Sunday, April 26, 2015
Mark Anthony Jarman’s Knife Party at the Hotel Europa is a collection of short stories but it reads as a novel, complete with the same narrative voice commanding every page, the same friends and lovers appearing and disappearing within the summertime sweltering streets of Rome, or Venice, or Pompeii or Naples. It’s repetitive in parts, the voice is, but not in a bad way, it’s like Bolero, touching over and over on its primary theme of love and beauty flawed, happiness a fingertip away yet always unattainable, a disaster either natural or personal ready to happen in the next room, or up the next stairway. A sunny day? There’s Vesuvius waiting to blow. Kayakers glide through corralled bodies of drowned immigrants. Gypsies stare and look away. Cousins fall in love, sort of.
This is a book not shy of metaphor and dazzle, extraordinarily rich with allusion, and it boasts as well the best Canadian snowstorm on literary record and, on the back cover, the blurbs themselves are well worth the read. No one writes like Jarman, and if you haven’t had the experience, here’s a great place to start, before it hits the Giller list.
Nicholas Ruddock is the author of The Parabolist and How Loveta Got Her Baby.
Monday, April 20, 2015
“I’m not a very good writer,” said Andrew Hood when I interviewed him back in February. Having read Jim Guthrie: Who Needs What, his new title for Invisible Publishing, I can safely say, with all due respect for Mr. Hood, that that is one fat load of bullshit. Andrew Hood's sentences spark and snap like firecrackers and Jim Guthrie: Who Needs What is an invigorating slice of local history that everyone with a vested interest in Guelph’s musical landscape past, present, and future should read.
Hood honed his chops with two raunchy and poignant collections of stories about beautiful (or maybe not so beautiful) losers bumming around small Canadian towns, 2007’s Pardon Our Monsters and 2012’s The Cloaca. In Who Needs What, he makes the leap to book-length nonfiction with the tale of a beautiful loser who made it big: game-changing Guelph musician Jim Guthrie. Hardworking and humble, Guthrie cut his teeth in the nineties at the forefront of a fecund wave of lo-fi “home rock,” refined his playing as the guitarist in the band Royal City, and moved to Toronto around the turn of the century after co-founding the legendary Three Gut Records. After releasing his 2003 album Now, More Than Ever, Guthrie struggled with writer’s block before eventually finding release and reward making music for video games, movies, and advertisements—his most recognizable ditty is the catchy Capital One jingle “Hands in My Pocket.”
Music lovers are lucky to have Hood behind the wheel. He’s no slouch as a critic, having sharpened his analytic acumen and breezy tone lately in countless movie reviews for the Bookshelf Cinema. With a demonstrated ear for preposterously perfect metaphors, Hood peppers his sentences with phrases that might be drawn from old Archie comics: references to baseball, “gas in the tank,” and love testers abound. For the most part, however, he takes a cue from his amiable subject and contents himself with the role of moderator. Much of this book’s compelling cloth is cut from conversations with Jim and his contemporaries — including Aaron Riches, Nathan Lawr, Owen Pallett, and many more — stitched together with Hood’s judicious prose. If you’re a recent Guelph import like myself, it’s an invaluable introduction to the city’s recent musical history. It’s not definitive or comprehensive by any means. Instead, it’s a bracing aperitif, whetting the appetite for the main dish: the music of Jim Guthrie, which you will either have the pleasure to discover for the first time or the pleasure of returning to with Hood’s considerable insights in mind.
Will Wellington is the former editor in chief of Kaleidoscope magazine, co-founder of People House Theatre and contributor to Sequential Canadian Comics News and Culture and The Ontarion.
Sunday, April 12, 2015
I’ve always had a hands-down favourite novel by Jane Urquhart: Changing Heaven, with its evocation of Wuthering Heights, its Heathcliff and Catherine emotions expressed in wounding relationships confined to the rooms in which the torrid, raw, unbalanced affairs take place, its poetic linking of weather and wind that is sometimes interchangeable with characters and certainly reflects their moods, and the way a painting, this time by Tintoretto, unites characters and stories lines.
