My son’s arrival would obviously count as my favourite moment of the year, and I’ve tried to mentally photograph his endearing, nearly ongoing, fairly baffled expression. But I’m sure you’re here to read about something a little more applicable to your life, so let’s get to the books, film and TV.
Assorted bears, decades apart: Bear (Marian Engel) is something I finally picked up based on various recent recommendations, and it’s a brilliant short novel packed with meaning. It felt like it sits quite perfectly balanced between reality and fable. The Bear by Claire Cameron (this time the publishers could afford a definite article) has some very impressive writing considering the challenge of creating first-person narration by a five year-old girl telling the horrific story of her family attacked by a bear while camping. It’s certainly riveting stuff.
Assorted islands, decades apart: Mysterious Island (Jules Verne) serves as something of a follow-up to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, though this isn’t clear from glancing at the book. It hits the ground running (almost literally) then becomes a trifle dull when a band of survivors spends long chapters surveying the island before it picks up again by the end. Island (Aldous Huxley) is apparently meant to balance Brave New World, with a Western character washing up on the shores of a far more ideal civilization. But the events and characters serve as basic scaffolding for a series of lectures: worthy stuff, but also fairly dull a lot of the time. The best moment details “Peter Pan syndrome,” and the way some men never grow up emotionally (with the ultimate example being Hitler).
A unique voice: Swiss-born Robert Walser appears to have dedicated most of his life to wandering Europe and cultivating his unique and thoughtful way of looking at the world. I really enjoyed A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories (some of them shorter than a page) and I’m now reading his short novel Jakob von Gunten just because I enjoy his voice so much. I’m not sure I’ve ever found a writer so content with his own small role in the world, as we all must learn to be: “The railway trains thunder over the quivering bridges. Evenings, the fabulous rich and elegant shopwindows shine, and streams, serpents, and billows of people roll past the allures of industrial riches on display. Yes, that all seems grand and good to me. One profits from being in the midst of the whirling and bubbling. One has a good feeling in the legs, the arms, and the chest while making the effort to wriggle cleverly and without much fuss through all the living stuff. In the morning everything comes to life anew, and in the evening everything sinks into the wildly embracing arms of a new and unknown dream.”
More Fiction: Goodbye to Berlin (Isherwood) is probably my favourite novel of the year for its poignancy and detailed characters. Isherwood appears to have been right there on the street to see Nazi thugs in the early years, and a city in transition. I finally caught up with Crime and Punishment, which certainly lives up to its reputation as a classic, and I enjoyed Three Day Road (Joseph Boyden) for being so carefully crafted, though it didn’t seem to grab me, emotionally. Henderson the Rain King (Saul Bellow) is funny and an enjoyably exaggerated parody of a personal crisis even as the pacing is a little too leisurely for my taste. My Face for the World to See (Alfred Hayes) is the story of an affair set in Hollywood, and it’s among those concise and poignant novels I’m always very pleased to have read. Hayes apparently contributed to The Bicycle Thief (1948), which has long been a favourite film of mine. I admired the quirky and unique stories in Circus (Claire Battershill).
A Death in the Family (James Agee) is an 11 out of 10 for sadness, but more importantly it’s a remarkable accomplishment in terms of the reader really feeling the events of the book. After the death of his father, the young boy looks at his father’s body in the funeral home and feels it’s like “a very successfully disguised stranger.” A Meaningful Life (L.J. Davis) was vividly written but remorselessly bleak. Comfort cannot be found here, even in a book: “It smelled powerfully of mouse shit, and its pages were the color and consistency of stale Finnish flat bread. Mechanically it was not an easy book to read. In some cases, whole pages disintegrated as Lowell scanned them, as though the weight of his gaze was too much for them to bear.”
Nonfiction: The World of Yesterday (Stefan Zweig) is an endlessly fascinating memoir. Zweig grew up in Vienna before either of the world wars and travelled overseas without a passport before our heightened sense of nationalism. He knew Freud, watched Rodin sculpt, and finally even saw Germany transform under Hitler. Every Wolf’s Howl (Barry Grills) is an immensely human and readable account of owning a dog that turned out to be, well, basically a wolf. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (George Packer) should be required reading for our strange times. Titanic (Filson Young) is an excellent, sometimes almost poetic account of the disaster published a matter of weeks later by a journalist.
