it may be the thin edge of the wedge, the crack in the wall that will open, later, onto what? What vistas of shining eccentricity, or madness?
 
There is no one I would ever tell this to, except Cordelia. But which Cordelia? The one I have conjured up, the one with the rolltop boots and the turned-up collar, or the one before, or the one after? There is never only one, of anyone.
 
If I were to meet Cordelia again, what would I tell her about myself? The truth, or whatever would make me look good?
 
Probably the latter. I still have that need.
 
I haven’t seen her for a long time. I wasn’t expecting to see her. But now that I’m back here I can hardly walk down a street without a glimpse of her, turning a corner, entering a door. It goes without saying that these fragments of her – a shoulder, beige, camel’s-hair, the side of a face, the back of a leg – belong to women who, seen whole, are not Cordelia.
 
I have no idea what she would look like now. Is she fat, have her breasts sagged, does she have little grey hairs at the corners of her mouth? Unlikely: she would pull them out. Does she wear glasses with fashionable frames, has she had her lids lifted, does she streak or tint? All of these things are possible: we’ve both reached that borderline age, that buffer zone in which it can still be believed such tricks will work if you avoid bright sunlight.
 
I think of Cordelia examining the growing pouches under her eyes, the skin, up close, loosened and crinkled like elbows. She sighs, pats in cream, which is the right kind. Cordelia would know the right kind. She takes stock of her hands, which are shrinking a little, warping a little, as mine are. Gnarling has set in, the withering of the mouth; the outlines of dewlaps are beginning to be visible, down towards the chin, in the dark glass of subway windows. Nobody else notices these things yet, unless they look closely; but Cordelia and I are in the habit of looking closely.
 
She drops the bath towel, which is green, a muted sea-green to match her eyes, looks over her shoulder, sees in the mirror the dog’s-neck folds of skin above the waist, the buttocks drooping like wattles, and, turning, the dried fern of hair. I think of her in a sweatsuit, sea-green as well, working out in some gym or other, sweating like a pig. I know what she would say about this, about all of this. How we giggled, with repugnance and delight, when we found the wax her older sisters used on their legs, congealed in a little pot, stuck full of bristles. The grotesqueries of the body were always of interest to her.
 
I think of encountering her without warning. Perhaps in a worn coat and a knitted hat like a tea cosy, sitting on a curb, with two plastic bags filled with her only possessions, muttering to herself. Cordelia! Don’t you recognize me? I say. And she does, but pretends not to. She gets up and shambles away on swollen feet, old socks poking through the holes in her rubber boots, glancing back over her shoulder.
 
There’s some satisfaction in that, more in worse things. I watch from a window, or a balcony so I can see better, as some man chases Cordelia along the sidewalk below me, catches up with her, punches her in the ribs – I can’t handle the face – throws her down. But I can’t go any farther.
 
Better to switch to an oxygen tent. Cordelia is unconscious. I have been summoned, too late, to her hospital bedside. There are flowers, sickly-smelling, wilting in a vase, tubes going into her arms and nose, the sound of terminal breathing. I hold her hand. Her face is puffy, white, like an unbaked biscuit, with yellowish circles under the closed eyes. Her eyelids don’t flicker but there’s a faint twitching of her fingers, or do I imagine it? I sit there wondering whether to pull the tubes out of her arms, the plug out of the wall. No brain activity, the doctors say. Am I crying? And who would have summoned me?
 
Even better: an iron lung. I’ve never seen an iron lung, but the newspapers had pictures of children in iron lungs, back when people still got polio. These pictures – the iron lung a cylinder, a gigantic sausage roll of metal, with a head sticking out one end of it, always a girl’s head, the hair flowing across the pillow, the eyes large, nocturnal – fascinated me, more than stories about children who went out on thin ice and fell through and were drowned, or children who played on the railroad tracks and had their arms and legs cut off by trains. You could get polio without knowing how or where, end up in an iron lung without knowing why. Something you breathed in or ate, or picked up from the dirty money other people had touched. You never knew.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Why it's on the list ...
Told through flashbacks, this novel exposes the weird and sometimes vicious world
of young girls and demonstrates how torment, even at the hands of other children,
can stunt and haunt one girl into womanhood. With a fierce, coiled energy, Cat’s Eye
is poised to strike out at any moment – and so fast you don’t see the fist coming.
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The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
Excerpt

I send you a picture of Billy made with the Perry shutter as quick as it can be worked–Pyro and soda developer. I am making daily experiments now and find I am able to take passing horses at a lively trot square across the line of fire–bits of snow in the air–spokes well defined–some blur on top of wheel but sharp in the main–men walking are no trick–I will send you proofs sometime. I shall show you what can be done from the saddle without ground glass or tripod–please notice when you get the specimens that they were made with the lens wide open and many of the best exposed when my horse was in motion

*

These are the killed.

