My father’s library: A very personal reflection

It is the Thanksgiving weekend in Canada. We planned to gather, as a family, at my parents’ house to begin the process of determining what will be kept, sold, and thrown out; and to assess the repairs required before the house can be put on the market next year. However, an early taste of winter has caused us to cancel our plans due to road conditions (they lived two hours northwest of the city where my brothers and I all live). With a mixture of relief and an unresolved need to begin the process of closure, I am re-posting an updated version of what was, at the time of its original writing, a premature tribute to my father. The sentiment, now relevant, remains. His library is one of my major concerns.


Originally published in December, 2015, I have updated this essay with an addendum.

I was standing in my father’s library last night, looking for a book I could not find, but as I scanned the titles I began to read the shelves as life lines, like the lines that always creased his forehead and fanned out from the corners of his eyes as he squinted through the windshield or glanced up into the rearview mirror of the car. For as long as I can remember, my father never drove without a grimace. The shelf lines are deep and distinct. His love of classic literature represented in tattered hardcover volumes with faded lettering on the spines. His life long obsession with Russia marked with rows of history books, discourses on Stalin and Marxism taking up more space than I’d remembered. And the Soviet literature, of course. Then his more recent forays…

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A dream beyond sorrows: A personal reflection

One year ago I read and wrote a review of Peter Handke’s brief meditation on the life and death of his mother, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. With my birthday several days behind me and Canadian Thanksgiving coming next weekend, it seemed to me an appropriate moment to stop and take stock of the past twelve months.

8040751642_2c979863e1_zIt has been time of growth and a time of grief. Neither are quantifiable experiences, neither can be parcelled off, measured and checked like the items on a to-do list. Growth, like grief, can only be appreciated in retrospect and, perhaps most critically, as experiences that are bound together in the business of living, of being in the world.

Moving back a year, my simple Handke review led to a Twitter encounter with Douglas Glover, the mastermind and driving force behind the online magazine Numéro Cinq, who invited me to try my hand at writing a review for the magazine and, cliché as it sounds, that changed everything.

Since my “debut” if you like, I have become a regular contributor at NC, and have gone on to write book reviews for a number of other sites and online publications. I confess that I still struggle with a little of an impostor syndrome, ever worried that a lack of formal training in literature or creative writing will catch me up—out me as a pretender.

So far, so good.

Writing, or rather, the courage to put my own creative or critical writing “out there” for others to read, is something I could not have imagined doing until fairly recently. The response has been very encouraging; and the growing friendships and respectful connections with other readers and writers has far exceeded my modest expectations. I am ever excited by the works, ideas and reading suggestions of others. The community afforded by online connections is invaluable.

But moments of isolation and loneliness persist, feeding waves of existential anger and grief.

Five months ago I published my first piece of essay/memoir writing. It is honest and raw—the product of more than a year of worrying words onto the pages of notebooks. Some of my anger and grief is channeled through this essay, and there is a relief in having released this fragment of my truth.

Within two months, though, I would begin to know an entirely new grief.

In July, in the span of less than two weeks, both of my parents died. The circumstances that swept them from us were not entirely unexpected, but the rapid intersection of the two events has left me numbed. And then, in early September I learned of the death, by suicide, of one of my closest friends. Hers was a fate, again not unexpected, but long feared and, in a strange and painful way, respected and understood.

8084371103_590f71e383_zWhich brings me full circle, to Handke’s essential, heartbreaking memoir. A novice to loss on the magnitude of that which has marked these past months, I imagined myself crafting a response of immediate grief, as Handke attempts. But I realize I am voiceless. At least for now. Articulating my grief will take time. At the moment I cannot even sort it out inside.

So with Thanksgiving coming, I am thankful for outlets for writing, new friends who support and inspire, books, words and, yes, even grief.

And for the opportunity to continue to grow.

That is my dream for the year ahead.

