Shopping My Shelves

We’ve been sheltering in place since March 16, which means I have not been to a book store since…March 16. Typically, my son Connor and I hit Indigo about once a week. Occasionally, we simply browse – neither of us need to add anything to our TBR shelves, to be honest. More often than not, though, we simply can’t resist buying something. Since Covid 19 has made it impossible to hit the book store, I have been shopping my own shelves.

My TBR shelf is ridiculous. Some people buy shoes; I buy books. Marie Kondo would not approve.  I love them. They are objects of beauty, which is why eReaders do not appeal to me.  They are, as Stephen King says, “uniquely portable magic.” I love knowing that when I finish a book, I have dozens (okay, hundreds) more to choose from.

Recently, Connor volunteered to colour block my TBR shelf. Although my read shelves are alphabetized so I can find books easily, and another shelf is organized by genre, colour blocking my TBR shelf kept both of us busy for a handful of hours. Browsing my TBR shelf isn’t anymore difficult this way, because I don’t really know what’s on it anyway. (That’s the problem of having a book-buying addiction, although it’s a good problem to have.)

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I enjoy shopping my shelves. It’s kinda cool, when I stumble upon a book I’d forgotten that I owned, or something that’s been on my shelf forever. Or, when I come across a book that I don’t remember buying, read it and it turns out to be spectacularly good, which is the case with a book I recently read called The Roanoke Girls.

Today, I thought I would take you on a tour of some of the books on my TBR shelf.

First of all – let’s take a look at some of the books with buzz. I don’t automatically buy every single book that wins a prize or garners lots of praise or makes the NY Times best seller list. But I do buy some. These books are on my TBR shelf.

Of the books pictured, Olive Kitteridge has been on my shelf the longest. I don’t know why I haven’t read it because I have heard nothing about good things about it.

My TBR shelf also consists of books that I’ve started and, for some reason, stopped reading. I don’t want to call them DNFs just yet, so I stick them back on the shelf in the hopes that I will pick them up and enjoy them in the future. At one point in my reading life, I finished every book I started. That served me well in university, when I was often called upon to read something I didn’t necessarily want to read. Nowadays, I am easier on myself; if a book doesn’t float my boat, I give it 50-75 pages and then move on. These books, for whatever reason, I just can’t break up with.

So, a little about some of the books pictured above:

The JJ Abrams book  (middle right) was a birthday gift from Connor a few years ago. It’s a book that requires real focus because it’s a book filled with documents (see picture top right) and footnotes etc. I want to read it, but I know I need to read it straight through without distractions.

Hollywood Savage (top left) is by the author of one of my all-time, most-read novels Velocity I read another of her novels, Some Girls, and while I enjoyed it, I  don’t think anything McCloy ever writes will usurp Velocity‘s place in my heart. I gave Hollywood Savage a go a while back, and I don’t think it’s going to be my cup of tea…but since I love McCloy, I am not going to give up on this one.

Shelter (bottom right) has the distinction of being on my TBR shelf since 1994. I have tried to read this book on more than one occasion. I am not sure why I keep trying other than I seem to recall there was some controversy surrounding the book, and I can’t resist a good book scandal. I can’t seem to give up on it.

The other books will remain on my TBR shelf because they are by local authors (Finding Woods), are by authors I have enjoyed before (The Secret Keeper), or have been approved by readers I respect (Foxlowe, Cruel Beautiful World).

shoppingrereadOccasionally, a book that I have read before ends up on my TBR shelf. Usually, it’s a book  that I read a long time ago, and that I remember really fondly and want to revisit. That happened with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn which I reread last summer. Carolyn Slaughter’s novel Magdalene is another one of those novels I hope to reread one day. Actually, I wouldn’t mind re-reading several of Slaughter’s books as I LOVE her.  This is my second copy of this book; I lent my original and never got it back. 😦 It’s very difficult to get any of Slaughter’s novels, but I have had pretty good luck with Abe Books or The Book Depository. I highly recommend The Banquet and The Story of the Weasel (also known as Relations).

Another book I would love to re-read is Peter Straub’s novel Shadowlands. I have been ashoppingreread1 long-time fan of Straub, although I don’t read him much anymore (even though I have several books on this shelf: see below.) I think the last book I read by him was Lost Boy, Lost Girl, which I recall not liking very much. His earlier stuff, though, is fantastic. Check out Ghost Story or If You Could See Me Now, both of which probably deserve a re-read.

I also tend to hoard books by authors I like, y’know, so I always have something dependable to grab. Some of those authors include Helen Dunmore (who sadly died in 2017), Andrew Pyper, Lisa Jewell, Thomas H. Cook, Stephen King to name but a few.

Finally, there are some books on my TBR shelf that are kind of embarrassing. These are books that I probably should have read way before now, for a variety of reasons: everyone and their dog has already read (and loved it), it’s been on my shelf a stupidly long time and I have no excuse or I was really excited to read it, but then didn’t and now it languishes with all the others. Le sigh. Here are but a handful in this category.

And just in case you think the books on my colour blocked TBR shelf are the only TBR books I own, you’d be wrong. In my world, you can never have too many books.

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Books to distract you…

When it comes to reading these days,  I am looking for books that are total page turners. I want to be entertained and distracted without it being too labour intensive…so I thought I would offer up a few titles that might fit the bill.

First off, I HIGHLY recommend everyone check out Thomas H. Cook. If you tend to read via kobo or kindle you can probably get a hold of his stuff and he’s definitely on Audible. Cook is mystery writer I discovered probably 20 years ago. Since that first book, Breakheart Hill, I have been a massive fan.

I recommend Master of the Delta, which is the story of young teacher who gets in way over his head with a student whose father is a serial killer.

Another great book by Cook is Instruments of the Night which is the story of a writer who is asked to imagine what might have happened to a young girl who disappeared 50 years ago. Paul is not without some demons of his own and it makes for white-knuckle reading.

But, really, no matter what you pick, it will be worth reading.

Another total page-turner is Peter Swanson’s book The Kind Worth Killing. It’s the storykindworth of a man and woman who meet by chance at Heathrow airport. Over a drink, the man reveals that he thinks that his wife is having an affair and he wants to kill her – which may be a bit of an extreme reaction, but there you go. The woman offers to help the man’s fantasy become a reality and the novel does not let up from there.

Lots of readers will be familiar with Gillian Flynn because of the massive success of Gone Girl, but I actually liked Dark Places better. It’s the story of Libby Day, an angry, damaged woman who survived the murders of her mother and two older sisters. Her older brother, Ben, has been in jail for the crime for the past 24 years. But did he actually do it?

Other writers who consistently deliver books with a pulse include Lisa Jewell  (I recently read The Family Upstairs and I couldn’t put it down) and Tim Johnston (Descent is one of the best books I’ve ever read.)

My-Sunshine-AwayOne last book you should add to your tbr pile is M.O. Walsh’s debut My Sunshine Away. This is a coming-of-age novel about a boy obsessed with a neighborhood girl who is raped. Readers will not be able to turn the pages of this book fast enough.