(By me)–
Morton, Baker, early friends of mine.
Joe Bernstein. 3 Indians.
A blacksmith when I was twelve, with a knife.
5 Indians in self defence (behind a very safe rock).
One man who bit me during a robbery.
Brady, Hindman, Beckwith, Joe Clark,
Deputy Jim Carlyle, Deputy Sheriff J.W. Bell.
And Bob Ollinger. A rabid cat,
birds during practice,

These are the killed.

(By them)–
Charlie, Tom O’Folliard
Angela D’s split arm,

and Pat Garrett

sliced off my head.
Blood a necklace on me all my life.

*

Christmas at Fort Sumner, 1880. There were five of us together then. Wilson, Dave Rudabaugh, Charlie Bowdre, Tom O’Folliard, and me. In November we celebrated my 21st birthday, mixing red dirt and alcohol–a public breathing throughout the night. The next day we were told that Pat Garrett had been made sheriff and had accepted it. We were bad for progress in New Mexico and cattle politicians like Chisum wanted the bad name out. They made Garrett sheriff and he sent me a letter saying move out or I will get you Billy. The government sent a Mr. Azariah F. Wild to help him out. Between November and December I killed Jim Carlyle over some mixup, he being
a friend.

Tom O’Folliard decided to go east then, said he would meet up with us in Sumner for Christmas. Goodbye goodbye. A few days before Christmas we were told that Garrett was in Sumner waiting for us all. Christmas night. Garrett, Mason, Wild, with four or five others. Tom O’Folliard rides into town, leaning his rifle between the horse’s ears. He would shoot from the waist now which, with a rifle, was pretty good, and he was always accurate.

Garrett had been waiting for us, playing poker with the others, guns on the floor beside them. Told that Tom was riding in alone, he went straight to the window and shot O’Folliard’s horse dead. Tom collapsed with the horse still holding the gun and blew out Garrett’s window. Garrett already halfway downstairs. Mr. Wild shot at Tom from the other side of the street, rather unnecessarily shooting the horse again. If Tom had used stirrups and didnt swing his legs so much he would probably have been locked under the animal. O’Folliard moved soon. When Garrett had got to ground level, only the horse was there in the open street, good and dead. He couldnt shout to ask Wild where O’Folliard was or he would’ve got busted. Wild started
to yell to tell Garrett though and Tom killed him at once. Garrett fired at O’Folliard’s flash and took his shoulder off. Tom O’Folliard screaming out onto the quiet Fort Sumner street, Christmas night, walking over to Garrett, no shoulder left, his jaws tilting up and down like mad bladders going. Too mad to even aim at Garrett. Son of a bitch son of a bitch, as Garrett took clear aim and blew him out.

Garrett picked him up, the head broken in two, took him back upstairs into the hotel room. Mason stretched out a blanket neat in the corner. Garrett placed Tom O’Folliard down, broke open Tom’s rifle, took the remaining shells and placed them by him. They had to wait till morning now. They continued their poker game till six a.m. Then remembered they hadnt done anything about Wild. So the four of them went out, brought Wild into the room. At eight in the morning Garrett buried Tom O’Folliard. He had known him quite well. Then he went to the train station, put Azariah F. Wild on ice and sent him back to Washington.

*

In Boot Hill there are over 400 graves. It takes
the space of 7 acres. There is an elaborate gate
but the path keeps to no main route for it tangles
like branches of a tree among the gravestones.

300 of the dead in Boot Hill died violently
200 by guns, over 50 by knives
some were pushed under trains–a popular
and overlooked form of murder in the west.
Some from brain haemorrhages resulting from bar fights
at least 10 killed in barbed wire.

