Monthly Archives: May 2016

Understanding Ourselves a bit better | Review of “All That Man Is” by David Szalay (2016) McClelland & Stewart

Man

The beauty of a good piece of literature is that – if it is read and reflected upon carefully  – it can cause us to ponder and reflect on our own actions and existence. Through the consideration of a protagonist in a story we open ourselves up to consider our own lifestyle and maybe even improve ourselves just a bit. And such considerations can clearly happen to someone when they have carefully pondered the book All That Man Is by David Szalay.

Page 8

He has no idea, throwing the name out like some mundane object that his friend frequently dreams about Karen Fielding – dreams in which they might speak, or exchange looks, or in which their hands might momentarily touch, and from which he wakes, still seeming to feel the touch of her hand, to a single moment of overwhelming joy. He transcribes these dreams to his diary, very earnestly, along with pages and pages on what they might mean, and on the nature of the dreaming process itself.

In the waking world, he and Karen Fielding have hardly spoken to each other, and she is unaware of how he feels – unless she has noticed the way his eyes follow her as she moves with her tray around the dining hall, or tramps back from lacrosse in her muddy kit. Practically the only thing he knows about her is that her family live in Didcot – he overheard her telling someone else – and from that moment the word ‘Didcot’ started to live in his mind with a special, mysterious promise. Like her name, it seems almost too potent to put down in writing in a youth hostel in Warsaw, one evening, while Ferdinand was showering, he wrote, and it made his heart quicken: It seems pointless to travel Europe when the only where I want to be is humble, suburban English

His pen hovered.

Then he did it, he wrote the word.

Didcot.

Her name, more potent still, he has never summoned the nerve to form.

The books deals with nine different stories, nine different men at different stages of their lives and with nine different social standings. Szalay has each of the men set in various locations in Europe. Each story is ripe with vivid introspection that breeds a type of sense of empathy with the character and a certain level of understanding of the psyche of men – be they good or bad people – if the book is savored while read.

Page 81-82

They swim together, later. The ladies, still in their billowing dresses, letting the water lift them, and Bérnard moving more vigorously, doing little displays of front crawl, and then lolling on his back in the water, letting the sun dazzle his chlorine-stung eyes. Sandra encourages him to do a handstand in the shallow end. Not totally sober, he obliges her. He surfaces to ask how it was, and she shouts at him to keep his legs straight next time, while Charmian, still bobbing about nearby, staying where she can find the cool blue tiles with her toes looks on. He does another handstand, unsteady in his long wet trunks. The ladies applaud. Triumphant, he dives again, into watery silence, blue world, losing all vertical aplomb as his big hand strive for the tiles. His legs thrash to drive him down. His lungs keep lifting his splayed hands from the tiles. His face feels full of blood. Streams of bubbles pass over him, upwards from his nostrils. And then he is in air again, squatting shoulder deep in the tepid water, the water sharp and bright with chemicals streaming from orange slicks of hair that hang over his eyes. He feels queasy for a moment. All those Keo lagers . . . He fears, just for a moment, that he is going to throw up.

Then he notices a lifeguard looming over them, his shadow on the water. He is talking to Sandra. He has just finished up saying something and he moves away, and takes his seat again, up a sloping ladder, like a tennis umpire.

‘We’ve been told off,’ Sandra says, hanging languidly in the water only her sunburnt head, with its mannish jawline and feathery blonde pudding-bowl, above the surface.

Bérnard isn’t sure what’s going on. He still feels light-headed, vaguely unwell. ‘What?’

‘We’ve been told off,’ Sandra says again.

Bérnard, from his crouch in the water, which feels chilly now that he has stopped moving, just stares at her. His body is bony. Individual vertebrae show on his white back. Sandra is still saying something to him. Her voice sounds muffled. ‘… told to stop being so immature …’ he hears it say.

She has started to swim away from him – her head moving away on a very slow, lazy breaststroke.

The surface of the pool, which had been all discomposed by his antics, is smoothing itself out again, is slapping the sides with diminishing vigour.

There is also wit in this book. Not so much a outside laugh wit but more of a quiet realization ‘I-have-done-that’ or ‘have-almost-done-that’ humour followed by a moment of pondering. Again more self-reflection of one’s own soul or a contemplation of someone we know, which is that hallmark of a good piece of literature.

Page 389

He thinks about death quite a lot now. It is hard not to think about it. Obviously, he doesn’t have that much time left. Ten years? In ten years he will be eighty-three. More than that? Well, probably not. So about ten years. Seen in one way, that is frightening little. It is terrible, how little it seems, sometimes. Waking at five a.m. on a December morning, for instance, in the large damp bedroom of the house near Argenta, the turquoise walls still hidden in darkness. The quiet ticking of the clock on the table next to the bed. It is terrible how little it seems. And since the operation two months ago he has understood that even ten years might be optimistic. He has had, since the operation, this strange permanent awareness of his heart and what it is doing, and this fear that it will suddenly stop doing it. He lies there, unpleasantly aware of its working, and of the fact that one day it will stop. He feels no more prepared to face death, though, than he ever has.

It is starting to get light in the large turquoise bedroom.

