Guest Post: Mary Novik, author of Muse

Mary Novik

Mary Novik

So, I’m putting my feet up today and letting someone else do the work. Thank you so much to author Mary Novik for joining me at Your Hidden Shelf!

Mary Novik’s debut novel Conceit, about the daughter of the poet John Donne, was hailed as “a magnificent novel of seventeenth-century London.” Chosen as a book of the year by both Quill & Quire and The Globe and Mail, Conceit was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Solange, the heroine of Novik’s new novel Muse, has been called “a stunning fictional creation.” Mary lives in Vancouver and can be found at www.marynovik.com

Social Status and the Food People Ate in 14th-century Avignon

By Mary Novik

Seven hundred years after the popes lived in Avignon, we can read reports about their banquets and gain insight into their luxurious life style. The type of food people ate depended on their rank. Although there was a vast difference between the diet of a pope and a peasant, the poor did not starve, because the Pope gave out 6,000 loaves of bread daily.

The staples of a peasant’s diet were grains, legumes, onions, garlic, vegetables, coarse dark bread, eggs, and milk products, with a little fish, meat, or poultry. This would be washed down with ale or watered wine, which was safer than unclean water. There was a variety of stews (soups, ragoûts, brewets, porrays, sauces, casseroles) that consisted of a little meat and many vegetables. Pies sound like stews that are poured into a pasty shell and baked. Dessert might consist of nuts and dried or cooked fruit. Tomatoes and potatoes didn’t reach Europe until the Renaissance. A rogue potato slipped into an early draft of Muse. An anachronism, it had to be rooted out and replaced with a turnip.

A merchant or guild-master would have eaten “higher on the hog,” his cut of meat coming halfway between the peasant’s and a pope’s. Foods, like people, were arranged in hierarchies from root vegetables at the bottom to imported delicacies at the top. Roasted quadrupeds were lower in status than birds, which rose from chickens up to cranes and peacocks. Salt, spices, and herbs masked the taste of rotting food. Sugar, honey, nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon were expensive, and saffron and pepper were only for the wealthy. Kitchen hygiene was a long way in the future. Many people died from food poisoning. Other poisoning was rife as well. A noble might have a taster, or might drink from a special cup that would detect poison. Apparently, Pope Benedict XI was poisoned by figs. Pope John XXII suspected that an enemy was trying to poison him with a wax image hidden in a loaf of bread. Perhaps he was correct, because his nephew ate it and died instead.

Much can be learned about medieval eating by studying works of art, literature, and old cookery manuals, for instance Le Ménagier de Paris. Recently, the British Museum found a 14th-century manual written by the Queen of England’s cook, who had a penchant for exotic ingredients like hedgehogs, blackbirds, and unicorns. The Cluny museum garden in Paris gives us a good idea of what people grew, which, surprisingly, did include greens like lettuce.

Diners sat on a bench along one side of a trestle table assembled for the meal and taken apart afterwards. One of these can be seen in the Cluny, along with medieval cooking pots, dishes, and utensils. People would eat in pairs, sharing a wine cup and using a slice of bread as a trencher for holding meat. They washed their hands in a shared bowl before they ate and observed some table manners, like wiping their hands on the tablecloth. Chaucer’s wonderful description of the Prioress’s dainty table habits suggests that her fastidiousness was rare.

Extravagant banquets were hosted by the Pope in the Grand Tinel in the palace, a dining room the size of a field. Rumour has it that one pope died by stuffing himself with eels soaked in vernaccia, a sweet wine. Another pope ate strawberries with a crystal fork, although ordinary people only used knives and spoons. A banquet given by John XXII served 55 sheep, 9 oxen, 8 pigs, 4 boars, 690 chickens, 580 partridges, 292 birds, 270 rabbits, 200 capons, 59 pigeons, 40 plovers, 37 ducks, 4 cranes, 2 pheasants, and 2 peacocks–and that was just the meat! A papal banquet with 27 courses given by Cardinal Ceccano has been made legendary by a surviving eye witness report. A fountain with five different wines issuing out of the spouts was too rich for a novelist to pass up and has found its way into a scene in Muse.

Then, as now, the greatest wisdom lay in choosing simple, nutritious fare instead of overindulging at a rich man’s table. As he aged, Petrarch grew disgusted by the excesses of the cardinals and popes and retreated to the country near Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. A letter survives in which he invites a cardinal’s nephew to a pastoral supper:  “There is no market of delicacies here. It is a poet’s repast that will be waiting for you . . . Apples ripe, soft chestnuts, and a jug of fresh-drawn milk. The rest will be rougher: you will find hard and simple bread, a stray rabbit, or a crane that someone has sent to me . . . And perhaps the strong meat of a wild boar.”

In Avignon today, the tourist can enjoy a simple tartine washed down with Rhône wine or can dine extravagantly on elaborate Provençal cuisine with Châteauneuf-du-Pape, presented in a heavy bottle embossed with the Pope’s insignia. Whichever you choose, according to the status of your budget, you can be sure that you’ll be eating the best seasonal ingredients because the Avignonnais still take great pride in their cuisine.

MuseBe sure to check out the other stops on Mary’s blog tour here:

 

 

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood: A review

 

 

MaddAddam

 

“Another Plague Year would reconcile all these Differences, a close conversing with Death, or the Diseases that threaten Death, would scum off the Gall from our Tempers, remove the Animosities among us, and bring us to see with differing Eyes, than those which we look’d on Things with before.” — Daniel Dafoe, A Journal of the Plague Year

 

If you had to start the world all over again, what would you keep from the old one? Whom would you let in and whom would you exclude? And how would you avoid making the same mistakes as before?