In Boot Hill there are only 2 graves that belong to women
and they are the only known suicides in that graveyard

*

The others, I know, did not see the wounds appearing in the sky, in the air. Sometimes a normal forehead in front of me leaked brain gases. Once a nose clogged right before me, a lock of skin formed over the nostrils, and the shocked face had to start breathing through mouth, but then the moustache bound itself in the lower teeth and he began to gasp loud the hah! hah! going strong–churned onto the floor, collapsed out, seeming in the end to be breathing out of his eye–tiny needle jets of air reaching into the throat. I told no one. If Angela D. had been with me then, not even her; not Sallie, John, Charlie, or Pat. In the end the only thing that never changed, never became deformed, were animals.

*

Mmmmmmmm mm thinking
moving across the world on horses
body split at the edge of their necks
neck sweat eating at my jeans
moving across the world on horses
so if I had a newsman’s brain I’d say
well some morals are physical
must be clear and open
like diagram of watch or star
one must eliminate much
that is one turns when the bullet leaves you
walk off see none of the thrashing
the very eyes welling up like bad drains
believing then the moral of newspapers or gun
where bodies are mindless as paper flowers you dont feed
or give to drink
that is why I can watch the stomach of clocks
shift their wheels and pins into each other
and emerge living, for hours

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Why it's on the list ...
This collection is cowboy-leather tough and doesn’t waste one calorie of energy.
Told through the brash, fractured throat of the infamous outlaw, these flinty poems
are light on their toes, effortlessly shifting shape and form, and are consistently raw,
dastardly and charming.
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The Girls
Excerpt

ruby & me

~

I have never looked into my sister’s eyes. I have never bathed alone. I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon. I’ve never used an airplane bathroom. Or worn a hat. Or been kissed like that. I’ve never driven a car. Or slept through the night. Never a private talk. Or solo walk. I’ve never climbed a tree. Or faded into a crowd. So many things I’ve never done, but oh, how I’ve been loved. And, if such things were to be, I’d live a thousand lives as me, to be loved so ­exponentially.

My sister, Ruby, and I, by mishap or miracle, having intended to divide from a single fertilized egg, remained joined instead, by a spot the size of a bread plate on the sides of our twin heads. We’re known to the world medical community as the oldest surviving craniopagus twins (we are twenty-­nine years old) and to millions around the globe, those whose interest in people like us is more than just passing, as conjoined craniopagus twins Rose and Ruby Darlen of Baldoon County. We’ve been called many things: freaks, horrors, monsters, devils, witches, retards, wonders, marvels. To most, we’re a curiosity. In small-­town Leaford, where we live and work, we’re just “The Girls.”

Raise your right hand. Press the base of your palm to the lobe of your right ear. Cover your ear and fan out your fingers – that’s where my sister and I are affixed, our faces not quite side by side, our skulls fused together in a circular pattern running up the temple and curving around the frontal lobe. If you glance at us, you might think we’re two women embracing, leaning against the other ­tête-­à-­tête, the way sisters do.

Ruby and I are identical twins and would be identical looking, having high foreheads like our mother and wide, full mouths, except that Ruby’s face is arranged quite nicely (in fact, Ruby is very beautiful), whereas my features are misshapen and frankly grotesque. My right eye slants steeply towards the place my right ear would have been if my sister’s head had not grown there instead. My nose is longer than Ruby’s, one nostril wider than the other, pulled to the right of my brown slanted eye. My lower jaw shifts to the left, slurring my speech and giving a husky quality to my voice. Patches of eczema rouge my cheeks, while Ruby’s complexion is fair and flawless. Our scalps marry in the middle of our conjoined heads, but my frizzy hair has a glint of auburn, while my sister is a swingy brunette. Ruby has a deep cleft in her chin, which people find ­endearing.

I’m five feet five inches tall. When we were born, my limbs were symmetrical, in proportion to my body. Presently, my right leg is a full three inches shorter than my left, my spine compressed, my right hip cocked, and all because I have carried my sister like an infant, since I was a baby myself, Ruby’s tiny thighs astride my hip, my arm supporting her posterior, her arm forever around my neck. Ruby is my sister. And strangely, undeniably, my ­child.