He has been lying there, awake for two hours, thinking.

All That Man Is by David Szalay is a deep and thought-provoking piece of literature that enlightens readers about the male psyche. It should be savoured and pondered by any reader who seeks enlightenment either about themselves or their friends.

*****

Link to a biography of David Szalay on the United Agents literary agents website

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s webpage for All That Man Is

 

 

A Definition of Zeitgeist within a few Simple Images | Review of “Shoplifter” by Michael Cho (2014) Pantheon Books

shoplifter-cover-final-lores
Image linked from author’s blog

My new-found curiosity in graphic novels has caused me to “lift” items from new areas. There is a certain illicit thrill in my new discoveries as I finger each new item for my perusal, awaking me in my otherwise dull and dry life. So there is a bit of empathy I have for Corinna in Michael Cho’s Shoplifter.

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Scanned image from Shoplifter  by Michael Cho. (2014) Pantheon Books

Cho’s imagery seems to speak the equivalent of one thousand words to one simple image. We are told the story of Corinna Park. She once had big aspirations:  earning a degree in English literature and moving to the big city. But she started working at a advertising agency and finds her work tedious and unfulfilling.

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Scanned image from Shoplifter by Michael Cho (2014) Pantheon Books

I have seen Cho’s work illustrating works for quite a while now so it was a pleasure to discover a complete book of his art. And the story he tells of Corinna fits well into a sense of our current zeitgeist – the spirit of the time. We have all felt that sense of being trapped and alone in our lives, and the need to do something immoral and deceitful to add some excitement is so tempting.

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Scanned image from Shoplifter by Michael Cho (2014) Pantheon Books

The graphic novel Shoplifter by Michael Cho is a brilliant piece of literature. Cho has captured an essence of the zeitgeist in this book and gave us readers a few things to ponder after reading.

*****

Link to Michael Cho’s blog “Michael Cho’s Sketchbook”

Link to Knopf/Doubleday website page for Shoplifter

 

 

 

Deep Explorations of the Role of Identity | Review of “The Unquiet Dead” by Ausma Zehanat Khan (2014) Minotaur Books

Dead

Mystery novels have always explored the depths of the human psyche. But when a talented writer explores elements of the human condition to its complete zenith, the book can be a enlightening and engaging read. And that what Ausma Zehanat Khan has done with The Unquiet Dead.

Page 1-2

The Maghrib prayer was for (Esa) Khattak a time  of consolation where along with prayers for Muhammad, he asked for mercy upon his wife and forgiveness for the accident that had caused her death. A nightly ritual of grief relieved by the possibility of hope, it stretched across that most resonant band of time: twilight. The dying sun muted his thoughts, much as it subdued the colors of the ja-namaz beneath him. It was the discipline of the ritual that brought him comfort, the reason he rarely missed it. Unless he was on duty – as he was tonight, when the phone call from Tom Paley disturbed his concentration.

He no longer possessed the hot-blooded certainties of youth that a prayer missed or delayed would bring about a concomitant judgment of sin. Time had taught him to view his faith through the prism of compassion: when ritual was sacrificed in pursuit of the very values of compassion: when ritual was sacrificed in pursuit of the very values it was meant to inspire, there could be no judgement, no sin.

He took the phone call from Tom Paley midway through the prayer and finished up in its aftermath. Tom, the most respected historian at Canada’s Department of Justice, would not have disturbed him on an  evening when Khattak could just as easily have been off-roster unless the situation was urgent.

Detective  Rachel Getty and her superior Esa Khattak have a uneasy work relationship as they begin to investigate the mysterious death of Christopher Drayton. She follows his leadership without question but feels strongly uneasy as she soon realizes there are details to the case he is holding back from her. As the investigation continues and emotions of all become tense as it becomes suggested that Drayton may have been involved with the 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslims during the Balkans War, both Getty and Khattak must try to wade through a quagmire of personalities to find out the truth of what happened to Drayton and why.

Page 85

For more than a week now, Rachel had been asked to do nothing further on the Drayton investigation. She’d resumed her regular workload with Dec and Gaffney, sating little about the previous week’s excursions, wondering when Khattak  would show up at their downtown office again.. She had a few ideas about what they should do next and found Khattak’s silence troubling. Had he ruled out the idea that Drayton was Dražen Krstić? If so, based on what evidence? Or had he found something that cemented his certainties? Was he even now reporting to his friend at Justice? He’d told her to keep the letters, and she’d spent her evening digging into the history of the Bosnian war, trying to find out more about Krstić.

Initially, she’d thought that the letters spoke from the perspective of a survivor of the war with a very specific axe to grind, but Khattak had been right. The letters weren’t just about the massacre at Srebrenica. They were far more wide-ranging, as if the letter writer was making a darker point, outlined in blood.

At its deepest level, this is a book about identity. The characters have to deal with the labels their identities bring with them, be it with: family, occupations, gender, religion and even social status. But at most Khan brings the ugliness of identity politics to us in the comfortable west. The war that rip lives apart in the former Yugoslavia still hurts to this day. Khan brings that element boldly alive in not only having survivors retell their stories but also bluntly questioning the roles our leaders played during the massacres.

