Fables of Elbow Drive

When I was 23, I had a weekly, weeknight DJ gig in an alternative bar in Calgary. Well, the alternative bar in Calgary, not by dint of being the best but the only. I was a regular there, had been for years, so I knew most of the patrons. Weeknights in a dance club were for students (as I was), people without office jobs ("industry workers" as they were called), the underemployed, the artists and musicians, and the gainfully employed who really like to drink. The weekday crowd was less boisterous, more friendly, more willing to be silly, more likely to request a lesser-heard track. There was no pressure to pack the dance floor — it wasn't possible with a quarter-full bar — so I'd happily oblige with a flurry of odd songs. It was on one of these nights a fellow DJ friend wandered up to the booth. "I've taken six hits of acid," he said. He was probably exaggerating, but he was definitely tripping balls. "My friends have all left. Can we hang out?" (Acid, by the way, is one of those drugs you don't have to be on to find hilarious. People on acid are hilarious on their own.)

When the club closed for the night, my friend wanted to go through Mount Royal to where Elbow Drive follows the curve of the Elbow River. He told me he'd grown up around there. So we drove south and east from the club, to the outskirts of downtown. I'd never spent much time in this part of the city. It was relatively old, and far away from my parents' house in the north. Unlike the rocky banks of the fast-moving Bow, the Elbow River was bordered by flat and manicured grass, parks, and stately homes.* I could just barely hear the water moving along in the moonlight. He told me stories of being a kid around the area, where he used to play, the place where he kissed his first girlfriend. 3 a.m. on a summer Wednesday night is a pretty great time to discover a place in a city you've lived in all your life.

It was a picture of that night that entered — and stayed in — my mind reading "Home for Good" in Katherine Govier's Fables of Brunswick Avenue. I picked up the collection after it was mentioned a couple times by friends, one of whom quoted the axiom "Everyone lives on Brunswick Avenue sooner or later." I was apartment hunting at the time, and my library request for the collection came in the same day as a viewing of an apartment on Brunswick. A good omen, I thought. I didn't get the apartment, and I didn't exactly get what I was expecting from Fables either. The title of the collection is a bit misleading; very few of the stories take place in Toronto at all. However, a couple take place in Alberta, one of those in Calgary.

"Home for Good" begins with my nightmare scenario: a woman, Suzanne, returns to Calgary after many years of living in Toronto. While the job she has secured in Calgary is a step up and the ostensible reason for her move, the truth is that her life in Toronto was in utter shambles.
She walked over to the dormer window which made an alcove in her living room. She was a tenant in the attic of the kind of old house she had grown up in. The house had been painted and papered and divided into “heritage” apartments, although only fifteen years had passed since she left. Surely things happened too quickly in this town. Everything was a mistake, including the apartment. It had reminded her of a Toronto apartment, that was why she had taken it. But in Calgary it didn’t seem so choice; it made her feel as if she couldn’t afford anything better.
(I live in one of those third-floor Toronto apartments currently, by the way.) Suzanne visits friends who live by the Elbow, "From the window [of her apartment] she could see over to the riverside park." Suzanne remembers sneaking out to that park at 2 a.m. as a kid. I probably sat in that same park at 3 a.m. Govier captures exactly how it would feel to have to go back, to have to stare that feeling of failure in the face, to have to relive every moment everyone back home failed you, and the ways they've changed in your absence to fail you now.

It's true, things happen really quickly in Calgary. It's a city that really likes to knock things down and build new things as fast as it can. Yet when Govier's character remembers her 1968 student apartment near the university (probably still called an outpost of the U of A back then), I can picture the whole neighbourhood perfectly. The LRT I took to that same university cut through Motel Village. That Denny's saw late-night milkshakes in high-school. The bar I got into underage was right there. It's the same city. Some things never change.

I was kind of spooked by "Home for Good." I've still got my Norton anthologies as Suzanne does; they go where I go. I know I'm not the only one who takes all her school books with her through every move, but I could so perfectly see everything in "Home for Good," understood Suzanne's want for "a book somewhere that said how you were supposed to feel when you were no longer young, but you were not yet dead." There was a moment a year into living in Toronto when I almost went back, when everything seemed too hard and too expensive. I always fear I'll be forced to go back, that some misfortune will drive me there... When I picked up Fables of Brunswick Avenue I expected a fictional primer on my new stomping-ground. I didn't move to Brunswick Avenue; I was moved — thankfully, in time only — back home.

*Image found through Google; click on it for the site it came from. I suppose it being broad daylight in that photo takes away from the image I'm going for there, but so be it.

Gimmie

I've been trying to avoid the navel-gazey "what is the nature of blogging" posts, and for the most part I've been successful. Probably because I just don't bother to feel pressure to write anymore. Weirdly this has resulted in more blog posts this year than any other. To get even more "nature of blog," about five minutes ago a fellow blogger published her own thoughts on the topic I discuss in this post, and even though I've been sitting on it since late yesterday afternoon, just needing 15 minutes downtime to edit and clean it up, I feel like I shouldn't even bother now. Meh! Anyway...

I want to talk a bit about an article that I read via Twitter yesterday: Has book blogging hit the wall?. There was a little debate after the link was posted. Bloggers were cast as a whole, an amorphous blob of want and entitlement, satiated only by free goods. I got a little miffed, like I do. I responded that I've reviewed three free books here, one of which was offered to me on the blog itself. The other two are from the one publisher list I'm on. I'm careful to only ask for books I know I'll read even though many more are offered. This is only fair: copies are limited and the books should go to someone who wants them. I don't really understand that idea that if something is "free" it must be taken, especially since the books they send are ARCs, so it's not like they look pretty on your shelf or anything. Raj Patel says interesting things about "free" stuff in The Value of Nothing. Paraphrasing Marcel Mauss' The Gift he says
in sociology as in economics, there's rarely anything that comes free from expectations of reciprocity and respect.
Patel is talking about companies much larger than Harper or Penguin, like Nestle or AT&T, but the concept is the same: companies are not your friends, they (probably) don't know you or care about you as a person, they are entering into an agreement with you. There isn't ever something for nothing. Yes, there is a sense of entitlement among some, and my Twitter pal did state that entitlement is definitely not limited to book bloggers. But it's also not a defining characteristic of all book bloggers. I can't be the only one out there who doesn't feel that my internet connection means I'm owed something. The article, however, makes it sound as if my pal's initial assessment was correct. Wow, these are unsavoury people!

I know a bit about how all this works. I've sent out free books myself, when I had the opportunity to do such things. It's a relationship, and it should be one of respect. To diverge a bit, in the days of Panic Yore, I was a club and college radio DJ. Those are pretty much the only venues non-top 40 music gets played, or were before the Rise of the Machines — er, internet — so genre labels would "service" DJs with new releases. However, the DJs had to keep playlists and send those back to the record label. As with book blogging and free books, you need to prove to the publisher or label that their investment in you is worth it. Further, it seems to me that if book bloggers want to be taken seriously they need to act professionally. If they want to treat their blog as a hobby, with no deadlines or professional courtesy, which is probably closer to what I do, then bloggers need to be prepared to pay for that hobby. If you wanted to be treated like a professional (from the article, "Can you imagine them sending this to Horn Book or The NYTimes?") then you must be prepared to meet deadlines and act responsibly. (Note, I say "be prepared" to do so: there doesn't need to be a deadline involved, but if one is provided, it should be respected.) The relationship William Morrow wants to have with its bloggers is sensible and reasonable, and it's exactly how the one publisher I deal with runs things now. You can't just send books out into the dark and hope they stick. Targeted and focused marketing just makes sense. Larry from the article just doesn't understand the concept of "relationship" or "fairness."
It's not enough that it is 'your job' to review their books within a one month span before or after its release date," wrote Larry at The OF Blog, "but they couch in sweet talk the threat to pull review copies because you don't want to play their game."
"Play their game"!? Getting adversarial is no way to conduct a relationship, Larry. Perhaps publishers who operated like William Morrow, with a buffet style, have to shoulder some of the blame for not figuring out a better strategy from the get-go. Though maybe they were just optimistic about human nature. Fools!

It's really too bad the article has the tone it does. It does make bloggers seem whiny and entitled, where most of the ones I know are anything but. I wrote a garbled Tweet about the number of books I own but haven't read (I blame the head cold), which sounded a bit like I had no intention of reading them. What I meant was, I buy so many books, and have so many in the library queue, that I sometimes get a bit bogged down in the To-Read List. What I wanted to convey in that Tweet, was that I spend my money at readings, and launches, and indie bookstores (and the chains when all else fails) because it's important that I put my money where my mouth is.** I want those publishers and writers to have my dollars, because they are providing me with the thing I love the most: the written word. I'm saddened that there are bloggers out there that feel it is their right to receive freebies, especially in an industry with such low margins, where the producers of of the content almost always have a second, 40-hour a week job.

