All posts by Steven Buechler

About Steven Buechler

While I have a media background, I love the concept of reading - especially books - and the quiet forms of discourse it brings. Any reviews I do on here I do on my own time and not-for-profit. My followers - mainly fellow book lovers - tell me that they love the way I show segments of books that I review (and no copyright infringement is intended) I am truly grateful for any advance reading copies of books that I receive and in those cases will not post segments of those books before there publication date. One day soon I hope to actually have a 'library of tranquility' when time and resources allow.

When Memories Truly Become History | Review of “The Water Beetles” by Michael Kaan (2017) Goose Lane Editions

9780864929662_fc_amazon_1024x1024
Image linked from the publisher’s website

We all have had family members who have enthralled us with stories of their childhood. But for those of us whose ancestors endured the horrors of conflict and war, that enthrallment becomes a stunned silence when we become aware of the hardships and traumas they went through. Michael Kaan has taken the memories of his father growing up in Hong Kong during the Second World War and crafted a unique novel called The Water Beetles.

Pages 10-11

We’re stopped because it’s another hot day, and even the Japanese solders forcing us to march agree we should rest. We’ve stopped by a dense bamboo grove. Despite the soldiers’ warnings to stay visible, I want to be alone, so I’m lying close to the grove’s edge. If I lie on my back and look up, I can see only a small patch of sky, the bamboo stalks are so dense. I can also see the two beetles climbing up a stalk. The little green-and yellow one that is me, with the one leg hooked into the crook of the stem, doesn’t seem to care that he’s being followed.

The greenery reminds me of our grounds back home, of the beds and potted plants that the gardener used to touch so carefully with his tools. It reminds me of the gardens at school and in the city parks, and other things that I worry are gone or I may never see again. At the moment I’m surrounded by plants, the wild and farmed exploding next to each other in the light. There’s nothing gentle about cultivated plants – they dig and drink, and push upward as hard as the wild ones. But I prefer my memories to what is happening now. We have a garden on the roof of our house where my brother and I used to play a lot, before it became unsafe to be up there. It has a chicken coop and a vegetable plot, or at least it did when I left.

This is one of these books that takes a element from the history pages and gives readers a much more in-depth understanding of the events that occurred. Kaan has crafted the memories of his father into the story of Chung-Man Leung, who is coming of age in December 1941. Chung-Man’s life is comfortable and he is curious about the world around him but the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong throws his existence into turmoil as he and his family are faced with a trove of violence and repression.

Pages 65-66

Despite the caution of the adults around me, I caught bits of their conversations and fragments of radio broadcasts, and throughout December I pieced together what had happened to Hong Kong. On December 8, the Japanese Imperial Army, who had invaded northeastern China several weeks earlier and were working their way south, crossed the Shenzhen River that separated the British colony from the mainland. This left them only about thirty miles north of the mainland portion of Hong Kong, and so about forty miles from where we lived on Hong Kong Island. The Allied forces that had assembled there either succumbed or pulled back from the onslaught, and eventually the Japanese penetrated the New Territories into Hong Kong itself. Even as the Japanese moved inward on land, they had already bombed Kai Tak  Airport on the eight, weakening the British. The blasts we heard at my school that morning were the sound of the airport being shelled, the sound of a fatal blow.

I’m recounting this quickly, as if I were reading from a history book, but at the time I knew even less, and the adults around me didn’t know much more. We no idea where the fighting was or what progress the Japanese made each day. We only heard of it as one hears of a change in the weather, that a hurricane or typhoon is coming.

The truth is that one never know enough. Looking back into the past is a lonely game of self-delusion, watching people and events move with an inevitability that never was. the history books tell everything with such certainty. But at the time, nothing seemed inevitable to me. Somethings were impossible or unlikely, something expected, but most of all, beyond the routine of daily life, the world was a mystery. We knew little until it happened.

What makes this book truly memorable is that is a perfect mixture of fact, description and lyricism. That combination makes this narrative that will certain be reflected and pondered upon months after the book is read by many readers. The prose also seems to flow from one section to the next, only changing suddenly when something dramatic occurs. It is a read worthy to reflect and ponder over.

