katiclops

This is a very serious blog.

(Intermission)

-Day 4-

Over the weekend, I lamented over the trials and tribulations of writing fiction with a friend (who is bravely embarking on her own November writing quest). We commiserated that we found it extremely challenging to suppress the inevitability of our personal experiences and meta-narratives from nosing their ways into whatever we were writing. While I agonized over trying to write today’s post, I stumbled upon this other excerpt from another one of Franzen’s essays, Pain won’t kill you:

“If you’re moved to try to return the gift that other people’s fiction represents for you, you eventually can’t ignore what’s fraudulent or secondhand in your own pages. These pages are a mirror too, and if you really love fiction you’ll find that the only pages worth keeping are the ones that reflect you as you really are.”

 

Write on.

(Intermission)

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Post-morning swim – June 2013, Campbell Bay, Mayne Island

(it’s much quieter than it sounds)

Farther Away from Jonathan Franzen (part 1)

- Day 3 -

2013-10-19 11.21.28 The view from Arthur’s Seat, October, 2013

As a few of you might already know, I’ve just gotten back from a whirlwind trip to UK. As I nursed this coffee and rubbed my bleary eyes this morning at the respectably normal hour of 8:32, I accepted with satisfaction that I am officially (more or less) completely over jet lag, and committed to rejoining Life as I Know it.

Saying I “visited the UK” feels a bit misleading. Actually, saying that I had been visiting anywhere at all feels a bit strange. We have been slammed in work all summer, set back after set back taking us down a myriad of foundational roads we had perhaps naively assumed would have already been constructed prior to our arrival. That old “There’s a hole in my bucket” song comes to mind as I write this (maybe compounded with Beethoven’s ninth?). Compounded with huge changes in my personal life, two moves, a bike accident and arguably the most colds I’ve had in my life (that’s what working in a hospital will get you!): it’s been a crazy year.

I feel as though I’ve had to shelve a lot of my personal thoughts to keep things together and stay focused. I’ve thrown myself into work with a vengeance and spent as much of the balance as I can outside, bike riding or swimming to take my mind off things (water heals all wounds). As we passed in our final draft report two weeks ago, I decided to ask for the Friday off to recuperate. I realized a few hours later that I needed more than a long weekend, and the next day (thanks to my incredible boss) I was able to take the following week off instead – and four days later I was in Scotland.

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Reading Farther Away, August, 2013

Staring at my bookshelf this morning (I spend a lot of time staring at my bookshelf), I realized that I had just experience what Franzen was trying to achieve during his terrifically farther, more exotic trip. The title essay of Jonathan Franzen’s most recently published collection of non-fiction essays, Farther Away, is just over 40 pages long (originally published here in the New Yorker, in April, 2011). I have an uncomfortable relationship with Franzen, he’s the kind of author that gets under your skin, challenges you and makes you feel a bit uncomfortable. I’ve read both Freedom and The Corrections and loved them most for the discussions I was able to have afterwards. The bright blue hardcover dust jacket is simple, the only diagram instructions for folding  piece of paper into a boat, and the essays span from personal reflection, to activist essays on the plight of endangered birds and the panda.

In Farther Away, Franzen takes a similarly prompted whirlwind trip to Mas À Fuera, a remote, tiny island (44 km sq) located about 750km off the coast of Chile. It’s name literally means “farthest away;” the closest island is Robinson Crusoe’s Island, where the true story inspiration behind the shipwrecked survivor tale actually took place. Franzen sets the stage by describing his ridiculous trek to reach this far flung land and the abysmal weather and challenges he faced to achieve total isolation and a break from his own personal life. Effectively, this was a big part of what I wanted to do by going on my own trip. I needed to physically assert the distance I’ve been feeling with my current life, and to emotionally, professionally and psychologically completely unplug: to quite literally weather the storm. Unlike Franzen, I couldn’t commission a boat to take me 750km off the coast of Latin America, I was also physically exhausted and low on survival gear.

I needed to go somewhere where people would speak English, where my credit cards would work and where I would feel safe, but also a place where I could be afforded the luxury of knowing someone well enough I could be silent with them. Someone once told me that Rilke wrote a lover’s most important duty to another is to defend their solitude. I was fortunate enough to have a good friend in Scotland who would host me. There was no need for being “out there,” every day, being challenged by strangers and having my loneliness invaded. By being with someone with whom I could say anything, I was able instead to say nothing at all. I spent at least five hours outside everyday just walking. Sometimes I would listen to music, but more often than not I would just walk. There was physical distance and a mental grappling that needed time and physical space, wide open spaces, to process everything that has been going on over the past year. I didn’t even need to consciously think about it, I just needed to give it time to percolate. To have one other person there, a singular familiar lens with whom you can look back and reflect on your life, provide updates to, this is also helpful on crafting your own perspective. These self-made stories we tell to our old friends are effectively the tenuous threads that string our lives together through time. Franzen captured the need for these communiqués through his relationship with David Foster Wallace:

The curious thing about David’s fiction, though, is how recognized and comforted how loved, his most devoted readers feel when reading it. To the extent each of us is stranded on his or her own existential island…we gratefully seized in each new dispatch from that farthest away island which was David…fiction is a solution, the best solution, to the problem of existential solitude.

