In the dark days of winter, searching for words

Normally January and February are my favourite months. The days are growing longer, minute by minute; the days cold and crisp, the ground a snow-covered white, the sky a bright clear blue. A perfect time for reading.

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Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014

More than one week into the new year, I have a strange sensation akin to trying to make my way on one of those moving sidewalks that traverse the passageways of major airports. However, because the direction of the sidewalk and I are at odds, I’m making little progress. Lately my weeks have been punctuated by trips to visit my father, 1 1/2 to 3 hours each way, depending on whether or not we pick up my mother. Weather dictates travel, scrambling the best laid plans, and now that my father has moved on to the rehabilitation unit his stubborn determination has returned – for better and, sadly, for worse. Through it all, my mother, now so tiny in her old winter coat, is entertaining the thought that he might someday return home – home to a setting that neither one of them is really well enough to live in anymore. The potential challenges that lie ahead are fraying the less than stellar relationships between myself and my brothers, and these are still the early days. Meanwhile I have dealt with car repairs and a burst hot water pipe. And I don’t even want to venture into the messy, potentially violent eruptions that have threatened peace in my own house as my son struggles with an addiction to alcohol.

To say that my reading has been scattered would be an understatement.

I am afraid that, anxiety and exhaustion aside, I seem to be responding to an internalized sense of guilt that reading, and writing about reading, has no value if it does not generate an income. If your life does not presently include income generating activity – a circumstance that was not by my design but has afforded me the time and energy to read and write – then my literary pastime is even more self-indulgent. Or at least that is what my family members (and their voices that echo in my head) are telling me.

Of course I have been reading, but my focus is off.

I have just emerged from Rafael Chirbes’ forthcoming On the Edge, a testament to internalized guilt, regret and resentment if ever there was one; fuel for my abiding mid-life angst. I’m preparing a review for Numéro Cinq. Otherwise most of what I have read lately is not quite carrying me through. I find myself distracted and picking at pieces, reading on line journals and stabbing aimlessly at collections. As I said, my focus is off.

§ Finish Your Thought!

As in death, we are equalized in thought when we think that every mind in its effort to comprehend the world must come upon the unthinkable.

§ Think for Yourself…

…not others. There is no such thing as thought to spare, only to share.

Matches_Cover_Front_Mockup_07182015-216x346That said, I find that I do have an appetite for aphorisms and fragments. Perhaps that is the ideal antidote for a scattered new year. I am dipping in and out of S.D. Chrostowska’s MATCHES: A Light Book, over 500 pages of illuminating meditative thoughts about the contemporary quality of thinking, reading, and writing. This is not a work intended to be read from cover to cover over a few sittings, rather it is ideal for slow, thoughtful engagement. Light the match, let it burn for a moment, reflect for a while – return again and again, over time. The perfect companion I hope, to lead me back into reading when I feel I am straying and, more critically direct me to writing when fear I am losing my way.

§ New Line of Thought

Every new line of thought is a departure.
Or a new way of arriving where one already is.

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Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013

MATCHES: A Light Book is available from Punctum Books.

Life in a company town: Arvida by Samuel Archibald

You could almost envision Arvida as a town constructed as a backdrop, like a movie set, just waiting to be called upon by a talented story teller; one who would pull and draw legends, myths, and memories out of the woodwork of his hometown and re-imagine them, use them as fuel for his creative fire – a writer like Samuel Archibald. And you would not be that far off. Arvida was, in truth, a company town, founded in 1927 on the banks on the Saguenay River, 240 km north of Quebec City. Archibald describes the town’s genesis as follows:

“The Americans built the town beside the aluminum smelter in a hundred and thirty-five days. There’d been nothing around for 200 million years, then there was the Alcan smelter, and a hundred and thirty-five days later, a town.”