Pages 222-223

A harsh metallic clang woke me the next morning. I ran out of the house wearing only my underwear. A man was running through the streets striking a gong and shouting at everyone to get up. Many people were already out, and I ran back to the house to wake Leuk, Wei-Ming, and Yee-Lin. A half dozen planes flew overhead.

The Japanese had been spotted on the road just before dawn by a civil defence volunteer. The townspeople were unprepared and panic erupted. A man from the neighbouring house said he would fight and shook an old rifle in the air to the cheers of other men.

Yee-Lin was already up and packing our belongings. I got dressed, found my belt, and made sure Leuk had his too. Only Yee-Lin knew about the gold we carried , and we never talked about it. Wei-Ming would be certain to say something if she knew.

“Chung-Man, get Kei and Ming and tell them to come with us,” said Yee-Lin.

“Where to?”

“I don’t know. Into the woods. To a river if we can find a boat. There must be a way out. They may know how.

I went to the kitchen and found them already up and strangely calm.

“It’s the Japanese, isn’t it? said Kei. What should we do?”

“Run. We’re going to try to make it out. Come with use and tell us where to go. Is there a place to hide in the woods, or a boat?”

Michael Kaan has crafted a unique and enlightening piece of literature with The Water Beetles. He has taken his father’s memories and created a story worthy for all us readers to ponder and reflect on. It is a must read for sure.

*****

Link to Goose Lane’s website for The Water Beetles

A Brilliant Mix of Personal Emotion and Fact That Is a Great Read | Review of “Home Ice: Reflections Of A Reluctant Hockey Mom (2018) ECW Press

9781770414457_1024x1024
Image linked from the publisher’s website

Fiction always helps us understand the human condition in a lyrical fashion. But when a writer crafts a non-fiction work about an important element of our society, we readers are granted an wonderful and personal insight to our lives around us. As the Fall 2018 new releases come along, and the winter sport season is beckoning our engagement, noted fiction writer Angie Abdou has documented her thoughts and emotions as her young son begins to play amateur hockey.  And her new work – Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom – gives brilliant insight to the role of athletics and youth in this day in age.

Pages 1-2 Prologue: “Have Fun! Try Hard!” Reflections of a Hockey Mom

“Have fun! Try hard!” That was the coach’s rallying cry for every pre-Novice hockey game during my son’s first year in the sport. “Have fun! Try hard!” I love it. The slogan applies to so much in life – work, writing, marriage. If you have fun and try hard, the rest often sorts itself out.

I wrote the slogan in red crayon on a torn piece of paper and taped it to the laptop where I spend my days either teaching creative writing students online or pounding out my own stories. the slogan stands as a reminder that, sure, okay, I will likely never make the writer’s equivalent of the NHL and, yes, I know, I cannot expect a pot of gold at the end of the novelist’s rainbow. I can though, enjoy the process. I can take pride in my work. I can always push myself to do better. I can find meaning in the challenge. And those things – in and of themselves – can be enough They have to be.

If hockey began and ended with that “Have fun! Try hard!” philosophy. I would have no reservations about my son’s participation in the sport.

Abdou has explored in detail some serious points in our understanding of sport in our society. I know for myself, when I was younger, I never was comfortable with athletics. The goal of my fellow classmates and their coaches was always to win or score big, never the concept of sportsmanship, camaraderie or achieving a personal best. Abdou has documented here a multitude of angsts, frustrations, fatigues and an occasional joy as she spent a year being a hockey mom to her young yet determined son Ollie has begun to play a popular and demanding sport.

Pages 88-89 Chapter Four: Kids In The Colosseum

(G)ood thing Ollie is not in charge. He’d have them all hitting at eight years old. Like other kids born late in the year, he was eight for most of his first year Atom. As absurd as this idea sounds – as much as full contact for eight-year-olds is the brain-storm of a roughhousing boy with no understanding of long-term consequences – hockey leagues have allowed kids as young as eight to hit.

Hockey is a different game with the hitting than without the hitting. I’ve seen that even with Ollie’s young age group. Some star kids back right down and become invisible as soon as play turns rough. Sometimes they go straight to the bench, not interested in engaging at all in the body contact. Other kids, the ones less agile but stronger, suddenly shine. Since body checking is part of the sport at elite and professional levels, kids who aspire to that level want to learn how to do it right. They want to play the real game. They don’t want to work hard until fifteen or sixteen or seventeen and then find out they’re the kind of player who disappears when on-ice play gets physical. I get it. Through the eyes of Mark and his boys, I can understand why some argue for the inclusion of hitting as young as Pee Wee.

