Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Cure for Insomnia - 2011 - Seasons

Seasons

As usual, I don't have much to report. But I will attempt a 2011 year-in-review seasonal letter in short spurts, with illustrations, to keep you interacting. I truly believe that my life, or at least reading about my life, is a sure cure for insomnia. So, pleasant dreams.

The Cure for Insomnia - 2011 - Work


Work: Fiction and Non-Fiction

My contract with INAC, the residential schools settlement, ended March 31. I applied for my CPP which does pretty much cover the mortgage now, but I haven't been able to motivate myself to look for more paid work yet. There is too much else I'd rather be doing. The Shaw man came recently and hooked up my free cable Internet for one year. I still use the telephone Internet line upstairs in my office but the TV room hookup to my laptop is wireless. I use the Internet a lot for the work I am doing on my Annotated and Illustrated Morag which I hope to be able to present as the "first" annotated Canadian novel, available world wide to students of CanLit. Perhaps e-self-publishing through Amazon will be the way this thing flies. Of course, all my writer friends understand the convention of not talking about on-going projects. The fear of jinxes; the fear of thieves. I'm still working on my first published fiction, Anything You Say, and the possibly e-publication mentioned above is about my favourite writer, Margaret Laurence. Four of the seven books I am in the process of reviewing for Prairie Fire are about her.

The Cure for Insomnia - 2011 - Midway, Kelowna, Vernon

Kettle Valley, Midway, Greenwood, Kelowna, Vernon


I took a holiday in April. For the first time in sixteen years, I drove east over the mountains to visit my aunts and uncles in Keremeos, Oliver, Midway and cousins in Kelowna and cousins and aunts in Vernon, and then back over the Coquihalla Connector. I worried that my old 94 Hyundai might not make it, but I got home all right. It was different seeing Vernon without my mother living there. Three uncles also used to be there and all are gone. My aunts are in their 90s and in good homes now where there is help and company. I had a good visit with cousins who always seemed "way older" than me when we were kids, Linda, Marge, you know who you are, but now somehow we are the same age? Although my younger cousins, Caroline and Susan, probably don't feel that way.

The Cure for Insomnia - 2011 - Local Touring

Agassiz, Rosedale, Harrison, Bellingham

Brother Harv & Donna drove out from Manitoba for a fast visit in August, on their one weekend without wedding cakes to deliver. We went to Minter Gardens, Harrison, Agassiz to a garlic festival food fair, and went to Bellingham for lunch. It was the first time I had used my new passport which I got two years ago when I was in Winnipeg. It was good to be a tourist for a change. As it was a bit too rushed, Harv says the next time they will use air miles.

The Cure for Insomnia - 2011 - Brigade Days Visitor

Brigade Days Parade

I also had a couple of visits with Roy, #1 nephew, who was out in Chilliwack for weapons training. He is still with Canada Border Services, 11+ years. He came up to Hope on Brigade Days, the weekend of September 11, because he had rented a car to take a group to the Peace Arch commemoration that Sunday. He was staying in the barracks at the RCMP training centre in Chilliwack. I picked him up one other Sunday and we went for coffee at my dad's cousin's, Wilma, who is about my age, and her husband Gord. Wilma's older brother Verne was there; it was the first time I had ever met him. Really, I still have first cousins I have never met. Roy did well on his course but was glad to get home to Manitoba to more hours of work and to Amy, Quinn, Aiden, and Jade. Hope to see them all next time.

The Cure for Insomnia - 2011 - Rockhounding

Rockhounding

Cousin Marge from Vernon also came down this way and visited me in Hope in September. It was great to show her the sights. She said she felt like a kid, going rock hounding in the river, but I said we all do this all the time here in Hope.

The Cure for Insomnia - 2011 - A New Old Car

FORD

I had to buy a new old car in October after I took mine in for an oil change and got that "oh, no!" phone call from the garage, something about a broken coil. I asked a friend who directed me to a friend who had his mother's car for sale. It is only one year newer than my old one, 1995, a Fort Escort station wagon, but it has less than half the km of my old one. 128,000 km, which is really good for something from the last century. My garage checked it over for me and said "Go for it!" It is starting to feel like mine. The gas tank is bigger but the mileage seems to be about the same as the old car, which is good. And I like the turquoise colour. I swore I'd never buy another black car because they just disappear in the dark. Camouflage is not the goal for defensive driving.