Moving away from the thrillers a little bit, but still talking about books that will immerse you in a world that is not this one, I may as well include a book about people who are trapped together in one place. In Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto, a group of people are at a gala in South America when terrorists storm the building and take everyone hostage. That’s the plot in a nutshell – but this book is SO much more than that. Riveting and heartbreaking and life affirming.

Another book that will drop you into another world is John Connolly’s masterful novel The Book of Lost Things which follows young David as he journeys  through a twisted fairy tale world in search of a way to rescue his mother from death’s clutches.

Finally, if you haven’t yet read Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng now would be the perfect time. This story about a family growing up in Ohio in the 1980s has it all: characters you want to hug, complicated relationships between parents and their children, siblings and spouses and a mystery. The book’s opening line is “Lydia is dead.” and it really doesn’t let up from there.

Let’s not forget young adult readers. As a teacher I would really be thrilled if my students would just spend 30 minutes a day reading. I know it’s not possible to visit the book store these days, but Bookoutlet.ca and Indigo both deliver. 🙂

Here are some awesome titles for your teen.

We Are Still Tornadoes  by Susan Mullen and Michael Kun The story follows besties Cath and Scott during the first year after high school. It’s 1982 and so way before technology, so the pair write letters back and forth. This is a feel-good novel that made me laugh out loud.

For fans of Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Grey and Salt to the Sea)  check out her latest novel The Fountains of Silence, which takes a look at Spain under Franco’s dictatorship. Sepetys is fantastic at making history and people come alive and this is a great step up for older teens.

If your teen hasn’t yet discovered Canadian YA writer Courtney Summers, now would be the perfect time. She’s written a terrific, page-turning zombie novel This Is Not a Test and her latest novel, Sadie, is a wonderful hybrid novel that follows a young woman on the hunt for her sister’s killer. There’s a podcast you can listen to, as well. I haven’t yet met a Courtney Summers novel I haven’t loved.

Finally,A Short History of the Girl Next Door  by Jared Reck is a beautiful coming -of-age story about a boy in love with the girl who lives across the cul de sac from him. They’ve been besties, nothing more, since they were little kids…and things are about to get complicated. This is a terrific book for anyone.

I know these are trying times…but a good book really can help pass the time, and I hope you’ve seen something here that makes you want to read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A reflection on my 2019 reading year…

Happy New Year!

For the past several years I’ve completed a little reading survey, a sort of look back at the reading year that was. I normally spend a few hours reflecting on my year, choosing most favourite and least favourite books and talking about other bookish things that happened to me, but I usually do that in advance of January 1st. This year I had to return my daughter to university and then I spent a couple days with my best friend and her family out of the city…so no time to get that post ready in advance. I do like to think about my reading year, though, so here are some random thoughts.

Goodreads provides a handy overview of your reading year at the end of their challenge. This is mine. I think I had a pretty good year. I read nine more books than I did in 2018, and I hope to up that number again this year by spending WAY less time on the Internet. My reading goal for 2020 is 70 books, but I would love to surpass that.

myabsolutedarlingOf the books I read in 2019, a couple really stand out.  Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel My Absolute Darling was a difficult book to read, but the protagonist, Turtle, has stayed with me. As I said in my review, this book will not be everyone’s cup of tea; however, if you can stomach the subject matter (sexual abuse, violence), it is so worth the read because of the incredible beauty of Tallent’s writing and the novel’s stunning main character.

I also really enjoyed Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House , Tara Westover’s Educated , Iain Reid’s Foe, Tim Johnston’s The Current, Joanna Briscoe’s You (not to be confused with the thriller by Caroline Kepnes),  and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere

I read a lot of terrific YA this year. It’s relatively rare to read a total YA dud these days – and to be honest, if the book really sucks I just move on – but I read some stellar YA titles in 2019.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds –  a novel in verse about the aftermath of gun violence. A quick but powerful read that belongs on every school library bookshelf

A List of Cages by Robin Roe  – a tremendous novel about two boys who meet again at high school, and how that chance encounter and one boys innate kindness saves the other boy’s life. Literally.

A Short History of the Girl Next Door by Jared Reck – I cried real tears when I read this book. It is YA perfection.

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera – smart, thoughtful, heartbreaking and – not a spoiler – they do both die at the end. LOVED it.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart – twisty, gothic, beautifully written… a page-turner with a beating heart

I read some mediocre books this year, too…and many of them were really popular books. These are books that were just okay for me – certainly not, imho, worth the hype.

Don’t You Forget About Me by Mhairi McFarlane landed me in a little mini Twitter shitstorm. First time EVER I had an author and her minions come at me, even though I didn’t think (and still don’t think) my review of her book was all that critical. The book just didn’t do it for me.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides is a serviceable thriller and I had no trouble reading it, but I just didn’t think it was worthy of all the fuss. For me.

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer was one of  last year’s book club picks and it just didn’t float my boat because I didn’t really care too much for the main female characters, which is a problem in a book about women.

The Perfect Nanny  by Leila Slimani – was it the translation? I dunno. I just found this book about a nanny who kills the children she is charged to care for S-L-O-W

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – I felt as trapped as the novel’s main character, Count Rostov

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James – this was my book club pick last year and it just had too much going on

This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel – captures the zeitgeist of gender identity and, overall, does it well, but I still had some issues and couldn’t give it a hearty thumbs up

Other bookish things that were exciting this year:

fitch1 - CopyI stumbled upon, purely by chance, Sherree Fitch’s magical bookstore, Mable Murple’sBook Shoppe and Dreamery in River John, Nova Scotia.

Fitch’s children’s books were on permanent rotation in my house when my kids were little, so it was pretty exciting to find the store and then find the author herself chatting to patrons.

I purchased my copy of A Velocity of Being here and I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you love books, this is a MUST read.

I also had the opportunity to meet Lauren B. Davis, author of one of my favourite books, Our Daily Bread, when she read from her newest novel, The Grimoire of Kensington Market. Davis and I have interacted a little lauren davisbit on social media, and in fact back when my book club read Our Daily Bread, she graciously offered to answer any questions we had in real time via Twitter.

I intend to make going to author readings more of a regular habit in 2020, as I do love to see them in person. I am so sorry I missed my opportunity to hear Craig Davidson read from his book The Saturday Night Ghost Club, which I read in 2019 and really liked a lot.

One other thing I did in 2019 that I have never done before was to make a vlog. I had a crazy busy few weeks and let my read books pile up and knew I would never get around to writing reviews about them, so I thought, what the heck, I’ll talk about them instead. Not that easy, people. If you want to waste 20 minutes, you can watch that here.

Overall, it’s been a great reading year and I look forward to discovering new favourites in 2020. I hope you’ll visit often and stay a while.

