Monthly Archives: January 2011

Thinking about literacy … and asking for your insights

Family Literacy Day

When you have it, do you just kind of take literacy for granted?

It’s second nature for those of blogging and tweeting and conversing about books to be engaged with words, and to understand them on many levels, from the instructional to the soul deepening. We plough through books and magazines and articles and blogs. With heedless joy, we update our read and to-be-read lists. We even blithely misuse or misunderstand words at times, but that comes from a foundation of at least being able to comprehend them. From there, we can study and correct and learn from them. It all comes as naturally as breathing, doesn’t it?

The many joys of reading, not to mention essential survival skills, are simply not possible without basic literacy.

This past January 27th has been designated Family Literacy Day for about the past 12 years. We can and should venerate and celebrate literacy and wish it for others every day. But I suspect we need to do more than wish it. We who are fortunate to have it need to help others who don’t have it.

To be honest, I guess I’m naive or not really versed in how someone gets to a certain point in their life minus the ability to understand street signs, newspaper headlines, warning labels on product packaging or equipment, nutritional information on food, restaurant menus … not to mention books and their many delights. (In another context – a vivid defence of the value of libraries – author Philip Pullman referred to books stirringly as “… the expression of the human spirit, vessels of delight or of consolation or enlightenment.” Oh, that some of our fellow citizens are missing that …)

I’m not sure I’ve expressed my gratitude as well or as precisely as I’d like to, but the fact that I can at all and at least some of you reading these words will understand … well, that’s testament again to the power of literacy to bridge gaps, extend one’s thoughts, establish communication, make connections.

When I reach an upcoming milestone in the Twitter book community, I want to further express my gratitude by giving to a literacy organization. That is, when I reach and exceed 1,000 followers, that is something of a modest symbol to me of the richly literate environment I’ve enjoyed, learned from and thrived in, thanks to so many of you reading this. Where I would ask for your insights, fellow booklovers, is in suggesting to me how best a donation can be channelled to help someone else enjoy what we enjoy. In the comments or in your tweets, please suggest any organizations or initiatives you think are effective in this area. If possible, I’d like to contribute locally, so something in Toronto, Ontario or Canada would be of particular interest.

Thanks for listening … and reading.

Burley Cross Postbox Theft, by Nicola Barker

Burley Cross Postbox Theft, by Nicola Barker

At first glance, it seems Nicola Barker has left behind the dark, menacing, labyrinthine world of Darkmans for sunnier, simpler climes – a quaint, pleasant village, the setting of Burley Cross Postbox Theft. Then again, whether you know this author by reputation or by past experience with her singular collection of works, do you really think she would pen a straightforward, conventionally charming epistolary novel along the lines of, say, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society?

Any such misapprehensions are quickly set aside as the first letter detailing the village’s recent postbox (mailbox) theft case is teed up … and devastatingly tees off on its recipient. That first letter is ostensibly a directive from a police sergeant to a police constable, instructing the constable to take over the investigation of the theft and recovery of a box of mail shortly before Christmas. That missive rapidly takes on strange intensity and personal viciousness, seemingly for nothing more than perverse reasons, as Sergeant Everill taunts Constable Topping on besting him in everything from job promotions to romance. Everill’s odd, manic outbursts carry with them more than a shade of the troubled Dory from Darkmans, a character who was possibly clinically schizoprenic. Before the reader can figure out what to make of it, the book rolls on into the seemingly random collection of letters that make up the recovered postbox plunder.

There are three types of epistolary novels (1): monologic (giving the letters of only one character), dialogic (giving the letters of two characters), and polylogic (with three or more letter-writing characters). In addition, a crucial element in polylogic epistolary novels (such as Dangerous Liaisons) is the dramatic device of ‘discrepant awareness’, wherein the simultaneous but separate correspondences of the heroines and the villains create dramatic tension. Burley Cross Postbox Theft is an arresting amalgam of all three, capturing connections made and missed.

