On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

“When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.” – Oliver Sacks

courtesy of Penguin Random House

courtesy of Penguin Random House

Oliver Sacks is as much a writer as a doctor.The searching spirit shared by the artist and the scientist has always been a part of his life, and with it the impulse to observe and record.

On the Move is a candid look at the personal and professional life of Oliver Sacks, well-known neurologist and author of Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, (one of my favourite books, and one I reread periodically) and many other books. On the Move is, like Sacks’s case studies, anecdotal and filled with closely observed sketches of family members, friends, lovers, patients, mentors and people he met on the road.

Many of the details of his life will be familiar to readers from his other books. He has already published a childhood memoir, Uncle Tungsten.  In Hallucinations he wrote candidly about his youthful depression and drug experimentation, and in A Leg to Stand On he described his path to recovery after a mountaineering accident caused a severe leg injury. Some of the stories shared in his previous books feature in On the Move, along with excerpts from letters, journals and early writing. Everything comes together to reveal the life of, as Sacks describes himself, “a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions.” Those passions include not only neurology, but writing, music, motorcycles, weight-lifting, scuba-diving, botany, chemistry, and the study of the human spirit.

Sacks was born in England. Both his parents were doctors (his mother was a surgeon and his father a general practitioner) as were his two older brothers.  Oliver followed suit, but he felt constrained by an England with “too many Dr. Sackses” and “it was not easy, or safe, to be an open or practicing homosexual in the London of the 1950s.” Nor in the presence of his mother, who, when he revealed his sexual identity to her responded with, “You are an abomination . . . I wish you had never been born.”  Sacks had a vision of “the rugged open spaces of the American West” and set out in 1960 for Canada, where he travelled for a while, then California and finally in 1965, New York City where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life.

Sacks has an endless fascination for people and their uniqueness. (He confesses that when asked to grade a group of students, he gave them all As because they all had different ways of thinking that made their intelligence unique.) With material gathered from a lifetime of journal-keeping, we meet truckers, weight-lifters, doctors and writers, and witness a life filled with passion, curiosity, dangerous risk-taking as well as shyness and insecurity.  Sacks suffers from face-blindness, which makes it difficult to recognize people, and admits that his experiences at a horrendous boarding school as a boy may have contributed to a difficulty “bonding.” He’s open about his mistakes as well as successes, and there are a few abandoned (and lost) projects, regrets, and the usual heartbreaks and losses that are a part of every life.

courtesy of Penguin Random House

courtesy of Penguin Random House

Above all is a deep passion for writing, and the book is as much about the books, written and unwritten, as Oliver Sacks’s life. Like many other writers, he finds in writing a way to think about the world. “It seems to me that I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing.” His scientific and authorial idol is the Russian neuropsychologist A.R. Luria, whose case history Mind of a Mnemonist combined clinical observation with “the dramatic power, the feeling, and the structure of a novel.” Sacks sought to emulate that style in Awakenings, the book about his work with post-encephalitic patients at Beth Abraham hospital in the Bronx. It was his first successful book (it was later adapted for a play by Harold Pinter, and a movie starring Robert de Niro and Robin Williams) and infused with the author’s now trademark admiration for his patients and “how intensely human they were, throughout all their vicissitudes.”

When the author sent his friend, poet Thom Gunn, a copy of Awakenings, he received an admiring letter in return. Gunn noted the presence of a quality he felt had been missing in Sacks’s youthful writing, “call it humanity, or sympathy.” Where Gunn felt that in the past a “deficiency of sympathy made for a limitation of your observations,” sympathy was now “literally the organizer of your style.” It’s compassion that makes all of Oliver Sack’s books both moving and beautiful, and in On the Move there’s an added poignancy from the knowledge that Sacks may not be with us long enough to write many more books. In February, Oliver Sacks revealed in a New York Times essay that a rare melanoma contracted in 2006 had spread to his liver.

”I cannot pretend I am without fear,” he wrote. “But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return.” Many of those gifts are shared with his readers in this enjoyable memoir, and in all of his other books.

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison: a review

“Let the reader enter with his or her own imagination.” Toni Morrison

God Help the ChildToni Morrison is one of the most respected and beloved writers working in America today. The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is known for her beautiful writing, memorable characters, and vivid expression of the African-American experience, and novels such as Sula, Song of Solomon and Beloved are modern American classics. Now 84, Morrison continues to experiment with narrative and language, and use writing as “a way of thinking.” Her latest novel, God Help the Child, explores themes of race and childhood, themes that are familiar to her readers and closely echo those of her first novel, The Bluest Eye.

