Recently, I couldn’t get through the introduction to Cultural Amnesia without wanting to write down a quote on every page. It’s a collection of essays that fairly briefly (but so far, very thoughtfully) covers dozens of different historical figures, literary and otherwise, with the loose premise that while historical shortcuts might be easy and convenient, they’re also problematic. In theory, it’s a book to help prevent this, specifically written for current and later generations. Here’s a quote from the introduction:
“As the late Edward W Said wrote after the attack on the World Trade Center, ‘Western humanism is not enough: we need a universal humanism.’ I agree with that. The question is how to get it, and my own view is that it can’t be had unless we raise our demands on ourselves a long way beyond decorating our lives with enough cultivation to make the pursuit of ambition look civilized.”
And I thought this quote combines humility and wisdom, which can only be said to be a rare combination:
“I have always loved the title of Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. I hope this is a book of laughter, at least in places. But it is everywhere a book of forgetting. I am not urging young people to follow me on the path to a success. I am showing them the way to a necessary failure: the grim but edifying realization that a complete picture of reality is not to be had. If we realize that, we can begin to be realistic. Thinking otherwise, we doom ourselves to spinning fantasies, which might well be fluent, but could equally be lethal. Stalin and Hitler both thought that they could see the whole picture, and look what happened.”
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100 years ago: For a general history of the war I picked up The Guns of August (Barbara Tuchman) and found it to be full of fascinating detail. I revisited The War Poems (Siegfried Sassoon) and found them as potent as ever: “O German mother dreaming by the fire / While you are knitting socks to send your son / His face is trodden deeper in the mud.” The Robert Graves memoir Goodbye to All That begins with his childhood but soon moves into the war and it’s an invaluable, personal account. There are endless good quotes but here’s one that shows how routinely young lives were pulled into the war, and for years: “Bumford, for instance, who gave his age as eighteen, was really only fifteen. He used to get into trouble for falling asleep on sentry duty, an offence punishable with death, but could not help it. I had seen him suddenly go to sleep, on his feet, while holding a sandbag open for another fellow to fill. So we got him a job as orderly to a chaplain for a while, and a few months later all men over fifty and all the boys under eighteen got combed out. Bumford grew old enough by 1917 to be sent back to the battalion, and was killed that summer.” Regeneration (Pat Barker) is a novel that looks unflinchingly at the horror of the war, and as many will know by now it makes use of various war poets as characters. The Return of the Soldier (Rebecca West) is shorter, more subtle and elegant, but nevertheless also powerful. If you have Netflix and sixty minutes The First World War From Above literally changed my perspective on the war.
Graphic Novels: I’ve read dozens of graphic novels this year and find it to be a genre with some impressive work, though it sometimes needs to remember being grotesque is not the same thing as being mature. It’s a criticism that doesn’t apply to the following brief list of my favourites: Berlin (two volumes by Jason Lutes) totals about 400 pages and provides some insight into the volatile period in Germany between the world wars, when literally dozens of political parties struggled for power, including the Communist and the Nazi party. So many characters arrive and leave I’m sure I lost occasional threads of the plot, but it’s a tremendous accomplishment that must have taken years, providing a portrait of the city, its daily struggles, and the assorted reasons people eventually put their faith in the Nazi party. It was produced independently and can be hard to find but True Patriot: All-New Canadian Comic Books Adventures was a blast. I’d also recommend Through the Woods by Canadian Emily Carroll, and The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft (Richard Kleist).
Older Fiction: Stoner (John Williams) is the most immensely satisfying novel I picked up all year. Originally published in the1960s it has been rediscovered and championed, but lives up to the hype, in my opinion. And don’t be led astray by the title, it’s simply the last name of the central character. Jane Eyre is among my favourite novels, but I found Villette to be not nearly as engaging, and a book that adopts something of a self-consciously epic and indirect style. Death in Venice and Other Stories (Thomas Mann) was another book I’d been meaning to read for years, and I’m glad I finally did for its poignancy and lines like this: “There could be no doubt that this gentleman rejoiced in the wonderfully happy conceit of himself.” The Age of Innocence (Wharton) was elegant and engaging in a quiet, intelligent way. I began Near to the Wild Heart (Clarice Lispector) enthusiastically enjoying the poetic language, though it ultimately became a little exhausting.
Older (shorter) fiction: A Good Man is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor) was a hard-hitting and flawlessly written collection of stories. As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories (Macleod) felt overwritten on very rare occasions, even as it also found its way to brilliant, perfect moments, so it also comes highly recommended. I enjoyed the quality of writing in Man Descending (Guy Vanderhaeghe) even as I found I needed to brace myself for the story of one emotionally hopeless man after another.
