Thursday, April 28, 2011

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters

Maybe it's because I didn't grow up going to church, but religion in books fascinates me. I especially like the retelling of Bible stories, but again, I'm not sure why. It may be that I enjoy the subversiveness of taking something that is so well known, and hold so much meaning for so many people, and changing the context. Messing with those stories that are a not insubstantial part of our society's foundation seems almost dangerous in a strange way. Dangerous and brave – and important. In A History of the World in 10½ Chapters Julian Barnes starts with Noah's Arc and then tries to move forward, but is almost inevitably sucked back into that defining motif of danger, death, and large passenger ships.

It's hard to know quite how to classify A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. On the one hand, it works quite well as a short story cycle, with stories that work independently of one another, but when read together have an added oomph. It's also sort of like a book of essays, filled with philosophy, literary criticism and discussions of art. I'm not sure it's even uniformly fictional. There are, however, 10 and a half chapters – the "half chapter" is inserted between Chapters 8 and 9 – as the title suggests, so if you read chapter by chapter, maybe it doesn't really matter how you define it.

The book opens up with "The Stowaway" a story about an impostor to Noah's Ark. The cheeky little narrator is quite critical of the choices Noah makes with regards to which animals will be saved. Rather like a primitive form a eugenics, Noah simply decides not to allow any undesirable or pesky creature aboard. And he's rather a brute about it. But he doesn't check quite carefully enough, and a family of woodworms – of which the narrator is proudly a part – manage to sneak on board to ride out the deluge in relative peace. The woodworm actually manages to make its way into most of the chapters, bringing with it a suggestion of hidden decay.

Barnes then moves on to a chapter about terrorists who take over a cruise ship. He is an author unafraid to shock his audience, and the tension he builds in this chapter is unreal. The stakes become so high, so quickly, that you don't even notice you've been placed on a modern-day ark. Here, though, everything is inverted. The stowaway is not a quiet, unassuming insect, but an imminently threatening and truly undesirably presence. Similarly, the person in charge is not the tyrannical Noah of the previous story, but a cruise director who is just as unsure as the passengers. History is doomed to repeat itself, Barnes seems to be saying, but see how it changes things up just slightly?

This sort of wink to the absurdity of things gives the book a kind of strange humour, or at least throws you off kilter just enough to appreciate that Barnes is arming you with perspectives that will help you later, when you reach New Heaven, or wherever else. But absurdity and irony, as fun as they are, are useless tools unless you can escape them. Enter the half chapter. Just when Barnes has you so completely confused as to his purpose, he interrupts his own history to tell you about love, about his sleeping wife. And it doesn't even matter, really, whether it's the real Julian Barnes or the fictional one talking, because what he is saying is that there's a reason all the rest of it matters. There's a reason we should examine past events and find the woodworms before their damage is irreparable, and that reason is love. Oh, it sounds ridiculous and cliché here, but that half chapter is perfectly timed for maximum effect, and it is stunning.

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters is strange and unexpected and the chronology of events it presents – it is "a history," after all – is very unlikely, but it is also a book that asks you to think about things. It doesn't force you to, though; if you want to simply read each chapter and not delve more deeply into what is going on, you can do that. But, if you want to think about it, Barnes has offered up a book that will reward you for it. Because as weird and, sometimes, disorienting as this book is, it has something really interesting to say. And, best of all, it has an interesting way to say it.

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters
by Julian Barnes
First published in 1989 (cover image shown from Vintage International edition)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Red Shoes in the Rain

It's National Poetry Month, so every Monday in April I will be reviewing/discussing a book of Canadian poetry.

Compared to the other collections I've featured this month, Jan Conn's Red Shoes in the Rain is a relatively old one; it is also, perhaps, the most traditional of all the collections. Conn's poetry is heavily rooted in nature and emotion, and each poem is like a snapshot of a particular feeling, at a particular time, in a particular place. And, because Conn has travelled widely, that place could be anywhere from Niagara Falls, to Japan's Oki Islands, to a backyard, allowing the collection to hopscotch around.

What makes Red Shoes in the Rain is how vivid Conn's natural descriptions are. She tends to focus on similar elements – trees, clouds, and precipitation, in particular – but they are always specific to the scene. Conn's descriptions are never generic, which acts as a subtle reminder that we are not looking at a scene from a general point of view, but from her perspective specifically. In her poem "Choices," Conn writes about the Niagara Falls legends – the heroism of the barrel riders and the tight-rope walker, the despair of a mother who dropped her child – as though they are being discussed by friends. Here, the stilted conversation is heightened by slices of detail about where they are: "we walk between twisted trees / make starts of conversation. / wind whips sheets of snow / over dead grass; pares our faces / thin as paper." 

