Saturday, December 11, 2010

Gabrielle Roy's The Tin Flute

Many firsts in my life have happened in Montreal; I've loved the city ever since my first visit when I was sixteen. So I was pre-disposed to like The Tin Flute, a novel set in its impoverished St. Henri neighbourhood in 1940, after Canada entered World War II but before the conscription crisis. The Tin Flute tells of the tribulations of the Lacasse family--nineteen-year-old Florentine, her mother Rose-Anna, father Azarius, and several younger siblings. Will Azarius find work? Will Rose-Anna survive another pregnancy and another annual move to desperate digs? Will Florentine meet a nice young man like Jean Levesque or Emmanuel Letourneau at her job at the lunch counter at the Five and Ten?

The tin flute of the English title is a toy, a symbol of inexpensive yet still out of reach fleeting joy the mother contemplates purchasing for a dying child. The English translation of the original title Bonheur d'Occasion would be something more like Hand-me-down Happiness or even Damaged Goods (Bonheur = happiness/luck/joy + d'Occasion = used/secondhand). The Tin Flute won Canada's Governor-General 's Award for Literature in 1947. In some ways, the writing style feels as comfortable as snuggling into flannelette with a cup of hot cocoa. Although it is cinematic in the sense that each chapter is a scene focusing on one of the main characters, the style also seems old-fashioned in the way that the third-person omniscient narrator knows and tells the reader everything that each character sees, hears, does, thinks, and feels. The details are vivid and revealing, the characters fully realized and totally believable. Although some of the plot points are a bit predictable, they are predictable in the way pregnancy and poverty are inevitable both in their causes and their effects.

Writer Gabrielle Roy understands her characters inside and out. She uses these characters to explore larger themes of class, the dearth of hope among the impoverished, the relationship between economic depression and personal despair, and between personality and “success.” Roy is also talking about the irony of war as salvation and the triumph of practicality over tribal nationalism. In the same way that geography parallels income (Westmount looks down upon the town below), certain characters, no matter what we think about them, rise above their conditions, their achievement of “success” dependent upon their individual ability to adapt. In the tug-of-war between idealism and realism, the winners are those who are able to translate vision and goals into action.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Denis E. Bolen's Kaspoit!


Check out my review of Dennis E. Bolen's Kaspoit! at the PFRB's new location. "Prairie Fire Review of Books is now an on-line journal, housed on the University of Manitoba Libraries server through the Open Journals System."

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Flying Troutmans

The Flying Troutmans

I searched my cache for images which evoke The Flying Troutmans for me. One picture of the highway through the Black Hills in South Dakota suggests the glimpse of hope in the distance for travellers in a hostile landscape where walls crowd in and rocks threaten to fall from the sky. The second shot, actually from Washington State, could accompany the newspaper caption "Why aren't you at the beach?" which the children associate with checking their mother in to the psych ward.

Miriam Toews' The Flying Troutmans

The Flying Troutmans

Miriam Toews' novel The Flying Troutmans is the story of a road trip. Hesitant Aunt Hattie Troutman (age 28) arrives home from Paris to help her niece Thebes (Theodora, age 11) and nephew Logan (age 15). The kids' mother Min, Hattie's older sister, is on the downswing of what appears to be an emotional cycling between manic creativity and suicidal depression which has been going on all Hattie's life. They bundle Min off to the psych ward. Hattie decides that she hasn't the skills to cope with the kids' problems with school, relationships, and the law. In desperation, she loads them into the van and heads out on a quest across America (South Dakota, Utah, Arizona, California) following leads about the whereabouts of their absent father Cherkis.

The three main characters in The Flying Troutmans are endearingly quirky; as a reader you don't want to abandon them. Thebes thrives within a sea of arts and crafts supplies; she is obsessed with words and provides running commentary from dictionaries and guidebooks. Logan, a cool silent teen, is preoccupied with basketball and driving, skills which allow him to practise maintaining control. Hattie can't let go of her Paris boyfriend who dumped her (twice) and, in a somewhat desperate attempt to meet another adult, accosts joggers, hitchhikers, stoners along the way. It is easy to empathize with her resistance to the caretaker role, her insecurities with being in loco parentis, torn between two needy youngsters, and her seeming inability to grow up herself.