Update! I've compiled responses from other bloggers here. If you know of others, let me know and I'll link them. It's interesting, to me at least, how others have reacted.
From Pickle Me This: What I Hate About Book Bloggers
From Books Under Skin: On book blogging
From Bella's Bookshelves: The Book Blogger’s Responsibility: What?
Larry, of the OF Blog, responds to the uproar (and to me): Fallout from last week's posts on reviewing/William Morrow letter


*I've been the same with running, coincidentally. The year I don't set a goal or do any races is the year I have the best results, and most gains. I thought I worked well under pressure. Turns out, maybe not so much.
**I use the library system pretty extensively too. I wouldn't ever have enough space in my tiny apartment for all the books I want. But I want to.

The Complications of Definition

The day after Half-Blood Blues won the Giller Prize, the copy I had requested from the library finally came in. (I put it on hold when it was short-listed for the Booker.) Good timing there. I was pretty surprised Edugyan won the Giller, since I figured Ondaatje had a lock on it, just by existing. A lovely surprise though, and good on the jury for going with—what was to me—something unexpected. Among the Twittering class, it seemed The Antagonist was the favourite for the Giller. It took me while to get into The Anatagonist, but I felt it really came together well in the last 30 or so pages, and totally justified anything I'd tripped up on before. Anyway, this post isn't about the Giller or Lynn Coady (who has a really great Twitter presence, by the way).

It's can be tough to write about music.* How do you describe it? How can you make a reader understand what the music sounds like, why it sounds that way? Edugyan is such a good writer, that she’s able to describe the technical details of playing jazz in a lyrical (see what I did thar?) way:
Kid wasn't even hardly listening, it seemed. Handling his horn with an unexpected looseness, with a almost slack hand, he coaxed a strange little groan from his brass. Like there was this trapped panic, this barely held-in chaos, and Heiro hisself was the lid.
I pulled back some as he come in, fearing we was going to overpower him in that narrow closet. But he just soften it down with me, blurr it up. Then he blast out one pure, brilliant note, and I thought, my god.

Edugyan not only describes the playing, and the piece, but the emotions embedded in it. Half-Blood Blues is the story of a piece of music, how that piece came to be, and who the people were that created it: Sid, the narrator of the novel and bass-player; Chip, his oldest friend and extremely talented percussionist; and Heiro, a prodigious horn player.
It wasn't true blues, sure, ain't got the right chord structure, but the kid ain't cared none. "Blues," he said, coughing roughly, "blue wasn't never bout the chords."
It has that same feeling of heat and sadness. I'm not going to pretend to be a jazz (or blues!) scholar or aficionado, I just know the way certain pieces, and artists, make me feel. Edugyan’s characters talk about jazz in that way, in the feeling. They risk their lives, they risk each other's lives, to capture that feeling perfectly onto a record. Edugyen captures the feeling perfectly on paper.
I might have been crying. It was the sounds of something growing a crust, some watery thing finally gelling. The very sound age, of growing older, of adolescent rage being tempered by a man's heart.


Edugyan does an amazing job of telling the story of Black jazz musicians in Europe at the outbreak of war, and it’s important that they’re not all American, so as to give lie to the notion of one monolithic “Black experience.” Half-Blood Blues is a thoughtful piece on how “race” is a very complicated concept. The “half-blood” refers to many of the characters in the novel. Almost no one is simply Black (and that’s essentially true of any population in Europe or North America)—if you take that as a concept of skin rather than a cultural one. Though, of course, it's cultural too. The complexities of a Black identity are in direct juxtaposition to the pure-blood Aryan movement happening in Germany during the novel. Wrapped up in how Blackness is experienced, there are differing levels of privilege, illustrated here within the microcosm of the band: Sid’s oldest and closest friend, Chip, does extremely well for himself later in life; Louis Armstrong is – by way of his fame – able to escape the worst of the war, and one of the characters bitterly remarks that everything is okay “as long as he gets out.” Edugyan educates the reader, through the character of Hieronymous Falk, about the Mischling: German children born of white mothers and African soldier fathers.
He was a Mischling, a half-breed, but so dark no soul ever like to guess his mama a white Rhinelander. Hell, his skin glistened like pure oil. But he was German-born, sure. And if his face wasn't of the Fatherland, just bout everything else bout him rooted him there right good. And add to this fact that he didn't have no identity papers right now--well, let's just say wasn't no cakewalk for him
In a documentary made fifty years later about Heiro, the band's first manager elucidates:
"Life for black people under the Third Reich," he said through his nose, "was extremely contradictory. This is because there were so many different types of black people, and their treatment depended on what group they belonged to. [...] Hieronymous Falk," he went on, "now, he belonged to a rarer group. He was what back then was called a 'Rhineland Bastard.'
France sent in African soldiers from French colonial countries after WWI to occupy the Rhineland.
So even after the soldiers were sent home, and Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland, these children were seen as part of a significant insult to Germany. A cultural stain.
Heiro has the worst of all worlds. He is German, but is permanent reminder to all that see him of their defeat in WWI (and this is of course more and more dangerous as the years go on, and Nationalism rises). He’s denied citizenship under Hitler, but when he’s in soon-to-be occupied Paris, he’s cautioned against speaking in public. Heiro is German, he’s the enemy, he represents the invaders, even though his country of origin refuses to grant him a national identity. Heiro is completely stateless and lost. It’s heartbreaking. And it gets worse.
While in Hamburg, Heiro takes Sid to a zoo to show him a specific exhibit.
Black folk. Barefoot, dressed in rags and bones. And despite all the mud, despite the filth and the flies, their skin looked weirdly shiny. All silvery black, like the zookeepers kept them buffed up like onyx.
A ache come into my chest. "They keep people here?"
"This is just the African exhibit," Heiro muttered. "They got one for Samoans, for Esquimaux." He was trying to smile, like it ain't so horrifying. Or like it so horrifying, it funny. But the smile ain't reached his eyes.
"A human zoo," I mumbled. "Shit." I was just too damn astonished to say anything else.
It’s a difficult passage, and I wrestle with it. Is it that Germany saw all non-Aryans as animals? That seems too simplistic a reading. I keep feeling as if it’s just another level that Edugyan has placed on the hierarchy. By accident of birth, Heiro is considered more human than those born in Africa. Sid and Chip have US have citizenship, though would be subject to Jim Crow laws in many parts of the country. How high you are on the ladder depends, always, on someone under you. It’s something most of the characters are forced to engage with, and in my mind, it’s what drives Sid’s antagonist feelings towards Heiro. Sid is simply a better-than-most musician, and he resents Heiro’s talent. He wants take Heiro down a rung, not realizing Heiro feels – probably is – closer in situation to the caged Africans than his American bandmates.

I really loved Half-Blood Blues. It doesn't hurt that I just went to Paris a couple months ago, so the city in which most of the action takes place was still fresh in my mind**. I think I said something earlier in the year (not specifically about Half-Blood) about "Nazi books" and how I'm a little worn out on them. Yet, authors keep coming up with new stories to tell, and new ways of looking at WWII. Half-Blood Blues is really, really sad, and beautiful, and it only became more so as it went on. So sad, that I didn’t want to finish, because the thing with WWII novels is you know that things are not exactly going to go well. Edugyan does relieves tension at the very beginning by telling the reader what happens to Heiro in Paris within the fist 20 pages or so, and in doing so makes the heartbreak of the journey to it ever-present.

*"Talking about music is like dancing about architecture."
**And the thing with Paris, is that it basically stopped building in the late 19th century, so other than modern cosmetic touches, it looks pretty much the same as it would have to Edugyan’s characters.
I'm not sitting here pontificating on Black identity, though. I hope I'm not, anyway. I have zero first-hand knowledge of not being white. I'm acutely aware of this and I'm trying to restrict my analysis to what is in the text only. If I have over-stepped I'm happy to be told so.

The Female of the Species is More Deadlier Than the Male

I know I just said that I'm not hard on fiction. I guess what I mean, is that it takes a lot for me to call something a "bad book" or to say that I've wasted my time reading a novel. I finish almost everything I start, and there have been only two exceptions in the past couple years. However, most of the things I'm about to say about Snowdrops are complaints. It's nominated for the Booker, so I don't have to be rhapsodic about its merits, of which there are many. It's a caper book, that's made clear from the start. There is a sense of fun when speeding through, knowing there's a scam, wondering how it will unfold. Snowdrops has a bit of a pulp thriller feel to it, though written in a more high-minded style, more thoughtful than throwing a cliff-hanger at the end of every chapter.