A town with no history suddenly appearing in the middle of nowhere was a haven for those with a past to escape, those who wanted to forget or be forgotten… “a town of second chances”.

arvidaBy the time that Archibald was born 1978, Arvida had been fused with the town of Jonquière and today a number of smaller communities have been amalgamated to form the city of Sanguenay. Arvida, as separate entity, the model town once praised by the New York Times no longer exists as such. But its glory days, its decline, its humanity – and a measure of misguided inhumanity – provide a wealth of inspiration for the stories that make up Arvida, Archibald’s short story collection first published in French in 2011, and now available in English translation. It has been shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize.

On the back cover of this book, Samuel Archibald is compared to a “Proust-obsessed Cormac McCarthy”. Stir in a nod to Stephen King and it is not an inaccurate billing. There is a dark heart throbbing throughout these stories, a pulse that binds them together, weaving often disparate tales into a surprisingly coherent and effective whole.

The series is bookended by the first and third parts of the “Arvida” story: “My Father and Proust” and “Madeleines”. Together with “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness” (Arvida II) which appears about two thirds of the way through, we have a fictional glimpse of the author, his family, and his hometown. Funny, sad, and philosophical, this tripartite tale begins with humorous accounts of the narrator’s father’s boyhood penchant for stealing pastries and ends with the challenge of facing Proust’s madeleines armed only with the memory of McNuggets, anchored in the middle with a celebration of the spirit and fortitude of his grandparents and the characters that brighten small town life at its best.

Many of the stories that fill out the collection are decidedly darker. Blood and violence are not unknown. But then neither are dreams and a spirit of magic. “Cryptozoology” features a father and son who live between dream and waking life without holding one as more valid than the other. Sharing a cabin in the woods, 13 year-old Jim is essentially his hard-drinking father’s care taker, driving him home from social gatherings, and cleaning and sobering him up the morning after. On the road and along the traplines he is haunted by sightings of an elusive animal, perhaps a cougar, that cross into his sleeping hours and take on an increasingly mythical significance as Jim himself becomes ill.

“Now Jim is dreaming and listening. He hears what they’re saying about him. He’d like to reassure them, to explain to them. He often has a dream with no up nor down, where the beast attacks him and devours him. It’s a dream of carnivorousness and violence, but not of death. He does not expire while the cougar is annihilating his body, he fossilizes within the animal like a memory of flesh.”

Ghosts are also a featured presence in Arvida, from the old fashioned gothic horror of “A Mirror in the Mirror”, the tale of a woman who wastes away into a state of otherworldliness waiting for her playwright husband to return from an extended stay in Montreal; to the spirits, real or imagined, that haunt and ultimately destroy the family life of a man who takes on the restoration of a crumbling historic mansion. But the horror theme is taken to an extreme in “Jigai”, a gruesome fantastical tale of ritual mutilation set in Japan, safely across the globe from small town Quebec. It is apparently an allegory of an unimaginably brutal story Archibald heard when he was growing up. Placing it in the middle of this collection however, has the effect of providing a powerful counter point to the small moments and the everyday terrors, fears, and passions of life in a remote community.

The fictional Arvida is inhabited by a wide assortment of colourful, often hapless, indiviuals. For example, in “América”, for the promise of three thousand dollars, a pair of young men decide to accept the challenge of smuggling a woman from Costa Rica into the United States. First they enlist a cokehead as an accomplice who turns out to be little more than a burden that must be abandoned, and then neglect to consider the impact that the events of September 2001 will have on their attempt to cross the border in 2002. Later on in another story, “The Last-Born”, a man who is less than a deep thinker, decides he can kill a man, again for a couple thousand dollars. Yet what starts out as attempted murder, turns into an unexpectedly heartwarming tale. Archibald is sensitive to the complicated dynamics of human interaction, allowing his characters to find their own ways in to and, with luck, out of trouble.

