Fourth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

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6
Wednesday
Mar
2013

Dark Diversions

 

John Ralston Saul’s tragic-comic picaresque, Dark Diversions, is cleverly structured to begin as a short story collection and emerge as a cohesive novel. Surely a less knowledgeable, searching and well-traveled author would be unable to deliver with this bold structural experiment, yet Saul, largely by the individual fascination created by each of these increasingly absurd tales of the rich and privileged, certainly succeeds. There was a unique sense of satisfaction I received upon seeing the threads of the dozen or so short stories tied together, both in theme and plot, in the final chapters of the novel.

 

At the simplest level, it is a story of the drifting rich, in the vein of Fitzgerald, or even Tolstoy—a story of those modern souls possessing ample supplies of money, culture and power to keep them entertained for the remainder of their lives, yet unable to manufacture a healthy marriage, a sense of fulfillment, a love for life, even to stop themselves from doing something inconceivably evil.

 

Many of the stories echo the great modern stories from around the world. There is Gatsby-esque nouveau riche fraud, living in New York, driving a leased Rolls-Royce, showing paintings in a rented mansion, “most of them third-rate by first-rate artists,” infiltrating the upper tiers of New York society through a carefully plotted façade. 

There is the Anna Karenina influenced tale of Jack, a filthy-rich American oilman pursuing an extramarital Mexican tryst with the clever, pretty blonde, Patty. He claims to love her deeply, yet can’t help but attempt to run her off a cliff. Like Anna, he feels trapped by love without any traditional structures holding it together. “How do I know she needs me; I mean, except for the money?” he asks in a moment of drunken vulnerability.

 

These are stories about the tragic intermingling of power and love, and certainly they are dark, sometimes to the point that reciting the plots alone would make them seem morbid and gratuitous. But Saul has a knack for compassionate characterizations, wry one-liners and wicked turns of phrase, and he successfully turns the merely depressing into black comedy, often with profound implications.

 

Thematically, the novel is typically postmodern: the tension between subjectivity and objectivity, and humanity’s capacity (or lack of it) for self-knowledge feature prominently. Saul’s technique in addressing these themes is brilliant, and is the most engrossing aspect of the novel: he begins with an anonymous narrator, a continent-hopping journalist, objectively narrating dramatic stories of the rich, the famous, and the powerful. Progressively, however, the stories become more intertwined, the transitions smoother, and his own personal involvement deeper. The first half dozen or so narratives hold almost no literal connection, and could be featured separately in a short story collection. The final three are deeply personal; they are the tragedies of the narrator’s own life. The narrator is incapable of maintaining his separation from the “dark diversions” he chronicles, and the final three stories tell of his own personal tragedy.

 

It’s a concept that Saul has talked of openly: “I came to like the idea of a narrator who spends the whole book creating the impression that he’s not involved, when really, it’s all about him,” he said in an interview with the Toronto Star. It isn’t till the last pages, though, that the reader becomes privy to this in Dark Diversions. The first half of the book is the narrator, Thomas Bell, gazing objectively on the face of evil, attempting to understand it. It isn’t till the middle that Bell even reflects on why he is doing this: “Something about the face of the devil and the unlimited forms it can take,” he muses, considering his penchant for “collecting dictators.”

 

In the last three stories, Bell is shocked from the illusion of objectivity that he has clothed himself with, and is horrified to find the evil that he has been examining in demagogues and adulterers is also within himself. By his inaction, Bell watches a woman die. Then, in the most compelling and complex narrative of the novel, Bell is given a set of diary entries from a recently deceased man whom Bell had known in his youth. Bell sees himself through the eyes of another, and his paradigm is shattered as he realizes that in his quest for knowledge through the stories of others he had failed to gain knowledge of his own self.

 

Saul is at his strongest in these rich concluding stories; he is at his weakest in the chapter “the narrator pauses to reflect,” in which the narrator does just that. It’s a bold but, I think, unsuccessful delving into the postmodern trend of “meta,” self-reflexive storytelling. The narrator, at this point, comes right out and has a chat with the reader about the story thus far, asking why, up to this point, we haven’t even heard the narrator’s name, and don’t know a single personal detail about him. The narrator then criticizes the late-twentieth century novel for being too prescriptive, and not letting the narrative speak for itself, which, the narrator then goes on to admit that that is what he is in the process of doing, and suggests, ironically that you ignore his musings: “this is crude narrator interference and you should ignore it.”

 

While the section is good for a laugh, I must say that I think you should actually take the narrator’s ironic advice here. The points made in the “meta” section are made more poignantly in the final chapters of the novel through the narrative itself, and I found myself wishing I’d had the privilege of unearthing the themes from the story myself rather than being handed them, tongue-in-cheek, by an ironic narrator.

 

Thankfully, even during the rare points where Saul’s innovation falls flat, a satisfying emotional core is maintained. It’s a story about a narrator’s realization that he is more than a narrator; he is the story’s life and blood, whether he likes it or not.

6
Wednesday
Mar
2013

The Purchase

 

Linda Spalding’s novel The Purchase is a heartbreaking story about a Quaker man named Daniel Dickinson who remarries a Methodist woman after his wife dies in childbirth. He is shunned by his community for his decision to remarry outside of his religion so he decides to pack up his five motherless children, his new wife, and all of his earthly belongings to move away from Pennsylvania and start a new life in Virginia.

 

Beginning in 1798 the story covers a rather long period of time in it’s two parts. The first part of the novel focuses on Daniel’s decision to move, his struggles to provide for his family in this new frontier, and the difficulties he has adapting to a community that is not Quaker. He struggles most with slavery, being himself an abolitionist, and finds himself buying a young slave boy named Onesimus. Daniel, having only gone to the auction to purchase tools for his new land, believes it may have been God’s will that he purchase this slave boy. Despite the fact that he bid beyond his means to purchase Simus, and becomes indebted to the slave auctioneer, Daniel brings Simus home to help him build a house for his family. Daniel must continue to remind himself that he must have purchased Simus for some reason, because he remains ashamed of himself for becoming a slave owner and inwardly cringes whenever he speaks harshly to Simus.