This is a story about the challenges of living with a loved one who is mentally ill, about the distortions this condition creates in everyone within the patient's orbit, and about the necessity of both love and detachment if caregivers and dependents are to thrive themselves. Telephone calls, former addresses, kite strings, the lines painted on the highway are just some of the organic imagery reflecting themes of connection, boundaries, and control. Wonderful. With only one caution. The title refers to Logan's original phrase, The F'ing Troutmans.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero

Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero

The first time I read Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero I was disappointed. A Canadian writer with not one Canadian reference, with a story set in California and France. I wondered about his motives. Is he playing up to Hollywood? And who are these characters? What is the story about? It seems to be all over the place. Self-indulgent? Pretentious? Confusing. Certainly not reader-friendly. Is Ondaatje coasting on his literary laurels? Does the Emperor have no clothes?

You know that old joke about the pile of horse manure in the middle of the room? I'm the type of person who believes that there's a pony in here somewhere. More than that, Ondaatje has given us so much already, I'm willing to take another stab at it, to trust the writer wherever he wants to take us. Even if that wherever happens to be poetic sensibility married to experimental novel structure. Poetic sensibility is good.

Divisadero is told in multiple voices. Part 1 begins in California in the 1970s, when a family--father, Coop, Anna, and Clare--is blown asunder by an act of violence. Anna goes into hiding and never returns home again. She pursues her research subject, an early twentieth century poet, Lucien Segura, from San Francisco's Bancroft Library to the house where he lived in France where she develops a relationship with Raphael, a man who knew Lucien. Clare works for a lawyer in San Francisco and goes home to father and the ranch on weekends. Coop becomes an itinerant gambler and when his misdeeds catch up with him, and a beating destroys his memory, Clare finds him and brings him home. Part 2 describes how the three generations of characters arrive at the house in France. Part 3 tells Lucien's story, his lonely childhood, the injury which blinded one eye, his love for his neighbour Marie-Neige, his marriage and daughters, his service as a field hospital worker during WWI, and his poetry. Divisadero goes backwards in time, from the New World to the Old. It is ultimately sad, full of things we do not want to think about like adultery, cheating, drug abuse, incest, theft, violence, and none of the stories end conclusively.

As I was looking for a photograph of a spiral tower like the one in Lucien's story, a picture revealed itself to me--an excerpt from Ilya Repin's grief-maddened Ivan the Terrible cradling his son's body after fatally striking him in anger. This painting is referenced in the last pages of the novel and the instant I saw it I recognized it as the key. Divisadero is a story about the terrible effects of violence on the victims and about how trauma affects everything which follows. That is why the story begins in California. That is why each of the multiple stories is attached to an example of the larger violence in the world, the Vietman War, the first Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq, World War I. The microcosm and the macrocosm. The inescapable reality of violence in the world and of its traumatic impact upon those who are the victims and the witnesses. Perhaps that even explains why there is no reference to Canada; the instances of universal violence are chosen from examples of US imperialism and European madness.

This Ivan the Terrible painting is the key and Ondaatje has hidden it, this clue to the quest for meaning, in the art reference. I think the experimental structure of Divisadero, which suggests a story written on a deck of cards, dropped and picked up at random, is meant to reflect real life, with its many connections, repetitions even, but not necessarily a linear plot. Or like the image he offers of the coloured shards of glass twisted into a beautiful pattern in a kaleidoscope. Yes. The key is in the art and the proof is in the poetry. Ondaatje even hints that we tend to hide in art, especially perhaps if we want novels to suggest that the world is a beautiful sunny ordered place where everyone gets back together at the end and lives happily ever after. Not in Ondaatje's world. As he said of Lucien, he protected himself with words, building art the way birds build nests, with words like sticks, like twigs collected in the field.

