Category Archives: Guest Contributors

Book reviews, event reports and more by guest contributors

Living with a Dead Language – My Romance with Latin, by Ann Patty

I’m delighted and honoured to welcome novelist and essayist Pauline Holdstock to the bookgaga blog. She offers a thoughtful examination of Ann Patty’s interesting memoir, both an exploration of Latin and celebration of learning and literature. Before we plunge into the review, allow me to introduce our esteemed reviewer:

pauline-holdstockPauline Holdstock is an award winning Canadian author, originally from the UK. She writes literary fiction, essays and poetry. Her novels have been published in the UK, the US, Brazil, Portugal, Australia and Germany. In Canada her work has been nominated for, and won, a number of awards.

Of her eight books, the most well-known are Into the Heart of the Country, longlisted for the Giller Prize, and Beyond Measure, short listed for a number of awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It was the winner of the BC Book Prize Ethel Wilson Award. Pauline’s essays and book reviews have appeared in Canada’s national newspapers and have been broadcast on CBC radio. Her essay Ship of Fools was the winner of the Prairie Fire Personal Journalism Prize. Learn more about Pauline and her work at www.paulineholdstock.com.

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A New York editor, laid off from her high-powered job and forced into early retirement, moves to the country and sets out to learn Latin as a way to keep her mind engaged.

It’s an interesting and unlikely concept: a journey into a dead language as a way forward into a rewarding new life. At the outset of her memoir, Ann Patty paints a convincing picture of the new life she doesn’t want — a future bereft of purpose, prey to the inherent dangers of boredom, not least of which might be the alcoholism that destroyed her mother’s later years. And indeed in the course of the book a new life does slowly take form, one where Patty finds a new community to replace her vanished world of publishing, as well as an absorbing new pursuit.

Living With a Dead Language is more than an account of the intellectual challenges Ann Patty faced in her self-imposed undertaking. It’s also a memoir that gives glimpses of her career in New York, reflections on her parents and sketches of her friends and partners. Ambitiously, Patty has attempted to marry personal memoir with the Latin topics covered in her college courses. Sometimes it works. The poetry of Catullus, for instance, is the perfect launchpad for the wicked ways of decadent and driven New York, and Lucretius’ philosophy the perfect entry to her forays into Buddhism and the personal crises that prompted them. At other times the connections felt contrived, superimposed.

Often, I found myself wanting to be reading a different book. Her scheme, I felt, was doing the book a disservice. It was limiting. She was glancing off too many interesting questions while squandering precious time laying out the grammar topics covered in her various academic courses and meticulously illustrating their complexity.

Although the Latin language was what drew me to her book in the first place — I still consider it the single most useful subject of my high school education and daily reap the benefits of being forced to learn it — I had no particular wish for a refresher course in the basics of grammar and syntax or an advanced course in their intricacies. A chapter would have been all Patty required to demonstrate the syntactical elements of the language and convince us that its mastery presented a daunting challenge — especially for an older student who hadn’t, as she confesses, had to memorize anything in close to thirty-five years. The linguistic passages felt to me like the author revising her subject, making sure it had stuck, perhaps, too, simply wanting to impress us. I’d have welcomed more pages devoted to the wealth of coincidental knowledge — like those she offers on Roman calendars, or marriages, or burial practices, for example — that the study of Latin inevitably confers.

The book would have benefited, too, from a more rigorous treatment of some of the connections Patty tentatively introduces. Observations on the subordinate role of Roman women, for instance, are linked too loosely to an evocation of the limited version of feminism that flourished in the 1970s and followed by a sketch of the kind of pervasive passive aggression that her mother’s generation suffered earlier.

The book’s very title prompted many questions and connections that were never fully addressed. What does it mean to learn any language, for example? How does that open the mind? Or alter one’s perception of one’s own culture? And what about recent research on the plasticity of the brain and the effects of language learning. And how might the experience of learning Latin in particular enhance the brain’s abilities, working as it must with the new word orders possible in an inflected language? And what effect did it have for Patty in her own recognition of Italian when finally she goes to Rome.

“Don’t tell me Latin isn’t alive and well in literature” she says after making an amusing but feeble link between Ovid’s and romantic (small R) novelists’ predilection for sexy tresses. But what of popular culture’s apparently ineradicable interest in myth and supernatural influence? An afterlife? And what of the persistence of certain literary forms right across our culture — the epic, the elegy? Of certain figures of speech in literature? Much later in the book she does edge closer to examining those questions in a moving recollection of the death of a dear friend when in an “elegiac funk” she buys a copy of Anne Carson’s Nox. But enquiry and argument are not her modus operandi. Her writing is governed by emotion and enthusiasm, much, I imagine, as were her editorial decisions.

Most of all I’d hoped to see some discussion or even acknowledgement of the connection between syntax and thought or on the role of grammar as vital link between intuition/inspiration/idea and expression. It’s a vast and boggy philosophical field and perhaps it’s obvious why Patty wouldn’t want to venture there, but not offer even an observation on its effects on her own critical thinking …?

Finally, and most frustratingly, she only brushes against the whole question of elitism implicit in the study of a dead language. Her fellow students are a privileged lot as she remarks early in the book. But she doesn’t emphasize the liberating potential of studying for study’s sake, surely the true privilege. That becomes clear, to this reader at least, when, later, Patty visits Still Waters. Still Waters is Stephen Haff’s after school sanctuary for decidedly un-privileged children. Patty visits and works with two nine year-olds carefully translating a Latin picture book. Latin is on offer Haff’s after school program, along with yoga and violin — three subjects to exercise the mind, the body, the spirit. There’s a Buddhist “purposelessness” to all of those pursuits, an escape from what Haff sees as the “soul destroying and deadening” core curriculum.