 

While helping to build the Dickinson home, Simus slips and breaks his leg. Daniel sends his eldest daughter, Mary, to run for help to a nearby neighbour, Jester Fox. Fox sends his own slave girl, Bett, who is a gifted healer to Simus’ aid. The two become close while Bett continues to tend to Simus’ leg; Bett even begins to sneak away from her shed on the Fox property at night to visit with Simus. Until this point in the novel, most of the hardships are based off of money and the debts Daniel faces while trying to build a new life for his family.

 

But here, Daniel and his family are now exposed to the harsh realities of slavery in the more southern parts of America. Bett becomes pregnant and her owner Jester Fox is furious with Daniel, claiming that Simus has fathered the baby and saying that he will have to beat Simus in order to teach him a lesson. Daniel refuses to let this happen saying that the two young slaves were likely lonely and found solace in each other’s company.

 

The disheartening novel that opens with new beginnings seems to thwart the idea, of a hope for a future, at every chance, but the novel ends with a small sense of hope. Hope that people like the Dickinsons with their open hearts, were the change that the abolitionist movement needed. The reader gets a sense that no matter what terrible things may come, there is always some small shred of hope to hold onto. Though most of the novel is about heartbreak and loss, it ends with the outlook for a happier story to begin and the hope for change in a cruel world.   

6
Wednesday
Mar
2013

The Myth of the Muslim Tide

 

Doug Saunders – who until recently was the European Bureau Chief of the Globe and Mail – is blessed with a level head. He is determined not to accept the deafening wolf cries that the end of Western civilization is near and that the world will soon be an unrecognizable Islamic caliphate. Whereas the post-9/11 decade has seen a deluge of hyperbolic, inflammatory messaging warning free peoples of the brewing “Muslim tide,” there is a dire shortage of material for those who, like Saunders, prefer fact to fabulations.

 

That is partly why The Myth of the Muslim Tide is less a revelatory read than a concise, somewhat snarky, rebuttal against “Muslim tide” fear-mongering. Indeed, Saunders analyzes dozens of polls to argue that while Muslim immigration cannot be denied, it is demonstrably false that most Muslims arriving in the West aim to carry out jihad, overthrow democratic institutions, install a Sharia system, or deploy their presumed fertility advantage to fundamentally alter the demographics of the Western world. Far from it.

 

The piles of polls from Gallup, Pew, and other leading groups – as well as prominent academic research from domains like social psychology – portray Muslim immigrants as searching for little more than self-empowerment, success and fulfillment for themselves and their families. On the whole, they vastly prefer integration to ghettoization, and – according to the data – profess loyalty to, and participate in, their new lands and democratic institutions, often to a greater degree than non-Muslim citizens. Yet Western society – Europe, worst of all – has mandated segregation rather than integration through its education and vocational systems, causing a disenfranchisement that could yield dangerous and deadly consequences.

 

Saunders’ introduction to the Muslim tide phenomenon includes an account of Anders Breivik, the man who carried out a mass shooting against youth members of the Norweigan Labour Party in 2011. He viewed these innocent children as future enablers of the Muslim tide because of their leftist platform. Breivik’s 1500-page manifesto consisted largely of snippets from Steyn, Ye’or, and their peers. We then meet Geert Wilders, the Dutch firebrand politician who openly compares the Koran with Mein Kampf. Saunders debunks three sets of claims regarding the Muslim tide; the first, concerning population growth and the so-called Muslim ‘fertility gene’; the second, concerning the integration of Muslim immigrants into Western society, and; the third, the notion that the majority of Muslims harbour extremist views and intentions. Within each category is a succession of claims, wisely disentangled. For example, the claim that Muslims want to establish Sharia tribunals is addressed separately from the claim that Muslims want to impose Sharia law on all people in the West a method that allows for an unusual degree of clarity and specificity in the field .

 

What follows is an overview of the “Jewish tide” and “Catholic tide,” reminding readers that similar suspicions were commonplace concerning these two massive 20th century immigrant groups. Still, comparing the Yiddish flavours of the Lower East Side to the Muslim suburbs of France – less than a year after the Toulouse murders – is unsettling and problematic.

 

Saunders also raises the flipside of the Muslim tide hysteria – the notion that Western civilization has become “insecure, malleable, and relativistic” and cannot withstand the “anchored, confident,” and ideologically unified Muslim world.  Yet Saunders suggests that while the West has much to worry about, the mass disappearance of democratic values is unlikely. There are still challenges that must be confronted, and platitudes about the failure of multiculturalism (though Saunders recommends the word be abolished) are unlikely to help. As such, the book concludes with a plea for rational minds to address the systemic factors of inequality and segregation that underly anger and disenfranchisement and lead to radicalism and terrorism.

 

This final section is where Saunders’ distaste for religion as anything beyond a “personal identifier” reveals itself most clearly.  Indeed, his overt secularism casts a shadow on otherwise highly objective writing. Saunders is eager to point out that the majority of Muslim immigrants do not define themselves by their religion, as if this is a categorically bad thing. Religious identification can be a motivating force for good. 

 

Saunders’ greatest strength is his fair-minded approach to unquestionably the most divisive issue of the post-9/11 era: the realities of Islamist terrorism. He does not defend nor deny the presence of “reactionary, repressive, intolerant and anti-Semitic forces” – indeed his own neighbour lost two legs in the London Underground bombings of 2005 – but he uses the best available research to put to rest fears that the average Muslim shopkeeper, his niqab-adorned wife, and his son, Mohammed, identify with this radical criminality any more than you or I. However, Saunders does lose focus when he drifts beyond the Islamized neighbourhoods of Europe and North America with which he is familiar and offers sweeping generalizations about purported modernization and “enlightenment” in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, predicting that a “de-Islamized Muslim world” is imminent.