The Cure for Insomnia - 2011 - Port Moody

Port Moody

In November I went into Port Moody for a week to help out a friend, Marilyn, who had an operation on her foot. My car got me there and sat unmoved in the underground parking for eight days. I loved being able to walk in the city, although I did skip two days when the rain was too heavy. Did not make it down to the used book store, which is probably a good thing.

The Cure for Insomnia - 2011 - Playing


Playing, Shopping, Lunching, Shooting

I still play Scrabble with a group every Thursday and with Molly every Sunday. And way too much on computer, from a DVD I bought in Bellingham. On Wednesdays I meet for coffee at the Blue Moose and talk about "art things" and local "news." I went in to Vancouver in early December on the "Art Bus" to Granville Island. I did minimal Christmas shopping and spent some happy time snapping photos. My favourite is one of an art gallery window, Eagle Spirit. A glass eagle juxtaposed over beams looks either "soaring" or "crucified." It also has a little tattoo which says "The Keg" (backwards) under its right wing. I am still enjoying my digital camera. Playing around with the decorations, I came up with the merry winter solstice moose; he makes me smile. 

The Cure for Insomnia - 2011 - Genealogy

Genealogy Club

I have also started attending the local genealogy club once a month. I made PowerPoints of three family histories--Hayne family, Bubar family, Bridgeman family, and one for my youngest brother Harv, his baby pictures, etc. I may participate in a presentation on "being your own best archivist" which means leaving a proper paper trail so the people three generations from now who are researching us have something to work with. Not sure what all it will include: origins, ancestors, parents, births, naming histories [why that name?], schools, certificates, employment, marriages, deaths, burial places, towns, provinces, countries, home addresses, houses, work & careers & hobbies, children and grandchildren, friends, pets, travels, newspaper notifications and public achievements, personal stories and legends. And then, what format to present it in and what to do with it after completion. It was fun doing the PowerPoints. [Zzzzzz] I found out I had a Bridgeman relative who was a prison guard and a wrecker in Cornwall 270 years ago. Wish I'd known that when I toured Cornwall in 1989. For Genealogy Club Show and Tell I took my Metis sash. I know it comes from Manitoba, circa 1880, but does anyone know whether I received it from Great Aunt Beatrice Hamilton from Golden or from Grandma Bubar from Kettle Valley?

The Cure for Insomnia - 2011 - Reading


Reading

I'm reading a novel right now which is about the same thing, documenting a life for future generations. Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson who is from Idaho which makes me consider her "local" as there are some border crossings in BC which take you directly into Idaho. Can't remember if it's Trail, Salmo? Oops, the map says Creston or Yahk. I do set myself an annual goal to try to read 52 books in the year. I'm a bit behind because one "academic" title I'm reviewing for Prairie Fire magazine took me days longer than usual. Right now I'm pushing #47 or 48. Do I adjust the goal to 50, or do I go to the library and borrow some children's books? Ted Harrison's Yukon Alphabet has been on my list for a while. Hmmm.


The Cure for Insomnia - 2011 - Greetings


Greetings

Well, are you still awake? I'm just starting to feel the spirit of the season. Made my famous Lemon Curd. Shot the poinsettia and played around with last year's gifts to come up with these Happy Winter Solstice Moose. Hope they make you smile too.

Greetings of the Season.
Love to you and yours.
Have a great New Year.

JMB

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Flower Girl

http://player.vimeo.com/video/27920977?title=0&%3bbyline=0&%3bportrait=0href=

Do you think it's possible that a love of flowers could unite the world?
Or a love of nature?
Or even more simply, just love?
Love something.
Love of something unites us.
Like the philosopher says (Charlie Chaplin): "Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unwanted."
Thanks, Phyllis, for the link.

Friday, October 14, 2011

New Reviews



My latest book reviews, three short story collections, are now up, at the Prairie Fire Review of Books site on the U of M server.

