Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Beauty of Faith and Nature | Review of “this Orchard Sound” by John Terpstra (2014) Wolsak & Wynn

orchard

Thank you to Wolsak & Wynn for making this book available to me at the 2014 Toronto Word on the Street Festival

We take nature for granted, there is no doubt in that. It takes a few carefully considered phrases to awaken us on our ignorance. And that is what John Terpstra has done in this Orchard Sound.

1 (excerpt)

I come to the garden alone, garden,

of fruit, fruit of the tree: apple, pear,

peach, plum, cherry. The March earth

is a mulch of last autumn, a half-frozen

mass of leaves and produce that’s yet

attracting birds, if that’s

what the birds are after-

there are so many! lifting off,

landing, chatting like crazy,

making this orchard sound

like a major event

                                 Lent

and in a little while,

leaves: blossomtime.

                                               Do these

damned trees still believe

                                                               everything

is possible? the power of prayer,

that the same old story

bears repeating, adding to

the two-grand anno domini

of borrowed time

                             we already have?

While this is a small book, Terpstra has spoken volumes here. He attention here is focussed on an orchard that is about to be destroyed by human development. He has crafted phrases here that clearly show his feelings to our  mind’s eye.

6 (excerpt)

And at the orchard’s heart

the ear is hounded by inhuman sound

a six-lane highway bass, breathing out

its monotone continuo of HNHNHNHNAAAAAAAAAA

while at the nearer lights, cars kneel

and throb their mocking yukyukyukyukyukyuk

as from the rooftops, heating units,

air conditioners, snicker the ozone

and the glazed eyes of office buildings

coldly smirk

                     what bright sun?

One can feel the anguish and pain in Terpstra’s thoughts. He describes each image with clarity that we can empathize with him.

14 (Excerpt)

I come by a tree, recently mauled, mangled

by cut and tear, and the familiar bramble

of  loped branches, so fresh

it seems the buds might still unfold,

that what little life remains

is enough to blossom.

                          But after these

events, this past

six weeks, I burst

             Who hath wounded thee?

Tell me, that I may take my blade,

its sharp teeth. . .

             And the riled stillness

breaks, for once, and from all around birds

unfurl their wings, come flying in,

gather and land on the crazy busted branches,

talking it up;

          and for once

I actually begin to make out

what they say; they say

             but  Nay, sir,

While it is a small book, this Orchard Sound by John Terpstra is a volume that speaks volumes. His phrases are powerful and illuminating. A pleasure to read.

Link to John Terpstra’s website

Link to Wolsak & Wynn’s page for this Orchard Sound

Recalling the Images from Our Childhood | Review of “Half For You and Half For Me” by Katherine Govier/Illustrated by Sarah Clement (2014) Whitecap Books

Half

We were exposed to some profound imagery in the stories we were told as children. A gifted storyteller would realize that and would be insightful in looking at some of those stories we were exposed too. Hence novelist Katherine Govier’s book Half For You and Half For Me is a wonderful read.

(Page 24)

Little Bo-Peep

Has lost her sheep

And can’t tell where to find them

Leave them alone

And they’ll come home

Wagging their tails behind them.

Description (excerpt) Page 25

“Bo-peep” meant “peek-a-boo.” In medival times if you were convicted of a crime you might have to “play bo pepe throwe a pillory”-be put in the pillory, or stocks, with your head and arms peeping out.

How the shepherdess got involved is anyone’s guess.

There is a certain grace that Govier adds to each of the nursery rhymes she looks at. Not only can one read the rhyme,  (and read the rhyme to someone special) but also get a new understanding of the of the well-known verse.

(Page 70)

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men

Could not put Humpty together again.

Description

We imagine Humpty Dumpty as an egg, probably because his reassembly is hopeless. I other languages his a drunk or a dumpy person – Boule Boule in French and Humpelken Pumpelken in German

Likely he was not a person at all, but a cannon set on a wall around the castle town of Colchester by royalists to protect it during a siege. When the wall collapsed and the cannon fell down, the royalists – “all the King’s men” – could not put it back up. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward amended the phrase to title their book All the President’s Men, about the Watergate scandal. Might does not always prevail. something delicate may be broken that no power can patch up.

Govier has gone beyond the Mother Goose rhymes and looked at lesser known works and added them to this collection. She has put a great deal of thought and research into this work.

(Page 14)

Twist me, and turn me, and show me

the elf;

I looked in the water, and saw [myself]

Description

This is from The Brownies and Other Tales, by Juliana Horatia Ewing. She lived in New Brunswick for four years and so we count her as Canadian.

What is a Brownie? Before it was a junior Girl Guide. it was “a useful little fellow, something like a little man.” How do you find one? Go to the north side of the lake when the moon is shining and turn yourself round three times, saying this charm. When the child looks in the water, he either says his name, “Jimmie!” or “myself!”

Clement has done an excellent job with illustration the images of the book. There are filled with tiny details for both young and old minds to ponder while reading the excellent descriptions that Govier wrote about.

Scanned image of Page 30 "Curly Locks" by Sarah Clement.
Scanned image of Page 30 “Curly Locks” by Sarah Clement.

(Page 31)

Curly locks, curly locks, wilt thou be mine?

Thou shall’t not wash dishes, nor yet feed the swine,

But sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam

And feed upon strawberries, sugar and cream!

Description

A wooing song that shows curly hair was something to be desired and admired. Until recently. This constituted a vision of marital bliss: to work sitting down, “sew a fine seam” and eat lady-like sweets as a woman of leisure.

But last but not least is the element of love and caring, that exists in this book. It was created with deep reverence that Govier explains in the introduction.