Page 197-198

The little girl kicked the ball straight at the imam. He caught it with a deft movement and tossed it back to her, his face grave.

“It would give many people peace to know that Krstić is dead.”

“For that peace to be real, they would need to know that Drayton really was Krstić. All I’m asking you for is a little more time. I’m heading to the Department of Justice this afternoon. I should be able to tell you much more once I’ve had that meeting.

Imam Muharrem studied him.

“So you will be the truth-bearer, Inspector Esa. You will tell you masters what they do not wish to hear, insist to them on the truth of what you’ve learned. And they will say to you, Inspector, ‘How can you trust the memory of these Bonians? A people too weak to save themselves. We owe them nothing. Let us preserve our silence.”

“Imam Muharrem -”

“Can you deny it? Was Srebrenica not the worst hour of so many Western governments?”

“The Canadian battalion wasn’t in Srebrenica in 1995 , sir. And while they were there, they lived on combat rations as an act of solidarity with your people.” Rachel had done her research but she didn’t know what made her say this; perhaps a flicker of deep-seated shame.

The imam took her up on it. “The Canadian battalion was evacuated at the insistence of your government. Unlike my people, who could not be evacuated and were left behind to be murdered. I’m afraid a ration of two beers a day is not my definition of solidarity, Sergeant. We experienced the same pressures as your commander in Srebrenica, but we did not share his relief from it.” He shook his head. “Canbat or Dutchbat, it would have made no difference. The outcome would have been the same. What does it matter to the  mothers of Srebrenica if entire governments resign? Will that bring back the dead?”

“Sir -”

“You do what you must, Inspector. I will do the same.” He saw their expressions and added. “I do not mean that as a threat. I will wait to see what your government does. I think this will make you unpopular, Inspector Esa. If you expose your government, you may not reach the heights you were otherwise destined for. Your Community Policing may fail before it has a chance to begin.”
Khattak slid hands into his trouser pockets, the gesture unforced.  “Please let me worry about that, Imam Muharrem. We cannot possibly fail you twice.”

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan is much more that mystery novel. It looks deep into the role of identity in society and causes readers to ponder that element of the human condition in earnest. Exactly what a good piece of literature should do.

*****

Link to Ausma Zehanat Khan’s website

Link to Minotaur Books/Macmillan Press’ website for The Unquiet Dead

 

 

The Emotions of the Past | Review of “The Fishers of Paradise” by Rachael Preston (2016) James Street North Books – Wolsak & Wynn

Fishers

It is very easy these days to drive over a bridge, walk along a sidewalk or even relax in a park and not realize that there were once people who once lived in that spot. These people  once toiled, anguished and lived their lives in that very area we rush over and barely consider.  But Rachael Preston has given us a narrative to consider about one such area in her novel The Fishers of Paradise.

Page 1-2

The sledgehammers fall silent and the house shifts forward with a wooden groan. Like an aged swimmer anticipating the starter’s pistol, it wavers a moment in the wind, knees creaking with the newly uneven weight, and then, in a slow choreography, the stilts fold under themselves and the house slides into the marsh. Water and birds explode into flight, squirrels leap from bare trees. The sound, magnified by the geography of this enclave of lake and forest, by the stillness of the grey morning preceding it, ricochets a warning. The surface churns, and muskrats and beaver dive to the muddy bottom where carp and pike and bass huddle in the reeds. Water rushes over the porch of the two-storey home, washing against the door and window as the house lurches drunkenly in it own wake.

No sooner has the lake settled than the thrum of an engine, expensive, throaty, cuts through the silence that has claimed the small crowd gathered on their docks and porches to say goodbye. A gleaming mahogany powerboat noses out from between a set of weathered boathouse stilts like some exotic, temperamental animal and guns into the marsh, leaving behind the heady scent of gasoline. The boat alone, a Grew recently confiscated from bootleggers who ran contraband liquor across Lake Ontario, is worth standing outside in the November cold to see. Its current owner claims he can still smell the cordite along the three grooves carved portside by glancing bullets.

The driver circles the floating house, making it bob again, then eases back on the throttle and slows to an idle. His passenger turns in his seat to face the front door.

Everyone watches and waits.

Five minutes pass. Six.

Egypt Fisher stands at the shoreline, thinking her eyes might dry out from the wind if the door doesn’t open soon.

I always get grumped at if I don’t post a review for a while which usually means that I am savouring a book. And this book is worth savouring. Preston has truly crafted an engrossing story around a section of Hamilton, Canada that most people may not be aware that existed. Set in the hardships that occurred in the 1930s, teenage Egypt Fisher must deal with the gentrification plans that the city has planned for her boathouse community along the Dundas Marsh. And while that is going on, she starts out being thrilled that her estranged father has returned to the family fold, but it is soon apparent that events will soon rip her life completely apart.

Page 84-85

Egypt sits with her knees hugged to her chest, shins pressed against the table edge, and watches her mother from behind the veil of her hair. Blurred. Slamming cupboard doors, banging pots and dishes. Laura marches back to the wash basin and repeats her earlier scrabble through the mess of Russian dolls, lipstick tubes, envelopes, hair clips and pencils that sits on the odds-and-ends shelf below the mirror. Aidan watches Egypt pushing the cooling lumps of porridge around her bowl. She throws him a warning glance and then gathers a spoonful and dangles it beneath the table. George pads over to investigate, sniffs and flops down again by her feet. When Aidan giggles, she glares at him. Then at her mother’s back.

