Going Home Again, Or An Odyssey of the Mind

eating between the lines

Going Home Again is equal parts a journey across the world—from Spain to Toronto—as it is an odyssey of Charlie Bellerose’s memories.  What starts out as a murder quickly dissolves into a trip through the attic of Charlie’s mind, where he dredges up ghosts and old lovers past. If it weren’t for Dennis’ Bock’s well-developed prose or his ability to draw me in through an easy, conversational narrative tone I might have set the book down.  Going Home Again evokes the question: can we ever go home? Perhaps.  The real question is this: is this a place that readers will want to go?

going home againIn many ways Going Home Again has the feeling of a stream of conscious journal, with the added benefit of clean, polished prose.  The story follows Charlie, who is recently divorced, to Toronto and spans across a year as he tries to rebuild his life across the world from his lovable daughter Ava and his ex-wife Isabel.  When Charlie delves into his past love affair with Holly, there is the sense that the original vein of the narrative has slipped away and entirely new story is beginning.  Luckily, this jarring departure from a linear narrative only serves to deepen curiosity, as the pacing is quick and lively.

Despite the sometimes-meandering plot, I was captivated by Bock’s attention to detail in his scenes.  Describing the sun in Madrid as “orange sherbet,” or the way he establishes so clearly the changing seasons in Toronto make it easy to step into the setting of the story.  Charlie’s characterization is comprehensive and though we don’t learn much about the supporting characters, Charlie’s love of his daughter and brother as well as the struggles that he faces makes him relatable—and readable.

“Instead of stepping back into the safety of the past, I stepped out onto he streets…” says Charlie in an early scene.  I’m not sure that I believe him, given that the journey we take with Charlie is not only back home to Canada, but also into the realm of memory.  For some readers—notably those who get frustrated with an overload of exposition—this book will be a challenge.  If you are like me, and stubbornly read through the frustration, Going Home Again does prove itself to be humorous, endearing and a journey worth taking.

…Since Charlie goes home to Canada, I thought my favourite butter tart recipe might be in order (since butter tarts are a pretty Canadian dessert).

Photo by Stephanie Spencer

Photo by Stephanie Spencer

What you need:

1/4 cup butter

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 pinch of salt

1/2 cup corn syrup

1 egg (whisked)

1/2 tsp vanilla

How to make them:

1. If you have already made pie crust or bought pre-packaged pastry, roll your pastry out and fit it into muffin tins.  (If you don’t have a recipe for pastry, see below for my favourite pie crust recipe.

2. Mix together butter, brown sugar, salt and corn syrup in a small bowl.  (Note: if your butter is still cold, it is best to let it sit on the counter for a few minutes to let it soften).

3. Add egg and vanilla to brown sugar mixture.

4. Pour yummy butter tart mixture into tart shells equally.

5. Bake at 400 F for 15-20 minutes or until the filling is browned and bubbling.  If you are like me and enjoy runny butter tarts, be sure to take them out right at 15 minutes.

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Eating Between the Lines, Or Books + Food = Awesome

In honour of books, food and the awesomeness that happens when they are combined, Eating Between the Lines will be a new Friday segment on Considerablespeck.  Since Giller Prize season is upon us, the next few weeks will be dedicated to the Giller Shortlist titles, starting with Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid.  So pull up a chair, check out these great books and why not have a snack too?

The Crooked Maid: Assumptions Aside, a Killer Read

              Following a cast of characters who are mysterious, unreliable, spiteful and at times wholly evil, a subtle mystery begins to unfold in Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid.  Even desolate, ghost-ridden Vienna, with its bombed out streets becomes a character as we follow Robert and Anna on a quest to uncover what happened to their loved ones while they were away during the war.  While it is slower-paced than other mysteries that I have enjoyed, the visceral imagery, fascinating characters and surprising twists make this story a worthwhile read.

          What I loved the most about this narrative is the way that Vyleta artfully layers his mystery by frequently switching point of view.  There is a large roster of characters that Vyleta allows his reader to step into the minds of—too many to name, in fact.  It works, because the characters are so well interconnected that the reader will see many of the scenes from a variety of viewpoints, each time exposing a small answer to the quandaries Vyleta raises at the beginning.  When, for example, we learn that Anna’s husband knew—and was searching for—Eva, the crooked maid, the suspense mounts and we begin to discover just how many of the once seemingly isolated characters are linked by the tiniest of details.  In any other book, it might have been disorienting.  In The Crooked Maid, it is enlightening. crooked maid

Set in post-war Vienna in 1948, much of the story unfolds around the alleged guilt of Wolfgang Seidl, Robert’s stepbrother.  He is suspected of pushing their father out of the window and throughout the story we are urged to ask the question: is he good or bad?  Guilty or innocent?  But at the heart of the narrative is a coming of age story about Robert, who is lead into the adult world as he learns about love, sex and human nature.  Although all of Vyleta’s characters are fascinating, Robert’s flawed, yet lovable charm kept me reading on to find out the truth about his father.  Maybe it was the way that he doggedly believes in his stepbrother’s innocence despite the mounting evidence, or the way that he dotes on the sometimes cruel and vicious maid, Eva, that makes Robert endearing.  In any case, his plight infuses the often-macabre narrative with a much-needed burst of young innocence and charm.

