Bad Habits

01Dec19

I’ve been reading Bad Habits by Fraser Sutherland. Such carefully measured poems, and a book broken down into a dozen subjects. Sutherland has written for decades, and these are such a pleasure: “it is good to have a garden / and someone in it.” New from Mosaic Press and highly recommended. Here’s a link to a question I asked him about a previous book of poems and a meditative quality they enjoy. 

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In his clear-sighted and thoughtful essays, Orwell considers a wide range of subjects, and even the simple act of making amends comes up in A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray: “It might not be a bad idea, every time you commit an antisocial act, to make a note of it in your diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground. And, if even one in twenty of them came to maturity, you might do quite a lot of harm in your lifetime, and still, like the Vicar of Bray, end up as a public benefactor after all.”

Of course, the title of my essay is meant to be eye-catching. Orwell didn’t live long enough to see environmental movements. But certain quotes are enough to make you wonder if he would have eventually been an environmentalist, and I think it’s reasonable to say he’d have been pleased with some aspects of modern life even while deeply troubled we’re driving straight for a cliff-edge. Politicians still fail to invest in clean energy or they rail against a carbon tax, even as scientists warn us about eventual crop failures, major cities flooded, and millions of climate refugees. The Orwell quote suggests he had an instinct for balance, for living in a measured way on the earth that predates our idea of a carbon footprint or recycling.

Some Thoughts on the Common Toad has one of my favourite endings to any essay I’ve ever read. I once read the entire essay as part of a reading series — not a particularly good idea — and right before this final paragraph, told them if they’d tuned out to tune back in again for these final words: “At any rate, spring is here, even in London … and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”

But that’s what we’re finally doing, isn’t it? The bomb threatens to end everything, or perhaps not at all if we can someday dismantle them all. But now we’re slowly short-circuiting nature itself, blending and flattening the seasons into a blur of hysterical weather of one kind or another, killing off species, lifting a ban on pesticides linked to declining bee numbers without concern for how we might manage without them, marching towards a world in which no child grows up in a safe and secure environment.

Clearly, Orwell’s insightful, creative and lucid mind also wisely took pleasure in the natural world. But the lies streaming from the loudspeakers now could delay action on climate change beyond a tipping point into disaster, and what would quite simply be the end of civilized life. Think of all the immense struggles for civil rights and every sacrifice made in the name of defeating fascism — far too many brutal stories to possibly recount here. What do all those sacrifices mean if we open the door to lasting chaos? We should be speaking up calmly on streetcars to start discussions, painting slogans, and generally doing whatever we can to make climate disaster a part of our daily consciousness and ignite the desire for change. And certainly, we must make ourselves aware that some of the most brilliant minds of the last hundred years — including Orwell — would be truly appalled by our lack of action.


My thanks to Alex Good for reviewing Army of the Brave and Accidental and calling the book “timely, original, and profound.” It’s a very thoughtful review, and if you don’t subscribe to CNQ, you should consider it: you get three issues a year of longer articles and reviews. This particular issue has an impressive number of 2018 titles reviewed, not to mention a celebration of fifty years of efforts.

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Time once again for my annual look at the books I count among my favourites in the last year. All the graphic novels are available through the Toronto library if that particular system can be put to work for you too.

Fiction: Mrs Bridge (Connell) is a remarkable portrait of a character and an era, told in precise chapters sometimes short enough to fit on a postcard. So Much Love (Rosenblum) is as compelling as it is well written and Pockets (Stuart Ross) was poignant and beautiful. Sister Carrie (Dreiser) is a novel I didn’t finish as an undergrad, but I found it immensely readable this year. It’s hard to think of another novel that had me cheering for the main character more than this one, even as there was a growing sense of apprehension.leonard

The Moon and Sixpence (Maugham) is apparently based in part on the life of Gauguin, and it’s a story I found fascinating as an examination of societal expectations and the self. I also really enjoyed The Sense of an Ending (Barnes), which manages to capture something meaningful about life’s struggles to be self-aware and find meaning, even if the accompanying cynicism is fairly pervasive.

Nonfiction: One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery (Karyn Freedman) has great value, not only because Freedman is a skilled writer but because rape is so often mentioned in passing it’s meaningful to have an account of the impact on a life.

What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism (Dan Rather) should be requited reading in America and elsewhere given that Rather has a thoughtful and noble way of detailing all that matters, in terms of keeping society civilized and functional.

A couple of thoughtful meditations are well worth tracking down: Birds Art Life (Maclear) and One Year Wiser: An Illustrated Guide to Mindfulness (Medaglia) which takes the form of a graphic novel guidebook and attempts to show the reader the path to greater wisdom.

Essays: Moranifesto (Moran) collects work that ranges from light pop culture analysis to very poignant and passionate (not to mention articulate) attacks on more significant societal problems. Through the Window (Julian Barnes) is a set of largely literary but very well written and insightful essays. Me Talk Pretty One Day (Sedaris) needs no promotion from me, but I enjoyed it.

Mystery: The House of Silk (Horowitz) was a pleasant surprise given that I’m a Sherlock Holmes fan. Horowitz has managed a novel that reads like Doyle returned to tell another story that’s a little more biting and meaningful. Aside from that, it’s a really enjoyable mystery.