“So did you kick him out or did he leave again?” Her words part the air and free-fall slowly, landing with such a force that she stares at the kitchen floor, expecting to see a small crater. Her mother leans across the table and pulls Egypt’s hair back from her face.

“Your father has always marched to his own drummer.” Egypt recoils from her sour breath, her ragged, chewed-on lips. “And if you believe anything I have ever done or said has any influence on whether he comes or goes, then you haven’t been paying proper attention.”

“I heard everything you said last night.”

“No, you just think you heard everything. Aidan, go back upstairs while I talk to your sister.”

“But -”

“But nothing. Go.”

“But I can hear everything you’re saying from upstairs anyway,” he mumbles, dragging his feet towards the stairs.

“Now both my children talk back to me,” she says when Aidan has finished thudding up the stairs. “I suppose I have you to thank for that?” She’s back to searching drawers, inside the tea caddy, the pockets of jackets hanging by the door.

“And who do we thank for our absent father?”

Preston has mixed the right combination of historical and coming-of-age novel together here. Her words are vivid – not only in describing scenes but also in expressing emotions of her characters. There is at times a clear feeling between what a character is feeling and the reader experiencing it themselves. This is a book that should be read at leisure – not to be raced through- in order to appreciate the carefully chosen words and phrases that Preston has used.

Page 128-129

As far as home goes, she doesn’t trust herself not to snap around Laura. She even mention your grandparents? Not a word. Quite the feat when you think about it, keeping your parents from your daughter, your daughter from her grandparents. A virtuoso performance. Bravo, Mother. Egypt swallows a needle or rage. Ray presents another set of problems: years of pining over her father’s absence, of remembering and reconstructing her childhood in obsessive detail, and now that he’s here, in the flesh, Egypt finds herself chafing at the invasion of her home. He swings between a tetchy abrasiveness and protracted bouts of grim silence. Impossible to ignore, his moods, like tainted water, affect everyone who comes into contact with him, bar the bleary-eyed and leering friends he collects like stray dogs, and whom Egypt often finds (or hears) snoring on their couch in the morning. He can dismantle a room  – and its occupants – just by standing in the doorway. A blue pall of cigarette smoke hangs in the air even when he isn’t around. It’s as if half a dozen people have moved in with them. And he’s beginning to scare her. Having woken at the crack of dawn yesterday, she was first downstairs. Ray was sitting at the kitchen table, red-eyed and muttering to himself. His cot hadn’t been slept in. He looked hunted, cadaverous. The flesh had shrunk from his face in the night.

And yet, like the pricking wax and wane of nausea, Egypt senses the devastation she would feel if he left again. Ray Fisher is her dad, her family and though he wielded the news as a weapon – to hurt her or to make her stay and listen, she can’t decide which –  he has brought more family in his wake. A month ago, Egypt’s family numbered three. Now it stands at six.

The Fishers of Paradise by Rachael Preston is a read worthy to savour. It is vividly description and emotional and in a subtle way enlightening. In short, a pleasure to read.

*****

“I would say having lived in a lot of places affects what I write about, and the kinds of stories I’m drawn to: displaced people, the marginalized, those who don’t quite fit it” | Q&A with author Rachael Preston

Link to Rachael Preston’s website

Link to Wolsak & Wynn’s website for The Fishers of Paradise

 

 

 

The Whispers of a Silent Artifact | Review of “The Place of Shining Light” (2015) by Nazneen Sheikh – House of Anansi

Light

The draw that certain artworks have on us is uncanny. It is like certain deep messages or feelings seem to ooze from those artifacts that enlighten our spirits in almost unspoken ways. And that feeling is a common one for the human condition. Battles over lost and found bits of art have always made for great themes in literature. Nazneen Sheikh has explored that theme in her novel The Place of Shining Light. And has enlightened readers by setting the scene in a troubled region of the world.

Page 3-4

Adeel crawled toward the statue, moved by the serenity that radiated from the stone. The lidless eyes, curving lips, and sculpted stone folds of the robe exuded a hypnotic power. Tears pricked his eyes, his chest constricted, and he wondered if he was having a heart attack. The two men crawling behind him almost collided with him when he stopped moving. Adeel brushed his eyes with on hand and with the other he withdrew a pencil-thin flashlight from his pocket. He clicked it on and aimed it at the head of the statue, moving it downward very slowly. The dust-laden forma appeared to be in perfect condition. He moved toward it, pulled off the black scarf wound around his neck, and rubbed it on the face of the sculpture. The sheen of pale and unspoiled marble resembled human skin; his hand moved of its own volition and fingers cradled the face, stroking it gently.