There is some discomfort in our conjoinment. Ruby and I experience mild to severe neck, jaw, and shoulder pain, for which we take physiotherapy three times a week. The strain on my body is constant, as I bear Ruby’s weight, as I tote Ruby on my hip, as I struggle to turn Ruby over in our bed or perch on my stool beside the toilet for what seems like hours. (Ruby has a multitude of bowel and urinary tract problems.) We are challenged, certainly, and uncomfortable, sometimes, but neither Ruby nor I would describe our conjoinment as painful.

It’s difficult to explain our locomotion as conjoined twins or how it developed from birth using grunts and gestures and what I suppose must be telepathy. There are days when, like a normal person, we’re clumsy and uncoordinated. We have less natural symbiosis when one of us (usually Ruby) is sick, but mostly our dance is a smooth one. We hate doing things in unison, such as answering yes or no at the same time. We never finish each other’s sentences. We can’t shake our heads at once or nod (and wouldn’t if we could – see above). We have an unspoken, even unconscious, system of checks and balances to determine who’ll lead the way at any given moment. There is conflict. There is ­compromise.

Ruby and I share a common blood supply. My blood flows normally in the left side of my brain, but the blood in my right (the connected side) flows to my sister’s left, and vice versa for her. It’s estimated that we share a web of one hundred veins as well as our skull bones. Our cerebral tissue is fully enmeshed, our vascular systems snarled like briar bushes, but our brains themselves are separate and functioning. Our thoughts are distinctly our own. Our selves have struggled fiercely to be unique and, in fact, we’re more different than most identical twins. I like sports, but I’m also bookish, while Ruby is girlie and prefers television. When Ruby is tired, I’m hardly ever ready for bed. We’re rarely hungry together and our tastes are poles apart: I prefer spicy fare, while my sister has a disturbing fondness for ­eggs.

Ruby believes in God and ghosts and reincarnation. (Ruby won’t speculate on her next incarnation though, as if imagining something different from what she is now would betray us both.) I believe the best the dead can hope for is to be conjured from time to time, through a note of haunting music or a passage in a book.

I’ve never set eyes on my sister, except in mirror images and photographs, but I know Ruby’s gestures as my own, through the movement of her muscles and bone. I love my sister as I love myself. I hate her that way too.
This is the story of my life. I’m calling it “Autobiography of a Conjoined Twin.” But since my sister claims that it can’t technically (“technically” is Ruby’s current favourite word) be considered an autobiography and is opposed to my telling what she considers our story, I have agreed that she should write some chapters from her point of view. I will strive to tell my story honestly, allowing that my truth will be coloured a shade different from my sister’s and acknowledging that it’s sometimes necessary for the writer to connect the dots.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Why it's on the list ...
This first-person account of the life of conjoined twins Rose and Ruby feels so true
it’s hard to imagine author Lansens isn’t herself joined, at the head, with another.
Told from the perspectives of both sisters, this book deftly switches stances – both arms equally strong – and maintains its balance throughout the extraordinary and
mundane moments of the girls’ lives.
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Reading by Lightning
Why it's on the list ...
The sweeping story of Lily Piper, which I can’t help but compare to Ian McEwan’s
Atonement (in all the best possible ways), divides its time between the Manitoba
farm of her family and fate, and England, which – despite being wartime – offers
delicious possibilities. The novel’s careful pacing ensures its strength and nerve last
until the final bell.
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Too Close to the Falls
Excerpt

Over half a century ago I grew up in Lewiston, a small town in western New York, a few miles north of Niagara Falls on the Canadian border. As the Falls can be seen from the Canadian and American sides from different perspectives, so can Lewiston. It is a sleepy town, protected from the rest of the world geographically, nestled at the bottom of the steep shale Niagara Escarpment on one side and the Niagara River on the other. The river’s appearance, however, is deceptive. While it seems calm, rarely making waves, it has deadly whirlpools swirling on its surface which can suck anything into their vortices in seconds.

 

My father, a pharmacist, owned a drugstore in the nearby honeymoon capital of Niagara Falls. My mother, a math teacher by training rather than inclination, was an active participant in the historical society. Lewiston actually had a few historical claims to fame, which my mother eagerly hyped. The word cocktail was invented there, Charles Dickens stayed overnight at the Frontier House, the local inn, and Lafayette gave a speech from a balcony on the main street. Our home, which had thirteen trees in the yard that were planted when there were thirteen states, was used to billet soldiers in the War of 1812. It was called into action by history yet again for the Underground Railroad to smuggle slaves across the Niagara River to freedom in Canada.