Passion and plague: Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjón

He’d had no inkling that when the pestilence took hold Reykjavik would empty and convey the impression that nothing was happening at all; that the town would become an abandoned set that he, Máni Steinn, could envisage as the backdrop for whatever sensational plot he cared to devise, or more accurately, for the kind of sinister events that in a film would be staged in this sort of village of the damned–for those days the real stories are being acted out behind closed doors. And they are darker than a youthful mind can imagine.

moonstoneMoonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, Icelandic writer Sjón’s fourth novel to be released in translation, is set in Reykjavik in late 1918. This is fortuitous timing. A number of critical events converge over the course of a few months: the volcano Katla erupts in a dazzling display of fire and ash, the First World War comes to an end, and the small Nordic country achieves sovereignty. But the most devastating impact arrives in the form of the plague that is presently sweeping the globe–the Spanish flu.

At the centre of the tale is sixteen year-old Máni Steinn, an orphan who lives with an old woman who is, as far as he knows, the sister of his great-grandmother. He is an independent spirit. He wanders around town, services “gentlemen” for money, and spends hours in the cinema. For a queer boy with no family history, illiterate, and alienated from his peers, silent films offer an opportunity to lose himself in fantasy, intrigue, and drama. A theatrical imagination dominates his dreams, at night and during the idle hours of the day.

In general, his encounters with men are dispassionate, hurried and impersonal. But there are a few exceptions, men who show him affection and kindness, like the foreigner who, in a play on his name, christens him Moonstone. And then there is Sóla G–, a young woman from a prominent family, who is known for ridingmusidora through town on her red Indian motorcycle. She is, for Máni, an embodiment of Musidora, the French actress who stars in one of his favouritefilms, Louis Feuillade’s crime serial, The Vampires. He worships her and, fortunately for him, she secretly knows and understands the kind of boy he is.

The Spanish flu will alter everything. Despite warnings from Copenhagen, Iceland is not prepared for the speed with which the coming epidemic will spread or the toll it will take on the people and resources of Reykjavik. Once it hits the shore though, it is all that anyone can talk about. Our protagonist however, absorbs the news with a deeply romantic response:

He has a butterfly in his stomach, similar to those he experiences when he picks up a gentleman, only this time it is larger, its wingspan greater, its colour as black as the velvet ribbons on a hearse.

An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country; something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.

The silver screen has torn and a draft is blowing between the worlds.

Very rapidly, Reykjavik begins to resemble a ghost town. The cinema still draws those seeking comfort, community, and warmth until the last available musician of any description collapses and the films, now unbearably silent, cease. But by this point Máni himself has fallen ill.

Sjón invites the reader right into his hero’s illness with little warning. The images are brutal, harsh, surreal. From the explosive fiery heat of his fever, through his horrific delusions to the subsequent pain and bleeding, Máni’s cinematic imagination colours the account of his fragmented and distorted days of suffering. He is left drained and delerious:

The boy no longer has need of blood or bone, muscle or gut. He dissolves his body, turning solid into liquid, beginning from within and rinsing it all out, until it gushes out of every orifice he can find. He is a shadow that passes from man to man, and no one is complete until he has cast him.

Upon recovery, Máni is recruited to accompany the doctor and his driver, the enigmatic Sóla G–, on the grim task of calling on the sick, the dying and the dead. Men, women and children fall indiscriminately. Within a few weeks though, the pestilence burns itself out and the survivors pull themselves together and drag themselves back to life and, soon, to the cinema. Over the course of one month, ten thousand citizens have endured the ravages of the illness, and almost every family has been directly touched by loss in some way. Attention now turns to the coming celebration of Iceland’s independence, but Máni will still have one major challenge ahead.

Sjón has a light touch–an ability to spin a tale that unfolds with the spirit of a fable and feels lighter than air. He works in miniature with a sensibility that is poetic, weaving the strands of his tale with a glimmer of magic. But that does not mean his novels fail to explore topics of substance or create characters that live and breathe. The lingering impression is ephemeral, lyrical, haunting.

Moonstone is dedicated to the author’s uncle Bósi, a gay man who died of AIDS in 1993. This novella sheds light on the clandestine and dangerous lives of homosexual men at a time when a country like Iceland, which fancied itself too robust to face threat from influenza, imagined itself to be a place where such aberrant behaviour could not possibly exist. For Máni, the “boy who never was”, it was a desolate place, save for the refuge of cinema. Placing the story in 1918, allusions to the plague that would devastate the gay community in the 1980s and 90s are unavoidable. And that much more powerful.