Page 2 Reading With Mum

Ninety-five years ago, when my mother was born, her parents bought a beautiful book: The Jessie Willcox Smith Mother Goose. They read it to her while she sat on their knees. When she was old enough for crayons and scissor, she expressed her affection all over the pages. She kept it until she grew up and became a mother. I have a picture of Mum reading to me; I am about two, and I am entranced. I remember how she laughed. I loved the fact that words on a page could make her laugh. 

Thirty years passed and I had two children of my own. When we visited their grandparents, the Mother Goose came out, and we read together. Now my kids are grown up. Soon I may have grandchildren. Any my beautiful young mother has become one of those bent old women we saw in the pictures.

Half For You and Half For Me by Katherine Govier and illustrated by Sarah Clement is a wonderful exploration of nursery rhymes through the ages. It is a well crafted book that will no doubt be a favourite on the shelves of many hearts both young and old.

*****

Link to Whitecap Books page for Half For You and Half For Me

Link to Katherine Govier’s website

Link to Sarah Clement’s website

Link to a Q&A Katherine Govier did for my blog a few months back

No Matter How Bad the Tragedy, a Glimmer of Hope Exists | Review of “Station Eleven” (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel (Harper Avenue)

Eleven

We no doubt live in delicate and fearful times. Be it terrorism, a global pandemic or something as simple as the end of a personal relationship or a the decline of our own health, we are stressed about our futures. And Emily St. John Mandel has captured our concern in her novel Station Eleven.

Page 11-12

He felt an absurd desire to run into the park. It had been rendered foreign by the storm, all snow and shadows, black silhouettes of trees, the underwater shine of a glass greenhouse dome. When he was a boy he’d liked to lie on his back in the yard and watch the snow coming down upon him. Cabbagetown was visible a few blocks ahead, the snow-dimmed lights of Parliament Street. His phone vibrated in his pocket. He stopped to read a text message from Laura: I had a headache so I went home. Can you pick up milk?

And here, all momentum left him. He could go no father. The theatre tickets had been intended as a romantic gesture, a let’s-do-something-romantic-because-all-we-do-is-fight, and she’d abandoned him there, she’d left him onstage performing CPR on a dead actor and gone home, and now she wanted him to buy milk. Now that he’d stopped walking, Jeevan was cold. His toes were numb. All the magic of the storm had left him, and the happiness he’d felt a moment earlier was fading. The night was dark and filled with movement, snow falling fast and silent, the cars parked on the street swelling into soft outlines of themselves. He was afraid of what he’d say if he went home to  Laura. He thought of finding a bar somewhere, but he didn’t want to talk to anyone, and when he thought about it, he didn’t especially want to be drunk. Just to be alone for a moment, while he decided where to go next. He stepped into the silence of the park.

Station Eleven is a dystopian novel. Civilization comes to a grinding halt as a flu virus wipes out most of the population. The plot deals with a group of people somehow connect with one actor. His passing occurs on stage suddenly during a performance of King Lear. And a few hours later the cataclysmic virus arrives. Mandel brilliantly weaves the story line before, during and after those events giving us a unique perspective on the human condition.

Page 39-40

When Kirsten and August broke into abandon hoses – this was a hobby of theirs, tolerated by the conductor because they found useful things sometimes – August always gazed longingly at televisions. As a boy he’d been quiet and a little shy, obsessed with classical music; he’d had no interest in sports and had never been especially adept at getting along with people, which meant long hours home alone after school in interchangeable U.S. Army-base houses while his brothers played baseball and made new friends. One nice thing about television shows was that they were everywhere, identical programming whether your parents had been posted to Maryland or California or Texas. He’d spent an enormous amount of time before the collapse watching television, playing the violin, or sometimes doing both simultaneously, and Kirsten could picture this: August at nine, at ten, at eleven, pale and scrawny with dark hair falling in his eyes and a serious, somewhat fixed expression, playing a child-size violin in a wash of electric -blue light. When they broke into houses now, August searched for issues of TV Guide. Mostly obsolete by the time the pandemic hit, but used by a few people right up to the end. He liked to flip through them later at quiet moments. He claimed he remembered all the shows: starships, sitcom living rooms with enormous sofas, police officers sprinting through the streets of New York, courtrooms with stern-faced judges presiding. He looked for books of poetry – even rarer than TV Guide copies – and studied these in the evenings or while he was walking with the Symphony.

No matter how bad or tense the situation is or where it occurs on the timeline of the story, Mandel infuses the novel with a glimmer of something beautiful for humanity to consider. Life may be harsh or difficult, but there are still unique things to ponder and continue existing for.

Page 119

Sometimes the Travelling Symphony thought that what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night. At other times it seemed a difficult and dangerous way to survive and hardly worth it, especially at times when they had to camp between towns, when they were turned away at gunpoint from hostile places, when they were travelling in snow or rain through dangerous territory, actors and musicians carrying guns and crossbows, the horses exhaling great clouds of steam, times when they were cold and afraid and their feet were wet. Or times like now when the heat was unrelenting, July pressing down upon them and the blank walls of forest on either side, walking by the hour and wondering if an unhinged prophet or his men might be chasing them, arguing to distract themselves from their terrible fear.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a dystopian novel which shows great empathy towards the human condition today. While it has a complex plot, it is a fantastic read and ponder.

*****

Link to Emily St. John Mandel’s website

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s page for Station Eleven

Link to a Q&A Emily St. John Mandel did for my blog last spring

 

Querying the Quiet |Review of “The Quiet” by Anne-Marie Turza (2014) House of Anansi Press

Quiet

We have all experience moments around us when things are quiet. A hush surrounds us and we become lost in our thoughts until a little sound disturbs us. Or we are in a very noisy situations for a continuous period and we seek out a moment of quiet and solitude. Anne-Marie Turza has considered those moments and has placed them in her collection of poetry called The Quiet.

