The First Great Winnowing

Madeleine McCarthy is now in her early thirties. She’s a comedian and actress, and passes her days and nights amid a coterie of showy show business folks. One night at an after-show party she starts to see things differently.

Early thirty-something existential moment of truth, when you first realize that not everyone you worked with in your twenties is a genius, that some people are “wild and crazy” and others simply have a substance problem, that the alluring sexy-sad people are just depressive, that depression is rage slowed down, that mania is grief speeded up. That first great winnowing.

From The Way the Crow Flies, by Ann-Marie MacDonald (published 2003).

Published in: on February 1, 2014 at 11:05 am  Leave a Comment  
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Imaginary Crippled Mother

One of the joys of The Way the Crow Flies is the way the author, Ann-Marie MacDonald, totally nails the voice and the stream-of-conciousness thoughts of a nine-year old girl in 1962. Madeleine McCarthy is a half-Acadian tomboy living with her family on an Air Force base in Ontario.

“Nancy Drew and the Case of the Mysterious Wheelchair.” Maybe they have a crippled mother. Imagine if your mother were crippled. “Come here dear, so I can dress you.” You would always have to obey her and answer nicely because how cruel to talk back to a crippled mother or to run away out of her reach. Imagine her making your sandwiches with her weak hands, wheeling over to the fridge for the mayonnaise. It makes Madeleine appreciate her own mother. It’s good to appreciate your mother. She imagines her mother dead in order to appreciate her better: imagine if it were just me and Mike and Dad. Eating fried chicken every night and going to air shows. I’d wear Mike’s hand-me-downs and people would think I was a boy. She reminds herself that the prerequisite for this all-boy Shangri-La is the death of her mother, and cuts the fantasy short. It’s just not worth it if your mother has to die.

From The Way the Crow Flies, by Ann-Marie MacDonald (published 2003)

Published in: on November 27, 2013 at 9:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Dangerous Beauty

Gwethalyn Graham, writing in Earth and High Heaven, on the charms of small-town Ontario in the 1940s:

Manchester itself is a tribute to the Canadian talent for choosing a remarkably fine natural setting for a town, and then proceeding to ruin it as far as possible. There is an interminably long, straight main street running parallel with the shore, flanked by the inevitable collection of two- and three-storey office buildings, shops, gas stations, beauty parlors, Chinese laundries, pool rooms, soda fountains, cheap restaurants, movie houses, and the usual Protestant and Catholic churches, apparently dedicated, like most of the buildings in English Canada, to the Puritan proposition that even in architecture, beauty is unnecessary and possibly even dangerous. 

From Earth and High Heaven, by Gwethalyn Graham (Published 1944).

Published in: on October 11, 2013 at 2:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Charm

Saskatchewan, 1938. Maurice is a young man from the city, in Ontario, who makes occasional trips to the dustbowl farmland of Saskatchewan to study the weather. His urban charm easily captivates the rural farm-folk, especially the women.

To see someone questioned by Maurice was to watch a window as the curtains opened. He made people more interesting than they were. They rose to meet the interest he had in them, and that was the point, inspired by the quality of his attention.

But when he saw Mrs. Haaring again (it was the following November on his last visit), he didn’t remember her. She mentioned the long, talkative house party at the Hardys. Of course, he said, you taught me that old sea shanty. No, she said gently, that was Miriam Wolfe. He bore his mistake gracefully, without embarrassment or apology. Of course, he said. And she realized how much more he had penetrated her mind than she had penetrated his, which was natural enough, she said to herself, his charm wasn’t his fault. Still, that long night had awakened in her an affection and an interest, and now a disappointment of equal proportion. Apparently he paid less attention than he appeared to, or his attention was no less intense than it appeared to be, but it was short-lived, or his interests were too varied, or his character was not of the same consistency as his manner. In any case, he trailed disappointment behind him and was unaware of it. She was only a vague face in his mind, a farmwife from Belgium, or was it Holland?

From A Student of Weather, by Elizabeth Hay (published 2000).

Published in: on September 9, 2013 at 10:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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On the Dewey Decimal System

Jeanette Winterson, in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (which is, in some ways, a retelling of her 1990 novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit) remembers a librarian she was fond of while coming of age in the south of the north of England in the 1970s:

The librarian was explaining the benefits of the Dewey decimal system to her junior – benefits that extended to every area of life. It was orderly, like the universe. It had logic. It was dependable. Using it allowed a kind of moral uplift, as one’s own chaos was also brought under control.

“Whenever I am troubled,” said the librarian, “I think about the Dewey decimal system.”

“Then what happens?” asked the junior, rather overawed.

“Then I understand that trouble is just something that has been filed in the wrong place.”

And later:

“Who was Gertrude Stein?”

“A modernist. She wrote without regard to meaning.”

“Is that why she is under Humour, like Spike Milligan?”

“Within the Dewey decimal system there is a certain amount of discretion.”

From Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (published 2011).

Published in: on April 8, 2013 at 8:51 am  Comments (1)  
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Work is a Curse

Vichy, France, 1942. Lebeau, a painter, has been rounded up by the fascist authorities along with Bayard, an electrician, Marchand, a businessman, and several others, all suspected as Jews. As they wait for their interviews with the army Major and the police Captain, they get to know one another.

LEBEAU

You know–you all remind me of my father. Always worshipped the hard-working Germans. And now you hear it all over France–we have to learn how to work like the Germans. Good God, don’t you ever read history? Whenever a people starts to work hard, watch out, they’re going to kill somebody,

BAYARD

That depends on how production is organized. If it’s for private profit, yes, but–

LEBEAU

What are you talking about, when did the Russians start getting dangerous? When they learned how to work. Look at the Germans–for a thousand years peaceful, disorganized people–they start working and they’re on everybody’s back. Nobody’s afraid of the Africans, are they? Because they don’t work. Read the Bible–work is a curse, you’re not supposed to worship work.

MARCHAND

And how do you propose to produce anything?

LEBEAU

Well, that’s the problem.

From Incident at Vichy, by Arthur Miller (published 1964.)

Published in: on January 3, 2013 at 1:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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