Random Riffs, January 2015

by caroline on January 20, 2015


‘Random Riffs’ unwind,
without warning, from one of life’s unexpected moments.
They will be posted from time to time, as they unwind.

[the retired blog, ‘OPENING LINES‘, is archived here…]


La Petite Maison

Last November, Parker and I stayed in a tiny village near the mediaeval town of Amboise in the Loire Valley. We’d booked, sight unseen,  ‘une petite maison’ that had once served as a small barn, and was attached, by means of a lantern-lit carriage archway, to the main house of a restored ‘minor’ chateau that dates to before the fifteenth century. Read the rest of this entry »

Random Riffs, December 2014

by caroline on December 5, 2014

‘Random Riffs’
unwind without warning from one of life’s unexpected moments.
They are posted from time to time, as they unwind.

[the recently retired blog, ‘OPENING LINES‘, is archived here…]


“what’s in a cupboard?”

What's in a Cupboard

Just prior to the launch of ‘Unlit Spaces’ last September, I sat at my desk across from the above mentioned random items cupboard, searching for a particular word that was eluding me. My mind wandered, and I found myself pondering the mysteries of self-publishing. I began forming in my mind some spectacularly wise riff about traditional publishing (as in ‘Off Centre’), versus self publishing (as in ‘Unlit Spaces’). All this thinking was hurting my brain; as an alternative, I snapped a photo of my friends in the cupboard. They were speaking to me. Something about lightening up.

Writing now as I am, from France, where we’re visiting and doing our share of cultural lolligagging around monuments and such like, I am hearing random voices from my past, emanating from a cupboard across the pond. Let me introduce you. Read the rest of this entry »

Opening Lines:No.10

by caroline on September 28, 2012

Summer/Fall 2012

with notes on procrastination, and a nod to Oscar Peterson

“As recently as two years ago, when I was twenty-six, I dressed in ratty jeans and a sweatshirt with lettering across the chest.”
Carol Shields, Swann, (Stoddart, 1987)


Apart from the usual lazy summer excuses,  I rely on a host of unconvincing reasons for neglecting this website since last spring. My favourite so far has to do with the The New Yorker.  As soon as an issue appears in our snailmailbox,  I grab it, flipping eagerly through its pages on my way upstairs to my writing desk; I chuckle at cartoons, determine resolutely to put the magazine aside and go immediately back to my… but wait, what’s this wee snippet here about long line ups to get into ‘The Clock’ exhibition,  hmm, interesting…watching the clock to get in to ‘The Clock’; but now to return to my…oh,  ha ha, too funny, a Shouts and Murmurs send-up of high end summer weddings. I’ll just read that one short bit, and then I’ll….

Of course it’s easy to see where this is going.  By the time I re-surface, the sun is slipping away, and light is fading on one Big Long Article about a Dentist Marathon Man from Montana.

In the sure knowledge that next week’s issue is already airborne,  I swivel away from the stack of New Yorkers, and find myself face to face with the chaotic scattering of books and papers on my desk.  There’s no avoiding Carol (forgive my presumption); she’s right where I left her last May; and next to her, her long time friend Eleanor Wachtel.  Random Illuminations, Eleanor’s lovely little volume recording their years of letters and interviews, sits propped open under the weight of my trusty propping-book-open stone.
Read the rest of this entry »

Opening Lines: Riff No.9

by caroline on April 25, 2012

OPENING LINES: Riff No.9, April 2012

“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
Toni Morrison, Beloved, 1987


 For weeks now, Caroline has been waiting.

Poor deluded thing, you might say, to have assumed that her breathless grasp of this great novel would land calmly, would settle into a coherent whole in her reading/writing mind.

She has just this minute printed out laptop notes, recovered scraps of paper dropped on the fly at favourite perches around the house. She has retrieved a notebook from her trusty shoulder bag, extracted pages that will give rise to profound revelation.

She is hunched over now, sipping tea, spilling drops onto papers scattered around the kitchen table. She shuffles notes into logical order. Shuffles again.

Surely she is about to contain the swirling mystery, shape her breathless grasp, reveal layers of meaning she has almost understood.

She stares. Waits.

This is what she sees.

It’s as far as she’ll get if she’s ever to complete her ever progressing novel.

Make of it what you will.
Read the rest of this entry »

Opening Lines: Riff No.7

by caroline on December 2, 2011

December 2011

Just east of Juliet, there’s a little
campground known to the locals as Ghost Creek, even though there has never been a ghost sighting that anyone can recall.”