In the Scuola San Rocco in Venice, visitors are provided with substantial, framed mirrors to help view about sixty of Tintoretto’s 16th century masterpieces on the ceilings. During my visit, in addition to the mirror, I was also carrying around the memory of the putative Urquhart’s observations of them. She is right that the devil wears pink silk in "The Temptation of Christ." Her observation of this as similar to the more expected dress of the princess in his "St. George and the Dragon," (in London’s National Gallery) is accompanied by the surprising observation that the princess is “trying to get out of the painting” more than she is trying to escape the rather flimsy dragon. In Changing Heaven, a budding Tintoretto scholar is always imagining himself inside the paintings. At 15, seeing his first Tintoretto at the Art Gallery of Ontario, he wants to “swim the waters of the distant canal and walk the distant hills,” but more than anything he wants to “click his cleats on the marble-tiled floor... to pace out the carefully measured perspective the artist has painted there.”
Throughout Changing Heaven there also is a masterful celebration of an oral tradition, with storytelling that goes on for a century and with the character, Jeremy Jacobs, who gives himself the stage name “Sindbad of the Skies,” pointing us toward the middle-eastern folk tale, “Sindbad the Sailor,” included in Western translations of what we know as The Arabian Nights or One Thousand and One Nights.
In 2005 Urquhart was named an Officer of The Order of Canada. Her first novel, The Whirlpool, was also the first Canadian book to received Le prix du meilleur livre étranger (Best Foreign Book Award) in France. The Literary Review (UK) called her next book, Changing Heaven, “An accomplished novel which boldly explores new ground.” Urquhart’s third novel, Away, remained on the Globe and Mail Bestseller list for 132 weeks (the longest of any Canadian book). It also won the Trillium Award for fiction and was a finalist for the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The Underpainter, Urquhart’s next novel, won her the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. The Stone Carvers, perhaps Urquhart’s most famous work, was called “breathtaking” by TIME, was nominated for The Giller Prize and long-listed for The Booker. A Map of Glass was released in the fall of ’05. Urquhart is also the author of a collection of short fiction, Storm Glass, and three books of poetry. She received the Marian Engel Award in 1994 for an outstanding body of prose written by a Canadian woman, and is a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France. She has also been given numerous honorary doctorates from Canadian universities.
As my hands-down favourite, Changing Heaven may just have lost its winning place to The Night Stages, where every one of the above themes and narrative devices occur again. This time the story unfolds in a series of memories for a handful of key characters with the present action, or frame story, of the book almost all taking place for one character, Tamara, grounded by fog in the departure lounge of the Gander airport in Newfoundland.
Reminiscent of the early 20th century female balloonist in Changing Heaven, this new novel’s protagonist has also had a career that involved taking to the skies. During WWII, “Tam” flew 47 kinds of planes, often solo, ferrying them among bases in Ireland and England, camouflaging them when needed by taxiing them off runways into orchards and country lanes. Like characters in Changing Heaven, Tam is attempting to escape the agonies of a protracted but dead-end relationship. Two other key characters also find themselves embroiled in 3-way relationships of asymmetrical feelings.
Tam is on her way to New York, having left Ireland to force herself to bring to an end her relationship with Niall, a married man who not only can’t leave his wife, but who says of himself:
I’m a waster, Tamara, I waste things. I waste people. I deplete them. I have never troubled myself to know the value of anyone, anything, not my own abilities, my own good fortune, my family, Susan. The small magical brother I was given was worth ten of me, and I utterly disregarded him.