Essay collections: Cultural Amnesia (Clive James) is simply a great collection of essays. Intended as something of a time capsule and covering a range of subjects, they’re both accessible and highly perceptive. Farther Away (Jonathan Franzen) is a lucid collection. Here’s Franzen on why he likes short stories: “They leave the writer no place to hide. There’s no yakking your way out of trouble; I’m going to be reaching the last page in a matter of minutes, and if you’ve got nothing to say I’m going to know it.” I blogged about how much I enjoyed Loitering (Charles D’Ambrosio) below. Men Explain Things To Me (Rebecca Solnit) was also terrific, and felt like something that should be required reading. The Crow Who Tampered With Time (Lloyd Ratzlaff) is a meditative essay collection, well worth picking up.
Genre: Casino Royale (Fleming) is inexcusably sexist, but it can at least be said to be staggeringly obvious about it. Leaving aside the chapter Bond details the rules of the game at length, it is also pretty much a riveting spy novel with the occasional memorable moment of dialogue: “Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.” Among Others (Jo Walton) is a leisurely but engaging story of magic and struggle in daily life, and it’s infused with a love of books thanks to a slightly obsessive narrator. It was nice to have a love of books validated in this way. Dying Inside (Robert Silverberg) is a poignant novel about a man losing his ability to read minds. Well written, captivating and unique, but it suffers from some severe stereotypes, which is a trifle ironic for a novel about our ability to connect.
More Genre: The Dreaming Jewels (Theodore Sturgeon) is inventive and compelling. For years, I’ve known Sturgeon only as the writer of one of the better original Star Trek episodes. We’ve had so many dinosaur shenanigans in various forms over the years that The Lost World (Arthur Conan Doyle) is a book you can read for the first time with a certain familiarity, but it’s nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable.
Graphic novels: The Sculptor (Scott McCloud) is a lengthy graphic novel at 488 pages, but it also manages to be an engrossing read about a young artist gaining the ability to manipulate stone or any other material with his hands. The plot may belong to The Twilight Zone, but McCloud manages an impressive meditation on the challenges of trying to make art, particularly in an age of instant gratification. Starling (Sage Stossel) is a fun, charming female-superhero graphic novel. Here (Richard McGuire) which takes one location throughout time as its focus, is really not to be missed.
Poetry: Among others, I enjoyed The Lease (Matthew Henderson), Inheritance (Kerry-Lee Powell), For Your Safety Please Hold On (Kayla Czaga) The Cold Panes of Surfaces (Chris Banks), Leaving the Island (Talya Rubin) and Kingdom (Elizabeth Ross). All very fine poetry books.
Film and TV: The Music Room (1958) is an Indian drama I just happened to pick up at the Toronto library, but as a poignant tale of a rich man’s life declining, it was among my favourite films of the year. I took some time to explore Chaplin this year, also to be found at the library or even on YouTube: Modern Times, The Gold Rush and City Lights are all absolute masterpieces and a joy to watch. At a time film was cranked out and wasn’t considered an art form, Chaplin insisted on perfection. I watched the new Daredevil series on Netflix and enjoyed it, though I think it confuses darkness with maturity in going unnecessarily bleak at times. Longmire is a police drama that’s essentially a modern Western, worth it for some of the relationships. And I’d go on about enjoying the elegance porn of Downton Abbey, the drama of Mad Men and the escapism of Game of Thrones, but are there people who don’t know anything about these shows?
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There’s an impressive new arts and culture site called Partisan I’ve been enjoying, and they’ve recently accepted a couple of things from me: Toppled Buildings is a poem that begins with Godzilla as a starting point, and I went to a few friends and colleagues for their thoughts on juggling poetry and parenthood in order to write an article called Planned Poethood. Julie Cameron Gray, Zachariah Wells and Alexandra Oliver provided thoughtful comments.