My parents longed for a child for many years; however, when they were not blessed, they gracefully settled into an orderly life of community service. Then I unexpectedly arrived, the only child of suddenly bewildered older, conservative, devoutly Catholic parents.

I seem to have been “born eccentric” — a phrase my mother uttered frequently as a way of absolving herself of responsibility. By today’s standards I would have been labelled with attention deficit disorder, a hyperactive child born with some adrenal problem that made her more prone to rough–and–tumble play than was normal for a girl. Fortunately I was born fifty years ago and simply called “busy” and “bossy,” the possessor of an Irish temper.

I was at the hub of the town because I worked in my father’s drugstore from the age of four. This was not exploitive child labour but rather what the town pediatrician prescribed. When my mother explained to him that I had gone over the top of the playground swings making a 360–degree loop and had been knocked unconscious twice, had to be removed from a cherry tree the previous summer by the fire department, done Ed Sullivan imitations for money at Helms’s Dry Goods Store, all before I’d hit kindergarten, Dr. Laughton dutifully wrote down all this information, laid down his clipboard with certainty, and said that I had worms and needed Fletcher’s Castoria. His fallback position (in case when I was dewormed no hyperactive worms crept from any orifice) was for me to burn off my energy by working at manual labour in my father’s store. He explained that we all had metronomes inside our bodies and mine was simply ticking faster than most; I had to do more work than others to burn it off.

Being in the full–time workforce at four gave me a unique perspective on life, and I was exposed to situations I later realized were unusual for a child. For over ten years I never once had a meal at home, and that included Christmas. I worked and went to restaurants and delivered everything from band–aids to morphine in the Niagara Frontier. I had to tell people whether makeup looked good or bad, point out what cough medicines had sedatives, count and bottle pills. I also had to sound as though I knew what I was talking about in order to pull it off. I was surrounded by adults, and my peer group became my coworkers at the store.

My father worked behind a counter which had a glass separating it from the rest of the store. He and the other pharmacists wore starched white shirts which buttoned on the side with “McCLURE’S DRUGS” monogrammed in red above the pocket. The rest of us wore plastic ink guards in our breast pockets which had printed in script letters “McClure’s has free delivery.” (The word delivery had wheels and a forward slant.) I worked there full–time when I was four and five and I suspected that when I went to school the next year I would work a split shift from 6:00 to 9:00 a.m. and then again after school until closing time at 10:00 p.m. Of course I would always work full–time on Saturday and Sunday when my mother did her important work with the historical board. I restocked the candy and makeup counters, loaded the newspaper racks, and replenished the supplies of magazines and comics. I read the comics aloud in different voices, jumped out of the pay–phone booth as Superman and acted out Brenda Starr “in her ruthless search for truth,” and every morning at 6:00 a.m. I equipped the outdoor newsstand of blue wood with its tiered layers with the Niagara Falls Gazette.

My parents were removed from the hurly–burly of my everyday existence. My father was my employer, and I called him “boss,” which is what everyone else called him. My mother provided no rules nor did she ever make a meal, nor did I have brothers or sisters to offer me any normal childlike role models. While other four–year–olds spent their time behind fences at home with their moms and dads, stuck in their own backyards making pretend cakes in hot metal sandboxes or going to stagnant events like girls’ birthday parties where you sat motionless as the birthday girl opened her presents and then you waited in line to stick a pin into a wall while blindfolded, hoping it would hit the rear end of a jackass, I was out doing really exciting work. I spent my time in the workforce delivering prescriptions with Roy, my coworker.

One thing about a drugstore: it’s a great leveller. Everyone from the rich to the poor needs prescriptions and it was my job to deliver them. Roy, the driver, and I, the assistant who read the road maps and prescription labels, were dogged as we plowed through snowstorms and ice jams to make our deliveries. The job took us into mansions on the Niagara Escarpment, to the home of Dupont, who invented nylon, to deliver hypodermic needles to a new doctor on the block, Dr. Jonas Salk, an upstart who thought he had a cure for polio, to Marilyn Monroe on the set of Niagara, to the poor Indians on the Tuscarora reservation, and to Warty, who lived in a refrigerator box in the town dump. The people we delivered to felt like my “family,” and my soulmate in this experience was Roy.