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was is translated by Victoria Cribb and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in North America and Sceptre in the UK. Originally published in 2013, the book won the Icelandic Literary Prize.

Wrestling with Rhys: Reflections on reading Voyage in the Dark

I debated leaving this book undiscussed, unfinished even. It is not in my nature to write negative reviews but I am not certain my reaction to Voyage in the Dark, my selection for the Jean Rhys Reading Week, counts as negative as much as it stands as disappointed. I felt it was worthwhile looking into why this book and its author did not work for me as I had hoped it would, especially when, at one time, I did read and enjoy several of her books. If anything has changed, of course, it is me. I am not the same reader I was thirty years ago and, if there could have been a worse time for me to entertain the company of Voyage’s protagonist Anna Morgan, this past week would be hard to beat.

voyageWhen we meet Anna, the young narrator of Jean Rhys’ 1934 novel, she is eighteen, going on nineteen, and working as a chorus girl. Transplanted to England from her childhood home in the Caribbean, she paints a picture of a country that is bleak, cold, rainy and unwelcoming. She meets Walter Jeffries while she is on tour and once she is back in London they connect and initiate an affair. Anna takes this development in stride, as if it is both her due and her fate. She tolerates the sex and relies on the money he provides her to pay her board in a series of rooming houses and buy herself clothing. If her feelings are conflicted, it is difficult to tell. If anything she comes across as inordinately indifferent:

Of course, you get used to things, you get used to anything. It was as if I had always lived like that. Only sometimes, when I had got back home and was undressing to go to bed, I would think, ‘My God, this is a funny way to live. My God, how did this happen?’

Happiness is at best a vague notion, elusive when she vaguely tries to grasp at it. Only when Walter leaves for an extended business trip, severing their relationship upon his return, does Anna feel “smashed.” She makes attempts to reach out to him, to win him back, but what does she really miss? His arms or his money? It is hard to be certain.

Anna is always cold. She blames it on her origins in a hot climate, but the chill runs much deeper. In contrast to her persistent obsession with the monotony of her English surroundings, memories of her life in Dominica are presented in richer, more vivid terms. They are shot through with a melancholia that does not speak to childhood nostalgia alone–there is a sense that her emotions are complicated–but these passages allow for some of my favourite moments in the book:

All the way back in the taxi I was still thinking about home and when I got into bed I lay awake, thinking about it. About how sad the sun can be, especially in the afternoon, but in a different way from the sadness of cold places, quite different. And the way the bats fly out at sunset, two by two, very stately. And the smell of the store down on the Bay. (‘I’ll take four yards of the pink, please, Miss Jessie.’) And the smell of Francine – acrid sweet. And the hibiscus once – it was so red, so proud, and its long gold tongue hung out. It was so red that even the sky was just a background for it. And I can’t believe it’s dead….And the sound of rain on the galvanized-iron roof. How it would go on and on, thundering on the roof…

Rhys’ prose is strikingly spare and unaffected. It works well when she is looking back, or when the narrative occasionally falls into brief periods of stream of consciousness. The personality of secondary characters, if not necessarily sympathetic, are rendered with stronger brush strokes than that of the young woman at the centre of the narrative. And this is where the Voyage in the Dark becomes an effort for me as a reader.

Anna’s extraordinary passivity is a hallmark of the novel, as are the abrupt flashes of impatience and pride that periodically flare around others. She can be fickle, petulant and self indulgent. None of these factors are a problem, together or apart; what seems lacking is a context in which to understand her attitude and behaviour. For many readers I suspect this elusive quality of Anna’s character is where the interest and appeal lies. I found that despite moments when I was ready to re-evaluate my response to the text, Anna’s hollowness, apathy and vanity would test my patience again.

When she muses “I was thinking, ‘I’m nineteen and I’ve got to go on living and living and living,” her reflections echo a person struggling with depression, and that may be a fair interpretation, but it doesn’t hold weight for me in spite of passages like:

It’s funny when you feel as if you don’t want to do anything more in your life except to sleep, or else to lie without moving. That’s when you hear time sliding past you like water running.

