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Imperfect People (by Caroline Adderson)
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Imperfect People (by Caroline Adderson)

By 49thShelf
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I am partial to imperfect characters, the kind of people we sidestep in real life because they make us uncomfortable, because we are afraid of them, because we are afraid of being them. How much easier to turn and face them when they are between the covers of a book! This embracing of the imperfect exemplifies, I think, what the act of reading (and for that matter writing) actually is -- an act of compassion: com + pati = to suffer with. Through literature we gain privileged access to the private thoughts and feelings of a character and so become them and suffer with them. Oddly, only as I was pulling books off my shelf to compile this list, did it occurred to me that my second novel, Sitting Practice, had an imperfect character -- Iliana, a paraplegic. I had forgotten about her because she no longer seemed imperfect to me; in fact, she is the least incomplete person in the book. My entire attitude toward disability changed by the time I finished writing the novel so that now, when I tell people it is about Buddhism and spinal cord injury, I have to smile as they instinctively recoil. For how else do they plan to read the book but sitting down? (Caroline Adderson is the author of two internationally published novels (A History of Forgetting, Sitting Practice), two collections of short stories (Bad Imaginings, Pleased To Meet You), and three books for young readers (Very Serious Children, I, Bruno, Bruno For Real). Her work has received numerous prize nominations including the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist, the Governor General's Literary Award, the Rogers' Trust Fiction Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. A two-time Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and three-time CBC Literary Award winner, Caroline was also the recipient of the 2006 Marian Engel Award for mid-career achievement. Her latest novel is The Sky is Falling.)
We So Seldom Look On Love
Why it's on the list ...
Gowdy established herself as the Can Lit Queen of imperfect people with the 1992 publication of this bizarre, unsurpassable story collection. Mute, blind, brain-damaged, birthmarked, transsexual, hydrocephaletic, Siamese-twinned -- they are all here, seen through the author’s unflinching eye and lightened by her black wit. “…[I]t was all right being deformed if deformity had to exist for there to be such perfection,” one of them thinks. These are generous, unself-pitying people we would otherwise not know but for this brave and heart-filled author.
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The Story of My Face

The Story of My Face

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Why it's on the list ...
Page is such a skillful writer. It takes a long time before Natalie Baron’s imperfection becomes evident to us. She arrives in Finland to research the founder of an extreme religious sect, one she herself got tangled up in as a child to dire consequences. Since the story is recounted in first person, we don’t see Natalie but we do sense the unease of the other characters. “Normally, when meeting someone for the first time, I make things easier for them by naming, right at the start, what stands between us.” This story is that naming, the scar that mars Natalie Baron’s face and how, ultimately, it brought her a far more beautiful life than she was destined for.
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When the Hiroshima Project was long over and all the dust had settled, Daisy discovered that she could close her eyes anywhere, in a crowded room or doing the dishes, and see the girl getting off the plane. She would always think of Keiko as “the girl,” though she had been eighteen when she came to stay, old enough to be called a woman. The press seized upon the name Hiroshima Maiden – such an odd way to describe an A-bomb survivor: as though Keiko might have stepped out of an Arthurian legend, wearing a cone-shaped princess hat; as though being ravaged by the bomb might have transformed the girl, giving her, along with a history of suffering, some fairy-tale virtues. Purity perhaps. Or maidenly goodness.

Daisy Lawrence had stood in a small roped-off area on the tarmac of Mitchell Air Force Base, waiting for the airplane to land. Irene Day, one of the Hiroshima Project’s principal organizers, stood beside her. The rain was stiff that day–stinging pellets that flew at them sideways out of the gauzy marsh east of the air base. A few feet away a dozen journalists huddled in a grey group, hats pulled low.

Irene Day had dressed appropriately – she always did – in a mannish little fedora and matching kid gloves. She was the sort of woman, Daisy thought, who would choose the right outfit for a hurricane. Next to her Daisy felt dowdy – blond hair frizzing in the wet, feet aching in tight patent-leather pumps.

Of course she knew better than to be thinking about her shoes at a time like this. This was an important moment in history, this chill March day of 1952: she was about to greet a Hiroshima survivor, the first ever to set foot on American soil. Daisy pulled in her stomach, already held tightly in place by her girdle, and did her best to adopt a look of calm expectancy. She moved closer to a freckle-faced young photographer, so that his broad back blocked the rain, which seemed to come from all directions now – stinging her chin and cheeks and the backs of her knees.