 

Furthermore, a reliance on public opinion polls presents numerous challenges, particularly when the variables are hardly quantifiable. This leads to the creation of false dichotomies between “extreme” and “moderate,” between “integrated“ and “not integrated,” among others. Indeed, the experience of migration can be expressed as having one foot in the past, and the other foot in the present – never quite leaving the ‘old country’ while accepting a new way of life. Saunders, meanwhile, tends to view integration through a series of convenient, discrete markers – education level, income bracket, occupation status, number of children – but research he himself cites in the book demonstrates that these markers cannot account for who becomes a threat to Western society and who does not.  He also draws some tenuous correlations. It is a stretch to claim that by deciding to have fewer children, Muslim women in the West are showing that their “education levels and social values are falling into line with those of their new country.” Statisticians may also quibble with the book’s conclusions due to a problem known as low base rates. To illustrate this with an example, one could say “no Muslim immigrants commit acts of violence or terrorism” and be statistically correct, with a high confidence interval. The extreme nature of terrorism means that – thankfully – it is an infrequent occurrence. Yet this creates problems when making inferences from data.

 

The book too often treats Muslim migrants and the citizens of their native countries as one and the same. Beyond simply being wealthier, those Muslims who decide to come to the West differ in some important ways from those who stay put. Where Saunders finds that Muslim migrants are generally as ‘progressive’ as non-Muslims in the West – on issues like homosexuality and female genital mutilation – the preexistence of these attitudes may be a confounding variable. Simply put, those Muslims who most support ‘liberal democracy’ are the ones most likely to move to the West in the first place.  

 

As Saunders writes, “history never repeats itself.” In spite of the fact that the Muslim tide is, like everything else, unpredictable, it is still possible to identify and avoid repeating the mistakes of past eras. Meaningful integration – beyond mere rhetoric – is an imperative, or the West will continue towards a “culture of grievance” and a path of ghettoization disenfranchisement of Muslim immigrants – an outcome from which no one benefits but the jihadists. At the same time, a policy direction towards integration and self-empowerment is hard to imagine while much of the Western world is captivated by an obsession with the Muslim ‘invasion.’ Saunders’ book is thus a welcome toolkit for those seeking a return to facts and an end to extremism in all corners. 

3
Sunday
Mar
2013

Twisted Reality in the Roastery

Young Adult fantasy fiction tends towards the extreme – it evokes the young adult experience by creating worlds as new, vibrant and intense as the teenage inner life. Individuals with extraordinarysecrets and special identities fight against monolithic, repressive establishments and demon adults. The Hunger Games, one of the most popular young adult books in the world, features a young woman fighting against a world literally engineered to destroy her. The three authors who made up thediscussion panel at the Writers Fest event “Twisted Reality: Hiding in Plain Sight” write about teenagerswho must hide their supernatural abilities from a corrupt government, are abused and self-harming,stalked by inner demons and real adults, and are caught up in a complicated plot of identity theft.

 

When I walked into the Bridgehead Roastery on Saturday night, however, it was difficult to access thatsense of the world as a dangerous place. The authors sitting in front of a standing-room only audienceof 40 – 50 people just seemed really … nice. I was late, and could feel that a warm rapport had alreadydeveloped between the alert and interested panellists and the audience.

 

The moderator began with some questions about the degree to which the writers considered theiraudience while writing – did new technology or decrease in attention spans impact the authors? GaryBlackwood, who writes historical fiction such as “Stealing Shakespeare,” argued that teens need linearstories. Charles de Lint, whose newest series “The Wildlings” is about teens developing supernatural powers, pointed out that he thought that young adult fiction was gaining in popularity because of the enduring appeal of great stories “with action and resolution.” All the writers agreed that they did notwrite with their audience or its particular technological proficiencies in mind, but explored ideas and emotions they are passionate about and felt are authentic. Cheryl Rainfield noted that she feels veryvulnerable when she thinks about how much of herself is in her tales of troubled childhoods and abuse.

 

The moderator tried a different tack to expose the ever-mysterious creative process, by asking if writingwas directed toward some kind of pre-planned goal. The authors engaged deeply with the question:“I really feel I am trying to make a difference through my books… I am trying to increase compassion,”said Rainfield. She revealed later that she feels that writing about abuse saved her life. De Lint noddedenthusiastically. “I write about outsiders a lot – I’m trying to get people to see inside.” He laughed,“Sometimes I feel as if I’m beating people over the head with my themes.” Blackwood shifted in his chair, uncomfortable with the idea of “message”… “Well, I certainly don’t begin with a message,” hesaid, “But of course, I end up writing about what is really important.”

 

The discussion turned from the authors’ work to their writing processes. The audience began to askmore questions during this portion, asking for help with their writing or with teaching their studentsto write. “How do you corral your ideas?” asked one woman, “I just have so many!” de Lint answeredwith three words he said no one would want to hear: “Just. Keep. Writing.” He said he frequentlyhits a point in every book where “I just want to write: ‘And everyone died. The End.”” Like an athlete, however, you have to push through: “Practice your finish muscle.” de Lint answered many of the questions about writing practice with snappy bon mots such as “Writing is like reading a book really slowly” - clearly all fired up for his workshop the next day. After some discussion of their various writing habits (every morning, everywhere, binge-writing and recovery periods), I reflected on how much dedication, work and discipline writing for a living involves. It is not, as I believe I pictured when I was a young adult, hanging around in an artistic and emotional ferment for the majority of the time.

 

When I read young adult books, I sink gratefully into the familiar trope of besieged specialness. Halfway through the evening, I caught myself thinking about how the best of the genre accesses that particularly teenage feeling but also widens the perspective to allow for insights into the universality of the human experience – caring for others as well as protecting yourself. Charles de Lint, Cheryl Rainfield, and Gary Blackwood were open, friendly and supremely ready to chat about their craft and body of work.They seemed to genuinely care not only about the impact of their work but also about whether or not everyone at Bridgehead got what they wanted out of the evening. I reflected that teenagers with these three leading them through their different worlds had very solid guides.