When Conn is at her best, her verses offer up an emotional response without needed to tell you what it should be. Although she sometimes slips and tells you exactly what her metaphor is meant to convey, she generally trusts her reader. Conn doesn't write complicated or abstract poems, or play overly with language; rather, she focuses on the sharpness of an image. Conn writes a lot about the feeling of post-relationship loss, that very real feeling that something is missing, or that you aren't where you should be: "I should be asleep. my body / is light, almost transparent. / the bones turn softly, dream / of waking in some other room."

This is the real attraction to Red Shoes in the Rain: it is honest and beautiful in a way that is almost painful, because all the description and emotion is filtered so close to Conn's heart. Although there are a few poems that feel written at arm's length, the majority of these pieces are about the deeply personal experience of moving on, and realizing again and again that you no longer belong where you once did. Conn is generous with her experiences, which makes this collection rather a guilty pleasure of a read.

Red Shoes in the Rain
by Jan Conn
First published in 1984 (cover image shown from Fiddlehead Poetry Books edition)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Good Soldier

After I finished my English degree, I sold a lot of my books. I guess I decided that I didn't want to pack them all, so I picked out a few I thought I'd read again and sold the rest to a used bookstore. I suppose it was a smart decision – books are pretty heavy – but I do wish I'd kept more of them because every once in a while I still want to look something up or reread a passage. Of the books I kept, I've recommended several to friends, but for some reason I'm always careful about suggesting Ford Madox Ford's novel The Good Soldier

The Good Soldier is set during the early 1900s and told entirely from the perspective of John Dowell, a wealthy American living in Europe with his wife Florence. He and his wife are friends with the Ashburnhams, a wealthy English couple, and the four of them get together annually to take in the healing waters at the Bad Nauheim spa in Germany. It may not sound like the most exciting premise for a novel, but that's because the real gem here is the lens through which John Dowell, the narrator, sees everything. 

The novel takes place over several years and is told in a series of memories that are not always chronological. Dowell takes his time unfolding what happened, as if he is trying desperately to figure it out himself. Essentially, though, Dowell chronicles Edward Ashburnham's affairs over the years – including the one with his wife – eventually getting to the most scandalous: when Edward falls for his wife's much younger ward Nancy. I don't want to give away the ending, but I will say that despite  Dowell's admiration for his friend, even he cannot hide the fact that Ashburnham's affairs always end destructively. Not that Ashburnham is a violent man – he's kind of sad, really – but the women just never seem to deal well with the end. 

John Dowell is, it must be said, quite clueless, but he nevertheless relates everything that happens in the couples' friendship, he just doesn't really understand what's going on. For example, he has no idea that his wife is faking her heart condition so that the couple will be forced to stay in Europe where she can carry on multiple affairs. Likewise, when he finds out that his wife is sleeping with Edward Ashburnham – arguably his best friend – he cannot comprehend that this also means Edward has been sleeping with his wife and thus betraying him. John Dowell is an incredibly frustrating character, and having the entire story mediated through him can drive you crazy at times, but he also brings ironic humour to the novel, which would be quite depressing without him.

In a way, this is a novel about self-deception and hero worship. Dowell idolizes Edward Ashburnham and forgives or excuses all his varied sins, including his constant philandering. In a way, Dowell is like a child who can pick up all the individual pieces but just can't quite put them together. And as a result he is taken advantage of and deceived time and time again. But it may also be that he prefers it this way. Dowell seems largely unaffected by things – including his wife's suicide – and is able to live in a serene bubble while the lives of those around him fall apart. Dowell's narration is rather like walking through a hall of mirrors: he is reflected in everything, and everything he tells you contains hints of the past and future. Ford's writing exposes Dowell – and those like him – as people trapped by their own refusal to see beyond themselves and insular, reflective worlds.

But The Good Soldier is not entirely grim. There is a lot of ironic humour, and because no one "wins," you are saved from wondering what it was about. It is a novel about a time in history – pre-WWI – in which morals and values were supposedly universal; Ford exposes these artificial values precisely by presenting us with a character who holds them high, and thereby cautions against insulating yourself from the truth. And as old-fashioned as some elements of this novel may now seem, that is perennial good advice.