 

 

Mabel Murple – Sheree Fitch

“What if there was a purple planet with purple people on it…?

mabelHow many times did I read those lines, the opening words of Sheree Fitch‘s children’s book Mabel Murple to my kids? About a billion. Fitch ranked right up there with Dr. Seuss when my kids were little. They loved her clever rhymes and I loved reading them aloud. (For me, Mabel might have just been edged out by There Were Monkeys in My Kitchen. That book uses the word Gorgonzola, so come on. ) We could happily read Toes in My Nose every night before bed. I’d like to think that Fitch is a staple in Canadian households, but if you haven’t heard of her I can highly recommend her books. They are classics!

On Sunday July 7, my son Connor and I were heading home from visiting my daughter Mallory in Halifax. It’s a straight shot on a twinned highway between Halifax and Saint John and on a good day you can do it in under four hours. But it’s a journey I have made several times since my daughter moved to Halifax to attend NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) a year ago. It’s quick and it’s boring. Connor and I both love to drive and we both love to get off the beaten path. We had music (my choices excellent; his not so much) and it was a perfect day. My brother had mentioned the Sunshine Coastal drive to me before we’d headed to Halifax and so we decided to check it out on our way home. When we hit Truro we headed towards New Glasgow instead of Amherst. We picked up Hwy #6 in Pictou and it was so worth the detour.

So, we’re cruising along, windows down, ocean to our right, green as far as the eye could see and right before River John I see the sign (had I blinked I would have missed it) for Mabel Murple’s Book Shoppe and Dreamery

Truthfully, I was as excited about this discovery as I was about entering Shakespeare and Co. in Paris last summer. I knew about this little oasis and it has been on my book bucket list, but I didn’t know that our spontaneous detour was going to take as right past it. Yet, there it was. I think my shriek of delight scared Connor half to death.

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If there is a more idyllic spot, I don’t know where it is.  It is literally down a dirt road, a burst of colour on a gorgeous plot of land. I can only imagine how little fans of Mabel Murple must feel upon arrival because I was practically giddy.

After peering into Mabel‘s adorable house, and wandering the grounds visiting horses, a donkey, a couple goats and some chickens, we made our way into the book shoppe. It’s a delightful place. I am – no surprise – of the opinion that all book shops are delightful places, but this one is extra special. Mabel Murple‘s is geared towards children and carries a lot of Atlantic Canadian literature and I wanted to buy all the books. Of course I did.

fitch10As if that weren’t  enough, Ms. Fitch was there! She happily read (well, recited more like) Mabel Murple to a delighted child  (and all the adults who happened to be standing there, too) who seemed to know the words almost as well as she did. 

After making my purchase (a copy of Mabel Murple, of course and A Velocity of  Being, which has been on my tbr list for a while), I asked Ms. Fitch if I could get a picture. She graciously agreed. We stood outside her shop and chatted for a few minutes before Connor snapped the photo.

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A perfect day! Thanks, Sheree!

P.S. Sheree will be reading in Saint John as part of the Lorenzo Society‘s reading series in November. Watch this space.

Easter ‘Book’ Hunt

So, before I begin preparing Easter dinner for the family, I thought I’d participate in The Savvy Reader’s Bookish Easter Egg Hunt. I can’t think of a nicer way to spend this rainy Sunday morning, and so with tea in hand I present my own book eggs.

1. Roses are red, violets are blue… Nope, I can’t rhyme. Instead, find your favourite book about love!

This is too hard because I love me a great love story, especially if it comes with a heaping helping of angst.

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The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

Henry and Clare and time travel and so many tears I couldn’t see the pages. Skip the crap movie and read this amazing book.

2. Dystopian novels are so 1984… Find a great dystopian novel!

knife-of-never-letting-go

The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness

Although I didn’t groove to this book the first time I picked it up, I did give it a second chance and I am so glad I did. I am not really a fan of dystopian novels, but this series has it all: sympathetic protagonists, cool premise (everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts), a relentless bad guy…and don’t even get me started on Manchee, the main character’s dog. The next two books in the series are The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men.

3. Book it to the library for a book that has aged like fine wine. Find a book you’ve read more than once and gets better every time you read it.

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Velocity – Kristin McCloy

Velocity and I go wayyyyyy back. I bought the book at The Strand in the late-eighties and have re-read it many times. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I continue to love this book.

4. This book blue us away. What blue book can you find?

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Your Blue-Eyed Boy – Helen Dunmore

I am a bug fan of Helen Dunmore, a British writer who, sadly, passed away in 2017. If you haven’t read her yet, I can highly recommend her work. Her novels have elements of psychological suspense, complicated family relationships, and beautiful writing always.

5. Past, Present and Future walk into a bar. It was tense. Find a book that plays with time in an interesting way.

 

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Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson’s brilliant novel plays with the narrative form, skip-hopping readers through the main character’s life (lives), though it is not as confusing as it sounds. And very much worth the effort.

6. Check your shelf before you wreck your shelf. Find a great self-improvement book.

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Selp-Helf – Miranda Sings

I didn’t review this book back when I bought it, but I chose it for this category because I don’t really read self help books…plus, I love Miranda.

7. I like big books and I cannot lie! Look for a book that’s more than 500 pages.

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Fingersmith – Sarah Waters

This book clocks in at 548 pages and won me best book at my book club the year I chose it (2010). It’s a fantastic novel set in Victorian England and, trust me, you won’t be able to put it down once you start reading.

8. I was in a relationship with an apostrophe, but we broke up… It was too possessive! Find a book with a complicated romantic relationship.

 

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One Day – David Nicholls

This was actually a hard category for me because I LOVE me some complicated relationships…especially if the lovers are really damaged people, but in the end, I chose One Day because it’s awesome.

9. Take my advice… I don’t use it anyway. Find a book that you would recommend to everyone.

 

I am constantly recommending books – here, in my classroom, on the radio.  I could have chosen a million books, but I stopped at five:

Sadie  – Courtney Summers is one of my favourite YA writers and this book, her latest, is soooo good. Everyone should read it, not just teens.

A Short History of the Girl Next Door – Jared Reck is a teacher and this is his debut novel. I cried at the end of this book. LOVED it and recced it hard in my classroom.

My Sunshine Away – M.O. Walsh’s coming-of-age novel is beautifully written, suspenseful and heart-breaking and everyone should read it.

Everything I Never Told You – Celest Ng’s novel is just perfect and has stayed with me for a long time.

Descent – Tim Johnston has written a page-turner and  family drama in language that is beautiful without bogging the story down. And, trust me, this is one helluva story.

10. 4 out of 5 dentists recommend hockey. Find a good sports book.

now is thetime

Now is the Time for Running – Michael Williams

Although there is soccer in this book, it’s mostly about what happens when two brothers are forced to leave their African village.

I don’t read that many sports-related books. 😦

11. Bonus Question! Find a book cover with your name on it.

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The Christie part.

Happy Easter!

Bucket list summer

I just looked at the date of my last post: May 25th! Where has the time gone? Well, I can tell you where the first three weeks of July went…to Italy (with a teensy three-day layover in Paris.) I did read a couple books while I was on holiday, neither of them particularly memorable.