Dennis E. Bolen Anticipated Results

Alexander MacLeod Light Lifting

Terence Young The End of the Ice Age

Check them out by clicking here, clicking on Current Issue, Prairie Fire, and then the PDF.


http://ojs.lib.umanitoba.ca/prairiefire

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Vacant Lot

A Vacant Lot

This blog has morphed into a sort of Reading Record so I will attempt to fill in the blanks since my last post six weeks ago. I have read two books which I would not have chosen before, as both are 500 pages long. I avoid "fat" books because I read too slowly. Too many books; too little time. And both are written by British writers and I have been focusing on Canadian literature. But I have no regrets. I also read books which I discover at garage sales and which may have been on my To Read list. I consider the serendipity a kind of gift. The universe saying to me: You'll enjoy this. These include The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I agree with her own comments about how it could have been better. And Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson's Photography and the Art of Seeing. I love how he's interested in "more than focus," in the art of the image, although I prefer his Photography of Natural Things. In the former, he avoids macro and is not big on colour, whereas I like both of these elements. Other books I've read this year but not mentioned on the blog: Ian Rankin's A Good Hanging and The Complaints (good, but I do love Rebus); Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner; Gail Bowen's Burying Ariel; Ian McEwan's Chesil Beach; Tracy Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures; Austin Clarke's Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack (not as good as his fiction). The two fat books I just finished are A.S. Byatt's Possession (check out the Bookdrum's profile), and Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, which I will post about next. Now I've begun reading the first of three Canadian books I am scheduled to review for Prairie Fire. I also have two books waiting at the library. One continues my Lyme Regis quest; the other is related to my plan to profile a Canadian novel for Bookdrum. To be continued . . . I cannot think of an appropriate visual for this posting, so I've chosen "My life as a vacant lot." (Tongue-in-cheek.) This beautiful vacant lot is in my home town. Or a snap my cousin took of me at her house. "The true reader." Who needs more in life than a good book and a loving cat?


Sunday, May 1, 2011

Jane Austen's Persuasion

Jane Austen's Persuasion

Believe it! Cover design matters. An old painting on a Penguin cover of Jane Austen's PERSUASION hooks my eye at Pages, our local used books store. It looks familiar. "Cobb Gate, Lyme Regis" the blurb explains. "Attributed to Reed, by permission of the Trustees of the Philpot Museum, Lyme Regis." (I am hoping, assuming, it's public domain as no amount of searching of Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK or the Philpot Museum has turned up any contact information.) The novel's an Austen I know I haven't read. So I buy it, and I do.
It is typical Austen--relationships, courtships, boy loses girl, man finds woman, etc. With the writer's amazing grasp of psychology. The telling details which reveal character. The injustice and waste of potential in "the system" which places so little value on females and their contribution. Best of all, the pivotal scene in the plot happens on The Cobb, Lyme Regis. I've been there, and I intend to return--for the several literary connections, and for the way that the location combines two of my passions--geology and literature. The last time I was there I inquired after writer John Fowles who has since left us. But Tracy Chevalier and Ian McEwan have taken up the mantles of Austen and Fowles. I've ordered their novels, and I've pulled out the maps, to plan for my dream return to Dorset and Somerset, to ancestral and cultural origins.

The Cobb, Lyme Regis





The Cobb, Lyme Regis

So I pull out my old photo album, looking for shots I haven't scanned, of Lyme Regis and The Cobb (a kind of manmade breakwater referred to in documents as far back as the 1200s.) One of my snapshots is a dead ringer, switching the colours from brown to blue, for the Reed painting on the Penguin Austen. The extra little dome in my shot is the Philpot Museum. The day I was there, a storm discouraged taking enough time to really focus. But it was still impressive--vulnerable humanity standing alone, at the mercy of wind and water, beneath a threatening sky. Just like Sarah Woodruff, Tragedy, in John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. Loved the book. Loved the film adaptation.

The French Lieutenant's Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman




In The French Lieutenant's Woman, the intrusive modern narrator tells and retells a story of a "fallen" woman in Lyme in 1867. Concern for her becomes an obsession which causes a tragedy in the lives of a young gentleman, Charles Smithson, and his fiancee, Ernestina Freeman. The writer, using citations, asides, dialogue, narrative commentary, and plot twists, unfurls a theme familiar to both Austen and Thomas Hardy--the injustice experienced by women in Victorian society. In the end, Fowles offers readers a choice of endings, one comic, one tragic.

