16, Number 90, April/May 2013 Book Review of Riptides: An Anthology Of New Island Fiction by Bruno Penner and Ed Janzen
Riptides is a collection of 23 stories by Prince Edward Island writers published by Acorn Press in 2012. If there is a theme to this collection it is that every writer resides in Prince Edward Island and that the editor is the Professor of Canadian and English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Prince Edward Island. No reference is made to previous anthologies of PEI writing in recent times. It is said in the Introduction that the world seems to believe the only writing of consequence from PEI has come from the hands of Lucy Maud Montgomery. This volume attempts to show that other fiction from new pens should also warrant a place in the sun. In this regard Riptides succeeds as a modern statement of new fiction. Not everyone will like every story. But every story leaves the reader thinking: is there more to this story that I might have missed?
REVIEW BY BRUNO PENNER
“Suffering Fools” by Thomas O’Grady: This is a story about people whom we have probably met but have never known intimately. It is not an easy read for those of us who are looking for bed time relaxation. I’m not referring to the relatively simple task of keeping track of names, but rather to the problem of figuring out what these people are really like, deep down, especially the main characters. In the end we find out, or do we? The captivating style of writing made this a delightful story for me.
“The nothing” by Melissa Carroll: The plot is presented through a structure of events in which the main character concludes that winning 1.1 million dollars amounts to ‘nothing’. This is suggested by the title of the story and, as well, by the story itself. The real pleasure however in reading this story is provided by the droll voice of the narrator. That is where the essence of the story lies.
“Crazy Train” by Laurel Smyth: The preeminent element of this story is its setting, namely that of a young couple, whose home base is a trailer, living a life free of irresponsibility. The tension for the reader lies in the question of whether the main character, for which he has gained a real liking, will be destroyed physically, or otherwise, by this style of living. The writer engages the reader’s attention through her use of language, which is that of a wonderful choice of words.
“To the Haunting Laugh of a Kookaburra” by Ruth Mischler: This is another story that derives its main thrust from the setting, which is on one of the ‘outbacks’ in Australia. This is a man’s country. The reader senses from the start that the girl, who has taken a job there, will have to ‘hold her own’. This is where the story derives its tension. The writer has obviously been to Australia.
She describes the ‘outback’ so vividly that we can feel and almost smell the country.
If the title of a story is carefully chosen it will yield information about the writer’s intent. The information however may not be obvious. The Kookaburra is mentioned only once, on the last page. Readers may reach different conclusions concerning its significance, each being equally valid. I like to think of the kingfisher bird as having the last laugh, because this is his territory, Nigel, the boss of the compound, having lost his. See what you think. This is a fictitious tale but it rings true.
“Morning Train” by Anna Karpinski: This story shows, perhaps more so than the others have done, how the mere setting of a story advances the conflict . The vivid images of the ghosts of communist Poland, as shown by the writer, engender expectations on the part of the reader of a dreadful action. The staccato sentences somehow emulate the breathing style of someone who cannot quite catch his breath after having witnessed an awful scene. The reader is not likely to forget this story.
“Soft” by Fiona Ann Papps: Unlike in the previous story the main character here plays a role in the action. The writer at times addresses the reader directly, in a thoughtful, measured soliloquy, as if he has shared her experience. The imagery, combined with the long sentences, make the story sound like a prose poem in which the writer dispenses her life. At times it sounds as if indeed she wants to dispense with it once and for all but the story ends in a seemingly positive note.
“The Subversives” by Valerie Compton: This story follows in chronological sequence and therefore isn’t quite as demanding as are some of the other stories in Rip Tides. I would suggest taking a close look at the title, before or after, having read the story, because it may suggest a possible theme. This story, as well as are the other stories in Rip Tides, is open ended. One really doesn’t know how things will end. It is a poignant story about three people whose lives are unfulfilled. The two main characters may not be subversive as much as they are people who don’t like themselves. Then they become misfits which is, subversive.
“Escape Rehearsals” by Alan Harrington: This story is likely to place a considerable demand on the reader, in my opinion, because it is not written in strict chronological order and, as well, the writer has chosen to tell his story from varying perspectives . The story is written mostly in the present tense. This style of writing allows the writer to do something quite wonderful: we feel that we are inside of the mind of a person who is trapped. Everything is happening at once. We see why and how he got trapped, and how the person escapes. It is worthwhile working at this story, even if one has to read it several times.
“Precipice” by Hannah Visser: This is a great suspense story ending with a ‘feel good’ conclusion, the main characters eating their lunch together ‘bit by bit’ (or bite by bite?) at the end of the story. A significant part of the flashbacks dealS with dental work done on the teeth of the main character. The reader might well relate to this story and think about what would lead ordinary people to ‘the precipice’. One could also think of several themes, one of which would be on the topic of bullying.
“Rescue at Dirty River” by Glenna Jenkins: This story presents us with an excellent example of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’. An illustration of this might be the description of how the main character follows his uncle across the river when he discovers that his uncle intends to shoot the cow. The writer employs the somewhat familiar storm motif used here to advance the theme of growing up. The story is written consistently from the perspective of a young boy who, together with his older brother and uncle, goes out to rescue a cow during a blizzard.
