Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Realities of Modern Korea | Review of “Sad Peninsula” by Mark Sampson (2014) Dundurn

Sad

Many of us have learned only the basics of Korea. It is mentioned in our history books briefly but do we really know anything about this region of the world.  Mark Sampson has given us an eye-opening insight into Korea with his novel Sad Peninsula. And in it has given us a bit of perspective about ourselves.

Page 19-20

You don’t so much see Seoul’s neon as you taste it, like bright hard Christmas candy, reds and greens sprayed out across the city as if fired from a cannon. As our cab races northward toward the lugubrious Han River, I figure I’ll never get used to this non-stop showcase of luminance. a landscape choked with discos and Starbucks outlets and soju tents on the sidewalks, with street-side barbecues and 7-Elevens that will let you drink beer on plastic furniture set up out front. As we settle in for the ride, Rob Cruise begins his complaining. He been a flame thrower at the urinal for several weeks now. The nurses at the clinic near our school have started recognizing him when he walks in; the pharmacist doesn’t even need to see the slip anymore to fetch him the right antibiotics.

Sampson has written a brilliant yet bittersweet novel here. He has basically two protagonists – Eun-young, a former Korean ‘comfort woman’ who is trying hard to come to terms with her past of rape and violence during World War II and Michael, a Canadian who arrives in Korea to teach English in 2003. Their paths cross through Jin, who is challenging the norms and mores around her as well as Michael’s morality.

Page 155-156

On the last day of the journey, Eun-young woke early and found herself wandering the upper deck in a state of near hypnosis. She started to imagine what would transpire once she saw her family again. If her brothers were still alive, they would not be able to look at her. If her mother was still alive, she would fall to her knees at Eun-young’s feet and pour out a symphony of thanks. If her father was still alive, his face would crush up in disgust at the sight of her. And if her baby sister was still alive – well, she didn’t know. Ji-young had only been ten years old when Eun-young, five years her senior, was taken away. Would she have gone through these things, too? It was a question Eun-young had sometimes thought about at night during the quiet times in the camps. Is Ji-young being raped, too? Surely she had been too young. Surely the monsters who had done this would have left her alone.

Eun-young was snapped out of her daze by the sudden blare of the ship’s horn. It rang out in a seemingly ceaseless bellow. Eun-young found herself hurrying to the front of the ship before the horn even stopped, nearly crashing into the rail when she got there. She looked out over the blue-green water. In the distance was the thin line of land that she’d been watching for before. Jags of mountains. Fog. The slightest wisp of rambling green hills. For an instant, she doubted where this place was, where the ship had taken her. Her heart heaved a little. It wasn’t until she could see Pusan Harbour, its long lean piers, its buildings snuggled into the mountains, that she guessed where she was.

This is a frank story told with vivid details. It deals with a lot of desire, hurt and shame. Sampson did a fantastic job with enlightening his readers not only with some of lesser know historical facts about Korea but also with some of the cultural ideals and prejudices that exist there. And in doing so, makes us look at our own failing norms here. A great piece literature that goes beyond what any historical essay or journalistic piece could do.

 Page 314

This is how I’m dealing with the past. By putting one word in front of the other, this thing I once tried so hard to do, this act of aggression against the page, vandalizing it with my thoughts, my voice, my words, my perspective. It’s indecent, it’s arrogant, it’s an act of thievery and narcissism. That’s why I was so terrible at it. I couldn’t muster enough egotism to do it properly. I balked under the responsibility of stealing stories and claiming them as my own. I did not inherit my mother’s pristine self-absorption the way my sister di. I was always the quiet, rumpled guy in the corner who spoke little and was afraid to ask the tough questions. It all seemed like robbery to me. I failed at it; I failed spectacularly. But now, here, on the other side of the world, I’m putting one word in front of the other. I’m crafting a story that doesn’t belong to me. I’m taking these horrific leaps of faith, extrapolating on things I barely understand, filling in the blanks with my imagination, everything I was taught not to do.