The French Lieutenant's Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman


Now this becomes a study in serendipity. In waiting for the door to open. For me, it has always been "When the student is ready, the book appears." On a fruitless quest into Chilliwack (to No-Service Canada), I reward myself with a visit to The Bookman Used Books, a dangerous store at the best of times. And there, on the sale tables outside, an iconic image. Tragedy on The Cobb, where the sight of her first snagged Charles' attention. I would have paid $3 just for the cover, which I plan to print and frame. Bought it. Read it. How do you write a screenplay with two endings? Pinter figured out a way. Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. Thirty years old and it still seems both modern and relevant. Is it just me? Are intelligent movies still being made?

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Late Spring in the Kettle Valley




A Late Spring in the Kettle Valley

They're Up

They're Up

My latest reviews of four Canadian non-fiction books are up, at the Prairie Fire Review of Books posted on the University of Manitoba Libraries server.  http://ojs.lib.umanitoba.ca/prairiefire 

As you have to be signed in to this blogspot site in order to post a comment, please feel free to e-mail me at jmbridgeman@uniserve.com if you wish to share.




Wednesday, March 16, 2011

William Deverell's Trial of Passion

William Deverell's Trial of Passion



Thanks to Shelagh Roger's The Next Chapter for the tip about this Canadian crime classic. I knew I had read Needles and that a friend had given me (still on the To Read pile) Kill All the Lawyers because she knew I'd like it. Lo! There was Trial of Passion too, so I picked it to read first.

Snort-out-loud hilarious. Two great characters, the female lead plaintiff Kimberley Martin, and the semi-retired Arthur Beauchamp, Q.C. for the defence. Who ever expects to sympathize, to empathize, with a lawyer? But Beauchamp is so over-confidant, incompetent, insecure everywhere but in the courtroom. Imaginative, observant, romantic, and pompous, erudite, pretentious. Overly-educated in classical literature. Attempting to downsize to a property on a laid back gulf island. Cuckolded, impotent, jealous, a recovering alcoholic. Trusting his barber to transform him from navel-gazing hirsute time-warp hippy to naval commander-in-chief. The tapes and reports in evidence give us respite from Beauchamp's over-fraught brain while at the same time they braid the three strands of story together--the crime, the trial, and the island slacker high jinks.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Elizabeth Hay's Late Nights On Air

Elizabeth Hay's Late Nights On Air

Elizabeth Hay's Late Nights On Air has been on my Must Read list since it won the Giller Prize for Fiction in 2007. And in my To Read pile since I bought a discarded copy at the Friends of the Library Book Sale two weeks ago. This book has everything, and with one minor exception, everything it has is something I appreciate. It is set so specifically in a real place, the city of Yellowknife, in Canada's North, and on a fateful canoe trip out from Yellowknife in 1975. The historic setting is also important as the characters are impinged by the Berger Inquiry when Judge Thomas Berger toured northern communities listening to the concerns of every individual and group who wanted to speak about the anticipated impact of a Mackenzie Valley pipeline across the delicate barrens landscape. So it has historical significance as well as contemporary relevance because the wait period is over and the pipeline looms again. Hay braids the eras and themes tightly into a sturdy lifeline of a story of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Late Nights On Air reveals these themes of delicate ecological balance, indigenous people's rights, colonization, capitalism, economic development through a novel which is basically a mystery told through character. And the characters too have so many levels--the psychological, the personal, and the political. The narrative point of view is omniscient; we learn what all the characters are doing and what most of them think. There is Harry Boyd, a disgraced announcer back at the northern radio station where he started; Dido Paris, Dutch-born Anglophile, a refugee from doomed love; Gwen Symon, intrepid neophyte looking for her passion; Ralph Cody, the book reviewer, local photographer, and bibliophile who introduces through his collection the voices of previous European explorers [including Samuel Hearne and John Hornby whose grave the paddlers visit]; Eddy Fitzgerald, technician of questionable ethics; Eleanor Dew, the receptionist; Lorna Dargabble, Bostonian shipwrecked in Yellowknife; and Teresa Lafferty, from there, speaking local languages, and representing the future. One of the above crashes; two of them run away; four of them go on the canoe trip and three return. And through the canoe trip, the barrens themselves become a living breathing character of shocking beauty and fragility inhabited by equally breathtaking creatures of nightmare and dream. Go. Go there. But tread gently.