He protected himself with words

He protected himself with words like twigs collected from fields - Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Marilynne Robinson's Home

Marilynne Robinson's Home

Marilynne Robinson is an American writer from Idaho, a state which borders on BC. Her first novel, Housekeeping, about a family haunted by an accident in which a train derailed into a lake, was made into a movie filmed in Nelson, BC. Her second novel, Gilead, won the Pulitzer, and this one, Home, the Orange Prize.

Set in a small town called Gilead, Iowa in the 1950s, Home takes place almost completely in one house (plus the porch, the garden, the barn, and a short distance down the road). The house belongs to Robert Boughton, a widower and retired Presbyterian minister, father of six. The youngest, 38-year-old Glory, has returned home to look after her father. They are joined by Jack, the prodigal son, gone for twenty years, and trailing clouds of uncertainty and shame. There is not a great deal of action. People wait, have breakfast, coffee, meals; they weed the garden and work on an old car. They watch the traffic move down the road and listen when a vehicle stops. They buy a television, watch baseball, and news reports of the beginnings of the civil rights movement in the South. This is a story about parent/child and sibling relationships and about friendship. They discuss philosophy and theology, issues such as fate, predestination, soul, and grace. But what keeps the reader going, what you want to know, is what did happen and what will happen, because you care about these people. And you feel the tension, of a home, a family, on the edge.

This novel Home next to Cormac McCarty's The Road is a perfect representation of the House/Horse dichotomy—how women write about houses and security, about coming home, and men write about horses and adventure, leaving loved ones behind. Yet Robinson makes it clear, through plot, character, and philosophical/theological discussions, that whether making a home or escaping from one, we are all on the same road.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cormac McCarthy's The Road

I bought this paperback because of the movie tie-in, because of Viggo Mortensen. I love his work; I love looking at him. I am that shallow. I doubt, though, that I will choose to watch the film. Like "the man" says, Once you allow those images into your brain, they're there for good.

It is very very difficult to write this simply, in a style stripped of all elements save character, conversation, and action. Style is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the book. There are no quotation marks. (Some day, more publishers and writers will catch up.) Nor is McCarthy constrained by the old definitions of sentences and complete thoughts. He uses words like a paint brush--a dab, more dabs here, a stroke, more strokes there. Through the father's actions--feeding, clothing, sheltering, and nurturing his son--and through their conversations, their lives, their roles, their fears and goals, their relationship are all revealed. With a minimum of flashback memory, some nightmares, no interior monologue, no intellectualizing or philosophizing, The Road strips down our constructs of humanity and civilization.

Where are they? We only assume the setting is somewhere in America. The west coast? He mentions rhodos. There are plantation-like abandoned houses, with slave cellars. Do they have rhodos in the east? I do not know. Then there are pines, liveoaks, and magnolia. The writing on a shipwreck says "Tenerife" (p.223). Maybe it is the Atlantic coast. The map they carry is falling apart. Place does not matter; setting is irrelevant.

No characters have names. They are "the man, Papa" and "the boy." Individualism no longer matters. The people they meet are archetypes--a thief, an old man, a pregnant woman, a skewered baby. Marauding bands threaten. The bad guys are cannibals. The good guys wouldn't do that, yet every decision, every interaction, is a moral dilemma. The boy knows the teachings--be kind, love thy neighbour, forgive. The man knows the reality, and the risks. To steal our belongings is to kill us. To share our food is to die sooner. They carry a pistol; there are two bullets left; then there is only one. Character and plot have been stripped down to a story of pure animal survival.

The reader continues to trudge along out of faith alone. Expectation. Anticipation. Trust. The belief that something will actually happen sometime. That the characters will make choices other than whether to live or how to die. Will they get to the ocean? If so, then what? You begin to worry. Perhaps action no longer matters either. Perhaps plot is simply: Life's a bitch and then you die. It's a road. It used to be a highway. All stories lead to--what? Some sort of ending? All life ends in death. Yet in the simplicity, the reader finds opportunity. There are possibilities of symbolism. The reader may choose to believe that there is something--some meaning--beyond the characters themselves and their simple story. That the word, the idea of "hope" survives. 
The Road is Cormac McCarthy's story of a postapocalyptic world. A man and his son (both nameless) are walking on a road, scrounging for food, heading south towards the ocean seeking warmth. The gas stations beside the road are derelict, already looted, as are any houses, the nameless cities, the rusted train they encounter.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness