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There’s much to admire in Loitering, essays by Charles D’Ambrosio. I think one of the best uses of the personal essay is to provide a unique voice and perspective. These essays can feel a little overwritten from time to time — in a preface, D’Ambrosio worries about “sounding parsonic,” which I stumbled over for a moment until I decided he meant, simply enough, sounding like a parson — but more importantly, his voice is empathetic, thoughtful and articulate. His eye for observation allows for comments like this: “It wasn’t a conversation; he was just beating the air like a rug, hoping to knock all the doubt and ambiguity out of it.”
The preface expresses the value of doubt in an age assertiveness is everything, and simply thinking appears to be inactive (even though it isn’t) and is therefore unacceptable, making the title quite perfect. While reading this collection I happened to also read an article about the uses and downfalls of being a jerk and what’s fascinating is that simple assertiveness and an “inflated sense” of your own abilities was enough to impress many people, regardless of accuracy. I believe I instinctively understood this, but D’Ambrosio is certainly the kind of thinker who can see through it. Watching a reporter detail her severe opinion of another woman, he observes her “only real qualification for commenting on Letourneau is that she holds a job that requires her to say something re: something most every day of the week.”
Given his obvious thoughtfulness I was a little taken aback by his apparent disdain for environmentalist Paul Watson, who is, after all, working to save the world at a time the death of a character on Game of Thrones seems to get more reaction than climate change. But his point that being overbearing can lose you followers is also well taken. If celebrities can do a great deal for the environmental movement its because they have legions of people following them around for a variety of other reasons. An essay like “Hell House,” is extremely perceptive, even as “Orphans,” is closer to poignant and moving. Regardless, a collection like this should be celebrated. Earlier in the year I enjoyed The Crow Who Tampered with Time (Lloyd Ratzlaff), reverent essays (as well as a completely overlooked book, by comparison), and I’ve already blogged about Cultural Amnesia (Clive James), which is a long but immensely valuable collection.
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Inheritance was inspired by a shipwreck my father endured during the Second World War, as well as by his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and eventual suicide. He served in the merchant navy and was sunk twice. On one occasion he was on a lifeboat in the north Atlantic for eleven days, one of only a handful of survivors to chance upon the Scottish coast in rough weather. I imagined the terror he must have experienced at being so utterly at the mercy of a cruel mid-winter sea. His miraculous survival is the stuff of legend. In my mind’s eye I often see him as an Odysseus whose journeys tragically found emptiness and rage instead of demigods and marvels.
Many of the poems in Inheritance are addressed to a muse-like figure who bears only a slight resemblance to the man I knew as a child. I wanted to retrieve a father from the chaos of his mental illness, to honor him and meditate upon the causes of his suffering. I very much had ‘Father’ with a capital F in mind when writing this collection, not least because his private experiences resonate strikingly with the dominant myths surrounding masculinity in western culture: those of war and heroism, hubris and self-sacrifice. After the war ended he prided himself on being a man’s man, became a womanizer and hard drinker who shipped his enormous white convertible on a visit home to Wales so that the poor villagers and younger members of his family could idolize him. He also considered himself somewhat of a Renaissance man. He came from the kind of educated working class family that D.H. Lawrence describes so vividly in his early novels, and was well-versed in Shakespeare and Homer and all the lionized ‘greats’ of literature.
His subsequent physical and mental breakdown caused a reversal of his prized masculine attributes. He was an invalid for many years and then, after my mother left him, a poverty-stricken single father who nearly poisoned us to death a few times with his half-frozen TV dinners and ill-fated attempts at cookery. He never embraced his role as homemaker, hardening instead into a misogynist and pro-Apartheid Reaganite who threw things at the television when a strident female appeared on the screen. At times he was acutely aware of his own mental disintegration, quoting King Lear at us while he paced up and down the living room floor. At other times he was inchoate. Often, he was terrifying. There were some very ugly moments in our house, and perhaps Inheritance was also a way of coming to terms with my own fraught childhood.