Clearly Patty recognized the value of what she witnessed at Still Waters and it’s to her credit that she went on to volunteer both her time and newfound expertise there and to facilitate a connection with a wider community. It’s interesting but not surprising that she derived a true sense of purpose and reward from the experience, something she doesn’t mention in relation to her entry to the elitist academia of the Latinists.

The chapter on this visit was, for me, the most intriguing and sent me straight to Google. Here’s a quote I found online — a testimonial, to use the Latin — from one of the children at Still Waters. It could well express the feelings too of Ann Patty — ever enthusiastic, ever up for a challenge, ever ambitious.

“I love Latin! Latin is a big, beautiful puzzle. It is a mystery to be solved. I feel brilliant here.”
Still Waters in a Storm

Let’s go to the FOLD!

I’m thrilled to welcome Margrit Talpalaru, who is going to share some terrific observations and enthusiatic praise for the recent inaugural Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), which took place in Brampton, Ontario over the first weekend of May, 2016.

I regret missing the fest, but am grateful for the next best thing, seeing it through Margrit’s eyes. She brings a unique combination of the erudite and the fan girl to her observations, which I think you’re really going to enjoy. First, here’s an introduction to our literary festival guide:

Margrit has been going to school for many years, in spite of repeated decisions to stop. During those many years, Margrit changed schools, changed countries, changed roles, changed diapers, and tried hard to change the world.

Mostly, Margrit’s attempts to change the world have taken a written form. Here’s a list. Lately, Margrit has been hard at work trying to change genres, too, and make her foray into fiction.

Margrit blogs at www.creativecritique.ca, and tweets @MeMargrit.

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“When queer / trans / poc writers are treated as artists as opposed to just spokespersons of our identities, it’s very liberating.”
(Vivek Shraya, 7 May 2016)

“So many wonderful things about @TheFOLD_ but esp. loved sharing space with diverse writers and not being forced to talk about diversity.” (Vivek Shraya, 7 May 2016)

Vivek Shraya’s tweeted contention emerged as the leitmotif running through the sessions of the inaugural Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), which took place May 6-8 in the remarkable venue of the Peel Art Gallery Museum and Archives (PAMA) in Brampton. Panelist after panelist echoed Shraya in remarking how crucial it is for diversity to become the assumption, rather than the subject of advocacy. In a panel about diversity in publishing, Bianca Spence said she had always been the one person of colour on staff, “but it’s not my job to teach my boss diversity.” What happens when the burden of proof and the need for validation are removed is a true celebration of diversity in literature, as the FOLD had set out as its mission in the first place. By this measure alone, the inaugural FOLD was a resounding success. But the Festival went far beyond merely fulfilling its mission statement, and the excitement around it can be easily gauged by the plethora of tweets under its hashtag #FOLD2016. (Go ahead and take a peek; I won’t tell anyone if you join the chorus.)

Isn’t this the point of diversity, that we can only achieve it collectively, rather than by token representation? That its value is intrinsic, rather than didactic or instrumental? That we, as a society should do everything to achieve it in all aspects not because it’s the concept du jour, but #becauseits2016?

The panelists’ consensus made me realize where the Festival drew so much of its energy from. The FOLD’s foundation on celebrating diversity leaves room to discuss the richness of all aspects of writing and publishing, as well as seek solutions to the disproportionate representation of people of different backgrounds, sexualities, abilities, and ages in literature and publishing. The choir needed no preaching to, so it just sang. In multiple harmonies.

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The richness of topics and viewpoints carried through to the panel options: whether interested in craft, publishing, self-promotion, or genre, there was always a brilliant choice among the concurrent panels. The only problem I had was I wanted to attend them all, but since this was no fantasy, I had to pick, and not once did I feel short-changed, both because of the in-depth discussions in the panel themselves, as well as because of the cross-pollinating conversations among them during the breaks or through social media.

I was greedy in my attendance, and went to all types of panels on offer. I started out the day listening to a conversation on “Faith and Fiction,” between Vivek Shraya, Zarqa Nawaz, Ayelet Tsabari, Cherie Dimaline, moderated by Eufemia Fantetti. I am not even a little bit shy about fan-girling over the depth of the discussion, which emphasized cultural influences in the participants’ writing through the lens of faith or spirituality. Fantetti’s questions were both prodding and generous, and the panelists’ answers revealed their personal connections to their background, and their own interpretations of it in their writing.

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Tsabari joked that “Growing up Jewish in Israel, we didn’t have to practice Judaism; we were just naturally good at it.” Shraya emphasized the crucial importance of representation, noting that “Queer kids had to be creative about where they found role models, so I found it in Hindu iconography,” with its more fluid gender boundaries. Nawaz spoke about the politicization of Islam, and how that creates generic expectations for her writing. Because of the portrayal of Muslims in the media—especially in the US—Nawaz suggested that writing a domestic novel about a Muslim woman can be transgressive. Dimaline shared the story of her upbringing in the Georgian Bay Métis Community, and the honour and responsibility of becoming a storyteller: “It’s the job of community’s story-keepers to provide a blanket of safety and spirituality and to uphold the duty to the seven generations.”

