Archive for April, 2009

Porcupines and China Dolls, by Robert Arthur Alexie

April 30, 2009

To understand this story, it is important to know the People and where they came from and what they went through.


Even back then, the People realized the value of the white man’s education and didn’t make a big fuss about it.  They just didn’t realize how it was going to be done.  They put their faith and trust in His Majesty and His Majesty’s government and believed “said children” would be cared for.  They had no reason to think otherwise.

What they didn’t know when they put their “X” on the Treaty was that the church would be given the responsibility to educate their “said children”.  It sounded like patronage, and it is still a contentious issue to this day.  It probably always will be.

Soon after, the first mission boat arrived in Aberdeen, and thirty-five children were herded out of the Blue Mountains and dragged off to mission school.  The People have no words in their language for mission school.  The closest anyone has come to it is “hellhole”, but that’s beside the point.  The point is that years later twenty-four of the thirty-five would return.  More importantly, eleven wouldn’t.

It had begun, but no one knew what “it” was.  Things were beginning to change; the future was unfolding, as it should.

porcupines-and-china-dolls_theytustitlemain1From the day the first white man arrived, the treatment of Canada’s indigenous people has been dreadful.  First came the diseases like smallpox (sometimes spread deliberately with infected blankets) that wiped out entire populations and decimated others.  For those who survived as they built up resistance, then came the demons of alcohol and guns. 

Perhaps the most heart-breaking, and longest lasting, tragedy however was the mission, or residential, school, a practice that lasted more than a century, from the 1880s into the 1980s.  Children were taken from their families, culture and environment at age six or seven in a conscious effort to rob them not just of their heritage but of any chance to mature in a normal fashion.  Those who survived were returned at the age of 16, damaged and only partly there.  The mission school experience is a scar that will never heal for both those who went through it and those who inflicted it upon them.

The quotes above come from the opening pages of  Porcupines and China Dolls, a novel about the consequences of that travesty.  Set in 1999, its central characters are James Nathan and Jake Noland — they entered the mission school together more than 30 years earlier.  They helped each other survive the decade there; they have been trying, with limited success, to help each other as brothers ever since.  Those school experiences may be more than 20 years back in chronological history; Robert Arthur Alexie’s point is that they are ever present today.

The author is uniquely qualified to write this novel.  Born and raised in Fort McPherson in Canada’s Northwest Territories (where the novel is set), he became chief of the Tetlit Gwich’in band, was on the Gwich’in Tribal Council and helped negotiate the land claim agreement for the tribe.  While it is not explicitly stated, one can only assume he had first hand experience of the mission school regime.

Just yesterday, after a private audience with some survivors of mission school abuse, Pope Benedict finally formally “expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the church” to indigenous children (the Roman Catholic missions ran about 75 per cent of the 130 schools). In doing so, the Catholic Church joined the Government of Canada and Anglican, Presbyterian and United Churches for the horror they had directly inflicted on 150,000 children — and indirectly on even more of their descendents.

Before going further, I’d also like to quote the most useful cover blurb that I can ever remember seeing.  It comes from Thomas King, himself an award-winning Native author:

A terrific book that deals with present day concerns.  Its narrative strategy is one that North American readers aren’t going to be used to…but for Native readers, what they’ll hear is some of the overtones of oral literature and oral story telling.

Readers should heed King’s implicit advice — just as Sam Selvon requires an ear, so does Alexie.  Oral literature also tends to wander down some sideroads and this book is no exception.  Be prepared to let the storyteller lead, because the path he takes is well worth following.

Alexie uses the first third of the book to frame his story (in a strange way, he’s not unlike Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in investing so much time before really beginning his story).  I’ll supply just one indication of the kind of care he takes in developing this:

This first generation of mission school children, after relearning their language (Reviewer’s note:  The children weren’t allowed to use their native tongue in the schools), ways and customs, began raising the second generation.  What they didn’t know was that they lacked one of the most important and fundamental skills needed to preserve the family unit.  This skill, which can only be learned, was parenting.  A recipe for disaster was in the making, but no one knew it at the time.

After these “parents” delivered their children to the school, as required by law, the first thing that happened to the boys was that their clothes were removed and burnt, their heads shaved and a uniform provided.  They become the “Porcupines” of the book’s title.  Much the same happens to the girls, although their haircut consists of bluntly-trimmed bangs and a straight cut across the back just below ear level — they are the China Dolls.

The individuals that emerge from those schools are only partly there; it isn’t just the skills of how to parent that have been missed.  The part that is there is badly damaged and the desire, no need, to escape is constantly present.  Getting drunk works for a day, although there is the hangover problem.  Meaningless sex (having never experienced love, it is not surprising that they cannot give it) is a complementary option, although it carries the risk of VD and pregnancy.  The only permanent solution, and Alexie does not hesitate to reference it often, is to put a gun in your mouth and pull the trigger — to this day, too many Native people still opt for this solution.

Part of the oral tradition is that the real world has a parallel Dream World, that is every bit as “real” to those who experience it, because it is based on lived experience.  It is a nightmare that they have lived, peopled by very real Evil Spirits.

The dramatic action of Porcupines and China Dolls begins when a hungover Jake sees Tom Kinney, the priest supervisor who sexually abused him a quarter century earlier, in a feature on television.  Without thinking, he tells his girl-friend that he was abused — she has the wisdom to call in a counsellor who tells Jake that his friend Michael, who had commited suicide a few years earlier, had left a note saying he was abused.

While there are numerous side stories, the second third of the book centres on whether Jake will “disclose” his experience, knowing that that may only start an even more painful process.  How many others, including James, had the same experience?  Will they also disclose?

Alexie resolves these questions in one of the most dramatic pieces of writing that I have ever read.  I can’t remember the last time that a book caused tears to flow down my cheeks; this section did on both the first read and the reread.  The resolution takes place at a community healing ceremony.  The Dream World, the Evil Spirits and the History are every bit as real as the present day experience.  It is an incredible piece of writing.

If this were a conventional novel, the author would quickly tidy up the loose ends in a denoument and close the book.  This is not a conventional novel — Alexie still has 100 pages to go in a 300-page book.

The final third does have more hope than the first two-thirds, but the author is careful to temper it.  Attempts are made to stop drinking.  A revival of traditional ways banned by the authorities, such as drum-dancing and cremating the dead in the Blue Mountains is tentatively tried.  Both James and Jake have women they honestly want to love and they make genuine efforts to try to learn how to do that.  Relocating south to Yellowknife and starting life over is an option, but that too carries risks for someone who has been so grotesquely trained for life.  Alexie’s ending cannot be completely happy, because that would be a total denial of the Canadian Native experience.

Porcupines and China Dolls is not a perfect book.  As noted, those who are not used to the oral tradition will find some of the side trips distracting.  Alexie’s commitment to telling the truthful story makes much of it relentlessly depressing — I’d argue that since we white people sentenced these Natives to live that depression, that is no excuse to not read about it.  I am not a parent but I think this is a book that every reading parent should at least attempt, if only to appreciate how lucky they are that no government or church is taking their child from them.