Newer fiction: I Was There the Night He Died (Ray Robertson) is poignant and meaningful, even as it has both feet firmly and unpretentiously planted in the present day. That’s harder to do than it sounds, and Robertson would be better recognized in a country that didn’t tend to believe novels should be historical to be literature. The Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers) concerns the war in Iraq, and struck me as a novel with the right amount of poetic language: power and clarity at the same time. The Road Home (Rose Tremain), about the struggles of a newcomer to England felt realistic and yet not cynical. I’m currently really enjoying The Bees (Laline Paull), set in a beehive, and clearly from an intelligent, talented writer.
NYRB Classics: Stoner led me to discover various other titles in the well-designed New York Review Books (Classics) series, where they appear to specialize in overlooked books. I loved Young Man With a Horn (Dorothy Baker) concerning a self-destructive jazz musician (again, just the right amount of poetic language), and The Summer Book (Tove Jansson), a gentle set of linked stories about an elderly artist and her granddaughter. Chess Story (Zweig) is a sharply written novella that finds a clever way to note the horrors of war, and A Month in the Country (JL Carr) is a brief but sadly beautiful novella concerning a veteran of the First World War employed to restore a church painting.
Essays: It was good to spend some time with the voice of the late Roger Ebert reading Awake in the Dark, selected reviews and articles. I’ve blogged below about enjoying the essays of Jerome K. Jerome, who combines an easygoing intelligence with humour. I’m only sorry there’s nothing left to read, having read both Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, and Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. I found The Empathy Exams (Leslie Jamison) to be an articulate, emotionally intelligent collection of essays. Here’s a line she has about Frida Kahlo: “Hers was a body pulled almost gravitationally toward injury, but her paintings point ceaselessly at grace.” The Fire Next Time (James Baldwin) is a fascinating historical document, and Pathologies: A Life in Essays (Susan Olding) feels somewhat closer to a memoir than a collection of essays — the story of her adopted daughter takes over the book — but more importantly it’s articulate and honest.
Other Non-Fiction: Swing Low (Miriam Toews) is a moving memoir and I can only imagine her father would’ve felt honoured by it. While slightly repetitive at times, there’s much to be found in Meditations, Marcus Aurelius: “Letting go all else, cling to the following few truths. Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant: all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed. This mortal life is a little thing, lived in a little corner of the earth; and little, too, is the longest fame to come – dependent as it is on a succession of fast-perishing little men who have no knowledge even of their own selves, much less of one long dead and gone.” It’s easy to see why A Night to Remember (Walter Lord) was a bestseller, as a well-researched, gripping account of the Titanic sinking. Carefully crafted to be accessible and influential, I nevertheless really enjoyed Never Cry Wolf (Mowat) as a sincere and valuable (not to mention very entertaining) introduction to wolf behaviour (and on a somewhat similar note, the documentary Sharkwater helped clue me in to the idea Sharks are also fairly reticent creatures, not the monsters we routinely see in films and on TV).
Genre books: The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester) was wildly inventive for a novel from the 1950s, and seemed like it could have been published today. Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card) is both compelling and imaginative. While full of remarkably dated attitudes, I enjoyed The Beetle (Richard Marsh), which was originally more popular a horror novel than Dracula in its day, for the elegant, nineteenth century language: “I’ve never seen a man more in need of the good offices of soap and water.” Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Verne) has an intriguing central character, and, interestingly, never troubles to reveal his exact origins. The Nine Tailors (Sayers) is an intelligent mystery novel with a dash of history, and I’ve been given the impression her books are always more than simply a good mystery.
Poetry: I read assorted poetry books, but it was particularly good to read books by some friends this year. Yaw (Dani Couture) is a spare, precise and powerful collection. I also found much to admire in Tangle (Julie Cameron Gray) and Old Hat (Rob Winger). I enjoyed Probably Inevitable (Matthew Tierney) for many reasons, but certainly for the freshness of the modern imagery: “It’s a solace to know the World’s Simplest Remote includes mute.” I’m about to start reading my not-so dog-eared copy of Dog Ear (Jim Johnstone), selected as one of the best covers of 2014.
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For the Maissoneuve blog, I’ve done an interview with Julie Cameron Gray about her new book of poems Tangle, and the darker side of domestic life.
Also, the first poem I’ve written about my daughter will be in the new issue of Taddle Creek dedicated to childhood. It looks like I’m in some very good company, and I encourage you to subscribe, because only $18 gets you a stylish, semi-annual dose of literary goodness.
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Still in uniform, but one of earth and tar:
coral epaulettes, strings of sand for hair,
a longtail for a screaming, out-of-focus hat.
Weary, but with discombobulated grin,
he passes with your annual epiphany,
learned to love French like one of his brothers.