I enjoyed reading Snowdrops while I was reading it, but something nagged at me. About a week after I finished, I finally realised: I am sick of the honey-trap. I'm tired of the nebbishy guy seduced by the "bad" girl. I felt like I'd read Girl Crazy all over again, but set in Russia. Our protagonist, Nick, is a lawyer just moved to Moscow. He's a mediocre sort of fellow, without much in the way of personality, not much success with women, not much of a looker. Nick will be defined by the events around him, pulled along with the flow of cynical Russians, all on the take. Nick does not act, he reacts. Nick wants, but lets others take. Like Russell Smith's protagonist in Girl Crazy, Nick first encounters the conveniently slutty love interest while she's in distress. In this case, he foils a purse snatching. And Masha, after an accelerated courtship, gives him her body (and for extra kink, her “sister” watches). She continues to string Nick along for months, to ensure his help in the caper. (I'm not giving anything away here. Again, this is all foreshadowed in the telling.)
'In Russia,' Steve said, 'there are no business stories. And there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories.'
Nick falls in love anyway. He thinks of marrying Masha, even though he knows nothing about her, and admits as much to himself in the narrative —constructed as a letter to his now fiancée (like in Girl Crazy there's a dull, dependable girl at the end, to act as foil to the wild girl of yore).
That's what I learned when my last Russian winter thawed. The lesson wasn't about Russia. It never is, I don't think, when a relationship ends. It isn't your lover that you learn about. You learn about yourself.
Caper accomplished, Masha conveniently disappears so that Nick can get onto being whatever it is he's learned to be. He can go back to England having had the Great Adventure, settle down with his predictable boring late-life wife.

One is supposed to separate the work from the writer. I understand that this is crucial in literary critique. But there are seriously unprofessional parts of me that wonder about A.D. Miller (and since I'm not getting paid for this, being unprofessional now and then is probably inevitable). A BBC piece on Miller says: "Miller's own experiences in Russia were 'slightly more uneventful' than those of his fictional creation". It makes me wonder if he wishes that all this had happened to him. If he saw all the strip clubs and easy sex, the women he writes about as desperate to find a non-Russian husband, and wanted so much to have them for himself. Would it have mattered if those women had ripped him off, had hurt him, if he'd gotten to fulfill that Mata Hari dream? In the end, this girl is always a fiction. It feels like Miller is writing a fantasy for himself, a Booker nominated Penthouse Forum letter. “I can’t believe it happened to me. I was working in Russia…” While it is well written, at times clever, Snowdrops winds up existing in sexual cliché territory, and for me that's a bit tired and not the least challenging.

ETA: In the comments, I just proposed the idea that the letter Nick writes to his fiancée is in itself a fiction. That he's the dullest dude ever, and so he makes up this elaborate story to tell his girlfriend, so she'll find him more interesting. And if that's the case, if the book is that self-aware? Then it's fucking brilliant. And I'm willing, totally willing, to believe that's the case, if there's any evidence for it. I'd prefer fiction be good, after all

Whatever You Say I Am

I was saying to a friend, recently, that I'm a lot harder on non-fiction than fiction. Even when I don't wholly enjoy a novel or short-story collection I don't tend to judge it too harshly. I like to talk fiction, move around inside it, make connections. With non-fiction, there's often a thesis in the setup (memoir isn't wholly excluded from this), and that invites critical inquisition of the text, even if the thesis as a whole is solid (see my unhappiness with Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright Sided). That's my theory on how I read, anyway.

The Psychopath Test danced right through all my argumentative tendencies, and stands as a solidly interesting read. Jon Ronson is an extremely talented writer and pure investigator. The Psychopath Test doesn't come from a single thesis, but rather the coalescing of several incidents and interviews that he'd done, which all seemed to make sense together in hindsight. For example, Ronson had interviewed "Tony" in Broadmoor psychiatric hospital for This American Life. Tony was living among serial killers and sex offenders as a consequence of claiming madness to get out of a jail sentence for aggravated assault. The psychiatrists at the time of his sentencing believed the quotes Tony had pulled from violent movies to be his own thoughts, and declared him insane. The NPR interview seemed pretty open and shut when I'd heard it years ago. Stupid kid does something stupid, and follows with stupid plot to Get Out of Jail Free. When he seems sane, the hospital thinks his treatment is working, and says they need to keep him. If he plays insane, he clearly needs to stay as well. Tony is stuck.

The Psychopath Test however, goes a bit further with Tony's story.
Seems Tony's doctors know very well that he faked his way into Broadmoor.
"Tony[...] did get here by faking mental illness because he thought it would be preferable to prison." [...]It was now the consensus. Tony's delusions --the ones he'd presented when he had been on remand in jail-- just, in retrospect, didn't ring true. [...]"Oh!" I thought, pleasantly surprised. "Good! That's great!" I had liked Tony when I met him but found myself feeling warier of him those past days so it was nice to have his story verified by an expert
However, the action of making up those stories in an attempt to escape prison, as well as many other indications have Tony diagnosed as a psychopath, according to the Hare Checklist.
But then I read Professor Maden's next line: "Most psychiatrists who have assessed him, and there have been a lot, have considered he is not mentally ill, but suffers from psychopathy."[...]Faking mental illness to get out of a prison sentence, he explained, is exactly the kind of deceitful and manipulative act you'd expect of a psychopath. Tony faking his brain going wrong was a sign that his brain had gone wrong.

The genesis and applications of the Hare Checklist, named after and created by pioneering psychologist Bob Hare, are ostensibly the main focus of the book. Ronson gives a thorough introduction to the history of the treatment and diagnosis of psychopaths, with pertinent peripheral information about psychiatry/psychology — and its opponents — in general (there's a very interesting chapter on the history of the DSM, which is going into its fifth edition). Ronson then takes the checklist on the road and investigates whether psychopaths are disproportionately represented in the top ranks of corporate executives. The Psychopath Test refuses to have a central thesis, rather Ronson simply and entertainingly reports the facts as he can find them, and the events as they happen. Both Scientologists and psychiatrists are treated with fairness, and neither escape scrutiny. Ronson gives enough of himself, though, to keep the book engaging and avoid being dry recantation of names and dates. This is simply an excellent, well-researched non-partisan look at a specific subset of psychiatric definitions.

When I was in University I took a first-year psychology course as an option. One of the things our professor told us was that we would wind up diagnosing ourselves with all sorts of mental disorders when reading the text book. We were told to ignore this phenomenon (is there a name for it? I never knew), and do our best not to be concerned when we checked off symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, or food related disorders. We were asked to leave naming of our psychoses and neuroses to the professionals. An interesting subtext of The Psychopath Test is how Jon Ronson begins to do just this, as he becomes more knowledgeable. No, he doesn't think he's a psychopath, but he discovers — he thinks — that he's in whatever the exact opposite category is. He's too anxious, too interested in other people, he feels fear more physically*. At the same time, he begins diagnosing random people with psychopathy, after taking one class with Bob Hare. That, if anything, is one of the lingering and more important messages in The Psychopath Test: A little learning is a very dangerous thing.

*It's theorized that psychopaths had a low or non-functioning amygdala. Once Ronson hears about this, he feels his go in to overdrive rather too often.

Looking In

When Pigeon English was released early this year, we didn't know what would happen in London in August...

The narrative revolves around Harrison — Harri — an 11-year old boy, newly arrived to England from Ghana. He lives with his mother and older sister, while his father and baby sister have stayed behind. Harrison's family, like so many immigrant families, lives in a bad neighbourhood (in London), defined by crime and violence. Through the first-person narrative, Harrison retains an innocence and sense of wonder that seems to belong to someone several years younger. This is at times not exactly plausible, as when he seems to have absolutely no knowledge of human sexual activity. I remember being 11. I wasn't participating in anything, but I certainly knew some of the mechanics (and I can't just blame Jean M. Auel for that). Then again, perhaps the avenues which kids in Europe and North America learn about sex just didn't exist in Ghana; I can't claim to know anything about it. In other ways, the exaggerated innocence seems appropriate, as his class-mates are portrayed socially similar. The games and they way they play them sometimes seem, again, something younger kids would be interested in. (I should note, though, that by "innocent" I don't mean "simple.") The comparison has been made, favorably for Pigeon English, to Emma Donoghue's Room, with Harri judged an easier child narrator to read and accept. Readers often found Room's Jack both too precocious and annoying (I don't agree). Harri remains likeable and for the most part, age-appropriate (as above, if anything, he skews slightly young for his age). The Guardian review says
Kelman has already been much praised for his ability to write from an 11-year-old's perspective, but here, as often in the first half of the novel, Harri's voice feels laboured and faux-naïf.
I think most of this, aside from my issues with innocence, can be chalked up to Harri's difficulty using language in his new context. I think Stephen Kelman's writing is pretty clear on that.