Porcupines and China Dolls is not a new book — in an ironic way, its history is a reflection of some of the woes Native people face that the book talks about.  It was first published in 2002 by Stoddart Publishing, which went out of business days after and the book dropped from sight (I can find a few used copies on online sites but not many).  Penguin apparently published an edition in 2004 — in a quick search, I can’t even find any used copies of that version.  This edition is published by Theytus Books, a First Nations owned and operated house based in Penticton, B.C. (they do have an American subsidiary, so the book is available across North America).  The proof copy that I read has a 2008 copyright, so I presume Alexie has revised the earlier work — I have no idea how extensive the changes might be.  Whatever he did, the result is one of most impressive books I have read in a long, long time.

This is the first of three related posts. On Monday, I will post a review of Carpentaria, the award-winning Australian novel by Alexis Wright, a member of the Waanyi nation. It is a book that has many similarities in acquainting those of us who are not indigenous people — in either Canada or Australia — with that world. And a week from today, I’ll indulge in some thoughts and examples about some other similarities that can be found in the fiction of these two nations, even if they are geographically a globe apart.



Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson

April 27, 2009

andersonWhen Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout was announced as the 2009 Pulitzer Prize fiction winner last week, I immediately googled for online reviews to decide whether it should be ordered. To no surprise, I found a number of very positive reviews. What was a surprise was that more than a few of them said Strout’s book reminded them of Winesburg, Ohio (published in 1919) and most of these described Sherwood Anderson’s book as one of their favorites. (Here is a link to a particularly precise and perceptive review at Nonsuch. And here is another to Trevor’s review of Olive Kitteridge so you can make your own “review” comparison.)

While I had to await the arrival of Olive Kitteridge, a copy of Winesburg, Ohio was close at hand, the result of another literary google excursion a few months back. That one began when John Fante in the final volume of the Saga of Arturo Bandini had his hero (by then a successful writer) musing about relocating to Winesburg. Since Philip Roth had earlier last year in Indignation dispatched Marcus Messner from Newark to Winesburg College in Ohio, I figured there must be something to this Mid-Western town. In no time, I discovered that Fante and Roth were merely joining William Faulkner, Ernest Hemmingway, Tom Wolfe and John Steinbeck in paying homage to Anderson’s book.

Faulkner, Hemmingway, Wolfe, Steinback, Fante, Strout (and while I haven’t gone searching, I think as you read this review you can’t help but think Marilynne Robinson joins that bunch) — that’s pretty impressive writerly company for a 90-year-old book.

Winesburg, Ohio consists of 21 vignettes/short stories (all 12 pages or less in the edition I read) and one 40-page story, Godliness, sub-divided into four parts. In the opening vignette entitled The Book of the Grotesques (which I regard as a prologue), Anderson offers a “central thought” that served me well as a unifying theme for the 22 parts:

That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.

Calling his characters “grotesques” seems brutally unfair at first glance — all but one or two suffer no more abnormality than most of us possess. Anderson admits that not all were horrible (“some were amusing, some almost beautiful”) and expands his central thought to justify the term:

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concern the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.

The characters are all “damaged”, mainly emotionally, and that is how Anderson develops his stories. Most have experienced an “adventure” (a term Anderson uses frequently — most of us would say “mis-adventure”) in the form of a set-back previously in their life. Rather than trying to bounce back, they have retreated from the world, choosing the role of observer rather than participant. When they are forced — or decide — to participate, it inevitably produces more mis-fortune. What the Winesburg characters share (outside of their inability to communicate their woes to each other) is a need to communicate what produced their current state. In most of the vignettes, they do that by finding a way to tell their story to George Willard, the young (and hence yet unscathed) reporter of the Winesburg Eagle. (As a former newspaper reporter, I can assure you people are doing that to this day.)

Consider the opening story, Hands, about Wing Biddlebaum. (I am about to spoil this eight-page story, so if you hate spoilers, skip this paragraph and the next one — I promise to leave the other 21 unspoiled.) He is a “fat little old man” who prowls his “half decayed veranda” and watches the Winesburg world go by. He feels he is no part of the town, except that he has formed “something like a friendship” with George and can talk to him. As his name suggests, he talks with his hands as much as his mouth, beating on nearby surfaces to underline his point.

Wing has always used his hands — as a 20-year-old, then called Adolph Myers, he was a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania, who used to “caress the shoulders of the boys, playing about the tousled heads”. A “half-witted” boy becomes enamored with him, has unspeakable dreams and turns them into truth (was Anderson ever ahead of his time on this front). Adolph is run out of town, turns himself into Wing and effectively retreats from the world. It is a good example of the kind of fate that effects many of Anderson’s characters.

Here is the opening to the second story, Paper Pills:

He was an old man with a white beard and huge nose and hands. Long before the time during which we know him, he was a doctor and drove a jaded white horse from house to house through the streets of Winesburg. Later he married a girl who had money. She had been left a large fertile farm when her father died. The girl was quiet, tall, and dark, and to many people she seemed very beautiful. Everyone in Winesburg wondered why she married the doctor. Within a year after the marriage she died.

That concise paragraph says a lot about Anderson. He writes short, direct sentences. Every vignette has a history. Pathos (and sometimes it does borderr on sentimentality) is introduced right up front.

It is in the long story, Godliness, that the reader discovers some of over-arching factors that influence this exceptional book. It is located about one-third of the way through, almost as though Anderson needed to put some questions in the reader’s mind before hinting at possible answers.

The central character here is Jesse Bentley, the youngest and frailest of five sons. He had left the farm at eighteen to become a scholar and eventually minister of the Presbyterian Church (here comes the Marilynne Robinson). His four older brothers are all killed in the Civil War and Jesse’s father calls him home to look after the farm. Jesse is convinced that God will speak to him, that his neighbors are Phillistines and that it is the Lord’s will that he own as much land as possible in the valley.

That religious faith, bordering on fanaticism, is offset by reality:

In the last fifty years a vast change has taken place in the lives of our people. A revolution has in fact taken place. The coming of industrialism, attended by all the roar and rattle of affairs, the shrill cries of millions of new voices that have come among us from overseas, the going and coming of trains, the growth of cities, the building of the interurban car lines that weave in and out of towns and past farmhouses, and now in these later days the coming of the automobiles has worked a tremendous change in the lives and in the habits of thought of our people in Mid-America.

Anderson makes few other references to that clash between the old, comfortable beliefs and the harsh new material reality, the thoughts that got turned into truths but are now seeming to be falsehoods. Yet they are present throughout the book and become more pressing as it moves to a close.

The structure of Winesburg, Ohio suggests that it could be regarded either as a short story collection or a novel. This reader definitely opts for the latter conclusion — the two concluding vignettes, the immensely powerful Death and beautifully structured Sophistication, effectively pull the many threads of the book together.