(Opening Line, Chapter Two)

Dianne Warren, ‘Cool Water 2010
Governor General’s Literary Award




Before launching into my reason for quoting the opening line from Cool Water‘s second chapter, rather than its first,  a brief note of wild enthusiasm!

I  loved this novel.

When I finished reading Cool Water,  I closed it slowly, reluctant to press such a fascinating journey back between its covers. Of course, the best of literature, like the best of all art, is not confined to enclosures.

For days after, I found myself glancing at  the book’s front cover illustration, and reflecting, as I watered plants or folded laundry, on the image of  the Oasis Cafe, pictured here, with its classic diner style line-up of ketchup, salt and pepper, flip cap sugar dispenser.

A stack of tell tale letters from the past.

I can still hear the clatter of plates, the chatter of those cafe patrons. I see the comings and goings, catch the intersecting stories, the memories and histories now set adrift in the shifting ground of the Canadian prairies.

From what feels like an almost mystical, all knowing distance, Dianne Warren shines light on each  unique character; they seem to leap off  the page, befriending the reader with intimate glimpses into minds and hearts and souls at key points in the narrative.

Warren achieves this distance from the intimate details of her story,  by drawing, in the form of cowboy rides decades apart, a spiritual circle, a spiral perhaps, around  the very roots of life in the small town of Juliette. The two horses, their two riders, are exquisitely haunting and provide a thematic cohesiveness. At no point, however, do they suggest  a resolution of crisis for the inhabitants of Juliette. Quite the contrary, they simply reinforce the mystery of life always in flux.

It’s a truism that one of the trickiest moments for a novelist, is to recognize an ending, and then write it. Is that the last stroke of my brush? The final note of my composition? The end sentence of my story?  Dianne Warren has got it right in Cool Water.  I struggle to find words for what she has left us with, but there is energy at the end of this novel. The energy of the mystery perhaps. And of redemptive human capacity.

As I said, I loved this novel.

And now, I think all I have to say regarding Opening Lines, is that Chapter One might more suitably have been called a prologue. It is the story of the first, the historical, cowboy ride, a race that foretells the death of a way of life on the prairies. In a sense, it is the ghost referred to in the opening line to Chapter Two, quoted above, which begins the present day story. I found myself referring back to Chapter One, the prologue, understanding its significance more and more as I read.


Opening Lines: Riff No.6

by caroline on November 1, 2011

OPENING LINES: Riff No.6, October 2011
“…ruined by literature.”

“Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.”
Anita Brookner, The Debut, 1981

I promised myself I would never search the internet for an Opening Line.

And now I’ve done it.

For days I’d immersed myself in the befuddlement of editing one novel while writing another. Before I realized what was happening, my characters had begun sneaking around in each other’s narratives. They gave each other new names, conspired to move commas, insert semi-colons, switch lovers.

So perhaps you can imagine how I might have been feeling as I stood in front of the bookcase, their incessant chatter filling my mind while I pulled out volume after volume, hunting for the  book with the perfect opening line for my October blog.  “They’re all dead now”,  they shouted in unison over my shoulder, immediately recognizing the opening line to Fall on Your Knees. It’ll be a riot, they insisted as I escaped back upstairs to Google ‘best first lines’.  After all, Halloween’s just around the corner.

And that’s when I met Dr. Weiss, who, like myself, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.





Opening Lines: Riff No.5

by caroline on September 30, 2011

OPENING LINES: Riff No.5,  September 2011
Where was the young man….

“Where was the young man who had given her so many
admiring glances yesterday?”
Gabrielle Roy, The Tin Flute, 1947.
(translated from the French by Hannah Josephson*)

My mother, pictured here with me and my brother during the WWII absence of our father, would have purchased her copy of The Tin Flute in about 1947. That was the year the English translation came out, and two years after my father returned home to Winnipeg, to a family he did not know.





Gabrielle Roy’s opening line, which introduces the reader to her main character Florentine Lacasse, resonates for me today with all the poignancy  of my family experience in those war years (in a sense, perhaps it stands out as an expression of the poignancy of women’s ever shifting role in relation to all war).

It was an exquisitely disturbing early reading experience to encounter, with my mother’s encouragement, her well worn copy of The Tin Flute. I wish I could hold that same volume today. I can almost feel it in my hands, relive those hours lying in bed late at night, barely breathing as the unfamiliar narrative of such desperate poverty unfolded before me in vivid detail.  The exquisite quality of the experience must be attributed to Gabrielle Roy’s rich artistic integrity.

My second reading of The Tin Flute was as a mature student in a Canadian Literature class taught by The Professor himself.  Since I do have this now resident professor near at hand, let me pass this over to him for a moment:

Is the opening line to The Tin Flute a particularly good one?