While it's not explicit, one assumes that Harri's family is (in waves) moving to England for a "better life," but his flashbacks to time spent in his home country show that he is now much worse off. (Though this may be some of the troubling white framing of black experience as seen in The Help, or evoking a "noble savage" type.) Comparatively, London is dirty, violent, and crowded. People are selfish, preferring to harm rather than help others. The never-easing class divide in England cuts across colour and and country of origin, keeping a poisonous river between the have-nots and the have-too-much. The origins of the August 2011 London riots, it's been said, erupted from a feeling of absolute hopelessness, from the societal group of which Harri is now a member. Unlike the prevailing "You can be anything" message that American kids grow up with (erroneous or not), England likes to keep its classes separate. Given the historically abysmal record in the way England treats the poor, upward mobility isn't even considered; it's just assumed getting out is not possible. Near the end of the novel, the seniors in Harri's school write goodbye messages on each other's school shirts. Two pages are devoted just to these messages, and they illuminate the matter-of-fact acceptance of the fate of those without means. It doesn't even seem sad or angry, it just is. The messages read like any year-book: some are just names, some are jokes or bawdy quips. They begin*:
GOOD LUCK KEEP IT REAL     spud
NORTHWELL MANOR TILL I DIE        TYRONE
TAKE IT EASY GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN naomi
DFC [the initials of a local gang]FUCK SCHOOL LEWSEY HILL R. PUSSIES
Then others start, interspersed with the sort above, with a new theme:
JUST ENOUGH EDUCATION TO PERFORM
repeat after me: DO YOU WANT FRIES WITH THAT?
DON'T PAY TAX, SELL DRUGS INSTEAD
SEE YOU AT THE JOB CENTRE
Be warned: the future doesn't need you![emphasis mine]
It feels almost prescient that mere months before the London Riots this novel would be published, capturing the soon-to-be-violent malaise of a demographic group so strongly. Harri, while a newcomer, shares a lot with his peers, and neighbours. Like him, most of the people in Pigeon English are essentially, easily good. For example, Terry Takeaway is a thief and a drunk, owner of a pitbull (hallmark of a "bad guy" in many places), but he's also on the lookout for Harri, willing to defend him from older kids for no other reason than it's intrinsically right. (The pitbull, Asbo, is revealed to be a loveable pup, and Harri enjoys playing with him immensely.) There are only a couple essentially bad characters in Pigeon English, and Kelman is careful to make them different as possible, to show that the hard, evil criminals of legend aren't the majority. When things go bad on a large scale, as in the August riots, it's often not because people have substandard ethics or upbringing (fuck you very much, David Cameron), but because they're pulled along, never having been allowed to know another way to be.

There's a load of films being made where filmmakers go to a council estate and 90 percent of the people there are functional—getting their kids ready for school, paying their taxes, working. And 10 percent are dysfunctional—and they go, "That's what we're going to make a film about."*


*I've attempted to replicate the changes in type on these pages of the novel, which indicate that there are different people writing each message.
**Actor Eddie Marsan, interviewed by Jonathan Romney in The Independent, May 2, 2010. As quoted in Jon Ronson's The Pyschopath Test (210).
***Also, I think I've figured out — for myself anyway — the "talking" pigeon character that seems to have caused so many readers so much trouble. He's supposed to be for Harri, as Harri is for the neighbourhood; an outsider looking in, with a perspective that illuminates the situation. I agree, though, it doesn't really work.

Wild Abandon

My first experience with the work of Joe Dunthorne was watching the movie adaptation of Submarine. The movie is a bit off-kilter, slightly trippy, and seemingly coloured by remembrance. It’s also a bit uneven, and I was left not terrifically impressed. It was, then, with an open mind but a small amount of trepidation I began to read Dunthorne’s new novel, Wild Abandon. What I got was the usual outcome of the book vs movie duel: something much, much better on the page than on the screen.*

Wild Abandon follows the lives of commune, or their preferred term “community,” members in Wales. Don and Freya are a middle-aged married couple, and half of the creating force behind the community. Janet, their school chum, and Patrick, former landlord and provider of startup capital, round out the founders. The community is in decline, after a decade or so or humming along. New members are hard to find, there aren’t many children.

Don, with his degree in film studies, is ever the actor reciting lines. He’s described as often seeming to have rehearsed things is his head, many times, before speaking. “Don preferred himself in front of the lens. In the same way that a miserable holiday, when viewed through its photographs, becomes a stream of joyful moments.” In a flashback sequence, he is away from the community and gets the call his wife is giving birth to their first child, Kate. He relishes the role of the immediately expectant father, racing back, practicing what he’ll say, dramatically, to the cop that pulls him over for speeding (and is saddened when it doesn’t happen). That he doesn’t make it in time to see Kate born is representative of his character. Freya is responsible in birth, as well as in death; she’s been dubbed the community’s “abattoir,” because she’s the only one who can actually kill and butcher animals. The sexual politics between Freya and Don are interesting: it’s the woman who works hard, and gets down to what has to be done, because there’s little choice; the man lives in the mind, making speeches and directing, while doing very little himself. This relationship isn’t atypical in literature or life; I’m thinking of the Great Male Author trope, with his long-suffering wife behind him, making financial and household arrangements while the artist needs his think-time.

Kate has her sights set on going to University elsewhere in the next year, and 11-year old son Albert is too smart yet not socialized enough. Kate escapes the community to the home of her boyfriend’s parents. Like most teenagers, she wants only what she doesn’t have while living with her parents (and this is echoed by boyfriend Geraint moving to the community later on). She seeks what she thinks will be a more interesting sort of discord.
Considering that Kate had never spent any time in a suburban home before, she had a highly developed understanding of what to expect; during her upbringing, her father had encouraged her to make the most of his film collection, which had a lot to say on that subject, including The Graduate, Edward Scissorhands, American Beauty, and The Ice Storm. One of the community's well-told stories was of Kate, aged ten, setting an alarm for herself to wake at 3 a.m. so that she could come downstairs and watch Poltergiest, the definitive suburban horror film.
In fact, what she finds is that life is pretty much humdrum no matter where you run to.
The disappointing news from her time in Three Crosses was that, where she had hoped to find suburbia's dark and seething underbelly, she had found its potbelly of contented boredom.
( In this way, Dunthorne reads a bit like a gentler, less satirically-minded Tom Perrota.)

Everyone in Wild Abandon is a bit like Kate, moving and shifting, enjoying the new but eventually searching for a new place that might be just a bit better: Kate eventually gets into Cambridge; her parents leaving London squats for the wilds of Wales; Patrick leaves the commune to once again work a full-time job and have an apartment; Freya wanting to leave Don and get Albert into regular school; Geraint joining the community. It’s reminiscent of the constant ebb and flow of city/suburban populations. Albert, not having the possibility of self-determined mobility at his age, turns to an Apocalypse scenario centered on a black hole for comfort. It’s child’s logic; if he never leaves his known world, the only possible change is for the world to end. Kate is the embodiment of that black hole—as her sphere increases (going to school outside the community, then leaving for the Three Crosses suburb, then going to college) the more Albert feels his world is ending.


Dunthorne has just the right descriptive simile or metaphor handy at all times. This isn’t as easy to pull off as you might think; the descriptor has to be contextual, so much so that it gives the reader a perfect idea of the scene at hand, without distraction. Dunthorne has this down to an art, and it’s an integral part of his style. This might be annoying in the hands of a lesser writer, but I only noticed the comparatives so often because of how perfect they were. Early on in the novel, one of the founding members of the community, Patrick, has a paranoid episode after ingesting both marijuana and mushrooms. Fleeing the community on a cold night in just underwear, he tears through the brush, coming out into a suburban street in an empty new development. As he succumbs to hypothermia he falls onto the “road shaped like a thermometer -- a turning circle at one end.” Not only is this an accurate visual, it’s loaded with symbolism. The thermometer, of course, speaks of temperature and Patrick’s loss of body heat. The choice of a cul-de-sac, though, also represents an ending, the bottom of the bag, or in Intervention speak, rock bottom. Patrick quits the community, and gets clean (after a last hurrah of enjoying hospital sponsored morphine drips). Later, Kate takes her university qualifying exams:
There was something enjoyable about the tarot of turning over an exam paper: a whole gymnasium full of people reading their fortunes.
Again, this is perfect on a couple levels. Exam results do tell the future, but on a smaller and more physical level, the turning of the papers is indeed very like turning over tarot cards. It makes the moment slower than I remember when I took my exams, and more lovely. Wild Abandon is like that sometimes, making the reader stop sometimes, over the small moments, looking at the small parts of life in a new way. That’s what good literature does.

Kate’s first memory of cartoons is watching “Steamboat Willie.” She’s struck by the pile of potatoes Willie is tasked to peel, a pile that never seems to end or get any smaller. It gives her nightmares. The petite-bourgeois lives in Wild Abandon are similar in that, not getting ahead, just making lateral movements. (The commune, while at times hardscrabble and always ad-hoc still falls into this category, having been created by a property owner and three holders of liberal arts degrees). Comfortable survival is the same on the commune as in the suburbs. The novel’s title, perhaps, relates to those small moments which stand outside just-living, like the two rave parties depicted (an accidental one in the past, a party for Kate’s birthday that got out of hand, and the one that climaxes the book, which is engineered to generate interest in the community). Perhaps, though, the title is sarcastic, because no matter the location, being middle-class has conformity clauses.

Reviewed from advanced reading copy, courtesy Penguin Books Canada.
*Yeah, I get that they’re different works. **
** And I’m glad I haven’t read Submarine, actually. The Guardian review did that thing that The G&M review did with The O’Briens, talking about how the first book was much better. Sometimes, it’s good to start with the second book?

Making 9/11 All About Me*

In the last ten years I've finished university, been married and divorced, moved cities, traveled across the Pacific twice, got out of retail, got out of publishing, made and lost friends, found a great love, and chose to get sterilised. It's been a big decade.