Photo Lichen Eating Rock 
©
Jim Tallosi.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Foremothers

Foremothers

Honouring 100 years of International Women's Day, I remember my two beloved grandmothers, both born in England under Queen Victoria. Between them, they bore twenty-one children, a fact which, alone, proves just how far we have come.
Winifred Joan Bullen Hayne Bubar
Hilda Marjorie Woodland Bridgeman

And my mother, born in Greenwood, BC. I love this picture of her at home on the ranch in Kettle Valley when she was barely a teenager.

Margaret Norah Bubar Bridgeman

Monday, March 7, 2011

Carol Shields' Unless

Carol Shields' Unless

Borrowed Marilyn's copy of Carol Shield's Unless. Meant to read it before Q's Canada Reads book-of-the-decade competition, but alas, too many review assignments (and research and editing contracts). But I turned away from the CBC competition, not liking the way arguing and competing and dissing each other reduces all, the books, the writers, and the defenders. It seems, by turning art into a popularity contest to be determined by strategic voting that serious writing--using narrative, character, suspense, emotion to tell an important story--is no longer the focus, in the quest for that elusive "younger demographic." [Remember the olden days when the goal was reaching out, to help that "younger demographic" become more fully developed contributing adults?] I am not a fan of irony or satire as I feel they reduce us as human beings, relying on one emotion--smugness--that "I know something you don't know" tongue-sticking out schoolyard stance. But, I will read that winning title, The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis, eventually.

Unless: I really enjoyed Unless, almost the only Carol Shields title I had not read. The story of a mother, Reta Winters, also a writer, worried sick because her eldest daughter Norah has dropped out of university, has left her boyfriend, is living in a homeless shelter, and sits alone on a Toronto street corner with a sign saying Goodness hanging around her neck. I was watching for any hints of an unreliable narrator. Do we really believe Reta Winters or not? Do we believe that such a good marriage and happy life in suburbia exists? I guess we want to, the way we want to believe in utopia, and the way some people believe in heaven, and others in happily ever after. But in Reta, Carol Shields seems to be seriously tackling the subject of how can a happy woman who seemingly has everything still not be content?

Shields uses characters to represent different power positions within society. Danielle Westerman, the writer Reta translates, by pointing out how women may be permitted goodness but never greatness, speaks the truth about a still unequal society. Has Norah come to the same conclusion? Has Reta? Based on her studies, her relationship with Danielle, and her experience of Norah's tragic failure to launch? No matter how good she was as a parent, the unthinkable happened, causing her to despair. No matter how good she is as a translator, her fiction is considered trivial. Is it any wonder that some, like Norah, choose instead to withdraw into passivity as a reaction to striving and being denied? Like Danielle, hiding in academia? Like Reta, refusing marriage yet taking her husband's name? I'm afraid this idea of withdrawal hits a bit too close to home for me. Who wants to be fighting all the time, defending one self, warding off usurpers and back-stabbers? Why not just let it go and retreat, do what you do best and damn the rest? Who needs to eat anyway?

The plot of Unless consists of Reta documenting how the parents, sisters, and others attempt to deconstruct what led Norah to that mute corner. Along the way we are entertained with the horrible disrespectful way we talk to [at] each other. The way we use retail therapy to comfort ourselves when we feel powerless. The way we can share a table but never even wonder about the inner life of another. The way we feel inadequate because we cannot explain abstractions such as the theory of relativity or the theory of goodness. The way we believe, as Tom, the doctor insists, that if the trauma can be identified, it can be addressed. The way the plot suggests that actions are more important than words or rationalizations.

Like Carol Shields always does, Unless forces us to look into mirrors, and, if we dare, to contemplate.

Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists

Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists

Borrowed a copy of Johanna Skibsrud, The Sentimentalists, winner of this year's Giller Prize for fiction. Listening to her being interviewed piqued my desire to read the novel which is partly about the Vietnam war. Strange how, even though it was not one of Canada's wars, it has so affected our psyche, and attracted our artists. This story gets eventually to the Vietnam material but, like David Bergen's The Time in Between, focuses also on the damage done to young soldiers either when they commit acts which violate their own moral standards or when they learn that people lie, their coworkers lie, their superiors lie, and their government lies. Both these novels are about how the "sins" of the soldiers, the debilitating stress they bring home with them, are inflicted unto several generations, in patterns including lives of substance abuse, withdrawal, failed marriages, abandoned children.