The Good Soldier
by Ford Madox Ford
First published in 1915 (cover image shown from Vintage International edition)

Monday, April 18, 2011


It's National Poetry Month, so every Monday in April I will be reviewing/discussing a book of Canadian poetry.

One of the beautiful things about poetry is its ability to magnify and intensify its subjects, whether people, events, or both. On May 21, 1946, Canadian physicist Louis Slotin died while training his replacement on the Manhattan Project, Alvin Graves, who was also having an affair with Slotin's wife. In Bloom, Michael Lista makes this one day, and all the swirling undercurrents and emotions associated with it, come alive in a series of short poems. Or, maybe, a poetic cycle, because each poem leads into the next in a way that blurs the line between individual pieces on a related topic and one long poem with sections. Whichever way you read it, Bloom is an inventive and confusing and exciting book of poetry.

The collection opens in the morning – the two sections of the book are AM and PM – and the first voice we hear is of Slotin's wife. She is watching her husband leave for work: "You should have seen his overcoat today. My favourite of his. It was long and thick, hand-tailored, either plaid or polka dot, or maybe, fuck it all, flannel." It's a prose-poem and covers all the mundane and ordinary observations of a wife watching her husband leave for work. But don't be fooled, this is not a collection about domesticity; rather, it is a collection about moments, decisions, and observations. 

Prose poetry isn't the only style employed, either. Instead, Lista roams around, trying on the hats and styles of many different poets from all sorts of background – each inspiring writing dutifully noted at the bottom of the respective piece. This becomes kind of a game, actually, and seeing names such as Ted Hughes' return again and again, I wondered about the kinds of poems his verse inspired. It's rare to see someone's inspiration displayed baldly, and I adds another layer to each of the poems Lista writes. 

In many ways, Bloom feels more like a novella in verse than a straight collection of poetry – it has characters, it has recurring imagery and events, there are several plot lines all intertwined – and it is difficult to discuss just one piece out of context, because as intriguing as the individual poems are when read alone, this is a collection that begs to be read in one go. Although it can get a bit convoluted (the speakers of the poems switch around constantly), Bloom is a rewarding, enjoyable, and at times, salacious read, and one that may challenge your ideas of what poetry can be about.

by Michael Lista
First published in 2010 (cover image shown from House of Anansi Press edition)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

Sometimes when I'm reading I don't want to think about the bigger picture of the book, I just want to be plunged into the life and emotions of one character and then spend the day there. It's escapism in its purest form, because to experience the intensity of emotions rolling around in someone – fictional or no, because biographies can be great for this too – is a kind of catharsis rarely available to us; rather than reliving moments from our own life, we can simply experience moments from theirs. Perhaps the best novel for this kind of immersion is Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

Written entirely in prose poetry, Smart's novel tells a fictionalized account of her real-life love affair with the English, married poet George Barker, with whom she had four children (for the purposes of scale, he had fifteen children, with various women). In the novel, the unnamed narrator is a young woman who falls in love with a married man and, in the short version, she becomes pregnant, has the child, but never sees him again except in her imagination – he, it seems, is institutionalized. It is a heartbreaking story, if a familiar one. What sets By Grand Central Station apart from the genre of cliché love-triangle narratives, though, is the voice at its centre.

Grief and anger and confusion and bliss and myriad other emotions bubble, not under the surface, but in force throughout this story. The narrator is written with such passion that her feelings read like the purest, most broken expressions of loss and love ever committed to the page. She is not a cliché character; she is a woman in love who has been decimated by it, rejected from society as an unwed mother. Smart's descriptions of her narrator are beautiful in their ability to place you in her position, wondering what will come next and unsure whether the fantasies are real life, what's yet to come, or devastating and impossible dreams. 

In the forward – and I recommend you pick up a copy of this book that has one – Brigid Brophy lays the novel bare. Her writing is perfectly matched to Smart's and the cadence and imagery that she sets up in her note prepares you to enter the encompassing world of Smart's prose poem. I rarely read forwards because I don't like to have the story spoiled, but Brophy has no desire to tell you what to think about By Grand Central Station; rather, she wants you to read it with your eyes open, so you can experience the story on two levels: that of the narrator, and that of Smart's own experiences.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a novel in which it is not so much the story itself, but the way it is delivered that draws you in. Knowing the back story is almost a prerequisite to understanding the novel, because Smart doesn't waste her breath laying things out for you. This is not a step-by-step confessional, this is a rolling, turbulent and vivid account of the defining moments of this young woman's life. The story is, of course, present, but its details are not always clear. And that is maybe one of the defining things about grief, anger and love: our feelings are so raw and real that we cannot believe that everyone else isn't feeling them too.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept
by Elizabeth Smart
First published in 1945 (cover image shown from Grafton Books edition)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Short Talks

It's National Poetry Month, so every Monday in April I will be reviewing/discussing a book of Canadian poetry.

