Monthly Archives: June 2018

Understanding Ourselves a Bit Better Through Our Sport and Our Literature | Review of “Writing The Body In Motion: A Critical Anthology on Canadian Sport Literature” edited by Angie Abdou & Jamie Dopp (2018) AU Press, Athabasca University

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For those of us who  read, do it to sincerely understand the world around us better. And in understanding the world better, sincerely learn about ourselves a bit more. Well-crafted fiction gives those of us who read the ultimate opportunity to do so but rarer and rarer are readers given the notions to contemplate what they have read. One such book has given me pause to reflect on some of my serious past reading and that book is Writing The Body In Motion: A Critical Anthology on Canadian Sport Literature edited by Angie Abdou and Jamie Dopp.

Page 5 Introduction by Angie Abdou

The lessons of these literary works – and the essays about them – extend beyond the sporting arena. According to the course website of Don Morrow, who taught one of Canada’s first sport lit courses at the University of Western Ontario, sport literature is never just about sport; rather, it explores the human condition using sport as the dominant metaphor. Similarly, Priscila Uppal, perhaps the most well-known Canadian scholar and writer to focus her attention on this topic, explains that the best sport literature functions as “metaphor, paradigm a way to experience some of the harsher realities of the world, a place to escape to, an arena from which endless lessons can be learned, passed on, learned again” (2009, xiv). Many of the essays in this collection, therefore, examine the various ways in which sport functions metaphorically. Our authors also consider various recurring themes of sport literature, including how sport relates to the body, violence, gender, society, sexuality, heroism, the father/son relationship, memory, the environment, redemption, mortality, religion, quest, and place.

While I read literature quite a bit, I rarely read any academic analysis. And while I am not the most athletic person around either, this book awoke certain understandings about the human condition that I had never considered before.  Both Abdou and Dopp are personally well-versed in both athletics and literature (No fears of any calls of cultural appropriation with this work) and they have brought together a collection of analysis from some of the most noted academics into some of the great classics of Canadian fiction that is thought-provoking and enlightening.

Page 11 W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe: The Fairy Tale, the Hero’s Quest, and the Magic Realism of Baseball by Fred Mason

Baseball is probably the sport most written about by fiction writers; indeed, as David McGimpsey notes, “baseball has in fact gained a highbrow, literary reputation that no other American sport, and very few objects of American culture, enjoy”  (2000, 2). McGimpsey (2000, 2) notes that the genre of baseball literature have many consistent tropes: baseball is a natural, God-given sport; it allows people to be judged on quantifiable merit; it is connected to the simplicity of childhood; it brings fathers and sons together. More cynical tropes can also be found: baseball can be corrupted by its fixed monopoly at the professional level, and its “purity” is always under threat, with a nostalgic not to “how it used to be.” W. P. Kinsella’s novels and short stories have contributed heavily to the genre of baseball fiction, beginning with Shoeless Joe in 1982 (Steele 2011, 17), and his work almost always expresses some of these tropes.

There are some interesting thoughts and discussions in here, again, not just about sport but about the human condition. Many people who engage in athletics do so not just for the physical aspects of the activity but to join in with other humans in some sort of social bonding. Yet, for me, when I had originally read some of these titles, I had missed that important fact. Reading these essays caused me to rethink some of my views of those works and made me want to re-read them.

Pages 94 Hockey, Zen, and the Art of Bill Gaston’s The Good Body by Jamie Dopp

Yet Bonaduce’s journey towards enlightenment is more complicated that it might first appear. Much of this complication has to do with The Good Body’s portrayal of hockey. The novel suggests that Bonaduce’s somnambulistic life is largely a consequence of his pursuit of the hockey dream, and that hockey (or at least professional hockey) is emblematic of the kind of like that might lead a person into somnambulism. But the story also suggests that there is more to Bonaduce – as well as to hockey – that a focus on “little things which . . . don’t mean dick.” The one Buddha figure in the novel turns out to be a goalie whose characterization draws a comic parallel between the ambiguity of Buddha figures and the stereotypical weirdness of goalies – adding further complications. The novel implies that, for all their differences, hockey and Buddhism share uncanny parallels to one another. The encounter between Zen and hockey in The Good Body, then, leads to a fascinating and multilayered (not to mention often hilarious) meeting of cultures – an encounter that, I think, is part of what is most impressive about the art of Bill Gaston.