Next up, Aga Maksimowska moderated the panel on “Publishing (More) Diverse Canadian Stories,” which gathered publishing professionals from different branches of the industry. The panel description was

“From acquisition to acquired reading, industry professionals Anita Chong (Penguin-Random House), Barbara Howson (House of Anansi), Rachel Thompson (ROOM Magazine), Bianca Spence (OMDC), and Susan Travis (Scholastic Books) discuss ways to improve access to diverse, Canadian stories at home and beyond Canadian borders. Animated by Leonicka Valcius, this session is designed for industry professionals.”

However, the popularity (standing-room only) of the panel demonstrated that festival participants from all aspects of the book universe were hungry for answers and solutions.

We were not disappointed, as the panelists all focused on solutions, and how to proceed in the future, rather than on rehashing the obstacles. Thompson, for example, explained how the Room Editorial Collective restructured itself with an eye on including editors from different backgrounds before the “Women of Colour” issue was published. Chong echoed the notion of inclusion cautioning decision-makers to “be cognizant of who gets a voice at the table, because inclusiveness and quality are not mutually exclusive.” The unanimous conclusion pointed to the interconnection between the different aspects of the publishing industry: Spence emphasized the need for arts funding for the stories to be written in the first place; Howson challenged publishers to look for voices from around the world; Travis urged marketing and sales departments to ask book sellers why they’d think they would not sell diverse books, as well as push them not to insulate different voices in boxes, but put them on their genre shelves instead.

These are only three of the five panels I’ve attended. And I’ve only gone to one day of the Festival, so I hope this quick glimpse convinces you that my title was not a cheap pun, but genuine advice: the FOLD has only just begun, but it is sure to become a touchstone for literary and publishing conferences, so I know I’ll get my day passes as soon as they appear next year, and I hope you will, too.

A Slim Green Silence, by Beverly Rycroft

With literary life force Kimmy Beach at the guest reviewer controls, we’re not only in for a treat, but we’re going to learn a lot. First, let’s meet our bookish guide:

Kimmy Beach’s fifth book, The Last Temptation of Bond (The University of Alberta Press, 2013), was chosen as one of the best five poetry books of the year on Quill & Quire’s 2013 Readers’ Poll. The book was longlisted for the 2013 Alberta Readers’ Choice Award, and was featured on CBC Radio One’s The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers.

Kimmy’s poetry, fiction, articles, and reviews have appeared in journals across the country and in the UK, and she has read across Canada. Her second book, Alarum Within: theatre poems, has been adapted as a full-length stage play by both the University of Toronto and the Red Deer College Theatre and Film Studies Programme. She’s working on a novella about a giant puppet, and a novel featuring 1970s romance comics and This is Tom Jones (1969-1971). Kimmy holds a First Class Honours Degree in English from the University of Alberta, and lives in Red Deer, Alberta with her husband, Stu.

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Constance (Connie) West is the narrator of Beverly Rycroft’s first novel, A Slim Green Silence. Connie has died, but she’s not yet left Scheepersdorp—her small South African town. Don’t worry; I’m not giving anything away. We know this within a few sentences as Connie herself tells us. Rycroft gives us this fairly familiar premise in which to place her narrative and its central character. Connie says, “Below this cluster of roofs are all the people I ever loved.” But A Slim Green Silence is far more than the story of an earth-bound soul peering in on her loved ones’ lives going on without her, and trying to decipher why she’s still here. It is also an allegory for a country on the verge of redefining itself.

Rycroft’s drawing of Connie is sharp and unflinching. Despite her declaration of love for the people she’s left behind, Connie makes no bones about her ambivalence when her daughter Marianne is born. She actively ignores the child, and is happy to let everyone else raise her. Everyone else includes her sister Sheila, her “uncle” Harry, and their domestic worker, Princess, who rules the place with an iron fist.

From her vantage point outside the windows of her former home, Connie’s spirit watches life carry on without her. She grows more affectionate toward those she took for granted: particularly Marianne. A boatman accompanies her, waiting to take her to the other side. The image of the boatman (or ferryman) is a common figure in narratives of this kind, in which a dead character is tied to the place he or she lived and needs to be ferried to the other side. Rycroft’s boatman, however, differs in that he himself has been wounded. Rycroft writes that he “doesn’t seem to notice the red-black stain seeping through the blue fabric on the left side of his chest.” The boatman stays by Connie’s side and gives her until half past six that evening to find what she needs to set herself free.

The idea of this time limit appeals to me, and I like that Connie (and perhaps the boatman as well) is on the clock and yet powerless to make her former friends and family move more quickly to help her discover what will release her. As the family prepares for Connie’s memorial, Rycroft gives us flashbacks to when Connie was alive. Now, she searches for meaning and for the missing puzzle piece that will set her soul free.

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The image of an unruly, almost unbearably loud pandemonium of parrots runs through the book, humorous and lyrical at turns. The parrots roost in an ancient yellowwood tree on Connie’s property, on an untended plot of ground that is a point of contention between Connie and her neighbours. The parrots fly out of the yellowwood at 6:30am every day to strip Harry’s pecan trees bare: “immediately, the sky will cloud over and a rippling orange-green carpet of parrots will tear through the valley to drop to the plot below.”

Wild parrots are largely unfamiliar to a North American reading audience, but the image of noisy birds in organized packs is nothing we haven’t seen. On any July morning in a tree-filled suburb in Alberta, the families of baby magpies would try the patience of Saint Monica. Rycroft speaks to the universal with images like this, and reminds us that birds are birds and people are people, no matter where they are. Connie remembers her mother, who “didn’t seem to care what [we] did, so long as we did it outside.” I had an instant flash of recognition remembering my own mother’s admonition when we claimed—dramatically—that we were dying. “Die quietly,” she’d say. “And do it outside.”