MaddAddam is the final book in the dystopian trilogy by Margaret Atwood that began with Oryx and Crake, and continued with Year of the Flood. If it’s been a while since you read the first two, don’t worry – there’s a quick synopsis at the beginning of the book to refresh your memory. MaddAddam brings the characters from the first two books together. The global pandemic is over, and Toby, Ren, Amanda, Jimmy, and the Crakers who were under Jimmy’s protection,  find themselves reunited with the MaddAddamites. They eke out a living with simple agriculture and foraging, and do the best they can to protect their borders from pigoons and the Painballers who kidnapped Amanda. Alternating with this narrative is the story of Zeb’s past, including his relationship with Adam One and the beginnings of God’s Gardeners.

There’s enough urgency to both narratives to keep you turning the pages, and Atwood’s prose is clear, fluid, and flecked with her trademark dry humour. We learn much more about Zeb and Adam (although Adam remains as enigmatic and mysterious as Crake) and the chaotic and violent world before the pandemic. Where the first two books focused on the survival of individuals in the immediate aftermath of the global disaster, MaddAddam looks forward, as the collective begins to rebuild  and form alliances with others, including the pigoons and the Crakers, Crake’s engineered, peace-loving humanoids with the uncanny singing voices and ability to purr.

The Crakers and humans must accept and learn from each other, and the most satisfying central relationship of the book is not between Toby and Zeb,(which felt a little flat for me) but between Toby and Blackbeard, a Craker boy whom she befriends and teaches to read and write. Storytelling is at the heart of the novel; what we choose to tell, and how we tell it, is important:

There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.

But storytelling quickly becomes mythmaking which becomes theology. After Toby has taught Blackbeard to write his name, she observes him showing the other Craker children:

Now what have I done? she thinks. What can of worms have I opened? They’re so quick, these children: they’ll pick this up and transmit it to all the others.

What comes next? Rules, dogmas, laws? The Testament of Crake? How soon before there are ancient texts they feel they have to obey but have forgotten how to interpret? Have I ruined them?

Other choices and decisions must be made too, the basic ones of how to find food, and the more complicated ones of who to trust and include in your new society:

What to eat, where to shit, how to take shelter, who and what to kill: are these the basics? thinks Toby. Is this what we’ve come to, or come down to; or else come back to?

And who do you love? And who loves you? And who loves you not? And, come to think of it, who seriously hates you.

This is a book of ideas but it never feels exclusively so. Atwood brings her characters to life, and much of the reading enjoyment is in observing the interactions of the new community as they sort out the emotional entanglements of love, jealousy, ambition, and pride, and attempt to establish the values and needs of the group. Personalities and generations clash, egos must be suppressed, love satisfied and quirks tolerated. Atwood avoids one of the common pitfalls of satire — an arch tone that invites the reader to make judgements rather than sympathize.  The main target of her satire — the pre-pandemic society alienated from nature and obsessed with personal gratification — is so similar to the world we live in now that, although amusingly and sometimes chillingly portrayed, it barely feels exaggerated.

At the moving conclusion of this wonderful and enthralling trilogy, the future for this post-apocalyptic world is a hopeful one, as the inhabitants decide what will be valued: storytelling, compassion and community, and a sense of gratitude and respect for the diverse life of the planet. Perhaps we could avoid the disastrous circumstances that Margaret Atwood suggests are in our future if we valued those things now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read some CanLit Classics: The Storytellers Book Club

 

“The answers you get from literature depend on the questions you pose.” — Margaret Atwood

Do you remember taking “CanLit” in school? Did you love it? Hate it?

My first Canadian Literature course was taught by a serious-minded, rangy, dark-haired Australian who looked like John Cleese. Before he came to our suburban Ontario high school in the seventies, there was no “CanLit”. It took the passionate lobbying of this outsider to convince the faculty that teaching Canadian literature was worthwhile and important.

Douglas Gibson also came from outside Canada to nurture and promote Canadian books and writers. Originally from Scotland, Gibson came to Canada in 1967 and spent the next forty years as an editor and publisher, working with such authors as Alice Munro, Robertson Davies and Alistair MacLeod. His memoir, Stories about Storytellers, provides an insider’s view of the publishing world and the life and work of many Canadian writers now considered to be iconic.

Gibson’s latest project, The Storytellers Book Club, gives readers a chance to become acquainted (either again, or for the first time) with five seminal books in Canadian literature from the unique perspective of the editor/author relationship. If you loved that CanLit course, here’s a chance to dig deeper into the creative process of some of your favourite authors. If you hated CanLit, The Storytellers Book Club gives you an opportunity to see these works from the perspective of someone who is passionately supportive of them. You might change your mind.

At Douglas Gibson’s website, you can check out discussion questions on the five titles illustrated above. And if you want to write a review of Stories about Storytellers and one of the featured titles, post your review on your blog, Goodreads, or Facebook, and you have a chance to win a CanLit Prize Pack featuring all five titles and some added ones!

For all the details, check out the Storytellers Book Club!

Lost and Found in America: The transcendent stories of Denis Johnson

 

Jesus' Son

“That world! These days it’s all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?” — Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son

 

I’ve mentioned here before that one of my very favourite things is the New Yorker Fiction podcast. Writers who have published in The New Yorker select and read a short story by another New Yorker writer. You get to hear not only a wonderful story, but also a writer’s insights into what makes the story work.

In the most recent episode, Donald Antrim reads the story “Work” from Denis Johnson’s short story collection, Jesus’ Son.

