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A Brief Synopsis
While walking in her dog, Jasper, in Toronto’s Hillcrest Village, indie book store owner, Liz Ryerson, stumbles upon a corpse. Liz soon discovers the murdered man is, James Scott, a realtor who recently gave her an appraisal on the building she co-owns with her playboy ex-husband, Adam.
Liz’s complex but predictable life is suddenly in upheaval: Adam is leaving on an extended trip with his beautiful, young lover, Laura; her daughter, Samantha, has taken up with a “bad boy” and is exhibiting alarming signs of anorexia; and her son, Josh, is off doing his own thing. To complicate matters further, Adam is pressuring Liz to sell the property which also houses her book store, Inside of a Dog. Amidst this chaos, Liz abetted by her eccentric new friend, widowed retired classics professor, Maxime Bertrand, embarks on a quest to solve the murder of James Scott.
In her recent novel, Safe as Houses, Susan Glickman offers a convincing portrayal of a woman attempting to exert control over her world gone mad. Twists, turns and diversions in the story propel it forward at a satisfying pace. Liz is a likeable character and her relationship with Max is endearing but plausible. For book lovers, Liz’s store, Inside of a Dog, is a charming character unto itself. Still, the story has a dark side and it is in this underbelly, Safe as Houses, sets itself apart from your predictable, amateur sleuthing story.
Ms Glickman choses to unravel the underlying events in an unexpected and well-considered format: interspersed chapters are skillfully told from the point-of-view of the victim. In this way, Liz’s story and the victim’s unfold in tandem to a satisfying conclusion.
My Final Word
Safe as Houses is a well-paced mystery having all the usual “suspects” one expects in that genre. The twist is in the telling. And that, in my opinion, is what sets this book apart from other mysteries on my shelf.
Safe As Houses, by Susan Glickman
What is it about bookshops and murder? Glickman’s new novel is a cozy murder mystery about how lives are transformed after the discovery of a body in Toronto’s tony Wychwood Park neighbourhood.
But one of the most delicious parts of the book is the setting: a bookshop owned by Glickman’s protagonist, Liz Ryerson, near Bathurst and St. Clair in downtown Toronto. The shop is called “Outside of a Dog,” from the quote by Harpo Marx (“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend“) and also because there is indeed a dog (with whom Liz is out walking when she stumbles across the corpse). And the reader is able to vicariously experience the joy Liz takes in working in her shop. She spends time thoughtfully curating her collection and assembling themed tables, and reading the lists of books within the text was so much fun and an absolute bookish pleasure.
Kerry Clare, http://49thshelf.com/Blog/2015/10/01/Books-About-Bookshops
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The unpredictable force of the stranger and the ethical challenge of hospitality are also central to Susan Glickman’s The Tale-Teller, which begins with the arrival of the mysterious Esther in the carefully regulated colony of New France in 1738. Esther has disguised herself as a boy, and while this deception is uncovered instantly, her further deception—that she is also Jewish—remains a secret throughout much of the novel, a secret she protects by spinning a complex Scheherazade-like past for herself involving shipwrecks and pirates and harem-escapes. The narrative is split between the realist historical narrative of Esther Brandeau, based on archival documents researched by the academically-trained Glickman, and Esther’s fantastical first-person stories, told in an engagingly intimate tone with a non-linearity and geographical range that contrasts markedly with the protagonist’s own cramped existence.
Esther’s stories are a carefully devised tactic, wielded in the face of her total lack of agency as a woman and a racialized minority. In both style and content they revel in mobility and subversion: she is raised by apes, refusing the strict division between the animal and the human; her adopted father, a sailor named Joaquin, falls in love with a slave woman when he is temporarily blinded, a metaphorical forgetting of race as a learned category. It is not surprising that Esther’s fantasy world is more appealing than the one she actually resides in, in which petty French officials use her as a pawn in their struggles for power and keep her captive throughout the long Quebec winter. Glickman’s imagination shines in these passages, unmoored from the documents that root the historical half of her novel. Appropriately enough, the restrictions of historical fact are felt at the level of narrative much as Esther feels the ties of her own oppressive social world; both language and subjects are freed by the unbounded imagination.