Outside, a full moon lit the gentle valley of Bamiyan, where two rivers irrigated the land. The destruction wrought six years earlier by Afghan zealots on two gigantic Buddhist sculptures embedded in a cliff wall was followed by excavations for a copper mine in the vicinity. But this historic site formed no part of Adeel’s world. Although he knew that there were museums in Pakistan that at least pretended reverence for historical monuments, an ideologically divisive Muslim diaspora meant that he was expected to pay greater homage to artifacts representing Islamic spirituality.

The story is centered around a 5,000-year-old Buddhist sculpture and obsession by three men who wish to own it. Khalid is a leading Pakistani antiquities dealer and has arranged for the illegal importation of the statue from Afghanistan. Ghalib is a wealthy art collector and has purchased the statue for his collection. And Adeel is hired to transport the statue. But something happens to Adeel when he sees the statue and decides to keep it for himself. The ensuing plot line explores in brilliant detail not just the thrilling story but explores the philosophical questions of ownership of an artifact each character seems to have.

Page 202-203

Khalid had a sudden urge to see an old photograph of his parents, who had died years ago. He found the framed picture in his office and looked at their familiar faces. His tall, lanky father wore a crumpled suit, locally made. He was standing next to Khalid’s mother, who was also simply dressed. Her hands, folded across her stomach, were broad, and the strands of hair escaping from her dupatta gave her a dishevelled appearance. The photograph had been taken outdoors in the little dirt yard of his childhood home. He mistook the uneasy expression of their faces a personal censure. Then he reminded himself that his gargantuan acquisitiveness had stemmed from his rejection of his parents’ willingness to live in relative poverty. He love his parents, but he had long ago decided to rise above their circumstances. While his timid father operated his business on a very modest scale, Khalid’s aspirations knew no limitations. He had travelled abroad and visited museums and galleries to learn how art was valued. The first two decades of his career were spent servicing clients outside his country. That had been the beginning, the root of what was now an immense fortune. Even so, Khalid had learned a few valuable lessons from his father. He kept his own collection to use as a bargaining chip, if the need arose. He hated financial losses, and always sought to balance his books as soon as he could in their aftermath.

Sheikh has a vivid and descriptive style. A reader can clearly envision a scene or sense an emotion from her words. And the story moves smoothly along with ease. There are deep introspective moments along with moments of drama and excitement.

Page 123

That evening, faded carpets were spread over the bricks in the front courtyard. The household domestics sat on the ground in front of the drummer, while an armchair was brought outside for Ghalib. Next to him on a table rested a bottle of inferior whisky, Pakistani vodka, and numerous cans of beer. Ghalib nodded to his valet, who dipped his hands into a large straw basket and drew out garlands of miniature roses threaded with jasmine. As he distributed them, the drummer held up his hands, wanting the garlands to be wrapped around his wrists. He began to play a familiar Sufi elegy, swaying from side to side with rhythm. Ghalib was hypnotized by the flowers that encircled the drummer’s wrist, and by the gentle voices of his staff, who had joined in by singing the words. Within fifteen minutes, they were on their feet, pulled by the drum’s steady beat. Ghalib’s staff circled, dancing around the drummer as he twirled.

Ghalib sipped his beer and watched the faces of the dancing servants. Each of them wore a smile, as the party was a release from their assigned chores. Two of the teenaged boys broke away and danced together. The drummer encouraged them by quickening the music’s pace. Mesmerized, Ghalib joined in, circling each boy’s head with a 100-rupee not before tucking it safely into a shirt pocket. A generous amount of whisky was mixed with cola in a glass and offered to to the drummer. He emptied the glass in one long swallow before flinging it away, not once breaking the frenzied rhythm. Ghalib sank back into his chair and enjoyed the concert for the next two hours.

The Place of Shining Light by Nazneen Sheikh is not only a thrilling read and not only an introspective read but an enlightening one as well. Sheikh has taken the theme of lost art and exposed readers to thoughts and scenes unfamiliar to many of them. A great read.

*****

Link to a biographical site about Nazneen Sheikh

Link to House of Anansi’s website for The Place of Shining Light

“Writing is so completely isolating and lonely that I need to be able to step into a crowded street when I step away from my computer.” | Q&A with writer Robert Hough

Morgandiego

The beauty of doing this blog is that it helps me keep track of writers I enjoy. And there are a lot of them whom I have enjoyed reading but whose recent works I haven’t been aware of. (And I will spare you all the lament of me being trapped in suburbia or news about books not being accessible as they once were. ) When I saw that Robert Hough was doing a series of discussion on his book, The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan, I thought “Great, he has a new work out.” Hough promptly corrected my error and informed me about a few other developments in his life as you can read in the following Q&A.

*****

1) First off, can you give an outline of The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan?

 A two-bit, low-life, illiterate board game hustler forms an unlikely friendship with a marauding sea captain. Fireworks ensue.

2) Could you also give an outline of Diego’s Crossing? Was writing a novel for young adults different than novels for adults? What inspired your to write Diego’s Crossing?

A seventeen-year-old living in Northern Mexico is forced to smuggle drugs into the United States when his gangster brother is injured in an automobile crash. As for the inspiration, I was approached by a guy named Rick Wilks, who runs a YA press called Annick Press. He’d read my fourth novel, a Mexican tale called Dr. Brinkley’s Tower, and told me that he’d always wanted to do a YA novel that took place amongst the drug wars of Northern Mexico. Up for anything, I agreed, and found it pretty much like writing a novel for adults, albeit with less swearing. That being said, I was surprised what Annick let me get away with: Diego’s Crossing is scary as shit!

