Saturday, February 27, 2016

The View from Castle Rock

Alice Munro's The View from Castle Rock Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2006/2007.

Sat. Feb 27, 2016

The View from Castle Rock begins with documentation of the origins of Alice Munro's birth family, the Laidlaws, in an isolated valley in the south of Scotland. Although the book is subtitled "Stories" and there is the usual disclaimer at the front - " . . . any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental," these stories have the feel of autobiography and genealogy. In her Foreword, Munro does admit "the part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative." Why do I want to know which events really happened? Why does not knowing seem somehow disconcerting? The genealogist in me wants to dig out what is "real," what is "hard evidence." The writer in me wants to unearth the creative process of a Nobel-Prize-winning Canadian female writer who writes about so many things which interest me too. Especially the origins of story, and the link between place and person, place and personality. And the importance of that connection to place as one of the ways we necessarily learn to Know Ourselves. Compare and contrast. Similarities and differences. The scripts we learn by heart from days before we learn to read, and ever after - while we still live there with them, when we only visit, and then when we visit the graveyards and the abandoned farmyards and farmhouses. It is about time, and change, yet it is more than "the only constant is change." More than that.

I have two favourites, stories which spring to mind when I think of this book. The first, "The View from Castle Rock," because I have visited Edinburgh Castle twice, and drunk in the view across the Firth of Forth to Fife, as Rebus so often does in Ian Rankin's addictive detective stories about the city and a policeman who loves it as much as does the writer. Place, then people. The people are sojourners. Although it too changes physically, the place remains. That's why I loved the second story too, "What Do You Want to Know For?" about a man and wife driving the back roads with an ever-present geological map, the story of the place told in lines and colours.

I am always astonished when I read Alice Munro about how similar our experiences were, rural farm girl, small town, going away to city and university, marrying, unmarrying, marrying again. Although a generation apart, and settlement in my Manitoba was fifty years later. The same but different. Houses, but woodframe and shiplap as opposed to red brick. The variety of characters, but so many archetypal.

I love the restraint of Alice Munro's writing - the way she simply describes the epiphany and trusts her readers to get it. In "Lying Under the Apple Tree," when the narrator hears her boyfriend Russell calling another woman "honey," she's out / gone. No questions asked, no confrontation, no explanation. Out of there.

I also see again the blatant ageism in so many book reviews. It's as if young aspiring writers think about the previous generations, especially writers over 80, "how dare you continue to publish?" and make gratuitous comments comparing this and earlier work, usually including the words "familiar ground."

I sought out Alice Munro's Nobel Prize video, 2013. She has made up stories all her life, prompted in the beginning by a discontent with the existing fictional landscape, specifically with the plot, the denouement, in Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. She wanted a different ending for her heroines, for her own tales of the lives of girls and women. She has been re-creating the narrative for our land and ourselves all her writing life.

Friday, February 12, 2016

A Thousand Farewells

Nahlah Ayed's A Thousand Farewells: A Reporter's Journey from Refugee Camp to the Arab Spring (Toronto: Penguin/Viking, 2012)

This non-fiction book appealed to me because Nahlah Ayed is an Arab-speaking journalist who was born is Winnipeg and attended my Alma Mater, the University of Manitoba. A Thousand Farewells documents her seven years working for the CBC, living in and reporting from the Middle East, from about 2005 to 2012, up to the Tahrir Square protest in Egypt and the beginning of "the Arab Spring."

Ayed's account is eye-opening to me. I know next to nothing about the geography and the human history of this troubled region. News reports seem catastrophic, confusing, and predictably pessimistic. The best I can hope to do is to assist, or support my government's assistance, in whatever way is realistic and to try to do no harm. (For example, by not bombing, which hurts innocent individuals, property, and the economy.)

In A Thousand Farewells, Ayed attempts to explain to the uninitiated, across cultures, the events, the issues, their historic origins, the current context, and the way they impact individuals. She communicates her understanding of her mandate as one verbalizing and then writing first drafts of history. She stresses her credo that "People are not quotes or clips, used to illustrate stories about war and conflict. People are the story, always." And she does not stint on sharing facts about the stresses and physical threats of living in, rushing towards, war zones. An existence, as they say, like the pinball in the machine, moved by, responding to, the actions of others. Subsuming any semblance of a personal life to the demands of career and calling.

Ayed's account is by no means prescriptive. She shares what she knows, gathered from observation, experience, interviews, and reading. Several motifs and themes stand out for me. That the Middle East is not a place of homogeneity. That there are many different groups, including many different Muslim groups. That many of the conflicts and rivalries have ancient roots. That in some ways, religion is the opiate, encouraging people to accept the status quo. That the status quo includes fewer rights for women. That when refugees flee, they are "voting with their feet." That when colonial powers interfere, it almost always makes things worse. That equating democracy with majority rule will be problematic (as religious extreme parties may be voted in to replace dictators or military rule). That the focus will be on "human rights" for everyone, including the right to citizenship. That any successful change must come from within.