There is a lot more than looking at athleticism in Writing The Body In Motion: A Critical Anthology on Canadian Sport Literature. The book documents elements of the human condition as we engage in sport. It is certainly an enlightening read and one worthy of review for anyone who ponders over literature.

*****

Link to AU Press’ website for Writing The Body In Motion: A Critical Anthology on Canadian Sport Literature

Link to Angie Abdou’s website

Link to Jamie Dopp’s website

As My Nephew Descends into the ‘White Noise’ of our Civilization |Review of “White Noise” by Don DeLillo (Originally published in 1985, this Viking Critical Library edition released in 1998)

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My nephew is about to graduate from university. He is about to find out that a lot of his ideals and training are going to crash with the realm of the ‘real world.’ So how do you prepare somebody for that? Lord knows the miles of suggestions and advice that I was given to when I was that age sure didn’t work for me. So how about a great piece of literature?. There is one book that I wished I had read when I was younger and had taken to heart. At least it would have prepared me for the complex insanity of the ‘real world.’ And that book is Don DeLillo’s White Noise.

Page 16

That night, a Friday, we ordered Chinese food and watched television together. the six of us. Babette had made it a rule. She seemed to think that if kids watched television one night a week with parents or stepparents, the effect would be to de-glamorize the medium in their eyes, make it wholesome domestic sport. Its narcotic undertow and eerie diseased brain-sucking power would be gradually reduced. I vaguely slighted by this reasoning. The evening in fact was a subtle form of punishment for us all. Heinrich sat silent over his egg rolls. Steffie became upset every time something shameful or humiliating seemed about to happen to someone on the screen. She had a vast capacity for being embarrassed on other people’s behalf. Often she would leave the room until Denise signaled to her that the scene was over Denise used these occasions to council the younger girl on toughness, the need to be mean in the world, thick-skinned.

It was my own formal custom on Fridays, after an evening in front of the TV set, to read deeply in Hitler well into the night.

‘White noise’ is the sound that accompanies static from our electronic devices. And even more so now than in 1984,  when DeLillo wrote this book, our electronic devices seem to be spewing more noise at us causing people to do foolish things. Or has humanity always been doomed to follow false reason and act in selfish and fatalistic manners?  Readers certainly must ponder that thought as they follow protagonist Jack Gladney through his life. Gladney worked through a series of marriages and must deal with a pack of children and step-children. He works at a liberal-arts college in a mid-size town, which provides him ample opportunities to observe humanity at both its finest and more often its worst. And he teaches ‘Hitler Studies’ which gives him insights on the motivations of the past.

Page 46

I woke in the grip of a death sweat. Defenseless against my own racking fears. A pause at the center of my being. I lacked the will and physical strength to get out of bed and move through the dark house, clutching walls and stair rails. To feel my way, re-inhabit my body, re-enter the world. Sweat trickled down my ribs. The digital reading on the clock-radio was 3:51. Always odd numbers at times like this. What does it mean? Is death odd-numbered? Are there life-enhancing numbers, other numbers charged with menace? Babette murmured in her sleep and I moved close, breathing her heat.

Finally I slept, to be awakened by the smell of burning toast. That would be Steffie. She burns toast often, at any hour, intentionally. She loves the smell, she is addicted; it’s her treasured scent. It satisfies her in ways wood smoke cannot, or snuffed candles, or the odor of explosive powder drifting down the street from firecrackers set off on the Fourth. She has evolved orders of preference. Burnt rye, burnt white, so on.

I put on my robe and went downstairs. I was always putting on a bathrobe and going somewhere to talk seriously to a child. Babette was with her in the kitchen. It startled me. I thought she was still in bed.

