Friday, October 26, 2012

Circus Bulgaria

Deyan Enev

Deyan Enev’s Circus Bulgaria promises exactly what its title suggests. A beautiful marionettist hangs up her puppets and dons the costume of the cabaret while a drunken lion-tamer trades in his lion for a handful of bills, an ex-boxer turned hit man gives his life for his brother, and a boy with wax wings made from the feathers of pigeons jumps from his window in an attempt to fly away. Haphazard characters living in a post-communist Europe fill the pages of Enev’s fifty short stories, all contributing to a collective understanding that freedom does not guarantee happiness.

Circus Bulgaria is seamlessly translated by Kapka Kassabova from its native Bulgarian into English, expressing the satirical darkness of the original work with perfect eloquence. Every short story in the collection is different in content, but similar in tone. For instance, “The Marionette” tells a tale of a young girl with a degree as a marionettist and no job. She searches for a place to showcase her talents, and finally finds a shady man who is willing to put her and her puppets into his club. She is happy until her first show bores the crowd and the owner of the club tells her that she would be better off dropping the act and presenting herself instead. In every story Enev finds a unique way of telling a tale of hopelessness and forgotten dreams, often with surreal and open endings. All of the stories clearly carry on past the last lines, but what happens next is not shared with us as readers. All that we are left with is a sense of abandonment and compassion for the sad circus of figures that linger on the pages. None of the characters find happiness in the pages, and it is through this that they all relate to each other in Enev’s grim flash fiction.

When I first started reading, I tried hard to find a relationship between every story. Upon finishing, I realized that the connection stemmed from this sense of hopelessness in the desolate world that every character was destined to live in. The stories don’t offer a lesson to the reader, but instead offer a truth. Sometimes, things just aren’t going to get better. Sometimes, there is a darkness in the corners of a country that even a promise of freedom cannot illuminate.

- Cassie Leigh Clancy

The Wolf Gift

The Wolf Gift
Anne Rice

We're fast approaching that time when terrifying, addled things come lurching and staggering out of dark holes to take over the streets. No, I'm not talking about the bars emptying at 1:00 a.m. on a typical evening in downtown Guelph--I'm talking Halloween! In honour of the holiday, we're featuring dual reviews of Anne Rice's latest blockbuster, The Wolf Gift, by two writers who have never read Rice before. Enjoy!

- Bruce

Robert Green: A New and Clever Take on Werewolf Mythology

As a newcomer to well-known author Anne Rice, I was unsure of what to expect from her work, and I think this worked to my favour. To my delight, I discovered a beautifully-woven world tied together with detailed, four-dimensional characters, a strong plot, and a new and clever take on werewolf mythology.

Rice's new novel, The Wolf Gift, is a bold and different take on the werewolf, a creature who has begun to resurface in popular culture. It tells the story of Reuben, an unsuspecting journalist given “the gift” in the form of a werewolf bite while exploring a house in an old, deep forest. The book follows Reuben as he attempts to cope with the change, chronicling how his interactions with friends and family change and how he struggles to control the beast inside him.

There is nothing in this book that is unlikeable. The language of the text is so lyrical and poetic that it seems to create the world before your eyes, and the characters seem more like people you know than constructions made of printed words. Most books struggle to achieve this with just the main character, and for Rice to extend it to all her creations is a stroke that is nothing short of masterful.

My only complaint is that the ending seemed a little rushed, but the buildup toward it was engaging and entertaining. If you have read Anne Rice before, you will most certainly enjoy this book. For all newcomers, this is the place to start.

Nikki Everts-Hammond: Mere-Mortals versus Were-Mortals

Who knew? Werewolves are people too and feel oh-so-conflicted about their irresistible urges to tear apart and devour living beings. Of course, they limit their human dining to evil people—the truly wicked person has an enticing odour which the innocents of this world lack. Or so claim the werewolves, or “Morphenkinder,” in Anne Rice’s newest novel, The Wolf Gift.

This is my first read by the famed diva of horror so I have no idea whether this is typical fare or not. I’d never be able to read her much-acclaimed Interview with a Vampire because vampires scare me silly and at my age I have to be careful of my health. I rather like wolves—they are furry and beautiful—and so Wolf Gift seemed a good first Rice novel to sink my teeth into.