Last Sunday I finished re-reading Miriam Toews' GG's award-winning novel A Complicated Kindness. I almost never re-read a book; there are just too many books and too few hours. But this one I remember enjoying so much that I wanted to get my own copy and I wanted to check to see whether the conclusion by others in the book club made any more sense to me now. Some members, knowing the writer's family history, suggested that the novel is about the suicide of a major character but I didn't get that. Was I being a Pollyanna? Was I in denial? I am happy to report that, after a second go-through, I still do not accept that interpretation, although it is certainly one of the options that the distraught teen narrator Nomi posits. I think the inconclusive ending is intentional, meant to highlight the mystery of what we know and what we cannot know about the lives of others. If there is no hard evidence in the text, it has not happened. There is no simple explanation, as the title stresses; it's complicated.

Another thing I tell myself is that, at my age, I've read enough coming-of-age stories. Not that there's anything wrong with coming-of-age, but I want the themes to touch me personally and I want the novel to hint at social commentary and to engage me with its literary style. So, a book has to be more than a YA to get my votes. It has to say something relevant to readers with more life experience as well as to younger fans.

ACK satisfies me on all these levels. Nomi is a completely credible fully realized teenager caught in that holding pattern between finishing her Grade 12 and trying to start a real life while feeling trapped in the small town in which she has grown up. Nomi's child-woman's voice is both endearing and gripping. And she has the added appeal for me of being from a recognizable Canadian community (a town in Manitoba famous for its pioneer village museum with windmill, its many car dealerships, and its many many churches, with the city lights of Winnipeg in the distance). The work ethic, the successful embrace of capitalism including the tourist industry, and the hold the Mennonite culture still has, especially on Nomi's family, make the setting an integral part of the novel. Nomi both suffers from and kicks against the religious constraints. The constant driving, the closeness to "the Line," pushers and pit parties, church and Hymn Sing capture the teen restlessness and the schizoid world she inhabits.

ACK compares favourably with J. D. Salinger's The Catcher In the Rye, with its teenage narrator Holden Caulfield railing against the "phonies" and all the absent adults who are not there when he needs them. Holden, who has been expelled from several private schools, lives in an unfriendly New York City in the 1950s, with few connections outside his truncated nuclear family--a much younger sister, the elevator operator, a former teacher, an ex-roommate. Nomi Nickel, on the other hand, in the 1980s, suffers from too much community. Her best friend is dying, her boyfriend is withdrawing, her sister and mother have already abandoned her, and her father continues to prepare for the end of the school year by selling off the furniture and handing Nomi the keys to the family car. And other adults, her uncle the church leader and her English teacher, have failed her in more dramatic ways. Yet both these iconic teen characters are dealing first and foremost with grief, the memory of lost loved ones, with the feelings of anger and abandonment which accompany grief, and the acting out that inevitably follows. In the same way that Holden affects a deerstalker hat, Toews shows, with Nomi's shaved head and army boots, how costume and hairstyle communicate, sometimes in screams. The sad thing is that nothing seems to have improved for troubled teens from dysfunctional families in the fifty years between the publication of the two novels. The sadder thing is that the world has not changed enough to allow a book this honest, this brave--which hints that teenagers may smoke cigarettes or pot, do drugs or drink, skip school, have sex, seek out birth control--on to the school curriculum where young readers could experience trauma vicariously and discuss choices with objective adults.