These touches—and the strength of the story itself—do not alienate the reader from the South African setting. Rather, they draw us in with their reminders of our shared experience. Beverly and I connected via social media and briefly discussed my reading of her book. I point to the wide-reaching accessibility of her narrative as during our conversation, she had expressed a touch of worry that the Afrikaans and Xhosa phrases might be off-putting for a North American reader. Because there is no glossary in the book, she offered to translate the phrases for me if I stumbled on anything I didn’t understand. I told her I felt confident that because I’d read a good number of South African books, I was sure I’d be able to read the expressions in context.

As a great believer in meeting an author halfway and not wanting to have anything spoon-fed to me, I went into the book with my Afrikaans dictionary nearby. But I didn’t need it. That’s not a commentary on how many words I know; rather, it shows Rycroft’s tremendous skill in giving us a little of the language without the need for a glossary. Her sentences are seamless and incorporate other languages without the narrative losing pace or drive. Even if a reader knew not one word of Afrikaans, I don’t know a reader anywhere who would not understand this: “As they reach the back step of the stoep, the dogs inside the house start to tjank.”

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A Slim Green Silence is set in 1994: the year of South Africa’s first democratic election following the end of apartheid. I think it’s no accident that Connie dies that year. The transformation she undergoes as she tries to understand why she cannot leave seems to parallel the great changes 1994 brought to South Africa.

Constance’s name is in itself a metaphor, I believe. The elections of 1994 brought about an end to the troubled but constant rule of apartheid. Constance’s death coincides with the death of the oppressive structures that had been holding South Africa and its peoples hostage for decades.

Connie is able to stay near her family long enough to know that they will be preserving the overgrown plot of land, including her beloved yellowwood tree. If the plot of land represents South Africa itself (as I think, on one level, it does), then she is earthbound until she knows that her loved ones and her home—her country—are safe.

As the ferryman rows her away:

For the first time, he smiles.

      It’s like the sun coming out. It’s more like a flash of lightning in a midnight storm. For those few dazzling seconds, the landscape ignites and everything is clear and comprehensible: the lake, the murky sky, the last pinpricks of light from Scheepersdorp. Even the darkness crawling towards us from the nearby shore. […]

      The Boatman can see all this, too. His sloe eyes are larger than the moon. They see everything. They contain everything. I want to lean forward and brush my fingertips against the skin of his hand, but already the edges are starting to dissolve.

If Connie’s plot of land represents South Africa, I like to think of the ferryman as the wounded heart of that country setting Connie and itself free at the same time.

In 1994, there will be challenges and difficulties for the family in the preservation of Connie’s plot of land, just as there will be challenges and upheaval as the edges start to dissolve in her post-apartheid country. Without being heavy-handed, Beverly Rycroft parallels Connie’s personal search for meaning and eventual freedom with the birth of a new South Africa.

A Slim Green Silence by Beverly Rycroft (Umuzi/Random House, South Africa, 2015)

My thanks to Helen Moffett for her editorial eye on this piece.

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See also:

Guides, Drinks and Stacks of Books: My Journey into South African Literature
By Kimmy Beach
(first published in WestWord: Magazine of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta, 35:6)

Heaven sent
Samantha Gibb is enthralled by A Slim Green Silence, Beverly Rycroft’s beautifully crafted debut

The Broken Hours, by Jacqueline Baker

Over the moon only starts to describe how thrilled I am to welcome Canadian writer, poet and playwright Leslie Greentree as a guest reviewer here. Her second collection of poetry, go-go dancing for Elvis, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. (Enjoy excerpts here and here.) I reviewed her short story collection A Minor Planet for You here. Oral Fixations, Greentree’s first play, co-written with Blaine Newton, was premiered in late 2014 by Ignition Theatre in Red Deer, Alberta. You want to follow her on social media, where her thoughts on things literary and theatrical are insightful and damned funny. You want to pay attention to her book recommendations and keep your ear to the ground for future literary announcements of her own …!

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1936. A bleak and rainy night in Providence, Rhode Island. An impoverished Arthor Crandle makes his way to the home of his mysterious new employer, horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Crandle is desperate for work, unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s fictions, and all too ready to overlook his employer’s idiosyncrasies. Crandle’s approach to the dark house is met with words of foreboding from a neighbour and, once within, no sign of his employer. And his initial ascent up the dim staircase becomes his first encounter with the dark presence that inhabits the landing.

The reader needs no familiarity with the work of H.P. Lovecraft to delight in the slow, delicious burn that is The Broken Hours. This work of gothic-style fiction is based in a solid knowledge of the work of H.P. Lovecraft and the final year of his life; from those points of fact, Jacqueline Baker builds her spooky world with a masterful hand, piling eerie moment on eerie moment, interspersed here and there with an uneasy, short-lived relief.

That first night, as Crandle makes his way past the landing, calling out to his unresponsive employer, he pauses for a moment, chilled at a sudden thought: “The unnatural, studied silence coming from the other side of the door was neither that of someone having just gone out nor of someone at focused work or even in deep sleep. Rather it was the stillness of someone’s strained listening, just on the other side. Watching, perhaps, through the crack there.”

The passive Crandle continues on to bed, clutching a letter that he discovers on the hall table. He adjusts to communicating with his reclusive employer through sporadic notes, and begins his work transcribing a haunting Lovecraft story. And then the beautiful Flossie arrives, bringing a certain light – and even more questions – into the house. Where is her roommate? In fact, where are all the women referenced by Lovecraft, and Crandle himself – an aunt, a mother, an estranged wife – a bevy of women just out of reach, apparently on their way back to this creaking, breathing house where the furniture shifts, where mysterious lights and figures appear and disappear? And what of the white-clad girl who drifts through the night garden?