In 2001 I was 25, living alone and in my last semester of university. My routine was as it had been for years: get up after about five hours sleep, attend one or two classes, race home and change to go to work till 11, study, five hours sleep. I didn't interact with people at school, because I never really had time. Class, work, sleep. So on September 11th I went to school as usual. I had one class that morning, so I likely woke up around 9 am, without listening to the radio or turning on the TV, just racing to school. The professor didn't mention anything. There were no scenes of people crying and being comforted. There weren't TVs in the hallways or classrooms tuned to CNN. Everything was perfectly normal. People were probably talking to each other about it, but I hadn't talked to anyone that day, other than the people serving coffee. They didn't say anything. Maybe they assumed I already knew. I had no idea.

In writing that, I think I've just come to understand the biggest mystery of my whole 9/11 story. People asked "How could you not know? How could people not have said something about it?" I think the answer is timing. By the time I left my house, and got my first coffee of the day, it was 9:30, mountain time. The towers had collapsed an hour before. It was already done, and maybe at that point it was unlikely you'd say to a stranger, "Have you heard?" Because everyone would have heard. Except, I hadn't heard.

I got home from school a little after 1 pm, 3 pm eastern time. That's when I turned on my TV. I remember this part clear as anything. The first thing I saw was some politician or another saying "America is still the greatest nation in the world." My first thought, as a Canadian used to complaining about the cultural imperialism and hubris of the United States, was Oh, these fucking Americans! And then the scene switched to footage of Tower One collapsing, Tower Two just rubble and smoke behind it. Something was very, very wrong.

What everyone already knew, I learned six hours after the fact. Was I the last person to hear about 9/11? I sat on the floor in front of the TV and watched the highlight reel, because that's what it was by that point. The second plane strike, the collapse, the people fleeing in terror. I called my then-boyfriend, later husband, who was living in New Jersey. I hadn't been out there yet, so I didn't know if where he lived was that sort of "across the river from Manhattan" New Jersey, I didn't know how widespread the attacks were, how bad the national damage was. He was fine, he told me not to worry, everything was fine. I don't remember being emotional when I called. I was too confused.

After talking to the boyfriend, I was finally able to start putting things together, and I got online. Livejournal was the preferred social network at that time, and there was a lot of material to get through. People had been posting events as they happened, and the fear and confusion of watching it all go down in real time was a live wire in every word. I had friends in Toronto who'd been evacuated from their workplace. I had Calgary friends stranded in Toronto, because all flights had been grounded. At some point I realised a Calgary friend was in New York City that day, and no one had heard from him. I'm sad to say that this is when I started crying; the possibility of my loved one caught up in it all made it real and human, finally. I suppose it may be possible that's when the shock wore off enough to let in some comprehension of the real scale of what I'd been seeing. I called work, because I was so scared for my friend, told them I couldn't leave until someone had heard from him. Work understood. And so I waited. Around 4 pm Calgary time, I learned he'd been in contact with Toronto people. He drove out of NYC that morning, before rush hour to avoid traffic, and had gotten stuck at the border trying to get back into Canada. The borders, of course, were total chaos. He'd been in the WTC the day before. He still has the ticket stub dated September 10, 2001. They'd gone a day earlier than planned.

I went to work, at the 7-11, shell-shocked, two hours late. My loved ones were accounted for, I could go on. It was a weird night. A special edition of the paper came in around 9 o'clock. Customers were infrequent, and quiet. Everyone, by now, knew. Everything was still up in the air, there were no answers yet. We were so far away from what happened, yet we had tilted a little, and it took a while to stop feeling like every day was going to change us again.

In the past couple weeks I've been obsessed with watching 9/11 coverage. I found a site that has archived the live feeds from CNN, CBC, and the BBC from that entire morning. I still have such a hard time understanding that day, because I missed so much of it. I literally slept through the events of 9/11, and it creates this need in me to fill in the missing pieces. I've seen some people talk of a memorial fatigue this week, and I get that. I, however, don't suffer from it. If anything, I require more information, more pictures, more taped phone calls.

If I remember right, it's 10:28 eastern time that Tower One collapses. I watched the five seconds of that on the CBC feed, over and over. They're saying they don't know what happened to Tower Two, because it's in the background, and then Tower One goes. You hear the entire newsroom make a sound... it's a horror movie sound. It's the sound of a heart and a brain breaking into pieces simultaneously. I wasn't there for it, so I needed to feel it, repeatedly. I don't know what that's about.

I was in NYC last month. The PATH train I took in from Jersey City lets out at WTC. On a day I spent alone, just wandering Manhattan, I spent some time at St. Paul's. Hard to imagine how it escaped damage, let alone total destruction, being just feet from Ground Zero. That whole block, even on that sunny day ten years later, full of tourists and citizens going about their day as normal, is a heavy place. I took pictures of Revolutionary era gravestones, while America's involuntary mass burial ground sat behind construction-boards in front of me. Heavy, yet peaceful. In that place, in those moments, all I could feel was hope that peace had come for all those souls, and the ones who loved them.

I'm sure, though, I'm not alone when I say that I still don't understand any of it.


Photo: James Nachtwey, Time.


*This post isn't about the politics of 9/11, the aftermath, or the reasons why. This is just a personal reflection on that day. It's my answer to "where were you when?"

Easy Reads

This week, the Booker Shortlist and the Giller Longlist were announced. Thus, my library queue got crazy again, and there's going to be a whole lot of Literature up in here pretty soon. It seems appropriate, then, that I just polished off a total snack-book, Emma Forrest's Cherries in the Snow*.

Having read Forrest's memoir, Your Voice in my Head just recently, I was a bit distracted by knowing which details of Cherries were "write what you know," and unavoidably making conjecture as to which other details were true. Forrest's personality is evident in Cherries, which is smart, funny, and just slightly raunchy. The main character, Sadie, is a young, hip English Jewish girl living in New York (as is Forrest). As the novel begins she's in a relationship with an older man, a journalist. I believe Forrest mentioned a long-time relationship with an older playwright in Your Voice. I began to wonder how much of the stilted sex life in the first part of the book was fiction, and how the older man (men?) in her life felt about that.
The novel is a chick-lit romp through makeup and love, with a feisty eight-year old thrown in. No startling new territory here. Kate Carraway's The Globe & Mail review of Your Voice in My Head says of Forrest's earlier fiction
I and other twentysomething disaffecteds read half-sunk in lukewarm bathwater, searching for instruction and connection with her characters, all of them good bad girls, messy and wanting.
This intrigued me, but I probably would have enjoyed this book a lot more in my teens and 20s. For me, it was possible to believe in those years that a man like the love-interest Marley was on the horizon. Marley is a prince-charming composite, perfect for Emma Forrest, BEST LOVAH EVER (really? at 24 you get this? really?) with a dark distant-past, enough cash to go around, who falls in love with our protagonist almost instantly, but not slavishly. Ten years ago I could easily dream that I too would one day have a glamourous job at a cosmetics company in the big city... oh, shit; I do have a job a cosmetics company in the big city. Anyway, what I mean is, this is all delightful fantasy stuff but at this point in my life Cherries is the sort of thing that entertains only while I'm reading it. To really care about a book like this one probably needs to be able to feel like they could put themselves into the main character and I was wholly unable to do so. I really, really loved Forrest's memoir, and I look forward to any forthcoming work. I suspect it will speak to me more than Cherries in the Snow.

Something I never, ever stop loving is a big old multi-generational epic. Peter Behrens' The O'Briens is a good choice if you're in the mood for such. The reviews I've seen mention his first (and, they say, better) novel The Law of Dreams, which won the Governor General's award. Since I haven't read that one I haven't any comparative complaints. The O'Briens begins before WWI and ends in the 1960s, following the fortunes of Joe O'Brien and his extended family. Again, from The Globe and Mail:
We see no consequence more dire than his wife being angry with him, but even then we’re not sure whether she wants to leave him because of his drinking binges or because she has fallen in love with J. Krishnamurti.
That's valid, but I didn't really mind the lack of big drama. Some bad things happen, but everyone's pretty much okay in the end, and I don't have a particular issue with that treatment. The O'Briens is a story, not an opera.
I read a lot of Judith Krantz and Barbara Taylor Bradford novels years ago, and the way The O'Briens deals mostly with the lives of the privileged felt similar. Some might take that comparison as an insult, I don't know, but it's certainly not meant that way. Those books, as with The O'Briens, were easy and engaging, over 500 pages and 50-plus fictional years.
As for quibbles, I do have a couple. The O'Briens is most interesting in its early going, usually when focusing on the matriarch, Iseult, and it does suffer sometimes from possible behavioral anachronisms (for example, I'm not sure how easy it would be for a woman to leave her husband and flee the country with her children in 1931, or if many women would even think of the possibility). As well, there was a stand-out magical sperm phallacy (I coined it that day, yes the "ph" is intentional) early on that had quite a few of my Twitter pals giggling**. Otherwise, it's a fine read, and sometimes just "fine" is exactly what I want.

Okay, awardies and fall lists. Let's do this. *rolls up sleeves*

*That review is a random Google find, and a lovely little review it is!
**My tweet: "Her firm white belly loaded with mystery." Oh bugger off, it's JIZZ not the Arc of the Covenant.