3
Sunday
Mar
2013

Stretching the Art of the Possible

 

 

Tzeporah Berman is a fantastic story teller.  She is engaging, passionate, and direct.  She is able to translate ideas surrounding complicated ideas like climate politics into understandable and relatable narratives.  This Crazy Time is part autobiography, part manifesto, and part public relations campaign instructional for anyone interested in changing society.  Berman shares much of her personal story as to how she has ended up as the climate and energy co-director at Greenpeace International.  She begins at her personal awakening with the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, to her work with the protests to protect Clayquot Sound, to leading protests over the logging practices of the industry as a whole, through becoming an expert on how to run an effective environmental campaign, through depression and the joys and challenges of having a family along during this trip, and finally back to a place of hope for the future of the environment in spite of the challenge of climate change.  I once heard someone describe that the basic element of a story is “a character who wants something, and overcomes conflict to get it.”[i]  Throughout this book there’s no lack of conflict for Berman to overcome, and I found myself cheering along as she fought for important things and suffered with her through the struggles that were thrown her way. 

 

Berman shares many lessons she learned throughout the experiences she details in this book.  One of my personal favourite stories is about her colleague, Karen Mahon, running into her “arch-nemesis” Linda Coady of MacMillian Bloedel, a major forestry company that Greenpeace was campaigning against for their practice of clear-cutting old-growth rainforest in British Columbia.  What made this interaction so memorable was that they were both pushing the exact same stroller; it was from this place of equality that they were able to sit down for coffee together “mom-to-mom, person-to-person, [and] they saw each other as people for the first time.”  Most of what Berman used to bring solutions to the issues she was fighting for was the experience of dealing with real people, rather than treating the other side as the enemy. 

...through all the posturing in any contentious issue every day, I begin to see, connect with and eventually listen to real people in government and industry.  It may sound simplistic, but my experience is that we are way too quick to slap a label on someone (corporate flack, government stooge, hippie environmentalist).  We allow such labels to get in the way of real learning and sometimes even solutions.  If you are not ensconced in the environmental movement, that revelation may even seem crazy to you; but in my twenties, in the circles I was working in, it was crazy for a different reason.  It was heresy.

 

This lesson should seem so obvious, but this flaw clearly exists on all sides of every environmental debate.  Each side, be it politician, industry insiders, environmentalists, and even community leaders, often come in with the view that they are right, and everyone else is wrong.  Berman shares some great stories facing intractable positions.  Berman shares about her dealings with Bill Cafferata, the chief forester for MacMillian Bloedel, and large intimidating man, who in a sense was Berman’s arch-nemesis during the Clayquot Sound protests.  During a weekend retreat where several MacBlo employees as well as leaders involved in the protests of the logging, Berman and Cafferata were sent into a room with the instructions to “be the other person”, and beer was provided.  It took some time, but the opportunity to see their opponent as a real person, really changed the interaction between these two adversaries. 

 

Through negotiations, discussion and creative problem solving, Berman and her team worked with MacBlo to fundamentally change their business model in the most sustainable way – MacBlo would remain profitable, but would also greatly reduce the negative impacts of their logging on the rainforests.  These types of discussions are going to be critical as we move forward as a civilization, to determine how we can work within the existing framework of the economy, but can make positive long-term, positive change. 

 

Throughout the process I learned that there are good people everywhere who want to do the right thing.  The trick is capturing the attention of senior decision makers and convincing them to give their staff a mandate to think creatively.

 

Berman shares many challenges, but some of the most vicious she experienced were caused by other environmentalists.  Every time she held negotiations she was called a sell-out, and was even threatened by former colleagues.  What is most sad about this was that the good intentions of these other environmentalists became so twisted that they ended up fighting the very thing they were hoping to accomplish.  But, unlike her work with industry, there weren’t the happy resolutions. 

 

Sadly all too often environmental groups take positions that shut down debate or seem so far from today’s economic and social realities they don’t illuminate a solution; they simply create a fight no one can win... So how do we stretch the art of the possible as we did in the Great Bear Rainforest, while at the same time taking a position that’s politically viable and not completely out of whack?

 

We need healthy debate, from all stakeholders if we have any hope to stretch the art of the possible, to stop looking at the same answers that keep coming up drastically short.  Despite all the warnings that climate scientists continue to raise, despite the fact that we are seeing affects of climate change occurring faster than even the commonly accepted models are predicting, we continue to have intractable positions, be it governments refusing to put a price on carbon[ii], and continuing policies that have the opposite effect of encouraging further consumption of fossil fuels.  To make a meaningful change, environmentalists need to let go of the black-and-white view of the other people, to accept that politicians and business leaders actually have a legitimate perspective.  But politicians and business leaders need to realize that they have to change their business-as-usual.  This is the hard work--looking for creative solutions to very large and complicated problems, and this will only happen if we can honestly work together.  If Berman was able to fundamentally change the business model of a large company like MacMillian Bloedel, and as a consequence change the whole logging industry, surely society can find a way to fight climate change and reduce our CO2 emissions.  The problem with CO2, unlike logging, is that its cause is incredibly distributed.  The bulk of Canadian emissions result from heating; a change will require all future designs of buildings to incorporate passive-solar heating and drastically better insulation, and all existing building need to be retrofitted.  There isn’t one big company to protest, despite the focus on the oil industry; all Canadians are contributing, and the solutions need to be systemic.  But, if Governments, industry, and environmentalists can sit down and have an honest conversation about the issues, looking for real solutions, I have to believe an answer exists.  Berman is hopeful that this will happen.

 

Practically every Earth Day speech since the 1970’s has sold the dream of a future when our energy comes from wind farms, the sun and clean hydro that will power a new economy of Electric cars and zero-impact lifestyles.  Now that the future is on its way, the clean-tech sector is booming and environmentalists like me face a moment of truth.

 

This book is Berman facing that truth, and offering real and honest dialog as to what will be required to find real solutions, without pretending they are easy and that she has them all.

