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Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii
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The Beggar King The Beggar King
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Tesseracts 14: Strange Canadian Stories Tesseracts 14: Strange Canadian Stories
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Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales
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The Review: South of Elfrida, by Holley Rubinsky


Fellow readers and writers: I have decided to commit half of this blog to voices other than my own (all right, all right, stop cheering). It will be my small effort to shamelessly promote and support other writers. To that end I offer you a monthly book review, which will be followed the week after by an interview with the author.

September brings us South of Elfrida, by Holley Rubinsky.

 South of Elfrida

South of Elfrida is Holley Rubinsky’s newest collection of short stories, eighteen in all. They are distinct, but they also definitely belong together, connecting sometimes through landscape, sometimes through voice or the theme of loss.
I was lucky to hear Holley read from her collection when she came through Penticton last spring. As both a writer and a reader, I find it the ultimate treat to hear another writer read her work out loud and talk about the process by which it was created. Many of the stories in this collection are about characters who are on the road in Arizona in RVs. Turns out Holley took a similar extended road trip and had several adventures along the way, some of which worked their way into these stories. And you can tell: they have that ring of authenticity to them.
One of the things I loved in these stories was the way she makes use of animals to echo how people treat each other (often as predator and prey). In the opening story, a man named Leonard rescuing his niece from an abusive situation is set alongside the rescue of turtle eggs: both are an attempt to keep the vulnerable safe from predators.
The title story is about a group of women birders headed by a rather severe expert known as the hawk man. The narrator, a woman named Jean who is down on her luck, sees a similarity between the hawk man and her military father. “She recognizes the intensity in him, the coldness. She craves his focused energy; she wants in.” In her attempt to impress the hawk man, she suddenly understands that she has been bagged, like one of his birds.
Holley has a wonderful eye for the telling detail. In “Among the Emus,” Crystal “…remembers going to her first AA meeting, dirty bra strap showing.” In “The Compact,” a gem of a story, Sally keeps the ashes from a secret abortion in a powder compact. She rebels against her redneck husband by spitting in the meatloaf she makes him for dinner. In “Coyote Moon,” a rooster is mauled by a bear; a husband suffers from undiagnosed cancer. In the world’s strange arithmetic it is the rooster that survives.  In “At Close Range,” a mother’s secret about her daughter’s paternity finds its way out in a small and surprising way.
Holley tackles some challenging points of view. “Borderline” is told by Paula, a woman with a borderline personality disorder who craves attention but has trouble keeping herself under control if she receives it. “He saw me; he talked to me,” she says near the end, and then must “stand for five minutes until the excitement passes.” Many of the narrators in these stories are lonely and looking for connection wherever they can find it. The stories are rendered with gentleness, honesty and humour.
I will leave you with the final paragraph of “Coyote Moon,” which to me summarizes what so many of these stories are saying. Besides which, I think Holley has the enviable talent of knowing how to end a story well:
“What is the wisdom in loss? What is she supposed to learn? For now, she wants something chased down; she, too, carries grudges. The stars rise like diamonds from behind the mountains into the vivid sky, deep indigo and mauve. This is the first truly dark place Lee has ever lived; nightly she experiences miracles.”

South of Elfrida is published by Brindle and Glass.