He was between bonfires and church bells
on Confederation day – allowed himself
to be hung with Riel, for the experience,
stowed away to stand with Billy Bishop
when he looked up at an azure sky to say
“Bet you don’t get mud and horseshit
on you up there.” Brock shook his head
over church-run schools meant to take
the Indian out of the Indians, the ban on
the sun dance, the potlatch, three Chinese
lives per mile of railway. His warm smile
grew into a laugh at the wind-slap of a subway
train arriving, and he thought “You and your
journey back and forth. It isn’t that you
can’t stay, it’s that you don’t know how to cling
to anything.” His hands behind his back,
he walked in the snow with Trudeau.
He still slumbers in parts of the land,
a song and a bullet in his heart.
from The Least Important Man
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I recently participated in Brains, Words and Voices a charming new reading series located in a former coffin factory in Toronto. An atmosphere of respectful tribute to older poems (recited from memory) is all yours for a donation on admission that includes red wine and pizza. I brought the first Canadian poem to the proceedings by reading some Alden Nowlan, who made an impression on me as early as high school. You can follow this link to a YouTube channel for various readers, but do check out the series for the real experience.
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I have mixed feelings about e-books. Generally speaking, they’re among the things helping bleed out independent bookstores. Imperfect as it is, my own solution is to continue to buy so-called real books as gifts, or if it’s a favourite author I want to sit as a tangible object in my hands, or if it’s simply a well-designed book. This year I’ve picked up Stoner (my favourite novel of the year so far) The Summer Book, Chess Story and other attractive New York Review Books. Getting an e-reader as a gift is a little like being body-snatched: you remember the person you were, but it’s also recognizably easier to have David Copperfield in your bag on a slim device. So, only certain books on an e-reader then, as an imperfect solution.
At the same time, one of the pleasant side-effects of these devices is a resurrection (or at least much wider distribution) of older titles, now public domain and widely produced as e-books to be read and discussed again. I recently enjoyed The Beetle, published at the same time as Dracula and initially outselling it. It’s loaded with paranoia about foreigners (“This is London, not a dog-hole in the desert.”) but putting that aside as part of its era (and glaringly obvious), it’s quite an entertaining story, written in an often-elegant 19th century voice: “I’ve never seen a man more in need of the good offices of soap and water.” It’s also interesting, historically speaking, to read a book set at a time in England the characters can wire ahead to have “the Arab” stopped at a train station. Because, naturally, there’s only one in England.
But for me, the best of these resurrections so far is Jerome K. Jerome, who is somewhat misrepresented as a humour author. His essays are certainly amusing (“He listened to me in rapt ecstasy. I might have been music.”) but he’s often capable of deeply perceptive comments about our habits, far-sighted: “Will it matter to the ages whether, once upon a time, the Union Jack or the Tricolour floated over the battlements of Badajoz? Yet we poured our blood into its ditches to decide the question.” Or this, for example: “Why, if the universe be ordered by a Creator to whom all things are possible, the protoplasmic cell? Why not the man that is to be? Shall all generations be so much human waste that he may live? Am I but another layer of the soil preparing for him?” And finally: “Looking back the little distance that our dim eyes can penetrate the past, what do we find? Civilizations, built up with infinite care, swept aside and lost.”
Current whatever-crossed-my-mind essay collections owe something to writers like Jerome, who’s still as relevant and perceptive as any of them. He often sounds flippant and trivial before closing in on something more significant. “On the Nobility of Ourselves” has these thoughts: “History notes the wrong; but the patient suffering, the heroic endeavour, that, slowly and silently, as the soft processes of Nature re-clothing with verdure the passion-wasted land, obliterate that wrong, she has no eyes for. In the days of cruelty and oppression — not altogether yet of the past, one fears — must have lived, gentle-hearted men and women, healing with their help and sympathy the wounds that else the world had died of. After the thief, riding with jingle of sword and spur, comes, mounted on his ass, the good Samaritan. The pyramid of the world’s evil — God help us! Its rises high, shutting out almost the sun. But the record of man’s good deeds, it lies written in the laughter of the children, in the light of lovers’ eyes, in the dreams of the young men; it shall not be forgotten… Hate and Anger shriek to one another across the ages, but the voices of Love and Comfort are none the less existent that they speak in whispers, ear to ear.”
And, yes, it’s necessary to mentally note that “man” isn’t the term that would be appropriate today. And one of his essays begins with a long, tedious, entirely dated description of how flighty women can be before he settles into something else. But again, these are books from a completely different era, and don’t deserve to be swept into the dustbin because of it. His two collections (Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, and Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow) weave together an easygoing intelligence, humour and impressive observations, making him as thoroughly enjoyable as he is worthy of your time. At one point a “put out the stars” reference seemed to me to be the inspiration for the famous W.H Auden poem, Funeral Blues. Based on these collections, I’m looking forward to another non-fiction title of his, Diary of a Pilgrimage and I’ll look at his fiction too. All these titles are available from The Floating Press (recommended as an e-book publisher).
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