“Watermelon” by Beth E. Janzen: While the story seems to digress in a hundred different ways, the focus is always on Anna. It is written in third person, from the writer’s own perspective, and in the past tense, telling us what Anna feels like and, at times, exactly what she thinks, (words written in italics). The description of Anna’s perception of her aunt is especially amusing. This writer has the poet’s gift for choosing precisely the right words. She also presents us with a somewhat mysterious metaphor, namely a watermelon. Its meaning is not obvious, certainly not to everyone.
REVIEW BY ED JANZEN
“Suck-a-thumb” by Lisa-Marie Brunnen brings up memories to parents of problems with small children who develop a habit they cannot get rid of, such as sucking a thumb, lisping, bed-wetting, etc. It’s difficult to know what to do, and in this case warring parents may themselves be the reason. The fault does not necessarily always lie with the child.
Susan Buchanan has been published in CANADIAN STORIES before. Her story “Swim” in Volume 15, No. 87, page 30 has some of the same flavour as “The Lake” in this anthology. Both stories show a fascination with large bodies of water, its power to heal and to steal life.
“Pas de Deux” by Steven Mayoff presents the reader with the gruesome reality that aging parents, in this case the mother, may become depressed with life enough to overdose on “light blue pills”.
“At the Red Light” by Bonnie Stewart leaves the reader intrigued. The story is about grieving the loss of a newly born child years after, and the memory of repainting a room that was to be the bedroom of their first-born. The role of the title in the story remains puzzling.
Shirley Limbert’s “Dust” is about a relationship going badly between a young woman and a man, at least the reader assumes she is young and he is older. She fears she is needy and from her point of view he takes advantage of her needs. Unsettling dreams and unresolved threats enhance the tension between them which is not resolved by the end of the story.
“Final Farewell” by Helen Pretulak is most difficult to read. As someone who has travelled Poland and East Germany before the collapse of the Soviet Union knows, the story is well told. It’s hard to believe what happened behind the Iron Curtain in “those days” as we luxuriate in the richness and freedom of Canadian culture and wealth. The story is a variation on the classic tale where a son or daughter comes home to see the homestead. But a heart wrenching ending awaits. It’s not enough that Anna finds the personal belongings of her parents scattered about the floor. She also meets and has to deal with a neighbour who has not vacated the premises after the Chernobyl disaster.
On first reading “The Enlightenment Tour” by Malcolm Murray may leave the impression that this is an essay on sarcasm, but then by the end it appears to become a lesson on “enlightenment” after all!
“Give it Another Five Minutes” by Dylan Riley may be hilarious to some. Jake, Phil and Francis try to achieve a higher level of consciousness after drinking a cup of special steeped mushrooms they have picked on the golf course at dawn that morning. While they wait for the hallucinations to happen as expected after “five minutes”, they denigrate anything that’s newer than ten years old. They conclude finally that the potion did not work, but the reader may have a different opinion.
“A Torch Did Touch His Heart, Briefly” by Jeff Bursey is a difficult one. Presented in the first person it sounds like the writer is talking about himself. One imagines an aging man, perhaps a librarian by day and a stage hand by night, still, it seems, trying to figure himself out, what his masculinity, what little remains or what little he ever had, is worth. His one love affair is fictitious, a fascination with an actress he has never touched who in fact rebukes him on his only encounter back-stage, but still haunts him on film. Is this a picture of a modern day octogenarian sitting alone fixated on a TV set?
The reason why I like “The Candle Party” by Orysia Dawydiak is that the story is all about the sense of smell. In paragraph one, Beryl, “sniffed ...last fall’s musky odours of earth, leaves and vines...” In paragraph two we learn her doctor has warned her that “her enhanced sense of smell” would be one of the side effects of the drug she is taking presumably to keep her vaginal cancer at bay. And then there is the candle party where the presenter is proud to announce she has numerous new aromas associated with her candles this year which do indeed exude an overpowering smell all through the house in the warm humid air of the abode. Amid this plethora of intense sensations Beryl recognizes an even more pungent odour, that of Lily-of-the-Valley, the exact same smell she detects on her husband when he comes home late on Mondays and Thursdays. And it comes from a woman who is a stranger to this group. After grabbing a breath of fresh air on her way out, Beryl finds herself deciding on a new resolution: She is going to force herself to like the “familiar smells of the truck cab, her husband’s smoke drenched clothing and skin, and the nachos and beer.” Readers will find more to discover in this short story but it is the sense of smell that is the thread that holds this one together. Clever.
“The Widow’s Dinner” by Philip MacDonald leads the reader through a descriptive narrative about a dinner party of a group of women who discover that “every one of us at this table is a widow”. A discussion follows about how this might be so. Birth statistics are presented and life style factors recognized but in the end disquieting memories may shock male readers. Male writers usually write stories about men and female writers about women, but Philip MacDonald turns this generality up-side-down or does he?
Samantha Desjardins’ “Where the Wind Blows” is a lovely story set in a simple rural environment where everyone knows every detail about everyone else’s lives. The scene is grandmother Nana’s yard as autumn approaches. The choice of season is the first metaphor the reader should pay attention to. The second is the clever way in which Nana manipulates the billows of smoke which pattern the sky from her kitchen stove. The fact that Nana is slim and small, only four feet tall also portends to be important in the story. And when she meets her granddaughter at the door “wearing an aviator hat, wool socks pulled up to her knees, and goggles” we begin to guess the plan. Inside we find a meeting of a women’s group of the Wheatley River Sewing Circle. These members are finishing a marvelous project which will be blown into shape the next day. The climax of the story reminds us of the general principles of the Hemlock Society.