But when I hear a young player’s body crack hard into the boards? When I see a kid motionless on the ice? I have to agree with the doctors.

For those of us who just watch sports for leisure and enjoyment, we rarely think about the punishment and abuse that athletes have endure or consider the stress, cost and anxiety that the family members of those athletes face. Abdou documents both these facts in through both in citing professional studies and through personal anecdotes. The result is a book that is both insightful and lyrical.

Pages 114-115  Chapter Six: Until Hockey Doth Us Part

“Mom.” Ollie’s voice comes quiet, tentatively, from the backseat. “Why do you and dad sometimes seem like you hate each other?”

“I’m sorry, Ollie.” I will not cry. I have 250 kilometers of winter driving and a weekend at the rink. If I start crying now, I don’t know how I will stop. “We don’t hate each other. We’re just tired.”

“Well, why don’t you take a rest?” That’s Ollie – always thinking of a solution, always trying to help. Other people’s pain hurts him more than it should. I know Ollie more than anyone, and I should behave better than I do. But, god, I’m exhausted. I feel the fatigue as an ache in my bones. I’m so tired my face hurts.

Would a rest even help me and Marty at this point? We’re so sick of each other.

(. . .)

Hockey works to dived couples in this way, almost always. The children on Ollie’s team all have one parent in the stands, the other busy elsewhere with the remaining demands of family life.

Much ink has been devoted to instruction spouses how to co-parent a hockey player after a divorce, how to divide the financial obligations and time commitments, as well as how to create a situation in which the athlete can thrive rather than being affected by negotiations around the marital collapse. However, there is no research that suggests the blame for these divorces might, in part, be our society’s overcommitment to organized sport for children and the many ways that commitment creates stress and drains energy that could other wise be directed to fostering healthy familial relationships.

Angie Abdou has given us another excellent cultural artifact with her non-fiction book Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom. Abdou has mixed fact and bits of her personal life to give us readers a unique insight into athletics and our society. Definitely an insightful piece of literature.

*****

Link to ECW Press’ website for Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom

Link to Angie Abdou’s website

A Survival Tale But Also One Of Pride | Review of “Moon Of The Crusted Snow” by Waubgeshig Rice (To Be Released Oct. 2018) ECW Press

9781770414006_1024x1024
Image linked from the publisher’s website

I received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book from the publisher.

What if the world as we know ended not with a bang or even the proverbial whimper but with dead silence? All our communication devices fall dead, no goods or services would come in for needs and no health or emergency services would be available. Would we be able to cope and continue? That is the realm that Waubgeshig Rice explores in his new novel Moon of the Crusted Snow.

The book brilliantly opens with the protagonist Evan Whitesky hunting a moose. The winter season is almost upon him and his northern Anishinaabe community and food stocks from the south are expensive. He is grateful that his culture has taught him how to respectfully hunt and appreciate the wilderness around him. As he hurries to finish slaughtering the moose he has captured, he notes that his cell phone has no service. He finds that fact odd but doesn’t give it a second thought. Little does he realize that the outside world has changed, and he, his family and his community are about to be challenged for their survival.

Rice has written a great book about trust, family and survival here but his book gives insight into Anishnaab society and culture. He shows the pride of ways of the people and their beliefs. Rice has written book here covering some important elements of the human condition, that should be considered and pondered upon among serious readers of literature no matter what their background or origins may be.

Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice is a brilliant read and a unique one. It has a in-depth narrative but also shows a pride in the ways of a culture that is complex and unique. In short, it is a great addition to the 2018 fall collection of new books.

*****

Link to ECW Press’ website for Moon Of The Crusted Snow

Link to Waubgeshig Rice’s website

Learning The Value of Actions | Review of “Net Worth” by Kenneth Radu (2018) DC Books

DCB_Net-Worth1k-final-alt2.indd

It is consider crass to talk about money yet it is important in our society to maintain our comfort and our dignity.  So it plays an important role in the human condition where it comes into play how we attempt to gain a better financial position or loose our status in society. And those are the themes that Kenneth Radu brilliantly explores in his collection of short stories entitled Net Worth.