My trip began in Amalfi, which as you probably know is the name of the coast, but also the name of the town we stayed in. If you’ve always wanted to go to Amalfi, I highly recommend it. Amalfi town is not as vertical as some of the other towns along the coast, which makes it the perfect spot.  I was with my three best girlfriends and this is the second time we have traveled to Italy together. We walked lots, ate well, visited nearby towns (Capri, Positano, Ravello) and generally had a wonderful, sun-filled week.

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After a week, two of my girlfriends headed home and I headed to Verona with the third. Verona has been on my bucket list for a long time. I’m an English teacher; what can I say?

Verona is an absolutely beautiful city – even without its famous connection to Romeo and Juliet, but for anyone who is a fan of the play (and I am), visiting Verona is a must-do.

I am not ashamed to admit that standing in that little touristy courtyard and up on the balcony gave me all the feels.

Romeo and Juliet is not the only tragic love story to come out of Verona. The Well of Love, IMG_0120just off Piazza della Erbe, tells another story of a soldier who fell in love with the daughter of a rich and powerful man. He would not let his daughter marry the soldier, convincing her that he was only interested in her money. She told her lover that he must prove himself to her, so he threw himself in the well. When she realized what he had done, she threw herself in after him, thus uniting the lovers for eternity. Sad that the motorcycle is in the picture, but you can see the two lovers at the front of the well.

 

Verona did not disappoint on any level.

After three days, we headed to Venice. This is my third time in Venice and while I still think it’s a magnificent city, I am not sure that I will ever return. It was so crowded – not that crowds bother me particularly – and so full of junky shops and bad food. Still. Venice.

One thing I had not done on any of my previous trips was visit Libreria Aqua Alta. It’s definitely a “must-see” for any book lover. It’s billed as “the most beautiful bookshop in the world”. It’s certainly the most ‘fragrant’.  I don’t know how anyone would find anything in this place, but I certainly loved visiting.

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After Venice, my friend headed home and I headed to Bologna. I had made the decision to extend my trip just to see how I would feel about traveling on my own. I mean, obviously I have traveled on my own before…but not for a long time. I picked Bologna because it was a place I had never been, it was easy to get to from Venice, and it was supposed to be the foodie capital of Italy.  Hmmm.

It was okay. I would have been happy spending a day, maybe two there. Three was too much.  I didn’t eat any amazing food, but I definitely enjoy the wine in the north of Italy more than I do in the south.

IMG_0183The library was housed upstairs in this building. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to visit it as a tourist. I actually couldn’t quite believe that. Bologna is a university town and there were bookstores galore. Sadly, I don’t read Italian. 🙂 It’s also a city made up of arcades or porticos…40 kilometers of them to be exact. They are a nice reprieve from the sun.

I stayed in a very nice AirBnB in Bologna, and I would definitely say it’s worth a visit. It’s also very easy to make day trips to other worthwhile spots from here.

After Bologna, I headed back to Venice for one more night. Instead of spending the day in the city, I bought a vaporetti pass and headed to Murano and Burano, two more bucket list places. Murano was a bit disappointing, but Burano was sheer magic.

And then it was on to Paris.

I have never been to Paris. Truthfully, I have never been all that interested in going. I know, eh? I guess I bought into the hype that Parisians are rude and that if you don’t speak French, forget about it. Since my flight home went through Paris, though, I figured what the hell. I should get off the plane. I am SO glad I did. I am totally smitten and am already planning a return visit.

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Paris is like a secret. Every corner you turn offers up another feast for the eyes. I thought I walked a lot in Italy! I walked soooo much in Paris, but I also used the buses and metro a lot and found them super user- friendly. In fact, I found Paris friendly in general. I don’t speak French, but it wasn’t a problem. I ‘Bonjoured’ and ‘merci-ed’ my way along and was always met with a pleasant response…in restaurants, on the bus, in shops, on the street.

Of course, I took a literary tour of Paris because it’s a significant city for fans of  writers of the 1920s, including, most famously, Ernest Hemingway. Gertrude Stein coined the term the “Lost Generation” to refer to the young writers who hung out in Paris (and London) during this period, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound among them.

The tour mostly took us around to look at plaques on buildings (put up by building owners themselves, not the city) and cafes (most famously Cafe de Flore, where a coke will set you back 7 euro) where these writers would write and drink. Certainly an interesting way for anyone literary-minded to while away a few hours.

And, of course, no visit to Paris would be complete without a visit to Shakespeare and Company. Quite appropriately, my literary tour finished here.

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I was so happy to finally be able to visit this store. 🙂

 

So, there you have it. A beautiful way to start my summer and memories to last a lifetime.

I will be back with some reviews asap.

 

 

Now for something completely different…

My seventeen year old son, Connor, recently won a provincial short story contest with his story, “Flowers for Mrs. Goode.” A second story, “Goodnight, Irene, Goodnight” received an honourable mention in another category. Many people have been asking to read them and so I am reprinting them here with his permission. I will let him know of any feedback you leave. The official announcement can be found here.

***

Flowers for Mrs. Goode

Edith Goode (Edie if one knew her, Mrs. Goode if one didn’t) was usually up by five AM and prim by six, on principle, but this morning she was neither of these things by noon. Her slumber had been like that of a womb-dweller — drunk as a fetus, spinning drowsily in those tideless darks, amnion wavering like a flag in a slow cast of summer wind: surrender! She thought of this as she sat at her bedroom vanity in the cabbage-rosed nightgown, bare feet on the mint carpet, hurriedly smearing Pond’s on her face: If waking is birth, this is puerperal fever. She laughed falsely at her reflection, the long witchy teeth parading across gums, flaxen Brillopad hair, jowls like a bloodhound, thyroidal eyes. It had been her first time sleeping through an alarm since her childhood tumble with the scarlet fever. This was something of a marvel and a horror to her. It was Mother’s Day, and there was everything to be done.

She’d never been much of a hostess; the most she could ever muster was potato salad, corn chowder, cheese and cherry sandwiches on flattened Wonderbread, and the punchbowl, large and ponderous as a baptismal font, dredged up from the basement every now and again. She knew as she descended the stairs to her kitchen, picks driven through her curlers and the hem of her yellow silk peignoir skittering across the landing, that it would be an afternoon of chaos. The curtains due for a steaming, the floors needed waxing, the rhubarb stalks ready to pick. She had to dust off her dear Reginald’s gun cabinet, and the panoply of old port glasses, left to lie dormant for all but this day, had to be polished. She felt challenged by the afternoon ahead, and thought wistfully of the menthol-camphor bath which awaited her, a point of fixed and conclusive ease, at the end of her night. The bath had become so ritualized that if she concentrated hard enough, she could conjure up the sensation of sitting in it rather viscerally, even as she stood heating a pan of milk on the stove for her Sanka.

