The Little Shadows

The Little Shadows (Marina Endicott)

“‘I want to be honest,’ she said. ‘I don’t much care about honour’” (465).

Endicott’s Shadows relates the lives of three sisters—Aurora, Clover, and Bella—and their mother, as the three pitch their “sister act” for the early 20th-century vaudeville stage across Canada and the northern United States. While they dream of stardom and earning “a thousand a week,” they are all too aware that they are only a few missteps away from penniless, but both poverty and passion push them onward. 

Endicott’s supporting cast, too, is wonderfully developed. “Vaudeville people… [are] used to separation” (453), but they enjoy reunions all the more for it, and acts, performers, and vaudeville families pop up again and again, at different theatres and in new permutations all around the circuit and through the sisters’ lives. Early on, for instance, the girls encounter another sister act, the Simple (later, Saucy) Soubrettes, and while the Soubrettes are the stronger performers at the time, the girls become not enemies, but colleagues and friends. The Soubrettes, too, are the sisters’ first glimpse into the darker side of vaudeville, Mercy, the oldest, having been forced to give the theatre manager a “French job” to ensure their billing. Like anywhere, vaudeville is not always safe for the sisters, but Endicott handles her material—which includes rape, suicide, and war—gently, intelligently, and with great compassion for the injured. 

Having recently attended a preview screening of the incredible film, Testament of Youth, I’ve been thinking (once again) about the First World War, and though fiction where Testament is based on Vera Brittain’s memoir, Shadows, too, captures the war’s impact on the lives of women at home (and Canadian women, to boot).

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Cold Comfort Farm

Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)

“‘Well—what kind of books does he write?’ she asked.

‘He’s doin’ one now about another young fellow who wrote books, and then his sisters pretended they wrote them, and they all died of consumption, poor young mommets.’

‘Ha! A life of Branwell Brontë,’ thought Flora. ‘I might have known it. There has been increasing discontent among the male intellectuals for some time at the thought that a woman wrote Wuthering Heights. I thought one of them would produce something of the kind, sooner or later. Well, I must just avoid him, that’s all” (75-6).

Oh, how I laughed! Gibbons’s 1932 send-up of the rural melodrama is a treasure and not to be missed—I’m only sorry it took me this long to get around to reading it! In this short novel, the young socialite Flora Poste sets out for her distant relations’ Sussex Farm and, upon arriving, determines—come hell or high water—to put everyone and everything in order. And so she does, from making matches and arranging film auditions to setting the bull loose and insisting the curtains be washed. Flora is a delight, as is her no-nonsense attitude and her deft handling of the silly Mr Mybug, who insists that the Brontës were frauds. You can polish Cold Comfort off in an evening or two, so check it out!


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The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands (Natasha Solomons)

“Looking at the three abashed faces, Juliet felt more tired than cross. She supposed they all thought she was square because she didn’t talk about sex, sex, sex. Maybe she was frigid—it had been so long since George that perhaps she’d caught it through enforced celibacy. Celibate. Such an ugly smug word. Everybody else was busy doing it. The boys declared that they did it all the time, with girls, with boys, with themselves and had absolutely no qualms in discussing sex endlessly in her presence. And now the studio was absolutely chock-full of young people eyeing each other up, wondering who to pick to do it with later. Even the Chislehurst crowd did it from time to time. They might not talk about it, but she suspected that Mr and Mrs Nature found time between lokshen puddings to do it. After all everyone did it. Except her” (153).

In the spirit of gynoary (and because this book is worthy), let’s talk about The Gallery of Vanished Husbands!

Often these days (usually after encountering some or other clickbait thinkpiece), I worry about my powers of concentration. (Have smart phones ruined my brain? Am I locked in a cycle of Facebook-Tumblr-email-repeat? Will I ever form a coherent sentence again? Can I ever finish this blog post?) Novels like Gallery, though, soothe my troubled spirit: I didn’t move for four hours, reading it all, start to finish. This wonderful novel is a fantastic portrait of the life of Juliet Montague (yes), a young Jewish woman in London in 1958 who, on her thirtieth birthday, spends the money intended for a refrigerator to commission a portrait of herself. This impromptu decision sets the course for the rest of Juliet’s life, as over the years she befriends a group of young painters, opens her own gallery, raises her children alone, takes a lover (le gasp!), and slowly fills her home with portraits.