The Crooked Maid is not what you’d call a fast-paced, heart-in-you-throat kind of read.  There were times when Vyleta mentions Robert’s darn black eye once too many.  There are moments, such as the beginnings of each numbered section where a narrator zooms out and tells the reader interesting factoids about Vienna during and after the war that cause the exposition to trip up the flow of the otherwise engrossing narrative.  In any case, there is an abundance of sharp, meaty dialogue to keep the story interesting.

Late in the narrative, Eva exclaims: “I refuse to be responsible for your assumptions” (289).  In many ways, this statement suits the overarching tone of The Crooked Maid.  As many times as Vyleta and his characters seems to circle around to the notion of villainy, I too found myself asking the question: is it good or bad?  Of course, I was talking about the book.  What sold me in the end were the characters.  Many of whom, I was sure were rotten criminals turned out to be quite different.  I found myself making assumptions about many of the characters only to have them challenged later on.  This is what is golden about this book: Vyleta skillfully sets the reader up with a set of assumptions and then carefully picks them apart.  Even the Nazi-supporting mother, Frau Seidl is humanized in a way that is deliciously shocking.

If you like reading books that are gritty and full of vicious prose, this book is for you.  Not only does Dan Vyleta take us along for a winding and eye-opening narrative, but he also builds for us a world that is so real and fascinating that it is hard to leave when it is over.  Though they might be vile on many counts, Vyleta’s characters make for a read that is killer.

And now for the recipe: Viennese Crescent Cookies

viennese cookies

I’m a huge cookie fanatic–especially ones that include almonds, so when I saw this recipe I knew I had to try it.  (This particular recipe is adapted from one that I found on the Food Network).

Here is what you will need: 

1 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 cup ground almonds
Confectioners’ sugar

How you do it: 

Cream the butter, adding the sugar and vanilla until it gets fluffy. Mix in flour and almonds, then let the dough chill for at least one hour. (If you want them to stay the size they are when they go into the oven, you might want to chill them for longer).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Using approximately one teaspoon of dough for each cookie, shape them into crescents. Put them on an ungreased sheet pan in rows (leave some space in between) and bake until golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes.

Let cool 5 minutes, then dip them in confectioners sugar, or chocolate.

Ta-dah! Some Viennese cookies–a guilty pleasure–to go with The Crooked Maid.

Note: Eating Between the Lines Sequence photo taken by Lin Pernille.

 

Miracles and Mountains, Or Finding the Fantastic in the Ordinary

Image

I was in the mountains when I first realized that miracles could exist.  Not in the biblical sense, the way I saw it, but in that visceral feeling you get when something is real and at the same time magical.

Our rental car on the ride up to Mt. Cook was a nice one.  One of those shiny, tank-like creations with the headlamps that look like cartoon shark eyes.  We’d been in the car for several hours, already and everywhere around us the fields had sunken into valleys so deep you had to crane your neck out the window to see the bottom.  Did I mention that we had forgotten our map in the previous night’s hotel room? Oh yeah, and (once again) we were feeling like we might have taken a wrong turn.

It started quietly at first, a flash of cotton speeding past my window.

I blinked. “Was that a bush?” I asked?

Except a moment later, two more muddy “bushes” sped past the other side of the car, their milk-coloured ears flicking, heads bobbing up and down as they ran.

Matt broke out into a laugh.  “They’re sheep!” he said, driving slower.

Sheep poured over the horizon, hundreds of them crowding up the nearby hills and in every direction of the road.

“It’s already two,” I said, trying to keep the nerves from jangling into my voice.

Matt turned off the engine.  Frowned.  “Hm,” he said.

“They’ll cancel our reservation!” I said.

Then he turned to me with one of his mischievous grins that got me hooked on him in the first place, opened the door and took off running down the road after the sheep.

“Move along little sheepies!” he hollered.  “Git! Git!”  He turned around to wave me out into the crowd, his wild, curly hair the only thing setting him apart from all of the wooly heads.

I laughed.  The spell was broken.

We did reach the mountains, eventually.  They were only around the next hillside, we soon learned.  Together, we looked up at Mt. Cook, stepping out of the car into the biting winter air.

It’s not like I hadn’t seen mountains before.  In Christchurch and the country that surrounds it the mountains rise out of the fields like silent spectators.  Can a mountain—or a herd of sheep—be a miracle?  Miracles, I think, are those ordinary moments that make you realize the wonders of the mundane.