These domestic tasks (cleaning out the halltree, whose disjecta membra was now spilling invasively into the rest of the hall, putting the second leaf into the dining room table, sweeping up the dead tendrils of the decades-old Christmas cactus, which had been reared by her father) were only a precursor to the real trouble, the arrival of her family. But by one o’clock, she had already spent most of the afternoon on the phone with her sister Geraldine, pleading with her, as was the case every year, to come. Geraldine — ardently suspicious, with tight, peevish curls and a reedy voice — was afraid of most everything (billiard tables, flea markets, soda crackers, tuberculosis) and had a penchant for staying home whether something was the matter with her or not. She often based entire, life-altering decisions on “an awful strange feeling” about this, that and the other thing. This was incomprehensible in the opinion of Edith, who would sooner flip a coin to make an important decision than follow an instinct into whatever certain, godforsaken, blood-soaked death awaited her.  She couldn’t much stand Geraldine.

Today was no different than yesterday, or the day before that; Geraldine was still convinced that something — not readily apparent but omnipresent — was wrong with the world. What fault could Geraldine have possibly found with this day? With the pregnant blue sky, the bobbing cornflowers in the window well, the sweet, kind breeze? Edith pried open the gun cabinet’s stuck door, selected the first shotgun from a row of what once held nine, and vigorously polished the stock of neglected wood with Pine-Sol, pointing the barrel at her slippered feet. To Edith, it didn’t matter what feeling one had, or what window one was looking out of — the world was the world, and it really was as simple as that. Her conversation with Geraldine floated back to her in half-lucid fragments.

If you’re set on being ridiculous, it looks as though I’ll have to stop making excuses for you. Where’s Geraldine? Oh, sick and bedridden with the flu. What about now? She had to take an alka-seltzer and lie down. And now? She couldn’t find a fascinator for the garden party, she’s jumpstarting her car, she has to finish the divinity fudge, the aspic hasn’t set yet, she’s at the church rummage sale, she’s–

Goodness, Edie, there’s no sense in being cruel!

Yes, well I daresay there’s no sense in concerning oneself with silly intimations but we can’t always get what we want can we? I went to great lengths to make you your favourite meal. The one you love so. You beg for it every Mother’s Day and then refuse to show up.

And she’d replaced the receiver with that conclusive thwack one delights in following an argument.

Edith sat in a rattan chair in the screened breezeway between the kitchen hall and the guest bedroom, arms akimbo, looking dissociatively out over Prospect Street, which was pastorally green and bristling in the sunlight. The neighbourhood’s fractal medians and cul-de-sacs had been the same since the thirties, and each moment seemed timed: a sprinkler rasping futilely on a sparkling plot of pavement, stridulation of crickets simmering in erratic, patternless interludes, steam, like a thread of smoke from a blown-out candle, rising from the hood of her powder blue Volkswagen Rabbit.

Edith tamped a Pall Mall on the arm of the chair and lit it with Reginald’s Zippo, which had their twin initials engraved in it beneath a heart, and was the very leaden weight and cool texture of love. It was one of the only things that had remained after the blast — his greens had been burnt to shreds and his skin had looked like blood pudding, she’d heard someone say. The lighter had come home with his body. For weeks after, she’d dreamt of exploding ovens floating in a vacuous black sky.

Edith let out a capricious plume of smoke. Awful bad feeling. Awful bad feeling. At the precipice of her brain, it tapped its dull meaning.

Edith Goode became suddenly aware of a man standing at the screen door, shrouded by the nimbus of the murderously hot day. In his left arm he was cradling a monstrous spray of white roses over which Edith could see nothing but the suggestion of eyes. Edith hated white roses.

In a single beat that converged terribly with the instant the man rang the doorbell, Edith started, remembered the pan of milk on the stove and that she was still in her peignoir, and thought, good god, I’m naked as the babe unborn, and called to where the man’s face might have been.

“Just a moment!”

She crossed into the kitchen, removing the smoking pan from the stovetop, and tied her sash before turning on her heels. The doorbell rang once more.

“Just,” said Edith, under her breath, “a godforsaken moment.”

“Good day,” said the man, as she returned to the breezeway, harried, with a strand of loose hair curled about her forehead.

“Good day,” said Edith.

“I just got somethin’ here for ya’s.”

Edith could hear a wry grin in his voice, and something else, nebulous as an opium dream. Edith knew, with as much certainty as one can garner from the sound of a voice, that the man was not from ‘around here’.

“What’s this?”

“Flowers. You’ve an anonymous delivery.”

“Anonymous?” said Edith incredulously.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“This isn’t some sort of money making operation is it? I haven’t two pennies to rub together.”

“No, ma’am. I make flower deliveries — not too fitting a occupation for a man like me I s’pose. In any case, seeing as it’s Mother’s Day an’ all, someone saw it fit to get ya’s somethin’.”

“Well,” said Edith, “I’m at a loss for who would do such a thing but, see, I’ve got my hands full at the moment. I appreciate the sentiment.”

“Mind if I come in? I could just set these flowers on the table and be on my way. ‘Sides, I got a handful more houses to get along to still.”

“Well –”

“It won’t take but a moment.”

Edith stared over the man’s shoulder at the empty, arid street.

“I have some family coming over. After all, it is Mother’s Day, like you said.”

“Looks like you’ve got a real grand old table back there and, well, ain’t this a han’some centerpiece for that table? ” said the man.

“Yes, I suppose I do.”

“What do you say? They are yours, after all. Someone sent them off for you. Don’t that make you feel special?”

“Well –” said Edith. “Well, I suppose there’s no harm really. As long as it won’t take long. I have a lot to get through before the evening comes. And it always comes faster than one expects.”

“Ain’t that the god’s honest truth,” said the man.

When the door opened, and the distance between them closed, Edith felt a draft like an undertow. A scent of topsoil blew off the man.

The man, appeared large and hunched in Edith’s almost humorously dainty kitchen, with its duck egg walls and Royal Doultons, and he set the flowers down on her breakfast table. She looked up at him. The man must have been around six foot and three or four inches. He was skinny as a rake, however, with big-knuckled hands and a deeply tanned neck.

Edith felt a bristle of girlish excitement at having been given flowers, but feigned irritation, for past experience had invariably taught her that reticence was the best way to hide a feeling. The feeling however, could not always be dressed like a wound, and Edith found herself dredging up gangrened wedding memories — the white tent billowing in jaunty breeze, the wisteria in eloquent, tapered clusters, the festooned wedding cake. The memories, though cracked from the frequency with which she brought them up (like dragging a lake for a body, Edith thought suddenly) gleamed with a preternatural light. But she knew, with a sort of matronly soberness, that things were only beautiful in retrospect.

“You wouldn’t happen to have a drink of water would you?” said the man, blinking bovinely, and Edith realized with some discomfort that she had tumbled into another one of her reveries. The man looked down on her with a grin. His gums were pink and his teeth were Chiclets. His hair was Brylcreamed. She smelled it, gasoline-strong. He was chewing a piece of bubblegum and his jaw cracked as he worked it between his back molars.

“I certainly would,” said Edith, and, turning her back to him, went to the sink. “It’s a mighty hot, day isn’t it?”

“Yes, ma’am. Mighty, mighty hot.”

Edith reached for a tumbler in her cupboard, but miscalculated, and it fell from its place of origin on the shelf, clipped the edge of the countertop, and broke on the floor with an amplified, glassine crash. It was hot, and she really was drunk as a fetus. She heard the ubiquitous crack of the man’s rotating jaw. He knelt beside her and started to collect the shards, his head inches from hers, cocked. It hadn’t been topsoil she smelled, but dirt.