Denis Johnson has written poetry, plays, short stories, and novels. He won the National Book Award in 2007 for his novel Tree of Smoke, and his novella Train Dreams was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2012.

I bought Jesus’ Son last year because I loved another story by Johnson, “Emergency”. You can also listen to “Emergency” on the podcast. It’s read by Tobias Wolff, whose story “Bullet in the Brain” is another personal favourite. Ah, so many stories, so little time.

I don’t think the reasons you love a short story are any different than the reasons you love a novel: good writing, characters you care about, a story that keeps you reading. Other than that, it’s hard to say what makes a good short story, because there are so many different ones. There are linked stories that, together, create a narrative arc that’s similar to a novel. There are stories that seem closer to a poem, with words, characters and events crystallized into a single idea. Sometimes events take place in a day, with just a couple of characters, and some stories are longer and span several years. None of these things seem wrong if the story works, but with all that latitude, to create something beautiful is an incredibly difficult thing to do.

The stories in Jesus’ Son are all narrated by an unnamed, heroin-addicted, alcoholic drifter referred to only as Fuckhead.  Most seem imperfectly recalled, with character’s names and other details forgotten, and they jump around in time and place, with little regard, it seems on the surface anyway, for coherent storytelling. We’ll start reading about one event, and Fuckhead will interrupt with “But before any of this . . .”  The first line of the story “The Other Man” is “But I never finished telling you about the two men.” (This is a few stories after a story titled “Two Men”.)

“Work” and “Emergency” are in the middle of Jesus’ Son. In “Work”, the narrator and his friend Wayne spend the day “salvaging” copper wire from abandoned houses, and then go to a bar. In “Emergency”, the narrator and another friend, Georgie, work in a hospital. They steal pills and get completely high, then drive around town in Georgie’s truck. In both stories the action unfolds in a dreamlike sequence of abruptly changing, unpredictable events. It’s both disjointed and coherent in a way that leads you irresistibly through to the end. It’s also very funny sometimes. In “Emergency”, a patient walks into the hospital with a knife in his eye. A doctor is called:

“He peeked into the trauma room and saw the situation: the clerk—that is, me—standing next to the orderly, Georgie, both of us on drugs, looking down at a patient with a knife sticking up out of his face.

‘What seems to be the trouble?’ he said.”

Juxtaposed with a spare landscape of dive bars, hotels, highways and farms, is poetic imagery that reflects Fuckhead’s heightened state, where clouds are like “great grey brains” and everything is freighted with meaning:

“We drove with the windows down. The mild spring evening, after several frozen winter months, was like a foreigner breathing in our faces. We took our passenger to a residential street where the buds were forcing themselves out of the tips of branches and the seeds were moaning in the gardens.”

Quoted out of context, that passage looks crazily overwritten, but in the story it works. Events, characters, dialogue and poetic description are compressed in a few pages, and when combined, explode into an ethereal whole, like layers of pastry in contact with heat.

Fuckhead and the reader are kept afloat by his willingness to see redemption in unlikely places. In “Work” the bartender (“I wish I could remember her name. I only remember her grace and her generosity”) is compared to an angel for her willingness to pour drinks “right up to the lip of a cocktail glass, no measuring . . . You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom.” In “Emergency”, Fuckhead and Georgie stumble across a drive-in theatre in a snowstorm. “On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity.”

I find one of the most revered short story writers of our time, Alice Munro, very difficult to read. There’s an inevitability to the bleak trajectory of her character’s lives, so full of missed opportunities and thwarted desires, that I feel a chill when I’m done reading. Johnson’s drifters and losers, by comparison, have it much harder than Munro’s characters. But along with prose of surpassing beauty, there’s a redemptive transcendence in the stories, and by the end of Jesus’ Son, as Fuckhead struggles to go straight, he feels an optimistic hope that “there might be a place for people like us”, and we feel it too.

City sunset

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel by David Rakoff

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish

 

“Everybody’s got something. In the end, what choice does one really have but to understand that truth, to really take it in, and then shop for groceries, get a haircut, do one’s work; get on with the business of one’s life.

That’s the hope, anyway.” — David Rakoff, Half Empty

 

I’ve loved David Rakoff’s writing since belatedly reading his books around the time of his death at the age of forty-seven last year. I’m not sure why it took me so long to read him. I think as I stood in front of the Humour section at the bookstore, my eyes were blinded by that other David, David Sedaris.

David Sedaris and David Rakoff actually don’t have much in common, apart from both being humour writers and gay. The particular pleasure of David Sedaris is his ability to be so squirmingly revealing that you don’t know whether to laugh or cover your face in mock horror. There’s self-awareness in David Rakoff’s writing too, but it’s combined with a satirical eye and masterful use of language to point out the ridiculous excesses and self-deceptions of modern life.  He once said that writing was about “obfuscation and masking oneself.” On the radio show This American Life, to which he contributed frequently, he talked about the jokiness he adopted as a response to serious illness:

I was at my very cleverest that year — an airless, relentless kind of quipiness. Every time a complex human emotion threatened to break the surface of my consciousness, out would come a joke. Come on, give us a smile

I was Thanatos’s rodeo clown. I still am, and Eros’s as well, as it turns out. Years later, in a tender embrace in bed with my first real boyfriend, he said my name; “Oh, David.” I stopped, sat up, and responded in my best Ed Wynn, “Yes?” This kind of behavior essentially killed things between us.