Horror is not a genre I like, but I do understand the appeal. From the horror comics I devoured as a callous and morbid youth, I recognize that this genre offers many opportunities to moralize about bad behaviour; the ghouls will get you even if the more mundane agents of justice fail to punish you for your murdering, abusive, vile ways. The more sophisticated classics, Frankenstein for example, also explore headier concepts: What does it mean to be human? What is good or evil? Do monsters have souls? How does society treat the marginalized? Is there a God or a Devil? Who is responsible when scientific experiments go awry and cause collateral damage? How far can you mess with nature before something really bad happens?

The Wolf Gift—the story of, you guessed it, a young man inadvertently bitten by a werewolf and therefore transformed into one—covers the morality theme in graphic gory detail and does touch on the headier issues, but without conviction or energy. While the storyline is predictable, Rice kept me interested with her disturbingly vivid descriptions of the werewolf’s experience of transformation (ecstatic), and how it felt to be so big and powerful (transcendental) and highly sexed (well, you can just imagine that for yourselves). Yes, there is a love interest. And I would not be at all surprised if there were a few sequels lining up behind this one, since it ends with at least one unanswered question.

I’d like Rice’s werewolves much better if in their human form they were not so clearly superior to everybody else—wealthy, charming, generous, warm, cultured. It doesn’t help that their attitude towards the rest of us “mere-” rather than “were-” mortals is one of “noblesse oblige.” Ricean werewolves never have to worry about money, or relationships, or losing their jobs or their hair. Maybe I am just jealous, but these werewolves just didn’t suffer enough to make me really care about what happened to them.

Still, Anne Rice fans will drool over Wolf Gift, much as the werewolves drool over the bodies of their evil victims. As well, those who are curious about werewolves and how it feels to be one will find this an enlightening read.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot

In 1951 in Baltimore, a young black woman named Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital (one of the few hospitals that would treat black people), was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and started to receive radiation treatment. In those days the radiation wasn't delivered from the outside; rather, the radium was inserted and sewn into the affected area. In fact, this was the treatment my mother received about that same time.

Before inserting the radium, the surgeon cut two dime-sized samples from the cervix, one of cancerous tissue and one of non-affected tissue. These samples were sent to the lab where Dr. George Gey had been trying, unsuccessfully, to grow human tissues in a culture medium. Although Henrietta died from her cancer, Henrietta's cells thrived and grew. These were the first human cells to grow in the lab, and the strain was named HeLa.

HeLa cells grew so aggressively that Gey was soon shipping the cells out to other labs around the world for free. Soon demand was outpacing his ability to supply. A company was set up which started to provide the cells commercially. Eventually, experimenters were able to grow cells from other donors too, but HeLa was the most prolific strain by far.

As the business of providing cells for experimentation grew, the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC) was established as a central storage facility for pure original cells from all different strains. However, despite the ATCC, cell purity was not maintained. A shocking analysis showed that the HeLa strain was so aggressive that if a different culture was contaminated by any HeLa cells, the other cells would die out and HeLa would take over. Thus the vast majority of research around the world had been carried out on HeLa cells, even when the researchers thought they were working with another strain. This showed just how incredibly unusual and prolific HeLa cells were and put into question many research results.

Meanwhile, the Lacks family knew nothing about their mother's cells being used—revolutionizing research and generating considerable profits—and had given no permission for such use. The Lacks were poor, uneducated people who had escaped from the poverty of rural Virginia to the booming factories of Baltimore during World War II, only to be thrown back into poverty when those factories closed after the war. When they learned of HeLa, they did not understand anything about cells, and were prone to thinking their mother might still be suffering through experimentation on her cells. Skloot recounts a remarkable story of Lacks’s daughter Deborah striving to read scientific literature and gain a sufficient understanding of biology to appreciate what had been going on. A visit to a lab where she saw her mother's cells under a microscope was a truly amazing epiphany for her.

Skloot also traces the history of the concept of informed consent and points out that tissue removed from people to this day is available for hospitals to use for research, based on the consent form for the operation. There are many current examples of tissues being used for purposes for which informed consent was not acquired. For instance, members of the Havasupai tribe in Arizona donated DNA to the University of Arizona on the understanding that it would be used to study diabetes, a condition that was very common within the tribe. However, the DNA was instead used to study schizophrenia and inbreeding. The tribe sued and later reached a settlement with the University.