The Quiet – ii:i (Page 33)

We lived in that quiet, above megrims in second storey

windows, painted our mouths with ketchup, our eyelids

with sweet relish, wore singlets made from the dyed hair

of miniature horses. Evenings, we lit candles. Chanted

in Latin. Adsum, adsum, a capite ad cacem. Mostly we

didn’t know what we were saying. We lived there for years,

shared our beds with the mouths of beetles. In that quiet,

tender with attention, our faces swollen, the stung backs

of our knees, our bitten heels.

Turza has captured a universal experience for many people here but many may take those quiet moments for granted.  She has collected her thoughts well here, easily having any reader capture the images she has created with their mind’s eye.

i:iii (page 7)

Within every city are unseen cities, intangible walls and alleys: a voice, on afternoon on the raido, addressed its audience. Rats too are historiographers, said the voice, the voice of a rat specialist. Come hydraulic hammers and hoe rams, come rubble, Rats thread the empty plots between ghost buildings, following old paths to their nests as if the walls still stand. In this city of brick and limestone where you and I are sleeping. Every night, traversing pathways  that seem no longer to exist.

Turza also takes us down roads that seem strange to us, but then illuminates the way with familiar signs.

Anthem For A Small Country (Page 26)

In my country we admire the ambitious dust: long into the night,

for endless hours, it practices such gentleness on the window’s sill.

Our country’s flower is the rose in the curved bed of the fingernail

And there is a surreal-type of grace here in these words as well. It is a pleasure to read and to contemplate the thoughts surrounding the words.

On Sleep (Page 49)

Have you never met, in passing, a stranger who addressed you knowingly? “You can’t sleep well, in your language,” a woman once told me, pipe smoke seeping from the bowl of her vowels. I was reading a book with a soft cloth cover, a monograph on the water beetle, waiting for a train in the glass-domed station, the pages stippled with dust. The woman pointed to a table where a man sat eating almonds from a green bowl. “In my language I can put that table anywhere.” Pardon me?, I said. Already, the table, drifting upwards; tendrils of the man’s hair, on end; the smooth soles of his shoes, eighth notes rising overhead. A rain of almonds from the high dome where birdshapes turn millwheel in the  gathered clangour of the trains. To sleep well, not in this language.

The Quiet by Anne-Marie Turza is a collection that is enlightening a filled with grace. A perfect read for a quiet moment.

*****

Link to House of Anansi’s page for The Quiet

Getting to Know Cape Breton Better | Review of “The Promised Land” by Bill Conall (2013) Boularderie Island Press

Land

We all have heard about sections of our country from school days. Cape Breton Island is one of those places. Yes, it is an island on the northeastern part of Nova Scotia, etc. etc. turn the page. But it is until we read literature from this area that we are given a full understanding of the culture of the island. And that is exactly what Bill Conall has done with his novel The Promised Land: A novel of Cape Breton.

The Loch Broom (Page 28)

There was some weather this morning. From all around the harbour cam the sounds of boats rubbing at their  moorings as the water lifted and lowered the fleet, again and again. With the wind was rain as well, driving in from the east. The sky, which would normally have been showing some light over the Bird Islands, was as black as the inside of a cow. Frank’s own insides reflected the action of the boats against the wharf, tossing unpleasantly even before he set foot on the Loch Broom .

His first day of lobstering was the longest of Frank’s young life, to date. He had not slept well, anxious about being able to do a good job on the first day so that would get a crack at the second day, and then the third. When he finally fell asleep the night before, it seemed like only minutes until the alarm went off at 2:30 a.m. He poured icy water into the bathroom sink; splashed it on his face to wake up. Stumbling downstairs, he was astonished to see the whole family there in the kitchen to send him off.

Conall’s descriptions are completely vivid. One can clearly sense the sights and sounds he writes about here. But what is truly wonderful here is the way he captures complete personalities with his words, giving new insight to the Cape Breton region for all of us.

Twins (Page 177)

School was out for the summer and both boys could feel the comforting weight of the week’s allowance in their denim pockets. It wouldn’t be there long, for the store, with its chocolate bars and toffee and soda pop, was not a mile away. They climbed up and down over the big rocks at the tide line; ran barefoot on the sand ahead of the returning water; collected and discarded enough empty shells, mussel shells, oyster shells, snail shells, crab shells and flimsy remnants of desiccated lobster.

“Let’s go up to the store and get a pop!”

John Thomas MacInnes was twelve minutes older than his brother, with hair as black as Cape Breton coal and built like one of the sturdy little pit ponies that had been used to haul the coal carts to the surface back in the day. John Michael MacInnes was the taller by an inch or two, with auburn hair that teetered toward red in sunlight. Were John Thomas had the physical strength and determination to get himself out of mischief, John Michael tended to think a bit further ahead to avoid getting into it in the first place.

“Let’s play some more, then when we get it, it’ll taste way better,” he suggested.

It is a certain flavour that Conall gives to the book that readers can taste what Cape Breton is like. It is that flavour that no history book or travel brochure can give to the region that only a piece of literature can give.

Tha ‘n Geamhradh a’Tighinn (Is the Winter Coming) Page 80

Perhaps osmosis is the best way to describe the gradual integration of the two communities, those of the Hippies and the North Shore locals; a slow, inevitable coming-together of similar but disparate groups of people. And as it so  often does, love helped to overcome the remaining barriers between the two groups as the children of the city and the children of f the Cape met and mingled and sometimes married. And the children of those unions were true hybrids, often combining the best of both sides their genetic and cultural heritage.

The same thing happened in other parts of the Island as well. Cape Breton – ever so slightly altered by the addition of some new people and the departure of others – was enriched by the spring-like births of babies, diminished again by the departures of the young and the autumnal deaths of the elderly. The land and sea provided for the  people, and for each other.