If Olive Kitteridge reminds readers of Winesburg, Ohio, there is a good reason why some of we Canadian readers have missed this book. While our American neighbors were being introduced to Anderson, we in Canada were being taught two similiar classics of our own literature, Who Has Seen The Wind by W.O. Mitchell and Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock. They aren’t the same — Mitchell’s central character is younger, Leacock’s characters are more amusing than pathetic — but all three books very effectively explore the tensions, conflicts and dynamics of small town North America in the first half of the twentieth century. If you liked one, I think you would like all three.

And now I understand why Faulkner, Hemmingway, Wolfe, Steinbeck, Fante, Roth and Strout were so impressed. I am too.

Swallowing the Sun, by David Park

April 24, 2009

park11David Park first came to my attention last summer when a number of people on the Man Booker forum tipped The Truth Commissioner as a longlist contender. I ordered the Northern Ireland author’s book then, but it went on the shelf when it missed the longlist. I finally got to it late in 2008 and was very impressed — and resolved to visit more of this writer’s work.

park2Swallowing the Sun arrived a few weeks ago and took its place on the “read soon” pile. So when John Self offered a review on the Asylum recently, I moved it up the pile. John wondered how much his own familiarity with the Belfast setting influenced his impression of the book — I figured that given that I lived an ocean and the better part of a continent away, and have never been to Belfast, I would be well placed to offer an answer.

I am delighted to report that Swallowing the Sun travels very well. I am sure familiarity with the setting would add another dimension, but even without that it is a very good book.

The central character is Martin Waring, the setting is Belfast and the timing is just after the Troubles. While that disruption plays a part in Martin’s dismal circumstances, Park is very careful about how much and when he reveals that — the book is about the consequences of that environment on a family of individuals, not the political events themselves.

For the first half of the book, Martin is a study in repressed anger — the seeds of which were sown by an abusive father and which have grown to maturity in the troubled Ireland where he lives. He is married, although there are tensions there, and has a studious and successful teenage daughter, Rachel, (who may well earn a place at Oxford or Cambridge) and an overweight, video-game-playing son, Tom, who shows every indication of growing into a modern day version of his father.

The only thing Martin likes about his life is his job as a security guard at a museum; it is a place where he can retreat from a world that he does not understand and immerse himself in calming history:

“You belong in a museum, Dad,” Rachel says and everyone, including Tom, smiles. It’s the family’s favourite joke.
He spends his life looking at people and things. Sometimes he walks about a little, sometimes he checks things — dials, temperatures, doors; things like that. He feels comfortable with the little rituals, the routines that have to be followed.
He watches the visitors, too. They change — with the weather, the day of the week, the time of year. He watches them but they don’t see him. It’s as if he watches them from behind the protection of a glass and even when their eyes rest on him it’s only for a second and then they move on.

It is no spoiler to say that Martin’s repressed anger will eventually explode — Park loads on the pressure until two events about midway through the book cause Martin to crack. From that point on, Swallowing the Sun becomes a quick-moving, plot-driven book.

In a number of ways, this novel reminded me of Travis Holland’s The Archivist’s Story, recently reviewed here. Just as Holland used Stalinist Russia to explore the consequences of repression on individuals, Park uses the turbulent history of Northern Ireland as a stage that creates an impact for individuals, not just Martin but his wife, children and brother as well. For me, both books succeed.

Park, in fact, uses a relatively unusual narrative technique to good effect in this book. While all of the narration is in the third person, he locates different sections — usually a few pages, sometimes even less than a page — from the point of view of each of his characters as they experience different versions of the same circumstances. It proves a very effective way of developing all of his major characters.

I can’t help but think that that was practice for The Truth Commissioner, where Park expands the technique. In that book (also post Troubles) the truth commissioner, a government minister, a retired detective and an expectant father alternate chapters as Park weaves his overall story.

I also can’t help but compare the two books. There is no doubt that The Truth Commissioner is a more ambitious book with a larger overall story, better realized for this reader. In no way is that a criticism of Swallowing the Sun; indeed, in some ways this more introspective book has more going for it. I don’t think reading the latter book first was a problem.

If you happen to get to this review quickly, John Self is running a draw for a free copy of Swallowing the Sun, shipped anywhere in the world — with an entry deadline of April 25, so hop to it. It is shameless of me to be piggy-backing on someone else’s contest, but then he was the guy who wondered how this book would read outside of Northern Ireland — very well, would be my conclusion.

The Pulitzer fiction contest winner is….

April 20, 2009






pulitzer_front_logo23m at — of the 21 entries, she was the only one to pick Olive Kitteridge as the winner, although even she admitted on her entry that A Mercy had a better shot.   Well done, 3m.

The only other mention of  Elizabeth Strout’s book was from dovegreyreader who picked it as a finalist (she wanted to pick it first, but, without in any way criticizing DGR, she wants to pick a lot of books first — :)).  I can’t help but observe that these very popular bloggers actually know their stuff — if you don’t know them, do check them out.  (DGR also picked The Plague of Doves as a finalist, but alas missed the winner). And I will offer an Orange Prize prediction (with no prize) eventually — all three of these Pulitzer finalists are women writers.

Actually, we should also feel sorry for Mr. Benchly ( who has my favorite, formal name on the blog).  His book club was cheering for Olive Kitteridge but he didn’t include it on his entry.  Shame on your Mr. Benchly and please don’t confess to your bookclub.

A number of entries picked The Plague of Doves, but alas they all fell short by a whisker.  Scott was right in predicting a left-field finalist choice — All Souls was on no one’s entry and does look interesting– but his guess was wrong.

Thanks to everyone for entering — it was fun.  So much fun, that I promise toward the last half of May I will have an IMPAC Dublin contest.  In one sense, this is easier — since we know the eight finalists.  In another, it is more difficult — the finalists come from all over the world, originally published in three languages and all with a history.  Please do drop by and make an entry when I have figured out the contest.  It should be every bit as interesting as this one

3m could you send me an email address at kevin (at) belvedere1 (dot) com and we will figure out how to get you your prize.  I will admit up front that I think you should invest your $75 (and I will top it up to cover shipping charges) in an exploration of Canadian fiction at, but that is your choice.

Thanks to everyone else for entering.  As indicated above, for serious readers this was just a preliminary bout for the IMPAC contest.  Will
Rycroft and 3m may be defending champions, but, let’s face it, they won their trial in very slow heats.



The Archivist’s Story, by Travis Holland

April 17, 2009

Regular visitors to this blog will know that I pay attention to annual literary awards — the Giller Prize, the Man Booker and the Pulitzer (still a few days to go for entries to my Pulitzer contest) are just the most obvious examples.  One prize that I have tended to overlook in the past is the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (an awkward formal title, hereafter referrred to as the IMPAC) — I am planning to correct that this year.

impaclgotemplate1I would point to two reasons for that.  Most important, the entry criterion for books published originally in English is two years previously (i.e. 2007 for the 2009 award).  As I undertand the guidelines, for works translated into English that window extends back four more years — since four of the winners since 2000 were translations, this is a prize that takes that genre seriously.  The second factor is that IMPAC comes late in the prize season with an April shortlist and June winner announcement — even we book prize junkies tend to be overloaded by April, particularly on books that by definition are at least two years old.  The result is that I tend to look at the winner (DeNiro’s Game, Out Stealing Horses and The Master were the last three) and say “Yes, that was a good book” and move on to new works.