 

If we can raise the issues and have a positive conversation that invites people to join, if we can act from a place of openness and possibility instead of anger and fear, we’re going to create a greater dialogue and a larger movement.  If what we do and how we do it reaches only a small segment of the population, in the end we are simply having a conversation with ourselves. It’s a messier business than righteous opposition, but the alternative is to fail at history’s critical moment. 



[i] “A million Miles in a Thousand Years”, by Donald Miller

[ii] The only proven method of reducing CO2 emissions is to put a price on emissions, either though a cap-and-trade model, or through a carbon tax.  This has been extensively studied, but the most readable evidence of this is shared in Hot Air, by Jeffrey Simpson, Marc Jaccard and Nic Rivers.

3
Sunday
Mar
2013

The Hope of Life

 

It was on this same day that Penny announced it was time to move beyond the short story and write a novel.  She was going to take a leave from the hospital.  The novel would be about a woman born in 1930 whose existence was both minor and major.

 

Hope was wary.  She smelled a rat.  “What do you mean, ‘major’?”

 

“She is a woman.  And what is there about the life of a woman that is worth exploring?  A woman does not fight in wars, does not invent, does not make something out of nothing, except for the exceptional woman, like Madame Curie or Jane Austen.  Most women your age had children and raised them … I haven’t figured out the major part yet, though it has to be there.  Doesn’t it?”

 

Hope Koop was born in Manitoba in 1930.  The Age of Hope tells her story, almost as if David Bergen were writing the novel that Hope’s daughter, Penny, proposed.  The novel reads more like a biography or a third person memoir, a collection of stories of Hope throughout her life.  Many of the stories are mundane, and as I read, I couldn’t help but wonder why I was so fascinated by the life of such an ordinary person.  There is nothing special about Hope, and the style of writing does not add dramatic flair or suspense.  Yet I felt compelled to keep going to see what happens next.   Bergen somehow makes all the minor events of one life amount to something major, and in so doing, exposes for one and all to see a snapshot of Canadian history through the eyes of a woman who lived it. 

 

Hope was born and raised as a Mennonite, but never fully immersed herself in that community.  She was both an insider and an outsider in many aspects of her life: a part of her family, yet somehow disconnected from her husband and children; a part of her community, yet with few actual friends; a woman who lived an average life, yet had enough deviations from the typical script to be complicated and interesting.  Like many women of her time, Hope marries young, has children, raises them, and has hopes and dreams for them like any other parent.  Her responses to her children’s choices are similar to that of any loving mother.   Yet still she feels somehow different.

 

There were warning signs of trouble early on.  Hope liked to flirt with danger.  She would pick up hitchhikers along the highway, inviting one of them back for dinner.  There was a brief, unsuccessful attempt to go back to school.  There was a random, one-time counselling session with a local pastor.  There was lending her wedding dress to the random hitchhiker she had invited home years earlier.  There were many small moments of doubt.  And then she got pregnant again, an event which did not make her happy, and the warning signs intensified.  Hope combated the overhanging clouds of doom by forming a friendship group where she met Linda and Frank.

 

Linda waited impatiently for Frank to finish and then she said that the hardest thing in life was to accept one’s lot.  “All this nonsense about the world coming to our doorstep and destroying life as we know it is just fearful people blowing smoke up your ass.  Take control of your life.  Make smart decisions.  Realize that this is it, this is all you have, this life, in this little place, on this planet, in this corner of the world.”  She paused and looked at Hope and for a brilliant moment Hope saw that what she was saying was absolutely true, and then the window that looked out onto that clear space slammed shut.

 

This was the tipping point. This is where the conflict and plot come in.  The Age of Hope is Hope’s quest to come to terms with this poignant statement.  While she continues to struggle and have her ups and downs (as we all do), Hope slowly figures out how to do exactly this.  Little by little, she works her way to finding her place, blundering at times, shining at others, living not so different a life from you or me.  She faces her depression and overcomes it (for the most part).  She learns to come to terms with having more than others, with the humiliation of going bankrupt and having less than others, with children who choose to live lives very different from those that she would have expected or desired for them, with life, with death, with love, and with everything in between.

 

The Age of Hope is a worthwhile read.  While not the most exciting story, it is comforting, like a conversation with Grandma.  By sharing in the life of Hope, the hope of life comes through and one walks away feeling as though one matters, no matter how big or small one is in the grand scheme of things.  As Linda so succinctly points out, “this is all you have, this life, in this little place, on this planet, in this corner of the world,” and so you leave the book considering the life that one woman had and what your life will be that you will carve out in your own little corner of the world.

3
Sunday
Mar
2013

The Sweet Girl

 

Aside from a near-forgotten experience involving twenty misplaced books at my bookstore employment, all of my feelings towards Annabel Lyon’s work are positive. I wanted to read The Golden Mean since its release in 2009, and was delighted to hear that Lyon wrote a second novel—The Sweet Girl—as well.

 

Not surprisingly, Lyon’s first novel was nominated for all three of the major Canadian fiction prizes: the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s award for English language fiction, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the latter of which she won. The Golden Mean was the only Canadian novel published in 2009 to be nominated for all three of these prizes - which says much- considering it was Lyon’s first work of that form.

 

Upon finishing The Sweet Girl, I found myself feeling somewhat unsatisfied. There did not seem to be any clear moments of sadness or happiness within the novel, any moments wherein I felt justifiably angry or exuberant. Feeling this way—however negative such feelings may seem—served as an excellent tool for Lyon’s depiction of both Aristotle and his precocious young daughter Pythias. Both characters evaluated the world in a highly-calculated and logical manner, and this is entirely how Annabel Lyon coaxed the reader to travel through her book. All feelings are, or at least should be, supported by fact and science and decision.

 

As someone who loves history—especially the ancient sort—I was expecting sweeping landscapes and Shakespearean drama and complicated relationships. This, of course, would be the way I would know Aristotle and his daughter. As it turned out, however, Annabel Lyon provided a richer and more accurate understanding of the historical-fictional scholar, and his progeny than I imagined was possible. 