And I’m loving every minute of it.

Sad Peninsula by Mark Sampson not only gives insight to the mores of Korea but makes us look at our own values and failures. A brilliant and insightful read.

*****

Link to Mark Sampson’s Blog

Link to Dundurn’ s page for Sad Peninsula

The Beauty of the Cycles between Grief and Joy | Review of “Cantos From A Small Room” by Robert Hilles (1993) Wolsak and Wynn

Cantos

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

We tend to think of life as a linear construct. We laugh, we cry, we sleep, continue. But do we take the time to seriously look at the cycle that is life? One work of beautifully crafted poetry has me carefully considering life in general and that is Cantos From A Small Room by Robert Hilles.

Canto 7: There Are No Accidents Between Lovers (Excerpt -Page 26)

I turned away and did not speak but

listened to your voice waver as

your mother’s final breath passed.

We waited all day knowing that it would be

soon tomorrow or the day after but soon

and still it was too quick as if suddenly

a switch had been thrown somewhere.

Both of us wanted her to stand up to walk over

to where we were sitting and put her

arms around us as she has often done

in the past. But we knew that the past

is a fragrance that could not reach into her room.

Looking at her closed eyes I wondered if

where she dreamed there was

a bird singing outside her window.

After she died, I gripped your hand and

saw that in death even music falters.

There are some well-crafted thoughts here. Hilles has pondered some serious moments of his life and – in turn – listed some important elements of the human condition. It was a pleasure to read this and consider moments out of my own life.

Canto 10: Canto For The Dead (Except Page 36)

Does it matter that you are not strong that even

as a child you could not look at death without

being caught in its delicate stare? Does it matter

that your thighs sing in the morning and do not move

but rest beneath the covers?

Your fist is strong but shatters nothing lands

on your own knee. Crazy, you are listening to the world

hiss in the throat of a lover. Listen to the kindness

you have left behind its long dress hanging in a

window down the street. A bird laughs by your window,

as illogical and true as that may sound, you laugh too

walk across the street and tear a daffodil out of the ground.

Softly you begin to tear the skin from your eyes

begin to peel the scales from your tongue.

You are prepared to enter any graveyard and listen.

Death the act of hearing a bird laugh at your window

the blinds hiding its face a tanager or a swallow

it’s not important as you look at your hands and smile.

It is important to carefully read and re-read passages in this book. This is one of these works that needs to be pondered and considered. A quiet corner with a few hours to spare makes reading these words worthwhile.

Combs (Excerpt -page 60)

You comb your hair and

this dark room is filled

with splashes of static.

My body is shaped

by your hair and I listen

as you sigh into the mirror

and escape in it to another room

one larger than this where

the moonlight strips the sheets

from the bed and children whisper

their fears at the door.

My hands tremble as

they reach across to you

feeling your soft tongue moisten

them. Our bodies continue

to praise each other even as we

sleep our lives equipped with

different dreams and it is dangerous

to anticipate another’s plummet

into the world alone.

Cantos From A Small Room by Robert Hilles is a well-crafted work which gave me pause to reconsider the human condition.  His thoughts are profound and carefully considered. A pleasure to read and re-read.

*****

Link to Robert Hilles WordPress site

Link to Wolsak and Wynn’s page for Cantos From A Small Room

When The Truths Around You Come Crashing Down | Review of “A Sack of Teeth” by Grant Buday (2002) Raincoast Books

Teeth

Parents, spouses, jobs, friends, teachers,  heroes and so forth are suppose to be nurturing and stead-fast pillars for us to believe in. But they do fail. And when they do fail, we falter. So do we grow and move on when they fail? Or do we fall with them? That is the type of journey Grant Buday explores in his novel A Sack of Teeth.

Page 16-17

While Jack was in the suitcase, his father and mother, Ray and Lorraine, were drinking rye and seven and watching the news. They were seated on the Danish modern couch, separated by copies of Chatelaine and Life and a bowl of Liquorice Allsorts.