Now that I am paying attention to IMPAC, there are a number of reasons to overcome my bias — not just the attention paid to translated works.  With a prize of 100,000 Euros, it is the largest award for a single work.  Sponsored by the City of Dublin, nominations come not from publishers but hundreds of public libraries from around the world (a good reason for the eligibility time delay), which arguably makes it more of a “reader” prize than any of the others I have mentioned.  And there is no doubt it is the most international of all the English book prizes.  There is no citizenship or gender restriction; if the work is published in English, it is eligible.

I liked all three recent winners (DeNiro’s Game less than the other two, but it was still on the positive side of neutral).  So when I checked the 2009 shortlist and discovered that I quite liked all three of the eight titles that I had read (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Animal’s People), I decided that all the pointers indicated I should give the other five a try.  I don’t promise to review them all, but I will give it a shot.  Full details on the Prize and this year’s shortlist (and longlist for that matter) at available at the IMPAC site.

holland2First up of the five is The Archivist’s Story, a first novel by Michigan writer Travis Holland.   The author has an MFA from the University of Michigan and the book both thanks and has a cover blurb from U of M’s Peter Ho Davies, author of The Welsh Girl, a novel that I felt should have made the 2007 Man Booker shortlist.  I’m assuming he taught Holland — and happy to report that he did a very good job.

In one sense, The Archivist’s Story is biographical fiction — author Isaac Babel is a major presence in the book.  The setting is Moscow, 1939 and Babel (along with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other writers) has been arrested and confined in the infamous Lubyanka prison, awaiting death or exile. 

The archivist of the title is Pavel.  Formerly a literature teacher at the Kirov Academy, he lost that job in one of the bizarre and pointless ideological disputes that characterized the Russia of the time.  Through connections (no job is available without connections) he achieved this junior archivist’s post at Lubyanka; he doesn’t like it but  it is necessary for survival.  Located in a former janitor’s room, the “archives” consists of an ounorganized welter of boxes and files of manuscripts, together with “evidence manifests”, that have been seized from the imprisoned writers.

The book opens with Pavel interviewing Babel to determine whether a handwritten manuscript of a story, not included on his evidence manifest, is in fact Babel’s work.  The author confirms it is.  Pavel, who admires Babel’s work, wrecklessly smuggles it out and hides it — setting himself on the wrong side of whatever notion of law exists.  It would be a capital offense.

Pavel’s has two jobs as archivist.  One is to regularly take boxes of manuscripts to the incinerator to be destroyed forever.  The other is to try to introduce some semblance of order into the mess of boxes and files that are in the room.  It doesn’t take him long to figure out that this disorder was a deliberate tactic of his predecessor (recently executed) to protect the manuscripts from incineration, even if it only succeeded for a few days or months.

The Archivist’s Story has other strong themes.  Pavel’s wife died some months ago in a train accident (probably, but not necessarily, sabotage) and her ashes are held up in the bureaucracy somewhere which only increases his loneliness.  His only friend, Semyon, a university teacher, is under attack, facing expulsion from the Communist Party which would set the stage for his arrest, exile or execution.  And Pavel’s elderly mother, residing with friends in the suburbs, is in the early stages of dementia and has begun wandering, falling and forgetting — further increasing Pavel’s sense of loneliness.

It would be easy — and in some senses fair — to criticize Travis Holland.  What right does a young American author in Michigan have to write a book like this when a host of Russian writers, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,  who actually lived the horror have aleady documented it in well-written and well-read fiction?  And I would say, if you are looking to explore the reality of Stalinist Russia, you would be better advised to turn to those Russian authors.

For me, The Archivist’s Story succeeded in quite a different way, one that justifies Holland’s decision to write the book.  A characteristic of repressive societies, not just Stalinist Russia, is that every citizen must always be on guard against a “mistake”.  A joke, an offhand comment, a postcard, even a look can open the door to persecution.  A culture of persecution invites feuds, vendettas and malice on all sides.  In a society without law, accusation often equals a verdict of guilt — the condemned don’t even really know what they did wrong.  Stalinist Russia may be the most obvious example, but there have been others since (China’s Cultural Revolution, Cambodia’s Pol Pot) and there are some today (you can fill in your own blank).

What that constant watchfulness produces in individuals is a continual and unrelenting mental exhaustion.  Just as your body cannot tolerate never-stopping exercise, your mind can’t keep up with this demand.  Eventually, the mind cracks — just as the innocent prisoners “crack” under torture and confess to whatever has been accused.  Holland develops this in an excellent and persuasive way — you find yourself not just identifying with the characters, but cheering for them.

First novel or not, The Archivist’s Story deserves its place on the IMPAC list — and for me has already justified my new-found interest in this prize.  I won’t be rereading and reviewing the three I have already read but will provide links to some blog reviews that I find reflect my thoughts.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and was recently reviewed by Trevor at the mookseandgripes.  An earlier (somewhat grumpier) review can also be found at the Asylum.  John Saul at Asylum also has an excellent review of Animal’s People — if I remember correctly, it was his choice for the 2007 Man Booker.  There are many reviews (conflicting, I must admit) of The Reluctant Fundamentalist around — the most recent, and one of the most perceptive, comes from Max Cairnduff at Pechorin’s Journal.

The four IMPAC finalists I have not yet read are Ravel by Jean Echenoz (translated from the French), The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles by Roy Jacobsen (translated from the Norweigian), The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt (American, but the book is about a brilliant English mathematician and an equally brilliant Indian) and Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas (also American).

One of the advantages of the IMPAC time delay is that visitors to this blog may have read one or more of these books.  If you have observations, thoughts and comments, please do share them.

To Whom It May Concern, by Priscila Uppal

April 14, 2009

uppalTo Whom It May Concern, the second novel from Ottawa-born author Priscila Uppal, has attracted only modest critical attention since its release in January.  With its themes of family and parenting — coupled with an exploration of some of the consequences of multi-cultural marriage — it invites comparison with the popular Good To A Fault, by Marina Endicott.  That book also received relatively little critical attention until it showed up on the 2008 Giller Prize shortlist — and it has kept popping up on Canadian bestseller lists ever since. 

 I have a theory about why this is so:  readers who appreciate novels about family and parenting (read: thoughtful, mature women — the majority of novel readers generally) are grossly under-represented in the ranks of editors who assign books for review and the people who end up writing those reviews.  Word about books like these spread through word of mouth and book clubs; they acquire an audience of their own.