The book is replete with images of damp, of bloat – a gleeful celebration of the moist and its shuddery effect on readers. Rain, damp clothing and heavy, humid skies are only the beginning. When Crandle first encounters the presence on the landing, he says that the air changed: “I do not know how else to describe it. It darkened, became more dense. The carpet grew unpleasantly thick beneath my shoes, a swollen thing.” Ugh. Lovely.

Crandle’s passivity, at first the recognizable response of a desperate man, begins to take on an eerie tone of its own: he arrives at Lovecraft’s home penniless. He’s also faint with hunger, but he sets aside the meagre and unappetizing fare Lovecraft provides. The house has no mirrors. As the narrator occasionally catches glimpses of himself in windows, he realizes he has lost weight, neglected to shave – indeed, become unrecognizable to himself.

And then there’s the letter Crandle’s employer has begged him to deliver to Lovecraft’s hospitalized mother. He can’t seem to do it; the days get away on him, only partly through Flossie’s welcome distractions. The unfulfilled mission builds anxiety in the reader’s mind even as it seems to escape Crandle’s. And the reader’s sense of unease with our narrator builds.

The creepy beauty of this novel lies in Baker’s steady, relentless build of atmosphere, a slow piling on of realizations and new questions. She sets us inside striking colour palettes: the gothic greys of dim rooms and heavy skies are offset by occasional moments of gilded light over distant buildings, flickering lights seen through night windows. And Crandle notes a lighter palette of cool purples and mauves in moments of reprieve: in the morning light, and as splashes of violet cushions and drapes that Flossie incorporates into her apartment. The same palette that offers temporary respite, however, is then mirrored in threatening skies that don’t quite rain, and – in perhaps the most disturbing scene of the entire book – in a monstrous, bruise-coloured tentacle Flossie and Crandle discover on the beach.

This is a book filled with moments where the reader feels – as Crandle does – that much of the action is happening just at the corner of your vision. Baker knows how to chill a reader more effectively than through ghouls shrieking out from the dark places. Things slither, our imagination grows: a jar of baby teeth scatters across the rug in a dimly lit room, a stone is lifted in a darkened yard, a hand passes over a nest of baby rats.

Early on, Crandle says, “I wonder, sometimes, what lives in us. I wonder what comes calling, what we invite inside.” It’s a sentiment the reader slowly catches up with – a slow and creeping recoil that leads inexorably to a twisty ending.

Crandle says, “If you want your secrets kept, they say, cloak them in candour.” On finishing The Broken Hours, you’re left with a satisfied crawling sensation, one that makes you want to wait a little while, to chew on what you saw and what you didn’t see, to move only slowly from the secrets of the moody mauve setting toward whatever candour you might find.

Evergreen, by Rebecca Rasmussen

I’m delighted to welcome Celia Ristow as the latest guest reviewer to contribute to this blog. Celia is a respected technical communications professional with an abiding love for literature of all kinds. She offsets many hours spent in front of a computer with ample hammock-and-good-book time.

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At times touching and poignant, at others brutal, tragic and refreshingly honest, Rebecca Rasmussen’s Evergreen is a study in contrasts; and yet throughout, the story moves forward with the certainty and ease of time itself. Like the river that flows through the centre of this multi-generational epic, and the enduring beauty of the natural foliage for which it is named, Evergreen is a story of endurance, resilience and promise. Although somewhat overstated at times, Rasmussen carefully and skillfully develops a delicate balance between contrasting forces — contrasts in character, story and setting — emerging in the end as an unquestionable narrative of hope and redemption.

The plot opens with newlyweds, Eveline and Emil, as they set up their first home in Evergreen, a remote corner of the Minnesota woods in the 1930s. After Eveline’s somewhat unconventional arrival at their wilderness cabin — a Lady of Shalott figure, asleep in a rowboat without paddles — she and Emil eke out an existence from the land and river around them. It is a traditional, if somewhat familiar tale of two pioneers in unforgiving surroundings, full of struggle yet reward, a new baby boy, Hux, and marital happiness, until Emil must return to Germany to care for his ailing father.

The story becomes centered around a trio of characters at this point — all of whom paint a portrait of compelling conflicts and contradictions — as Eveline is sustained by her straight-talking, rough-around-the-edges neighbour and friend, Lulu, and her husband, Reddy. Rasmussen brings the characters of Lulu and Reddy to life with ease. Like her worn coonskin coat, Lulu has endured much and survived with a clear and unflappable view on the events and people around her. She accepts and cherishes Reddy for who he is — the “honourable” alcoholic who travels to town for regular drunken binges, but always returns with supplies; who once saved Lulu from a life of prostitution and now fills the role of “good father” to her son, Gunther. Within the larger story, Lulu and Reddy are two characters who have lived and continue to play out Rasmussen’s theme of hope and the redeeming power of love.

Like the somewhat tarnished pasts of Lulu and Reddy, the idyllic tale of Eveline and her friends is suddenly tarnished itself with the rape of Eveline by a seemingly charming government surveyor, Cullen O’Shea, and the subsequent birth of a baby girl. Here Rasmussen delves into the utterly dark world of a rape victim as she explains how Eveline had “never felt so deeply hated”, conveying Eveline’s shame, fear and self-blame as she cannot seem to forget the “boyish” dimples that led her to trust O’Shea in the first place. And yet throughout this dark episode and following it, Rasmussen never lets us lose sight of the beauty and reassurance in nature, whether it be the inevitable return of spring and “tender green buds” to Evergreen or the little bird, Tuna, who feeds and sings without fail outside Eveline’s cabin.