Ray was watching KVOS, the one U.S. station their rabbit ears picked up. President Johnson announced that the U.S. now had 200,000 ground troops in Vietnam. Ray whistled and shook his head in admiration and said, “Jesus.” Various leaders gave their opinions, including Castro, who shook his fist at American imperialism. Ray said, “He’s the bastard who killed Kennedy.”

***

Ray took the glass bowl of Liquorice Allsorts and occupied himself by picking out the triple-layered ones, peeling them apart, eating the filling then eating the liquorice itself. Sometimes he collected all the triple-layered ones and hid them on Jack and then presented them to him as a gift because Jack loved them, too. It occurred to him that Jack should be in bed soon. He turned to say something to Lorraine but was diverted by the start of Rat Patrol. The opening sequence of jeeps cresting a dune made Ray’s heart vault. An industrial engineer who’d learned about ordnance in the army, Ray didn’t so much watch Rat Patrol as study it. When the first bout of shooting started he spotted a flaw.

The beauty of a good coming-of-age novel is that we can empathize or at least learn from the pain of the characters. And that is what one can do with this book. The story is set in September 1965 and it is Jack’s first day of school. But it also the day that Jack’s mother learns of her husband’s affair while trying to deal with the suicide of their downstair’s tenant (And her secret love.)  Buday divides the narrative of the of the book between the voices of the three family members to brilliantly make the reader hear and feel the confusion and anguish of the lifestyle that exists in that cohesion.

Page 44-45

Ray got in the car and closed the door. It shut with a solid sound, a thick chunk of a sound that he called “the sweet sound of quality engineering.” Lorraine watched the electric window whirr down and Ray slide the steering wheel over. That always struck her as unnatural and dangerous. Ray said it locked when you released the footbrake, yet to Lorraine it was a frightening reliance on technology. What happened if the steering wheel started doing that when you were driving? Ray said that was impossible. She didn’t believe it, which frustrated him. Everything frustrated him these days. He slid the key into the ignition with an almost sensuous touch that made Lorraine envious.

“I want to drive,” she said.

“Drive what, nails?”

Lorraine didn’t bother responding.

“Fine,” said Ray. “Get your licence.”

“Okay.”

“But you’re not touching the Bird.”

“Why?”

“Why, why, why.” You sound like Jack.” He started the car, causing a great rumble of sound to gurgle up around the. Listen to that. It’s a V8.”

“So?”

“So that’s why you can’t drive this car. You don’t appreciate it.” He could just imagine her with the Bird; she’d end up in San Francisco smoking Mary Jane with the hippies.

“You’re trying to control me.”

Buday’s words here are simple and concise. The language has a direct point and the sentences are simple. The mind’s eye of the reader has a clear impression of the points Buday brings across as soon as it is read.

Page 116-117

Jack tugged at the unravelled fence and realized he could escape. His heart thumped against his chest. He looked back at the school where Mr. Gough was waiting with his yardstick. Jack ducked through the hole in the fence and stood in the weedy grass on the other side. It felt different over here. He felt fear and relief and was breathing fast. He wasn’t supposed to be outside the fence. Steve McQueen wasn’t even supposed to be near the fence in The Great Escape. He stood very still waiting for someone to yell at him, but no one did, no one was even watching. Those Grade 7s were kicking a different boy now and kids were still eager to snap sticks of Ivor’s hair. Jack quietly crossed the street that had bottle caps embedded in the tar and waded into the high fragrant grass, avoiding the spit bugs. Soon he was hidden amid the trees and smelled sap and wood.

A Sack of Teeth by Grant Buday is a brilliant coming-of-age novel. One can clearly empathize with the characters as they struggle in with the crises and failures around them. A brilliant read.

*****

Link to Raincoat Books website

 

Putting Memories and Emotions in order. | Review of “Rove” by Laurie D Graham. (2013) Hagios Press.