My use of formal devices and structures in the collection mirrors wider concerns I have as an artist, and especially as a female artist in a patriarchal culture. Whose voice speaks through me? During a period of lucidity my father set himself up as a writer. The image of him at his red typewriter in the kitchen during that brief interlude of hopefulness and industry no doubt influenced my own desire to become a writer. And of course I also sought, and in many way still seek, his approval. When I had my first literary acceptance, part of me wanted to wave the slip at the heavens. Another part of me wanted to cock my middle finger at him, for his misogyny, for the ways in which he degraded and belittled me for being a girl. Many of the poems in Inheritance fall somewhere between those two gestures: the wish to honor his courage and suffering, and a rebellion against the brutality that he so frighteningly embodied.
Lyric poetry has allowed me to see him as a vessel through which I might explore grief and trauma, the beauties and cruelties of the wider culture. As necessary as it was for me to consider the terrible circumstances surrounding my father’s suicide, it was vital for me to acknowledge the grace and humanity of the lyric tradition that has also been my inheritance, and that resonates within me as powerfully as my father’s trauma continues to do.
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Chris Banks is a poet with a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Concordia University. He is the author of three acclaimed collections of poetry: Bonfires, The Cold Panes of Surfaces, and Winter Cranes. His new chapbook of poems is called Invaders, and is from Anstruther press. He lives, writes and teaches in Waterloo, Ontario.
Invaders was a potent chapbook, because in only a dozen well-crafted poems I get a sense of victory balanced by loss and then falling into the rear-view mirror of life anyway. And that would sound depressing if it weren’t for your reverence for the process of life, self-evident in your thoughtfulness and your conviction you “start with yourself,” if looking for rescue (from “Christian Island”). The first poem covers the first act of a life (yours, really) and the second poem encapsulates an entire life (“thirty years / inside a factory, hand-polishing wooden cabinets…”). And throughout, a poignancy that even gives elegance to an angry teenager (“Amplifier”). It’s all framed by your title, and a Martin Amis quote about the “dormant areas” of our minds growing populated. I think a space invader (as we see on the cover) could be seen as cute or horrifyingly blank. But given that “time is theft,” (from “All-Night Arcade”) I wonder if your own personal landscape is a comfort to you or if objects become like barnacles over time. Is there a way to hold on to the right memories or remain armed with the right things from the past?
Thank you Alex for your sensitive reading of my chapbook. I think, as a poet, you really do need to arm yourself with the right things from the past as you suggest in order to withstand what Wallace Stevens calls “the pressure of reality.” I think there is real danger in having a heightened awareness of how one’s self is conceived, or how the “omnipresent” moment exerts itself upon consciousness. So much appears lost. So much feels arbitrary. Larry Levis felt this deeply. Philip Levine too. So many of Hayden Carruth’s best poems are like urns, little memorials to a world that no longer exists.
Each day there is always the constant terrifying barrage of sensory information that forms our experience, and our consciousness attempts to counter this by conjuring its own litany of images and thoughts and memories, each one hopefully meant to help us better connect to the moment before us.
I think the trick with poetry is writing in such a way that your mind accesses the right images or memories, the deep archetypal ones, the interior stories which for me is the meditational mode. The American poet John Koethe when talking about Ashbery describes the essence of a meditation “as an urgent exploration (by whatever means available) of a recognizable, but until now unrecognized, problem; an exploration covering—or, rather, defining—a concrete stretch of human time.” I think this is what I was getting at when I entitled the chapbook Invaders and lead off with the Martin Amis quote.
The best poems come through us, speak in our voices, and yet come from somewhere else entirely. We have to be other than ourselves at the moment of writing.
Only then does the poet’s imagination, recognizing the meaningless of most daily life, come to our rescue by offering its solution: a poem. An approximation of our experience in language but one that is more orderly, more meaningful and more humane.
Poetry is the invader that takes over those dormant areas of our minds when we are courageous enough to abandon our hold on them.
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John A: Birth of a Country is a CBC film with a sharp script and excellent performances, currently streaming on the CBC site (and available from the Toronto Public Library). At only 90 minutes, it’s adept at covering various significant political and personal moments leading up to the curious turn of fate that changed a pipe dream — joining various British colonies together — into a reality.