This story of the brothers is complex and takes a dramatic and surprising turn well into the book. Today the younger brother, Kieran, would probably be diagnosed as bi-polar, but the cause and the even more complex cures involve love and relationships. As a child, after coming across his mother in an intimate conversation with the local druggist, he begins to have tantrums and break-downs. Some years later, he gives an outlet to his fierce personality by training and competing in “The Ras.” The Ras Tailteann is an annual 8-day international cycling race held in Ireland each May. It is held in stages, with the carousing in pubs of each evening colloquially referred to as the “Night Stages.”
Urquhart has always written with great power about unrequited love, loss, and viciously intense relationships. In fact, years after a lot of the details of the story have faded, my strongest memory of The Underpainter is a lingering sense of emotional rejection mirrored by the icy desolation of the landscape. And in Changing Heaven, Arianna says, “Sometimes making love is like a terrible accident ... and then, afterwards you are shipwrecked, broken.” Still, it’s in relation to Kieren, Niall’s brother, that the pain is best summed up: “The hardship of caring for someone was the way that caring insisted on punching through the skin of even the most ordinary day.” Asked once about the pain powerfully portrayed by the young widow in Whirlpool, Urquhart referred to her personal experience of losing her first husband in a car accident: ”I think the fact that Paul died when he did, when we were both so young, allowed me to remember what it was like to experience such a devastating loss early in life, as my characters do in this book.”
Urquhart doesn’t always write about pain, but her characters always live intensely. Tam reflects on the sensation of lift-off in her planes and “recalls her own helplessness in the face of such ridiculous joy.” Kieran is “ridiculous with pride” at successfully constructing his own waffle and daub hut and dances for joy. And, of course, the pain of relationships is proportional to the contrasting moments of great joy.
Landscape, weather and emotion are almost interchangeable in Urquhart’s novels. People are lost in a fog, literally and figuratively; tantrums are an “outburst of the elements"; and terrible pain is reflected in the shrieking wind. In The Night Stages, Niall is a meteorologist whose boss, McWilliams, is a fount of knowledge on many things, able to link weather and literature and history. He likes Wuthering Heights because of the weather in it, he knows the effect of fog on Victor Hugo’s writing of Les Misérables, and could probably talk about the “weather in Croisset during the week that Flaubert was completing page 216 of Bovary." McWilliams knows everything: Irish lakes are dark because of molecules of peat that intercept the path of the light; fog bows occur because the droplets composing them are too small for the spectrum of colour.
In a conversation I once had with her, Urquhart often referred to landscapes and their importance to human sensibility and well-being. Not only are her novels rooted inextricably in a sense of place, but she is as well. Some years ago she became an “International Ambassador” for the rare Charitable Research Reserve in Waterloo Region, perhaps Canada’s largest urban reserve that is neither government owned nor developed, comprising six of eight pre-settlement landscapes with more than 24 different habitat types. As Urquhart puts it, “I think it’s so important that the rare lands be saved. I think we forget how important it is to have some landscape that doesn’t change.”
Urquhart’s sense of loss from a changing landscape is also very personal. Speaking to a journalist some years ago, she reminisced about a property on Lake Ontario that her parents first bought in 1943. Now, more than seventy years on, the commercial lake fishermen she watched as a child from the shoreline and the surrounding pioneer farms where she and her brothers played have disappeared, sacrifices to twentieth century ‘progress.’
“I am put in mind of something I once read," she said, "in the travel journals of Samuel Champlain. When he sailed into Lake Ontario, he was so struck by the beauty of its northern shoreline he commented that the tall greenery of the trees appeared to be garden-like, as if the foliage had been planted for decorative purposes. This is a panorama that none of us will ever be able to see.”
Giving facts a prominent place in a work of fiction is a delightful, speculative way to make sense of them. It brings together history and the imagination, offering rich detail for possible contexts. As Tam nods off to sleep and awakens time and again over the 48 hours that she waits for a flight out, she contemplates the 22-metre mural on the wall in front of her. It’s called "Flight and its Allegories," painted by real-life artist Kenneth Lochhead in 1957-58 while the terminal was being refurbished as part of the Canadian government’s effort to show the world that Canada was forward-thinking and cosmopolitan.