This time, seeing the mountain was different.  It had the feeling of an end to a journey, the way Frodo must have imagined himself when he finally reached Mordor.   In a few short weeks, we would fly home and the future seemed uncertain.

“It seems far,” I said, as we headed down the boardwalk, the mountain looming icily before us.  I had to shield my eyes with my hand to see it clearly.

Matt jogged ahead, then stopped to peer at Mt. Cook himself.  “We can make it,” he said.

I smiled.  I didn’t know for sure if we could–make it, that is–but I took off down the empty path anyway.  “Maybe so,” I said.  “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Snapshots of Wisdom: Pythons, Spiders & the Uphill Climb

Photo by: Chen Siyuan

A couple of years ago, I was camping in the Australian Outback.  (You might have heard about my encounter with a python.  Spoiler alert: I totally won).  When I was there, my husband and I ended up doing a lot of hikes.

Fact: I strongly dislike hiking.

Fact: A sign at the beginning of the trail that claims to be a “moderate” hike is totally bluffing.

I can recall one hike where, amidst the poisonous neon blue spiders and the miles of searing hot sand, I was getting particularly tired of the uphill climb.  We had been hiking for a few hours now and as the unforgiving sun seared into the backs of our necks, I huffed and puffed my way through the rocky wasteland.  Might I add that we were totally and irrevocably lost?

“There’s no end!” I whined.  “We’re just going to be stuck out here forever!”

The husband was equally unimpressed, but ever the optimistic soul that he is, he insisted that we push on.  “The trail has to end sometime,” he said.  To which I replied “Yeah, when a crocodile has eaten us.”

Without a hint of irony, my husband said “In this part we’re more likely to die of heat exhaustion, I think.”

After some deliberation and a lot of backtracking, we did eventually find our way out of the sandy wasteland.  What we found was a pretty awesome sight:

Ubir, Australia

Ubir, Australia

Every once in a while, when I am knee deep in stories that don’t want to come together, I have to remind myself that all of the best adventures happen when we go a little further, step outside of our comfort zone and work hard to dig deeper.  It’s only when we force ourselves to keep going that we are rewarded.

Feed Your Muse # 6

feed your muse

 

Sometimes, getting started writing is all about getting past thinking about what a good story might be and just picking up the pen.  Here are a few prompts that have helped me get started.

1. Choose a random book from your shelf and open it to page 10.  Select the the first sentence at the top of the page and start writing.

2.  Go out for a walk around the block and take note of everything you see.  Write for ten minutes about one thing that interests you.

3.  Begin your scene with the words “Everyone knows that…”

Happy writing!

Small Towns

Growing up in a town that has only one stoplight has changed my perspective on community and what it means to be a part of one, I think.  In a town where everyone knew everyone else’s business the minute they opened their mouths, it was impossible to be a total loner.  Around dinnertime, when the streetlights began to wink on, casting rosy circles of light on the old side street, we’d meet out in the yard in groups, calling to one another.  I don’t live in that small town anymore, but sometimes I think about it, the memories re-imagined in that idyllic half-truth in which all memories resurface.

It occurred to me today that community isn’t what it used to be.  (Yes, I realize that I sound like an old fuddy-duddy complaining about the good old days).   Here’s the thing: there’s a lot our generation doesn’t even miss.  How can you miss something you don’t even know about?  Some would say that community now falls under the category of a dying tradition.  You know, like walking to school uphill, barefoot in a snowstorm or Air Jordans and acid wash jeans.  Where I might have asked a friend for help, I now go to Google or YouTube to learn how to do pretty much anything.  I’ve noticed that the people I know commute long distances, work online and send status updates, but I don’t even know most of the people in my neighborhood well enough to ask for a cup of sugar.

This got me thinking.  What does this mean for the state of stories and the people who write them? If we are always present online, does it mean we are missing moments in our own realities? 

That being said, I do happen to be writing on a blog.  I love my blog and I love the people who read it.  Since starting considerablespeck.com, I’ve felt more connected to writers (and writing) than I have in a long time, being that I am quiet, weird and never socialized much before The Internet happened.

There is a quote from Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities that has stuck with me:

Paris from the Eiffel Tower.

So where does this leave us?  Is anonymity the new community?  What about that small town, with the kindly neighbors who sat on front porches and knew exactly what grades you got in school or whether you had a date to the fall dance?  It didn’t hit me until this morning, when I logged onto my writing group and was excited to hear what they had to say about my latest literary pursuits that I realized something.  Small towns are everywhere.  I think we make them up as we go, those idyllic meeting posts out under the street lamps.  Community is what we make it and it doesn’t have to be anonymous, even if they exist online.  Small towns are re-imagined through the people that we choose to connect with—wherever they might be.