At last the gleaming plane hove into view above their heads. It headed out to sea, then banked and came in low, bouncing at the end of the runway, rising like a bird, landing, hissing, skipping. It hung poised for several seconds on one wheel before righting itself with a bump and coming to a stop, emitting black exhaust in a rather alarming fashion. For what seemed an inordinately long time the airplane engine thudded and the propellers churned and thumped. But at last the propellers stilled, the plane gave a final shudder and several air force cadets rolled the steel stairs into place.

The airplane door, massive and unyielding, seemed to need some battering knocks from the inside before it swung open. The pilot, a wing commander in a navy uniform complete with epaulettes, stepped jauntily down the steps, shook hands with the cadets, then walked across the runway. He was followed by two stewards and twenty tanned, robust soldiers – the plane seemed endlessly to disgorge them – men returning from military duty in Hawaii, where the plane had touched down for refuelling.

Then at last Keiko stepped onto the platform. She lifted one gloved hand to straighten her hat. How strangely it glowed in the overcast air, whiter than white. Even from this distance Daisy could see the mottled rhubarb stain on her cheek. The famous atomic scar. She tottered on the platform, looking as though the hard rain might blow her away. The purse Keiko clasped–Daisy learned later–had been picked up in a Honolulu gift shop. It was encrusted with tiny iridescent nautiluses.

Daisy felt an urge to say something to mark the magnitude of the occasion. She turned to Irene, but she was already up ahead, arguing with one of the cadets guarding the gate. He clicked the metal latch with his thumb in an irritating manner, then shook his head severely.

“But I’m the chief organizer of this project,” Irene was saying. She wasn’t, but how was the cadet to know? He shrugged. Irene raised her hand, as though intending to knock the boy’s cap off. “Let me by,” she hissed, but all at once the freckle-faced photographer, the one whose broad back had sheltered Daisy from the rain, strode forward and leapt the rope. The cadet cried out for him to stop, but the photographer had an agenda of his own: he dashed towards the plane, leaping puddles, soaking his trouser legs, letting his hat blow off, not even turning to see it roll wildly away. And now the rest of them followed suit, and Irene and Daisy were picked up and blown, or so it felt, over the trampled rope and across the runway. They were no longer the official welcoming delegation, not by a long shot: they were part of a mob.

That was Keiko Kitigawa’s welcome to America.

The girl turned towards the advancing stampede. With one hand she groped behind her for the banister. The other hand she held up, fingers spread in an ineffectual fan, attempting to shield her face, with its bubbled scar, from the repeated flash of the cameras.

Imagine a girl to whom you can attach any stereotype.

Imagine her stepping off a plane, holding up a hand to keep her prim round hat in place.

Imagine her as inscrutable.

Imagine her as incomparably damaged.

Imagine her as carrying the seeds of something entirely new – radioactive seeds – lodged in her bones, skin, hair.

Imagine her as the first of her kind to come to America: children of the atomic bomb. Children who are asked, repeatedly, in letters that arrive each spring, to donate their bodies to science, so that when they die – six years later, or forty – their hearts can be examined, their cells studied, their kidneys filled with turquoise dye, placed in a Petri dish.