Teenage Dirtbag

Mansfield Press imprint, A Stuart Ross Book, kindly sent me a review copy of Mongrel after my post about author Marko Sijan's piece in CNQ. As I said in the comments to that post, I was honestly curious to see what the author of "The Gutter Years" would do with a longer, fictional format (which, of course, was the point of "The Gutter Years": get attention for the long-delayed novel). So thanks, Stuart.

Mongrel follows the lives of five teenagers, and their circles, who attend the same high-school in Windsor, Ontario. Each part of the novel is narrated by one of the five, and traces their interactions with each other. The Windsor of Mongrel is a dark, dirty, and depressing place. I've never been to Windsor, so I can't say for sure if this is accurate or not, though Alexander McLeod's Light Lifting seems a more realistic record of the place. Still, if you're stuck in a place of unhappiness as a teenager, things do tend to seem more apocalyptic than they actually are. The teens in Mongrel are very, very messed up. Several come from abusive or neglectful homes. School is ultra-violent, with no intervention from faculty.

I couldn't help but think of (the truly wonderful) Lemon while reading Mongrel and comparing their versions of desperately downtrodden teendom. In Lemon, though, you had someone to root for. Lemon faced a world much like the one in Mongrel, under constant threat of violence, amidst poverty and suspect parenting, but she was also a character you wanted to succeed. Lemon is a novel with real heart, and compassion. Mongrel feels more like pushing buttons and acting out, less from rebellion than implacable aggression.

Sijan is very adept at writing first person teenage narrative. The language through most of Mongrel is very juvenile, and veers often into needless "gross out" territory. But, that's fine. Actually, it works very well, for what Sijan is—I think —trying to do here. Teenage boys really are pretty gross, and they are very convincingly rendered here. There are also a couple chapters dedicated to female characters. The first, Sera, is pretty far up her own ass, which I totally buy. There are always plenty of those people in high-school who think they've got it all figured out already*. It's the hubris of youth. The other, Sophie, is at the opposite end of the spectrum, self-hating and anorexic. This, too, is convincing. The female teens in the book, by the way, are portrayed no better or worse than the males. Everyone is equally fucked up in high-school. Of course, they're all equally unlikeable too, and the reader is left without anyone to care about (again, unlike Lemon). That's not really a problem in itself; I'm sure plenty of successful novels are filled with jackasses. For this reader, however, an anchor for empathy is helpful. Least well-treated is Sophie's mother, who is depicted as taking home random men, and teen-aged boys (Sophie's classmates), for the purposes of anal-only sex. It's suggested this is a result of the trauma of her husband being not-secretly in love with her not-gay father. There's something really off about this characterization, though most of the parents in Mongrel are better written, and in some cases are the only locus of compassion and decency.

There's supposed to be some subtext in Mongrel about culture and class clash, and fitting in, but it gets drowned out by passages like
[...]she always had ten to fifteen zits on her forehead and chin, ripe whiteheads filled with pus, which I'd rub my face against when we were humping. When they'd pop, I'd lick them up.
or
She's all possessed with her left eye twitching and she wraps her hand around mine, and starts jerking me off. She pulls her eyebrows in like bat's wings and speeds up and it feels wicked so I tilt my head back against the wall and close my eyes and keep playing with her Zulu tits[.]
The message I get in the end, is that everyone is horrible, and will continue to be horrible through the generations. Parents fuck you up, no matter how good or bad they are to you, and you will propagate more fucked up kids in turn. As the books ends we learn Gunther, the pus-licker above, has impregnated Sophie. He discovers Sophie's condition after having anal-only sex with her Mom, then stealing into Sophie's room to find her barely alive, reading her suicide note... oh, come on. I'm trying here, but some things are just a bit ridiculous.

It will probably come as no surprise that I didn't like Mongrel. This book isn't for me, I am not its audience. I'm not sure who the audience would be, precisely.

*Surely, there are people of every age like this, and no one person has everything figured out. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that teenagers aren't too young to start on this game, though there is something about the teenage ego that still finds it hard to see past their own nose. HI, I AM AN OLD LADY. GET OFF MY LAWN.

RIP Jack Layton

I've been trying to write something about Jack Layton for a day now. I could never do him justice, so this is just a small thing inspired by this stunning panorama of the messages of love and respect at Toronto City Hall.

Maybe it's just me, but isn't this how we should feel about the people we elect to lead us? Shouldn't we trust them with more than our tax bill? Isn't it more important that our leaders believe in all of us, rich and poor, than in separating us by income? I realise it's a bit Pollyanna, but I can't wrap my head around why people accept anything less. Yet they do, and they will. In the meantime, others will continue to do Jack Layton's work, and spread his message that we can always do better than we have before, as Canadians. That's the family he was always talking about; I've never felt it more keenly than now.

The mourning, it seems, has not yet passed.


Patrick Corrigan, The Toronto Star

Someone Wrote a Book About Calgary*

A couple months ago, I was reading Shawn Micallef's tweets about his time in Calgary with a critical and cynical eye. I thought he got it right, most of the time, and though I could be nitpicky about some details in the tweets, I won't. I've always said that Calgary can be fun if you're a visitor.

Of course, I know Calgary in a different way. I lived there for the first 26 years of my life and I return every 1-2 years to visit my Dad, my cat, the house I grew up in, and take the drive to Banff to see my ailing Mother. I went back in early June this year, to a place I recognize less and less. Maybe it's from living in Toronto so long, I've forgotten just how incredibly aggressive the whole vibe is in Calgary. For the first time, I felt uneasy in my hometown. Walking down 17th Ave, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I felt menaced. The quiet at my Dad's house, in an early 70s suburb backed by Nose Hill Park (at right**), was eerie more than comforting. I looked over my shoulder a lot. Driving, as Micallef put it, is "no fun. No fun." I saw some cyclists attempt to ride on these hostile streets, and my hats off to them. If all of those complaining about the lack of bicycle infrastructure in Toronto could see what these bold Calgarians deal with, they'd be amazed at how good we have it.

I did take a bit of issue with the Spacing post that went up later, only in that I felt the reach could have been a bit broader. I lived in one of the neighbourhoods just out of downtown, after moving out of my parents' house. And yes, they can be lovely. In fact, I returned to that neighbourhood several times during my last trip. Micallef mentions Crescent Heights, which was the aspirational housing of kids from the north-western suburbs. Mount Royal was where we wandered, after-bar, Elbow River in the moonlight. But go a little further and things change. Each neighbourhood homogeneously proclaims its decade as you move further away from the core, "mixed" architecture being an anathema. The ability to walk to much of anything is gone. My parents' house is 2km from the nearest grocery store. Try that with a bag-full of canned goods. It's not that the Calgarian suburbs are a nutritional desert; there isn't a convenience store any closer. It's just house, after house, after house. I'd like to see what Micallef would make out of this wasteland. The 'burbs are mandated to look uniform.

It's this sort of environment in which Monoceros takes place. The pressure for uniformity in the Calgary suburbs extends, too, to the people who live there. Calgary is hyper-masculine, and to step out of line is to become extremely vulnerable. There's little support for those who won't fall into place.

What I love about Monoceros, is how Suzette Mayr set a book in Calgary, without using any overt cowboy tropes. Mayr, interestingly, has most of the narrative take place in February. You'd think it would be difficult to write about a prairie winter, or perhaps monotonous to read about one, but Mayr's lucky to have Calgary to work with, with its ever-changing temperature. The Chinooks that roll in and out through Monoceros affect the moods and actions of the characters, like the Santa Ana winds do in a Raymond Chandler story.

If the weather in Calgary is totally unpredictable, the prejudices that run through the populous are easy to call. This is why Max and Walter hide their relationship (which is a marriage in everything but name, right down to the boredom of familiarity) for over a decade, to the point of maintaining separate residences in name only, lest they be fired from their shared Catholic high-school workplace. When Patrick Furey kills himself, it's partially due to the knowledge that navigating this world, when his classmates have begun to clue into his sexuality, will be too difficult. The boy he loves, Ginger, has gone cold, after conducting a secret affair. Ginger, too, knows the risks are too great. Calgary is a city infused with testosterone, and enforces a strict code of conduct. This isn't to say there aren't out people there, but to be out is sometimes a luxury that some can't afford. It's still this way; tall, thin, black-wearing friends of mine still get "fag-rolled" simply for looking like something other.

Monoceros is solidly a book about Calgary, even if it is rarely explicit about it. Mayr understands very well the hetero-normative crush of the suburbs, which take up more than 90-percent of Calgary's area, and at least as much of its collective consciousness.

*See, also: "No One Writes Books About Calgary."
**That photo, by the way, was taken at 8:30 pm in early June. When you leave for a while, it becomes wonderful and confusing how late the light stays.
What Calgary does have, is a lot of off-road trails, which are more recreational in intent, though I suspect some do get used for commutes out of the suburbs.

Stronger Voice

This is yet another Lainey recommendation, but it's likely I would have picked it up anyway: putting Millais' Ophelia on the cover is a good way to get my attention*. And it's not just an allegory. Emma Forrest talks about Ophelia in her introduction to Your Voice in My Head. She was obsessed by the painting as a teen, riding her bike to the Tate to see it every weekend. It's clear early on that Forrest is my kind of gal.
   