 

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Why it's on the list ...
Growing up in the 1950s against the backdrop of Niagara Falls, Cathy McClure is
such a precocious, inquisitive and energetic youngster that she’s sent to work at her
father’s pharmacy – doctor’s orders – at age six. The experience opens her eyes to
issues of race of poverty. This memoir (the first of two by Gildener) is inherently
scrappy and filled with rapid-fire punching.
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When Alice Lay Down With Peter
Excerpt

Chapter One

These are my beginnings.

Imagine heat. In the coupled loins of Alice (wearing wool pants and a heavy flannel shirt and, strangest of all, leather chaps, for he’d taken her while they chased a herd of thirsty cattle east from Turtle Mountain to the Pembina hills) and her skinny, ardent husband, Peter. Hot as liquor, the juice that made me, on the night of August’s showering meteors in a warm wind sweet with sage. They were alone under cowboy stars beside the embers of a campfire, laughing in their lovemaking. The most successful practical jokers in all the colony. Their britches whispered as leaves in the breeze when they rustled and rubbed together. He thrust inside her and she wrapped her chaps around him and drew her knees up to his shoulders while the seed ran down, itching and hot. A woman in her precarious circumstance must interrupt at all costs and they were careful to spill, laughing. My mum and dad, in God’s House of Lords, members of the opposition.

They’d been travelling with a half-dozen men, a sad bunch of Métis buffalo hunters reduced to driving cattle for a retired Hudson’s Bay Company officer. It had been a long month for them, feigning manly indifference to each other’s earthy scent under the duress of my mother’s disguise. It made them hot. And a little silly. And when the men had left them alone that night with instructions to return for the stragglers, a cow and her calf that had been separated from the herd, they both shrugged and spat and threw down their bedrolls, grunting acquiescence.

A lovely night, the stars above. Hunger from a long fast, constant temptation and the arousal, perhaps you know of it, that comes from watching a lover’s freedom or solitude, the aphrodisiac of the lover’s face averted, the part that leaves you out.

She thought he’d come. Their catechism had reached that stage of exchange where one becomes another, pulse and tide for tide and pulse. Her own juice she mistook for his. She thought he’d spilled; she was safely playing on the shores of pleasure. She was attuned to her rhythms and knew she was ripe. So when she looked above his pounding shoulder and saw the lurid purple of the thunderhead ink the half-moon, cover it, while Dad fought for an end to his need, pounding the walls of his beloved, seeking an end, when she saw the leader stroke of lightning, a brilliant ionized path stark white against the deep purple sky and after a split second another stroke and it was the great intake of breath, dry as rage and bright as a path of quicksilver, she knew, she knew. The next stroke made their hair stand on end, my father’s hair longer and scruffier than my mother’s theatrical boy’s bob. Twenty-five thousand volts.

My father was a compassionate man who would never deliberately inflict his needs upon his beloved wife, but I can’t say for certain that he would have had the discipline necessary to stop himself before the fact that magic night. Anyone with the imagination to put themselves in his boots at that moment will forgive him the indiscretion of the fiercest ejaculation by a white man in the brief history of Rupert’s Land. And though my mother was receptive, the voltage and the heat fired the seed, knocked her unconscious. She didn’t stand a chance. They woke up fourteen hours later, still coupled, surrounded by hailstones the size of turtle eggs, black and blue but happy. They smiled roguishly, knowing, and with muddy fingers combed each other’s sizzled hair. It was two o’clock on the first afternoon of my life as an embryo. My father withdrew from my mother slowly, very slowly, flesh welded to flesh, raw.

They would be satisfied for nearly a month. They helped each other stand and looked out at the trees, the leaves pounded by the hail. The light was white as the inside of an oxygen tent. They buttoned their trousers. Horses gone. Cow and calf vanished. They hobbled and sucked hailstones along the old trail marked by the wooden wheels of Red River carts. They held hands. They were glad I’d been tipped into the world, off a thundercloud like a huge tarnished tray, tipped like caviar into my mother’s womb. And scorched there, the seed of a jack pine. The catalyst, a stroke of lightning.