Parker Duchemin:
I wouldn’t hesitate to place it right up there with the best of them. One simple sentence contains all the desperation, the feelings of entrapment, the dependence on men, experienced by Florentine, and all women like her, in that era. It immediately calls up the vanity of Florentine,  her need to present herself to Jean, representative of an ambitious male power, which she sees as her way out of entrapment.  The line is also a portent of loss to come, a foreshadowing of Florentine’s humiliating loss of Jean, whose ruthlessness encircles, even in his absence, the rest of her life.

Everything is in that first line.  If one returns to it at any point while reading the novel, it will always resonate.

Florentine as  a heroine, a heroine working in a five and dime store, was unheard of as a character in Quebec literature at the time The Tin Flute was published.  Roy’s novel was a  radical departure from the norm, from the romanticized female in novels such as Maria Chapdelaine. In The Tin Flute, there is no romanticized hero, no romanticized heroine.

*an interesting footnote from Parker: a more recent translation of The Tin Flute (Alan Brown, 1980), dispenses with that superb opening line, and would deprive us of this conversation. Roy herself was quoted as wishing that Brown’s translation had been better, although it was an improvement in some ways. Comments, with the original French, would be most welcome.




Opening Lines: Riff No.4

by caroline on August 31, 2011

OPENING LINES: Riff No. 4, August 2011
“…there was once a neighborhood”

“In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood.”
Toni Morrison, Sula (1974)


I am thinking about the character Sula as I walk along the main street of my mostly white middle class neighbourhood. I am wondering what we’d be saying to each other, Sula and I, were we walking side by side. Perhaps we’d peer into shop windows while we chatted about neighbourhoods, about what makes a real neighbourhood. Perhaps we’d share thoughts on the common good, on culture and community, on class, race and gender, or on the ever-simmering angers and biases that bind us together, that tear us apart.

Sula herself is the embodiment of just such a discussion, but the theoretical underpinnings of her character are best left to her creator, Toni Morrison. Sula’s observations would be bold, sharp, and straight up, containing all the laughter and pain and defiance of the community she grew up in. Heads would turn as we walked. Sula knows her beauty. Faces passing by would light up if she danced ‘a bit of a cakewalk, a bit of black bottom’ for the street musician on the corner. We might laugh when I attempt to join in.

In her own story, it is Sula who rises up against the confining mores of her neighbourhood. And ultimately it is Sula, or rather a hatred for all she represents, that binds the townspeople together, and then tears them apart. Sula flees, exiling herself to a life of urban adventure and pleasure. Her eventual return, just as her small community of black families has given way to white folks’ prosperity, casts a new light on all that has transpired, and on who Sula really was.

The opening line of Morrison’s poignant novel  ‘…once there was a neighborhood’, speaks to our time nearly forty years after it was written. It is the universal human condition. Stories of exile, displacement, and loss of community are all around us. Right here at home, one thinks of Africville, Oka, Canada’s Parliament occupying Algonquin land; one thinks of the resettlement of Newfoundland outports, of shrinking farm, mining, and fishing communities. Globally, entire populations are fleeing wars, occupations, famine, economic and environmental devastation, progress.

I would love someone else to write the next paragraph! Something about remarkable human resistance and resilience, something about weaving a new tapestry from all these shifting strands. All of which I believe.
Any takers?

Opening Lines: ‘Riff’ No.3, introducing ‘Unlit Spaces’

by caroline on July 30, 2011

OPENING LINES: Riff No.3,  July, 2011

The opening line from my own first novel may not immediately suggest, as Eduardo Galeono’s opening line did,  that you are about to embark on a life changing reading experience!  Still, I do hope you’ll bear with me, and enter into the first few pages of UNLIT SPACES with a measure of curiosity. Perhaps you’ll find yourself  at home with a fun summer read!  In mid August,  Chapter One will appear in its entirety.

introductory pages to Chapter One
©Caroline Shepard 2002

Cailey jiggles the spool in the old cash register.

Most mornings it’s the same, this easy ritual of jokes and apologies, a few customers waiting in line, offering suggestions while she is trying to free up the jammed tape.  Today though, her voice is pitched too high, her words drop away, disconnected somehow, from her intended good humour.

Three times she presses the sale button.  Nothing.  She shakes the machine, hits the button one more time, and just as she is about to call out to Steve for help, the ribbon of paper chatters freely from its slot. She smiles slightly at the round of applause that greets her success.