That kind of behaviour, too, is something that he began to abandon as his illness progressed. The last essay in Half Empty entitled “Another Shoe”, in which he describes his diagnosis and treatment of the cancer that would eventually kill him, ends up, in its honesty and bravery, contradicting the warning on the cover which states: “No Inspirational Life Lessons Will Be Found In These Pages.”

If Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish was merely a memorial project of David Rakoff’s editor and friends, it would still be worth the price. Beautifully designed by Chip Kidd with a gorgeous painting on the cover by the illustrator, Seth, it’s a lovely book. My apprehension was that Love, Dishonor, would be, at best, a sentimental keepsake. I was looking forward to holding it in my hands, but I was unprepared to like it as much as I did.

It’s the whole rhyming thing. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is a novel, I guess, but written in verse. People don’t really do that much these days, since we invented the printing press and lost the need for mnemonics to share stories around the fire. I heard an excerpt from the book on This American Life read by Ira Glass, and  found a poignant charm in Rakoff’s story of betrayal and forgiveness. But I had a hard time imagining that a style mostly associated with Dr. Seuss could support a more complex story for over one hundred pages.

Spanning decades, and diverse, intersecting characters, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish  is involving, touching, funny, and beautiful. The story turns on the pivot of a central childhood moment between cousins Clifford and Helen, through whose lives (and others) are mirrored the cultural shifts in twentieth-century America.

What Love, Dishonor, lacks in psychological complexity, it makes up for in breadth, drama, and emotion. From the stockyards of early twentieth-century Chicago, to San Francisco in the seventies and Ronald Reagan era consumerism, villains prey on the weak and heroes survive cruelties big and small.

Rakoff employs his rhymes to entertaining satiric effect. One character, Margaret, goes to school where she “learned basic reading and sums—/But mostly developed a hatred of nuns” who “meted out lashings and thrashing despotic/(With a thrill she would later construe as erotic)”. Later, we meet an Anita Bryant–style crusader who “believed in true Heaven, real Hell/ Her hair an immovable nautilus shell.”

What’s surprising is how well Rakoff uses the verse form for dramatic storytelling and nuances of feeling. Violence, illness, loss, regret, betrayal and death, love and forgiveness — all are movingly portrayed. It’s impossible to read about Cliff’s terminal illness without thinking of the author’s last days, but even without that knowledge, it would be wonderful writing. With the realization that what connects us to each other is not our victories and joys, but our weaknesses and flaws, there’s no more obfuscation. After an affair ends badly, Helen reflects on her embarrassment about her willingness to make herself open:

Her biggest regret is the five wasted years

That she’s chided herself over shedding those tears.

Instead of her wishing for eyes that stayed dry

She should cherish that Helen, so able to cry,

That Helen who felt things and then wasn’t scared

To air them in public. That Helen who cared

Enough about things she could speak them aloud,

That Helen of whom she might ever be proud.

The impulse to create is often a contradictory desire to reveal and conceal. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is as revealing, and as beautiful, as anything David Rakoff wrote.  “In this bitch of a life, one can never be too well armed,” said Manet. True, but what can you do? We’re human, and in the face of inevitable loss “we make ourselves open, while knowing full well/It’s essentially saying, ‘Please, come pierce my shell.’”

 

Waterlilies

 

 

 

Reading Marcel Proust and Dawn Powell

 

“I am very fond of my novel, hope other people are.” — from The Diaries of Dawn Powell 1931–1965

 

A while back I was on the train when we came to a stop at a station. There was another train waiting on the adjacent track. The lights from the car glowed in the grey chill of the wintry morning. Inside, commuters slept, read the paper or their books, typed on their laptops, scrolled through their mobiles, and so on. In our car, every head swivelled to gaze at the people in the other train. Our eyes opened, we looked up from our newspapers and books, fingers temporarily suspended over our laptop keyboards and mobiles, and so on.

I’ve picked up Proust again recently. “Finally!” I hear some of you say, while others murmur “Who cares?” I’m on page five hundred of Within a Budding Grove. That’s about two hundred pages from the end of the second book in the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. In this book, the narrator spends more time looking outward than he did in Swann’s Way. His observations of the people around him are more objective and less focused on his internal impressions and moods.

As always with Proust, our enjoyment of the book is not with the plot but with his ability to observe and record in precise detail, well, everything. Want to know what people looked and sounded like in the aristocratic households of Paris at the turn of the last century? It’s here.

In Within a Budding Grove we meet a few new characters. One is the Baron de Charlus, the uncle of a friend of the narrator. Several pages are devoted to a description of M. de Charlus, including his somewhat intense and inscrutable gaze:

No doubt, had it not been for those eyes, M. de Charlus’s face would have been similar to the faces of many good-looking men. . . . however much M. de Charlus tried to seal hermetically the expression on that face, to which a light coating of powder lent a faintly theatrical aspect, the eyes were like two crevices, two loop-holes which alone he had failed to block, and through which, according to one’s position in relation to him, one suddenly felt oneself in the path of some hidden weapon which seemed to bode no good, even to him who, without being altogether master of it, carried it within himself in a state of precarious equilibrium and always on the verge of explosion

That’s a nice example of Proustian syntax, dissecting with a loving caress the inner and outer essence of his characters, like Michelangelo closing his eyes and stroking the marble before applying the chisel.

Sometimes he’s a little more succinct, to good comic effect. In an aside on a minor character, he observes, “This man’s wife, incidentally, had married him against everyone’s wishes and advice because he was a ‘charming creature.’ He had, what may be sufficient to constitute a rare and delicate whole, a fair, silky beard, good features, a nasal voice, bad breath, and a glass eye.”