Nomi and Holden both deliver condemnations of their respective cultures which fail them in their times of need. Of course, Salinger is not the last writer to tackle this theme, and Toews is not the first writer to look with an honest eye at a Mennonite community in western Canada (related to but not the same as Old Order Amish Ontario Mennonites or Pennsylvania Dutch). If you haven't already, you must read: Rudy Wiebe's Peace Shall Destroy Many; Patrick Friesen's The Shunning; Armin Wiebe's comic Schneppa Kjnals PI novels, to name only three great Canadian writers. Toews' indictment is harsh on the personal level of holier-than-thou flawed characters and on the socio-cultural level of the conflict between kinds of love, especially the love of a faith which demands that believers put their church before their families. Is it caritas to shun and excommunicate spouses and parents, with the assertion that the future heavenly world trumps the present temporal reality? Yet with the sea of faith retreating, the question becomes: Who will choose the darkling plain and who the distant city lights?

To me, there is not one false note. I love Nomi; I love AKC. They evoke words like tour de force and exceptional. I am both hesitant to start and looking forward to The Flying Troutmans. It cannot possibly be as good, but what if it is?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Mary Gaitskill's Veronica

The writer and her novel. Photograph by David Shankbone, Creative Commons.


Today I finished reading Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. I hadn't heard of her until she spoke to the assembled writers at the Humber School in July. Her presentation was both eerie and inspiring. Eerie because Gaitskill, a beautiful woman, seemed unable or unwilling to smile. Perhaps she was just reacting against the convention that we must be ingratiating before people will listen to us. Her words were inspiring in that she told a personal story of believing in herself in spite of the rejection and denigration from pricks in positions. I wonder what her workshop was like? I bought Veronica because I overheard other writers saying it was good. (And it was an American National Book Award finalist.) 

Reading Gaitskill reminds me somewhat of Margaret Atwood, the way people say she “writes with a scalpel.” And Veronica is similar to Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version, the way it is a challenge to tell a compelling story about an unattractive or "difficult" character. It also evokes Nuala O'Faolain for me, the way she is so honest about twentieth century women who choose to have sex with more than one person. After all, who were the role models for sexually liberated females except for Marilyn Monroe and Janice Joplin, and we know what happened to them.

Veronica the novel is the story of an era, the 1980s, its consumer and media-driven culture, and it is the story of a character, Alison, the narrator. Veronica the character is a woman, a friend of Alison's, who contracts AIDS from her gay lover. Veronica functions as a vehicle, a device which enables Alison to tell her story of their friendship and of her own life, before and after Veronica. Alison is a meangirl teen-age runaway who becomes a model in Paris and New York. She is negative and judgmental, dancing as fast as she can to prove that “we are having fun.” She is shallow and ethically challenged but she is also hyper-observant and intuitive and over the twenty-plus years the novel covers, grows emotionally and spiritually. Veronica is a novel about freedom, grief, and love; it is about the meanings of touch, connection, and intimacy. Veronica helped me reconcile with some of the decisions I made as a young woman alone in the post-pill pre-AIDS world. It is a novel about choices, from choosing which person to trust to choosing which trail to walk.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Homage to DC

Homage to DC
No. I did not sneak my camera into the VAG. But these knock-offs may give you a feeling for the two button blankets. I did not have enough loonies so I had to use souvenir Irish and English coins. Image #3 refers to DC's meditation on papermaking.

Inspired by Emily II - Juxtapositions

On the fourth floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery, In Dialogue with Carr juxtaposes paintings, sketches, and primitive pots by Emily with the work of four local living artists, Evan Lee, Liz Magor, Marianne Nicolson, and Douglas Coupland.

As you enter the gallery, the first painting, of Emily and her sister sitting at tea, echoes the French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and drawings on the main floor. The warmth and intimacy of this domestic scene remind us that Emily studied in France and could paint well in that style if she chose to do so.

A series of Evan Lee paintings which began life as found photographs of forest fires evoke the beauty in ugliness and destruction of altered landscapes in Emily's paintings of gravel pits and clear cuts.

Douglas Coupland displays two of his 'button blankets'. These are not so much like blanket capes as they are king-sized bed coverings or wall hangings. The first is a white field, reminiscent of Salish woven wool, with multi-coloured manufactured buttons affixed in even rows. The second on a solid black field displays 1000 loonies. There is irony here, humour, as well as an homage to the ritual making and gifting of blankets, articles of both beauty and utility, valuable hand-made objects which required 'a wealth of relatives working in concert' to produce goods for the giveaway at traditional potlatches. Other blankets and crazy quilts (I'm not sure whether they are all Coupland's) are decorated with other iconic images from aboriginal and Canadian culture which have replaced (or infiltrated) the winter dances. One is aerated with dream-catchers, another is a crazy collage of hockey memorabilia, and one showcases shiny hubcaps.