Rove

The mind is a detritus of memories and emotions. Details about family, traditions, places we’ve been et cetera sometimes clutter our thoughts so much that we can’t focus on matters at hand at times. But to organize those thoughts into a recognizable pattern can be enlightening not only to ourselves but to others. Laurie D. Graham has done that with her book of poetry called Rove, in turn challenging others to think about their own past.

(Page 34)

Their house was a joust between onion and garlic.

Their house of lukewarm bathwater, of Friday night laundry,

 

invisible guilt, soup on the stove.

A Texas mickey of rye,

 

dirt under the fingernails,

the spring thaw she crawled through when the steel rod

 

pierced her abdomen on the farm alone –

I just have to make it to the road. Their house

 

of  yarn and roses, crab apples, zucchini,

old grass clippings in a garbage bag. Silent struggling,

 

sitting with this love, this greying habit,

and buried amid all these mistakes.

This was not a easy read for me but it was a worthwhile one. I had started it, put it down for a while, then finished reading it and re-read segments out loud to fully comprehend their imagery better. Once that process was done, I found my thoughts going back my own reflections of my life. Hence, doing what a great piece of literature is suppose to do.

(Page 52)

Could we find that place, that slough at the curve of what road

that we’d visit in the van in the summer.

 

with its weeping branches like the walls of a top-lit room,

the sky like a skylight, the red-winged blackbirds

 

as present as peacocks and the insects deafening?

 

Where Dad would quiet the engine so we could watch

and we could listen and let the scene press into our memory

 

Not the name or place. There’d be nothing

for the computer when we are older

 

and want to find it.

While Rove by Laurie D. Graham is a complex read, it is an enlightening one. Her ponderings and reflections causes the reader’s mind to consider their own memories and put them in order. That is what good literature is suppose to do.

 

*****

Link to Laurie D Graham’s WordPress Blog

Link to Hagios Press’ webpage for Rove

 

‘Manfacturing’ a Different Angle to the War | Review of “The Factory Voice” by Jeanette Lynes (2009) Coteau Books

voice

War is usually documented from the perspective of the fighting men in the front. But the whole concept affects different elements of society in different ways that is rarely explored. Jeanette Lynes brilliantly explores another side to World War II in her novel The Factory Voice.

Page 8

She is officially a spinster. Thirty-six years old. She has her work, though. Her Master’s degree protracted by polio, but earned nonetheless. She thinks silver linings, thinks clouds, as she clip-clops with her cane along the sidewalk that leads to the main entrance of Fort William Aviation, while the wind bangs her satchel against he wool-covered thigh. Thinks aerodynamics. She grasps the brim of her floppy hat against a sudden gust. Snow falls in hard pellets like pop rivets. Her plum new job begins today. After nine years in a fusty office at Fairchild, she, Muriel McGregor, is now Chief Engineer at this plant with a contract for three hundred northern model Mosquitoes and a sky-high security alert in the wake of recent escapes – subversives – from Angler Detainee Camp. She’d arrived yesterday and, hunkered beside her steamer trunk in he new flat, had inked, in bright red, this milestone in her diary – the Lakehead at last! December 15, 1941. Threshold! Below these words she’d sketched a  horned cartoon devil and added, wickedly, Watch out for subversives and monsters

While Lynes has documented the war cause on the home front, she has gone beyond just telling the story of four women in a factory. Each of the protagonists has some deep secret or obstacle they need to overcome.  And the drama they create or endure makes for a great read.

Page 53

With each step along the cold road home, Florence Voutilainen hates the red scarf more, the vile rag they’ve made her wear since she started working at the factory five weeks ago. the money’s more than swell, it’s salvation itself, but the probation scarf makes it hard for Florence to keep her young chins up – yes, chins – for she’s had, sadly, a double chin since she was twelve years old. when she wears the scarf, people stare at her strange and some line workers call her the big red fish, and this one geezer she has to pass to go to the bathroom likes asking, “Are you a red hun, honey?” And maybe even worse are the factory girls who pretend they don’t see the probation scarf but whose pity rings through loud and clear. At the first red triangle in her overalls pocket. Probation. Florence knows what that spells. Hell’s bells, that spells bottom-feeder.