“Want some toast?” Steffie said.

“I’ll be fifty-one next week.”

“That’s not old, is it?

“I’ve felt the same for twenty-five years.”

“Bad.  How old is my mother?”

She’s still young. She was only twenty when we were married the first time.”

“Is she younger than Baba?”

I have had many copies of this book on my shelf which I have handed out  to family and friends. And it has been the topic of many conversations and online chats. It isn’t a book that is going to provide answers or profoundly correct the ills of the world. Its narrative is simply a brilliant reflection off our time. And when crisis and silliness occurs in our lives, it is something to reflect back upon and compare our lives too. And find some comfort that we are not alone with our frustrations and fears. And maybe we should just brush ourselves off and try again.

Pages 325-326

The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers. They walk in a fragmented trance, stop and go, clusters of well-dressed figures frozen in the aisles, trying to figure out the pattern, discern the underlying logic, trying to remember where they’d seen the Cream of Wheat. They see no reason for it, find no sense in it. The scouring pads are with the hand soap now, the condiments are scattered. The older the man or woman, the more carefully dressed and groomed. Men in Sansabelt slacks and bright knit shirts. Women with a powdered and fussy look, a self-conscious air, prepared for some anxious event. They turn into the wrong aisle, peer along the shelves, sometimes stop abruptly, causing other carts to run into them. Only the generic food is where it was, white packages plainly labeled. The men consult lists, the women do not. There is a sense of wandering now, an aimless and haunted mood, sweet-tempered people taken to the edge. They scrutinize the small print on packages, wary of a second level of betrayal. The men scan for stamped dates, the women for ingredients. Many have trouble making out the words. Smeared print, ghost images. In the altered shelves, the ambient roar, in the plain and heartless fact of their decline, they try to work their way through confusion. But in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. this is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, fiving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.

I am not sure how my nephew is going to react to White Noise by Don Delillo. He might gain profound wisdom from it. He might shake his he in frustration over it. He might just place it unread as a replacement leg for his old couch. In any case, it is a book that I consider one of the most profound reflections of our era, and I give it to him for at least to share a bit of wisdom.

WNsigned

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Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for White Noise

 

 

Looking At Us Instead Of Our Gadgets | Review of “The Amateurs” by Liz Harmer (2018) Alfred A. Knopf Canada

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There are many of us who are required to use technology in our day-to-day lives. Those devices have a certain appeal to us at first but then we realize that they seem to control us. The photocopier that never works. The printer that always jams. The computer that runs slower and slower. We finds ourselves being submissive to more and more devices than to actual human supervisors and wonder if that submission is healthy or even that necessary. Liz Harmer has taken those  angsts about technology and given us readers something truly something scary yet familiar to ponder over in her novel The Amateurs. 

Page 34-35 The Dreamers

Long before most of the world had drifted away in lifeboats, long before port was anything more than a theory of Albrecht Doors, Marie and Jason had been newly married and living in romantic squalor. Just downtown and near the church where Philip now held sway, their apartment on Caroline was partitioned within a larger building that had once been called Home for the Friendless. The ceilings were high, and next to their working refrigerator was an icebox that might have worked, too, if they’d known what to do with it. The claw-foot tub in the bathroom was stained grey where it wasn’t chipped to reveal charcoal-hued metal underneath. Its late-addition shower nozzle always pointed in a direction that invited mould into the crevices where no mop could reach. From outside, the red brick building was stately as a manor. For while Marie believed that her artistic fantasies of a place like this had been so strong, she had conjured it.

Both Marie and Jason were still students, and most of the time when they were home they walked around half dressed. Marie kept her fingernails short, and always had blue and black stains on her finger pads. She had set up folding tables in the living room where she listened to singer-songwriters or riot grrrls as she made her prints and hung them along the many rows of twine stretched across every wall; these served as the apartment’s only decorations. Romance had confused her. She had believed in the saddest Leonard Cohen songs, that a song was enough that art was enough She would sing along, pulling a squeegee through a silkscreen frame. At regular intervals, Jason would poke his head out of the second bedroom – his office – to admire her in her paint-stained shorts, her thin bra. To make more coffee, he unplugged the refrigerator. Otherwise the fuse would blow.