Fearing Emil’s reaction to the baby born of this violation, Eveline leaves the baby at the Hopewell Orphanage, a name fraught — perhaps not so subtly — with the same contradictions Rasmussen has evoked previously. A place of supposed “hope”, the head nun at the orphanage develops a torn love/hate relationship with the girl, bestowing one her the demon name, Naamah. Despite dreams of finding her mother, and her view of the enduring evergreens from the orphanage — “Green as far as she could see” — Namaah inevitably leaves Hopewell and winds up a prostitute.

From here, Rasmussen moves the story forward easily, re-introducing the themes hope and redemption when Hux goes in search of and eventually finds his long-lost sister. The story now focuses on a new trio in Evergreen, Hux, Naamah and Lulu’s son, Gunther, who like the previous generation, continue to live a rough but idyllic life in their (now deceased) parents’ former cabins. As the story progresses with Gunther’s marriage to Naamah and the birth of their daughter, Racina, it becomes increasingly evident that the struggles and conflicts within Naamah have not dissipated. Afraid she “will do something terrible” to Racina, she abandons her, leaving her to be raised by the rough but dependable Gunther — a slightly over-stated echo of the past with Eveline’s abandonment of Naamah, and Lulu and Reddy’s predictability, but this thread weaves the generations and the story together in a way that seems perfectly natural and in its own way, reassuring.

Throughout Evergreen, Rasmussen evokes the beauty of the wilderness with vivid detail, taking its fundamental contradictions of brutality versus beauty, isolation versus connection as a backdrop to the struggles within the characters themselves. Occasionally somewhat forced — the image of Racina running into her mother’s arms at the conclusion of the story might seem somewhat Disney-like to some — and the evergreen imagery a little insistent at times, the story is compelling. The internal struggles of the characters are well-developed, and the plot moves forward at a steady pace so that we cannot help but read on. It’s a feel-good story, an honest portrayal of troubled lives, but reassuring in its simple yet affirmative final phrase, ‘Love was’.

Thank you to the author, Rebecca Rasmussen, for providing a complimentary copy of Evergreen.

Satisfying Clicking Sound, by Jason Guriel

“Avoid writing if you can. If you can’t, avoid cliché, and be precise. Don’t try to ‘express yourself’; self-expression usually amounts to expulsion. Try, rather, to connect with another: picture a smart but demanding reader, and try to hold her attention.”
– Jason Guriel … on hoarding and keeping your best lines off Twitter

I’m pleased to welcome back guest book reviewer Rebecca Hansford, who previously reviewed Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood here on the the Bookgaga blog. Rebecca recently graduated from Queen’s University, where she studied Biology and Psychology. As she previously observed, “Majoring in science instead of English was a tough choice for me as I have an electric passion for reading. I particularly enjoy fiction that integrates scientific facts, environmental issues and dystopian societies.”

bookcover-satisfying-clicking-sound

In Jason Guriel’s Satisfying Clicking Sound, the poet explores the contrasting elements of nature and technology currently existing in our society. Guriel’s style is of writing demands the reader’s attention in a profound yet disturbing way. For instance, Two Girls Splitting a Set of Earbuds describes two girls as flesh conjoined by an iPod, illustrating our dependence on our newfound technology and our inability to communicate without it. This brutal yet honest style of poetry is seen throughout his work, causing any reader to pause and ponder his thought, even possibly becoming repulsed at times. In his poem Poetry is Barbarous, Guriel fully exposes the vulgarity of his writing, as he compares a snowfall burying plastic swans and rabbits to real animals being buried to the throat. This vicious, yet captivating style of writing is seen throughout most of Satisfying Clicking Sound.

Although most of Guriel’s poems are blunt and difficult to digest, there was some free verse poetry with a more flowing style. In the Washbasin, Guriel compares painting and watery reflections to emphasize how the narrator feels he can live up to his father’s shadow. This poem was genuine, and the painting metaphor was beautifully tied into the poem. Dead on Arrival was another poem that appealed to me. Guriel remarks that stars are not aware of the fact that they burned out light years ago and therefore, they may not be aware of who they are themselves. Similarly, since we live our lives with the knowledge that we will die, is life futile? Will we ever know who we truly are?

In short, Jason Guriel’s Satisfying Clicking Sound is a fantastic read if you are interested in a more modern style of poetry. However, the last half of his work does bring forth some beautiful poetry with a less hard-hitting and vulgar style. Nonetheless, Guriel uses imagery in an astounding manner as he broadcasts his ideas regarding technology and society in a brutally honest manner. He will almost certainly hold your attention throughout his work.

Thank you to Véhicule Press for providing a review copy of Satisfying Clicking Sound by Jason Guriel.

Cockroach, by Rawi Hage

I’m excited to introduce Bookgaga readers to another insightful guest book reviewer who comes at things from some intriguing angles. Paul Whelan, over to you: I am an architect whose worldview has been shaped by a belief that cities and buildings are active participants in our real and imagined lives. My reading is evenly split between fiction and non-fiction, but usually underpinned by my deep love of human history.

Cockroach, by Rawi Hage

A book titled Cockroach almost begs the reader to embark on an insect-metaphor hunt. And there are many here to find. If you are the type of reader who wants to make connections between for example Kafka and derogatory racial profiling, it’s all here for the counting. But for me there was so much more to this engaging novel. I read it twice as the combination of character, story and language aligned to keep me off-balance, but eagerly stumbling forward.