Pages 2-3 Lottery

Unlike the television ads about lottery winners, Annie did not leap like a drug-addled rabbit, or immediately dream of travel to first class hotels, or buying real estate in Italy or a pied-à-terre in Paris. She slumped on her chair in front of the monitor in her bedroom where she kept her desktop computer, and heard the beating of her heart. All the numbers matched. Then she rose, forcing herself to walk. Trembling as if someone had broken into her apartment, she opened the kitchen drawer where she kept the knives. To collect the money she would have to present ticket herself to the lottery commission who, according to the terms of purchase, had the right to publicize the win and publish photos of the winner.

Her picture would be in the papers, on the lottery website, possibly YouTube for all she knew; she might even have to appear on Tout le Monde en Parle, a show watched by millions, and everyone in the country would know how chance had affected her life. How could she keep herself safe? The trembling came not just from fear, somewhat easing because she knew that no malefactor had broken into the apartment, but more from anxiety about the inevitable public glare focused on her unassuming person, about journalists repeating invasive and stupid questions to a woman who rarely spoke in public, questions about how she felt and her plans for the money, and, and, and . . .

Radu is an expert in recognizing the complexities of human nature, and writing about them in a simple and enlightening fashion. And that is what he has done with this book. The emotions and thoughts around money are deep and complicated. This collection of stories explores those constructs and the actions they bring forth. And for those of us readers who are quietly curious about human nature, this book is a treat for us to ponder and reflect upon while reading it.

Page 15 Millionaire

People didn’t want to work these days the way he did. Nina, too, had worked. Hard work paid off; no one could tell him otherwise. If Nina had found him interesting enough to marry, her well-off parents just had to swallow their pride or lose their beloved daughter for good. So maybe she did have a leg up on the ladder of success, that extra push that family wealth always gave, but together they’d built what she now left him. They’d agreed on most things, as far as he could remember, aside from favouring her daughters in ways he’d disliked. Hadn’t argued about the lack of money except over how much she should give the kids as an allowance, and how much to charity, and to less fortunate members of the family. But what the hell? Look at him now, basking in prosperity on the June day, anticipating the memorial where everyone would agree that, if money were a backyard pool, he’d be swimming in it.

Radu has mixed the perfect combination of observation and intellectual thought in these stories. The language is simple, direct and even blunt at times,  yet to a thoughtful reader, the message that Radu reflects about money and finances is enlightening and thought-provoking. These stories are truly a unique read that shouldn’t be rushed through.

Page 39 Trust Fund

The woman dragged her two children on a toboggan through the graveyard. It had been in the family for years, a long wooden toboggan no longer common, and displaced by plastic substitutes and cartoon character snowboards in the stores. When she was a child, she had sped down a bumpy hill, sometimes with friends, often alone, rarely with her father. Her mother hated the winter and stayed indoors to make soup, hot chocolate, bread, cookies and all sorts of good things. She had tried making them herself to give her boy and girl a sense of what real food tasted like, especially since Marc’s death in September, six moths ago almost to the day: not that she planned on pulling Mathieu and Grace to his headstone. Both of the kids had been old enough to cry over their father’s death and look woeful at the funeral, but young enough to recover from the loss, she hoped, without growing up permanently traumatized or otherwise deranged from grief like psychotic kids in movies acting out their rage over daddy’s death. No, they were good, of that she was sure. Mathieu had wrapped his arms around his younger sister so she wouldn’t slide off the toboggan. Grace was still a wriggler.

“Mom, Mom, you’re going right by it!”

Net Worth by Kenneth Radu is certainly one of the most unique reads I have come across in the 2018 publishing season. The language is simple yet the concepts it brings forward are thought-provoking and enlightening. In short, this book is a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to DC Books’ website for Net Worth

 

Pondering Life During The Summer Months | Review of “Warlight” by Michael Ondaatje (2018)McClelland & Stewart

warlight

It has been a while since I posted on here. The summer so far has been long and lethargic. Like many people, the heat has forced me to reflect and ponder my existence on this mudball circling the too-bright orange ball in the expanse of space. And the plot of Michael Ondaatje’s latest coming-of-age novel – called Warlight – proved to be the right meditative device for my mind to reflect upon.