Weather and season and tides came and went as they always have done. Sun and rain brought the crops to fullness and to harvest. And year after year, like a boy at his first dance, the snow came cautiously forward, shied away, worked up its courage, tried again and finally crossed the floor to take the hand of winter. And they danced until they could dance no more.

The Promised Land: A novel of Cape Breton by Bill Conall is a fantastic novel which enlightens readers to the Cape Breton region. A great read.

*****

Link to Bill Conall’s WordPress site

Link to Boularderie Island Press WordPress site

Helping us Consider the Geography around us | Review of “Lake of Two Mountains” by Arleen Paré (2014) Brick Books

Lake-of-Two-Mountains-web-205x300

Thank you to Brick Books for making this book available for me at the 2014 Toronto Word on the Street festival

We take way too many things for granted in our busy lives. Work, school, family and so on demand our attention that we ignore simple features that exist in our neighbourhoods. But Arleen Paré has noted the lakes near her and has recorded her observations in her poetry collection Lake of Two Mountains and has given us something to ponder in our own environs.

More (Page 6)

vision doubles

the lake’s surface calmed

trees displaying roots into roots

their upside-down selves

tree selves downside-up

in the water where their roots

touch their roots   a surfeit of calm

redoubles the lake

Paré has given not only careful thought but also a great deal of research into this collection. She has organized her thoughts into careful phrases that the mind’s eye can clearly see how a lake came into formation and now exists.

Becoming Lake (Page 7-8)

Start early. Pleistocene.

3 a.m. Let the Laurentide Ice Shield

wrench surface snow, blast

great pans of pale frozen foam.

Thunder out. Cacophony of cold,

glacial-sour. Scoop a basin

five miles across.

Let the bowl corrugate.

Beneath the plain,

concavitate in slow ragged folds.

Sink potholes. Shove mountain tops

from below stony roots. Spall,

brinell, press walls whipped with sleet

Penance the ice. Endure

the murk, the minutes, millennia.

Empty the out the salt sea.

Watersheds, drains,

daily rains gelatinate the sky.

                                           Conjure blue then,

olive-green, brown, streaks of violet gold,

precipitation’s long sombre hush. Rubble,

river mouth, almighty mud.

All things fall away, sink

into brokenness.

                                                            Finally,

ripple-scum and shore fog, water

grey-pocked – but moving,

currents, then caps of white,

the lake’s sliver face

scudded with wind.

Paré has also shared her insight into what others think of her lake. Again she is able to turn to observations in great phrases that a reader can clearly see.

Whose Lake? (Page 36-37)

My lake says the man

with the speedboat

because his uncle

once owned a camp at Riguad where the river

breaks into the lake

God’s lake says

Frere Gabriel because

he believes God owns

whatever He wants

and who wouldn’t want this particular lake

My lake you say

and the lake of your sister

because your grandfather

and mother and aunts

and your uncle

once owned thw white house up the road

and you stayed every summer

and swam every day

rain or shine

Our lake say the Mohawks

and the lake of our dead

because they lived

here or near enough here

and died here

if not from time immemorial

at least almost as long

My lake says the woman

who rents you the room

who owns the patio chairs

and the curved turquoise pool

and the long windy fore-shore

performing before you

and the house like a rock

or a deity

watching your backs.

Lake of Two Mountains by Arleen Paré is an insightful collection of poetry which opens the mind’s eye to the complexities of lakes. It is a pleasure to read and ponder over.

*****

Link to Brick Books website for Lake of Two Mountains

Link to Arleen Paré’s website

Inside the Buggy Mind of an Immigrant | Review of “Cockroach” by Rawi Hage (2008) House of Anansi Press

Cockroach

We all have a notion of what it is like to be an immigrant to our country. Usually it is based on the stories of people who came before us. But Rawi Hage has given a new perspective to what it like to be an immigrant in today’s age that is gritty, bittersweet, and totally refreshing. In short, his novel Cockroach is a brilliant read.

Page 3-4

Perhaps it’s time to see my therapist again, because lately this feeling has been weighing on me. Although that same urge has started to act upon me in the shrink’s presence. Recently, when I saw her laughing with one of her co-workers, I realized that she is also a woman, and when she asked me to re-enact my urges, I put my hand on her knee while she was sitting across from me. She changed the subject and, calmly, with a compassionate face, brushed my hand away, pushed her seat back, and said: Okay, let’s talk about your suicide.

Last week I confessed to her that I used to be more courageous, more carefree, and even, one might add, more violent. but here in this northern land no one give you an excuse to hit, rob or shoot, or even to shout from across the balcony to cures your neighbours’ mothers and threaten their kids.

I love the fact that the narrator of this story is never named. He is a desperate individual living among the émigré community of Montreal in the dead of winter. He goes from beds to cafes to his therapist’s office to the homes he breaks while in a murky and desperate rant.

Page 86-87

I like to pass by fancy stores and restaurants and watch the people behind thick glass, taking themselves seriously, driving forks into their mouths between short conversations and head nods. I also like to watch the young waitresses in their short black dresses and white aprons. Although I no longer stand and stare. The last ime I did that it was summer and I was leaning on a parked car, watching a couple eat slowly, neither looking at the other. A man from inside, in a black suit, came out and asked me to leave. When I told him that it is a free country, a public space, he told me to leave now, and to get away from the sports car I was resting against. I moved away from the car but refused to leave. Not even two minutes later, a police car came and two female officers got out, walked towards me, and asked for my papers. When I objected and asked them why, they said it was unlawful to stare at people inside commercial places. I said, Well, I am staring at my own reflection in the glass. The couple in the restaurant seemed entertained by all of this. While one of the officers held my papers and went back to the car to check out my past, I watched the couple watching me, as if finally something exciting was happening in their lives. They watched as if from behind a screen, as if it were live news. Now I was part of their TV dinner, I was spinning in a microwave, stripped of my plastic cover, eaten, and defecated the next morning just as the filtered coffee was brewing in the kitchen and the radio was prophesying the weather, telling them what to wear, what to buy, what to say, whom to watch, and whom to like and hate. The couple enjoyed watching me, as if I were some reality show about police chasing people with food-envy syndrome.