3) Your website states this is your fifth novel (including one novel for young adults) Has your writing changed much since you were first published? If yes, how so?

Actually, Henry Morgan is my fifth novel excluding my YA book. (Ie I’ve done six in total). I wouldn’t say my writing has changed that much. Right out of the gate, with The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, I started writing bawdy, picaresque, funny novels that are full of outlandish characters and absurd settings, but that slowly reveal a more sober reality as the novel progresses.  (My second novel, The Stowaway, and Diego’s Crossing have been exceptions to the rule.)  Which is not to say I found my voice right off the bat: the world doesn’t know about my fiction that was appropriately rejected before Random House took on Mabel Stark. Very few people get their first novels published, and I think it’s rarely helpful if they do.

4) Who are you favourites writers at the moment? What are you reading right now?

I’m often asked that, and usually I freeze up, so  I finally made a list of my five favourite novels. In no particular order, they are: The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer, Memoir from Ant-Proof Case by Mark Helprin, Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan, A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz and The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureshi. I just finished reading The Book of Dave by Will Self, which I loved. Recently, I discovered that Irvine Welsh had written a sequel to Trainspotting called Porno, which I’m now just getting into: I’ll read anything with the characters Rent, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie!

5) Do you have much of a book tour planned for The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan? If yes, are there dates/events that you are excited to be partaking in? Are public readings something that you enjoy doing?

Henry Morgan actually came out a year ago, so a lot of the publicity was done then.  That being said, I have a gig in Ottawa on the 13th and one in Toronto on the 17th. (Link for the Toronto gig here)  I hardly ever, ever read from my work, as I find literary readings dull. Instead, I usually talk about something, which people seem to prefer. A lot of the event organizers have come to the same conclusion, by the way: these days you’re often told that you’re not allowed to read

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Flyer for Robert Hough’s discussion on his book The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan occurring in Ottawa this Friday

6) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

 There are three questions that authors hate to answer: “Do you make a living?”, “Where do you get your ideas?” and “Are you working on anything?” You see, when you write a novel, for 90 percent of the process it’s not working. It’s only at the very end, when you get a magical synthesis of plot, character, tone and theme that it begins to sound like a real novel. So when you ask a writer what he’s working on, he or she immediately translates the question into, “hey, let’s talk about that huge thing you’re failing at, okay?”

7) You seem to have a bit of presence on both Facebook and Twitter. How do you like using those platforms? Does being on social-media sites like those help or hinder or writing at all?

 Ha! A ‘bit’ being the operative word!  I know of writers who spend all day on Facebook and Twitter; I’ve made, like, three tweets all year. I honestly don’t think social media helps that much. Yet I do think it’ll hurt you if you DON’T do it, if that makes any sense.

-7a) You have on your profile pictures what appears to be Igor from the television show
Hilarious House of Frankenstein. For many of us that was a iconic show from our childhoods. Was that for you too?

I always put up dummy avatars as well as phony information: for example, I didn’t attend the University of Ouagadougou, as my FB profile states. It’s my own little rebellion against the narcissism fostered by social media.

8) Your biographies have you listed as living in Toronto right now. How do you like living there? Does it’s cultural scene inspire you with your writing at all?

 I’m a life-long Torontonian, more or less (I spent some time in the suburbs when I was young). It’s not so much Toronto I like, but I do need a big city. Writing is so completely isolating and lonely that I need to be able to step into a crowded street when I step away from my computer. I really don’t understand writers who need a quiet farmhouse or forest cabin to work in: I’d get so absorbed in my work it would drive me out of my mind.

*****

Link to Robert Hough’s website

Link to House of Anansi’s webpage for The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan

Link to Annick Press’ website for Diego’s Crossing

Enlightenment on the Simple Yellow Bus | Review of “Precious Cargo: My Year of Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077” (2016) Knopf Canada

Cargo

True readers of books – people who take the time to sit in a quiet corner and ponder a writer’s carefully crafted words – appreciate a unique perspective on the human condition. They like a writer’s observations on how other humans interact, even if the situation seems mundane or desperate. Craig Davidson may have been in need of funds when he took the job as school-bus driver but that year he drove that bus gave him a ton of observations and insights. And he crafted that ton into his memoir Precious Cargo: My Year Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077.

Page 1-2

I trudged across a field against a late-September wind that flattened my jacket against my chest. The moon was still visible in the early morning sky. The odd vehicle wended down the road bordering the field, pickups mostly. The western foothills rode the earth’s curve like the backs of breaching whales. Weak ripples of sunlight washed over the hills touch blades of wet grass, and in that instant I felt as if I was walking through a field lit up in flame.

The wind died down by the time I reached my bus. My key slid crisply into the lock. I grabbed the Maglite from the cup holder and popped the hood release. Outside, I swept the flashlight beam through the engine compartment. Everything looked tickety-boo.