“A little old lady, living all alone?” he said.

She found herself thinking of her curls. She worried that she would sweat them out by the day’s end.

The End

*****

Goodnight Irene, Goodnight

Camille sat on the steps of the general store with a sweating Coke bottle between her bare legs, when the wood-paneled station wagon pulled up. A pair of women got out, followed by a girl who must have been little older than Camille. The two women mounted the steps, looking down upon her as they went, and entered the store. The girl didn’t enter the store, electing instead to sit on the step beneath Camille. Camille turned and watched the two women inside moving about with a graceful economy, starched and hot-pressed, in silent loafers. They looked somewhat wrung-out, making their rounds in the aisles. Bread. Lye. A bag of ice. A cake of soap.

Camille, who’d have shocked a clean needle, was impressed by the spotlessness of the girl, who was presently hiking up her ankle length dress to pick at a run in her stockings. She had long fawn legs, and black hair in a ropelike braid that Camille was decidedly tempted to tug upon. Camille, in her own opinion, one which she chose not to vocalize, was nothing special. Her hair tangled at night, she had wandering eyes that had landed her in trouble more times than she could count, and she spoke with a low, abrasive cadence that was at odds with her stature. The dialect of her features was sort of plain and unsuspecting, southern in nature: scrim of freckles, crooked central incisor, eyebrows glowing against dusty skin. And her character lacked anything much to dote upon.

She had been nine scarcely a week before (strange, how that happens), now allowed to ride her bike alone through neighbourhood’s sameness: sun bleached courts, wide avenues dappled in sultry shadow, the whole world curving about her pivot. She was already bored of this new privilege, had already exhausted the general store, and had spent the small change she had accumulated over last summer, on bottles of Coke. Moreover, there was something sentient and unnerving about the endless flanks of tract housing, the driveways like eternal black desk blotters. The houses gaped.

The black-haired girl glanced up and back at Camille, and something like a recognition passed between them, rising from beneath eiderdown layers of heat. Camille stared at the girl’s ears, which were somehow beautiful, the young cartilage curled into the whorl of a seashell, and she said, in that unafraid way only newly ten-year-old girls can:

“What’s your name?”

There was a swelling moment of emptiness.

“Irene,” said the girl.

And Camille thought Irene. The name had a littoral quality, a seafaring lilt like it belonged to a ship — The Irene — or to a saltwater nymph sitting nude in the tide pools — Eirini. Camille’s scalp prickled at the thought, at the two whip-crack syllables, at Irene, who had already spoken.

“What?” said Camille. “I didn’t hear you.”

“I said, what’s yours,” repeated Irene, in a curt voice.

“Camille,” said Camille, and realized with something resembling disdain that this was in fact her name. She stuck out her hand and the two shared a handshake that was both businesslike and childish and that felt, in some indiscernible way, like a rite, and, how old was Camille?

“Eleven,” Camille lied, trying to judge Irene’s age and fall somewhere within that ballpark. After all, it was age, Camille understood, that bound friends together. Camille showed Irene that she had just shy of 32 teeth.

“You don’t have your wisdom teeth,” said Irene.

“So what. They don’t really make you wise,” said Camille. “Do you have yours?”

Working her middle and index fingers like a dentist’s mouth prop, Irene pulled her cheeks back and bared her teeth garishly. Camille stared into Irene’s mouth.

“Well. I don’t see anything.”

“They must not be through yet. But I can feel them all the same. Sometimes that’s all that matters, don’t you know?”

“How old are you?” asked Camille.

“Twelve. And a half.”

“Where are you from?”

“The country. I’m never usually in town. My family and I don’t get to leave often.”

There was something about this that Camille found distantly troubling, but she didn’t pursue the topic. “And you?” continued Irene, and cracked a single knuckle. Camille tried the same, and when she could not, she said:

“The suburbs. In one of those kit bungalows that the soldiers built when they came home.” She thought of her house, of the carpet like a blood sea and the paneled walls, and about the truth that the whole place smelled horribly of White Shoulders. Irene and Camille both concluded that they had never been to the suburbs and the countryside, respectively.

“What’s the country like?” ventured Camille.

“Hot and boring. Really. I live in a big old farmhouse. It creaks. I share a room with all of my sisters. My brothers sleep in the basement. There’s no air conditioning.”

“How many brothers and sisters have you got?” asked Camille, who began to think that perhaps she was asking more questions than was considered polite.

“Lots.”

“How many?”

“Lots. I probably have twenty of them.”

Camille sucked in air. Twenty brothers and sisters? Surely it was a joke, a little jab of the elbow, a wry nod, and Irene was hoping that Camille, at ten years old, 11 if one counted the lie, would believe stupidly and wholeheartedly in a mythology like that. All her life, Camille had been an only child, moving through her house in a listless orbit, never once, it seemed, running into another human being. Camille resolved firmly that she would not believe in such nonsense.

“I shan’t believe it,” said Camille, using the word she thought carried the weight of adultness and decidedness.

“Why’s that?”

“Well,” said Camille. “Well have you got any photographs of them?”

“Now, why would I bring a photo of them wherever I go? We probably wouldn’t even fit within the frame, all of us, if we tried.”

“How can I believe you?”

“You can’t, I suppose.”

“You’ll have to show me in person,” said Camille, and downed the last of her Coke, which had flattened in the sun, and was finally the way she liked to drink it.

The two women came out of the general store with paper bags and asked if Irene was ready. When Irene got up to leave, Camille did as well.

*

Irene’s mother was called Gretchen, and was the one in the peroxide white housedress with the long pin straight hair, and was the one who was driving the station wagon. The car’s interior smelled of patchouli, and Camille felt alive within it, due partially to the windows — which rolled down by way of hand crank, and allowed the breeze to make its somnolent rounds, tossing Irene’s braid and the pleated hem of her dress, which was folded demurely about her legs — but due mostly, in point of fact, to the notion that she was leaving the neighbourhood without the knowledge or permission of her mother, who would be horrified and likely faint if she gained intelligence of this.

They were on the highway. The sky was a milkbowl, apocalypse blue. The clouds slid back. Irene had been told that she would know the house when she saw it, and somehow, she did. It was like the afterimage of some fever dream. The house was in the true middle of nowhere, white clapboard glaring against cornfields, too conspicuous for the plains. It was as though a Victorian home, an heirloom passed tiresomely down through generations, had been suddenly pried up, foundation and all, from some shrill summer avenue with a name like Wisteria Lane. Its spires were erect in the midday heat, the whole thing settling stiffly on itself. Gretchen parked the station wagon on the gravel drive and its engine ticked hotly, below a swerving crescendo of cicadas.

The drive had been somewhat tense, for in the heat that was laying down its plentiful blows, each one nearer a coup de grâce than the one before it, Irene had seemed to find within herself bravery enough to ask her mother, upon passing a truck stop, if they could get out and buy Dreamsicles. Gretchen had made pointed eye contact with Irene in the rear mirror and said:

“Irene. You know we don’t go eating chemicals like that. What would Willard say if he found out.”