Hage has documented a unique element of the human condition here. In this wonderfully-confused muddle of a narrative, he shows what the thoughts of a lonely and confused individual that could easily exist in our midst. The story does flow well as we are given deeper and deeper insight into this person and his world around him.

Page 158-159

I did not know how cold it was. I’m never sure of the temperature, and I never look at the weather forecast. I’m not sure why people in this place always start their conversations with remarks about the weather. Small talk frightens me. I have nothing to say. I do not see the point of communicating just for the sake of saying something. Yes, it is cold. I’ll admit it if you want me to, but at least today I was well-fed. Tonight the cook made me a plate before he left. Without calling me over or telling me anything, she shoved a plate in front of me, and then the owner came over and pointed at it and looked at me. I sat at the small table next to the kitchen and ate, really trying not to show how much I was enjoying the food. I know what kind of merchant the owner is. Everything is negotiated. If my boss sensed my dependence on his meals, he might cut money from my pay or aks for more work and give me more orders, and who knows where it would all stop – maybe with cleaning his car, or heating his car, or shovelling his snow, driving his in-laws, cutting the lawn under his suburban plastic chairs, scrubbing his barbecue. Some of these immigrants are still eager to re-enact those lost days of houses with pillars, servants, and thick cigars. Filth! They are the worst – the Third World elite are the filth of the planet and I do not feel any affinity with their jingling-jewellery wives, their arrogance, their large TV screens. Filth! they consider themselves royalty when all they are is the residue of colonial power. They walk like they are aristocrats, owners from the land of spice and honey, yet they are nothing but the descendants of porters, colonial servants, gardeners, and sell-out soldiers for invading empires.

Cockroach by Rawi Hage is a wonderful muddle of an exploration into a segment of the human condition. It is a brilliant read and –  most definitely – a must read for any fans of literature.

*****

Link to House of Anansi’ s page for Cockroach

Discoveries of the Undressed | Review of “Archive of the Undressed” by Jeanette Lynes. (2012) Wolsak & Wynn

Undressed

Thank you to Wolsak and Wynn for providing me with a copy of this book at the 2014 Toronto Word on the Street festival.

I am amazed how profound the observations in poetry can be these days. They seem to come across at times unhindered by politics and paradigms giving a deeply honest look at the human condition. One such collection is the Archive of the Undressed by Jeanette Lynes. Her thoughts and observations are collected here as she pondered a collection of vintage Playboy magazines, giving insight of not only the 1960s and 70s but our time today.

TO THE READER OF VIGOUR AND TASTE (Page 5)

Yes you in your argyle sweater Hardwick-crested jacket silver and teak

cufflinks

precision lighter that strikes up “Dixie” each time you spark your

Guardsman pipe

You whose slacks are habit forming

Whose interiors refulgently grandiose

You scented with Black Watch shave lotion for ’round the clock

distinction

You with audio fidelity, discerning ears, woofers tweeters in walnut

You with your electric pencil sharpener your rechargeable flashlight

fountain pen with exclusive snorkel reloading feature.

You with the giant pepper mill    the nimble wits

Whose “Mairzy Doats”

You who surround yourself with walnut

who cha cha

who pronounce buttons a bore

who are too hipster for houndstooth

too busy for bongo drums

You who appreciate a good crisp lagoon

Who demand a close shave

You purveyor of midnight suppers in midtown with stainless sett steak

knife sets in walnut cases collapsible silver-plated cups

You with no patience for bothersome antediluvian holdovers

You who prefer to make like a bunny

You who have made four equilateral triangles from cigarettes

You whose party yacht is called The Mayflower

You on daylight savings time (Cartier ultra-thin evening watch)

Yes you, with time to watch

I’m talking to you –

Playboy magazines from that era still hold a certain mystic and allure to them. Lynes has look at these magazines and given some profound thoughts to what they stood for and what they realistically were.

Untitled (Page 12)

The old grey mare ain’t who she used to be –

surprised it all devolves to elegy,

to body? Don’t be, there’s always a body,

missing or not. Lovely or less.

Historic. Histrionic, Hysterical.

Lost in space or not. Girlish. Ghoulish.

Shot to death and swarmed by ants

or not. Either way, the world

wishes to view and will pay.

Disappointed, they’ll request a refund.

It’s a very exacting world

in the body department and never

over easy, always hard.

Waist knot, want knot.

Body is poultry, so many cartons of eggs.

Dairy. Milk. Mare. Mummy. Centre. Fold.

But this isn’t always hyping up the glamour from these magazines. Lynes comments and thoughts are frank and bold at times, shocking the reader out of the magical stupor they might find themselves in.

Dorothy Ekpharstic (excerpt) page 28

She fell into an ocean that day and no one noticed.

Playboy was too busy adoring her, dubbing her life

a fairy tale. Quoting her ambition –

to be surrounded by pets –

(a girl could claim this back then and remain

valid in everyone’s eyes). She her, still chaste

in pink let warmers. Topless as the girl next door.

Now she tosses the ball to a puppy that doesn’t

see she’s undressed, also how they found her

shot dead. Nude. No puppy. Only construction crews of ants

dragging red bridges across he chilled bare back.

