Any Day But This

by Kristjana Gunnars
ISBN: 0889953112

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: Any Day but This
by g

This collection of stories by writer and teacher Kristjana Gunnars illuminates the quandaries of a wide range of characters, many of whom share in common a preoccupation with coming or going, leaving or staying put. Place, naturally, plays a strong role in Gunnars' tales, whether it's Edmonton, Saskatoon, B.C.'s Sunshine Coast, or more exotic locales like Norway and Italy.
The title of her first story, "Directions in Which We Move", echoes the thematic connections among these lyrical, honest portraits. Arne Ibsen, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta, wakes one morning after a harrowing dream about being in an out-of-control plane; he realizes the dream is telling him that he does not feel safe. His latest home, a small bungalow, is a cramped space in which he mourns the loss of his wife, Gro, who has left him. Gro loathed Alberta; she missed the village in southern Norway where they both grew up. "She wanted the pastures, the woods, the apple orchards, the flower gardens, the fog sidling along the water in the morning, the hiking paths up the mountainsthe world's smallest ferry." It sounds idyllic, but impractical; there are no jobs there. Eventually their children follow careers elsewhere and Gro leaves him. Arne remains, sliding into a relationship with Bombay Gin and Tylenol, nursing his feelings of abandonment. Gunnars's story then moves effortlessly into Arne's childhood memory of betrayal by his father, whom he trusted, and who, in turn, trusted their family doctor to operate on his ten-year-old son. The office procedure, an adenoidectomy, was brutal, like torture: "To Arne all civilisation was obliterated in a moment in Dr. Haugen's office at Tollbugata three in Drammen, Norway." This unnecessary operation taught him, "If you leave things alone, they'll right themselves," a lesson he is neither able to communicate to his wife nor quite believe himself any longer.
As Arne contemplates life from the "middle of the world's emptiness," we learn that he also feels abandoned by his colleague, Dusty Cameron, who is "slow to respond" to his work on their joint project. Interestingly, like other players in Gunnars's cast of characters, Dusty, who loves tulips, and by extension, life itself, appears in another story, "Under Other Skies". A newly retired woman academic, Tamara, for whom quitting her job in Calgary has meant a "metamorphosis" of her whole being, meets Dusty on a BC ferry, as she moves from her past to her future. This story is less gritty than Arne's, more reliant on symbols. Two eager young lovers on the ferry deck provoke memories of Tamara's passionate affair with a blatant womanizer who once made her happy. The future seems to appear with Dusty, this frizzy-haired astronomer in a nylon jacket, with whom she discusses complex theories about the shape of the universe. No matter what happens, Tamara feels that now she is "in the right galaxy, the true solar system."
While Arne and Tamara occupy opposite ends of the spectrum of belonging, most of Gunnars's characters find themselves at various points in between. A few are writers themselves. In "Dreaming of the Coliseum", Karl Heffner awaits his poetry reading at the Vancouver Public Library. An open and likable young man, he works for a living in another library. His "minder" for the evening, Julie Barthe (she turns up in the final story), by contrast, embodies insincerity. Like several of Gunnars's literate, introspective protagonists, Karl finds tangible comfort in the words of writers whose observations lead him to a better understanding of the world. The alienating light in a McDonald's restaurants has, for Karl, been perfectly described by W.G. Sebald as "the momentary terror of a lightning flash"; in another "almost casual" remark, E.M. Forster observed that the poet Constantine Cavafy "stood at an odd angle to the universe"-like all poets, thinks Karl, like him. When "the domino effect" of finding connections through writing and books brings a "genuine" woman to hear him read, the unexpected moment brings together the worlds of imagination and reality.
In the library on the night of his reading, Karl is described holding his "half-finished cup of Arabica." This is a typical Gunnars touch. Her stories are made lively with specific foods and drinks, from Coquilles St. Jacques made with real cream to the "fruity" chocolate taste of coffee beans from Sumatra. In one story, "The Secret Source of Tears", a child's lack of enthusiasm for food is cause for anxiety. John Henry Brackendale, in a prolonged agony, has lost his beloved wife to Alzheimer's disease. Keenly feeling her absence, John Henry has moved in with his daughter Stinna and her three-year-old son, Ruddy. Fretting because his grandson refuses to eat anything except Cheerios, he tempts him with healthy treats: "Sticks of celery with peanut butter and raisins on top, that he called ants on a log; sour cream and cheese rolled up in tortillas, which he called bean pinwheels; but the kid stuck his fork into it and swept it to the floor, whining in his soprano voice." As he could not control his wife's illness or find her when she wandered off to die, he cannot control this child. He also distrusts the seaside cottage where they all live, a "ramshackle" place on stilts, an enormous contrast to the "classy" house in West Vancouver he and his wife called home. As for his grandson's failure to eat, "Albie [his wife] would have known what to do."
Yet the house stays up; and John Henry valiantly tries to get his "thin-fat" body, mainly his heart, in shape with jogging. He has his eye on Elise, from Rouen, France, a character we know from another story, "The Swans of Chesapeake Bay". He also keeps his eye on little Ruddy, who needs him, and in the final scene we see them together on the "warm, white sand" beach, collecting stones, "holding up in their own way.doing well." It's measure of the power of Gunnars's thoughtful writing that we cheer for her characters, wherever they happen to find themselves in life, that we are drawn into their lives and homes and fervently wish them to be doing well.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us