At first, the poetic style of The Sentimentalists was somewhat off-putting to me; although I like poetry, I don't like it when poetic language gets in the way of story. (See my previous rants about Michael Ondaatje.) But The Sentimentalists is told through the POV of a poet daughter, so the language is organic to the character. Also, it was a bit difficult tugging my editor's toque off my head. When a sentence comes at me with the word "that" repeated at least three times, I scream. [Yes, but the four "lies" above are deliberate, for emphasis.] I learned to forgive, to ignore, to stress the positives--how the build up of incremental detail and symbolic objects and actions helps construct a story, and how the one absent character, as in real life, remains ultimately a haunting taunting mystery. This is an appealing story about a father-daughter relationship with a happy ending, at least happy in the sense that the narrator was able to ask some of the unspoken questions before it was too late.


Found a useful review in The Globe and Mail by Zoe Whittall.
 

Canadian Non-Fiction

Canadian Non-Fiction

Finished reading and writing my reviews for four Canadian non-fiction books--David Carpenter, A Hunter's Confession, Don Gayton, Man Facing West, M.T. Kelly, Downriver: Poems with a prose memoir and a story, and Ian Tyson, The Long Trail: My Life in the West. Sent them off to the editor. Tyson's photographer deserves an award; I nominate The Long Trail for the Most Attractive Cover Design.


Monday, February 14, 2011

The "Indian," the "Other" in the Canadian Quest for Identity

The "Indian," the "Other" in the Canadian Quest for Identity: Four Prairie Novels of the 1970s

Can you believe that a thirty year old Masters thesis is available on line?

http://winnspace.uwinnipeg.ca/handle/10680/31

On Second Reading of Lyon's Aristotle

On Second Reading of Lyon's Aristotle


 
When I was in school, Rembrandt's famous painting Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer sold for over $2Million. The picture, which appeared in magazine advertisements, linked twentieth-century readers with nineteenth century English Romantic poets (Keats), seventeenth century Dutch painters, 320 BCE Aristotle, and 800 BCE Homer, a poet who is also still read and studied--his Iliad about the Trojan War, his Odyssey, about Ulysses' prolonged journey home. I see in this painting a comment on how art and the imagination link us through time, or, as John Berger puts it, artists know how "things fit together." Sister Wendy on the Internet suggests that Rembrandt is commenting on the relative values of philosophy versus literature. I'm not that convinced, but she points out that Aristotle is painted wearing a gold chain gifted to him by his former student Alexander after he conquered the world. This chain, she suggests, symbolizes that Aristotle sold out, went for the money and the glory in a way the beloved blind bard of 500 years before him did not. That sounds like a bit of projection to me, the idea that poverty is the ideal and that working for a living, living out loud in the real world, is somehow shameful.

So on second reading, Annabel Lyon's novel about Aristotle, The Golden Mean, made me think of this painting, and the way she was using imagination to make art of Aristotle's story. Is her Aristotle weighed down by the chain of Alexander? Well, in our book club, he certainly was. Alexander received so much more talk time than the teenager in the book warrants. Perhaps this is one of Lyon's points. Movies are made about the unbalanced boy who conquered the world, about the wars and types of action in which teenage boys revel. But who thinks about the teacher? The wise man who attempted to train the conqueror's mind with the same diligence that was spent trying to train his body and to fill his head with military strategy. In Lyon's story, Alexander is one of the specimens, although a beloved specimen, that Aristotle studies. The boy is extreme, reckless, conflicted about his family, and experiences blackouts and flashbacks. Is Alexander's story comedy or tragedy is a question Aristotle asks more than once.

This was what I most enjoyed about Lyon's portrayal of the philosopher. She uses the backstory of how he didn't get the job he wanted in Athens; she shows how networking (having grown up with Philip of Macedonia) led to job offers, pleas to teach the son, opportunities to observe the battlefield first hand. She shows debauchery, rivalries and staff room back-stabbings, the sacrifices bread-winners are forced to make, working in isolation or on long campaigns, far from family. She shows the gap between the women's world of house, home, and children and the men's world of work, war, and court.