God Help the Child has several narrators, but focuses on two characters, Bride and Booker, and their relationship. Bride, a cosmetics company owner, sublimates the pain of her loveless upbringing  and her guilt over a childhood act of betrayal, by cultivating beauty and pursuing success. Born with blue-black skin to a light-skinned mother, Sweetness, Bride spends her childhood craving her mother’s love and approval but never receiving it. Booker is a musician who hides his own childhood pain. He’s captivated by Bride’s beauty and they begin an affair. But in the wake of Bride’s attempts to atone for the guilty act she’s kept secret for years, Booker’s own pain is exposed and he abruptly leaves. Through Bride’s attempts to find him, she learns more about Booker, and herself, and what she must do for healing and forgiveness.

The voice of Sweetness, Bride’s mother, drew me into the story on page one. Sweetness’s awfulness makes for compelling reading and I wanted to see more of Sweetness and Bride, and of how the mother’s discomfort around her own daughter “so black she scared me” affected Bride. “What you do to children matters,” observes Sweetness. “And they might never forget.”

But Sweetness’s voice is replaced by Bride’s, and then a host of other narrators. Characters tell their stories, sometimes adding to our knowledge of Bride, but occasionally feeling like a distraction. The multiple points of view might be more satisfying in a longer book, but at 178 pages, peripheral characters in God Help the Child remain unexplored and even Bride doesn’t have the indelible stamp of authenticity that the characters in Beloved and The Bluest Eye, for example, do. Bride’s mysterious physical transformation and encounter with Rain and her parents in the woods feels more symbolic than entrancing, and ultimately doesn’t seem closely connected with her journey to, as Morrison put it, “becoming a three-dimensional human being.”

Despite these quibbles, Morrison’s compassion, intelligence and thoughtful writing are always welcome. The author’s depiction of racism and shadism, and the lifelong wounds left by childhood abuse, both emotional and physical, are visceral and affecting. There are many points in the book where the writing stops you in your tracks. Where Sweetness is withholding and cold, Booker’s parents nurture body and soul, treating the weekend breakfast table as a forum for questions and discussion served with a banquet of “hot biscuits, short and flaky; grits, snow-white and tongue-burning hot; eggs beaten into pale saffron creaminess ; sizzling sausage patties, sliced tomatoes, strawberry jam, freshly squeezed orange juice, cold milk in Mason jars.” Booker’s last memory of his brother Adam “skateboarding down the sidewalk in twilight, his yellow T-shirt fluorescent under the Northern Ash trees,” is moving and lovely.

It’s writing like this, poetic and luminously alive, that reminds you why you came to read Toni Morrison again. And if there isn’t as much evocative storytelling in God Help the Child as you would like, you can be forgiven for being a bit disappointed only because she’s set the bar so high in the past. Morrison explained the act of writing to an interviewer as “control. Nobody tells me what to do. It’s mine. It’s free. It’s a way of thinking. It’s pure knowledge.” Lucky for us that she’s still pursuing that knowledge on the page.

For more on Toni Morrison and God Help the Child, read this New York Times feature by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, and listen to a brief excerpt of the author reading for the audio book.

Review: The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

 

Rise and Fall Rachman

“[The]past is like overseas: it still exists, even when you are not there anymore. Future time too. It is there already.” – Tom Rachman, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers

My reading slump came to an end earlier this month with The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman. It is his second book since his critically acclaimed debut, The Imperfectionists. In some ways it’s more difficult to talk about a book you like than one you don’t—so much easier to be clever at someone’s expense. And I liked this book very much, so I’ll just tell you about it.

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is the story of Matilda—Tooly—Zylberberg, owner of a failing bookshop situated in a tiny Welsh village and run with the help of Fogg, a twenty-eight-year-old “urban sophisticate, no matter how his location, how his entire life, militated against such a role.” Tooly leads a solitary life running her shop, playing the ukulele and taking walks in the hills, when a message from someone in her past lands in her Facebook inbox: “Desperately trying to reach you. Can we talk about your father???” Which might be startling enough except that Tooly doesn’t know to whom he is referring.

And so Tooly and the reader begin a journey into her past which takes us to New York, Thailand, England and Italy, from the 1980s to the present day. Through a narrative that moves back and forth in time, her life is slowly revealed.

At age nine Tooly travels the globe with a man she addresses as Paul (who could be her father) and a copy of Nicholas Nickleby. (There are lots of Dickensian touches in the book, including lost or missing fathers, characters with names like Fogg and Mr. Priddles, and an “orphaned” protagonist adrift in a dangerous world.) In Bangkok Tooly goes to school briefly, until she meets Sarah, a charismatic figure who alternately showers her with lavish affection and ignores her completely.  One day Sarah takes her to a party and introduces her to Humphrey, a Russian who reads philosophy and addresses Tooly as “darlink”, and the alluring Venn whose manner toward Tooly is both respectful and protective.