 

The Sweet Girl picks up relatively close to where The Golden Mean leaves off, despite skipping a number of years of little Pythias’ childhood. Aristotle has taken a former slave, Herpyllis, to be his concubine after his first wife—also called Pythias—has died. We catch up with the younger Pythias, Aristotle’s daughter to whom the novel’s title refers, in her early years as a teenager.

 

Pythias is consummately her father’s daughter. Despite her incongruence with other young women of the time, Pythias holds her own at a dinner with Aristotle’s peers:

‘Can [your daughters] read books?’ I ask. ‘Not just the household accounts. I mean real books.’

No reaction.

‘Could they?’ I ask. ‘If you tried to teach them? If an ass could read, would it be wrong to teach it?’

 

While sitting in a spot originally intended for her younger, mostly illiterate brother Nico, Pythias directly questions the men at her father’s dinner. Lyon writes Pythias to be independent, and so obviously the daughter of Aristotle. Pythias is not confined to cultural norms and wholly focused on logical discussion and facts.

 

Pythias also mimics Aristotle in her insults. She does so by telling her adopted brother Myrmex “you’re stupid and you can’t read and you might as well be a plant yourself.” A lack of reason and intelligence, of course, is the ultimate insult in Aristotle’s household.

 

Quasi-stepmother Herpyllis is certainly well-meaning, but does not jive with the household of Aristotle. She claims that “[t]hinking is unlovely on a girl,” which certainly does not fit with Aristotle’s—or Pythias’—view of the world. Herpyllis nonetheless dotes on Pythias, and is a reasonable substitute for Pythias senior.

 

Shortly before the passing of Aristotle, I came to truly appreciate Annabel Lyon’s portrait of the loving relationship between Aristotle and Pythias. They spend happy days at the beach, swimming and examining various water creatures, experiencing—according to the aging philosopher—“fun and science.” I soon discovered that, though their relationship is highly significant, that this novel intends to focus more on the journey Pythias makes after the loss of her father—the individual she modeled her thoughts and thus her life upon.

 

Nearer to the end of the novel, I began to resent the connotations of the novel’s title. Initially, The Sweet Girl truly does refer to a father's fond love for his exceptional daughter. Later in Lyon’s novel, however, such 'sweetness' (and femininity) becomes the absolute insult to Pythias; that though she would always be known as her father's daughter, she would never be able to accomplish as much as he had. Eventually, she does manage to involve herself in midwifery practices, but such work that the reader anticipates for the daughter of Aristotle does not last long.

 

As laid out in Aristotle’s will (which Lyon included at the outset of this second novel), Pythias is pledged to marry to her older cousin Nicanor. After various financial struggles, as well as struggles of other sorts, Pythias ends up exactly where the culture of the time would have her: as a wife to a husband, comfortably settled at home. I found this to be a difficult reading experience, as Annabel Lyon had me hoping for some highly-fictionalized, atypical gender role developments for Pythias. That somehow, all historical evidence aside, Pythias wouldn’t marry and would find fulfillment in some sort of medical practice. My hopes were, of course, dashed—and rightly so.

 

Reading this novel was uncomfortably enjoyable. History isn’t actually all that enjoyable most of the time, but it still fascinating and important. Annabel Lyon’s second novel is an excellent means by which to forget that you’re reading fiction rather than a history textbook.

28
Thursday
Feb
2013

The Selector of Souls

 

Shauna Singh Baldwin's novel, The Selector of Souls is the story of two very different women, each standing at an important crossroad in her life. Set primarily in India in the mid-1990s, we are introduced to important aspects of Indian society at the time, seen through the eyes and experiences of the Damini and Anu, women from different generations, different class and education background. The novel is, to say the least, a very ambitious project: a rich and expansive and novel that portrays the intimate and personal worlds of the two women and their families against the background of the major themes and preoccupations in India and beyond during the nineteen nineteens' and since. In flashbacks we learn about the protagonists' background that brought them to this decisive time in their respective lives, we also take a glimpse into their future through the Epilogue, dated 2005.

 

Like in her previous work, e.g. her novel, What the Body Remembers, and collections of short stories, the author shares her intimate familiarity with the many aspects of Indian society through the thematic discussions in the book. Apart from the major political upheavals of the time, such as the struggle for influence and power of the different political groupings and their representatives, or India's provocative launch into the nuclear age, Singh Baldwin delves deeply into a wide range of social challenges and religious conflicts. Among those are the longstanding hostile encounters among the different religions, the caste system and the treatment of ethnic minorities. Crosscutting these themes is Baldwin's deep concern for the treatment of girls and women. Topics such as gender selection, birth control, etc. take prominent positions in the novel and are addressed from numerous angles.

 

Interestingly, her two protagonists epitomize a cautious shift in the religious mosaic: Damini, while brought up Hindu has been working for thirty years as a servant and "voice" companion to the mute Sikh Mem-saab and describes herself as Sikh-Hindu. Anu, also Hindu by birth, is increasingly drawn to the Christian faith and, after leaving her abusive husband, escapes to a convent in the Middle Hills north of Delhi and refers to herself as Christian-Hindu. While the two characters' lives unfold separately for some time, their sections alternating throughout the novel, it is no surprise to the reader that Damini's and Anu's lives will not only intersect but become increasingly interwoven.

 

Their difference in religious beliefs, age, caste and social standing notwithstanding, they both have the capacity to listen and to learn. What emerges as a fundamental issue in their relationship is their opposing attitude towards birth control and family planning, and by extension the treatment of children, especially girls. Can they find common middle ground? Both central characters seem to be guided by an inner voice, visually identified through a different print face. While their respective sections focus on their experiences and are written from their perspectives, one can at times sense the omniscient authorial voice explaining developments rather showing them through the protagonists' behaviour or thinking. For both the moral dilemma is evident and well depicted. Still, the discussion or elaboration of an important theme seems, at times, to push the narrative flow of the novel into the background.