Lynes observations are also astute. She complies them here in a profound manner that only poetry can show to any reader.

The Oldest Living Swinger in Canada (Page 38)

He parks his ancient Buick on the main drag,

Princess Street, near banks, cafes,

a stone’s toss from S & R Department Store

with its living elevator operator who resembles

a dead Bee Gee. Yes, the oldest swinger

in Canada brakes his buggy buffed with love

amidst all this glamour. Weather means zilch to him.

I first saw him on winter’s most dire day, walkers

picking their way along Bagot, muttering prayers

into their scarves. His Buick equipped with state-

of-the-art eight-track, windows wide open,

Glenn Miller or Artie Shaw full tilt. I was about to tell

a mental health professional nothing good

remained in this world when I noted

the nation’s oldest living swinger,

his passion pit parked, big band cranked,

his bald head tilted back, joggling

to the riffs. His eyes closed,

mouth open, gums aglow,

pink galleries of pure bliss.

And yet the thoughts here are still deeply personal. Lynes has carefully put her words on these pages carefully with complete consideration. The phrases are worth reading and re-reading over and over again just so the mind’s eye can clearly see what is being said.

Begin The Slow Peel of Elbow Gloves (Introduction, excerpt) pages 1-2

The triggering muse for this collection is a stack of vintage Playboy magazines I’ve been immersed in for the past four years. Dating mostly from the 1960s and ’70s, these magazines have been my constant travelling companions across our extreme-trek-of-a-country, more than once contributing to overweight baggage charges. It seems the ’60s and ’70s are now considered “vintage.” These magazines’ glossy heft and sumptuous contents became for me an archive with a curious staying power. If they fed a fetish, it has been as much for their funky fonts, retro colours, and unfettered period capitalism, as for each issue’s highly staged photo shoot of “the girl next door.” I read them for the articles, of course! But also the pleasure of contrast, juxtaposition – a John Kenneth Galbraith piece beside an ad for Interwoven University Socks in glacier blue, dune grass, wild oats, or buckwood brown. A rousing editorial next to ads for underwear of Harley-Davidsons.

Veiled beneath its script of hedonism and racy “entertainment for gentlemen,” Playboy has always essentially been a conduct book for men. Its readers could access the regular Advisor column (a kind of reverse-mirror-image Ann Landers) along with the consumer orgy of ads for cars, cologne, whiskey, cigars, clothing, stereos with silky response and party-proof walnut finish, offers of memberships in vinyl record clubs. What to buy. Where to travel. What to cook for romantic dinners. Recipes (booze-laced, surely sponsored by liquor companies). Vintage Playboy was a primer on how to pursue the good life. To read it as a woman is to occupy the position of a voyeur – to join a club of voyeurs, as it were, with is transgressive tingle. Gloria Steinem said, famously, documenting her undercover stint at the Manhattan Playboy Club, “All women are bunnies.” It makes you think. But we are also lookers. We like to watch as much as the next guy. As the snuggle-toothed vendor at the Kingston, Ontario, fleas market told me when I purchased yet another infusion of vintage Playboys, “It’s all women that buys them.” It makes you think.

Archive of the Undressed by Jeanette Lynes is a great collection of poetry and a brilliant piece of literature. Her thoughts and observations are unique, giving great thought to the human condition.

*****

Link to Jeanette Lynes WordPress site

Link to Wolsak and Wynn’s page for Archive of the Undressed

Exploring the Mysteries of Detective Murdoch | Review of “Poor Tom is Cold” by Maureen Jennings (2001) McClelland & Stewart

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I’m late in the game of becoming a fan of the television series Murdoch Mysteries. I enthralled by some of the comments fans made of the show during the summer months and I began to watch some of the back episodes. The next thing I knew I was adding comments to the twitter feed under the hashtag #murdiesunite and I knew I was addicted. But I still felt I need some background to the show so I picked up Maureen Jennings book Poor Tom is Cold. Now I feel somewhat more sure of myself as the new season of the TV show begins.

Page 4-5

It was still dark out, not yet dawn, and the flickering street lamps made little dint in the sodden November darkness. Acting Detective William Murdoch pulled his astrakhan hat tighter over his ears, thrust his bare hands deep into his pockets, and shoulders hunched against the cold driving rain, plodded up Ontario Street toward the police station. Pain from an infected tooth had sent him from his bed, and in an attempt to distract himself, he had dressed and set out for work well ahead of his duty time.

He turned onto Wilton just as a cab was going by and stepped back to avoid being splashed. The cabbie slowed his horse in case Murdoch was a potential fare, realised he wasn’t, and tipped his whip in acknowledgement as he passed by. He was wrapped in a voluminous black oiled slicker, the high collar masking his lower face and the hood pulled down so low over his forehead that only his eyes were visible. the horse had no such protection and its coat was dark from the rain. Like a lot of cab horses, the beast looked underfed, as if it had barely a trot left in it, but the driver snapped the reins and they heaved into a faster clip. Murdoch watched the rear lamp swaying, warm and bright in the gloom, until the carriage turned south on Parliament, leaving him alone on the dark street.

Jennings has done something wonderful by taking the murder mystery and setting it in 1890s Toronto. She carefully describes the era in detail, not only the physical descriptions of settings but gets into the moods and thoughts of the people of the time.  Poor Tom is Cold was the third book featuring William Murdoch as he investigates the apparent suicide of a fellow officer. While the corner finds the evidence to be irrefutable, Murdoch follows the leads to find the situation is not what it seems to be.