From that point on Tooly leads a peripatetic life with this unconventional new family.  Venn’s philosophy of freedom and independence —and his charm— is so seductive that Tooly is willing to do  anything to please him. At twenty she’s sharing an apartment in New York with Humphrey and inserting herself into the lives of a group of college students. She begins a relationship with a law student named Duncan, initially with the hopes of picking up some useful information to take back to Venn. Duncan falls in love with her of course, since he is twenty and insecure, and Tooly is mysterious and detached.

As Tooly learns more about her past she begins to question the assumptions she made about the people around her, and their true motivations, and to think about the power of others over her life. Fortunately for Tooly, and for us, not all of life’s lessons are cynical ones, and if charm can sometimes mask venality, grace and generosity may come in a homely guise. As a reader we’re sometimes wise to the hidden motivations of the adults around Tooly before she is, but not always.

The story ranges geographically and spans decades but the result is surprisingly intimate.  The title hints at grand events, but there are no sweeping scenes or dramatic revelations in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. (Sorry, if that’s what you like, it’s not here, and there have been some reviews complaining that the pace is dull. But then if that was all I cared about I wouldn’t read Murakami either, and I love him.) It is the people with whom we share our lives that leave an indelible mark on us, and acts of love, both disguised and declared, that affect our course.

As in The Imperfectionists, each page sings with beautifully observed characters, evocative description and thoughtful prose. But while The Imperfectionists was episodic,  (more linked stories than a novel) The Rise and Fall of Great Powers combines ideas, style and structure into a cohesive and emotionally satisfying story. This is a wonderful book and I wanted to read it all over again as soon as I was done. I can’t wait to see what Tom Rachman does next.

Tom Rachman will read from The Rise and Fall of Great Powers at the York Quay Centre in Toronto on Wednesday June 25 at 7:30 pm.

 

Bark by Lorrie Moore

Bark

 

“‘Hope is never false. Or it’s always false. Whatever. It’s just hope,’ she said. ‘Nothing wrong with that.’” – Lorrie Moore, Bark

Bark is  Lorrie Moore’s first story collection since the publication of Birds of America in 1998. I reviewed that book here when I read it two years ago. At the time I was struck by Moore’s imaginative use of language, so truthful and surprising, and her ability to use humour to give warmth and understanding to some of life’s harder truths. I was excited when I heard there was a new book. And when it arrived in my mailbox with its gorgeous cover, I couldn’t wait to get started.

Bark has just eight stories, only one of which was not previously published. I wasn’t familiar with any of them, so I just dove in and read them in order, practically in one sitting.

The collection begins with “Debarking”, first published in The New Yorker in 2003. In it, America embarks on a war with Iraq, and a recently divorced middle-aged man, Ira, meets Zora, a sexy pediatrician. Ira senses something amiss about Zora, but “Like everyone he knew, he could discern the hollowness in people’s charm only when it was directed at someone other than himself.”  Despite misgivings that Zora “might not be all that mentally well” — what tipped you off, Ira, her bizarre relationship with her teenage son? Ira continues to see her, telling his friend Mike, “I can’t live without some intimacy, companionship, whatever you want to call it, to face down this global craziness.”

In “The Juniper Tree”, three middle-aged women visit a friend who has just died. Like, I mean, they actually go to her house and have a conversation with her. At first I thought it was a dream, but, no. The protagonist and her friends live in a small college town where they take turns dating the same eligible but emotionally unavailable man and stave off despair with gin and crafts.

Every woman I knew here drankdaily. In rejecting the lives of our mothers, we found ourselves looking for stray volts of mother love in the very places they could never be found: gin, men, the college, our own mothers, and one another. I was the only one of my friendsall of us academic transplants, all soldiers of art stationed on a far-off base (or, so we imagined it)who hadn’t had something terrible happen to her yet.

That “yet”.  Although you could understand why the narrator might be worried. Her friend Robin gets cancer and dies. Of the other two friends, one has lost an arm, and the other suffered a stroke.  In a bizarre visit to Robin’s house the night after she dies, the protagonist is judged for not bringing the right gifts, and forced to perform, singing  The Star-Spangled Banner for her dead friend.