•••

They had met by accident in the stark sun of the Orkney island of Hoy, where she sat reading and he sat darning his socks. My mother had been the only female theology student at the University of Glasgow, establishing what was to become a family tradition of studying passionately all things extraneous to survival. Alice had been raised a Wesleyan, and had bred her faith on a meagre diet of duty and intellect. She’d been preparing for an examination on the methods of salvation when a sudden sneeze filled her with a need to smell the most northern sea. Telling her astonished family and her sceptical theologians that she was in a struggle with spiritual dryness, she put her books in a carpet bag, promised everyone that she would heal herself and return, and left for Orkney, the most northern place she could then imagine.

My father-to-be was a tenant farmer from Hoy. Sick of mud and poverty, he was yearning to join up with the Hudson’s Bay Company and jump aboard a ship headed for the New World. Sailing west sailing west, to prairie lands sunkissed and blest, the crofter’s trail to happiness. He and Alice sat down beside one another, total strangers, on a hill with a view of the sea. They’d arrived there at the same moment, obviously expecting to be alone, and had hesitated before shyly nodding hello and settling on the warm rock side by each, as if they’d planned it. He reached into his pocket and brought forth a darning needle and a pair of woollen socks, and began to sew. Strangely embarrassed, Alice quickly drew St. Augustine’s Confessions from her bag and pretended to read. She was wearing a black Methodist gown. Her black-laced boots were spread pigeon-toed, careless and ready. She noticed that he had a freckled complexion, her favourite kind of skin. Then he began to talk in a voice like the wind on the water, his words arriving as if out of nowhere. His Adam’s apple floated on his freckled throat. He said there was a land without landlords just across the ocean, a green and verdant place where a man could be free from tyranny, free from history itself. Rivers, he said, long and wild rivers run through the forests, into the great Hudson Bay, in a country where nobody can own you. I’m joining up, he said. The Hudson’s Bay Company can take me there, but then I’m going out on my own and never work for any man, never be owned by anybody, not ever again. Fish, hunt, live free, he said, vigorously stitching his socks.

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Why it's on the list ...
At the centre of this sprawling, luscious novel is Blondie – whose fantastic (both
in terms of length and magical realism) life is interwoven with Manitoba history,
spanning the immigration of Scottish settlers, the Métis uprising and the labour
unrest of the early twentieth century. When Alice combines thick-bodied endurance
with the humour and unpredictabilty to catch readers off-guard.
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Who Has Seen the Wind
Why it's on the list ...
Little Brian O’Connal’s cheeky and endearing quest to understand life, death and
God is set against the deceptively simple Depression dustbowl prairies. Canada’s
Tom Sawyer, this classic is particularly refreshing in a time when kids Brian’s age
are packing cellphones and PlayStations. This novel demonstrates huge heart and
fierce determination.
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A Complicated Kindness
Excerpt

One

I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window. Nothing great. The furniture keeps disappearing, though. That keeps things interesting.

Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing. Ray and I get up in the morning and move through our various activities until it’s time to go to bed. Every single night around ten o’clock Ray tells me that he’s hitting the hay. Along the way to his bedroom he’ll stop in the front hallway and place notes on top of his shoes to remind him of the things he has to do the next day. We enjoy staring at the Northern Lights together. I told him, verbatim, what Mr. Quiring told us in class. About how those lights work. He thought Mr. Quiring had some interesting points. He’s always been mildly interested in Mr. Quiring’s opinions, probably because he’s also a teacher.

I have assignments to complete. That’s the word, complete. I’ve got a problem with endings. Mr. Quiring has told me that essays and stories generally come, organically, to a preordained ending that is quite out of the writer’s control. He says we will know it when it happens, the ending. I don’t know about that. I feel that there are so many to choose from. I’m already anticipating failure. That much I’ve learned to do. But then what the hell will it matter to me while I’m snapping tiny necks and chucking feathery corpses onto a conveyor belt in a dimly lit cinder-block slaughterhouse on the edge of a town not of this world. Most of the kids from around here will end up working at Happy Family Farms, where local chickens go to meet their maker. I’m sixteen now, young to be on the verge of graduating from high school, and only months away from taking my place on the assembly line of death.