Arvida was very well received in Quebec. Archibald worked with translator Donald Winkler for a year to realize the work in English. Hopefully the Giller nomination will serve to introduce him to a wider audience, and to provide a well deserved boost for his small publisher, Biblioasis, who had three titles on the long list this year, two moving on to the short list. The stories in Arvida may be inspired by a particular place, but they vividly evoke the reality of small town Canadian life, especially in the 1960’s and 70’s. They could be set in any number of communities across the country, especially those company towns that rose up around mining or pulp and paper factories. Some, like Arvida have been absorbed into larger centres, while others are fading away.

Nothing but grey skies? One Hundred Days of Rain by Carellin Brooks

It begins abruptly with a domestic dispute, loud enough to alert the neighbour. The police are called. Our unnamed heroine is led away and will soon face a restraining order. This is Vancouver. Rain starts as her marriage ends.

“She is not fallacious enough to connect this with her circumstances. She confines herself strictly to the facts. She leaves. It rains.”

rain100What we find in One Hundred Days of Rain, the spare, reflective novel by Canadian author Carellin Brooks, is a poetic meditation on the unraveling of a relationship and the displacement of a woman and her small child in a city famous for its wet face, soaked streets, and days – no, months – of rain. The moments are ordinary: work, finding a place to live, stretching meagre resources. The dissolution of the marriage is bitter, acrimonious and manipulative. But much of the time the protagonist is numb, detached, preoccupied. The rain, in its infinite guises, stubborn ubiquity, tireless assault on the bodies and minds of the city’s inhabitants, is the central character. It has the starring role.

Rain is both vital and villainous:

“Outside the big front windows the rain has begun in earnest. This is the rain the denizens of the city know best, the rain they have cause to know. In the days before the weather began to change there would be weeks of it at a stretch. It is said of this rain that it drives people to suicide, that the sodden winter tried the hardest.”

It defines clothing and footwear:

“The skies drip, that’s all, and the relentless drip soaks silently into the land. She walks to the café to pick up her son. It’s a long walk but she won’t take the bus. Once again she is thankful for her thick soled shoes. The misery of bad shoes, ones that let the weather in, so that your feet when you peel off your squishy socks have a pale, pinched look of reproach. She hopes her son will be wearing boots.”

It becomes a distant memory when the summer brings sunshine. And then with autumn it is back:

“Collective amnesiacs who stare each autumn in unfeigned dismay, faces blank. What, this again? It’s raining? Forgetting as an act of self preservation. Nonsense, they say. It doesn’t rain like that. It can’t. There’s no way. A hundred days of rain one after the other? Certainly not. And the thing is, nobody lies, not consciously.”

As the sloppy, damp, year slides by, our heroine will move several times, balance visitation for her poor confused son between her ex-wife and the child’s father. Her relationship with M, the ex, is roughly fleshed out in a series of bitter vignettes. Other regular female lovers come and go. She seems at times to direct more emotion to the grey, unforgiving skies than to the people around her. She is on autopilot. It is almost as if the incessant rain risks drowning out her ability to make sense of what she really feels, thinks and wants in life. Perhaps it is simply granting time to start to heal.

Played out in a chorus of 99 short chapters, this novel, as a rumination on rain and a sketch of the endless end of a relationship, draws to a close, as it begins, with the first drops of rain. However there is a sense of a new beginning, however faint. The restrained third person narration has an arms length quality that is surprisingly engaging. The observations are sharp, precise, and often very funny. We don’t ever learn too much about the characters, we learn what we need to know. The fact that it is a same sex marriage that is coming apart is of little significance. Divorce is divorce. But we are invited to endure the Vancouver rain, appreciate it’s kaleidoscopic nature and, for some of us, remember why we live on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.

One Hundred Days of Rain is published by Canadian indie publisher BookThug.