But where did it come from? In a good review of the film, Macleans has wondered why it wasn’t promoted more. It was produced in 2011 and I’d never heard of it, though having discovered it I’m impressed, and wish we had more films that dramatically present — and as a result, help us to mythologize — our own history.
It’s a somewhat overdone score that strives for quite a bit, and it could use a few sweeping shots of the landscape to break up character discussions (likely, this was simply not in the budget), but it’s a breath of fresh air for a Canadian pestered to see the upcoming Ant-Man film, the upcoming Avengers film. I hope the CBC can arrange to bring Shawn Doyle back for another film, perhaps covering the creation of the railroad and later events. The Macleans article suggests it was part of a planned trilogy and the CBC has never followed up. Perhaps it’s fair to say this is how we deprive ourselves when we can’t be troubled to support the CBC, but certainly our history deserves better than to be a cult classic. And if the trouble is its almost relentlessly male focus, surely this can be balanced by some biopics of some of our remarkable women, which would be just as fascinating.
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Note: I wrote this for a fan-made Doctor Who publication called Enlightenment, and thought I’d post it here after the recent passing of Leonard Nimoy. It may be a piece about why I ultimately prefer Doctor Who to Star Trek, but it’s also about how Spock is the heart of the show. As I suggested on Twitter, Nimoy’s graceful portrayal of a thoughtful, curious character made life a little easier for me as a young introvert. For the uninitiated, a Doctor-lite episode is an episode of Doctor Who that doesn’t feature The Doctor very much.
For years, I instinctively felt Doctor Who was somehow even more open-minded than other science-fiction shows, including Star Trek, but for years I only thought of the more obvious reasons: Star Trek has themes of acceptance, but it’s ultimately using the narrative framework of a military ship in space. The show boils down to something along the lines of “We think all you life forms are really great but here, put on this uniform.” Even if the world of Star Trek clearly has millions of characters who aren’t in Starfleet, they’re marginalized non-characters, and anything remotely significant or that we’re allowed to see happens to a character in Starfleet. We love and care about the characters in Starfleet. Deep Space Nine is the one exception. As an ongoing drama, it blended Starfleet characters with others who’d never sign up in a thousand years. And arguably, it’s one of the more mature, dramatic Treks (Voyager was supposed to have a blended crew, but someone made the unfortunate decision to have the whole crew put on Starfleet uniforms in the pilot).
The Doctor, however, is the ultimate individual. He wears what he wants, travels where he wants and does it with the people of his choice. He even sheds his appearance from time to time, along with shifting the emphasis within his personality. In a way, he’s not even an individual as much as he’s assorted individuals. Personally, I’d rather have a cup of tea with the eleventh Doctor than the hard-nosed, UNIT advising third Doctor. He’s more in favour of preserving the status quo: the next time you have a look at The Time Warrior, notice how the third Doctor is interested in keeping the power in the hands of the upper-class character. Other than this particular incarnation, it’s safe to say the Doctor isn’t much of a joiner, except for a loose collection of people he thinks are pretty great. At best, he has an informal collection of friends and former companions.
So, let’s all pat ourselves on the back and go lecture some people dressed as Romulans, shall we? Wait, there’s more. For a long time, it struck me as somehow worthwhile that as a program, Doctor Who brought the viewer to a space station, a planet or a ship for at least a brief period before The Doctor arrived. Why? I wasn’t quite sure. But recently, I’ve sorted it out. There’s a respectfulness about an attempt to establish another culture, however briefly, before a central character arrives to introduce his or her viewpoint, and that’s quite different from beginning every story with a captain’s log and not meeting any aliens unless they appear on the viewing screen or Kirk and company have already arrived. It’s a subtle thing, but I think for Star Trek to use this particular format contributes to the Americanism of the show because the feeling on some level is that nothing much matters until the crew of the Enterprise gets there.