Proust also enjoys describing the dynamics of Parisian society, and all the little things  people do to secure their reputation in the eyes of others. Those like Odette, without the advantages of an aristocratic family name, have to find ways to make sure everyone knows they’re important:

The Swanns shared this failing of people who are not much sought after; a visit, an invitation, a mere friendly word from anyone at all prominent was for them an event to which they felt the need to give full publicity. . . . The Swanns were incapable even of keeping to themselves the complimentary letters and telegrams received by Odette. They spoke of them to their friends, passed them from hand to hand. Thus the Swanns’ drawing-room was reminiscent of a seaside hotel where telegrams are posted up on a board.

Alongside In Search of Lost Time, I’m rereading The Diaries of Dawn Powell 1931–1965. Powell was the author of fifteen novels, in addition to several plays and short stories. She battled financial woes and indifference to her work her entire life, despite high regard from a handful of authors including Ernest Hemingway, who described her as “his favorite living writer.” It’s difficult to get any of her books now. I discovered the diaries through an article in The New Yorker. Edited by Tim Page, The Diaries of Dawn Powell is over four hundred pages of notes, descriptions and anecdotes about her life and work. Want to know what people looked and sounded like in the artistic circles of New York City in the thirties, forties and fifties? It’s here.

Dawn Powell’s diary is so writerly one wonders how spontaneous it was (although Tim Page admits to “tightening” her prose occasionally.) It’s more a writer’s notebook than a personal confessional. Take this description of a friend of novelist John Dos Passos, recorded in December 1935:

He is a faintly funereal wag, smelling of old ladies and moth balls, and Victorian parlors, expecting cancer with a smile, welcoming decent calamity with great good nature so long as it’s something slow and fatal and respectable rather than garish and dramatic. He, like so many other gifted young men about town, slipped somehow into one of Henry James’ lesser mantles, assuming with authority the role of Dean of Letters, without going to the bother of writing. This slight lapse in preparation passes unnoticed now, when others of his own generation have stopped writing anyway, so no one can be sure which witty critic once wrote a fine novel, a successful play or poem, and which never did anything but show promise.

The Diaries is filled with anecdotes that showcase Powell’s humour and ear for dialogue, such as her entry for February 23, 1933:

To Coby’s. Alec Brook, Peggy Bacon, Niles Spencer and Betty Spencer were there—all slightly lit and anxious to tell dirty stories but no one could remember any. “The best one,” stuttered Niles, “is the one—well, I’d better not tell it—it’s pretty bad—ladies would get insulted—anyway there’s a lot of French in it and so on—I really forget. It isn’t so funny, anyways, it’s the way it’s told and in the end the fellow says ‘Someday you’ll go to far.’ Ha ha.” Coby knew one in Cockney only he’d forgotten the end and besides he couldn’t speak Cockney.

In another entry Powell describes a party where Dr. Cook, “a very viril head-hunting gent,” kisses a beautiful student out of the blue, and then goes home. The student proceeds to get drunk and pass out. Apparently this wasn’t the first time Dr. Cook insensitively toyed with the affections of a student:

Mrs. Sweeney said the distinguished Dr.’s other student had passed out before. He brought one to her house, then she began getting pea green and Mrs. S. saw her out where she said, swaying into the elevator, “I’ve forgotten my notebook.” Then, this being produced, she shyly said, sliding to the floor, “I had a pencil, too.” Then she passed warily away.

That “shyly” and “warily” are perfect. In Gore Vidal’s 1987 essay on Dawn Powell in the New York Review of Books he quotes a passage from her novel She Walks in Beauty, in which a character offers a back-handed compliment to another “pleasantly.”  “The adverb ‘pleasantly’ helps make the joke,” writes Vidal, “a point of contention between no-adverbs Graham Greene and myself. I look to the adverb for surprise. Greene thinks that the verb should do all the work.”

Reading Proust and Dawn Powell at the same time, I’m struck by the similarities despite the differences in time and place. Both writers were interested in social dynamics and the “tells” which thwart our attempts to mask our intentions. Both were masters of observation — you can imagine each racing home from a party to scribble the details of everything that happened. And both used language superbly to transform our endless fascination with ourselves into art.

We pick up a book and turn from the swirl of our own minds, filled with desires, dreams, insecurities, the pain of memory, and so on, to read about other times, other lives, where people struggle with their desires, dreams and insecurities, and the pain of memory. And so on.

Beach

 

The Humans by Matt Haig: A Review

The Humans

“‘Anything is possible,’ I told her, but didn’t go into the maths.” — The Humans

 

The Humans by Matt Haig came out in North America yesterday. It’s been getting positive reviews in the U.K. since its release there in May. I confess I didn’t know anything about Matt Haig until this:

Some Fucking Writing Tips

I really enjoyed the humour and honesty of that post on Matt Haig’s blog, and when I watched the trailer for his newest book, The Humans, I knew I wanted to read it. Funny! Heartwarming! Yeah!

In The Humans, an unnamed alien comes to Earth from Vonnadoria (an alias for Tralfamadore, perhaps?) to prevent a Cambridge mathematics professor named Andrew Martin from sharing with humanity his proof of “The Riemann Hypothesis”. To accomplish this he must kill Andrew Martin and take over his body, and then eliminate anyone around Andrew who might know of the proof, including Andrew’s wife Isobel and his son Gulliver. The technical reasons that this knowledge would be dangerous to the universe are sketchy. But that’s not important because the story is really about “Andrew Martin” and what he learns about being human.