There's something about a story of mental illness that draws me, though I'm often left frustrated and disappointed. Such memoirs often feel congratulatory (about the illness, not the recovery), and indulgent. I suppose it's easy for me to say, because I've comparatively not suffered much from bad brain chemistry, but I'm often left with the feeling that the illness is held up as the redeeming feature of the author's personality. The illness makes them "special," the illness is why we should pay attention, or the illness is why they're an artist in the first place. And maybe all of that's true, but it's also annoying. Not everyone with a mental illness is an artist (though I suppose there's the argument that many artists are mentally ill). Some people with mental illness are just as dull as anyone else. That's another reason I really like Emma Forrest. This book is about a particularly dark time in her life, but it's always extremely self-aware. Forrest is smart, talented, and funny first. It's a neat trick, too, because the book really is about her relationship to mental illness: her cutting, bulimia, mania, and depression. These traits, however, don't define Emma; her bipolar status is simply another part of her, not the sum total of her. This is a hopeful and important message, I think, to anyone struggling through diagnosis and treatment: your illness is not the entirety of you. Other memoirs might fail in this, making the illness the star, and the writer simply the host organism. (To be fair, I'm sure that in the middle of any mental illness it feels—more, probably is—all-consuming.)

Your Voice in My Head has gotten a lot of attention, because Forrest goes into great detail about her relationship with Colin Farrell (whom she does not name, but the world knows). I don't need to say much on that score, other than this is just one more thing that makes Forrest's experience very relateable: we haven't all dated movie stars, but a lot of us dated That Guy. That Guy comes on very strong, feels every emotion full-force, and then one day it's just done. And as all this is happening, Forrest's much treasured therapist, Dr. R, unexpectedly dies.

In a Turkish museum, Forrest has an hallucinogenic/imaginary conversation with the deceased Dr R, about his death, and the death of her relationship. "Losing you both was only the practice pain, wasn't it? For my mum and dad..." Her mind's Dr. R agrees. It's from this conversation the book takes its title. It's appropriate, as it's the most poignant moment, in a memoir full of honesty, intelligence, big emotion, and all-encompassing humour (which never feels out of place, even in the depths of emotional despair).
'When it happens,' he asks me, 'what will get you through?'
'Friends who love me.'
'And if your friends weren't there?'
'Music through headphones.'
'And if the music stopped?'
'A sermon by Rabbi Wolpe.'
'If there was no religion?'
'The mountains and the sky.'
'If you leave California?'
'Numbered streets to keep me walking.'
'If New York falls into the ocean?'
Your voice in my head.


*The Canadian edition has Ophelia on the cover. Other editions don't seem to. Shame. It's a great image, and an important one to the author, that is not only the topic of the introduction, but a totem that Forrest carries through her life and references several times.
**While I haven't mentioned it, this post is tagged "Jewish" because her religion is an important part of Emma Forrest's life, and she does talk about it in Your Voice in My Head. If you've got any inclination in that direction, the description of Rabbi Wolpe's sermon that comprises the entirety of Chapter 36 is a lovely and moving moment.
Or, I suppose, That Girl. Though given cultural norms, a dude who will feel is supposed to be compelling, while a girl that feels is needy, and to be avoided. YMMV, as always.

Easy

It's summertime, and the urge to work is about nil. Blogging is (light) work, all volunteer. I do put effort into this scrap of the internet, though June and July have been too much Get Off the Computer, Asshole. I've been reading outside, I've been running, I've been socialising... it's been glorious. I've also just finished a book that was a delightful breeze at the end of my Nuclear Poetry*/Holocaust Escaping** Inadvertent Summer of Anansi.

Iain Reid had a piece in the National Post last week, called Why there’s still a place in the world for literary readings, in which he talks about various readings he's done, including Toronto's last Literary Death Match. While Reid talks about how readings are a good thing from the author's point of view, as a reader I value readings as well. I've certainly become interested in books I had no previous awareness of after an author appearance (the extraordinary Monoceros being but one; post coming soon, I hope). I was in the audience at the Toronto Literary Death Match, and picked up One Bird's Choice based solely on Iain's reading that night (which was not a piece from the book).

I didn't blog about it, but I read George Eliot for the first time this year (yeah, yeah). One of the things that surprised me, is how funny she can be. I almost never laugh out loud at media (though I often do with other people). Books, especially, I absorb more than I react to. I laughed reading George Eliot. And it was with surprise and joy that I laughed, not just chuckled, in several places reading One Bird's Choice. Reid's humour is equal parts silly and acerbic, much like my own, so the book and I had an easy relationship.

There's more going on, however, than just funny anecdotes about the strangeness of living with one's parents after years out of the house. Reid does make off-the-cuff mentions of his parents aging: the weird habits they've gotten into, their forgetfulness, their aging bodies. Given my own experiences with an aging parent, I kept expecting something awful to happen to one or both parents. Thankfully, nothing does. Reid doesn't really follow up with how he feels about these new versions of his parents, and it's the only thing I feel is missing from One Bird's Choice. Then again, I might be more sensitive to these matters. Or it's possible that really engaging with the feelings resulting from watching one's parents age would have changed the mood of the book too much. One Bird's Choice was clearly not meant to be a downer.

It's clear the time Reid spent with his parents has been wonderfully beneficial for him; the monetary necessity of his living situation has turned into a psychic and creative rejuvenation. He's been able to turn that into a good fun read, and just the antidote to all the heaviness I've been absorbing lately. (It also made me miss my Dad a lot.)



*Bloom. Holy. Shit. I'm not much of a poetry reader, so I'm not sure I can adequately comment on this book. But, good, yes, so good.
**Far to Go, which had language so beautiful, it made me gasp. To wit:
[A]fter the baby died she could not turn over in bed or her severed heart would fall out of her chest cavity. She lay on her back with her breast ripped open while the wolves bloodied their snouts in her grieving.
Also, it was announced today that Alison is on the Booker longlist! Congrats!

A Turd of Hope, A Steaming Pile

When I first read "The Gutter Years" in the latest issue of CNQ, I just thought "gross," and moved on. Then the Globe and Mail chose to highlight this piece over the weekend, and I felt the need to make a rebuttal. The G&M notes the "refreshing and brutal frankness" of "The Gutter Years." Refreshing is certainly not the word I'd use. Though Marko Sijan's willingness to dirty some names is certainly uncommon in a small industry where everyone knows everyone else, I wouldn't consider that a revolutionary cool breeze. The rest is not exactly brutal honesty. Rather, it's bragging about "bad" behaviour, though it never comes across as the sort of decadent debauching the quoted Oscar Wilde might approve of.

Disclaimer: I do love CNQ for a lot of reasons, not least of which is its dedication to having very diverse pieces on theme in each issue. As a consequence, not everyone is going to love every piece. That's the point. This piece, I did not love, to put it mildly.

My first impression of "The Gutter Years" was that it was a Henry Miller hack (despite Sijan's note that Faulkner was his hero). Upon second reading, the judgment remains. Miller wrote real, intense filth, full of sex and destitute depravity. Sijan tries to be a tough guy that gets a lot of pussy, while admitting that Mommy and Daddy still pay the rent. Tossing in the odd superfluous scatological reference ("he'd given me just enough to float my turd of hope") does not real filth make. Friends, Miller is alright by me; filth in literature is alright by me, great even. Sijan is just posing.
Do me, Henry.
Miller begged for money too, but one never thinks that he's able to just call up the 'rents and have them bust him out of squalor. Sijan's piece reads almost like a Pulp song: "You could call your Dad/He could/Stop it all." There's no real struggle, just the assumption that slumming it might give Sijan some material, and ways to continue to act like a rebellious teenager. Even his one long-term partner is picked to make Mom cringe. The love interest is from Mexico, and he has decided to return to her country to live with her.
My parents tried to dissuade me from moving to Mexico: "A dangerous place," according to Mom, "full of ignorant peasants." When I showed her a picture of Alma, she said, "Oh, she's really Mexican."
He doesn't bother to disagree. Sijan's treatment of Alma, the woman he supposedly loves, is pretty loathsome. In a culture where a woman living unmarried with a man is—by Sijan's account— a pretty big black mark, he tosses her aside when it looks like things will work out with his novel back in Canada. And the only cited reason for not cheating on her is not his "love," but his feeling of being "[s]hamed and castrated for lacking her father's integrity." In the end, it's suggested that she's a bit off. I think. The scenes of their final time together don't really make much sense, but I'll give Sijan a break and assume that he meant to do that, to insinuate that at the time, Alma wasn't making much sense either. Then again, she had to go back to her town with a big strike against her. I wonder what became of her.