We’re extras in our own stories: Atavisms by Raymond Bock

I am often at odds with the literature from my own country, in fact I’m increasingly at odds with my own country itself. When I heard about Atavisms, a newly released translation of Maxime Raymond Bock’s award winning collection of short stories it caught my attention immediately. I was keen to have a look at Canada through the lens of a contemporary Québécois writer. I don’t know what I expected, but I was hooked from the opening pages.

atavismsNot content with niceties, Bock catapults his reader into this collection with “Wolverine”, a story about a disaffected nationalist nursing his resentment long after the FLQ (Front de Libération du Québec – a separatist paramilitary organization) has fallen into decline in the years following the institution of the War Measures Act in October of 1970 in response to the hostilities that had risen to a crisis point. When he happens to encounter a former Liberal cabinet minister, aged and intoxicated, he enlists a couple of friends on an adventure of revenge that turns brutally violent. It is shocking even if you come to this tale from a distance, but as a Canadian who will never separate the October Crisis from his 10 year-old imagination, I met it with intoxicated horror. Suddenly I was thrown back to my prairie schoolyard where my friends and I re-enacted events we were in no way equipped to understand – but with kidnapped officials and bodies in trunks it was infinitely more exciting, and terrifying, than anything on TV.

The horror continues to unfold in the second story, “The Other World”, but this time the reader is thrown back hundreds of years, to the early Quebec settlers and the immediate aftermath of the surprise attack by of a band of Iroquois on a couple of traders and their Huron guides. As the lone survivor lies under a thicket of pine branches hoping to remain hidden as the attackers relieve their victims of goods and scalps, he muses that, no matter what happens, he has no regrets.

From there we move, in “Dauphin, Manitoba”, to look outside the borders of Quebec, with a man’s monologue directed at a girlfriend he left behind in a prairie town. They had moved out there together. While she found herself captivated by her work, he failed to get a foothold or feel at ease in the vast empty landscape and retreated to the familiar blanketing comfort of a Montreal winter.

“You could pace back and forth a hundred years without coming close to the boredom I felt on those prairies, once sifted by antediluvian oceans, sculpted by retreating glaciers, surveyed by rambling nomads – friendly spirits, even better warriors – plowed to-and-fro by combines kicking up the dust of buffalo skeletons. You could say I caught you off guard when I left you alone to follow your path; you could say it was a nice trip, the time of your life. Lies. We’re both free now. You can study law, become a pastry chef, take up curling, or stay out there and keep up the good work; I’ll stay here and the snow will keep coming down.”

I once made a move like that in the opposite direction, albeit no further than Ottawa; but in the end made my way back west, never really at home at either end of the equation. As the narrator frames his missive to his girlfriend in terms of the generic novels he is making his way through, he does not sound any more committed to his move as something intrinsically right than as an acknowledgement of where he does not belong.

As the stories in Atavisms unfold, stretching back and forward in time, common themes, from history to politics to parental anxiety, reoccur, reflecting off one another. It can be argued that these thirteen stories are interconnected although they do not explicitly share any repeating characters and range from historical to surrealist to speculative fiction. Some of the contemporary stories are deeply universal and could almost be set anywhere, like “The Bridge” in which a depressed history teacher muses about his fate should he give in to his suicidal whims; or “Room 103”, a son’s one sided conversation with his dying father:

“It’s the end, Antoine, there’s nothing left to be done. You’re so light you don’t even make a dent in the mattress. It’s just you all alone with your obsolete quarter-million dollar machines, your network of tubing, your probes and dreams.”

Like a fragmented block of glass, each story in Atavisms offers a view of the Québécois experience through a different prism until the final tale, “The Still Traveler”, pulls all the threads together into a time and place in a precolonial reality dating back to the legends of the earliest residents and visitors to the Americas. After all, atavism refers to the tendency to revert to an ancestral type and that, more than anything is the underpinning theme of this collection: fathers and sons, family histories, political legacies, the identities that contain and define us.

Outside of Quebec, a sense of identity is diluted. I was struck by the depth of the colonial commentary that runs through a number of these tales and how the early days of New France are revisited with a harsh measure of reality. This is a conversational point sadly under played in Canada as a whole. As a new level of racism and xenophobia directed at new Canadians grows across this country, we would do well to remember how recently white Europeans made their way onto these shores.