Lynes has definitely done some strong research into this story. Not only has she captured strong facts about manufacturing aircraft in the Northwestern Ontario region but has absorbed the idioms of the time, making the novel a great reflection of the time.

Page 139

I smoke now.

The snack-wagon theft drove me to it. It made me so blue – what kind of swill-bucket worm would steal Victory Bond tips? – and they make Florence, honest as the month of March is long, wear the red scarf when meanwhile, tip stealers and skunky dealers and wagon peelers are robbing me blind. I’ll tell you what – this factory has become

 

Husky-eat-Husky

The Factory Voice by Jeanette Lynes is a brilliant novel which shows a different aspect of World War II. She has well-researched the subject and written a novel that is not only a pleasure to read but very inspirational as well.

*****

Link to Jeanette Lynes’ WordPress blog

Link to Coteau Books’ page for The Factory Voice

 

 

 

 

 

Considering Tankas and Haiku | Review of “Shouting Your Name Down the Well” by David W. McFadden (2014) Stuart Ross/Manfield Press

well

I seem to be recalling a lot of the poetry I learned from my youth recently. Many teachers made us write little bits of verse for assignments and then made us move on to something else. I can’t help wondering if I had continued to at least read some more poetry – least of all continue writing it – would I have been a more enlightened person? This is one of the many introspective thoughts I had while I was reading Shouting Your Name Down the Well: Tankas and Haiku by David W. McFadden.

Page 33

The five tulips have

Spread their petals and displayed

Five dust-black stamens

And one tripartite yellow

Pistil in the heart of each.

*

When I see things I

Always want to draw them. I

Forget I can’t draw.

*

She was depressed. I

Was smitten. Now she’s better

And I can’t stand her.

*

There’s a smokestack on

My television set. How

Strange, how droll, how – oops!

It’s not a smokestack, it’s an

Empty toilet paper roll.

Both tankas and haiku are Japanese-styles of poetry. A tanka consisting of five lines, the first and third of which have five syllables and the other seven, making 31 syllables in all and giving a complete picture of an event or mood. A haiku usually contains three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively. Both were introduced to me in some English class in the fog of my schooling and promptly forgotten. But McFadden has been working with this style of verse for a while. And it shows.

Sunday afternoon

As I read you sweet and

Tender passages

From Breakfast at Tiffany’s

You give me a pedicure.

*

Woke up last night with

Someone squeezing my hand. It

Was my other hand.

*

Even holding hands

Is an ambiguous act,

More sour than sweet. It’s

An act of desperation,

A political statement.

*

We know the entire

Universe is nothing but

A mirage, but still . . .

McFadden has clearly mastered these forms well. His imagery is clear, bright and certainly unique. (Certainly these verses are more pronounced than anything I produced in my media career.) And there are deeply profound moments too.

Page 103

I would follow you

Like a ripple follows the

Breeze on Demon Pond.

*

Even in my dreams

I find I have to pretend

That I don’t know you.

*

My morning glories

Are hiding this morning. What

Are they ashamed of?

*

Throw yourself in front

Of a train, what a waste! But

If you get a cop

To shoot you you’ll become a

Martyr and a cause célèbre.

Shouting Your Name Down the Well: Tankas and Haiku by David W. McFadden was for me a great re-introduction to a style of writing that I had  long forgotten about. His phrases were clear and profound and were a pleasure to read.

Link to Manfield Press’s website for Shouting Your Name Down the Well: Tankas and Haiku

Does the Past truly Bind our Present? |Review of “The Delusionist” by Grant Buday (2014) Anvil Press

Delusionist cover sketches

Does the past truly bind our present? Do past regrets still block us from happiness today? Does the foibles of our parents honestly affect us during our adulthood? Those are deep questions that arise as we follow the lead character of Grant Buday’s novel The Delusionist.