The Globe also chose to quote the first bit I found extremely troubling:
I was very busy teaching English as a second language and having sex with my Japanese, Korean, Brazilian and Mexican students.
Now, I don't care if you're heading up a yoga class, or teaching a graduate English course: fucking your students is pretty wrong. There's a power differential there. Those can be sexy, sure. Power games are common role play themes. But taking advantage of that power differential in real life is creepy; bragging about it is douchebaggery. To Sijan, though, women are just there to be used. The women in his life are either fucked, or handy go-betweens that can get his book seen by publishers. The only ones that don't fall into these two categories receive poor treatment: Anne McDermid is slandered with the insinuation ("The rumour was") that she's got a casting couch for young male authors—he accuses her of hitting on him, but he declines because, ew, cougars with fake hair colour and fake eyebrows! Tamara Faith Berger becomes a bad writer based on nothing but her reaction to his sexual invitation.
I tried to hit on her but she took no interest in me. Good. Your book is shit. I hadn't read it.
At this point I need to wonder about Sijan's purported sexual magnetism: if you're so fuckable that all these ESL students are letting you have their way with them, why are none of the four pictures in the article of you? I mean, yes, Russell Smith is pretty, but let's see your face, irresistible one*. Women would die without you, right?

Sijan draws Smith into conversation at a party, telling him of the crazy bitch ex-girlfriend who threatened to kill herself, should they break up. Weirdly, Sijan declines to name this ex-girlfriend (probably because she put out). Smith would like to know the identity of this mystery crazy woman, but Sijan is a cock tease. Really he should know better, since he enjoys Smith's "honest explorations of male sexuality." He thinks. He hasn't actually read any of the books.

There's a lot of casual racism in "The Gutter Years" as well. While Sijan is living in Mexico, he refuses to learn the language, which is high irony for an ESL instructor. He finds work teaching English to Mexican kids that he dares call "spoiled and arrogant" while still getting a stipend from his parents. Everything in Mexico is dirty, but not the fun kind, and is whittled down to the presence of roaches, Alma included. In a ridiculously sloppy passage, he compares to the clicking of a mouse to the sound of a cockroach twice within a few lines. Best of all, that cockroach of memory "scuttled between [Alma's] legs." Subtle! On another note, if your friend from Pakistan calls himself a "Paki" that does not give you license to use the term "Paki food" a few paragraphs later. No 'hood pass for you, kiddo.

But so what, right? He treats women like shit. He also hasn't got anything nice to say about Sam Hiyate or Ed Sluga, the two men who are really the focus of this piece. These are the guys who hold Sijan's first novel in their hands. These are the guys who can't get it published, and are the source of frustration for years. There's real venom for them in "The Gutter Years" and understandably so. Sijan is caught is a terrifically frustrating situation, in limbo forever, with the only piece of work he's completed.
I saw myself as a victim whose drive to succeed had been crushed by publishing industry charlatans.
Despite the description of this feeling as one of "epic delusion," I'd argue given the tone and content of "The Gutter Years," he's still feeling this way. Yet in the end, they're forgiven.
It took me a long time to understand that Sam didn't betray me. He was a friend and mentor who introduced me to an exciting world and facilitated many happy memories. [...] As for Ed, his "personal crisis" could have involved any number of issues, and he may have been powerless against the juggernaut of his own dysfunction
Hey man, it's okay, I understand. Buds? I'm still wondering what happened to Alma.
* * *

I hesitated to write this post, because inevitably I'll be told I've missed the point. I've tried to find one, really, I have. Unlike the G&M writer, I didn't find anything new and interesting here; it's the same tired Entitled Dude** attitude I've been exposed to time and time again. The piece isn't shocking or ground-breaking, or even that well-written. It's just, to reiterate, gross. I get that Sijan's looking at the audience with big eyes saying, "I've been a vewy baaaad boy!" But so what?

Why do I give someone like Henry Miller a pass, when Marko Sijan just makes me feel slimed? I think part of it is authenticity. Marko's just slumming it. There's no artistic integrity here, he's just a filth tourist, and worse, he's no good at it. Telling me you fuck isn't dirty; everyone fucks—and everyone poops. (Hopefully, "we had sex in the manner of dogs" was meant to be hilarious.) Smoking pot isn't depraved, it's the Canadian national pass-time (and pretty benign at that). Slagging random CanLit names is just sour grapes. The rest is just sexist, classist, racist bullshit.

Sijan does note throughout the piece that he's aware his ego is large, and that he acts in ways that feed it. However, "The Gutter Years" is no mea culpa. There's absolutely no indication that Sijan is any less of a dick (and showing some sympathy for the dudes that fucked your career over doesn't save your soul when everyone else is still under the bus), and he doesn't apologise. He doesn't have to, of course. But if not, then why does this piece exist at all? One can argue that it's one man's look back at his attempts to create that decadent life, to be in the "gutter but looking at the stars," and failing in that pursuit. Why else mention his inability to provide for himself, his ego, his acknowledgment he was a liar? If this is the brutal honestly I'm supposed to admire, I'm not buying it. Admitting you're an asshole doesn't automatically make you interesting. You need to be interesting, asshole.

This character is at once so vile and so boring, that the admissions don't mitigate judgment, like I assume they're supposed to. Again, it just seems like he's bragging, rather than acknowledging his shortcomings. Worst, in the end, I just don't give a shit. (I don't give a shit enough to write 1500 words, right?) Probably, the piece exists mostly to promote the fact that his book is finally being published. Because as we all know, sensation gets attention, and I've played right into it.

*Oh, there you are. "Marko’s two specialties are in helping students develop proficiency in oral and written communication." IYKWIM!
**Note this is a specific Dude Type. I'm not saying all men have the same entitlement issues. However, this Entitled Dude is not an uncommon worldview.

The Little Lady Pt 2: Elizabeth Siddal

I was first introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in a second year English lit course called "Victorian Sexuality in Poetry and Painting." It was taught by an elderly Brit who looked like he'd been there, and had decided to tell us the tale. Despite his sometimes meandering lectures (I remember he'd often veer off into talking about Marlene Dietrich), he had such amazing knowledge of the subject, and a real obvious love for the era. It was infectious. Soon, we were all in thrall with Tennyson, William Morris, Waterhouse, Burne-Jones*, and Dante Rossetti. Especially Rossetti, because he had that fantastic macabre tale attached to him: when his wife died, he buried his unpublished poems with her, then exhumed her years later to get the poems back. It is said that when Elizabeth Siddal's casket was opened it was discovered that her hair had continued to grow after death, filling the casket with red-gold. We saw slides of Beata Beatrix** in that class, we looked at some of Siddal's sketches and self-portraits, and we read as many of her poems as were available (few exist and are rarely anthologized). It was impossible for me not to fall for Elizabeth Siddal's tragic, romantic legend.

It's the stories and myths surrounding Siddal, and the way she's portrayed visually by male artists that draws people in. In The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal Jan Marsh does an admirable job attempting to fleece out the verifiable details of Siddal's life, of which there are surprisingly few. However, the book is less a strict biography, and more a study of the way in which biography is influenced by the times. Marsh looks at the renditions of the legend, from Pre-Raphaelite contemporaries, to modern scholarship (including her own first forays into Siddal's story). The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal is able to piece together facts about Siddal while illuminating biases that went into earlier biographies (and biographical sketches, since early on Siddal was rarely given much space or attention at all, other than references to her relationship with D.G. Rossetti). It's a bit disappointing to realise that we'll never know much, comparatively, about Siddal, and Marsh is extremely clever to take on that lack of knowledge, and how others filled the spaces, as the basis for her book, rather than attempting another biography filled with guesswork.

This is not to say that there aren't any facts to be had. One does learn a great deal about Elizabeth Siddal, reading The Legend. There aren't many books devoted to Siddal specifically, and even more modern explorations of the PRB, like Desperate Romantics, relegate Siddal to little more than girlfriend/wife. In fact, Siddal studied and produced art in her own right, as well as being muse for Rossetti, and model for Millais' famous Ophelia (below). The common idea that Siddal committed suicide is disputed, and her life before "discovery" by Walter Deverell is examined as much as possible. Indeed, any "fact" of Siddal's life (including the spelling of her last name!) has at least two published versions, and Marsh examines all possibilities, keeping in mind the circumstances under which they appear.

The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal is excellent reading not only for those interested in the PRB, or Siddal specifically, but as a very interesting look on how biography —especially biography of women—is created within a societal context. Says Marsh in her Postscript:
The quest for the 'real Elizabeth Siddal' reveals more about the changing ideological context, and the uses to which the legend is put in the redefinitions and negotiations in the realms of gender and art. [...] [B]iography is not reincarnation, but a form of exhumation.


*My favourite PRB work: Burne-Jones' The Depths of the Sea.
**I saw a Beata Beatrix in Chicago a couple years ago and almost wept. I suppose this sounds dramatic, but I did get a great lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Art, AMIRITE?
The painting of Ophelia, prior to her taking up with Rossetti, gave rise to another often told story about Siddal, who was painted while floating in a bathtub of freezing water, while Millais painted her. "As it was now winter, he placed oil lamps under the tub to warm the water, but was so intent on his work that he allowed them to go out. As a result, Siddal caught a severe cold, and her father later sent Millais a letter demanding £50 for medical expenses. According to Millais' son, he eventually accepted a lower sum"
And now I feel like I need to re-read The Biographer's Tale.