Pages 6 Part One – A Table Full of Strangers

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals. We were living on a street in London called Ruvigny Gardens, and one morning either our mother or father suggested that after breakfast the family have a talk, and they told us that they would be leaving us and going to Singapore for a year. Not too long, they said, but it would not be a brief trip either. We would of course be well cared for in the absence. I remember our father was sitting on one of those uncomfortable iron garden chairs as he broke the news, while our mother, in a summer dress just behind his shoulder, watched how we responded. After a while she took my sister Rachel’s hand and held it against her waist, as if she could give it warmth.

Ondaatje is the master wordsmith who knows his craft and this book proves his skill. The story deals with Nathaniel and the time of when he comes-of-age of  awareness of himself and the world around him. Set in post-war London, England, Nathaniel and his sister are abandon by their parents and left under the care of a shady character by the name of “The Moth.” Ondaatje divides the plot of the book into two sections: the first where Nathaniel tells the story of he and his sister growing up while dealing with “The Moth” then the second part where Nathaniel – older and we assume wiser – tries to understand and comes to terms with that era of his life.

Pages 31-32 Hellfire

My sister didn’t return until late that night, long past midnight. She appeared unconcerned, barely spoke to us. The Moth did not argue with her about her absence, only asked if she had been drinking. She shrugged. She looked exhausted, her arms and her legs were filthy. After this night The Moth would intentionally grow close to her. But it felt to me that she had crossed a river and was now further from me, elsewhere. She had after all been the one to discover the trunk which our mother had simply “forgotten” when she’d boarded the plane for the two-and-a-half-day journey to Singapore. Now shawl, no cannister, no calf-length dress she could swirl in on some dance floor during a tea dance with our father, or whoever she was with, wherever she was. But Rachel refused to talk about it.

Mahler put the word schwer beside certain passages in his musical scores. Meaning “difficult.” “Heavy.” We were told this at some point by The Moth, as if it was a warning. He said we needed to prepare for such moments in order to deal with them efficiently, in case we suddenly had to take control of our wits. Those times exist for all of us, he kept saying. Just as no score relies on only one pitch or level of effort from musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes it relies on silence. It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore. “‘Schwer,'” he’d say, with his fingers gesturing the inverted commas, and we’d mouth the word and then the translation, or simply nod in weary recognition. My sister and I got used to parroting the word back to each other –  “schwer.”

In a nutshell – and like many writers who document coming-of-age stories well -Ondaatje has given us readers a context in which to compare our own upbringings with. It is an important element of the human condition and reading stories about other people’s childhood helps in coming to terms with our own. And Ondaatje’s well-thought out prose aids in keeping the story alive in our minds as we ponder our days of youth.

Page 135 The Saints

When you attempt a memoir, I am told, you need to be in an orphan state. So what is missing in you, and the things you have grown cautious and hesitant about, will come almost casually towards you. “A memoir is the lost inheritance,” you realize, so that during this time you must learn how and where to look. In the resulting self-portrait everything will rhyme, because everything has been reflected. If a gesture was flung away in the past, you now see it in the possession of another. So I believed something in my mother must rhyme in me. She in her small hall of mirrors and I in mine.

Gifted writer Michael Ondaatje has once again crafted a brilliant work of literature which deals with important elements of the human condition with his latest work Warlight. It is a perfect read to ponder over during lethargic summer days.

*****

Link to Penguin – Random House Canada’s website for Warlight

One of Most Well-Crafted Reads of 2018 | Review of “I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You: A Letter To My Daughter” by David Chariandy (2018) McClelland & Stewart

 

tell

There is no doubt that many of us feel anxiety about the future. Everything from the rise of populist leaders to the rise of the costs of the items that we need to exist can cause our blood pressure to ‘rise ‘ (Then add to our health to the list of things to be anxious about.) Yet we still want our younger loved-ones to have some confidence for their future. David Chariandy has felt those same fears and desires when he considered his daughter and her future and has brilliantly shared those views in his new book I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: A Letter to My Daughter.