Once the first part of his task is accomplished, the new Andrew has to figure out some of the basics, such as the necessity of wearing clothes, and that spitting is not an appropriate human greeting. He goes on from there to learn about humans by listening to The Beach Boys, Talking Heads, Debussy, Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, reading Emily Dickinson, going to a football game, and eating peanut butter sandwiches with his dog, Newton (not only the name of a famous mathematician, but also Emily Dickinson’s mentor.)  I’m not sure how much you can learn about being human from a dog, but you can learn a lot about joy, and that’s something.

Watching the news, Andrew observes that humans aren’t much interested in any species but their own, (and even then, only the ones closest to them) and have a preoccupation with power and violence. He suggests that the t.v. news should be called “The War and Money Show.” While listening to jazz he speculates, “Maybe this is what beauty was, for humans. Accidents, imperfections, placed inside a pretty pattern.” And he learns that “Hair . . . is very important here. Not as important as clothes obviously, but getting there.” (I beg to differ on that last point. For women, hair is more important than clothes. At least, good hair is more important than good clothes. Wearing clothes of some kind is usually a good idea.)

Quite soon, (and, if we are to be honest, predictably), Andrew finds himself adapting to life on Earth and falling in love with his wife and son. He discovers that the  original Andrew Martin wasn’t very nice — a self-centred intellectual with ambitions of glory that overrode his attention to his family. And plus, he was  having an affair with one of his students. Jerk.  His selfish behaviour has caused Gulliver to be even more surly than the average middle-class teenager. The pressure of trying to live up to the expectations of a distant and brilliant father combined with constant bullying at school have dumped Gulliver into a suicidal depression.

Now Andrew must pull Gulliver (Gulliver — another stranger in a strange land trying to make moral sense of the world) back from the brink of death. In doing so he will make his own return to Vonnadoria impossible. But he will be that much closer to being human.

And not just because “love conquers all” or “all you need is love”. Haig’s lesson is a little bit more melancholy. We’re all aliens, whether we were born on Earth or not. Andrew feels “the kind of anxiety you could only feel on this planet. The anxiety that came from the fact that the only beings who knew who I was were a long way away.” That’s Gulliver’s anxiety too. And Isobel’s, and everyone else’s here on Earth. The best we can do is try and bridge the gaps with compassion and understanding, and beat back despair with hope.

Matt Haig has written about his own depression. Clinical depression can’t be faced down with rational thought. In the midst of illness, your negative thoughts seem rational. You need to have some hope that you’ll make it to the other side. Andrew observes, “hope was often irrational. It made no sense. If it had made sense it would have been called, well, sense.” At the moment Andrew fears he won’t have the strength to save Gulliver, he remembers a poem by Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all.

Towards the end of the book Andrew gives Gulliver his “Advice to a Human”. These aphoristic lessons bear a striking resemblance to Haig’s blog list of “Reasons to Stay Alive”. Sometimes silly, sometimes wise, but always heartfelt, they’re a neat summing up of Haigian philosophy.

Matt Haig has taken his own writing advice and crafted a charming, heartwarming, whimsical novel that’s kind of Kurt Vonnegut via the satirical eye of Douglas Adams and the sentimental wit of Richard Curtis — and he’s given it “some fucking soul”. Though it doesn’t tell the story of every human, it will touch many and just might save some from feeling alone for a few hours, or days, or longer. The Humans is Matt Haig’s outstretched hand to the human on the ledge.

Happiness

Book Review: The Rosie Project

The Rosie Project

 

“As usual, my assumptions about human behaviour were wrong.” – The Rosie Project

 

Ahh, it’s summer at last in southern Ontario! Time to head outside with your book or ereader and enjoy the long days.  Time for a book that’s not too demanding, with a story compelling enough to keep your eyes on the page amidst the distractions of the breeze blowing your hair, the waves lapping against the dock or, if you’re in the city, some guy yelling “Fuck off!” at his bicycle over and over. That book’s going to be different for everyone, of course. If funny, charming, and clever is what you like, you’ll enjoy meeting Don Tillman, hero of  The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion.

You’ve probably seen copies of The Rosie Project on display at the front of your favourite bookstore. The novel started life in a screenwriter’s class, and has been sold in over thirty territories, earning first-time author Graeme Simsion a nice sum of money. Does the book live up to the hype? Mostly, yes.

Thirty-nine-year-old genetics professor Don Tillman likes things just so. He eats the same lobster salad every Tuesday, schedules ninety-four minutes to clean his bathroom, and practices aikido three times per week. His rigid attachment to routine, and difficulty interpreting other people’s feelings alerts us to his probable Asperger’s. But, like many of us, Don doesn’t see himself the same way others do.

So when Don decides he should get married he logically embarks on The Wife Project.  Having abandoned the traditional “dating paradigm” because “the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences” — who would disagree? — he creates a questionnaire to screen out inappropriate spousal candidates such as smokers, vegans, “crystal gazers”, and the chronically late. He’s helped by his friend Gene (who may not be that helpful, since his own project is to sleep with one woman from each country on his world map) and Gene’s long-suffering wife Claudia, a psychologist who gently guides Don through the murky waters of social conventions and other people’s emotions.

Then Rosie walks into Don’s office. She is an inappropriate candidate for The Wife Project in practically every way —  unpunctual, spontaneous and a smoker. It wouldn’t make sense for Don to see her again. But he’s surprised to find he experiences  “unexpected moment[s] of feeling good” when they are together.  So when Rosie tells him she would like a geneticist’s help in identifying her birth father, he agrees to help, and The Father Project  is born. At a point when Rosie is ready to abandon the project, he continues because he wants to be with her.