Prose poetry may be the most misunderstood of all the mainstream poetic genres. It doesn't typically rhyme, it doesn't take on the familiar form, and even though it looks like the kind of prose you might see in a novel, it just doesn't work quite the same way. Prose poetry is a kind of hybrid verse that is quite striking on the page – to my eye anyway – and kind of fun to read aloud. Anne Carson's 1992 collection Short Talks is a book of prose poems, and each one is presented as a rumination – or short talk – on topics varying from trout to walking backwards to disappointments in music.

As a book, Short Talks is kind of contradiction; rather than being a squat little book, it is tall and narrow, with a long cover illustration. Inside, the poems typically occupy only the top third or so of the page, leaving the bottoms long and empty. And although this seems strangely contrary, it works really well. Anne Carson packs a lot into her writing, and the space left at the bottom of the page seems to remind you that taking time to reflect and consider is built into the book; that Anne Carson has presented you with her short talk on the matter at hand (whatever it may be), and that the remainder of the page is for you. Short Talks is not a collection that is in a hurry and the very design of the book seems to remind you that although the poems may be short, they are not necessarily quick.

Anne Carson is known for her interesting subject matter – I've written about her novel-in-verse Autobiography of Red already – and Short Talks is almost like taking a stroll inside her mind. What does Anne Carson (who is, for some reason, a full-name sort of poet) think about hedonism? Well here, let her tell you:
Short Talk on Hedonism 
Beauty makes me hopeless. I don't care
why anymore I just want to get away.
When I look at the city of Paris I long

to wrap my legs around it. When I 

watch you dancing there is a heartless

immensity like a sailor in a dead calm

sea. Desires as round as peaches

bloom in me all night, I no longer

gather what falls.
In nine lines, Anne Carson can just blow you out of the water with her strangely enticing visuals. If this weren't a prose poem (or were written by another poet) each of those sentences would be given a verse unto itself where its image could be parsed out and developed. Here, though, on first read the images crash out at you like staccato notes in music – they're sharp, individual points, distinct from the rest of the score. But the beauty of these pieces is that they're short, which makes rereading almost inevitable. And, upon revisiting a short talk, the images seem somehow calmer, smoother, an impression that helps them come together to give you the story behind them. 

Short Talks is a beautiful collection not only because of the incredible array of images and emotions that it elicits – not to mention the breadth of topics it covers – but because it makes you want to come back to it to suss out something new, one short prose poem at a time.

Short Talks
by Anne Carson
First published in 1992 (cover image shown from Brick Books edition)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Left Hand of Darkness

To say that one of the best ways to revisit the politics of the past is to read old novel about the future. But science fiction - proper science fiction, that is, not space opera - typically takes the social and political climate of its day and transposes it onto a future, fictional world. How do we understand the implications of what happens today? We take them to an extreme and transpose them. Looking back at the beginnings of social movements through their portrayal in fiction may seem overly academic, but usually these subtexts aren't hard to suss out, and changing the lens we read through every once in a while just helps to keep things interesting. Enter Ursula K. Le Guin's 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, about a planet called Winter and the people who live there.

The set-up for the novel is that, in the future, the life-supporting planets have formed a kind of coalition. They're all pretty far from each other, but with new space travel technology the planets have been accessible enough for contact to exist. Seventeen light years from the edge of the coalition's area is Winter (Gethen in local language, but because it is aptly named for its climate), and Genly Ai has been sent as an envoy to try and convince the Gethenians to join the Ekumen. So, there is an outsider who is working alone on Winter to convince the governments to join up.

There are a few interesting things about this scenario right off the bat: firstly, Genly is not from Earth. He is from an Earth-like planet called Terra, but still, I liked that in Le Guin's future Earth is not the all-powerful colonizing planet. Secondly, Winter is a planet with more than one country on it. Typically, in science fiction, foreign planets are seen as united wholes, without different languages, cultures, or political structures. I really liked that Le Guin complicated things, especially because it lets her play with a lot of Cold War tensions (the planet is called "Winter" for heaven's sake) in a way that creeps up on you.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Winter, though, is its population. Gethenians are all intersex - or hermaphrodites, as Genly calls them. Their sexuality is explained in detail (although it is not explicit) and essentially, once a month Gethenians go into kemmer, which is kind of like an animal going into heat, although also not. Anyway, during this period of kemmer, a Gethenian will find another person to mate with, and as part of their courtship the sexual role they will fulfill announces itself. This means that the same person can, in their life, perform both female and male sexual roles; this is true also in monogamous relationships, both partners can become pregnant and be the impregnator (although not at the same time, of course). The rest of the time, they are simultaneously no sex and both sexes at once.