The history of medical research and the black community is particularly ugly. In the 1950s, black people were simply treated differently by the medical system. Johns Hopkins was notable for even admitting blacks, but they were relegated to a special “coloured section.” The now-infamous Tuskegee syphilis study recruited African American men with syphilis for a study of the disease and then denied them treatment even after it was known that penicillin would cure it. Even in the 1960s black women were being sterilized in Mississippi through involuntary hysterectomies, sarcastically labeled “Mississippi Appendectomies.”

Rebecca Skloot, the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, spent years tracking down the Lacks family (early reports had said HeLa cells came from Helen Lane), and gaining enough of their trust to get detailed information and actual records to present the story.

I highly recommend this book. It's a remarkable story and provides food for thought on so many levels.

- Lib Gibson (See my blog for more writing by me)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies

Hilary Mantel

Historical fiction isn’t my first choice of reading material. It’s so hard to tell where fact leaves off and fiction begins that I fear my weak grasp of the past will become even more confused. So it was rather reluctantly that I picked up Wolf Hall a couple of years ago. It was much talked-about, having won the Man Booker prize in 2009. And you know how it goes: you pick up a book quite prepared to dismiss it, but something draws you in and before long you’re hooked. It’s easy to see why it has become, apparently, the best-selling Booker prize-winner of all time.

What first draws one in to Wolf Hall, and continues on in Bring Up The Bodies–also a Man Booker winner–is Mantel’s masterful writing. The descriptions are vivid and a story-line develops immediately. Also, a quirk of style that is at first confusing and slightly annoying quickly becomes intriguing: regardless of the subject of the sentence, the use of “he” or “him” always refers to Thomas Cromwell, a sixteenth-century statesman so renowned that even I know something about him. A privileged pronoun for a privileged character, just not the typical “royal we.” Henry VIII and his queens, step aside.

Like the Saint by Charteris, Bond by Fleming, and Robin Hood—all English, interestingly enough—Cromwell by Mantel is a captivating hero. So much so that I have recalibrated my assessment of historical fiction. After the intrigue of Wolf Hall, I looked forward to Bring Up The Bodies and found it even more of a page-turner. In fact, I wondered all through Wolf Hall why that location—the estate of John Seymour, notorious for having “tupped” his daughter-in-law—had been chosen as the title. Other than a few mentions of Old John’s nefarious activity, the estate does not figure in the book. Again, Mantel is highly skilled, keeping up the intrigue and revealing the reason on the final page. Those who know their history will consider it a promise of things to come. Bring Up The Bodies fulfills that promise.

Through both books our hero Cromwell steadily gains in wealth and influence, having made his way independently from very humble beginnings. He can speak many languages, each revealed in an intriguing way as he thwarts opponents who think they can safely communicate their secret plots or insults simply by speaking Latin, Greek, French, or Italian. He is an exceptional player at chess, able to set up a board as it was months previously, and at every physical contest he attempts. He can tell the weight of a sheep by sight and knows his textiles, glass, and anything else considered a luxury item. He is widely travelled for the times, having served in the Italian army and spent time in London, other European cities, and the Netherlands. Oh, and he robs from the rich and gives to the poor. At least the nobility think he robs them as he reforms legal, financial, and political systems in ways that are not in keeping with their accustomed sense of privilege. And many of the down-trodden find shelter in Cromwell’s household or receive benefits that lift them out of penury. Hoards wait outside his gates and are seldom disappointed.

Cromwell’s intelligence, his attention to detail, and his oratorical skills make him a formidable opponent—just what Henry VIII needs on his side as he attempts to fulfill his whims. In both books, life at court is revealed in all its complexity and extravagance. Life outside the court is revealed in all its complexity and hardship.

Wolf Hall alludes to Cromwell’s childhood through memories and rumours while covering his life around age forty, when his beloved mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, falls from favour and Henry ends his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and marries Anne Boleyn. Bring Up The Bodies resumes the narrative with hardly a pause and takes us to the end of Anne’s reign, which comes about with surprising rapidity. It’s a gripping read as Mantel powerfully evokes the inner life of so many characters, Anne included. And as the title indicates, there are quite a few characters who don’t make it to book three of the promised trilogy.