“Paper Losses” is about the end of a marriage. Kit and Rafe are increasingly alienated from each other, Rafe “prickly and remote, empty with fury” descending to the basement to build model rockets, “filling the house with fumes” and occasionally throwing attention Kit’s way with random, weirdly expressed affection, causing Kit to observe, “It was like being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle: Should marriage be like that? She wasn’t sure.” No, Kit, no it shouldn’t.  Kit’s inability to let go of her misplaced desires causes her to be swept along by events,  and she accompanies Rafe and the children on vacation even after Rafe has served her with divorce papers, because “they had promised the kids this Caribbean vacation so what could they do.”

In “Referential”, a middle-aged woman and her lover visit her mentally ill son in an institution. His illness is not named, but he sees “veiled references to his existence” in everything around him. “Do you think of me when you see the black capillaries of the trees at night?” he asks Pete, his mother’s lover. “Do you think of my mom when staring up at the clouds and all they hold?”  “We can be found,” he says, as if sensing that Pete has already emotionally left this family. “We haven’t disappeared, even if you want us to.”

“Referential” is itself referential, an homage to Nabokov, lifting plot and whole passages from his story, “Signs and Symbols”.  In an interview in The New Yorker Moore said she admired “Nabokov’s adventures in language and style and naked braininess.”

The last story in the book, “Thank You for Having Me”, is the sunniest, despite its plangent tones. At a country wedding, an ex-husband plays the piano for the bride, the guests drink wine and eat misshapen chicken, and a biker straight out of a George Saunders story rides in and makes a speech. It’s a strange party, with lots of funny moments, but most importantly, with a sense of the small triumphs available to us when we dare to connect:

People shouldn’t have been set in motion on this planet only to grieve losses. And without weddings there were only funerals…So much urgent and lifelike love went rumbling around underground and died there, never got expressed at all, so let some errant inconvenient attraction have its way. There was so little time.

It’s a nice way to end the book, but it’s not the story that stays with you. That would be “Wings”, a retelling of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove.

KC and Dench are down and out musicians renting a house near a hospital, lying in bed, selling their clothes on eBay and splitting their morning Starbucks. Well, Dench is mostly the one lying in bed. KC gets the coffee, taking the dog with her and chatting with Milt, an elderly neighbour she meets outside his house. As KC and Milt’s friendship progresses, Dench suggests KC encourage Milt’s feelings for her in the hopes that Milt will die soon and leave KC his money.

Spoiler: KC will eventually punch Dench in the face, but I wondered why it took her so long. She should have done it much, much earlier, possibly the day she first met him, when he auditioned for her with his “inexpressive baritone” and young, soon-to-be-dumped girlfriend waiting in the car.

But in the meantime, like Ira in “Debarking” and Kit in “Paper Losses”, KC remains infuriatingly mired in her own passivity.  Dench, once appealing and charming to her, is unreadable: “She had given up trying to determine his facetiousness level. She suspected it was all just habit and his true intent was unknown even to himself.” Something is rotting in the walls of the house, “yeasty and sulphuric” and as “the lines between things seemed up for grabs” even Milt’s motivations and desires are ambiguous.  It’s not until Dench reveals source of the rot in the house, in a horror movie-style gesture of cruelty, that KC finally disentangles herself from him.

As horrifying and dark  as “Wings” is, it is the story in Bark that comes closest to marrying real feeling, ideas, story and language. It’s not that  Bark isn’t well written. But without the warmth of relatable characters it’s like a wasps’ nestjust a hollow paper shell full of stings. Too many of the characters and situations in Bark seem contrived. Zora in “Debarking” isn’t just unappealingly weird, she’s dysfunctional and abusive, and it stretches credulity to believe Ira would stay with her just because he’s lonely and frightened by the bombing of Baghdad. Secondary characters are vehicles for clever lines that lack authenticity and aren’t charged with enough emotional juice to give the stories meaning.

I feel sad that so much good writing is adrift in these unlikeable stories. Lorrie Moore’s facility with words can still stop you in your tracks. In the best moments she employs those skills with tender precision, like when KC observes as she’s falling out of love with Dench: “You could lose someone a little but they would still roam the earth. The end of love was one big zombie movie.” But too much of the time her observations felt cynical and reductive, and her unrelieved imagery of death and decay had the effect of making me feel after I’d read the book that I’d woken up next to a corpse.

In the end reading Lorrie Moore’s Bark was a bit like KC meeting the charming but hollow Dench: “it was like walking into a beautiful house to find the rooms all empty.”

 

Yew

Stories About Storytellers by Douglas Gibson

Stories About Storytellers

“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” – Arthur Plotnik

 

A while back I posted about Douglas Gibson’s  Storytellers Book Club.  At Gibson’s website, choose one of five seminal CanLit classics and read along with others, guided by discussion questions written by Gibson and enlightened by his insight as an editor and personal friend of the books’ authors.

