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Fifth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

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The Visible Dead

 

A young couple lingers in their car saying good night when a knock at the window interrupts their intimacy: a male voice shouts: "get out!..."  From this moment on the story that Steven Heighton shared with the audience at the Fall Ottawa International Writers Festival takes surprising turns.  Steven Heighton, better known to many for his novels Afterlands and Every Lost Country, or as an award winning poet, comes into his own also as a master craftsman of short fiction with his recent collection, The Dead are More Visible. With his exquisite touch for exploring the extraordinary as part of ordinary lives, Heighton creates small gems of stories, full of twists and turns, some humourous, some haunting; always absorbing.  He explains that he chooses between genres to match the idea, the topic or the "faits divers" he has come across, aiming always to remain, as long as possible, as surprised as the reader as he creates the narrative. Often he does not know where a small incident like a couple in a car at night will lead him.

 

Each of the eleven stories in this collection is tightly scripted, yet intricate in revealing the inner workings of his protagonists' minds and actions at a particular moment in time. Heighton focuses his lens on one or a few ordinary people caught up in unusual, even dangerous situations, real or imagined. While placing his characters into emotionally trying or physically challenging circumstances, each story explores one or more themes of human behaviour, understood as a building block for what confronts us and, by extension our society and humanity.

 

Take for example the long distant runner in Journeymen. You almost feel like holding your breath picturing the runner who, on the other side of fifty, is taking up the challenge of a very uneven race. When you, as a non-runner, can relate to what is going on in the runner's mind, as the adrenalin in his body rises, when you feel with him the uneven ground of the track. You then realise that you are in the hands of an exquisite wordsmith and inventive storyteller.

 

Among eleven stories not all will capture your attention in the same way or with the same intensity. Still, all are very engaging and worth reading, as Heighton persuasively builds the narrative tension in different ways and/or introduces some surprise aspect into a story when you least expect it. In Nought And Crosses, for example, the narrator analyzes a lover's last email that suggests a hiatus or more in the relationship. It is one of the most deeply moving ex-lover's laments that you can imagine, an intimate dialog with the beloved. In Outrip, a kind of Survivor challenge story, the reader follows an increasing hallucinating convict on his five-day punishment trek through the southern British Columbia desert. Written in the second person, we participate, like a voyeur, in Ben's inner struggles and physical efforts to move from one water hole to the next, long stretches apart. His dialog with the Fisher, an either real confrontational character or one grown out of the convict's exhausted mind and body like a Fata Morgana, reveals deeper existential reflections. For me this story stands out for its depiction of the landscape as well as its brilliant imagining of what happens to the human mind when one is lost in the desert (physical or metaphorical) and a water source is not anywhere near.

 

The deeper Steven Heighton reaches into the inner pathways of a human mind, the more they engage the reader and trigger reflections that complement our reading. Even the more externally descriptive or action oriented stories, such that of a young English teacher in Japan, learning the language from a bizarre primer and trying to teach the children fun and games, or the title story of a woman's unpleasant encounter while maintaining an ice rink at night, develop more than a punch and never lose the connection to the inner world of the protagonists. 

Cosmo!

 

Cosmo, as a collection, gives credence to its name as being vast - at points nebulous -and somewhat of a mystery. While the amalgam of short stories sets the reader out on what could become an interstellar journey, sometimes it doesn't quite get to the vast corners to which it initially positions itself to reach.

 

The opening salvo entrenches the reader in the world of Miss USA, and a corner of her mind that is weighing on her stiletto-presence in particular. While it plays on the hope that insecurity can be a bind that ties even the most beautiful to the rest of us, it evokes sadness more than anything else.

 

The second stop on the trip comes in the form of a sister and brother struggling with family and finding refuge in the bravado and theatrics of professional wrestling. Brushing on the sensitivities of mental deficiencies, the author manages to not evoke sympathy or pity while treading on what is everyday life for some. He succeeds in this regard, pulling together the family for a moment while showing the reader that it is likely fleeting, a flash of light that will likely not last but will be remembered.

 

The journey takes a strange and imaginative turn with a road trip featuring naked, rather, several naked, Matthew McConaugheys. Drawing again on pop culture references that are relatable to most 20 - 40 somethings, the author delves into the minutiae of a celebrity mind.  It toys with how we think celebrities could think, in a rather cockish and absurd way that brings in elements of different fictional characters that are both fun and memorable. However, bringing the object of the subject's former affection can't quite quell the sense that like the protaganist, the writer is equally lost when it comes to the direction of the narrative.

 

Taking a dark turn from fiction to fact, we swerve close to the madness of a horrific shooting that occurred in Ottawa several years ago. Whether real or imagined, using actual quotes from former employees and peace officers leave a bloody trail.

  

In a more measured volume, the reader is taken into the mind of a mother who misses her son but also is having trouble coming to grips with modernity and his life outside of her. The allegory of a dying animal in the background doesn't really cover the pained ground between mother and son, nor does the animal die, leaving the reader a bit challenged on how to feel. Again, in the next entry, we are brought into the mind of another celebrity whose recent financial mishaps are well publicized in the news. In this case, Canadian icon Leonard Cohen decides to take the Subway Challenge, and begins to consider endorsing the product. While the imagery of a chubby Leonard Cohen grasping his love handles naked in the mirror does bring a smile, a one sided email exchange leaves the reader wanting more than simply a laundry list of complaints about a mediocre product by a fading and hesitant celebrity spokesperson.

 

In other incarnations, the writer takes to the pain of waiting for death by an author whose chosen pleasures, smoking and writing, have produced ashes and cancer, and little else. One has to wonder if the author is indulging himself rather than us on his own fears. He also waxes and coos over one Miley Cyrus, again making the reader wonder what is carefully crafted by the imagination and what is simply spilling over extemporaneously from his mind. However, tying the knots of the universe together is not as easy as it seems. Such is the case with Cosmo.

Dark Diversions

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Purchase

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Myth of the Muslim Tide

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Twisted Reality in the Roastery

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Stretching the Art of the Possible

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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



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

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

The Hope of Life

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Sweet Girl

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

No reaction.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Selector of Souls

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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