The only possible criticism here is that the foreign cultures on Doctor Who aren’t frequently established particularly well. It’s a group of British actors on a set establishing they’re on an old mining ship, or about to inherit an alien kingdom, and frequently trying to give a certain amount of natural feeling to explanatory dialogue that goes out of its way to create a setting. Potentially, the various planets in Doctor Who are all fragments of British culture, or are at least somehow a reflection of British imagination. But I think this is a reasonable conclusion for any science-fiction show, and that Star Trek reflects American culture, and American imagination. A character like Neelix, the relentlessly cheerful cook on Voyager, is alien only in appearance.
If the viewer arriving before a main character it creates a distinct difference – it gives the impression of a lasting universe with a nearly endless amount of variety, with the Doctor inspiring people to make whatever difference they can, whenever they can. He’s pretty much the ultimate example of a life well lived. He isn’t trying to get people over to his viewpoint or organization as much as improve worlds, communities, and lives.
None of this is to suggest Star Trek hasn’t done anything over the years for tolerance, or a love of diversity. Growing up, it gave me hope, and was a remarkably colourful, entertaining show with memorable characters. Kirk trying to find the middle ground between the logic of Spock and the passion of McCoy is one of the great character setups in popular entertainment today. It’s probably up there with Holmes and Watson. The sequel Star Trek shows have only been able to recreate it in fragmented ways, and now that the original characters are back it doesn’t seem, sadly, that it’s going to be about much more than making popcorn movies. Ultimately, the original show and Deep Space Nine remain my favourites, because of McCoy (who somehow manages to seem like he’s barely in Starfleet) and the blending of military and non-military characters on DS9. These are the Trek shows with a dramatic edge, a less narrow perspective, and a greater foothold in reality than the rest of them, simply because society will always be changing, and struggling through the process of integrating a variety of cultures and viewpoints.
If anything gives Star Trek heart, it is a fondness for the character who’s an outsider: Spock struggling to balance his human and Vulcan side, Data struggling to be human, Odo having next to no idea why he’s so different. If you’ve never noticed, Spock finally does “find himself” in the subplot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, where he learns through the example the V’ger entity, discovering that “for all its knowledge, V’ger is barren, cold. Logic and knowledge are not enough.” In a later film, the now more peaceful Spock will admit, “Logic is the beginning of wisdom, but not the end.” I’m talking about the Leonard Nimoy character here, not the Spock who’ll smooch with Uhura in the transporter room later seen in the 2009 film. But to return to the point, logic and knowledge are not enough, and neither is it enough to have a single, more or less inflexible viewpoint and travel the universe encouraging people to conform. If there are any Trek characters the Doctor would appreciate, it’s likely these outsider characters, and I’ve no doubt any crossover stories written by fans instinctively pay attention to this.
Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, and I contain multitudes.” The Doctor quite literally contains multitudes, and encourages nothing else. He isn’t flawless: people die, and there’s always struggle and loss on the way to a universe that’s a little safer for a sense of openness and inclusiveness. At the same time, the narrative framework of the show has quietly, and for a long time, helped by creating a less egocentric perspective. It’s a wide universe with the Doctor popping up here and there, not a series of events that only happen when he’s around. If anything troubles me about the revived Doctor Who series, it’s the lack of longer, two-part stories. I’d like to see more of them, at least partly because a longer Doctor Who story allows for a better look at this more distinct, less egocentric perspective I’m talking about, and multiple-episode stories help set Doctor Who apart from Trek, which is probably best known for single episode stories. It has been a long time, but there’s even an episode without the Doctor appearing at all (Mission to the Unknown, designed a prelude to The Daleks’ Master Plan, back in the 1960s), and even if it was done then to give the cast a week off or for some other reason related to production, it would be an interesting experiment to repeat, if only to help further establish the idea that it’s a tremendous, complicated universe the Doctor is travelling. As Philip Sandifer suggests in an essay for one of his collections, Mission to the Unknown is an occasion the Doctor simply doesn’t make it, and surely that happens sometimes? The Doctor is already scarce in occasional stories, but could the series go from a Doctor-lite episode to a Doctor-zero episode? Stranger things have happened.
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