Page 225

He was about to abandon the bookcase altogether when he saw that there was one book tucked away at the back of the shelf. He took it out, wondering if it had been hidden or had just fallen back there. The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott. The cover matched the others in the set and this too was inscribed lovingly by Mrs Wicken. A twelfth birthday this time. He was about to replace it when he saw that there was a thin piece of muslin pressed among the pages. He took it out. Inside the cloth was a lock of dark brown hair. Murdoch stowed the find between the covers of his own notebook. There was nothing else he could see that might be relevant, and the overfurnished room was beginning to close in on him. He went back to the hall.

But this book is more than a simple murder mystery. Jennings has created a fully-developed character with William Murdoch who is not only smart and cunning but still filled with longings and feelings. Fans of the character easily feel empathy with Murdoch even though his concepts of morality may seem outlandish by today`s standards.

Page 87-88

However, over the past few months he had found himself actively seeking for a sweetheart. He had started dancing lessons, taken to it quite well really, even though his only dancing partner at first was the instructor himself, Professor Otranto, who took the lady`s part. Then in the summer he`d attended his first mixed class and met a young woman who worked at the music store on King Street. She had seemed most receptive toward him until she discovered he was Roman Catholic. She was Methodist.  “ My father would disown me. And I`m all he`s got now,“ she had said sadly. As a result, Murdoch had given up his dancing classes, reluctant to see her there and be tantalised by what he couldn’t have.

Poor Tom is Cold by Maureen Jennings is a brilliant novel on its own but I found it to be an excellent introduction to the world of Detective Murdoch. It is a must read for not only for any mystery fan but also would be a great read for fans of historical fiction. Murdies Unite!

Link to Maureen Jennings`website

Link to Penguin Random House`s page for The Complete Murdoch Mysteries Collection (which includes Poor Tom is Cold.)

Link to CBC television page for Murdoch Mysteries.

Depression and the Human Condition | Looking at: Angie Abdou’s “Between,” Mirian Toews’ “All My Puny Sorrows,” and Alison Pick’s “Between Gods.”

BetweenAllMyPunySorrowsBetweenGods

The beauty of literature is how it exposes elements of the human condition that needs to be discussed by society. A well-crafted novel passed between good friends is still an effective means of creating discourse in our society. Three books have been published in the past year that deal with the common theme of depression and malaise. While I have personal reasons for writing this piece with a certain friend in mind, I have no doubt that others will find the mention of these three books together enlightening.

Angie Abdou’s Between

I hope I am not stealing any wind from Angie Abdou’s sails by connecting these three novels in this piece. She was the one who mention the connection while on tour with her novel Between. In it, her protagonist Vero finds herself thrust into the role of mother and wife while trying live in the modern age.

Page 9-10

Vero Nanton’s life has been hijacked, and she hates herself for being surprised. Every woman she knows told her this would happen – motherhood would change everything – but either she didn’t hear them (because her fevered response to the biological imperative to procreate had drawn all power away from her ears and redeployed it to more biologically useful parts of her body), or she paid these naysayers no heed because, simply, she believed that she and Shane would be different (because they had before, on so many counts, been exactly that – different). For whatever reason, Vero did not process the warnings that female friends and family members, generously or otherwise, fired her way the moment she stepped over the threshold of thirty-five and displayed the usual symptoms of baby fever, intensified (as they so often are) by delayed onset.

“You want a career,” Cheryl, Vero’s mother, said when she saw Vero turning doe-eyed over new babies. “Women of your generation don’t have to do all that nose wiping and gah-gah-ing. Thanks to us. Be whatever you want.” Cheryl had stepped out of parenting somewhere around Vero’s thirteenth year, choosing instead to focus her energy on what she called her womyn’s group. The closest Cheryl got to mothering was to ask Vero to join her and a circle of friends in some asanas  or a heated discussion of The Golden Notebook. Vero, of course, did not.

Abdou has documented a section of angst common in our society here yet somehow people feel alone with this type of grief. Between should be the starting points of many conversations people who share the feelings that Vero has and the greater understanding of sadness.

Page 237

Vero tries. Nobody can say that she does not try. One must try. She pulls herself from bed. You need some movement, Cheryl would say. An object at rest stays at rest. Lethargy breeds lethargy. With Cheryl’s voice pushing her forward, Vero drags herself down to the Bikram studio, determined to sweat her way out of her funk. She will sweat until she is Vero again. She will sweat until her old life fits, until once again she is a pharmacist’s wife who gets paid to fix engineers’ grammar.

But there is no peace at the Bikram studio. Dreadlocks, placards, and ripped jeans fill the sidewalk, barring her way. “SWEAT!” screams one half of the crowd. “KILLS!” replies the other. Vero raises her hands to her face. Her skin feels real, smooth at the cheek, rough at the dry skin of her lips, three sharp hairs unplucked at her chin. She’s awake?

Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows

Miriam Toews has put some serious personal touches in this story of two sisters; Elfrieda and Yoliandi. One would think that Elf would be happy with her great career and her great marriage but she wants to die. And this confounds Yoli has she makes frequent trips to the hospital to visit her sister after her latest suicide attempt.

Page 10-11

Elfrieda has a fresh cut just above her left eyebrow. There are seven stiches holding her forehead together. The stiches are black and stiff and the ends pole out of her head like little antennae. I asked her how she got that cut and she told me that she fell in the washroom. Who knows if that’s true or false. We are women in our forties now. Much has happened and not happened. Elf said that in order for her to open her packages of pills – the ones given to her by the nurses – she would need a pair of scissors. Fat lie. I told her that I knew she wasn’t interested in taking the pills anyway, unless they were of such a volume that their combined effect would make her heart seize, so why would she need a pair of scissors to open the package? Also, she could use her hands to tear it open. But she won’t risk injuring her hands.