Lochhead is still alive and there are efforts to “save Gander airport,” in part because of the mural. Ironically, perhaps, the mural was painted with egg tempera (pigments mixed with egg yolk, applied to a dry wall), a particularly long-lasting method. We learn in The Night Stages, that Lochhead used approximately 5,000 eggs for the job.
The terminal opened in 1938 and before long was one of the busiest airports in the world. The new International Departure Lounge was the centrepiece of the striking new design and is considered “the single most important modernist room in Canada.” In addition to Lochhead’s mural, there are geometric terrazzo floors, and cutting-edge furniture by renowned Canadian and international designers like Robin Bush, Jacques Guillon, and Arne Jacobsen. But with planes now able to travel longer distances, air traffic has dropped from 1.5 million to 400,000 flights annually and the future of the terminal––and mural––are being debated.
A preserved postcard, offered as a souvenir in the 1950s, describes the meaning of the mural. It talks about man motivated to fly by observing birds and of the feelings that flight engenders. To be airborne is to enter paradise. But in The Night Stages, the mural takes on many more interesting connotations. In one story line, Lochhead’s own life, as Urquhart imagines it, is embedded in the images. His growing up and beginning to study art in Regina lead to opportunities in the U.S. Colourful characters, intrigue, and relationships make for good reading and, it seems, interesting images. He muses that only the figures of kids have opinions; they are wisdom without judgement. The book is rife with arrivals and departures, and those left behind. A trip to Italy exposes Lochhead to more painful arrivals and departures of his own and to more “waiting and hope,” a theme that runs through the whole book and comes back to Lochhead as he paints, ten years later, in a room that would house only those who wait.
Tam’s interpretation of the mural’s images mirror her own life, making the whole novel a possible interpretation of the mural. The comfortable-looking woman in one scene reminds her of her nan, the woman who took care of her as a child. Figures come in and out of focus as she stares at them, remembering some times more clearly than others. Some of the figures seem bewildered by their own lack of importance. Other figures come into view only with prolonged study: “it had been possible to ignore this small person because of the hugeness of the man laying claim to the space around him”–– a clear reference to Niall and his brother. As with the mural, each episode of the book “bleeds into its neighbour’s territory,” the writing fluid with no disparate parts. Premonitions, lead the reader forward in a book that is mostly about memory: Niall has a hard time talking about his brother, referring only to “the living apart and then a kind of betrayal” that we learn about in detail later.
The device of murals as allegories comes up in a number of places in The Night Stages. Famous ones such as the 14th century "Allegory of Good Government," and its companion, the "Allegory of Bad Government," both in Siena by Ambrogio Lorenzetti and those of the early Renaissance painter, “the master,” Piero della Francesca, form part of Lochhead’s training, while lesser ones give him life lessons, “teaching persistence, not parade.”
Urquhart is widely celebrated. I experienced the international reach of her fame while standing in front of the Lorenzetti murals in Siena. A local scholar observed me, and hearing my answer to her question about where I was from, told me, with glowing eyes, about Jane Urquhart and her special way of seeing.
The Night Stages, both a powerful expression of previous themes and a gripping fresh, new read, is likely to add to Urquhart's accolades.
Reginald Sauvages, PhD, is the nom de plume of a local bibliophile (read: bookworm) who goes on building bookshelves and buying paperbacks for the beach so sand doesn’t ruin favourite clothbound books, even while owning an e-reader.
Wednesday, April 8, 2015
With Still Alice shining brightly in all of its Oscar winning glory, I was very grateful and excited to read Genova’s newest novel, Inside the O’Briens. Once again, she has used her vast knowledge of nerve-related health issues, coming from her PhD in Neuroscience from Harvard, to create a novel that touches the hearts of all who read it. Joe O’Brien is your average Boston cop; he loves spending time with his family and helping his community in any way he can. Of course, when he isn’t working, he’s watching the Red Sox on TV. One day, Joe notices his body making movements without his control and his temper becomes ferocious. Soon after, Joe is told he has Huntington’s disease.