As the narrative proceeds, however, even Esther’s subversive imagination encounters its limits. The kindly Hocquart in whose home she is equal parts captive and guest, is originally enchanted by her stories and her fine recipe for chocolate, both exotic temptations in their own right. Eventually, however, her stories demand too much of him: “Far worse than the seduction of the stories themselves was how they challenged his convictions. If he accepted what Esther said as true, his beliefs about the world would be put in doubt. In her version of reality slaves deserved freedom, infidels were as good as Christians, and women became the equals of men.” Esther’s stories similarly fail to have the desired impact on the Ursuline nuns with whom she is lodged once her true identity, as the daughter of a Jewish merchant, is discovered. And when she attempts to use her tales to distract the inmates of the lunatic ward where she is made to work, she discovers that the destabilization of reality that comforts her only agitates those who already struggle to distinguish reality from fantasy.
The Tale-Teller is a novel both fascinated with the power of stories and aware of their limitations. As the period of Esther’s life illuminated by archival documents comes to an end, the historical woman and the fictional character slip beyond the reader’s view, the story’s control, and New France’s borders. The debris left by the stranger, in this case, is an awareness of Canada’s colonial history as a story not only of violent invasion but also of a failure to enact the ethics and politics of hospitality.
Reviewed by Scott Daley
Susan Glickman’s collection of poetry, The Smooth Yarrow, is marked above all by a sense of playfulness. Each piece in the collection gently leads the reader to quite a different place than where he or she began. Glickman plays around with vernacular expressions in “Witch’s Tit,” unearthing layers of history in the seemingly innocuous expression. Visceral imagery of spikes, fire, and disease that proliferates throughout the poem vividly takes the reader back centuries to the paranoid times of witch hunts. In “Rilke Doesn’t Wear Sunscreen,” Glickman plays with mythical imagery. At the beginning of the piece, angels flit about the titular hero, ensconced in a scene of heavenly summery serenity. But all hell breaks loose when he flicks at one of the angels, and a scene of terrifying meteorological chaos ensues. “Why the Wind Scares the Shit Out of Me” spirals off in similarly wild directions and tangents. The poem begins as a list of reasons why wind frightens the speaker, but beautifully bursts its bounds, becoming something much more personal, confessional, and eclectic. We learn, for example, that the speaker’s migraines are caused not only by the wind, for example, but by “feeling guilty”; that she lacks “vanity” and “steadfast concentration,” flees anger, and is “as afraid of [her] own rage as of the wind” (14).
The Smooth Yarrow gradually grows into a beguiling mixture of the primal and the modern, the epic and the everyday. “The Dog at the End of the Bed” stands out as an especially haunting mixture of mundane events and exciting rediscovery (the speaker comments on the boredom of “discussing taxes, teachers, where to buy electronics” but then all of a sudden “it’s new” again) (35). The poem explores the inevitability of death and slow decline with a tone of gentle amusement and serious darkness. “Jacob’s Ladder” is an elegy for Glickman’s father that blends sweetness and solemnity; the poem itself is a “thorny tree” bearing “aromatic fruit” like those lining the “narrow staircase” along which the speaker proceeds over the course of the poem (40). “Jacob’s Ladder” mischievously juxtaposes the swirling immortality of nature with human frailty, a dichotomy represented by the relative sturdiness of the ibexes along the mountain path compared with the speaker’s all-too-human legs, which “tremble with fatigue” (40). The ancient and recent past collides with the heavy weight of the present beautifully here, before looking stoically toward the future.
“Breath” again presents the reader with the gentle intermingling of past and present as a walk in the park causes the speaker’s mind to wander while “time reels back through itself” (43). The poem asserts the paradoxical brilliance of darkness (“it is precisely the lack of sunlight that suffuses the air with something / indefinable; that whets the gold of each leaf, / brightens the blue chicory”), a notion that carries us with hope throughout this seemingly dark piece, wherein imagery of funerals and deaths abounds (43).