Throughout all the political intrigue and confusion, Genly has the hardest time truly grasping this aspect of the Gethenian character, and he frequently tries to assign the people he meets with gendered characteristics. Feminist theory was gathering steam at this point in history, and a lot of the details about gender attributes and roles seem like a direct response to that. It's fair to say that female characteristics are seen as overwhelmingly negative by Genly for most of the novel, but it's done in a way that the reader sees the flaws in his logic, which reaffirms feminist principles for the most part.

The most compelling aspect of the plot, though, happens after Genly has been arrested and taken to a prison camp on the far edge of the inhabitable terrain. He is drugged repeatedly and barely alive when an old political ally/enemy rescues him. The two of them must then escape over the Northern ice, a huge glacier alive with volcanoes and crevasses and storms. This storyline makes the book for me, because although this is an interesting theoretical novel, it isn't until the adventure really gets going that I got hooked on the characters.

The Left Hand of Darkness is, in a lot of ways, about balance: between genders, between sexes, between political factions. At its heart, though, it's about the necessity of human relationships and learning to trust someone who you cannot understand. Genly's success on Winter was predicated on this, and whether we're talking politics or gender and sexual identity, that certainly applies to our world today as much as it did in the 1960s. This is not an easy book to become involved in, but it is such a rewarding read that it's worth the time you'll spend with it.

The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. Le Guin
First published in 1969 (cover image shown from Ace Books edition)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Modern and Normal

It's National Poetry Month, so every Monday in April I will be reviewing/discussing a book of Canadian poetry.

Modern and Normal is perhaps the least sexy name for a book of poetry ever. Poetry, the form that gave us both the love-lorn sonnet and the scandalous limerick, is often associated with love and sex and romance and fancy language, which perhaps makes the idea of poetry being modern and normal sound like an oxymoron. Let me assure you right now that it is not. 

Solie's second collection of poetry - her third, Pigeon, won the Griffin Poetry Prize last year - is filled with the kind of language we use in our modern, day-to-day lives, but it is so beautifully arranged that to read it is to rediscover an entire side of your vocabulary. And Solie uses that language to expose the strangeness that is our modern world, and the bizarre intrigue of the banal.

Much of this collection focuses, in one way or another, on the tensions that reside around the edges of modern life - we like to go camping, but only if all the amenities are there and the wildlife is under control; we are interested in travelling, especially because of the duty free shops offered at the border.

But Solie is not bleak or heard-hearted about modern life. Her poems are filled with ironic twists and elegant observations about dating, roadside motels, and hunting in the bush. And for Solie, modern life is filled with poetry. Modern and Normal is littered with found poems - snatches of text and conversations plucked verbatim from their source and rendered into amusing and lovely snapshots of life. Of these found poems, my two favourites are taken from an old geometry text book and a list of publications of natural history. Truly, the poetics of everyday life are worth reflecting on, even if they are found in a math problem.

As a collection, Modern and Normal is wonderful. Whether you think you "get" poetry or not, Solie's writing is clear and pleasant, and her metaphors are unusual in a way that aids your understanding rather than complicating it. This is not to say that Solie is a simplistic poet - her verse is varied in style, tone, and language, which makes her poetry really enjoyable to read. Her work inviting, though, and Modern and Normal is a great way to kick off an indulgence in Canadian poetics.

Modern and Normal
by Karen Solie
First published in 2005 (cover image shown from Brick Books edition)

Friday, April 1, 2011

National Poetry Month 2011

Along with April Fool's Day, April 1 marks the beginning of National Poetry Month. This year, the theme is Nurture/Nourrir, and is about nurturing interest in Canadian poetry and the institutions and people that make it available. 

For NPM last year, I wrote about a different aspect of Canadian poetry every Friday in April. This year, I am taking it up a notch and will be reviewing a different collection of Canadian poetry each Monday in April. 

Happy National Poetry Month! It will get properly underway on Monday with a look at Griffin Prize winning poet Karen Solie's second collection of poetry, Modern and Normal; so, come back to celebrate Canadian poetry with me.
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