Page 9

Over the past moth Cyril and Connie had started to notice each other. It began in art class when everyone had to draw each other’s mouth. Cyril did Connie’s whole face. It was a good likeness, an uncanny likeness, right down to the sardonic narrowing of her already narrow eyes, the curl at the corner of her lips, and the nostrils alert to the scent of Cyril’s excitement. Cyril knew he’d hit that one, like a ball square off the bat; the lines were not sketchy but bold, and even had flair. Sometimes it was like that: you lucked out, as if your hand id the work and you were just along for the ride. Not that Cyril admitted that to Connie.

“No putting pins in it,” she said.

“Then you better be nice.”

The story starts out in the summer of 1962 in Vancouver. Cyril Andrachuk is 17 years old and in love. He is the only Canadian-born member of his family, who survived Stalin’s brutal starvation of the Ukraine. He loves art but that desire in him is beyond his family’s comprehension. So Cyril is destined to be ‘a working man instead of a working artist.’

Page 44-45

Cyril found himself contemplating suicide. Hanging was too grimly messy, drowning was too wet and cold, pills and booze he’d probably convulse and vomit, he couldn’t bring himself to jump head first out of a tree – certainly not their tree – which left shooting himself, which meant finding a gun.

As a boy he’d often imagined shooting Hitler and Stalin, sniper style, from the window of a bombed out-building. He wait patiently in the rain or snow or dust, through days and nights, though never would his resolve weaken, and then the moment would come when the Fuhrer or Koba raced past to a meeting of generals. He’d take aim. Tick. The rifle bullet pierces the Fuhrer’s skull right behind the ear and the Fuhrer’s head flops forward. Tick. Uncle Joe topples against the shoulder of his aide. Later, in London, Churchill would decorate him and his mother and father would be there watching, and even Paul would have to give Cyril his due.

Not that his mother and father wanted reminders of the war. They’d avoided the prairies where so many Eastern Europeans congregated and come all the way out to Vancouver to escape getting caught up in an enclave that might have kept those wounds open. Paul had told him that, one of the few bits of info about the family prehistory that he’d shared.

Buday does a great job by following Cyril through his life, making this book a fantastic coming-of-age novel. We see Cyril trying to come to grip with not only his past but also struggling to deal with his station at that point in his life. While the plot is a bit complex at times, this book does document an element of the human condition well.

Page 172-173

Paul’s death didn’t mean Cyril never saw him again. In fact he began seeing him all too much. One night he appeared squatting like a gargoyle at the end of Cyril’s bed, sucking so fiercely at a cigarette that his eyes glowed like a stoked furnace. Another night he woke from a vision of Paul duct taping barbells to his legs and pushing him off a pier, the bubbling grey water rushing up past his face while the weights dragged him down. Night after night such scenarios recurred until eventually Cyril couldn’t sleep at all. It was as if Paul was waiting inside his head. The family was there too, his mother and his father and Steve and Chuckie watching with barbed wire expressions. Sleeping pills made it worse, functioning like a straitjacket that kept him helplessly at the whim of his tormenters. He paced and he drank and soon his neighbours complained about his heavy tread. The manager warned him, so Cyril started taking marathon walks around the city. More than once he was accosted by muggers, perverts, and madmen lurching from bushes. He resumed pacing indoors and the complaints also resumed. He bought a rug to muffle his footsteps but the complaints continued because by then he was moaning out load and begging them to leave him alone.

Eventually the police arrived. Drunk, distraught, Cyril resisted, had to be restrained, and was hustled out in handcuffs. A cop put his hand on his head and, as if shoving him underwater, plunged him into the back of the squad car. He spent the night in jail, was advised to seek counselling, and was back home by noon where he discovered an eviction notice waiting under his door. It was all down on record, all down in a file, right there alongside the weapons charge for having pointed that pistol at those three guys in his cab.

The Delusionist by Grant Buday is a complex, coming-of-age novel which documents an interesting aspect of the human condition. Therefore it is a brilliant piece of literature.

*****

Link to Anvil Press’ page for The Delusionist