Many of the diverted letters are comic monologues about life’s petty annoyances, ballooned into hyperbolic diatribes. Other monologues capture loneliness, longing and yearning. The inventory of the ill-fated Auction of Promises is a unique monologue of good intentions going horribly awry.

The book as a whole is a cacophonous polylogue, seemingly random at first but falling together in interesting, startling and often heartrending fashion as each letter is opened. The interjections of an opinionated translator form a kind of dialogue with her interpretation of one letter for which the need for translation is not entirely clear. Finally, the collection of letters is framed by a dialogue of sorts between assigning sergeant and investigating constable, where PC Topping renders both the final word as well as a singularly soul-redeeming monologue.

Throughout, Barker populates this written – sometimes scribbled, sometimes meticulously typed and tapped out – chorus with characters who run the sympathetic gamut, from quirky, forlorn and wistful to bewildering, manic and kinda scary, to the edge of irredeemable. And this is just as Barker would have it for the readers willing to hang in with her often dense, often thorny, always rewarding stories:

‘There are writers who exist to confirm people’s feelings about themselves and to make them feel comforted or not alone. That’s the opposite to what I do. I’m presenting people with unacceptable or hostile characters, and my desire is to make them understood.’(2)

Not only does she make her disparate tangle of souls understood by the end, but Barker sews it up elegantly, organically and in a way that is both uplifting and just a touch satisfyingly vindictive. It’s delicious.

In this day and age – and Burley Cross Postbox Theft is firmly set in the present – why should anyone care if some random bits of paper get lost in the increasingly dismissed and antiquated post? Barker addresses that in fine fashion, too, as part of PC Topping’s summing up of the postbox theft mystery:

“Let’s see … I know that pubs are on their way out (hundreds are closing every week), that they’re merely a sad reminder of things past (the way we once were, The Good Old Days), just like ‘community spirit’ is, and communities themselves, and churches, and local bobbies, and pickled walnuts, and brass bands at fetes, and tall hedgerows, and handwritten letters, and home-cooked meals, and sparrows, and boredom, and books, and gob-stoppers, and ladybirds, and innocence … Yes. All for the high jump. All for the chop. All nearly eclipsed, now (may they rest in peace), by a much bigger, brighter future, in twenty-four-hour digital HD.”

But just as PC Topping didn’t buckle under Sergeant Everill’s verbal assault when passed the postbox theft assignment, so his seeming rueful lament for a world quickly passing by is actually no lament at all, but a gentle yet pointed reprimand. Just as he plausibly disentangles the postbox theft and sorts out who needs to see which of the misdirected missives, his self-effacing tidying up at the end seems to more profoundly echo E.M. Forster’s beloved call to “only connect.”


1. Wikipedia:

2. ‘I won’t make you feel better’
Nicola Barker revels in giving her readers hostile characters in odd locations. No wonder she’s addicted to Big Brother …
by Alex Clark, The Observer, April 29, 2007

Windstorm, by Joe Denham

Windstorm, by Joe Denham

Joe Denham’s second collection of poetry is aptly titled. From the first line and page, Windstorm sweeps the reader in with powerful, all-encompassing imagery couched in rapid, muscular tercets. That unrelenting rhythm swoops from the broad – swirling cyclones, wild seas, wheeling flocks of birds – to the grimly specific: the pain, panic and bloodshed of an injury inflicted with a saw while mending a fence. The plunge from the immense natural world to the personal in spiritual and bodily senses, to the even microscopically analytical is often swift, breathtaking, dense and condensed:

the artery opened to a world now losing
        ocean life oceans wide (spirit
of its soul) and through in time life renews

it is a world beyond weeping the exiting
        blood enters, it is perpetual
shock, miasma, day upon day, it

is bees leaving the hive, then lost (little
        wonder, little wonders)
it is the cost analysis, and the cost …

Even when a bit of comparative whimsy slips into the passionate barrage of what is essentially one poem in five sections marked with epigraphs, the momentum never lets up. When the reader encounters the rueful “Under a clusterfuck of stars (the names of which I’ve never / cared to learn …” one might think things are switching to a more contemplative pace. However, the next stanza ricochets from someone on cocaine screaming on a cellphone to that crazed cell signal bouncing off satellites, to the life of fish, to the poet’s brain radiating in that cell signal … and the interconnected images, vignettes and philosophizing blaze on, both exhilarating and verging on exhausting.