The two women got out of the car and went inside the house, but Camille and Irene sat alone in the back seat for a time. The pastureland was empty: no young, green, coppiced trees, no other houses; the only thing on the horizon was a rangy Aermotor wind pump which was spinning lackadaisically in the distance. Camille’s legs stuck to the hot vinyl seats. She peeled them. Irene explained that these episodes between her and her mother were not at all uncommon.

“She’s obsessed with the natural method,” said Irene, employing facetious air quotations. “They all are.”

Camille thought of these words. They were like pickets hammered together in a makeshift cross. They all.

Irene went on to explain — in an impressively long-winded and expressive way, almost as if she’d been waiting to find just the right person to tell this story to — that  a couple of other girls in the house (which was nicknamed ‘Flossie’, after someone long-dead) had gotten in momentous trouble when it was discovered that they’d been hiding Oil of Olay and pulled taffy under their shared bed.

“What happened?” asked Camille.

“They were made to repaint Flossie, as punishment.”

Camille almost gasped at the horror of such an undertaking, especially in the thick of summer. “But that was years ago,” said Irene, averting her eyes.

Camille and Irene got out of the car and stepped into the day. The ceaseless fields surrounding them were ringing and stagnant. Camille’s ears itched. Irene led Camille past a woodshed and into a dooryard through which they entered the drawing room of the house, whose window was propped open with a wedge of plywood. The organza curtains were still.

The room was enclosed in a heat unlike anything Camille had felt. It unsheathed itself and glanced knifelike. Women were sitting in rocking chairs and in arm chairs, and some were standing. A group of three were engaged in clandestine conversation with one another. A fourth was at work with an embroidery hoop, and seemed afraid to lift her head at the sound of Camille and Irene entering.

A boy, who stood out, mainly because he was sitting on an upturned apple crate in the sunlit dust mote which fell obliquely from the window, was shining boots. He was thin, and knock kneed and malleable looking: a pound puppy. He looked up and stared conspicuously at Irene as she surveyed the room: threads of light glancing off armchair, swift, milk-white hands swaddling baby in handmade afghan.

“God, I hate it when he does that,” Irene said to nobody.

“Who?” asked Camille.

“Carvel,” said Irene. “He’s obsessed with me.” She said it just loud enough for him to hear, and appeared gratified by his hurt expression.

The two girls made their way to the back of the room, where there was a kitchen, and Irene examined a shelf lined with murky jars which she explained were  tinctures. The heat was dark and viscous as blackstrap molasses — unrelenting — and from it, emerged snatches of conversation between the women that were only vaguely of this world.

“They’d never let us keep the windows open like this. But I say! It just gets to be so hot, one needs to pry them open.”

“Sealed with paint, they were. Gretchen and I had a sorry time with them. It was like they were saying no! no!

Nervous laughter, like a death knell.

“Only think what they’d say if they saw it. We must close them before they get back.”

Camille had to sit down, for fear of collapsing. She slid back against the cabinet and stared at a plot of skin on Irene’s arm. She couldn’t think.

“Only think!” the women continued.

“Locust swarms!” chimed in another. “Willard especially. Think what he’d say about swarming bugs, and the like. And letting that bad in. He’d have made it a scene, he would.”

“He wants to protect us. They all do.”

“And the plague, moreover,” intoned another, ignoring this remark. “And dust. And children.”

“Children crawling through the windows and stealing.” The women laughed again, first tentatively, and then near uproarious.

“Though, you might suppose that he lived in a time where there were things to steal.”

“Things to steal that were worth stealing.”

There was a silent moment when Camille, eyes closed, felt stared-at, and she heard someone say:

“Who’s your little friend, Irene?”

“She’s Camille,” said Irene.

*

Irene brought Camille upstairs to the attic which had vaulted ceilings and rough pine floors and which housed several linen-piled cots and was where Irene slept and whose heat was even more evil than the heat of downstairs. Irene lifted a loose panel in the top drawer of an armoire that was shoved into the corner of the room and took out a cigar box. Inside were photos of women scissored from a magazine, chess pieces, bottles of nail polish.

Camille pointed to one woman, with feathered hair, and rouged lips, and laughed.

“Why’s she laying like that?” she said.

“It’s called spread eagle,” said Irene, tossing her eyes. “If anyone knew I had these, I’d be killed.”

“You’d have to paint Flossie,” said Camille, testing the house’s name on her tongue.

“I’d have to do worse than that,” said Irene, shuffling her collection and selecting another woman. “Look at her, isn’t she pretty? I want my hair like that, but mom says we have to keep ours growing.”

“She looks scary. She looks mad,” said Camille, wiping sweat from her forehead with the heel of her hand.

“She’s doing seductive eyes,” said Irene, incredulous. “Don’t you know anything? Do you know what sex is?”

“Yes,” said Camille, though she was quite sure she did not.

“I don’t understand how you couldn’t.”

“Why is that boy the only one in the house?” asked Camille.

“Willard doesn’t have much use for him. He’s sick all the time. Fatigued, they say. Weak too, like a girl. And he’s allergic to everything. Strawberries. Dust. He’s allergic to the dope so he can’t do runs. He’s useless, in a word. And the boys are only looking for someone with a fine constitution,” said Irene. “I don’t know why he’s so in love with me. What does love get you.”

“He seems harmless to me,” said Camille.

“He is. Sometimes I feel like I could make something happen.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know,” said Irene, and closed the cigar box. “Something. Doesn’t matter what.”

*

When night fell like an anvil on the house, a carbon monoxide breeze came in through the open windows.

“It’s always tense when Willard is here,” said Irene. But the departure of the men and the warm night air had mollified this white-knuckled grip on Flossie, and the women seemed lulled by the anti-rhythms of their daily chores: bobby socks on the line, counters scrubbed raw with lemon juice. The women sat on the Persian carpet in the drawing room, playing Chinese checkers, with oils combed through their hair, dangerously at ease. Gretchen had allowed herself a milk bath, which she made the girls do every Tuesday, said Irene, to keep them young and spry — the way it was supposed to be.

At dinner, they drank electrolyte water and talked about the imminent fall of man. There were fires wiping out miles of forest. Fires and floods, floods and fires. The government was digging footings and pouring concrete into designated marshland to put up care homes for the elderly. Gretchen smiled warmly at Camille from across the table, above which hung a stern and regally watchful portrait of a man with hair past his ears.

“You should visit more often, Camille. Shouldn’t Camille visit more often, Irene?” said Gretchen, fork in hand. Irene nodded reservedly in reply and pushed her chair closer to the table. “Anyway. The boys will be home tonight. They’ll park the pickup in the back pasture in case somebody is looking for the plates. Nobody is looking for the plates, but we’re better taking precautions. We’ll have to clean up before they get back. Close the windows.” A woman nodded solemnly and it was taken up by the woman next to her, and the nod circled the table.