Newly released by Dalkey Archive Press under their Canadian Literature Series, Pablo Strauss’ translation very effectively maintains the distinctive flavour of Bock’s richly varied stories. Supplemental endnotes fill in some essential language and historical references to enhance the reading experience.

I would strongly recommend Atavisms to anyone interested in knowing more about the Quebec experience, whether inside or outside Canada. Not only because the perspective is not as widely known or understood as it should be, but because this is simply a collection of very good stories. Period.

Looking to distant horizons: A few reflections on reading from afar

It is not entirely clear in my memory, but by this time last year, the stress of trying to hold myself together in the face of mounting pressures in what had become a deeply dysfunctional workplace, was taking a serious toll on my emotional and mental health. I have not been able to return to regular work since last June. I have struggled to gather the energy to attend to many of the regular household tasks that seem to pile up week after week. My cameras, once my faithful companions, have hardly been touched. The unbearable sameness of my city fails to inspire and seems to be closing in on me despite a remarkably mild winter. But one activity has remained undiminished and if anything has flourished with the extra time I have these days. I am talking about reading.

A fraction of my shelves, some read, most not (yet).
A fraction of my shelves, some read, most not (yet).

Most of the books I read take me elsewhere. As I turn my blog focus more and more toward literary themes, it is clear that I have a few idiosyncrasies. I have a definite interest in South African literature. This owes its genesis in part to my own experiences knowing a number of South Africans over the years, from watching the momentous changes that have taken place in the country during my adult years, and in the understanding that the new South Africa faces challenges that create a context for important discussions that we need to continue to keep open. Discussions we can all learn from in our increasingly global reality. The same holds true for another area with which I have an increasing literary interest – central and Eastern Europe. The political turmoil of the past century has provided ample inspiration for a wide range of exciting  literature, which, thanks to an increasing number of industrious small publishers, is catching the attention of English speaking audiences. Slowly but surely.

Of course, at the core of all great literature, classic and contemporary, is the essential quality of the human experience. We are born, we grow old, we fall in love, we lose those we love, we battle darkness, we face fear, we hope, we reach for those moments of joy. And the more I open myself to the stories of others from around the world, the less alone I feel.

But then there is this nagging guilt. As a Canadian, why don’t I read more Canadian writers? Well I do, but so many leave me unsatisfied and rarely reach my blog. And those I am especially fond of have tended to come from elsewhere; that is, they are Canadian with a hyphen and frequently write from that transitional perspective. I don’t think it was always that way. Maybe I have just been land bound too long. Maybe I crave the exotic just a little after all.

Well until I can travel, I will keep my bags packed, my options open and and a healthy pile of books standing by from near and far.

Reading and anxiety: Proceed with caution

“Then the anxiety set in. If someone told me I had to be depressed for the next month, I would say that as long as I knew it was temporary, I could do it. But if someone told me I had to have acute anxiety for the next month, I would kill myself, because every second of it is intolerably awful. It is the constant feeling of being terrified and not knowing what you’re afraid of. [Anxiety] resembles the sensation you have if you slip or trip, that experience you have when the ground is rushing up at you before you land. That feeling lasts about a second and-a-half. The anxiety phase of my first depression lasted six months. It was incredibly paralyzing.”            – Andrew Solomon

The above passage from a PBS interview with Andrew Solomon, the author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression and Far From the Tree, describes the reality of living with anxiety better than any I have heard. I had a bad stretch earlier this year but once it passed I let the memory of this crippling sensation fade. Until now. Anxiety has returned.

Sometimes it helps to get out but that is not an option today. The temperature outside has climbed from the -34C wind chills that settled in late last week to a comparably balmy -7C. But my car sits on the street with a flat tire that cannot be replaced until Friday and a chest cold has left me feeling too ill to walk to the nearby shopping centre to pick up a few necessary items. With my daughter’s 22nd birthday on Wednesday and Christmas on the horizon with no indication that I will even have enough income to pay my bills at the end of the month I can expect to feel a little down. But the anxiety that has coiled its way around my heart is much more devastating.