I shut the hood and stepped inside the bus. The motion-sensor alarm sounded, a staccato beep-beep-beep. I keyed the ignition and waited  for the glow plugs to warm. The engine fired, coughed, coughed, then caught.

I silenced alarm. Flicked on the CB radio. Checked my gauges. Got the heaters pumping even though the engine was stone cold. Those small tasks accomplished. I walked between the bench seats with my head tucked so it didn’t hit the roof – I’d made the mistake of walking upright my first week on the job, only to have a loose rivet on the roof tear a nifty little groove in my scalp. I pulled the security pin from the rear emergency door and moved back up the aisle, slapping the seatbacks to make sure they were secure. My fingertips brushed against a hardened wad of Windex-coloured  gum – the stuff Oliver had been chewing yesterday. We’d be having a little heart-to-heart about gum on the bus, young Master Oliver and I.

Davidson quickly realized the important responsibility he had in dealing with his passengers. Not only was he assigned the task of ferrying the kids from home to school and back again each day but he realized there was an emotional need that his passengers seemed to crave from him. He was more than a driver. He was a friend, a mentor, a defender, a comedian and a philosopher. In short of anything, he was a familiar face to those kids at the start and end of their days as they made through another long school year.

Page 126-127

Some drivers ran their buses the way feudal lords ruled their fiefdoms, with an iron fist. Nothing made them happier than to glance at the riot mirror and see row upon row of tight-lipped students with their hands folded neatly in their laps. They relished tomb-like silence, as if they were delivering mannequins to a department store. I substituted on a few routes like that. It was eerie, that quiet. And the kids were ridiculously happy to get the slightest leeway.

“Wait,” one kid said, “You mean I can drink my juice box on the bus?”

“Sure, go ahead. Just throw it out when you’re done.”

The kid beamed. “You are so cool!”

You’re darn right I’m cool, kid! Drink that juice box, and hey – if you’re feeling peckish, eat a granola bar too!

The rules on my own bus were more lax. If Oliver were to let a curse word slip every so often? Eh. The odd gum wrapper not thrown into the trash box at the back of the bus? Let it slide. But I made it known I was granting privileges, not according rights. In my previous roles as camp counsellor, classroom aide, librarian – I’d worked with kids a lot over the years –  my objective had always been to treat those under my wing with respect; I’d allow minor infractions, hoping my charges would self-correct with gentle encouragement. Sometimes this backfired, but it was the method that worked best for me. Of course, it also reflected my distaste for being in charge.  I didn’t want to be the wet blanket. The scold. Better to be the laconic, laid-back, chill dude. Do what the rhythms of of the earth and sea tell you to do, dudes and dudettes. Consult the I Ching. Gather the karmic threads of the universe and don’t let me harsh mellow. All of this to say that I was a terrible boss – or the best boss in the whole world, depending on your outlook.

I also didn’t want to be driving a mausoleum; I wanted the kids to feel free to engage with each other and with me. And as they got used to me over time, those kids really did talk. About movies and sports and television and friendship and love and families and a million other topics. Mainly, though, the kids told stories. Their imaginations were astonishingly unbridled. And their stories were instructive – a window into their worlds and dreams. Every so often they broke my heart.

Davidson has done something here that is important in a good piece of literature but hard to do in our modern, technological, fast-paced world – to realize that we are all interdependent on each other and that our needs can only be filled from other human beings. He put heart into driving that bus every day and the stories that came out of that bus are endearing and enlightening not only for readers but for him as well. And that lesson he learned he has well-crafted into this book.

Page 270-271

It was a great year. String together fifteen or twenty years like that and you could call it a pretty terrific life. At some point, driving you went from being a job to a joy. I would have done it for free. You became a needful constant in my life. If I was broken, the the bus fixed me. You guys fixed me. Deep inside I know that’s not fair – it’s a hell of a lot ask that anyone redeem you  – and yet I feel it no less keenly. The physical truth is that I drove you. The deeper truth is that you drove me. Drove me to step out of my own sickened skin, to stop feeling sorry for myself and to see the world for its beauties more than its agonies. Ultimately you drove me back to my computer with a renewed sense of purpose. For most of that year I didn’t write a thing. I wasn’t creatively blocked – I simply didn’t think that I was any good. I could write things down, but why bother? Then, somewhere along the line, I began to feel better about myself. I was convinced I could write some of those ideas down and they wouldn’t be terrible. I gained confidence; but even then I could have stumbled – I was like a day-old foal trying to stand for the first time. I thought about the stories you told on the bus, each of you spinning your own tale. So I sat down and spun my own. I wrotea book about  . . . well, us.

Craig Davidson’s memoir Precious Cargo: My Year Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077 is a great piece of literature. It reminds us about the importance of the human interdependence in even the smallest and mundane situations. A great read and an endearing read. 

*****

Link to Craig Davidson’s website

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for Precious Cargo: My Year Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077

Link to my Q&A with Craig Davidson “(I)t was just a matter of that year feeling very profound to me—so much so that I was moved to write about it”

 

 

Drive and Desire| Review of “The Motorcyclist” by George Elliot Clarke (HarperCollins)

Motorcyclist

It is a universal feeling among humans to get away from it all and start fresh and new. To improve ourselves by going to a different place or being with a different person. But sometimes taking that first step is a hard one to do for so many reasons. Those are some of the thoughts and emotions George Elliot Clarke brilliantly explores in his novel The Motorcyclist.