Ayed witnessed events which helped her feel optimistic. In Egypt, people lost their fear and assembled and voiced their opposition to a dictatorship. And, during one of the protests, she saw Muslims protecting Christians and Christians protecting Muslims, taking turns while the other group prayed.

Reading A Thousand Farewells has made me both a better Canadian and a better citizen of the world. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Shadow Tag

Louise Erdrich Shadow Tag 

I finally found some Louise Erdrich books in Bellingham last year, gifts again. I read 3. The Painted Drum. (My favourite. Like that old John Buchan book, The Path of the King, about the spirit which transfers with a family object, the sacred duty which comes along with sacred possessions.) The Round House. The Bingo Palace. I noticed a definite development in style as LE has been publishing for over 20 years. I love the books because they meet my preference of Canadian or almost Canadian.* These stories are set on a reservation in North Dakota, very close to my home of Manitoba. LE now lives in Minneapolis and owns the Birchbark Bookstore. 

I picked up this Shadow Tag book at a library book sale and read it quickly in order to be able to pass the complete stack along to another avid reader. Shadow Tag is a sad and disturbing story of a marriage gone wrong, between a painter Gil and his model Irene. There are interesting subtexts about the modelling relationship (posing ensures distance, the gaze is a way of seeing and not seeing at the same time.) About George Catlin and the portrayal of First Nations in art. About alcohol as a means of controlling others and evading personal responsibility. And about the Jungian idea of our "shadow" and of healthy (embracing) and unhealthy (detached, projecting) relationships with it. Interesting, but, wherever a bad marriage and children are involved, predictably sad.

* (Other "almost-Canadian" writers, whose territory borders Canada: David Guterson, Snow Falling On Cedars (set in Pacific NW, filmed in Greenwood, BC). Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping and Gilead, set in Idaho. Housekeeping was filmed in Nelson, BC. Gary Snyder, grew up in the Skagit Valley. Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, The Back Country. The Practice of the Wild. Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, set in the Cascade Mountains, south of Hope, BC. Richard Ford, Canada, set in Montana and Saskatchewan.


Lee Child Persuader 

Scrabble-playing friend BK says he reads & enjoys Lee Child. I had never heard of this British-born American writer although it seems he has been on the NYTimes best seller lists for years. That same night I was offered a Lee Child as a door prize, at the Giller Glitter evening, so I assumed it was fate. Since then I've read 4, 3 of them, including this one, gifts. The Affair. The Hard Way. Personal. I groan when I receive one because I know it will mean 3 days lost, sitting, turning pages obsessively, to see what Jack Reacher does next. I also find that I cannot remember later which book was about what. The Affair was set in the US South, Carter Crossing, Mississippi, near a base, and a sexual assault cover-up. Personal was a revenge plot about a sniper in Paris & the G8 in London. The Hard Way? Starts in NYC, a ransom pick-up gone wrong. Persuader is set in NE US, Portland, Maine perhaps, about a carpet import business, a son who was kidnapped previously, Reacher infiltrating the family home on a cliff. An undercover DEA operation which turns into an ATF operation, because the Persuader is a weapon. 

The Joy of Writing

Last year I used Twitter to document my reading. Very unsatisfying. I aim to read about one book per week, over 50 each year. (I am a very slow reader.) I've been exceeding my own expectations ever since the e-zine I reviewed for lost its funding. Meaning, I've had more time to read for myself, for pure pleasure, without having to make notes, re-read, and write afterwards. However, on reviewing my 2015 list of books read ( ) I found that some things - titles authors plots characters - have escaped me. Cannot for the life of me remember what I read. So perhaps, a monthly roundup, or a post for each book, will help.

Pierre Berton The Joy of Writing 

I started the year reading a book I received as a gift -- Pierre Berton's The Joy of Writing. I saw the late Canadian writer and pundit once at Sechelt. So tall. And I have read many of his popular history books. Niagara. The CPR Illustrated. Klondike. Although my favourite is his Drifting Home, about a canoeing/rafting trip with family in the Yukon. This Joy of Writing is worth it for the title. It is a disguised memoir, he says, about his career. Although it made me feel even more that you get an agent who gets you published as long as you are famous and many people will recognize your name from your journalism or media career. Sour grapes, I know. Thank goodness for new media, when we unknowns can do it for ourselves. The line I remember most from the book, 30-odd days ago, is "Save everything!" Which is somewhat unfortunate because I was in the midst of moving from my dream house where I lived and wrote for 20 years and was really having trouble sorting and tossing, especially paper.


Helen Humphreys. COVENTRY . HarperCollins, 2008. A story of Harriet and Maeve who meet at the beginning of WWI and reconnect the night Cov...