The parent in To Whom It May Concern is Hardev Dange.  Indian-born, he used to be The Water King — working for the Canadian International Development Agency, he roamed the world building hydro-electric projects.  For the last 15 years, he has been confined to a wheelchair, apparently the result of an accident sustained at one of those worksites.

Hardev’s wife left him shortly after that, taking his two daughters with her, but leaving his son behind — she couldn’t abide the thought of living with the shell of the man she knew and loved.  (She does show up in the book, but only peripherally.)  Compounding Hardev’s problems, his disability benefits are shrinking at the same time that his neighborhood in Ottawa is being redeveloped.  He is behind on his mortgage payments and the house that has been his home for more than 25 years is about to be foreclosed (this part is turning out to be more topical than author Uppal contemplated, unfortunately).

His pleasures are few.  Ideally, a homecare worker who performs adequately — that is frequently a challenge.  Monitoring the sounds of the construction around him (he is a builder, after all).  Watching and making notes on the television news.  And most important of all, his children, who still return home for holidays and a restricted version of festival:  “Holidays are family days, special days, the house is once again filled with his children.”  The holiday meal, alas, is usually brought-in pizza for the kids and shake-and-bake chicken and frozen vegetables for Hardev (he has digestion issues as well) but the seasonal celebrations are still the only thing to which he looks forward.  He even keeps a “map” that shows the homecare worker where to put the Christmas decorations that fill up the main floor in that season.

If Hardev lives for his family, his three children live principally  in the hope of escaping it.

Eldest daughter, Birendra, figures the only way out is marriage, ideally to someone employed in Canada’s Foreign Affairs department who will go through a series of posts involving overseas residence, far away from both her parents and siblings.  In the opening pages of the novel, it seems she has succeeded — she introduces her new fiance, Victor, who meets all of the above criteria.  There will be tension, however.  She dislikes family enough that she wants no part of children; the clear implication is that Victor (and his family) don’t share that view.

Hardev’s son, Emile, still lives with him but the two frequently go weeks without speaking to each other.  Emile is a Master’s student studying curses and mythology — his goal is a PhD fellowship somewhere else, say Berkley, that will take him away from all this.  Emile has sexual identity issues that add to his confusion.  And his estrangement with his family extends to the rest of the world as well as he erects barriers that make sure he has few friends.

The youngest daughter, Dorothy, has, in a sense, already achieved her escape.  The family realized at age two that she was deaf — while highly proficient in sign language and lip-reading (perhaps conveniently too proficient, from this reader’s point of view), she too lives in her own isolated world.  A student about to graduate from a special ed high school, she also is a frequent visitor to SoundScape, a local, loud noise bar.  As Dorothy says, she cannot hear but she is a good listener.  At SoundScape, she specializes in befriending men and getting them to tell her a tragic story — only one — which she carefully documents in an ongoing journal.

Add in some of the multicultural issues (Hardev’s estranged wife is French-Canadian) and you have a not very cheery bunch — hardly the raw material for an exploration of family and parenting.  Uppal’s point, however, is that there is a dialectic to this all, that the bonds of kinship can never be cut, that whatever the desire to escape, there are even more powerful forces keeping the family together.

To make this work, as the novel comes to a close, the author has to pull some questionable strings.  It turns out some of the things the reader has been told are not true.  There are books with unreliable (or even lying) narrators who make this work — but they are few.  I am far more likely to be at the opposite end of the spectrum, feeling that the author has abused my trust and resenting that.  Uppal falls somewhere between those two extremes.

In the final analysis, I did not think this book worked — but don’t let that opinion dissuade you.  I reached the same conclusion with Good To A Fault and other readers, including the Giller Prize jury, obviously reached a different one.  If you have read the Endicott book and liked it, I suspect investing the time in this book is well worth your while.  By the same token, if you found Good To A Fault wanting, I think you can probably safely give To Whom It may Concern a miss.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, by Geoff Dyer

April 10, 2009

dyer-jeff2One of the first three books reviewed on this blog was Paris Trance, by Geoff Dyer.  While I would love to say that it was careful consideration that produced those first three, it was anything but.  It was the first week of January, a pretty boring reading time most years.  In addition to Paris Trance, I’d just finished reading Patrick McCabe’s The Holy City and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.  And finally I was feeling guilty that I was clogging up the comments section of other people’s blogs with thoughts of increasing length, too lazy to maintain a blog of my own.

So on the afternoon of January 7,  I signed on to, registered KevinfromCanada and wrote a quick review of The Holy City.  I thought I’d sleep on it, check the review in the morning and then, if I decided to proceed, draft reviews of the other two (and maybe a few others) and then launch the blog.  Rookie that I was, I didn’t even realize that I had inadvertently linked to a few other blogs — and when I got up the next morning to check my draft review, I was greeted by two comments from fellow bloggers welcoming me to the blogging world.  Like it or not, I had two reviews to produce that day to get up to speed.

Talk about a “soft launch” — KevinfromCanada was launched without the creator even deciding he was going to do it.  I have  loved every moment since and, like many a proud entrepreneur, couldn’t stand the idea of waiting for a full year before celebrating a blog birthday.  So, when I discovered the Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi was due for release in Canada on April 7, the end of the First Quarter for the enterprise KevinfromCanada, I resolved that it would be the subject of the first quarter report.  Dyer was my favorite of those first three books and I have read many good books in the last three months — but I am delighted with this choice as the “first quarter report” .  This marvelous book definitely stands in the front rank of all those good books.

One of those welcoming messages was from John Self at Asylum (one of the blogs I had been clogging up).  It was also John who had introduced me to Dyer with a review of The Missing of the Somme (that review along with John’s thoughts on this book can be found here).  John’s recent review also pointed me to an excellent Guardian interview with Dyer — the quotes and observations from the author that appear here come from that interview.

As its title suggests, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi  comes in two parts.  Dyer comments:

With my usual unerring eye for commercial suicide…I originally wanted to entitle the book ‘A Diptych’ to make clear the two stories were separate.  But I was urged not to, and when I saw a mock-up of the front cover with the word ‘diptych’ on it, I thought ‘Oh God, that’s too pretentious even for me’.  So I agreed to knock it off.  But I’m beginning now to wonder if I shouldn’t have let it stand.

Okay, we’ll take the author at his word — we are dealing with two stories.  But the nature of a diptych (as opposed to a book of two novellas) is that some sort of relation between the two is implied.

The central character of Jeff in Venice is Jeff Atman, a London-based freelance journalist who has an assignment from Kulchur magazine to produce a “colour” piece on the 2003 Venice Biennale.  Jeff and the world do not get along very well — he would quit his job, except as a freelance journalist he pretty much has already done that.  He also has an issue with what he calls “muted karaoke”:

A woman pushing an all-terrain pram glanced quickly at him and looked away even more quickly.  He must have been doing that thing, not talking aloud to himself, but forming words with his mouth, unconsciously lip-synching the torrent of grievances that tumbled constantly through his head.  He held his mouth firmly shut.  He had to stop doing that.  Of all the things he had to stop doing or start doing, that was right at the top of the list.