Admittedly, all that windswept swooping and the intense rhythms can produce some dizziness – albeit not unpleasant – in a reader. Perhaps some more modulation, more variety of form and tone, would then set the most powerful aspects in even stronger contrast. Some spare, succinct lines could have as much thematic and emotional impact as the onslaught that preceded it. After all, aren’t we often most in awe of the power of a storm once the world falls silent and then the small, modest sounds of life resume?

This is my first introduction to Denham’s work. He has a previous poetry collection, Flux, published in 2003, and a forthcoming novel, The Year of Broken Glass. Windstorm inspires this reader to look back and look forward to what Denham will do next.

2010 reading list – not best of, but all of …

Here are the books I read in 2010, with links to reviews where I have them. This is an exhaustive, all of list, not a best of list … although there are some “best of” in there … you can guess! It feels like it was a year of lively reads indeed.

  1. Sink Trap – A Georgiana Neverall Mystery
    by Christy Evans

  2. Matter
    by Meredith Quartermain

  3. Invisible
    by Paul Auster

  4. This is Water – Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life
    by David Foster Wallace

  5. Man Gone Down
    by Michael Thomas

  6. The Museum of Innocence
    by Orhan Pamuk

  7. Awake
    by Elizabeth Graver

  8. The Ordeal of Oliver Airedale
    by D.T. Carlisle

  9. The Bishop’s Man
    by Linden MacIntyre

  10. Outliers
    by Malcolm Gladwell

  11. The Children’s Book
    by A.S. Byatt

  12. Solar
    by Ian McEwan

  13. The Last Woman
    by John Bemrose

  14. Nox
    by Anne Carson

  15. Chronic City
    by Jonathan Lethem

  16. So Much For That
    by Lionel Shriver

  17. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
    by Alan Bradley

  18. Coal and Roses
    by P.K. Page

  19. Pigeon
    by Karen Solie

  20. Useless Dog
    by Billy C. Clark

  21. The Certainty Dream
    by Kate Hall

  22. The Heart is an Involuntary Muscle
    by Monique Proulx
    (translated by David Homel & Fred A. Reed)

  23. The Imperfectionists
    by Tom Rachman

  24. Migration Songs
    by Anna Quon

  25. Grain
    by John Glenday

  26. The Sun-fish
    by Eilean Ni Chuilleanain

  27. 2666
    by Roberto Bolano

  28. A Single Man
    by Christopher Isherwood

  29. Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems
    by Randall Maggs

  30. Far To Go
    by Alison Pick

  31. Gould’s Book of Fish
    by Richard Flanagan

  32. Fauna
    by Alissa York

  33. Freedom
    by Jonathan Franzen

  34. Sandra Beck
    by John Lavery

  35. Annabel
    by Kathleen Winter

  36. The Death of Donna Whalen
    by Michael Winter

  37. Room
    by Emma Donoghue

  38. Ghost Pine
    by Jeff Miller

  39. L (and things come apart)
    by Ian Orti

  40. The Bone Cage
    by Angie Abdou

  41. Windstorm
    by Joe Denham

  42. An Object of Beauty
    by Steve Martin

  43. Burley Cross Postbox Theft
    by Nicola Barker


I start 2011 with the following books started in 2010 and still in progress:

  • Voltaire’s Bastards
    by John Ralston Saul

  • Maggot: Poems
    by Paul Muldoon

  • Patient Frame
    by Steven Heighton

  • The Mill on the Floss
    by George Eliot

In 2009, I read 52 books, inspired a lot by great discussions and suggestions I found amongst the book blogging and reader community on Twitter. I didn’t match my 2009 total – not even close, really … but then, I have to ask again (as I did a year ago) are total numbers of books or pages really the point? What do you think?