Cromwell wields incredible power, in spite of the resentment and hatred of the nobility who surround Henry and attempt to thwart him (always Cromwell, remember)—when they are not plotting how to take advantage of the spoils he amasses around him. In fact, Cromwell’s power is hard for others to oppose. His rational, strategic thinking, backed up with knowledge on how to leverage money and balance books, is rare for the times. It struck me time and again throughout the novel how often money and strategy were linked.

How accurate is Mantel on these economic matters? Although it will make the hair rise on some of my colleagues who don’t like Niall Ferguson’s politics with its “money is the root of all progress” thinking, I turned to his new book, The Ascent of Money, for some clues and was not disappointed. Not surprisingly, I guess, Mantel is an excellent researcher, building a fine base of facts for her exceptionally colourful creativity.

Ferguson asserts that behind every historical phenomenon there is a financial secret. The Dutch Republic prevailed over the Hapsburg Empire by creating the first modern stock exchange, which turns out to have been more important than having the world’s biggest silver mine. The Renaissance boom in art and architecture relied on Italian bankers making fortunes by applying Oriental mathematics to money. Over 150 years the Medici transformed themselves from gangsters (five of whom were sentenced to death for their crimes) to being synonymous with the Florentine state. They understood leveraging and diversification, all lessons Cromwell learns as a student of commerce, banking, and human affairs during his time, less than one hundred years later, in Italy and the Netherlands.

Cromwell brings these skills to the newly developing role of middle man in his efforts to wield power for Henry. A vivid example unfolds as Henry breaks with the Pope and installs himself as head of a new Church of England. In Wolf Hall, the purpose is to annul his marriage with Katherine and pave the way for Anne to become queen. But in Bring Up The Bodies, Cromwell is eyeing the assets of the church. In thinking about how to pay for England, he is sure of  his answer: “Monks, that parasite class of men, are going to provide.” He instructs his merry band on how to value the rents and holdings of the church so that the “king as head of the church” can take back what he owns if it pleases him to do so.

Has Robin Hood gone over to the dark side? Incredibly interesting—to me at least—is the struggle that comes through as Mantel tries to decide what to make of Cromwell. As early as page seven of Bring Up The Bodies, while describing a portrait of Cromwell being painted by the famous Hans Holbein, the narrator says he (Cromwell, remember) “comes into his hall to find versions of himself in various stages of becoming: a tentative outline, partly inked in. Where to begin with Cromwell?”

I suppose some ambivalence is understandable when a character is as powerful and adroit at strategy as Cromwell is seen to be. Imagine working for the King, anticipating his needs but waiting to fulfill them until he expresses them, having to help him with those expressions perhaps, so that the royal motives are seen in a favourable light. Like when Henry’s dreams turn to Jane Seymour: Cromwell decides there is no harm if he helps “ease the king’s way to her,” but he will also advise the Seymour family. He has “better business sense” and it’s important that he “not let Jane sell herself cheap.” After all, the king can’t have a cheap woman, and Cromwell needs her family as allies. So he instructs Jane on what gifts she can receive: “jewellery yes, money no.” And “until the deal is done,” she is not to take off so much as her gloves in Henry’s presence. Cromwell is no special confidante of the Seymours; but none of them doubt his expertise at strategy. Cromwell muses on a book he could write, “The Book Called Henry: how to read him, how to serve him, how best to preserve him.”

At another time Cromwell reflects on Machiavelli’s new book and decides he could do better. Given some of the drama of the story, one doesn’t doubt it. A story is told of Cromwell berating the jury at the trial of Thomas More and threatening to lock them up without dinner until they unanimously convict More. Following which he stood outside the door with a hatchet. When asked about this rumour, Cromwell denies ever having a hatchet. Most chilling of all is the revenge he exacts on the people who showed their scorn for the dead Cardinal Wolsey in a play by creating an effigy of him as a wounded bear and dragging it out, one person on each paw, chanting derisive epithets. Now as the bodies are brought up, Cromwell thinks, George Boleyn, right forepaw. And so on, one by one, until all are dealt with.

Mantel actually confirms her ambivalence about her hero in yet another colourful and promising final line, this time in her Author’s Note. She says Cromwell “remains sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie; but I hope to continue my efforts to dig him out.”