Lyon also creates a fully human character, stressing both his strengths and his personal challenges. Aristotle appears to be somewhat uncomfortable at home, passive, confused perhaps. Struggling with the cognitive dissonance between the teachings about women and slaves inherited from his father and his culture and the reality of his interactions with both lesser species. I was shocked to hear that some female readers reject the book because they blame Aristotle for influencing Augustine whose writings were responsible for excluding women from any significant role in the Church. Lyon drops one hint, from the mouth of the witch slave midwife, who said that if Aristotle were to see his wife giving birth, he would feel differently towards her. Perhaps his own desire to see and to know, to experience, to observe the animality of birthing blinded him to seeing women in any "higher" pursuits. If the women in his life are not seen as whole complex individuals, it is because we see them through Aristotle's point of view.

Lyon shows Aristotle as sometimes overwhelmed by his rationalist theories. Perhaps influenced by his feelings for the boy prince, he appears to condone Alexander's hovering at the deathbed and mutilating the body of a friend for the sake of Art (to use the head as a prop in their performance). Later he had to ask the prince whether he hastened the death for his own purposes. The boy's extreme behaviour (reckless, shameless) is addressed in theory rather than in specifics, although others of the court are frequently warning Aristotle to be careful. Lyon's Aristotle also suffers from periods of depression, possibly bi-polar disease, which he treats by forcing himself to focus on some passion, often a close observation of natural objects, or a treatise about one of the subjects which interest him. He also shares that he attempts to treat insomnia by positive visualization.

More than one reader was inspired to look up known facts about Aristotle, to be better able to assess what the novelist has imagined. This too is one of the joys of the book. When fiction inspires us not only to think but also to act, that can only be a good thing. When fiction revivifies the lessons, that too can only be a good thing. Look at the ants. Look at the stars. Close observation. Anatomical drawings. Autopsy. Liberty and self-sufficiency. Order in the Chaos. Balance--the golden mean. Yes!

Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean

Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean



So, perhaps it was a bit of BookClubBurnOut, or just basic frustration, but I worked on "Why read fiction?" as a way to clear my thinking about a novel I re-read and enjoyed even more the second time around. (And isn't that one of the definitions of "literature"? That you can re-read it and, seeing even more, enjoy it even more?)


I first read Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean last summer before going to Toronto. I enjoyed the novel that time more than I expected to. Why had I such low expectations? Because of my personal Why Read Fiction? Checklist: 1) it was set in ancient Greece (territory I have never visited, far down on the bucket list); 2) it is set 300+ years BCE; it is historical fiction, but well past the historic times which most appeal to me personally; 3) it is about Aristotle, a famous philosopher whose name comes up every time you begin to study Western Civilization's version of botany, biology, poetry, drama, political science and many other fields I've never studied (physics, mathematics, logic, rhetoric, astronomy.) But not someone who has piqued my curiosity. Perhaps it's the word "philosopher." I'm seldom interested in abstractions which the word "philosophy" appears to connote. 4) Finally, I'm not exactly sure what the title "the golden mean" refers to. It's not the same as the golden rule, right? It's not to do with Leonardo's famous diagram of Man in the Circle Squared? Something about proportion, perhaps divine proportion? 5) I also hesitated about the cover, a naked youth, bareback on bareback. Is the image an attempt to exploit by titillation? 6) And the complexity of names are a problem for readers like me who try to say every word. The list of characters helps a bit. So why was I on first reading so pleasantly surprised by The Golden Mean
  • It's about believable characters in a specific setting, humans struggling with challenges we still struggle with every day.
  • It reads very modernly, with almost shocking vulgarity, real sensual descriptions, and a convincingly male point of view.
  • The cover image relates directly to a scene in the story and is thus not inappropriate. Also, since Annie Proulx and Ang Lee, does anyone else connect bareback/brokeback? The hint of homosexuality is also not inappropriate. Who could write about ancient Greece and not mention this?
  • The Golden Mean goes beyond, beneath the surfaces of the known facts about Aristotle, showing how he is a man and also an individual, with his own differences. His underlying peculiarities combined with his own life experiences, Lyons points out, led to his intellectual pursuits and to the works which have resulted in his being remembered into the third millennium. So yes, if you're not shocked by masculine language, the book is recommended. I looked forward to reading it a second time.
  • Oh, yes. Lyon is a Canadian writer, from British Columbia. Bonus.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Passion for Narrative

A Passion for Narrative