One should not think this is a book about the evils of technology but more a peak into the human condition and our relations to our gadgets.  Or as Harmer so poetically  told me in a Q&A about this book: One big inspiration was a fantasy of the good life and how to find it. (Link to my Q&A with Liz HarmerThe plot deals around a odd device called ‘port’ which consumers have found irresistible. Yet since the arrival of the device, the world has started to seriously depopulate. The story covers two groups of people, one living in fading ruins of a major northern city while the other is centred on the remainders of the executives of the parent company of “port” who are trying to come to terms of the outcome of their device. Harmer brilliant captures different personality types and varied states of emotions that truly reflect the human condition.

Page 115 The Optimists

People’s faces were lit bluish by the moon- and LED-light. They were now rising from their seats at the many tables, dancing on the soft artificial turf. During the droughts of the years before port, read grass had become more taboo than smoking or gas-powered cars. The turf was already marred by dents and scratches, coming apart like an old carpet, and the had nothing to replace it with. Soon some of them would probably be enlisted to lay tile.

“Desire used to be the main thing we wanted in a good design,” Dawn said. “But what is desire being replaced here?”

There was no logo for Stable. It was only a word in a person’s mind or mouth.

“With stability,” Brandon said. His thin slices of turkey were complemented by a salad of dandelion greens and balsamic vinegar, and its sharp savour filled his mouth. The scent of manure wafted towards him, but they had got used to the smells of life near poultry, and without indoor plumbing or frequent showering.

The compostable plate was sagging in Brandon’s left hand, so he sat down cross-legged on the turf and tried to balance the plate on his knee.

“I guess so. I haven’t figured out yet what the design principles of stability would be, this sort of stability, or how one would make a logo for it,” Dawn said. She laughed half-heartily. “A few years ago, you know, I would have said, ‘Who wants stability?’ Give me chaos any day.'”

“We’re part of a corporation in the true sense,” Brandon said. “From the Latin corpus.” We’re all parts of a living body, despite our stability. Stability is not unchanging.”

“Latin, huh?”

This is one of those types of reads that is difficult yet worthy of making one’s way through the book and pondering over the themes for a few minutes at the end. Most of our lives are filled with muddled thoughts and fragile emotions and Harmer has brilliantly explored what would happen to us beings if our devices brought out an element of human nature that would ruin civilization. The wording is perfectly crafted and planned. This book took Harmer a bit of time to produce and her time was certainly worth the effort she put into it. This would be a perfect read for a book club to use and discuss.

Page 205

It was too dark to see what made the leaves tremble, what those branches crack. Animals. Wind. He wanted to pore over the memories as one did and archive, to hang onto each morsel from the world he knew. Librarian. Philip McGuire, MLS. He wanted to page through his whole pathetic, lost life: the faces of his children at each stage, the backyard slide stuck with autumn leaves, his wife before the divorce with a red scarf in her black hair. But he was here.

Still, these images made up a self, and he felt as though he’d stepped into the waiting armour of his body, had fastened each of its parts tight.

Landing here and now was to be held under water by a bully. Under water – here – this was all there was. His eyes were open wide now. See? See? You happy now?

“I am most certainly not happy,” Philip whispered, though in the middle of the night he could find a certain kind of pleasure: a moment’s peace, the reward of rest after a long difficult day. Was his presence here a prank? Had everyone been thrown somewhere hard to land, bewildered?

“How do I get home? I want to get home.”

Liz Harmer has documented strong elements of the human condition in her book The Amateurs. It is certainly an unique read yet also one that is worthy of thought and discussions. Certainly a great piece of literature.

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Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for “The Amateurs”

Link to Liz Harmer’s website