Perhaps I will watch for the promised third volume of the trilogy, called The Mirror and the Light, although I know enough history to regret the ending of the story for such an attractive hero. Maybe Mantel’s fiction is not such a bad way to learn history.

-   Reg Sauvages

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.


Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens’s latest book, Mortality, is a collection of essays that were originally published in Vanity Fair during the last year of his life. These essays document his life with cancer and the process that he went through in order to prepare for his death. In this posthumous work, Christopher Hitchens’s voice is unsettlingly vivid and strong.  This is to be expected, of course, and it is just as it should be when reading Hitchens. However, the strength of the writing can become too much to bear at times.

Reading this book is an exercise in reconciling two pieces of a puzzle that don’t fit together.  The work’s feisty sense of liveliness overpowers the notion that he has passed away. You might even find yourself rooting for Hitchens’s recovery when he writes about how his chemotherapy successfully caused his tumors to recede. With a voice so full of conviction and passion, it becomes all too easy to forget that this is a posthumous release. Not even the grave can tame the voice of Christopher Hitchens.

Writing of how he envisioned his final moment, Hitchens said he wished to actively experience his own death. He didn’t want to quietly pass into non-existence. He wanted death to be something that he could be present for and claim as his own. We can only hope that Christopher Hitchens achieved such a state, and that he was ultimately fulfilled by it. In Mortality, Hitchens looks the grim reaper in the eye and finds that the values of love, struggle, and passion are reflected right back.

- Graham Nicholas


Lauren Groff

Where Have All The Hippies Gone?

I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh
is enough,
To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so
lightly round his or her neck for a moment, what is this
I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.

Walt Whitman, from “I Sing the Body Electric”

I feel certain that Walt Whitman would have given his famous line, “I SING the body electric,” to Lauren Groff to use as the title of this book for absolutely nothing, and would have reveled and rolled around in the superbly sensuous life of her characters. You could describe Whitman, with his wandering and wonder, as the archetypal hippie traveling the roads of America looking for community. This enchanting novel of the hippie commune of Arcadia would have surely entrapped him. It certainly entrapped me!

Arcadia is both a mountainous region of ancient Greece and also a real or imaginary place offering peace and simplicity—a perfect name for a commune. This is where our main character, Bit, is born. His parents are, on the surface, archetypal hippies. His mother Hannah, in my mind, looks and feels like Joni Mitchell; his father Abe, like Abbie Hoffman. A father of one of this small band of peace-loving and dope-smoking citizens gifts the group with 600 acres and a rundown mansion in upstate New York. He only wanted contact with his son and figured that the only way he would get it would be through giving. This rings so completely true, as many of the dropouts of the ’60s really did jettison their wealthy parents and stomp on them pretty hard.

But there is trouble in paradise right from the very beginning. There is more than one alpha male and you know what that means—escalation of plot. Handy, the guru of the group, is a musician and spiritual head of the commune. When he and a few of his groupies have to go on tour for a few months, Abe, obviously the most intellectual and philosophical, decides that the mansion must be repaired so that the commune can have a roof over its collective head. He is a brilliant leader and the hive hums while Handy is away. The mansion is converted and of course when Handy returns he is threatened and so the tension begins. Over the years the commune grows from a mere 60 soy-loving folks to over 2000. You can imagine what kind of struggles constantly unfold.

Groff tells the story through the eyes of Bit, who doesn't leave the commune at all until he is in his late teens. Bit is slow to speak but he has other channels open. His companions are light and trees and sound and bodies. Groff often bends language like light going through a prism. Sometimes it doesn't make immediate literal sense but the effect is gorgeous and memorable:

Time comes to him one morning, steering in. One moment he is looking at the lion puppet on his hand that he's flapping about to amuse Eden's russet potato of a baby, and the next he understands something he never knew to question. He sees it clearly, now, how time is flexible, a rubber band. It can stretch long and be clumped tight, can be knotted and folded over itself, and all the while it is endless, a loop.

I actually felt like I was in a loop while reading Arcadia—a loop of Whitman and Groff, hippies and the earth. Although the characters endured much sadness and many challenges, I almost felt like I was in a state of grace while reading. I did not ask any more delight—I swam in it, as in a sea.

- Barb Minett