Anna holds no responsibility for anything that has happened to her in her short life. She is miserable and expects everything to be handed to her. That’s fine, there are people like that and I do not expect characters to behave in manner that I approve of or to be likeable. But in modernist fiction I anticipate a measure of believability that, for some reason, is lacking for me here.

This is, I caution, my own idiosyncratic response to a book that I realize is beloved by many. I can understand how, in my early twenties, living with an as yet undiagnosed mood disorder, as an ostensibly female person keen to find female characters and writers that resonated with my own alien understanding of my gender identity; Jean Rhys’ novels and female characters could have held a strong appeal. From this vantage point in my 50s, I suspect it is more my experience with mental illness, personally and professionally, than my cross gendered path that account for my difficulty pulling myself through this short novel. And then, I am also mourning the suicide of a dear friend who battled a soul crushing depression for more than a year before finally taking matters into her own hands earlier this month. Against that backdrop, Anna’s persistent gloominess was, shall we say, cold comfort.

Thoughts on writing about Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli

I am very pleased to have my first review published at The Quarterly Conversation. Dreams and Stones by Polish writer, Magdalena Tulli, is a poetic meditation on the city as an organic entity, essentially an urban cosmology. I read it through twice before writing my review and in my second encounter its nonlinear, cyclical quality was even more apparent. Thinking about it now, two months later, its fantastic, mythic qualities still have a strong hold on my imagination. But there is more that haunts me when I think about this book.


I had been aiming to submit this review in mid-July, my first reading was in late June, but before I could put pen to paper, so to speak, my father had a stroke and car accident and my mother became ill and died. As one might imagine, I struggled to write, let alone read. During times like this words fail us. But, as my father’s death neared I returned to this short book, for distraction, comfort and, above all, to know that I could still write. The ability to sit down and pull together a critical review was an important turning point. In times of immediate crisis and grief when family members find themselves trudging back and forth to the hospital, the advice is to try to return to some measure of routine. The answer, for me, was to write.

Dreams and Stones is translated by Bill Johnston and published by Archipelago Books. My review can be found here. Be sure to have a look at the rest of Issue 45 while you’re there.

Thanks to Scott Esposito for everything.

Black Bread by Emili Teixidor—My Numéro Cinq review

My latest review for Numéro Cinq is now live. When I read for these reviews, the question that guides me is “What is interesting about what the author is doing (or trying to do) in this book?” I am listening to the language, paying attention to the structure, the voice, the tone, and asking what makes this work come together? What sets it apart? I am reading as a writer–an intuitive writer–unaided and yet unburdened by a formal education in literary theory.

Coming of age themed novels such as Black Bread by Catalan writer Emili Teixidor present a particular challenge. When a first person narrator is recounting events and experiences from his or her own childhood, my attention is focused heavily on narrative voice. I am always trying to determine where the narrator is standing in time relative to the story being told. I had the sense with Black Bread that the protagonist Andreu was writing from his later teens–just far enough away to have some perspective on the limitations of his understanding of the precarious realities around him, but close enough to recreate the innocence and naivete of childhood. It works, but the more absorbing, and I suppose the more effective the voice, the more difficult it is to describe how and why it works.

Here’s a taste of the review, please click through the link at the end to read the rest. A second link leads to an excerpt:

In the Shadow of Civil War: Review of Black Bread by Emili Teixidor — Joseph Schreiber


There is an interlude, just shy of a third of the way into Black Bread by the late Catalan writer Emili Teixidor, where the narrator steps back from his childhood reminisces to question the nature of memory. He asks why some things stay etched on his memory while he has forgotten others completely, and wonders, “how can I know I have forgotten what I can’t remember?” He recognizes that some places, people and incidents fade quickly whereas sometimes a word can come back unexpectedly and ignite a flood of distant memories. These reflections appear as a curious break in a narrative marked by a degree of youthful naiveté, but remind us that the journey from childlike to mature understanding is uneven and necessarily distorted in retrospect. So, although it is never entirely clear just how far removed the protagonist stands from the experiences he is sharing, as his account continues his ability to hold on to his own innocence will increasingly come into conflict with the harsh realities of life in post-war rural Catalonia.