A lovely novel, through and through, but one scene (if I had to pick) does stand out (and is quoted at this top of this post): Impressed and mildly intimidated by the beautiful women of London’s art circles, and in an attempt to join their in-crowd, Juliet perms her hair. The result is a disaster, for “[t]he perm transformed women into chic sophisticates, but Juliet is one of them” (150). To avoid “sitting in the loo and succumbing to tears” (150), she goes to the gallery, seeking support from her friends, only to find that the boys have been holding life-drawing classes without her, afraid of shocking her sensibilities. Juliet’s embarrassment, her frustration that her friends think of her as a “maiden aunt” (152), are expertly drawn—A perfect rendition of the awkward sadness of the outsider.

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  • The Innocent Traveller (Ethel Wilson)

Friday Round-Up

The Friday Round-Up features quick reviews of recent reads. 

My Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught

I talked about Vaught’s great novel earlier this week!

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I have read Miller’s novel several times before, but there’s no harm in reading it again! (In fact, I own multiple copies: In a fit of fannish enthusiasm, I gave a copy to a friend for their birthday. They promptly forgot it came from me, hated it, then gave it back to me in an attempt to get rid of it. Anyway: Ignore them, trust me!) Achilles also pops up on my Tumblr dashboard quite frequently, so it’s often on my mind.

This adaptation of the story of the Trojan War follows Patroclus, Achilles’s companion (and here, lover as well as best friend), from his youth to his death at Hector’s hands, and Miller’s beautiful writing and obvious knowledge of her source material are both something to savour. (While investigating Miller’s website, too, I discovered she has a piece in what looks to be a fabulous anthology, XO Orpheus. Time to put it on the reading list!)



My Big Fat Manifesto

My Big Fat Manifesto (Susan Vaught)

“NoNo’s not finished. ‘Do you really believe the things you write about?’ She leans forward and rests her chin on her knobby knees, all the while looking straight at me. ‘Because if you believe in your causes, sooner or later you have to take risks for them. You have to behave like you believe.'” (287-7).

Manifesto follows the teenaged Jamie Carcaterra through her senior year of high school, touching on all the burdens and delights of life just pre-graduation, including a major role in the annual drama production, a lead editorial job on the school newspaper, a football-playing boyfriend, and all the pomp-and-circumstance traditions (an entire day of photo shoots?) of the American secondary school experience. Jamie’s main project, though, is her editorial column “Fat Girl,” intended to document her everyday experiences of discrimination, shaming, and complications based on her size. (Vaught clearly demonstrates that while Jamie is, of course, a human being first, the culture around her pushes back—cruelly—at every opportunity: Where can she find clothes that fit? Where can she sit to write her ACTs? Does she have to bring her own clothing for her graduation photos? How can she deal with a doctor who refuses to take her seriously until she loses weight?). She intends her “Fat Girl” columns to form her portfolio for a major journalism scholarship, funding that marks her only way to college: The stakes are very high indeed.

Vaught’s characters are the heart of this novel, each one richly defined: Jamie owns her emotions as well as her decisions, both the ones that work out and the ones that fail, and it was enriching, for me, to follow a teen protagonist who not only sometimes makes foolish or cruel decisions, but also follows through to the clean-up, supported by her friends and family. Her emotional growth is gripping: She struggles to support her boyfriend, Burke, through his decision to undergo gastric bypass surgery (noting his increased risk of death as a black man*), even while horrified by the resulting bodily trauma and trying to decide if she would undergo such surgery herself. Significantly, Vaught’s novel never forgets that while the resulting emotional burden would be extreme for anyone in Jamie’s position, is exceptionally so for a young woman already under tremendous academic and extra-curricular pressure. (Can we also just say that the development of Burke’s sisters, who appear first as nameless meanies, but are then built into named, three-dimensional, and caring friends and sisters, is superb?)

Also, I think, particularly important is Vaught’s exploration of what it means to experience intense social pressure to be a particular way—In this case, thin. Jamie is proud of herself and her identity, building her “Fat Girl” persona to advocate for herself and others shame and harmed because of their weight; at the same time, she struggles to navigate the social pressure to be thin, wishing (for instance) to wear clothing from a store where the employees wouldn’t serve her and considering undergoing gastric bypass herself. She knows she is beautiful, valuable, smart, and important, but she still feels like she is not, and naming and exploring that disconnect is one of the novel’s most powerful features.

* Vaught does not capitalise “black” and I have followed suit. If I have made a mistake here, please let me know at specialgirlsbooks[@]gmail.com!

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Friday Round-Up

The Friday Round-Up features quick reviews of recent reads.