A large display case holds several of Emily's primitive clay pots decorated with First Nations motifs. The writing on the wall acknowledges the loan of pottery items from the private collection of Bryan Adams. Coupland points out that he and Adams grew up two blocks apart from each other on the North Shore but that he has only seen Bryan once in his life, at the Shell station. The connection, he suggests, is that they are both artists influenced by their relationship with the surrounding forest, as was Emily. The difference is, he suggests, that Emily had friends on the reserve and visited there often while, he, Coupland, has lived there a lifetime within blocks of Indian land, and has never set foot on the reserve. How true this is for most Canadians. As much as we may wish to feel connected, often the only link between our personal cultures is through the work of artists. Is this connection lost forever, irretrievable, or is Emily again the pathfinder, showing us where we all must go before we can feel truly at home in this land?

Inspired by Emily

The first time I saw an actual Emily Carr painting, in an obscure corner of a far room in the old National Gallery in Ottawa, I was pulled towards its green as are iron filings to magnetic north. Thus, I was thrilled that the July selection for our library book club was Emily Carr's Growing Pains: An Autobiography which highlights her development as an artist.

Some of her lessons learned from studying in San Francisco, London, Cornwall, and Paris include: the difference between naked and nude; the destructive nature of class consciousness and snobbery; the importance of being true to your self, of saying no to those who would make you into something else (such as a wife and mother); and the importance of being true to your subjects. If you are a child of the forest, don't be pushed into painting the sea. Emily confesses the dangers of stress and depression, the monetary sacrifices, the impossibility of juggling two careers (artist and landlady). She objects to the tendency to distort the human form for shock value and praises the way distortion is used in First Nations art for a specific purpose, to see into the life, the spirit, of a subject. She celebrates the importance of finding kindred spirits and warns of the danger of being too influenced by the style of another. Emily's emotional challenges are obvious yet she perseveres in living her non-traditional lifestyle and developing her own artistic style with her chosen subject matter.

Emily's writing style too is most impressive. Her voice seems as fresh as if she were camped in the yard. Her images are all so vivid and derived naturally from the environment. Many of us were inspired to seek out other of her published works. I also finished reading The Book of Small about her childhood in Victoria, BC in the 1870s and 1880s, and Klee Wyck about her travels to paint the totem poles. I pulled out my old copy of the Doris Shadbolt's The Art of Emily Carr. And I made a special trip to the Vancouver Art Gallery to see In Dialogue with Carr which includes some of her sketches, paintings, and primitive pots (see Juxtapositions). My next visit to Victoria will definitely include a visit to the Carr House on Government Street ( ). The VAG says Carr's legacy is a visual BC identity. For Emily, a visual BC identity is part of a proud Canadian identity.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Star Called Henry

I just finished reading Roddy Doyle's novel A Star Called Henry. Loved it. A friend recommended it as a great example of a writer who does not use quotation marks. It reads easily, all in the first person, with dialogue introduced by a dash. Yes!
And I loved the Irish setting, Dublin and the countryside, 1916 to 1921, during the fight for independence. It reminded me of a wonderful visit I had to Ireland many years ago. Yet the story of Henry Smart is so current. Poverty. Child soldiers. Women's liberation. The true meaning of freedom. Whether the means justify the ends. And whether it really matters if you merely replace one boss with another. History and political science through the eyes of the workers at the bottom of the chain of command.

Friday, February 12, 2010


This is the quote of the day:  "There is nothing you can see that is not a flower; there is nothing you can think that is not the moon." - Matsuo Basho

One Lucky Day


Peter Robinson. WHEN THE MUSIC'S OVER . M&S, 2016.  Banks has been promoted. His first two cases involve sexual abuse--one histori...