In recent years, much revisionist debate has been dedicated to exhuming questions of the true impact of the civil war and the Franco dictatorship on Catalan culture and society; “true”, that is, depending on where one’s interests lie. Against this backdrop, a novel like Black Bread, originally published in 2003 when Teixidor was seventy years-old, could easily be construed as an attempt to reclaim history through lived memory. That may, in part, be a fair assessment, but this novel offers much more. It is, on one level, a tender and sensitive coming of age story, one that filters the joys, fears, mysteries, and discoveries of the fitful transition to adolescence through the unaffected lens of childhood memory. Our narrator, Andreu, an astute observer of his own confused emotions, must learn to navigate a world filled with dark dangers and even darker delights. He knows there is much going on around him that he doesn’t understand—truths that he isn’t certain he even wants to understand. However, his growing awareness and conflicted reactions open space for an indirect but honest commentary on the realities of Catalan existence during this time. In this respect, the work can be seen in line with that of writers like Josep Pla and Mercè Rodoreda.

Continue reading here:

Read an excerpt here:

Tracing hidden lines across the Americas: Counternarratives by John Keene

Stretching over a span of four centuries, Counternarratives is a collection of stories and novellas that defies simple description or classification. In just over 300 pages, John Keene manages to challenge and reinvent the way we think about historical fiction by subverting the conventional narratives again and again, peering into dark corners, and prying the lid off of stories not typically part of the grand narrative tradition that has dominated so much of contemporary American literature. First off, for Keene, America has a broader scope. This is the New World, primarily the United States and Brazil—the two countries most closely associated with the slave trade—but over the course of this book we also venture into Mexico, the Caribbean and across the ocean. The characters, primarily, though not exclusively, of Black African heritage, are drawn from history, the arts, and the imagination; and demonstrate a strong will to run against the currents of normative discourse within which they would have otherwise fallen under the radar or been rendered invisible. In allowing their lives to flourish on the page, Keene is effectively queering history. Many of his characters are either implicitly or explicitly queer with respect to sexuality or gender, but all of them through their stories, push up against accepted mythologies, inverting or “queering” them in the process.

CounternarrativesThe earliest narratives in this collection tend to keep some distance from the subject at hand, some even have an investigative documentary feel, complete with maps inserted into the text. Over the course of the book, the control of the voice shifts, as characters begin to take command of their own stories (mid-way through the powerful central piece, “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows” Carmel, the mute protagonist, starts to “speak” through the written word, abbreviated and phonetic at first, then increasingly fluid over time) until eventually, as the accounts draw closer to the present day, internalized, experimental stream of conscience narratives begin to come into play. With any collection of shorter works there is always the risk that the stories will begin to blur at the edges, losing distinction from one to another. Not so in this case. Although the themes and characters are not directly connected, this evolving style of storytelling—from the relatively dry historical reportage of the opening pieces, through more traditional narrative accounts to the disembodied, disturbing dialogue of the closing entry “The Lions”—provides a continuity that serves to create a cohesive work of astonishing depth.

Throughout, Keene demonstrates an enviable capacity to create vivid, memorable characters and breathe life into the vital cross currents of history. He does not allow himself to get bogged down in background detail but allows the time, place, and social dynamics to come to the surface through the wide range of individuals and the varied settings and styles that he allows his narratives, or rather counternarratives, to adopt. And although it may seem strange to speak about these short stories and novellas as if they almost have an agency of their own, that is what it feels like to engage with them. Due to extenuating personal circumstances, my reading of this collection actually extended over the course of three months, but whenever I was forced to put it aside for a time I never feared that I would not return, nor did I find it difficult to lose myself, once again, right where I left off.

counterThroughout this collection, customary beliefs are routinely challenged through the presentation of lives typically discarded or seen through the lens of the dominant power, in a manner that seeks to restore a level of dignity. Black, Native American and queer characters are granted a reprieve from the more conventional historical portrayal. However, that release, or escape if it comes, is often at a cost. Some of the narratives are abruptly truncated, ending partway through a sentence. In most instances a resolution is uncertain regardless of whether it signals promise or pain.