“Severance” by Leslee Becker

The Boston Review publishes the annual winner of the Aura Estrada Short Story Contest online, which means you can find this year’s winning story, Leslee Becker’s “Severance” on their website, along with a large archive of past winners and other publications. Never one to let short stories go to waste, I was happy to download a large pile to read while trundling about via public transit. (Investigating content that journals share for free is not only a good way to find new writers, but also to test-drive the publication to see if you’d like to subscribe. Huzzah for supporting independent literary journals!) Becker’s story is character-driven and leaves a wonderful snapshot of chance, brief meetings (automotive troubles in a small town just off the highway, etc.), doing so without straying into the maudlin.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

I’d been saving this one for several months, but once I finally sat down to read it, Ghostwritten became my priority and I polished it off in two evenings. The novel tells a series of different stories—a Japanese teenager falls in love, a terrorist goes into hiding after releasing nerve gas on a subway train, an Irish physicist hides from the American military—with each section narrated by a different character. This itself is part of the delight of reading it: Mitchell plays with very different voices and does it very well—No easy feat, I think, to re-hook the reader at every chapter break. (Rather like a book of short stories, then!) Ghostwritten also features flashes of characters from other Mitchell novels, including Timothy Cavendish from Cloud Atlas, and while others may disagree, I’m usually a fan of these kinds of guest appearances: For me, there’s always a thrill to it, the surprise, like finding money on the street. Check it out!


Friday Round-Up

The Friday Round-Up features quick reviews of recent reads. (It’s been a busy, bookish time round these parts!)

Black Widow: The Finely Woven Thread (1) by Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto

The Definitive Guardians of the Galaxy edited by Brady Web

Hello, comic books! Thanks to the glorious institution of the public library, I’m at last able to get my hands on comics I’ve long wanted to read! This is the first volume of the series, itself the latest (it launched earlier this year) in a long history of comics about everyone’s favourite red-headed Russian spy, Natasha Romanov. I’m particularly taken with the relationship between Natasha and her manager (agent? accountant?), Isaiah, as well as Noto’s art, and thanks to both libraries and online shops like Comixology, it’s easier (and cheaper) to read comics than it has been in a long time, so you can check them out, too! I also picked up a copy of The Definitive Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), thinking a “definitive” anthology was as good a place as any to jump in, but the collection itself wasn’t too inspiring. It included the 1977 first appearance of the character Starlord/Peter Quill and I enjoyed getting my hands on a copy of those older issues, but still: A man swears vengeance after his mother his murdered by a giant lizard-man? Not my cuppa. (It was an unspecified illness in this summer’s film adaptation, but either way his mom was fridged. Sigh.) Similarly, in the anthology’s most recently published piece (Annihilation: Conquest: Starlord, vol.1—Wikipedia is your friend, when it comes to sorting out titles), the youngest character on Quill’s team—the lot of them in pursuit of a Borg-like enemy—follows an arc which sees him deal with killing a team-member in friendly fire: She attacked him, the story tells us. She was asking for it. Gorgeous art, but sigh. Take me back, Natasha!

Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon

Blood is the eight in Gabaldon’s Outlander series, begun in 1991 (yes, 1991! Readers have been waiting for this latest instalment since 2009). The novels—which follow the life of combat nurse Claire,  sent back in time from 20th-century Scotland to the Scotland of the 18th—are meticulously researched, beautifully written, and richly characterised: No one goes to waste and no one is forgotten. Blood is no exception, following the entanglement of Claire, her family, and her friends in the American revolution, and it’s the history, here, that really sings. If you’ve not read Outlander, but are wary of committing to a multi-novel, multi-decade series, that first novel itself can be read alone. (Once you get there, though, you won’t want to stop; Trust me.)

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club  (Genevieve Valentine)

In Kingfisher, Valentine retells the story of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” a fairy tale in which twelve sisters sneak away from their father at night to dance. Valentine’s wonderful novel, though, recasts the story against Prohibition-era America, and her sisters—led by the oldest, the self-sacrificing Jo, called “the General”—escape their abusive rather to dance the night away at speakeasies. I had heard that Valentine did impressive work maintaining twelve distinct characters in the sisters and I was not disappointed: The balance is incredible and the story itself compelling even if you’ve never heard the tale at its foundation. The girls grow older, fight, fall in love, dance, marry, run away, come home, and more, but always, sisterhood is at the novel’s heart. Valentine also runs a superb media review blog.