Page 12

The ignition key is in the centre position and the neutral indicator shows a green-for-go glow. Exultant, Carl leaps up, thrusts down, kick-starts the engine that now roars and snorts, born again, bawling, and ready for brawling. He buckles on the helmet; the red, yellow, and white painted flames, licking back from the black face opening, look as proud and as incendiary as the flag of any new African state. Yep: here be liberated Ghana, a one-man motorcade.

Carlyle – a.k.a. Carl – Black whistles as he manoeuvers his machine over the gullies of this dirt driveway in which every rainstorm gouges new furrows. He nods at all who pass, all who eye him, handsome, with a lean, iron-dark frame, fierce eyes, and a steel-jaw look. His speech sounds suave; his wardrobe models dapper.

The man be Coloured, but not colonized, not totally. Unlike his buddies, he can escape, temporarily, the Drudgery that traps so many “Nofaskosha” Negroes: from the red-uniformed man with a flashlight, ushering kids into a cinema (the closest a dark dude can get to being a cop), to the shoeshine boy, or waitress, whose tips are the reward of a sultry smile, to the folks aching in Labour that shatters souls. In contrast, Carl can be a cavalier, a “cat’ privy to cathouses.

This is a unique novel for sure. Clarke has taken his father’s (William Lloyd Clarke) diary and used it to ‘inform’ this book. And it is the descriptions that builds the empathy with the readers. Set in 1959-60 Halifax, we get to understand what it was like for the senior Clarke to live in that time and era. We feel the racism he endures because of the colour of his skin. We feel the prejudices  he endures because of his parentage. And we feel the slights he endures because of his occupation. But most of all, we feel the enjoyment he gets when he straddles his beloved BMW motorcycle and drives out onto the open road.

Page 85-86

Astride the BMW, even when he’s bent over the fuel tank, trying to duck the tonguing wind that washes under, over around his helmet and his jacket, Carl feels erect, like a gunfighter in full gallop, stream-lining with his stallion, ready for the showdown, the high-noon or midnight fray. His legs are sturdy wishbones and his arms are Frankenstein-monster outstretched and steel-hard. His manhood too, even at rest, is cocked. Liz II, his “queen of queans,” transforms Carl into a black-leather Priapus, a dark roustabout darting cupidic. or so he doth believe.

Aboard that machine, he imagines that he’s Jesse Owens, streaking always to Victory, with style, with panache, with a kind word for all women and any every tipper. Liberation is going, floating, flying; i.e., feeling actually free.

The style in this book is lyrical and smooth. The reader seems to float from sentence to sentence or from scene to scene without a sense of interruption or break. Even the elements of the book that are meant to be dark or upsetting are written in such a manner that they seem slip into the reader’s mind with ease and are hard to forget.

Page 105

Mack was mishmash – like a black-ink typewriter page that explodes into red-ink handwriting because a ribbon has petered out. His face was porcelain grammar given a jagged, cursive erasure. Mack’s body implanted an honest nest on the roof of a minister’s car, the preacher’s spouse dead within. Mack’s poundage (e = mc2’d into tonnage) had smacked hard onto the roof, buckling it, so the underlying steel had hammered the Mrs. Minister’s skull, bashing her dead. Beside the torn horse, Mack’s bike looked like a tender mechanism, too easily mutilated.

Only an engineer could repair the grisly mix of glass, metal, horse, wood, rubber. The waste of animal and wreckage of human beings and the mutual destruction of Jet Age and Stone Age machinery. Only God could survey the scarlet-washed accident and identify the resurrection. Killud – the Estonian word for “collected fragments” – suited the jumble and carnage. Shards of glass, a motorcycle wheel protruding from the horse’s rump, so much furious bleeding, slipshod, the ache of smoke, tears throbbing amid car and motorcycle pieces, the chrome mixed in with the steed’s deep, black breast.

Then the Quebec car was stopping. The driver and lady could see terrible biffures all about. A man had buried himself in a car roof, and a woman below it would need burial herself. Everyone seemed to be in a deep morphine sleep. A farmer and un nègre (Carl) were both emitting electroshock hollers. Metal parts, raw junk, goggles of glass for horse eyes, shackles of chrome on the felled biker: only a balm of fog could pacify. Everywhere was detached pissing: tears, blood. The minister, garbed for church, was, instead attending suddenly his wife’s funeral. Oil and gas and horse urine seemed perfumes as heavy as lead. The air was strident with stink. Unnerving. The animal showed the convoluted guts of a snake.

Carl felt drastic numbness. He went to Mack. No breath in the bones, no fever in the flesh:just breaks in the bones and wounds on the flesh.

George Elliot Clarke has certain taken one man’s thoughts, fears, anguish, desires and dreams and made them vivid in his novel The Motorcyclist. It is a lyrical read well worth perusing.

*****

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s website for The Motorcyclist

Link to the site of Canada’s Poet Laureate which George Elliot Clarke currently holds this position