By way of offering a taste of this collection, I’ll touch on three pieces. The epistolary novella “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon” offers a report on the experiences of one Dom Joaquim D’Azevedo, sent in 1629, to attend to matters at an isolated monastery in Brazil where some disturbing occurrences had been reported. He arrives at this remote location, populated by two padres, one brother and their bondspeople, or slaves, to find himself facing what will reveal, in time, a veritable heart of darkness. The atmosphere is charged with an unusual energy from the outset, as the newcomer struggles to get his bearings in his new setting and size up his charges:

Resuming his comments about the monastery, Dom Gaspar could see that D’Azevedo was growing unsteady on his feet, and with a gesture summoned a stool, which a tiny man, dark as the soil they stood on, his florid eyes fluttering, brought out with dispatch. They continued on in this manner, Dom Gaspar speaking—Padre Pero very rarely interjecting a thought, Padre Barbarosa Pires mostly nodding or staring, with a gaze so intense it could polish marbles, at D’Azevedo—detailing a few of the House’s particulars: its schedule, its routines, its finances, its properties and holdings, its relationship with the neighboring town and villages, and with the Indians.

Before long, D’Azevedo settles into a rhythm, feels he is making progress and begins to tutor boys from the town. But strange noises and mysterious sightings inside the monastery begin to unsettle him while outside threats from encroaching Dutch forces escalate, creating an atmosphere in which an evil long brewing is brought to the surface. Dark secrets are revealed, D’Azevedo is forced to confront a truth he has long buried, and the identity of the small African servant who seems to be ever present comes to light. This piece is a strong example of evocative storytelling, reminiscent in mood of The Name of the Rose, but reframed within the context of the Catholic Church’s role in the Americas, the clash with tribal African traditions, warring colonial tensions, and questions of ethnic heritage, gender and sexuality.

By way of contrast, “Rivers” turns the tables on a classic of American literature, giving Jim Watson of Huckleberry Finn fame, an opportunity to flesh out the details of his life after the book ended. Jim, now a free man who has reclaimed his own name, James Rivers, is a tavern owner in Missouri when he chances to meet Huck and Tom on the street. Their conversation, is dominated by Tom’s racist jibes, but Jim remains circumspect. He thinks of what he could have told them but chooses not to (“I thought to say…/Instead I said…”), in this way sharing with the reader a full account of the women in his life, his children, his time in Chicago, and his return to his home state, while little is offered to his former acquaintances. There is no joyous reunion, rather the occasion is marked by arrogance on one side, bitterness and suspicion on the other. But as the Civil War looms, another chance meeting awaits.

Beyond this story, the narratives begin to take on an increasingly playful, experimental form in style and content. An especially affecting piece is Cold. Narrated from an internalized second person perspective, this short story takes us inside the troubled mind of Bob Cole, the composer, playwright and producer who co-created, with Billy Johnson, A Trip to Coontown in 1898, the first musical owned entirely by black showmen. It is now 1911, and the voice in his head taunts him, catalogs his losses, his failures, driving his desperate decision to take his life before the day is out. . .

For the last month or two, or five, has it been a year—why can you not remember?—these newest melodies you cannot flush from your head, like a player piano with an endless roll scrolling to infinity. Songs have always come, one by one or in pairs, dozens, you set them down, to paper, to poetry, like when you set the melody of the spiritual Rosamond was whistling as you walked up Broadway and in your head and later on musical paper clothed it in new robes. Then somewhere along the way after the first terrible blues struck you tried to hum a new tune, conjure one, you thought it was just exhaustion, your mind too tired to refresh itself as it always had, that’s why the old ones wouldn’t go away.

The pieces I have briefly touched on just graze the surface of this book. Its relatively short length can be deceiving. Counternarratives offers a demanding, immersive reading experience. It is, at the same time, compulsively engaging and deeply satisfying. I heard reverent talk of it long before I finally picked up my own copy earlier this year and I can fully understand the respect it has garnered even I find myself at a loss to do it justice. Bold and expansive, this is a haunting, unsettling, important work.

Counternarratives by John Keene is published by New Directions in North America and by Fitzcarraldo in the UK.