Gretchen was staring at the band of greenish flesh around the ring finger of her right hand; the phosphenes of a marriage. Irene pulled down her dress, and looked at Carvel, who got up from the table.

*

After dinner, the women reluctantly allowed Irene and Camille a walk down to the river, a venture that they were sure to remind the girls was only possible because Willard and the boys were not yet home. And that they were to return within the hour, and all manner of other warnings and pleadings. And behave. Irene bowed graciously out of the drawing room and into the depthless black of the dooryard. Outside, the world was swollen so tightly seams were ripping, somewhere. The house, from the bottom of the drive, looked deeply asleep, wrought from the ashen tempest of a nuclear fallout — perhaps the one the elderly women had been so ardently predicting at dinner. The sky was pricked.

They walked through the pastures hand-in-hand and Camille felt, suddenly and inexplicably, that she was lucky to have found a friend like Irene. Irene told Camille the story of the house, how Gretchen had come there a decade before, a leggy sweet-sixteen-year-old flunking her math courses, spending long hot summers setting strawberry runners and plowing fields at six dollars an hour. It is such a romantic way to live, Camille decided. They passed the squares of dirt, cordoned off with wooden posts and chicken wire, where those strawberry plants might have been so many years ago, when Flossie was sort of prepubescent and artless as new spring grass, with shag shingles instead of the clapboard that existed today, and when the men thought they would never rescue the barn from the rot that was coursing through its skeleton with septic fervor.

“Should we swim in the pond?” asked Camille.

“No. There’s cow shit in there, and it’s freezing.”

Camille had hoped she’d be rewarded with an enthusiastic agreement, for Irene seemed to love the realm of the dangerous and impulsive, and she was unnerved and slightly embarrassed at having been turned down. They continued through darknesses, heights of whispering grass, the buckwheat that bent to tickle Camille’s bare arms, and crossed the dirt road beneath an arch of arthritic trees, frayed rope ends, down an embankment, where they came to rest at an edge of sorts, some ten feet above the river, in a wild strawberry patch. The water was brown and seething.

Carvel was there chopping wood.

“Hi, Carvel,” said Irene, smiling and polite.

“Hi, Irene,” said Carvel, and brought the axe down in a wide and gruesome arc which connected with the chopping block. Camille stretched her bruised and burr scratched legs in front of her and ripped grass from the ground. At her left, Irene was eating a strawberry from the patch. “Willard better not catch you so far from the house,” Carvel continued, and the axe fell.

“You as well,” said Irene, chewing and boyish. “Who cares if he does. I certainly don’t, and he shouldn’t either.

“You know he’s gonna,” said Carvel, who was concentrating on the wood, and not in the least on Irene.

The three of them were silent.

“Do you like me?” said Irene, suddenly, to both no one in particular and very particularly to Carvel.

“Yes,” said Carvel, and picked up another log.

Irene seemed assuaged by this single syllable for a length of time, and looked intently at her pinky fingernail, its dainty lunule like a wave of heavy cream breaking on a pink-sanded seashore. Camille watched her evaluating herself. She was like clouds, pulled apart cotton. The soft radiance of down on a forearm. A waning light, spread meaninglessly open. They could have swapped lives, if they were both in agreement.

“What would you do to prove it?” asked Irene, in a voice that seemed to pass through this world and the next one, and the one after that.

Camille saw Carvel turn her words thrice in his head, like a stone.

He said, “Anything.”

Camille looked at Carvel and tried, with desperation (as though something depended on her success) to guess his age. He appeared to her characterless as a blank wall,  history handed off to an oblivion somewhere beneath this one. Camille decided that she would have to be every age at least once in order to properly judge what age somebody else was.

Irene stood and approached him and, placing her hands on his shoulders with all of the tenderness of someone versed in the mechanics of romance, she kissed him square on the mouth.

Carvel’s eyes widened in mock surprise, and he tried to disengage himself, but Irene held him there for a beat more, while something passed between them. When they broke apart, Carvel’s lips were reddened.

“Irene,” said Carvel. “Why did you –”

Camille had never seen someone her age kiss anyone before, and it had felt like passing a threshold into a paracosm more fully realized than the one from which she had exited. She watched the blood plume in his cheeks (out of a childish embarrassment, she supposed) and, stricken, he sat cow-heavy on the chopping block, and drunkenly tossed the axe aside. It cartwheeled in the air (thrown at the magician’s assistant, in the scant career girl’s outfit, like the one from Irene’s picture). The axe fell with a concussive thud where the yellow grass bled to riverbank.

A declarative tendon bobbed in his neck. Camille noticed, with painful clarity, the perspiration breaching the skin of his forehead, which looked puckered in what could only have been concentration. The silk flower dripping resin dew.

“What do you want, Irene?” said Carvel.

Irene shrugged.

“Nothing, really.”

“I thought you hated me.”

“Does anyone hate anyone?”

Carvel put a hand tentatively to his mouth.

“What did you do, Irene?” he said, this time more urgently. And then shouted, “What was in your mouth, Irene?”

Camille thought that it must have been quite the kiss for Carvel to be sweating the way he was. And why might Irene have done it, if Carvel bothered her so? Camille thought then: what is wrong with his face?

“Jesus,” Carvel said, in a voice that faltered beneath an incredible fear, and he stood suddenly and violently, placed one hand to his neck, which was livid and one hand to his stomach.

Camille saw his eyes bulge.

“I can’t breathe.”

He repeated this to some sort of unknowable rhythm: can’t breathe can’t breathe can’t breathe, looked as though he were tearing tendons in an attempt to clear his airways, and then he folded and vomited profusely onto his own bare feet. Camille screamed.

Irene,” he said, and tried to go to her, stepping forward deliriously, his neck swelling over the collar of his shirt. He gargled uselessly.

Camille stood up.

Irene,” he said again, and it sounded almost like nothing at all.

A gloriously cruel shaft of moonlight broke through the scudding clouds and illuminated him at the surgically precise moment that he passed out of consciousness and back into it, losing what little balance he had, and taking a doomed half-step back, his foot catching in the slip-knotted root of a nearby tree, falling backwards, arms windmilling, into the water below.

Camille’s eyes rolled in horror, and she fell to her hands and knees and crept to the edge. There was no conclusive snap of bone, no kitschy spray of horror movie blood. The water rushed up and embraced him, and ragged bubbles, incomprehensible last words, rose in his slipstream. The impact rang out like gunshot’s report: a question, an answer, a guillotine falling, and the recoil of it all nearly knocked Camille on her back. She began to cry.

She thought of Irene’s hidden drawer of nail polish. She thought of what Gretchen had said over dinner: humanity needs nature to survive but nature sure as hell doesn’t need humanity. Camille had been perplexed by those words. She thought of how Gretchen might have looked when she’d first arrived at the house, some ten years before. Who had greeted her at the door?

When Camille turned, Irene was already off in the direction of the house, walking languidly, with dropped shoulders, feet impacting the dirt heel first, barely denser than a shadow. The corn stalks swept closed in her wake.

The End