As my wife could tell you, I have exactly that habit when I am upset (fortunately, it seems to be ebbing).  One of the great things about Dyer is that these wonderful little observational time bombs keep exploding right there on the page.  Consider this description a few pages later of the airline that Jeff is flying from Stansted to Venice:

Ailrines like Ryanair or EasyJet tried to dress up their no-frills status; Meteor basked in theirs.  What you saw was what you got.   More accurately, what you didn’t get.  This was budget flying taken to its limit.  They had stripped away everything that made flying slightly more agreeable and what you were left with was the basically disagreeable experience of getting from A to B, even though B turned out not to be in B at all, but in the neighboring city C, or even country D.

Anybody else ever flown Meteor Air?  Sure enough, Jeff lands a long, hot and smelly coach ride from Venice.

Art may be the excuse for the Biennale but it is not what it is really about (Jeff’s already invented his line for the Biennale:  “But you write mainly about art?”  “Not really.  I’m not a very visual person.”) . While you do visit the pavilions during the day, it is about the parties and the free food, drink and drugs that are part of those parties.  In Jeff’s case (and many others), it is also worrying constantly about the parties to which you don’t have an invitation.  Film has Cannes, Sundance and similar festivals — the art world has the Biennale, Basel and some others.  The medium may be different, the carnival is pretty much the same.

Also, you want to get laid — maybe even mainly get laid — even if you are a failure (with just-dyed hair) in his mid-forties, like Jeff.

The action part of Jeff in Venice starts at his first party when he meets and falls in Biennale love with Laura Freeman, a curator from a gallery in Los Angeles.  It takes a day for them to reconnect (during which Jeff actually visits a number of exhibitions); from then on, this story is about how they experience both Venice and each other.  Their conversation, like the art they criticize, is banal.  On the other hand, the sense of touch with which they experience each other and Venice is anything but banal.  Shortly before his death, John Updike was given a lifetime award for bad sex writing — with this book alone Dyer ensures he will never be awarded that dubious distinction.

Between this creepy veneer of parties, drinks, drugs and sex, however, there is a powerful undercurrent:  the art, not just of the Biennale, but of Venice, does matter.  In the Norwegian pavilion, Jeff is intrigued by a lengthy wall of circular yellow and black dartboards that are, in fact, dartboards.  Viewers are invited to throw darts with red and green flights at the boards — the color and texture of the installation obviously changes as the day goes on.  (Like quite a bit of Dyer, this isn’t fiction — it is a real installation from the 2007 Biennale, interesting pictures of which can be found here.)  He also quite likes an installation (oh for the days when we could go and look at paintings instead of “experiencing an installation” — but I guess my age is showing) in the Finnish pavilion: 

A simple wooden boat was adrift in a frozen sea of broken, multi-coloured Murano glass — discards and fragments, presumably from the factories near Venice.  Painted a dull red, the interior of the boat was gradually filling up with water dripping from the ceiling.  Every now and again — so infrequently Jeff wondered if he was imagining it — the boat rocked slightly.

Yes, real again from the 2007 Biennale — see it here.  Even if you decide not to read the book, do check out those images.  As for me, I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be to read Dyer before Google existed.

Those two installations are only part of the art sub-text however.  On the way to Venice, Jeff was reading a Mary McCarthy book, Venice Observed, that discusses Giorgione’s The Tempest (here), so he goes to see — and is impressed by — that.  And when Laura has left, with the future of their affair-relationship uncertain, he seeks refuge in the Tinteretto’s at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco (images here, but this one is tough because it is hard to convey since they cover all four walls and the ceiling).

Consider for a moment:  These two are installations, albeit from more than 400 years ago (I retract that lamentation of a few paragraphs ago).  Just as the dartboards and boat created a reason for celebration and festival, they too were produced for celebration, and the occasional festival (there is a reason this post is going up on Good Friday, after all).  Jeff’s visit to the Scuola comes in the final pages of Part One — it is a spoiler to say how it ends.

The central character in Death in Varanasi is a mature freelance journalist based in London who has been given a last minute assignment for a travel piece on Varanasi (also known as Benares, the City of Light and a number of things).  While the first part was told in the third person, this is a first person narrator and we never know his name.  Dyer says in the Guardian interview he may or may not be Jeff Atman — this review will assume he is.  It is also not stated whether this story takes place before or after the first.  (And I promise there will be no distracting links in this part of the review.)

If sight and touch are the senses of Jeff in Venice, Dyer wastes no time establishing that sound will be a primary sense in this story:

From the airport to the hotel, Sanjay had used the horn excessively; now that we were in the city proper, instead of using it repeatedly, he kept it going all the time.  So did everyone else.  Unlike everything else, this did make sense.  Why take your hand off the horn when, a split-second later, you’d have to put it back on?

Loud sound is a constant feature of this book; Jeff even takes to wearing his iPod, turned high, just to escape it.  That doesn’t work.  Even the concerts that are a part of this story (sound is the dominant sense) feature the discordant, physical Indian music that certainly raises no thoughts of an adagio.

The secondary sense, but almost as great as that of sound, is smell.  The remnants of defecation — animal and  human — are everywhere, forming a kind of tar.  Vegetable waste adds to the overwhelming odor.  Even the marigold garlands thrown around Jeff when he visits the temples (for 50 rupees, please) have a rotting stink.  Not to mention that Varanasi is a crematorium site and the funeral pyres are constantly burning.

Unlike the chic Venice of the Biennale, Varanasi is about as horrible an environment as you can get.  But where our first character fled when he could, our second can’t leave.  He moves into a more central, less grand, hotel — becomes its only long-term guest.  As the narrator observes, he does not so much go native as become an older version of the dread-locked trekkers, except that while they flow through, he stays on.  Eventually (no real surprise this) he discovers some things about himself.

While the two stories have some superficial similarities, this is obviously a diptych in the literary version of a Francis Bacon triptych where the relationship between the parts is not just obscure, it seems non-existent.  It is not a common form — in most two-part books, Part Two flows from Part One.  Having said that, I can think of two recent similar examples — Anne Michaels The Winter Vault (my review is here) and Michael Ondaatje’s Divisidero.  I think both those authors failed — Part one in each book was interesting, the second half merely baffling.  I think Dyer succeeds — why?

I am indebted again to John Self for supplying the clue to my interpretation (and I emphasize that others are certainly possible) with a piece of knowledge from his review I did not have:

When the protagonist’s name – Jeffrey Atman – was disclosed in the opening sentence of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a little something in me died. I recalled from Siddhartha that Atman was a Hindu spiritualist term for the eternal soul, and I dreaded the onset of a new age tale of ‘finding oneself’. But I needn’t have worried: at least, not yet.

I think it is safe to assume that Dyer’s choice was deliberate and, carefully structured and hidden by witticisms as it is, there is an element of soul-searching, if not eternal soul-finding, in the two parts of this diptych.  And my interpretation is that the unifying link is the counter-intuitive use of the four senses that Dyer employs in the book (taste is present in both parts, but is used in similar ways).