The story zings along entertainingly and many scenes would translate well to the big screen. It owes a lot to my favourite comedy, Howard Hawks’s Bringing up Baby, in which Cary Grant’s stuffy university professor is won over by Katharine Hepburn’s zany antics.

Don’s narration works to comic effect wonderfully. His ability to observe precisely but miss the point entirely is the source of much of the book’s humour. Simsion does a great job of including enough information about what’s going on around Don that we see the gaps in his understanding, and both laugh with him and feel for him. This is played perfectly in a hilarious date scene at the beginning of the book, when Don takes Elizabeth, a computer scientist of strong “evidence-based” opinions, out for dinner and ice cream. Incredulous that Elizabeth claims she can discern the difference between peach and mango ice cream, Don “explained the physiology of tastebud chilling in some detail.” He decides she should taste-test the two flavours, “but by the time the serving person had prepared them, and I turned to ask Elizabeth to close her eyes for the experiment, she had gone. So much for ‘evidence-based’.  And for computer ‘scientist’.” Indeed.

The book would have been more satisfying for me if the secondary characters were more than foils for Don Tillman. The explanation for Rosie’s anger towards her stepfather lacked conviction, and I didn’t feel like I knew enough about her to explain why she falls for Don (even if, as she describes him, he looks like Gregory Peck. Well, ok, that might be a good enough reason.) Darker days in Don’s past are hinted at with references to his deceased sister, but we never get much more of a glimpse into his family. And why doesn’t Claudia kick Gene’s adulterous ass? A little bit of shadow to throw the light into relief might have taken The Rosie Project beyond fun and diverting to truly poignant and touching.

At the core of this story is the idea that love has the power to change people in fundamental ways. That’s a pretty romantic notion, but it’s one we like to hold on to and tell ourselves over and over — see every Shakespeare comedy ever.  Simsion creates a central figure who, despite his “variant” nature is really us.  We cheer him on with sympathy and goodwill in his search for connection. When he admits he’s confused that his feelings don’t make rational sense, Rosie answers simply, “Welcome to the real world.”

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Book Review: Summer Days, Starry Nights

Summer Days, Starry Nights

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”  — C.S. Lewis

 

I don’t usually write about kids and teen books. I know a lot of adults read extensively in the YA genre, especially since Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series — a crossover success which was a huge hit with adult women — but it’s not a genre I dip into often. But I made an exception recently for a middle-school novel called Summer Days, Starry Nights by Vikki Vansickle. When I first met Vikki I had no idea she was a published author. Summer Days, Starry Nights is her fourth book. I was in the mood for a light, summery read to pick up between stepping out of the Murakamiverse and into the dystopian future of Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood. Summer Days, Starry Nights provided a little vacation getaway on my couch.

It’s 1962, and thirteen-year-old Reenie Starr is enjoying the sunshine at Sandy Shores, the family resort her parents own and run in Ontario cottage country. The middle child of three, Reenie is on the edge of adulthood and navigating the murky emotional waters of the Starr family: her mother “Mimi”, a sometimes troubled and distant parent; her caring father who holds the family and business together; Bo, her sixteen-year-old brother who dreams of a life elsewhere; and six-year-old baby sister Scarlett, who Reenie imagines is the graceful and perfect daughter her mother prefers. Reenie loves Sandy Shores, and associates it with everything good and safe in her world. But when a newcomer arrives in the form of seventeen-year-old Gwendolyn Cates, the glamorous daughter of a family friend, things begin to change. Where does Bo sneak off to each night? Who is writing letters to Gwen, and why does she seem so sad? Why does Mimi insist on embarrassing Reenie by trying to be friends with Gwen? And how will Reenie balance her desire to enter the exciting world of adults with her wish that everything at Sandy Shores stay the same forever?

Vikki ably paces her story — mysteries unfold, friendships blossom, and as the stakes are raised on the action, the suspense builds to a satisfying climax and big reveal. Throughout, the language is straightforward enough to move the plot along, but evocative and layered enough to be emotionally satisfying for a sensitive reader. Here is Reenie describing herself:

I definitely notice more than Bo or Scarlett. But maybe that’s because Bo is too busy with his guitar and Scarlett is too busy being adorable. Being in the middle makes me perfectly positioned to notice things that others don’t.

There’s a lot of information in that short passage: Bo’s increasing rebellion and withdrawal from the family, Scarlett’s importance as the charming centre of attention in the Starr household, and Reenie’s position — as she sees it — outside the circle. Even as Reenie explains her role of observer, there’s a hint of sadness.

The smell of the pines, the cool sand on your sun-drenched feet, the sound of screen doors slamming, and the awe-inspiring sight of the stars twinkling in a velvet sky are all vividly evoked in Vikki’s description of Sandy Shores, where the air  “smells like a combination of lake water, campfire, grass and tanning oil. It is sweet, salty, pungent and fresh.”

A dramatic revelation, well developed characters, and natural dialogue all combine to create an engaging summer read perfect for a smart ten- to twelve-year-old girl.  And its old-fashioned charm will entertain older readers who remember sitting on the front porch with a glass of lemonade and the latest Trixie Belden or Judy Blume novel.

Thank you, Vikki, it was just what I needed!

Summer Days, Starry Nights is published by Scholastic, and you can meet the author, Vikki VanSickle, at Chapters Brampton on Sunday June 23, at 1:00 pm.

(Incidentally, if you actually remember Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew in their original incarnations, you will love this website devoted to vintage series books.)