“In the Garden,” meanwhile, begins as a catalogue of some of Glickman’s favourite flora and fauna (hummingbirds, bees, monkshood, irises, etc.) before becoming a winding sojourn throughout the titular garden and throughout life. Images of death (“I squished the caterpillars by hand,” announces the speaker), loss (“this winter’s losses” to the garden “were costlier than the gains / but isn’t that always the way?”), balance, and persistence in the face of inevitable failure (“Those we love we try to coax into staying / but it is not their way”) proliferate (49; 51; 58). With “In the Garden,” we get the sense that Glickman views poetry and gardening as similar trades. (Glickman’s personal website prominently features a telling Cicero quotation: “Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing.”) Words and plants must both be cultivated carefully for them to reach their full potential, and writing and gardening both require enormous dedication, patience, and understanding to fully succeed. And while careful pruning is sometimes required in gardens and poetry, the rambling length of The Smooth Yarrow’s final two pieces suggests that sometimes it is best to let poems and plants grow wild and free.
All in all, The Smooth Yarrow is an eclectic, evolving mixture. Like yarrow, an herb often used to stanch the flow of blood from wounds, the collection touches on some painful material but winds up being strangely soothing. Glickman possesses a wry humour and a deep, thorny wisdom that shines through evenThe Smooth Yarrow’s darkest pieces and turns them into playful riffs on the chaos and hidden beauty of life.
The rustling of leaves is rated at ten decibels, a whisper at twenty, an ordinary conversation at sixty-five, a moving train at one hundred. Any sound over one hundred and twenty decibels is experienced as pain, not sound. Too much of anything, even something beautiful, is experienced as pain.
The decibel is one tenth of a bel, a measurement of amplitude named in honour of Alexander Graham Bell, who also invented the phonograph, and taught the deaf. Like Beethoven, only in reverse. Beethoven wrote music he couldn’t hear for the pleasure of others. Bell, who could hear, made a language for those who couldn’t. Translating sounds to signs, or electrical impulses, in the ear or along a wire, into voices, into music. Vibration—simple vibration—is what makes all bodies sound. And at the lowest register, sound waves are felt on the skin, the body itself resonating like a drum.
To sing you need to breathe deeply and hold your breath for longer than the ordinary four-second speech interval, then generate as much power as you can. The human voice is a more efficient transformer than a musical instrument, yet only one per cent of the energy a singer puts out is transmitted as sound waves. On the other hand, ordinary conversation is so weak that it would take two million people talking at the same time to run a fifty-watt light bulb.
The first public concert in England did not take place until 1672, organised by a violinist named John Banister who wanted to offer the public an experience previously reserved for the aristocracy: music outside the walls of a church, music for its own sake. Music as art, not as a practical aid to everyday life. Not to lull an infant to sleep, or inspire soldiers on the march, or set the tempo for oarsmen or labourers; music unconnected to public spectacles of dancing or feasting. A separate world.
Unaccustomed to their role, early audiences were appreciative but noisy, treating the concert hall no differently than they did the theatre. They talked and ate and shouted to their acquaintance; clapped or booed or hissed spontaneously and frequently; demanded favourite encores. Not until the late nineteenth century did concerts become decorous affairs. Wagner was the first conductor to turn off the lights, sheltering each listener in private reverie; Mahler the first to lock out late-comers and forbid applause between movements. Now we have come to rely on these conventions to help us listen. In a world saturated with sensory information, we require an absence of all other distractions to focus on sound.
There are those who contend that musical tones, like mathematical symbols, have no reference to anything outside themselves. They inhabit a platonic dimension of ideal forms: there is no way of representing them except through themselves, no shortcut to understanding their meaning. They simply are, B flat or the square root of fifteen, π or a minor seventh. They do not signify toothbrush or rhododendron; they cannot evoke the Napoleonic Wars or the Birth of Venus.