Sight (as in contemplating art) and touch (as in caress) are normally thought of as creating the kind contemplative peace associated with finding oneself.  Sound (as in blaring traffic) and smell (as in rotting shit) would seem to produce the exact opposite.  Yet in this book, the first two senses generate a form of contemplation avoidance — the latter nourish introspection.  The author leaves it to the reader to figure out why.

Am I over-interpreting?  Maybe — I am the kind of reader who likes to start the thinking process anew when I close the cover of a book and this book obviously did that for me.  I certainly don’t want to leave the impression that that is the only interpretation — or indeed that any interpretation at all is required.  Dyer is a wonderful writer to read (I finished all but the last 20 pages of this book in one read on the day it arrived — and I only stopped there because I wanted to save the ending for the next day).  But this is not just a satisfying book, it can be challenging as well — there is a lot of “reader control” in just how far you want to take it, which is the mark of a truly good book.

That is the conclusion of my first quarter report.  My thanks to everyone who has visited KevinfromCanada in these first three months and special thanks to those who have taken the time to observe and comment — I hope you will keep on visiting and commenting.  And I hope that the thoughts here are at least on the positive side of neutral in terms of enhancing your reading experience.  I already know what the theme of the sixth month report will be.  And there will be no prize for guessing the subject matter of the nine month report — the ManBooker Prize is announced on October 6, so I’ll be moving that report up one day to salute the jury on their decision to agree with my selection — or, more likely, whine (yet again) about why my choice was ignored.  Cheers.

Through Black Spruce, by Joseph Boyden

April 6, 2009


Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce won the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s premier fiction award.  It was recently released in the United Kingdom, which makes it eligible for this year’s Man Booker Prize.  Since this blog did not exist last fall and I haven’t commented on it, that seemed a good excuse for a reread.  It was my personal second choice for the Giller (in a deadheat with Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa) — the reread only confirms the deadheat.

boyden-three-dayThe book is the second in a projected trilogy.  The first, Three Day Road, also was critically well-received and won some minor prizes.  I don’t think the two need to be read in order — I didn’t, and I think for many readers reading Through Black Spruce first might be a good idea.  You will see why later in the review.



The book is told in two first person narratives, alternating by chapter.  One is that of Will Bird, a 55-year-old trapper and bush pilot in Moosonee, Ontario (that’s a native community right at the south end of James Bay, if you aren’t up on your Ontario geography).  The other is his twentysomething niece, Annie, now living (and trapping) from her camp 15 miles outside of Moosonee, just returned from eight months in the South, in search of her younger sister.

Will is in a coma as the book opens, the result of a spat with the Netmaker family, the local bootleggers who have now moved on to controlling the drug trade.  He begins his narrative by telling us that he has survived three plane crashes — we get the sense immediately that he is used to being near death.  The seeds are also sewn for the hope that he will survive this one too.  As we will discover, the Netmakers and Birds have been feuding for quite a while, perhaps generations.  This latest outrage arises from a belief that Will has been informing on them — but Boyden merely uses that to supply a context which allows Will to explore his past, both distant and recent.  It also allows this half of the narrative to move geographically north at points, into the islands of James Bay.

Annie is visiting her uncle in hospital — her nursing friend, Eva, tells her that simply talking would be good for him.  So she begins to tell the story of her recent months.  Each of her chapters, however, begins in the present — first at the camp (she has brought a male native friend she found on the streets of Toronto back with her).  Her younger sister, Suzanne, left Moosonee 17 months ago, on a snowmobile headed for Toronto (with a Netmaker, of course).  The family knows that Suzanne found her way into the fashion model world in Toronto, Montreal and Manhattan (fashion magazines even make their way to Moosonee).  A “holiday” one-week trip to Toronto sent Annie off on an eight-month unsuccessful search.

I will make no attempt to further outline the plot — while it is certainly important to the book, it is not where the real strength lies.  Two other aspects of Boyden’s work are what make this a truly unique novel, as far as this reader is concerned.

The first is the way that he mixes conventional and aboriginal narrative models to tell his story, just as he uses two narrators.  In the conventional sense, Through Black Spruce, does have a chronology, albeit one that unfolds with considerable use of flashback.  In the oral tradition of the native people, however, that does not happen in a linear fashion.  Instead, in each chapter, both Will and Annie begin in the present, find aspects of the present that set off memories of the past and then develop those memories.  It is the literary version of creating a tapestry or quilt (not that I know much about either of those things, but I think the metaphor applies).  Each piece is carefully and completely developed, throughout most of the overall chronology.  Then it is set aside and work begins on another piece.  Only as the book begins to approach a conclusion does the author begin to stitch together the various pieces to complete the overall picture.  Boyden is masterful in the way he uses this technique.

The second powerful strength to the book is that in every one of those pieces Boyden explores, in some depth, the conflict between traditional and modern life and the need (and difficulty) that both Will and Annie face in somehow finding a resolution.  They are a generation apart so it has different aspects (he becomes a bush pilot who flies north, she heads south and herself becomes a model) — but the underlying tension for both remains the same.  It is impossible not to be deeply touched by and enrolled in the challenges (and failures) that the two central characters face.

Boyden is uniquely qualified to develop both those stream.  Part Metis himself, he spends half the year teaching in New Orleans and the other half in Northern Ontario.  So he knows both conventional writing  — and the oral tradition.  And he certainly knows firsthand the conflict between living in the South and trying to observe and profit from ancestral ways.  For a further exploration of this, check dovegreyreader’s review of Boyden’s recent Henry Kreisel Lecture at the University of Alberta here.  He explored that theme of conflict, and expanded upon it, in that lecture.  (Yes, she is very kind to both me and this blog in that post, but it has some important observations that go beyond this review.  It also has a link to DGR’s review of Through Black Spruce — I can’t help but wonder whether as a quilter she wasn’t influenced at least subconsciously by that aspect of Boyden’s writing.)

Now, as promised, back to Three Day Road.  It is the story of Elijah and Xavier (who is Will Bird’s father, Annie’s grandfather), two Ojibway from Moosonee who  head off to France to fight in the Great War.  They become a legendary pair of snipers (they lived off hunting back home, after all) before Elijah is killed.  Again, Boyden plays with time — in the present tense in this book, Xavier has returned and his mother is rowing her shell-shocked son down the Moose River to home, which sets off the same tapestry of flashbacks.  Again, Boyden explores the conflict between finding a compromise between traditional and contemporary ways — this time more than half a century earlier.  Both books indicate not much has changed.

I didn’t read Three Day Road when it first came out in 2005 because, I will admit, I was suffering from Great War reading overload and couldn’t face another volume about a depressing war.  I assure you I picked my copy up very quickly after finishing Through Black Spruce.  If I have adequately conveyed the idea of the way Boyden develops his narratives in the same way an artisan stitches a tapestry, it doesn’t matter which you read first — at least, it didn’t to me.