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Why it's on the list ...
“Imagine a girl to whom you can attach any stereotype,” Lambert writes of her imperfect character, Keiko Kitigawa, who is 18 years old in 1952 when she arrives in the United States for reconstructive surgery. Keiko is a hibakusha, an atom-bomb survivor, brought by a well-meaning but politically motivated group, the Hiroshima Project. In exchange for removing the ghastly imprint on the left side of Keiko’s face and the pendulous keloid everyone seems fascinated by --“a strange adornment” -- Keiko has agreed to a speak against the bomb. But Keiko, the “blasted girl,” is decidedly not a submissive Japanese maiden, or a victim. She’s more of a fox child whose delightful cunning surprises everyone, including the reader.
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Why it's on the list ...
Very tall author Susan Swan is the probable descendant of the true life Nova Scotian “professional giantess” Anna Swan. In the former’s hands, the latter’s life story is told with great humour and dignity. Anna Swan, 8 feet tall, was taken up by P.T. Barnum, “toured the world, entertained royalty and married for love,” but suffered greatly for her unusual stature due to the peculiarities of her body and trials of living in a world of “normals”. “As society becomes standardized, it grows more difficult for giants and dwarves to fit in,” Anna Swan tells us in the first chapter with startling prescience for a novel first published in 1983 before any of us had ever heard of “globalization”. Substitute any other imperfect person for “giants and dwarves”, or, for that matter, substitute your own unique self.
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Carolan's Farewell
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In 1737 the legendary Irish harper and composer, Terence Carolan, finishes a ten-day pilgrimage. Everyone expects his demise, but there is still plenty of life left in the blind man as he rides home across a famine-stricken Ireland accompanied by his companion, Owen Connor, his faithful collocutor, his eyes. Carolan “has no say in his fate, and to this day others choose almost all his paths on his behalf. His meat needs to be cut and his glass refilled. He must be instructed where to piss.” Foran brilliantly describes Carolan’s world without a visual reference. A blind man with a hilarious case of logorrhea, on a horse, in constant danger of falling off, perceiving the passing countryside through his nose and ears – it’s quite a ride.
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Out of Shew. Bed and Golda came Rahel Out of Malka and Benyamin came Danile, Out of Danile and Rahel came Hoda, Out of Hoda, Pipick came, Pipick born in secrecy and mystery and terror, for what did Hoda know?
In the daytime her frail and ever-so-slightly humpbacked mother, or so they described her to blind Danile before they rushed them off to be married, used to take Hoda along with her to the houses where she cleaned. And partly to keep her quiet, and partly because of an ever-present fear, for she felt that she would never have another child, Rahel carried always with her, in a large, cotton kerchief, tied into a peasant-style sack, a magically endless supply of food. All day long, at the least sign of disquiet, she fed the child, for Hoda even then was big-voiced and forward, and sometimes said naughty things to people. Rather than risk having an employer forbid her the privilege of bringing the little girl to work, Rahel forestalled trouble. Things can’t go in and out of the same little mouth simultaneously.

Hoda for her part enjoyed eating. She was on the whole a good-natured child. Even in the moments when her jaws were unwillingly at rest she was content to let her flecked ashgrey eyes linger contemplatively on the yellow and white dotted kerchief sack for what she felt were long periods of time while she restrained herself from disturbing her mother at her work. When at last she could refrain no longer, for she was only a child after all, Hoda would give vent to a surprisingly chesty contralto. “Ma-a-a,” she would rumble, “Maa-a-a-a-ah!”

Rahel would rise quickly from her knees, wipe her hands, untie the kerchief, and give her daughter another little something to chew on. It amused some of her employers to see this continuous process, and they entertained themselves by feeding the child too, just to be able to comment, in what Rahel mistook for admiration, on how much she could put away. Hoda herself never refused these gifts of food, though there was something of aloofness, even of condescension, in her acceptance, as there is with some zoo animals that people feed for their own amusement. It was as though in allowing them to play their game she was not necessarily accepting their terms of reference. Occasionally a woman with kindly intentions would scold Rahel for letting her little girl get so fat. Rahel misinterpreted the kindly intentions and resented these critics who wanted her to deny her child. She saw in it simply another sign that it is the way of the rich to deny the poor, and continued to make sure that her child was bigger and more beautiful every day. Why else does a mother crawl on her knees in the houses of strangers?

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Why it's on the list ...
Obesity is last legitimate target for cruelty. Few schoolyards will tolerate a racist or homophobic taunt, but the fat kid still largely defends himself. Thus Crackpot remains essential reading almost forty years after it was published. Its heroine, Hoda, is not immune to the world’s cruelty but her exuberant, forgiving nature helps her bear it. Also, she has plenty of clients to love her in the back room in the tiny house she shares with her blind, oblivious (or is he?) father. She is the cracked pot of the title, overflowing, flawed, imperfect. The novel’s epigraph is from a Kabbalistic creation legend: “He stored the Divine Light in a Vessel, but the Vessel, unable to contain the Holy Radiance, burst, and its shards permeated with sparks of the Divine, scattered throughout the Universe.” It is the imperfect people who let the light into the world
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