She tucks her shirt into her jeans,  tightens the kerchief that gathers her thick dark hair at the back of her neck.  Her brown fingers move swiftly over the keys as she punches in each price.  Tent pegs 5.95, Coleman fuel 3.50, toilet paper 1.09….the routine, mechanical activity restores her privacy….muskol 2.85,  kraft dinner 6 x .49….   She stops. A few macaroni noodles have spilled out of one box.

“I guess this box is broken,  why don’t you grab another off the shelf.”

Cailey chucks the broken box of kraft dinner under the counter.

“This one looks okay.”  She glances up at her customer, her eyes resting briefly on the rounded, bulging accusation stretched across his shirt. “Have You Hugged Your Kids Today?”.

He misreads her glance, winks, raises his eyebrows. “No kids today, ha ha.” The stench of stale cigarettes and beer hangs in the air as the bulge shifts  over a sunken belt.

She stares down at the bare wooden floor. There are always these types, she reminds herself.  The beer and motorboat type.  At least by next summer the cabin will be completely paid for and they will no longer have to work at the outfitters’ store.  It helps to imagine herself up the hill in her studio, drawing, uninterrupted,  wandering now and again out onto the porch for a cup of tea, coming down to the lake for a swim whenever she chooses.

The man’s nervous cough brings her back. He is visibly uneasy with her silence,  moving awkwardly from foot to foot.

“Oh. Sorry.”  She looks blankly at the money he has put on the counter,  tightens her kerchief again, then finally counts out his change from the cash drawer.

“Have a good day, miss.”

She hates the expression, the implied condescension in his bloated voice.

“Steve,”  she peers over the man’s shoulder as he turns to leave.  “Can you check the others through.”   It is not a question.   “I’m going for lunch out front.  I’ll check on Kim.”

Steve waves to her from  the back counter where he is marking canoe routes with one of the guides.  He looks up in surprise when she lets the screen door slam. Read the rest of this entry »

Opening Lines: Riff No.2

by caroline on June 30, 2011

OPENING LINES: Riff No.2,  June 2011
“To Pass Back Through The Heart”-PART II

Recordar: to remember, from the Latin re-cordis,
to pass back through the heart.”
Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces, 1991
(translated from the Spanish by Cedric Belfrage with Mark Schafer)

With the porter’s second call for breakfast, the professor pushed up the blind on our window. Outside the sky was grey; clouds hung low on the highest peaks. We were in the Canadian Rockies.

We dressed quickly, and with that towering landscape speeding by to the rhythm of clattering wheels, we lurched along corridors to the dining car, dipping only occasionally through the curtains of a startled passenger’s bedroom.

From car to car, danger signs warned passengers not to linger in the couplings between the cars.

At the door to the dining car, I lingered, and as I felt the couplings shifting under my feet, I remembered all about lingering. As a kid, my brothers and I lingered in the spaces between cars; we’d undo the metal accordion gates whenever we found them unlocked, stick our heads out open windows, gulp our breath in a sudden whoosh of soot laden air from the coal fired steam engine. Probably we’d push each other, compete for balancing rights on the wiggly articulated flooring. I have one memory, which the professor insists is fantasy, of gaps appearing in the floor, maybe as the train entered a curve, and there would be a fleeting glimpse of heavy steel wheels sparking against polished track, ties flashing past at our feet.

(But I will have my memory. Tomorrow, when the wonder of great mountains recedes, and the land drops off to a roll and then flattens, I will pass back through the heart of my childhood. Nothing stirs my heart like the sight of the prairie landscape. This is a mystery to me. And if fantasy finds its way into my memories, it is most welcome. It will all be true.)  Read the rest of this entry »

Opening Lines: Riff No.1

by caroline on May 31, 2011

Opening Lines: Riff No.1,  May 2011
“To Pass Back Through The Heart”-PART I.

Recordar: to remember, from the Latin re-cordis,
to pass back through the heart.”
Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces, 1991
(translated from the Spanish by Cedric Belfrage with Mark Schafer)

This first posting, on a blog that is intended to draw inspiration from the opening line of a favourite book, will not be about an opening line at all. As an epigraph, this quote precedes even the title page. It stands alone, offering us a hint, an invitation to pause and look again, before entering The Book of Embraces. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eduardo_Galeano)

One aspect of this epigraph could not be reproduced here. This is the miniature pen and ink drawing the author has chosen to place above the quotation. Galeano’s drawings (he was first of all a political caricaturist in his native Uruguay), are an essential component in the short compositions that comprise the whole of the The Book of Embraces.  In the company of Galeano’s enigmatic illustrations, I have often found myself peering into these compositions, searching out the layers of possibility with the awe of a small child who believes in magic. Read the rest of this entry »