Does this book have a shot at the ManBooker longlist, at least?  The Canadian in me would love to think so.  Even if it doesn’t, if you would like to develop an understanding of the challenges that have faced the native people of Canada for the last century and more (and, quite frankly, Australia, New Zealand and the United States as well), I can’t think of a better place to start.

From Page to Stage, Part Two

April 1, 2009

cello4johanna1doolittle1What on earth are these pictures doing on a book blog?  Welcome to Part Two of From Page to Stage, my version of the story of Queen Lear, a play by Eugene Stickland.

That striking young woman at the top left is Hanna Stickland, professional name Johanna, and the picture comes from her pages on the Supermodels site.  She has been on the runway in New York, London, Paris and Milan — and absolutely none of that is relevant here (but it is an impressive picture).  As you have probably guessed, she is the daughter of playwright Eugene Stickland and it was her part-time job of “running lines” that started Queen Lear  in motion.

The cello, upper right, is the third character in this three-character play.  Eugene likes to think it is the cellist (someone to play the instrument is required, after all) but we theatre-lovers prefer to think of the cello as the real character.  Instrument or performer, it (she) is on stage for the entire play and as important as the two speaking performers.

The mature woman in the armchair is Joyce Doolittle in her role as Jane, an actress in her 70s  who is rehearsing to play Lear in the Women’s Theatre Collective, all-female version of King Lear.  Joyce has been a part of the Calgary theatre community for more than 50 years.  The Pumphouse Theatre (think of it as a Calgary version of Tate Modern, only about one one-hundreths as big — still, same brickwork, industrial memories, ideally suited for presenting modern art or drama) is in fact a former pumphouse and it has two theatres — the 70-seat house is called the Joyce Doolittle Theatre, so like Gielgud and Olivier, she has her claim to fame.  (And the young actress in that picture is Georgina Beaty who played Heather, the character that Hanna inspired.)

Until a few weeks ago with the premiere of Queen Lear, Joyce had never performed in the theatre that bears her name.  Were it not for Hanna (the running lines person, not the model) she might never have had the experience.

Playwright Stickland introduces it this way in the “Situation” for his play:

Jane was a well known actress in her day, but between a lack of roles for older women, and an increasing lack of confidence in her abilities — in particular, her memory — she has been in virtual retirement for several years.

Now she has been cast as Lear in an all female production of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  Yet she fears for her memory and needs someone to run lines with her.  She hires Heather, whom she knows because Heather’s father is an architect in the firm founded by Jane’s late husband.

Recreate the situation:  Hanna Stickland has just found a “job” running lines with one of the city’s best-known actresses for $8 an hour.  Her father drops her off and, as is his custom heads off for a coffee, notebook in hand.  He muses about the experience and makes some notes — the creation of a wonderful play has begun.

Every city with a theatre community has its own version of Joyce Doolittle; someone who has been on stage for a very long time and done very good work, someone who still wants to work and someone who is getting frustrated, not by the loss of her own abilities, but by the lack of roles that are available to her.  Those of us who are aging (male or female, and we don’t have to be actors) have some understanding.  And the prospect of working with someone a couple of generations younger and perhaps influencing them has an appeal all its own.  The way that Jane and Heather develop their relationship is magnificently done — no matter how cynical you might be, it is touching.

One of Eugene’s most daring tactics in this play is to cast Jane as Lear.  It can be argued  (comments and opinions are certainly welcome) that it is the most difficult of Shakespeare’s roles — if you are really good, you get to do Hamlet as a youngish actor, move on to the king in the Scottish play (its title will be avoided here) and then maybe close out professional life with Lear.  Heck, even Christopher Plummer welcomed the chance.  One of the interesting things about Queen Lear is that the actress who plays Jane in her 70s actually also has to play aspects of Lear, including the howling, howling, howling.  Even the most experienced female actors have not been trained for that.

What about the third character, the cello?  We will let the playwright intoduce her:  “The Cellist is a creative spirit who can’t really be controlled, sometimes she gets in Jane’s way, sometimes she helps her.”

In fact, the play opens with an overture from the cello and the sound in Scene One consists only of cello music (Eugene suggests Bach’s Sonatas, which were in the Calgary production, but leaves the choice open to director and cellist).  It is only a minor spoiler on my part (but if you really hate spoilers, skip the next paragraph or two) to reveal the role of the cello, as articulated by Jane:

I hardly know what’s coming out of my mouth.  Just words.  I open my mouth, words come out.  Words I’ve read.  Words I think I should be saying.  But sometimes I reach for words but they’re not there, there are no words at all, they’re just gone, it’s all a blank page.  And then all I hear is music, all that comes out is music…”

There ends my argument about whether the cello or the cellist is the third character. 

As Jane and Heather run their lines (and there are some wonderful laughs as they do — Eugene writes serious themes under the guise of comedy), a fourth presence — as opposed to character — enters the play in the form of Heather’s deceased mother, an old friend and admirer of Jane’s.  If you look around most theatre halls, the audience will be between 30 and 70 — so by definition, it would seem, this play with its two central characters excludes most of the audience.

Not so fast, and this is where I think Eugene has achieved something quite unusual.  Those of us in the book-blogging world have been debating reliable narrators and unreliable narrators recently — Stickland has created the absent narrator (although, of course, that is the playwright).  As the play develops both Jane and Heather “use” the deceased mother — as an audience we are very aware that we are sitting in exactly that role.  The fourth character is in the house seats.  We all have older role models, like Joyce, who are perhaps (only perhaps) approaching the end of their careers.  We all have younger friends, like Heather, who we hope to influence for the best.  I can’t remember another play that so completely engaged its audience as a member of the cast.

Okay.  Major conflict of interest admission:  I’ve already said Eugene is a close friend and so is Hanna.  The premiere production of Queen Lear was done by Urban Curvz Theatre in Calgary, a company that my wife and I are proud to support, and we were producing sponsers of this production.  It is a company founded on the premise that women too often get overlooked in the theatre community (not just on stage but back-stage as well) and devoted to creating opportunities for them.  As is obvious, they aren’t super dogmatic about that — there is quite a good line in Queen Lear about the Women’s Theatre Collective being willing to overlook the fact that playwright Shakespeare was male.

That conflict involves no commercial interest on my part — Urban Curvz is a not-for-profit company and Eugene is an excellent example for  theatre-lovers that the people who write the plays we love sacrifice a lot of normal human comfort to do that.  A number of regular visitors to this blog are from the UK and I am sure at least one or two of them knows someone at the National Theatre — please, please could you get someone there to read this play.  As a regular visitor to the Littleton, I can say this is exactly the kind of play that space was designed for.  As I said earlier in this post, every community has a version of Joyce Doolittle — and. I am pretty sure that person would love to do this play.

Because few new plays get produced in books, buying a copy is actually quite hard.    Log on to and send a message to the editor and they will be in touch.  I don’t get over-enthusiastic often about literary work, but I can’t tell you how good I think this play is — if I haven’t conveyed that already.




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