 

Shauna Singh Baldwin describes her book as "[…] a meditation on creating and destroying. How can we redeem ourselves after destroying?" It is indeed a meditation on creating and destroying as it engages the many different themes of the novel.  For readers knowledgeable about or interested in India this novel will be very engaging and also providing much food for thought. As I stated above, it is an expansive and ambitious novel that readers less familiar with India will at times find challenging and they may feel overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of themes and issues being addressed. While the Canada-India connection was, according to the author, originally a major theme of the book, it felt less organic than other sections in the novel.

 

28
Thursday
Feb
2013

Is This Your First War?

 

Michael Petrou’s Is This Your First War? - Travels Through the Post-9/11 Islamic World takes the reader through places and through states of mind that most of us, in Ottawa, will never experience in person.  Petrou has a likeable, unobtrusive presence as narrator, allowing his readers to feel that they are meeting his comrades and his interviewees for themselves.  Of all the encounters and adventures that went into this insightful and informative book, one in particular stood out to me. 

 

Petrou was on his way through Istanbul, en route to Iraq, hoping “to cover its liberation” as a freelance reporter in 2003.  At twilight, near the Blue Mosque, Petrou finds himself befriended by a man who introduces himself as “a banker from the United Arab Emirates,” and who proposes that they go for a drink together.  Less than five minutes after walking into the bar, Petrou has declined the services of a prostitute, paid an extortionate sum for two beers, and beat a retreat.  On the tram ride back, “it wasn’t until [he] saw the familiar spires of the Blue Mosque” that Petrou “realized” his new friend “was part of the shakedown from the start.”  The whole misadventure – which Petrou succinctly sums up as “getting robbed in a brothel” – is positioned at a structurally significant point, almost exactly half-way through Is This Your First War?

 

At first, I could hardly understand how Petrou could have got into such trouble; he had already backpacked through Central Asia with his friend Andrew, and reported from Afghanistan for the Ottawa Citizen in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.  Subsequently enrolled at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, as a doctoral candidate in modern history, he “never stopped reporting,” but did freelance pieces for Canadian newspapers and Maclean’s magazine on brief trips to Lebanon and Belarus, before becoming a fêted senior correspondent for Maclean’s.  Surely Petrou’s instinct for self-preservation would be too well honed to let him fall victim to such a scam? 

 

And yet, I realized, Petrou’s unhesitating openness to new experiences, his willingness to place his trust in people on short acquaintance, is precisely what makes him such an effective reporter, and the perfect narrator to guide his readers around the historically turbulent places which he visits.  If Petrou had been more cautious, he might have avoided the shakedown – but he and his friend Andrew would never have clung to the outsides of buses and jeeps to travel through the breathtaking landscapes of northern Pakistan, would never have eaten lagman noodles in the homes of Uighur peasants – would never, in short, have a story to tell. 

 

Petrou writes admiringly of the photojournalist, Zahra Kazemi, who died in the custody of the Iranian prison system in 2003: “She wasn’t interested in politicians or other powerful people and didn’t feature them in her work.  What mattered to Kazemi were those who are often forgotten and overlooked.”  The same could be said of Petrou’s own approach in Is This Your First War?; his attention focuses on civilians obliged to live in war zones, but extends even as far as the plight of animals in brutalized societies.  This book strongly succeeds in giving Petrou’s subjects their own voices to address the reader – from Ali, a guesthouse owner in Pakistan, desperately nostalgic for the era of hippies travelling overland to India, to a young Pakistani in Afghanistan, captured while apparently fighting on the side of the Taliban.  The young prisoner asks Petrou for money for medicine, saying that since the other prisoners “are Afghans . . . they have families nearby who can help them.  My family is far away.  I have no one,” words that close a section of Petrou’s experience and haunt his readers. 

 

Michael Petrou’s gift for allowing his writing to become the conduit for other, urgent voices is particularly to the fore in his chapters on Iran.  Nasser, “a burly veteran of the Iran-Iraq war,” invites Petrou to join him and two friends at a coffee house in Esfahan, apologizes for the lack of liquor, but points out Esfahan’s lively and diverse social season; gender and religion don’t prevent sociable private parties with mixed dancing.  Nasser deprecates American interventionism, but puts his hopes in change driven by Iranian citizens.  Nasser’s uncle, Farouk, couches his protest in more cerebral terms.  He teaches Petrou a “traditional Persian nomad’s song” about the coming of spring.  In Tehran, Petrou meets a tight-knit group of extraordinarily brave dissidents; most of them have been imprisoned and maltreated, and all expect further arrests in their future.  They help him to break the story of Zahra Kazemi’s mistreatment while in Tehran’s Evin Prison. 

 

“The former prisoners were taking an enormous risk by speaking to me,” writes Petrou, “yet most insisted that, when I was safely outside Iran, I quote them by name.”  Petrou has honoured their intention, giving their names and words as an eloquent plea for a freer Iranian society.  One dissident offers the moving metaphor of a young plant fighting its way through the weight of the soil to describe the Iranian people’s struggle to “push through” into liberty, security, and democracy.

 

Petrou is consistently committed to showcasing a variety of political opinions from the countries he explores; in Israel and the West Bank, he speaks to Jewish Israelis holding pro- and anti-settlement positions, and to Muslim Palestinians with varying degrees of acceptance for the existence of the Jewish state.  His recognition of diversity within each country is intimately tied to his recognition of diversity between countries.  The author writes critically about his own title: “the ‘Islamic world’ . . . is a flawed term.  There are millions of Christians and Jews living in the countries [which feature in this book], and millions of Muslims living in countries that aren’t mentioned . . . There is no unified and homogenous collection of Muslim communities, any more than there is a Christian one . . . Islam is the common thread that runs through the places covered in this book, even if does not bind them.”