Huntington’s disease changes everything for the O’Briens. All of Joe’s 4 children are faced with a terrifying choice of finding out whether they are positive for the Huntington’s gene. Each child has a 50% chance of inheriting the disease. When faced with such a decision, it’s hard to say what you would do. Of course it’s easy to say “Oh yeah, I would totally find out” when it’s all theoretical. Genova does a perfect job of going into the reasoning behind each of Joe’s kids’ choice.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of other Lisa Genova books; it will not disappoint, I assure you. Inside the O’Briens is a heart-wrenching story of a family who just wants to survive through a devastating ordeal. I strongly suggest that this book finds a permanent place on your bookshelf.
Wesley Wilson is a zoology student at the University of Guelph and works on campus at a microbiology lab. When Wesley isn’t studying away, she spends most of her time reading.
Sunday, April 5, 2015
Ask yourself if there is a cause or belief you would die to serve. Or what your death might accomplish for this cause. Hardly speculative questions in our contemporary moment. Where Beth Powning's A Measure of Light departs from the present of this reader is, well, the setting and plot: 17th century Puritan New England and the emergence of the Quaker movement. Less obviously, it departs in the sense that those who die for their beliefs do so not as suicides where bodies are the available weapons, but rather those who die for their beliefs are killed by the state for holding beliefs that are deemed so threatening, so challenging as to be violently and publicly killed. It's a grammar slip there, you'll notice, between the belief being killed and the person. And one worth noticing.
Our protagonist, historical figure Mary Dyer, is killed by the Boston officials that see her views of God (as accessible to all with equal access and without the intercedence of the Church) as heretical and threatening to the sociopolitical (and importantly economic) well-being of the region. So while she and several of her Friends are publicly hanged, their deaths do not accomplish the aims of the state in that the belief cannot be killed by killing the person. Or at least not easily. Rather, as Powning's narrative suggests, Mary Dyer the martyr does more to raise the profile of the belief in their death than she does in her actively proselytizing life.
A Measure of Light is a fascinating read for its unraveling of the development of the Quaker movement and its portrait of New England life. It's a rich (and beautifully written) exploration of what it means to hold beliefs with such conviction and the consequences both for the individual life, but for the family and community of that individual. It's perhaps even more interesting – at least for me – in its representation of women and women's bodies in this period. Mary's journey through faith is irrevocably marked by the death of her three-day old child and the subsequent still-birth of her premature child as she and her community view these tragedies as evidence of her damned soul. I admit, as an atheist and 2015 reader, that I struggled to empathize with her conviction that it was God that spoke through her (markedly female) body. What I could understand and relate to – only too well – was the feeling of my body, and its interpretation, as outside my control and dominion. The sense that others read what women's bodies do – and don't do – in questions about when (not if) these bodies will have children, in how (not whether) these bodies will be held up against impossible standards of beauty and in the sexualization and objectification of these bodies at every turn. So while the patriarchal source might be different – God – the experience of a distorted and disturbed relationship between the self and the body is all too recognizable.
All this to say, between the resonant and provocative questions about the power of religious conviction to drive (violent) action and the representation of women's bodies as sites for public debate, A Measure of Light is an exemplary piece of historical fiction, doing what historical fiction does best in representing the past in a way that allows us to better understand our present experience. Given the preponderance of historical fiction in Canadian literature (and no, I'm not just saying that because it's my thing) and the attention this genre tends to get in awards season, I'd flag A Measure of Light as one likely to come up in discussions of best's of this year.
When's she not reading, Erin Aspenlieder is teaching, running or eating cookies (sometimes all at once). She prefers fiction and books made of paper. She blogs at literaryvice.ca