In Douglas Gibson’s career as an editor and publisher he has partnered with some of Canada’s most important authors, including Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Hugh MacLennan, Mavis Gallant and Alistair MacLeod. His knowledge of the Canadian literary scene from the sixties to the present day, and his passionate dedication to our literary culture shine through in Stories About Storytellers, which recounts his professional and personal relationships with twenty-one iconic Canadian writers.

The introduction to Stories About Storytellers is by Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro. She credits Gibson with supporting her choice to continue to write short fiction as opposed to novels.

He was absolutely the first person in Canadian publishing who made me feel that there was no need to apologize for being a short story writer, and that a book of short stories could be published and promoted as major fiction. This was a fairly revolutionary idea at the time. It was his support that enabled me to go on working, when I had been totally uncertain about my future . . . his respect for my work changed me from a minor, “literary” writer who sold poorly into a major writer who sold well.

Gibson is probably right to claim that this alone would be enough to justify his entire career in publishing. But working with Alice Munro is only one of his accomplishments, and at the time that Munro’s letter was written (to the head of MacMillan of Canada explaining her decision to follow Doug Gibson to M&S), he was also working with Hugh MacLennan and W.O. Mitchell.

Gibson joined Doubleday in 1968 and worked as an editor and publisher for forty years until his retirement in 2008. In 1968 Canada had just celebrated its centenary with Expo ’67, Lester Pearson was prime minister, Margaret Atwood had not yet published The Edible Woman, Coles was the preeminent bookstore in Canada, and WH Smith’s Standard Book Numbering (SBN) system was two years old.  Today Canadian readers buy  books in stores and online, (digitally or on paper), the old nine-digit ISBN has been expanded to thirteen digits, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature and Margaret Atwood is a recognizable international brand. We celebrate Canadian books and writers with countless awards and prizes, and our culture (including fiction and nonfiction writing) has benefitted from a diversity of voices never imagined in 1968.

When a book “works”, the reader doesn’t think about how it came into being, and most readers aren’t aware of how collaborative an effort writing a book can be. We often imagine that an author toils away in her lonely office, polishing and honing her masterpiece in isolation until it is perfect and ready for publication. Many very talented writers probably don’t need a great deal of editing, but many more benefit from the insights of a sympathetic and supportive editor who understands both the artist’s personal vision and the marketplace. An editor advocates for the reader and the writer, identifying places in a manuscript where the writer’s vision isn’t clearly communicated and gently suggesting revisions that might help.

With Alice Munro, Gibson’s responsibilities included suggesting titles, helping source appropriate artwork for her covers, encouraging Munro to continue writing in the vein at which she excelled (short stories) and “to get her to agree that, oh all right, we really do have enough stories now to bring out a new collection [and] to stop Alice from trying to rewrite the book, compulsively polishing the proofs as they go to her for what we hope will be purely formal approval.” With Alistair MacLeod, too, Gibson says his editing role was “almost non-existent.”

Sometimes Douglas Gibson was working with someone who wasn’t primarily an author. Brian Mulroney, for example, wrote his memoirs without the help of a ghost writer. Gibson recalls,

He would write it, chapter by chapter, in chronological order, and Francine [Mulroney’s assistant] would send the neatly-typed chapters to me, usually in hard copy. . . I would edit them, making changes, shifting paragraphs, and so on, as seemed appropriate. Then I would hand these edited (and thus very messy) pages over to my trusty editoral assistant . . . and he would produce a clean copy. . . That was what went back to Brian, along with an explanation of the changes I’d made, if they were not obvious. . . As always, the author — the man with his name on the cover — had the last word.

Stories About Storytellers is filled with insights into the creative collaboration of editor and author, as well as lively anecdotes about Canadian writers of the sixties, seventies and eighties, some forgotten and some still writing today. But  what I really loved about the book was Gibson’s passion for the country, which comes alive as he recalls his travels across Canada, from Victoria to Newfoundland, and his encounters with the people who have helped create our country’s literary voice. Whether he’s describing “the endless lakes and rocks and pines outside the Greyhound bus window . . . giving way to fields and farms and maple trees” on an early trip to Ontario from Winnipeg, conversing with a drunk Newfoundlander on a plane, (“I never met a Newfoundlander I didn’t like”, he confesses) or driving through the Annapolis Valley to visit a dying friend, Gibson’s descriptions of Canada are lyrical and heartfelt.

In December 2013 Douglas Gibson accompanied Alice Munro’s daughter Jenny to Stockholm, where she accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature on her mother’s behalf. No one could be more deserving of the trip  as Gibson, who  has demonstrated through his life, work, and writing, a deep love for this country and its literary culture.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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.”

heart

 

 

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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