One of my recurring memories of my mother, Trudie Nickel, has to do with the killing of fowl. She and I were standing in this farmyard watching Carson and his dad chop heads off chickens. You’d know Carson if you saw him. Carson Enns. Arm-farter in the back row. President of the Pervert Club. Says he’s got a kid in Pansy, a small town south of here. Troubled boy, but that’s no wonder considering he used to be The Snowmobile Suit Killer. I was eight and Trudie was about thirty-five. She was wearing a red wool coat and moon boots. The ends of her hair were frozen because she hadn’t been able to find the blow-dryer that morning. Look, she’d said. She grabbed a strand of hair and bent it like a straw. She’d given me her paisley scarf to tie around my ears. I don’t know exactly what we were doing at Carson’s place in the midst of all that carnage, it hadn’t started out that way I’m pretty sure, but I guess carnage has a way of creeping up on you. Carson was my age and every time he swung the axe he’d yell things at the chicken. He wanted it to escape. Run, you stupid chicken! Carson, his dad would say. Just his name and a slight anal shake of the head. He was doing his best to nurture the killer in his son. It was around 4:30 in the afternoon on a winter day and the light was fading into blue and it was snowing horizontally and we were all standing under a huge yellow yard light. Well, some of us were dying. And Carson was doing this awful botch job on a chicken, hacking away at its neck, not doing it right at all, whispering instructions on how to escape. Fly away, idiot. Don’t make me do this. Poor kid. By this time he’d unzipped the top half of his snowmobile suit so it kind of flapped around his waist like a skirt, slowing him down, and his dad saw him and came over and grabbed the semi-mutilated chicken out of Carson’s little mittened hand and slapped it onto this wooden altar thing he used to do the killing and brought his axe down with incredible speed and accuracy and in less than a second had created a splattery painting in the snow and I was blown away by how the blood could land so fast and without a single sound and my mom gasped and said look, Nomi, it’s a Jackson Pollock. Oh, it’s beautiful. Oh, she said, cloths of heaven. That was something she said a lot. And Carson and I stood there staring at the blood on the snow and my mom said: Just like that. Who knew it could be so easy.

I don’t know if she meant it’s so easy to make art or it’s so easy to kill a chicken or it’s so easy to die. Every single one of those things strikes me as being difficult to do. I imagine that if she were here right now and I was asking her what she meant, she’d say what are you talking about and I’d say nothing and that would be the end of it.

It’s only because she’s gone that all those trivial little things from the past echo on and on and on. At dinner that night, after the slaughter at Carson’s place, she asked us how we would feel if for some reason we were all in comas and had slept right through the summer months and had woken up around the middle of November, would we be angry that we had missed the warmth and beauty of the summer or happy that we had survived. Ray, who hates choosing, had asked her if we couldn’t be both and she’d said no, she didn’t think so.

Trudie doesn’t live here any more. She left shortly after Tash, my older sister, left. Ray and I don’t know where either one of them is. We do know that Tash left with Ian, who is Mr. Quiring’s nephew. He’s double-jointed and has a red Ford Econoline van. Trudie seems to have left alone.

Now my dad, you know what he says in the middle of those long evenings sitting in our house on the highway? He says: Say, Nomi, how about spinning a platter. Yeah, he uses those exact butt-clenching words. Which means he wants to listen to Anne Murray singing “Snowbird,” again. Or my old Terry Jacks forty-five of “Seasons in the Sun.” I used to play that song over and over in the dark when I was nine, the year I really became aware of my existence. What a riot. We have a ball. Recently, Ray’s been using the word stomach as a verb a lot. And also the word rally. We rally and we stomach. Ray denied it when I pointed it out to him. He says we’re having a good time and getting by. Why shouldn’t he amend? He tells me that life is filled with promise but I think he means the promise of an ending because so far I haven’t been able to put my finger on any other. If we could get out of this town things might be better but we can’t because we’re waiting for Trudie and Tash to come back. It’s been three years so far. My period started the day after Trudie left which means I’ve bled thirty-six times since they’ve been gone.

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Why it's on the list ...
Quirky and lovable, 16-year-old Nomi Nickel tells the story of her broken family
and claustrophobic Mennonite community with dry humour and from-the-hip
observation. Dark but colourful, heart-breaking but funny, this story of courage and
individuality has the pluck and bravado of a winner.
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