The nameless main character is simultaneously off-putting and endearing. His childlike attitude towards his shoplifting and break and enter crimes seems devoid of conventional morality. He oscillates from compelling observations of his adopted city through to being weirdly off-putting. Regardless I wanted him to succeed in his seductions and his crimes. I never lost interest in his interactions with Montreal and its inhabitants.

Cockroach inhabits a city that operates under rules that are invisible to him. His judgment of the naïveté of those around him is equal to his own unexamined naïveté. He coolly exposes the false posturing of both his fellow-immigrants and the soft lives of the Montreal well-to-do. Rawi Hage creates passages of power and beauty such as the hero’s musings on his state-appointed psychiatrist.

“She was quiet and I knew she wanted to ask me if I had killed Tony once I had the gun. I knew she was hooked, intrigued. Simple woman. I thought. Gentle, educated, but naïve, she is sheltered by glaciers and prairies, thick forests, oceans and dancing seals.”

Cockroach’s hero has experienced a far harsher world and has little patience for the morality of the well-fed.

Hage’s novel maintains a tight relationship to the viscera of Montreal. The reader is kept in constant contact with the ice and slush of winter, the hunger before the next welfare check and incessant sexual longing. The hero is desperately in touch with his physicality and is deeply grateful for every scrap of food or sexual encounter. Even his break-ins seem tempered by seeming simpler needs. He takes what he wants based on his assessment of the inhabitants, but mostly food and information.

What I have avoided writing about is the plot. For most of the novel I simply read along for the ride. I was equally intrigued by the hero’s direct pleasure from life and the inexorable unfolding of his story, which skirts around all the great issues – hunger, sex, love and revenge. But there is a great story here that slips through the entrails of Montreal and all its inhabitants.


Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Paul is the fifth and final – to review the contending books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

I’m very pleased to welcome another terrific guest book reviewer with some fresh perspectives to the Bookgaga blog. Over to Rebecca Hansford, who will introduce herself: I am an undergraduate student at Queen’s University, completing my final year in Biology and Psychology. I am currently conducting a thesis, examining how lakes change over time due to climate-related issues. Majoring in science instead of English was a tough choice for me as I have an electric passion for reading. I particularly enjoy fiction that integrates scientific facts, environmental issues and dystopian societies.

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood tells the brilliant story of two contrasting women’s survival in a rapidly deconstructing society. The characters’ surroundings are devastating but familiar, a world focused on consumerism, flashy products and unnatural gene splicing. Humans have destroyed the environment and the government has a tyrannical hold over the population. However, the general population is so obsessed with consumption that little attention is given to the political chokehold.

From this corrupt and unnatural society, a small religion of naturalists emerges, the Gardeners. The Gardeners promote vegetarianism and minimalist life choices despite the current society’s focus on consumerism and unnatural product obsessions. At first glance, the Gardeners’ society seem to be a modern-day garden of Eden, however, by delving into two distinct narratives, Atwood exposes both the negative and positive aspects of this religion while telling the story of the Gardeners’ response to the impending doom of the Waterless flood.

Atwood jumps effortless between narratives and time describing the lives of the Gardener women, before and after the Waterless Flood. The juxtaposition of the two women’s characters is remarkable. Toby is a hardwired, strong woman, who learns to fend for herself at an early age. By using third person, Atwood distances the reader from the slightly closed off character. In contrast, Ren is an open, resilient but slightly dependent character. Ren’s narrative is first person and begins when she is a young child, giving the reader an easier connection to this character. The changing narrative is wonderfully done and keeps the reader engaged. Atwood also describes the Gardeners’ prayers, enabling the reader to see into this interesting religion.

By demonstrating Gardener prayers in addition to each woman’s view of the religion, the reader gains three perspectives into the Gardener religion. As a treat, the reader also gets a taste of Atwood’s renowned poetry as Atwood threads religious symbolism seamlessly into the novel. Using these prayers, Atwood comments on organized religion by emphasizing the positive, natural aspects while highlighting the problems and hypocrisy within its organization.

The Year of the Flood poses interesting questions regarding the current technology and economy focused society. In a world of gene-splicing, questionable medicine and secret-meat burgers, how far can society depart from the natural world before it becomes detrimental to human society? Atwood makes the reader question the society’s focus on playing God, while making us wonder if our society has also crossed this line. Atwood reinforces the inconvenient truth that current lifestyle choices are leading to a disaster of global scale and asks the reader if our society will also have to face the consequences of our consumerist actions one day.


Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Rebecca is the fourth – to review the finalist books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”

Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

I’m really thrilled to introduce Bookgaga blog visitors to another wise and diligent guest book reviewer. Sue Reynolds is a life-long reader and animal lover whose sudden, passionate love for Bette Davis movies threatens to consume all of her reading time.

Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

Half-Blood Blues has won or been shortlisted for an impressive array of prestigious awards since its publication in 2011. It won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Orange Prize for Fiction and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, to name a few. The great success of the book has generated countless descriptions and reviews, both in print and online. In the interest of taking a different approach, the Bookgaga kindly suggested that my review might take the Canada Reads theme into consideration.

Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s second novel, moves back and forth between Berlin and Paris in 1939-40, and Berlin and Poland in 1992. Its action revolves around a jazz band, the Hot-Times Swingers, which is composed of black and white musicians from the United States and Europe. With World War II looming on the horizon and harassment of “undesirables” (band members Chip and Hiero are both dark-skinned black men, Paul is a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jew) becoming increasingly violent, the Hot-Times Swingers flee Berlin for Paris, partly to escape the worsening situation in Berlin, partly to meet and record with Louis Armstrong.