Graphic biography: Pablo (Birmant) takes a look at the life of Picasso. The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman (Voloj) is excellent. Superman is ultimately an immigrant story undoubtedly inspired by the lives of his creators, but beyond creating the character the rest of the story is quite interesting too. The Arab of the Future (Sattouf) is an autobiographical tale and very compelling reading.

More graphic biography: It’s a Bird (Seagle) is a different kind of Superman graphic novel, telling a personal story of a period of time the author was contemplating an offer to write the Superman comic. Laika (Abadzis) tells the story of the charming dog the Russians sent into space, back when they did that sort of thing.

Christophe Chaboute: I thought his graphic novel The Park Bench (with its focus on one park bench over time) was charming, but I also read his gripping, short adaptation of the Jack London story To Build a Fire. Certainly planning on reading more by him.

Graphic novels: Sabrina (Drnaso) is the best graphic novel I read all year, capturing feelings of dread, disorder and paranoia. In short, our modern malaise. Poe (Hinds) adapts stories and poems by the great man. Killing and Dying (Tomine) is an excellent set of stories in graphic form. Essex County (Lemire) tells a fairly simple tale elegantly and manages to capture something about the Canadian spirit.

Speaking of Lemire: Black Hammer (two volumes, so far) is a compelling twist on the superhero story, with some unique and troubled heroes trapped in a place they don’t quite understand. It’s dying to be a mini-series of some kind, though the art in these comics is wonderful, and I only hope it wraps up in a satisfying way at some point instead of going off the rails or going on forever.

And yet more graphic novels: A Thousand Coloured Castles (Brookes) is a tasteful examination of Charles Bonnet syndrome and the accompanying hallucinations. Out of Nothing (Blandy) is trippy, philosophical and inspired, making it perfectly suited to graphic novel format. Coyote Doggirl (Hanawalt) was a stylish and thoroughly fun story. And finally How To Be Happy (Davis) is a set of sharp, brief and worthy stories with an impressive range.

Poetry: I really enjoyed The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory (Chris Banks) Know Your Monkey (Friedman) Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit (Harvey) The Wellspring (Olds), Rue Du Regard (Todd Swift), Be Calm, Honey (David McFadden) Blue Horses (Mary Oliver) as well as Penelope in the First Person (Goyette) and Complete Physical (Neilson).

SF: Embers of War (Powell) tells the entertaining and inventive story of a living ship and its crew in the aftermath of a great war. Borne (VanderMeer) had me sold on it as soon as I knew it was about a giant bear ruling a city in a post-apocalyptic future. Speaking of a fairly troubling portrayal of the future, True Born and True North (Sterling) are the first two volumes in a trilogy I plan to finish reading for the compelling story that skillfully keeps the reader engaged with its characters and themes.

Finally, Child of Fortune (Norman Spinrad) is a trifle long, but Spinrad (who wrote an original Star Trek episode before this was published in the 1980s) develops a futuristic language and finds unique moments in the story of a young woman leaving her home planet to find her path in life.


It was a bit magical to be out on the water as part of Word on the Street, reading from water-themed books on the Kajama along with Kerri Sakamoto (Floating City) and Andrea Curtis (Big Water). Deborah Dundas of the Star had particularly good questions. I also spent a few days as part of the Thin Air book festival in Winnipeg to participate in book discussions there with Sue Goyette (Penelope) Kevin Chong (The Plague) and Will Aitken (Antigone Undone). Great to have the chance to meet all of them and spend a few days discussing why we trouble to retell stories (I think, to be concise, we do it to reexamine who we are now). Happily, Army of the Brave and Accidental has also had a review in the Globe in an article that takes a look at three new literary time travel novels. Perhaps there was something in the drinking water. I have just a couple more readings from the book planned at this point, including this Wed, Oct 24 after 7pm at the Farside Studio. Also reading are Sam Shelstad, Jennifer Chen and Victoria Hetherington.

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Word

15Sep18

Very glad to say I’ll be a part of Word on the Street for the first time on Sunday September 23rd as part of a brief cruise called Across Water, Through Time. I’ll be discussing Army of the Brave and Accidental but the audience will also hear from Kerri Sakamoto (Floating City) and Andrea Curtis (Big Water). We set sail on the Kajama for about an hour. Seems like it will be a lot of fun, and if you wanted to climb aboard, tickets are available here. ArmyCover


Launched

15May18

It was an excellent turnout at Another Story Bookshop for the launch of Army of the Brave and Accidental. I’m pleased with the book as a modern retelling of The Odyssey, and look forward to some feedback from people (I’ve been texted “moving and enjoyable,” by a poet friend, so I hope it’s a comment that becomes a trend). A brief article about what helped inspire the book has appeared here on All Lit Up with a lot of emphasis on pop culture, though it occurs to me now I really should have mentioned other literary influences like Ray Bradbury. By pure coincidence I’ve just heard about the first translation of The Odyssey by a woman, Emily Wilson (reviewed here in The Guardian) which I’m now very much looking forward to reading.

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