Elfrieda’s a concert pianist. When we were kids she would occasionally let me be her page-turner for the fast pieces that she hadn’t memorized. Page turning is a particular art. I had to be just ahead of her in the music and move like a snake when I turned the page so there was no crinkling and no sticking and no thwapping. Her words. She made me practise over and over, her ear two inches from the page, listening. Heard it! she’d say. And I’d have to do it again unitl she was satisfied that I hadn’t made the slightest sound. I liked the idea of being ahead of her in something. I took real pride in creating a seamless passage for her from one page and if I was too early or too late Elfrieda would stop playing and howl.  The last measure! she’d say. Only at the last measure! Then her arms and head would crash onto the keys and she’d hold her foot on the sustaining pedal so that her suffering would resonate eerily throughout the house.

Toews has brilliantly described the anguish of one person trying to understand a sadness of another person here in very simple terms. We can feel the frustration of Yoli as she tries to deal with not only her sister but the rest of her family during this crisis.

Page 36-37

The last time my sister tried to kill herself was by slowly evaporating into space. It was a furtive attempt to disappear by starving herself to death. My mom phoned me in Toronto and told me that Elf wasn’t eating and she was begging her and Nic not to call a doctor. They were desperate. Would I come? I went directly from the airport to Elf’s bedroom and knelt by her side. She asked me what I was doing there. I told her I was there to call a doctor. Mom might have made a promise not to call a doctor but I hadn’t. Our mother stayed in the dining room. She had her back to us. She couldn’t support one daughter’s idea over the other daughter’s idea, like any good mother, so she removed herself from the proceedings. I’m calling, I said. I’m sorry. Elf pleaded with me not to. She implored me. She put her hands together in supplication and begged. She promised to eat. Our mother stayed sitting in the dining room table. I told Elf the ambulance was on its way. The screen door was open and we could smell the lilacs. I won’t go, said Elf. You have to, I said. She called to our mom. Please tell her I won’t go. Our mother said nothing.  She didn’t turn around. Please, said Elf. Please! She used what little strength she had left to give me the finger as the paramedics leaded her into the back of the ambulance.

Alison Pick’s Between Gods

Noted poet and novelist Alison Pick bares her soul completely in her non-fiction memoir Between Gods. While in her early thirties and being engaged to be married, she struggled with depression. It was during that period that she began to research her Jewish roots and their hardships in before and during the Second World War. She felt compelled that in order to understand her family’s history, she herself must embrace the Jewish faith. This book document’s her path of discovery and learning.

Page 10-11

My grandmother never liked babies. As least, this is how the story goes. We have a picture of Dad as a small boy sitting on her knee. She is wearing a blue silk blouse and large pearl-drop earrings, holding a thin cigarette loosely between her manicured fingers. She has just learned that her parents have been murdered. She stares off into the distance. It is as though the child her lap – my father – has been placed there by a stranger, or belongs to someone else entirely.

Granny covered her depression with words. Armed with a cocktail and a cigarette, she made herself the centre of any group. She knew history, politics, opera, literature. If anyone else tried to speak, Granny talked right over them.

At the end of our summers with her when I was a child, she would stand in the doorway in her pale blue and white checked Hermes dressing gown, crying as my father pulled our family station wagon down the long driveway. She was terrified of being left alone.

During the first crippling depression I suffered in my early twenties, I called her at the condominium in Florida where she wintered. “I’m starting to think life is inherently painful,” I told her.

I remember the uncharacteristic silence. I could hear the ice cubes clinking in her rye and then the sharp inhale on her cigarette. From farther behind her came the muffled sound of waves crashing on Longboat Key. Her silence lengthened. For once, she was searching for words.

When she finally spoke, I was relieved to hear her glamorous European accent; relieved she was still there at the other end of the line at all.

“Yes,” she said simply. “You’re right.”

Even though this book is a work of non-fiction, Pick adds a sense of literary style to her thoughts and emotions here. The fact that is able to open up about her feelings – especially her sadness and her frustrations – gives insight to those emotions and any reader can feel they are not alone with their angst.

Page 151-152

Writing and depression feel unrelated to me, like stars in separate constellations. When I’m in the throes of the darkness, I never think to draw a line between the two. And when I’m feeling sunny, despite knowing the correlation – that artists of all stripes are more depressed than the general population, that a higher percentage will take their own lives- the relationship seems intellectual, abstract.

In certain historical periods, conversations about melancholia emphasized creativity over depression. And it’s true that at the start of any project, during the process of generation, I am often flooded with the bad blood. Yet, paradoxically, the act of writing also feels like an island to rest on, an oasis of hours, even a single hour, in which I experience pleasure. And it occurs to me that the relief I experience when writing is not just about holding the darkness at bay but about ordering it, controlling it. As a writer, I can take the horrors  of the Holocaust – for example – and place them within the strictures of plot, character, tension. I can render them believable, and imbue them with a moment of redemption – not in terms of the outcome of the story but in terms of narrative tension. Ah. This is how it ends. And we close the book and set it aside, satisfied.

Maybe writing fiction serves a dual function: letting the author excavate her psyche while at the same time functioning as a kind of psychic shield. A writer digs up the contents of her unconscious mind, and then attributes it to someone else – not to a family member or friend, mind you, but to a character. Which is to say, someone who does not even exist, someone who comes from the imagination entirely.

* * *

Literature helps bring forth elements of the human condition that need discussing. And these topics are not just quick discussions to be had but need to be thought out and considered. Between, All My Puny Sorrows, and Between Gods are brilliant books written by brilliant authors who know how to craft concepts into a story form to bring ideas out to the world. These are books that deserved not only to be read but to be savoured.

* * *

Link to Arsenal Pulp’s page for Angie Abdou’s book Between

Link to Penguin Random House’s page for Miriam Toews’ book  All My Puny Sorrows

Link to Penguin Random House’s page for Alison Pick’s book Between Gods