Pages 9-10 The Occasion

But I find myself wondering just when a child begins to dwell in that place of tomorrow. I wonder, most often, about your life in the place of today, and what you have already seen and heard, have already understood and been made to feel. I wonder if there are moments, despite your tough postures, when you have felt neither confident nor safe. I wonder about the persistent message sent to girls in the news, in movies, in language and image, and in the rhetoric of politics and business, especially girls who share your ancestry but who have not had your special opportunities. I wonder about the electronic “tomorrow” that you are already navigating in your basement room, when at night you peer into a screen and the world casts its lurid energies upon your brown face.

This slim volume is the most profound cultural artifact that I have encountered this year. Its 120 pages are filled with personal and emotional thoughts that Chariandy was kind enough to craft into a book and share with the world. He takes some personal moments with his daughter that are heart-wrenching (A moment where a father/daughter visit to a buffet is ruined when a bigoted patron butts her way in front of him and remarks “I was born here. I belong here.” Or the joyful events of his daughter’s thirteenth birthday being grimly overshadowed by bitter politics and the Inauguration of President Donald Trump) Chariandy has given us serious readers a voice to confirm our concerns about the state of the world.

Pages 51-52 The Test

You did not create the inequalities and injustices of this world, daughter. You are neither solely nor uniquely responsible to fix them. If there is anything to learn from the story of our ancestry, it is that you should respect and protect yourself; that you should see, truly see, the vulnerability and the creativity and the enduring beauty of others, in the desperate hope for a better life, either migrate or are pushed across the hardened borders of nations and find themselves stranded in unwelcoming lands. We live in a time, dearest daughter, when the callous and ignorant in wealthy nations have made it their business to loudly proclaim who are the deserving “us” (those really “us”) and who are the alien and undeserving “them.” But the story of our origins offers us a different insight. The people we imagine most apart from “us” are, oftentimes, our own forgotten kin.

A reader can sense the quiet thought and crafted tone in this book that Chariandy has down in his previous novels. He is reflecting on his reality and the reality of his daughter and giving a us all a unique perspective to consider. It is a book that isn’t all preachy doom and gloom but it isn’t a book that is sunshine a rainbows either. It documents a reality that is in flux and needs to be considered and reflected upon.

Pages 107-109

You are a complex girl, my daughter. For some of my friends back east, your preferences for sushi and skiing and jackets of Gore-Tex instantly identify you as a “Vancouverite.” Your mother once, much to my dismay, pronounced you a “camper.” And for a short while, you yourself like the term “tomboy,” with is promised alternative to the categories of “girl” and “boy.” For some of my relatives, you are Black; for others you are Indian. And as a girl of African, South Asian, and European heritage, some may consider you still another identity, that of being “mixed.” Sometimes there is unfair privilege in being mixed, and of thereby avoiding certain degrees of prejudice simply because you might be lighter skinned that other Black or South Asian girls. Other times, there is a foolish denigration associated with being mixed. Of course, as you prove abundantly, there is beauty in being mixed; and I have heard some well-wishing folk proclaim people like you the happy future for humankind, imagining that racial prejudice will come to an end when everyone, through countless inter-mixing, achieves the same features and tone of brown. Forgive me dearest one, but I don’t share this hope. The future I yearn for is not one in which we will all be clothed in sameness, but one in which we will finally learn to both read and respectfully discuss our differences.

And you are a Canadian too, an identity that contains a specific story, promotes specific benefits and ideals, as well as specific illusions and blindnesses. Not so long ago in Canada’s history, a girl like you might very well have been denied citizenship, security, and belonging. As your father, I wonder about the extent to which you can now envision a just future for yourself here. My question is far from unique in the world today, and it links you to young visible minorities in the U.S. and Britain, Australia and Germany, and many other countries.

David Chariandy has proved himself a truly gifted and enlightened writer by sharing his book  I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You: A Letter To My Daughter with the world. It is an emotional and well-crafted read and no doubt, one of my favourites reads of 2018.

*****

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You: A Letter To My Daughter

Link to my review of David Chariandy’s Brother

Link to my review of David Chariandy’s Soucouyant

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

writing

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)

WN

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

*********

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

amateurs

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.

****

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

Link to Liz Harmer’s website