The worst aspect of anxiety is that it seems to ignite the fears, the loneliness and the paranoia that are already entertaining me during this prolonged mixed hypomanic state. It seems to be impossible to distract myself in any truly functional way – even reading is only a temporary respite.

HungryI have recently emerged from a book, both glorious and heartbreaking, that I would strongly recommend but should come with a warning for the mood sensitive. This book is sad. The book in question is The Hungry Ghosts by Sri Lankan-Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai. This richly sensuous novel begins in Sri Lanka and explores a young man’s complicated and difficult relationship with his grandmother, follows him as he immigrates to Canada with his mother and sister where he struggles to find himself in the gay community of 1980s Toronto. A return to visit his grandmother is marked by a tragedy that will seal his fate, binding him in his own bitterness and pain, to ultimately threaten everything he builds and holds dear in Canada. Buddhist mythology is woven throughout this tale of family, wealth, warfare, race and love. The resulting huge tapestry of life pulls at the very threads of the human heart. But, be warned, this book is sad. Bravely so, something I find missing in much of the Canadian literature I ready today.

The other night I braved the brutal cold, probably the last thing my emerging seasonal illness needed, to attend a reading by the author, the final event of his week-long residency with the University of Calgary’s Distinguished Visiting Writers Program. As positive and rewarding as this opportunity was it served to remind me that my own accomplishments seem to have been stalled by the cards fate (or karma?) has dealt.  I awoke the next morning feeling saddened, empty and anxious.

Adrift in mid-life.

Further reflections on the void left by suicide: deeper appreciation for Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews is one of Canada’s most celebrated novelists. She has drawn heavily on her Mennonite heritage filtered through the ability to explore the messiness of ordinary life with a wonderful sense of humour. Recently I reviewed her Giller nominated All My Puny Sorrows, a novel which is deeply inspired her sister’s suicide. The novel itself, while wicked funny in places, left me wanting more of a connection to Elf, the deeply depressed character. Her “healthy” sister, the narrator, never really seemed to understand but rather struggled with her own reactions – the practical and the reckless.

Tonight I had the good fortune to attend a panel called “Darkness Visible” in which Miriam participated. The theme explored by the three somewhat diverse novelists was focused on looking at whether dark themes, personal or political, can be fully examined in literature. The consensus I suppose was that despite the challenges and limitations, the ambition is valid and important.

swing lowBecause I already own a digital copy of All My Puny Sorrows I purchased a copy of Swing Low: A Life for this event. Written in memory of her father, a well loved teacher and pillar of the community who took his own life about a decade before his daughter followed suit, this slim volume deals more explicitly with manic depression and suicide. I only recently became aware of it. Given my own recovery process I am thinking this is more the story I was looking for with All My Puny Sorrows. Coincidentally, an audience member at the event had grown up in the same Manitoba community as Toews. Her father had been his teacher and he began to cry as he shared his shock when he had learned how much pain and sadness the family was going through. Miriam had to dry her eyes as well.

That is the true impact of suicide and it spreads beyond families.

When I had the pleasure to speak to Miriam after the event I confessed my experience with All My Puny Sorrows, explaining that I was reading it in the aftermath of my own breakdown and, sadly, in the light of Robin William’s suicide. I told her I suspect that the book I was hoping for probably lies in part in this earlier, more serious volume. But then we both admitted that unless we are ourselves are burdened with the desperate desire to let go of this life, we can only ever observe from the outside. We also shared our mutual fears for our children inheriting the same genetic disorder.

I am deeply impressed with Miriam Toews’ desire to speak about mental illness and with her wide appeal in this country, hopefully her message will reach an audience that needs to hear it. I am looking forward to finding out how she explores the bipolar disorder in her family through her father’s story, unaware at the time of course, that the same event would strike her family again.

She told the audience that if writing her most recent book taught her one thing it is to hold tight to the joy in life.

A worthy goal for us all.