 

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Fifteen Tips for Surviving Unemployment! With Extra Bonus Tip!

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“Try to learn to let what is unfair teach you.” — David Foster Wallace

 

June! I used to be a fall person. I loved September’s golden light, soft winds rustling crisp leaves, and the elegiac mood of the garden. But I’ve been converted to the hope and promise of early summer. Weddings, commencement ceremonies, the first buds on the rose — why look back when you can look ahead?

Still, the future can be daunting. It’s a tough time to finish school and  look for work.  I have a little bit of experience with the looking for work thing, so thought I would share the limited wisdom I’ve gleaned over the past year of unemployment. I can’t help you get a job (clearly I’m no expert), and I’m fortunate enough to not have to worry about food and shelter (yet), but being unemployed over an extended period can take it’s toll emotionally, and that’s something I do know about. So, for you, my Fifteen Tips for Surviving Unemployment! Plus! An Extra! Bonus! Tip!

 

  1. Read. You have the time now anyway. Crack open that copy of War and Peace or In Search of Lost Time that’s been compressing a little rectangle on the rug beside your bed. Want something inspirational, but non-traditional? This is Water by David Foster Wallace and Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman are great grad gifts. Or just read the latest escapist fluff — no shame.
  2. Take some classes to upgrade your skills, if you can afford it. This was something I put off because it was expensive, and when advice-seeking at the beginning of my search I was told that I didn’t need classes for my chosen field (publishing.)  Also, I had so much career and life experience — that had to be worth something, right? Hee. Jobs in the field are scarce, and no one gets an interview, or even hears about open positions, without being enrolled in one of the city’s three publishing programs. Besides, learning new stuff is fun.
  3. Volunteer, maybe. The reasoning goes like this: your volunteer work might lead to a paying job. And even if it doesn’t, you’re gaining experience that you can put on your resume! I’ve tried a couple of versions of unpaid work. One was an internship, where I met some great people, learned about the publishing business, and brushed up my office skills. I was working with like-minded people who were respectful and appreciative of my efforts. It was wonderful. The other was with a local social agency. I met some great people and participated in a worthwhile cause. It was thankless and depressing.  After eight weeks and some soul-searching, I quit. If you find something you like, great, but it’s not for everyone.
  4. Get some exercise. If you can find a sport or workout you enjoy, it can be a life-saver. If it’s with friends, you’re socializing too, and if you’re alone it’s meditative. Either way you will feel better. At the very least, there’s three hundred extra calories you can spend on pancakes or tequila.
  5. See friends who let you whine. But bring cookies sometimes.
  6. See people who distract you from whining. Babies are nice.
  7. Read advice on job websites. Sometimes all those tips seem so obvious, you think you must be head and shoulders above the mob and why, why, why is no one calling you? But there might be one little thing you haven’t tried yet. I’ve changed my resume seven or eight times.
  8. Subscribe to internet searches, but tailor them to your needs and decide which ones are worthwhile. Some job sites are clogged with postings from one or two major clients, spammy “opportunities” to earn your way to that yacht in the Bahamas while working at home, or unpaid internships disguised as paying jobs (thank you, Bell.) Or old postings are “refreshed” and show up as new jobs when they’re actually a couple of months old. If the results seem irrelevant and you’re just deleting that email every day, unsubscribe and try another site or different search parameters.
  9. Give yourself the occasional day off from being strong. You’re not a freak just because the latest inspirational quote on Pinterest makes you stabby. Follow your passion? Do what you love? Maybe. Some people are made for striking out alone and creating their own awesome jobs. But what if your passion is watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and following internet memes?  Even introverted geeks need to eat. Platitudes aren’t always helpful, and can make you feel worse. (Why don’t I have a passion? Why? Why?) Some days, you’re just going to feel that everything is shit. You’re not wrong. Life’s painful. Let it wash over you today, or drown it — you still have that tequila, yeah?
  10. Maintain a profile on LinkedIn. Ok, I have never met anyone who has got a job through networking on LinkedIn, but you need to be there anyway.
  11. Eat cake. With people. At a particularly low point, I sat at my sister’s house drinking red wine and eating chocolate cake she had baked that afternoon from a recipe that said, “Serves 10, or 1 with a broken heart.” I believe I am alive today because of that night.
  12. Learn how to play an instrument. Or just play your music loud and dance while you do the dishes. Send some notes into the air. It will seem less lonely, and the cat will give you weird looks that make you laugh. That’s a thing.
  13. Ignore advice. It’s contradictory and might not work for you. Should you be applying for anything and everything. Yes! You want to work! Or, No! You should target your search! Which is it? Who knows? I suspect that the carpet bombing approach of cold calling a bunch of companies with your cover letter and resume is no longer relevant. That might have worked in the past, but with everything online now and so many applicants, it’s unlikely that your letter will be retrieved when that company is hiring. And it’s possible that applying for something you have no interest or experience in will just irritate the person hiring. What seems to make sense? Try that.
  14. Don’t take it personally. This one’s hard. You will be ignored. Again and again. Even if you get an interview, there is no guarantee you will be acknowledged afterwards at all. Your phone will not ring, your inbox will remain empty, until one day reality sinks in and you realize you didn’t get the job. This used to bother me until I went online and found out this is happening to hundreds of other people every day. Ok, it still bothers me.
  15. Have faith in yourself. This one is really, really hard. But it’s really, really important. Do it.
  16. Wake up. Get out of bed. Drag a comb across your head. Check the job sites. Get through the day. Do it again. Hope that it will get better. Who knows? It just might.

 

Chives