Others insist that musical tones participate in the patterning – the relationship of part to part and parts to whole – that is innate in human consciousness. For example, whether their local musical scale consists of three notes or five or eight or more, every person on this planet can hear and recognize the intervals of the fifth and the octave. Mean-tone tuning derives from this innate human ability. A frequency is selected and given a name: let’s call it “A”. It is doubled to form an octave, then halved to form a fifth, which we call “E”. The process is repeated with “E” and its fifth, “B,” and so on, all around the circle of fifths, the rainbow of sound that makes up the “Pythagorean” scale.
This mathematically generated scale dominated Western music for two thousand years, in part because philosophers cherished its implication that music simply made audible humanity’s innate perfection. But every system has its limitations; the limitations are what make it a system. And the limitation of mean-tone tuning is perplexing both philosophically and practically: it only works in one scale at a time. Beyond that scale lies dissonance or, if you will, chaos.
This is a minor difficulty for the solitary musician but a disaster for the ensemble, constrained to retune a whole flock of discordant strings every time they play a new piece. Luckily, around 1700, a method was invented according to which this built-in dissonance could be distributed evenly – almost inaudibly – throughout every scale. In The Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach demonstrated the versatility of the new tuning, known as “equal temperament”, by composing two pieces in each of the twelve major and twelve minor keys, all of which are to be played consecutively, without re-tuning the instrument. There was no looking back.
The “gravicembalo col piano e forte” – keyboard instrument with soft and loud – was presented by Bartolommeo Cristofori of Padua to Prince Ferdinando dei Medici in 1709. It replaced the quiet plucked-quill action of the harpsichord with a hammer action, allowing for much greater control. The first instruments had four-and- a-half octaves; over time, both their range and volume increased until, by 1800, the very loud, seven-and-a half octave forte-piano we still use today had supplanted its more modest ancestors.
When the pianist’s finger touches a key, the far end tilts up, raising a lever that, in turn, hits a felt-tipped hammer. This hammer lifts a damper, allowing the string beneath it to vibrate. As the key is released, the lever lowers the hammer so that the damper touches the string and impedes the vibration. Unless, of course, his foot hits the sustaining pedal, which lifts all the dampers off the strings, leaving them free to resonate to infinity (or at least far beyond human apprehension).
Both the piano and the violin make music by causing strings to vibrate. Perhaps an ancient archer heard the thrumming of the string after his arrow had taken flight. Perhaps he duplicated this phenomenon while idly plucking his bow. Was it because of such inadvertent discoveries that Apollo, god of music, is twinned with his sister Artemis, goddess of the hunt?
The piano uses more than 200 strings to play its 88 notes. The long, thick bass strings run singly; the shorter, thinner tenor strings doubly; the slender trebles in threes, like schoolgirls arm-in-arm on a busy street. Piano strings are wire lashed to an iron frame; their tension can be adjusted by a series of pins. It is a laborious job, requiring the services of a professional. By contrast, all violinists tune their instruments often, even compulsively, by themselves. Another contrast: the violin has only four strings and yet can attain a seven-octave range. The pull on each violin string is 70 pounds, 280 pounds in total. The combined pull of the strings on an upright piano is 16 tons; a concert grand will be closer to 23 tons.
Some musicians remain haunted by nostalgia for the Pythagorean scale with its concurrence of divine and earthly mathematics, and resent the modern insistence on compromise for the sake of the ensemble. They try to discriminate between a C sharp and a D flat; a B sharp and a C natural. Theoretically, this should be possible, especially on a fretless instrument like the violin from which one can coax many fractions of a tone. But in practice, our ears have grown too lazy for such fine discriminations.
The ear collects sound as a flower does dew; channels it along the auditory canal to brew a secret honey. The air flutters, the air is alive with wings; sound waves drum against the ear and set its architecture humming. Sensation is transformed into energy like dew into nectar. And then (but this is no explanation, this is just the map of a mystery) the mind gives meaning to what it hears.