Edugyan smoothly moves from the drama of the Swingers, their interpersonal tensions, artistic struggles and more serious challenges of avoiding the Nazi presence in Berlin and Paris, to future scenes with the surviving members, years later, who are now old men. The 1992 sections of the novel feel almost like a detective story, as Sid, our elderly narrator, and his best friend, Chip, travel to Berlin and Poland in search of Hiero, the genius trumpeter, assumed killed during the war but alive and living in obscurity.

Canada Reads asks: what is the one novel that could change Canada, that Canadians can look to for inspiration? That will compel Canadians to make a change in their lives, at home or at work, in their community, in their country or around the world? Although the bulk of Half-Blood Blues takes place on the world stage with the horrors of World War II as a backdrop, the novel has an intimate and personal feel to it. We are witness to the creative process that Sid and his bandmates live for and we watch Sid’s infatuation with jazz singer Delilah Brown play itself out.

Half-Blood Blues works its magic, not necessarily through its story, but in how it tells that story. Edugyan conveys the mysteries of jazz music through her use of the written word:

“Kid wasn’t even hardly listening, it seemed. Handling his horn with a 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 Hiero hisself was the lid.

…I might’ve been crying. It was the sound of something growing a crust, some watery thing finally gelling. The very sound of age, of growing older, of adolescent rage being tempered by a man’s heart. Yeah, that was it. It was the sound of the kid’s coming of age. As if he taken on some of old Armstrong’s colossal sadness.” (p. 278)

Whether Edugyan is describing the freedom found in creating music or the chaos of thousands of panicked Parisians trying to flee their occupied city, her prose sings and reminds us that we are interacting with a living, breathing language. This, I think, is her gift to her readers: she calls attention to the musical, evocative beauty of the English language, how it can be bent and twisted to do the writer’s bidding.

Should all of Canada read Half-Blood Blues we may end up with a nation of book-lovers who have decided to read aloud, the better to hear the music embedded in every text they open.


Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Sue is the third – to review the finalist books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

Allow me to introduce Bookgaga blog visitors to another wonderful and perceptive guest book reviewer. Natasha Hesch loves novels. She started out as a public librarian, and now works at BiblioCommons. She regularly shares short reviews of what she has read as tegan on BiblioCommons’ library software.

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

I had been wanting to read Annabel by Kathleen Winter for quite some time, but it had just not made it to the top of my reading list. When Vicki asked me to read and review one of the 5 selected Canada Reads books, I jumped at the opportunity to review Annabel.

As I made my way through the novel on my daily TTC commute, I kept thinking about this year’s Canada Reads big question “What is the one novel that could change Canada?” I haven’t read the other 4 Canada Reads titles, but by reading Annabel I think Canadians could become more open-minded and accepting of other people’s differences. Discrimination against people who don’t fit neatly into sex and gender constructs persists today.

The main character of Annabel is a child who is born a hermaphrodite. Treadway, the father independently decides that the child should be raised as a boy: “[Treadway] knew his baby had both a boy’s and a girl’s identity, and he knew a decision had to be made.” (Winter, 26). Although Jacinta and Treadway’s baby is born in 1968, I wonder how different of a situation parents would be in today? I didn’t look into what the typical medical practices are today, but there is still a definite requirement to label a child: governmental institutions still impose the binary of male vs. female upon parents right from the start. I took a quick look at the Ontario and Newfoundland form for getting a birth certificate, and both forms still have only two check boxes available for sex: male or female. At a federal level, Statistics Canada also erases the existence of intersex individuals: on the 2011 Census of Population, only male and female populations are recorded.

Annabel really makes you think about the labels that are placed upon people, and the problematic nature of trying to label everything to try to understand it. Throughout the novel, there are numerous references to naming, defining and labeling things: “Everyone was trying to define everything so carefully, Jacinta felt; they wanted to annihilate all questions” (Winter 45). By labeling things, we are often imposing limits; as Winter eloquently writes “You define a tree and you do not see what it is; it becomes its name” (Winter 350).

As a reader you can’t help but want Wayne to just be who s/he is. There is a very sweet moment early on in the book where Wayne longs for a girls orange bathing suit. He begs his mother for one, but knows his father would not approve: “Could we get me a bathing suit like Elizaveta Kirilovna’s and not tell Dad?” (Winter 86). I wanted to buy the swimsuit for Wayne/Annabel. The innocence of Wayne’s desires are at times heart-breaking. I think if all Canadian’s read this book, they would empathize with Wayne, and be more open to accepting the blurry lines that exist with sex and gender identity.

There is much time spent in the novel on bridges. Thomasina, who accepts Wayne/Annabel for who s/he is, sends postcards of bridges to Wayne/Annabel. S/he is obsessed with these bridges, s/he is constantly looking at the postcards and redrawing the bridges. I couldn’t help but think that the bridges were a symbol of the interstitial space that Wayne/Annabel lives in. A space bridging two places, not male, not female, but in between.

Wayne/Annabel as a character is a very inspiring one. S/he never complains about his/her situation, no matter what happens to him/her. Although at times Winter writes Wayne/Annabel through very difficult experiences, I was very happy and relieved that Winter wrote Wayne/Annabel to a ‘happy ending’. I think that Annabel as a novel has the ability to create empathy for people who are different than one’s self. I look forward to the Canada Reads debates.


Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Natasha is the second – to review the finalist books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”