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.