 

At the heart of his book are the experiences and accounts of the ordinary people whom he meets – “those who must live with . . . politicians’ . . . decisions.”  To contextualize their stories, Petrou concisely introduces aspects of each place’s history, from Alexander the Great’s military projects right up to the moment – including a critical account of the U.N.’s efforts to mitigate the genocide at Darfur.  One last gift of Petrou’s writing is the insight he offers into the processes of journalism itself.  He recounts his admiration of Dr. Awwad, a gifted Syrian-Indian journalist who is able to navigate the distance between domestic concerns and the dangers of war reporting with far more grace than most, notes the difference that a translator’s level of competence can make, and explains the addictive hold of war reporting. 

 

On finishing Is This Your First War?, I felt far more intimately acquainted with the people inhabiting turbulent areas in Central Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa, and understood a little more about the people who bring us our news. 

28
Thursday
Feb
2013

The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace

 

Part current events, part history and part autobiography, former UN special representative to Afghanistan, Chris Alexander, explains the current situation in this war-torn nation and its hope for the future in The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace.

 

Alexander’s résumé, especially for someone only in their forties, is remarkable. Alexander joined the Foreign Service in the nineties, eventually becoming Minister Counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Moscow. In 2003, he took the position of Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan. Alexander was offered the job of deputy head of the United Nations Assistance Mission (UNAMA) in Afghanistan, which he served from 2005 until 2009. His current job – Member of Parliament for Ajax-Pickering – seems almost like a step down.

 

It is all of these positions that have given Alexander the expertise and inside knowledge to write at length about Afghanistan’s problems. However, it is all of these positions that are also the reason behind my biggest critique of The Long Way Back – Alexander’s inability to criticize anyone he has worked for.

 

The point of The Long Way Back is to explain the current situation in Afghanistan, which is undoubtedly complex and multifaceted. Alexander found that, “Afghanistan’s story since 2001 has yet to be properly told,” so he endeavored to better explain the problems that Afghanistan faces. Still, Alexander simplifies Afghanistan’s woes largely to one factor – Pakistan.

 

Alexander summarizes his point by saying, “the victims of violence over the last decade have lost their lives, either directly or indirectly, because of a misguided Pakistani policy that treats Afghanistan as a mere pawn in an ongoing battle for regional supremacy against India. Conflict will not yield to peace in Afghanistan unless and until this policy is abandoned.”

 

The critique of Pakistan is not unfounded; the Pakistani government has all too often provided sanctuary for insurgents and support to the Taliban. But in only blaming Pakistan, Alexander removes some legitimacy from The Long Way Back's diagnosis of Afghanistan's real problems. There are other factors at play.

 

I can only conjecture, but it seems to me that Alexander’s previous jobs and connections have prevented him from making any scathing critiques other than on Pakistan. Alexander is unwilling to say anything negative about Afghan President Hamid Karzai – the man he worked closely with as Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan. Alexander does note that others perceive Karzai to be corrupt and unfit for the job, but he dismisses these notions as ungrounded. He also says nothing negative about UNAMA, which is unsurprising considering his prominent role in that mission. And thanks to Alexander’s current position in the Conservative Party and Canadian government, he certainly makes no ill mention of NATO military action or any Western government. He surprisingly does not even find the Soviet Union’s 1980s war in Afghanistan to be of any real significance to Afghanistan’s situation today.

 

This is not to suggest that Afghanistan’s problems can be traced more accurately to Karzai or Western countries. But to ignore some of these factors completely is to not do justice to the complexity of Afghanistan’s situation. Pakistan, no matter how immoral, uncooperative and ill intended, is not the lone factor causing Afghanistan’s instability. Considering how much attention Alexander devoted to Afghanistan’s history, he should be well aware of this.

 

Alexander does not bother to rationalize Canada’s military engagement in Afghanistan; rather, he assumes that it is in Canadians’ interests to continue the war. This can be debated, but does not actually detract from the book. One assumption that does detract, however, is the belief that the Taliban will not come back once the military mission in Afghanistan is over. Alexander does not address this crucial point, and simply assumes that the Taliban can be completely wiped out for good. It is far from guaranteed that the Taliban can be permanently eliminated. The Taliban is more about a set of beliefs than a group of people, and ideas cannot be killed with a military invasion. Once NATO troops return home, all of the progress that has been made in Afghanistan is in danger of being reversed as the Taliban will no longer be facing any military opposition.

 

Moreover, Alexander makes no real distinction between the Taliban and al Qaeda, going so far as to say that the “Taliban brain trust...brought down the Twin Towers.” The Taliban harboured al Qaeda and the two groups have cooperated in the past, but they are not one and the same. It is a misleading premise, and one that does not do justice to the why of Western military engagement in Afghanistan.

 

Overall, The Long Way Back is well written and full of many fascinating insights into Afghan history that only Alexander would be able to provide. Alexander’s role as ambassador to Afghanistan and deputy head of UNAMA have given readers an insider’s look at the stories and circumstances that have come to shape Afghanistan today.

 

The book is interesting and timely; however, it falls short in a couple of different respects. First, The Long Way Back has a bit of an identity crisis, as it is part autobiography, part history and part current events. Alexander could have written an excellent autobiography that followed his experiences in such interesting regions of the world. Instead, Alexander focused more on diagnosing Afghanistan’s main problems, which was much too ambitious for a 250-page book. This leads to The Long Way Back’s second main problem, which is that its ultimate diagnosis – Pakistan – is simplistic and ultimately leaves the reader wondering why – if Pakistan is to blame for most of Afghanistan’s instability – Canadian troops are fighting a war inside the Afghan borders. And though it is meant to be hopeful for Afghanistan’s future, the book is ultimately short on real solutions and future prospects for the country.

 

These criticisms should not dissuade readers from giving The Long Way Back a read. Ultimately, the book is a unique view into a country’s situation that too many of us are uninformed about. Too many of us have also given up on Afghanistan, discouraged by an apparently lack of progress. But Alexander makes note that Afghanistan has changed, and that these changes have “laid the groundwork for functioning institutions and a national economy.” These changes have also “sustained hopes in the face of waves of violence.”