For David Gilmour: A Reading List

The internet’s a bit like Halloween — people feel free to say things behind a mask that they would never say to your face. Last week it was the whole Miley/Sinead thing, where a musician of a certain generation chastised another musician of a certain other generation, in the guise of helpful advice, regarding the younger musician’s sexually provocative performance. Sinead was accused of slut-shaming (not without warrant) and generally being crazy (cruel and uncalled for); Miley then responded by attacking Sinead’s mental health, damaging what credibility she may have had, which resulted in Sinead escalating the conflict to rather silly heights.

This kind of thing is truly unfortunate, focusing attention on disagreements among women while we pretend that a frank discussion about women’s freedom of expression can take place in a neutral, bias-free forum. There are so many things to discuss with this fascinating dust-up beyond one woman’s mental instability and another’s bratty response. Is Miley Cyrus expressing her own sexuality in an empowering way, or is she pandering to male tastes in order to sell records? Is sexuality unique and innate to the individual or socially constructed? And if it is a social construct, how can women claim their bodies for themselves in a sexist culture? How much freedom do female artists have in the commodified world of popular culture? Is there a line between “artists” and pop culture “personalities”? Should there be?

ANYWAY, previous to that kerfuffle, was the David Gilmour ballyhoo. In a brief interview that you can read on the Random House Hazlitt page, Gilmour, without a trace of self-awareness, revealed that he doesn’t teach female writers (or Canadians) in his class at the University of Toronto because he only teaches what he loves, and he doesn’t love any female writers, apart from Virginia Woolf. (Apparently he teaches a course on short fiction. Without mentioning Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant, one supposes.)

I’m sure David Gilmour is a very nice man.  And if you’re reading for pleasure, you should be able to read whatever you like. But he’s teaching a class. And in that capacity he has an obligation to encourage open-mindedness, empathy, critical thinking and curiosity.

Many teachers would say that they learn as much from their students as their students learn from them. In that spirit, I decided to ask some people what they thought David Gilmour should read. I especially wanted to hear from the demographic that might sit in one of David Gilmour’s classes. (Two of my respondents did, in fact, take his class “Love, Sex, and Death” at U of T. One of them dropped out, the other stuck it through to the end.)

So, here you go, David Gilmour. A list of titles hand-picked just for you!

 

To start off in Gilmour’s comfort zone, Peter suggested A Boy at the Leafs’ Camp by Scott Young because “there are no icky girls in it except Bill Spunkska’s mum.”

Wetlands by Charlotte Roche was Maria’s pick for Gilmour.  In her words, “I think he has the stomach for it.” I haven’t read this book, but I must be one of the few people who hasn’t, because according to Wikipedia, in March 2008 it was the best-selling novel in the world! I’m not sure how much love and death there is in it, but there’s lots of sex. Weird, girly sex.

According to a couple of his students, one of Gilmour’s favourite tropes was middle-aged men going to Paris and  having affairs. So Muna thought he should read Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. In this book a man goes to Paris and has an affair. Just the kind of book Gilmour loves, except that the characters are gay.

Emma suggested Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, which she read “in two separate classes taught by male professors.” Apparently some men are able to recognize the brilliance of Munro’s ability to bring fully realized characters to life with a few deft strokes of the pen.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was Shirley’s pick for Gilmour because “seriously, he could have inspired it.” The thing about Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction is that to some of us, it doesn’t seem farfetched.

Katie had two choices for David Gilmour. The first suggestion was Bear by Marian Engel, which is written by a Canadian woman (two strikes against it there) and features some hot girl on bear action. The second was Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks. Race, class, gender, and pedagogy — ooh, a heady mix, and perfect for this list.

And finally, two suggestions from Diyaa: Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Because, in Diyaa’s words, “I think Mr. Gilmour thinks only “Serious Heterosexual Men” write about Serious Things. Well he’s most definitely wrong.”

Have a suggestion to add? Let me know in the comments!

Lives in brief: Dear Life by Alice Munro

 

“There was quite a lot of killing going on, now that I think of it.” –  Alice Munro, Dear Life

Alice Munro has published fifteen books previous to her latest collection of short fiction, Dear Life.   The publication of any new Munro book is a big event, and this release is one of the big books of the Fall.  Munro was to read from it at the International Festival of Authors until ill health lead her to cancel.  Munro is 81 now, and if health has prevented her from traveling to Toronto for a major book event, it hasn’t affected her ability to write a collection of stories with her trademark candour and incisive prose. Dear Life consists of fourteen new short pieces: ten stories and four “not quite stories”,  that the author says are, “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.”  Each is set in “Alice Munro Country” – southwestern Ontario from just before the Second World War to the Seventies. In fact, many of the stories span these years within their pages, giving them both microscopic focus and novelistic breadth.   Dear Life asks the question, what leads people to choose the course of action that will define their experience?

In “Train”,  a man jumps off a train and instead of turning towards his hometown, goes the opposite way.  He could go home:  “It’s not too late, he would be where he was supposed to be before midnight.  But all the time he’s thinking this, he’s walking in the opposite direction.”

In “Amundsen”,  a young woman is about to embark on a new, more promising future.  But that future is cruelly taken away. “Maybe someday you’ll count this one of the luckiest days of your life”, she is told. Does she?  We’re not sure.

In one of the most compelling  stories, “Corrie”,  an affair takes place between a married man, Howard, and Corrie, a rich businessman’s daughter crippled by polio.  They are discovered, and Corrie agrees to pay money twice a year to the woman who has witnessed them.  But when the blackmailer dies, a truth is revealed that, if it does not change their lives, changes the way Corrie sees things:

“She gets up and quickly dresses and walks through every room in the house, introducing the walls and the furniture to this new idea.  A cavity everywhere, most notably in her chest.  She makes coffee and doesn’t drink it.  She ends up in her bedroom once more, and finds that the introduction to the current reality has to be done all over again.”

What will she do with this new knowledge, and what will her actions say about her?

The distinctive internal voice of each storyteller, coupled with the compression of time, delivers an emotional intensity that underscores their “ordinary” lives.  But as varied as the voices are, there’s a commonality to their moral vision that comes straight out of “Alice Munro Country”.  In “Gravel”, a character absolves himself regarding his role in an earlier tragedy by simply choosing not to worry about it:

“‘The thing is to be happy,’ he said. ‘No matter what.  Just try that.  You can. It gets to be easier and easier.  It’s nothing to do with circumstances.  You wouldn’t believe how good it is.  Accept everything and then tragedy disappears.  Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.’”

But of course our narrator can’t do that.  And is that the moral universe we would choose to live in?

The economy with which Munro shows us these lives is astonishing. Her descriptions never have a superfluous word.  She makes it look easy – just a few details briefly described, and your imagination fills in the rest.  Like a sketch by an Old Master, she knows just which line to place.

In the last “not quite stories”, the ones of which Munro says, “they are the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life”, we meet a mother who professed to be an authority on her own daughter’s feelings, and “wanted something very badly”.   And a father who, “didn’t have much to say.  I was my mother’s business, except for later on when I got really mouthy and had to be punished.”  These parents, the fox farm where “quite a lot of killing” happened, the churches, the starry nights, and rivers that flooded every spring, form the artistic landscape that Munro will work in for the rest of her life.

It’s a landscape of thwarted desires, emotions simmering under the surface, choices impulsively made, and lives lived, sometimes with purposeful resignation, and sometimes with defiant freedom.  If it’s a place of not quite happiness, we can at least be glad that such an accomplished writer lives there.