Edinburgh was the opportunity  to provide my own dispatches and updates to and from my life from a distance, to be forced to reflect back and articulate about my own island, to physically manifest this solitude and journey through seven leagues of darkness to daylight.

Please note, for readability posts this month are capped at 1000 words.

Continued tomorrow.

 Edinburgh, October, 2013

2013-10-19 11.21.05

 

Obligatory “So what is NaBloPoMo about?” post

- Day 2 -

Greetings friends!

I’ve taken a long, extended hiatus from blogging. I took full-time work last December (yipee!) and traveled through a gambit of return of Saturn flux over the past six months. Normally I like to reserve this blog as a place to review books and keep me on track with critical reading and reflecting, as well as a place to stretch out my writing wiles and traumatize you all with creative writing exercises. Over the past eight or nine months, all of this has fallen by the wayside, in favour of policy writing, bike rides, terrible house moves and written correspondence: but I miss it so!

And so I’m back.

What is NaBloPoMo you ask? To quickly recap the myriad of eloquent descriptions out there, it is a month where bloggers unite across cyberspace and commit to blogging every single day for an entire month. It’s kind of like training wheels for NaNoWriMo, where you crank out an entire novel.

Wow, you’re probably thinking to yourself, that’s a heck of alot of time.  And it is!!! It is way way too much time! Last year I ended up writing for 2-3 hours every day as I tried to continue hashing out book reviews for the first few weeks and then surrendered to defeat. I also was initiated into very rad little community of bloggers that I’m hoping to reconnect with! This year, I’m committing to do it the full month, just to see what happens. I read one of the posts from yesterday from Sabrina Lovejoy (The Devil Made Me Do it) . She ended the post with “everytime I’ve participated (in NaBloPoMo) in the past, I loved the me it produced. Discipline begets more discipline.”

I have no idea what will happen this time around. I have a stockpile of 8 months of undisseminated books kicking around (Vagina, The Marriage Plot, The Invisible Man, Ken Kesey), a few unpublished/unedited entries and a reserve of traumatized photos of Griz, so at the very least, you can look forward to those (ha!). I promise from here on in the only posts I sync to Facebook will continue to be actual book reviews (hopefully I will get a few more out this month!), but feel free to come back here if you want to check in on how it’s going. It’s Mercury Retrograde after all… And please continue to harass me! I can’t tell you how much of an incentive it is to have other people holding me accountable :) Or better yet, join us! I’m linking up with Yeah Write again this year for motivation and inspiration. Wish us luck!

See you guys tomorrow.

~kImageDarling Griz, June, 2013

blogroll

NaBloPoMo Nautical November

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2:27 am

Glasgow airport.

Every 15 minutes a public announcement comes on to let us know where we can purchase designer bras. It’s mildly annoying and extremely irritating for all those trying to sleep. I’ve installed myself on the last confirmed unoccupied bench in the whole airport (the parts that are open at the moment anyway). We are actually to fly out of T2, which is locked at the moment. The airport is silent. Filled with people waiting. People sleeping. People staring vapidly, desperately, purposefully into space. And construction. Doubtlessly part of why this bench has remained unoccupied is due to the vibrant, surrealist, bright light located directly above my head. This is the only such light that has been left on in the airport, most of the other banks of benches have softer square ones, letting people seep gently into grocery-store-like sedation, but mine drenches the whole area making it feel a bit like a movie set.

I’ve plugged in my noise canceling headphones, mainly to avoid having to talk to other people. My way of putting up walls. There is no music playing. It’s quiet. I ate the pastry I packed already, but I can’t imagine dipping into the the small loaf of bread, cheese or apples I am bringing as rations for the plan. My belly is filled with wine and beer and scotch and it isn’t happy with me. I am glad to be in the waiting phase though. It takes the edge off. I’m still a nervous flyer.

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 *                        *                        *

November is my hardest month.

Not cruel April, or muddy March. But November, the dreary culmination of the death drenched fall. The end of the most colourful, crispy and crystalline time. Eleven days earlier I had booked a ticket to Scotland, flown three days later, and now, already I was turned around to trek back. Mercury has retreated into retrograde, my week of reflection and wandering complete, I was ready to regroup and return to the land of the living. But this is the last part of the trip, and perhaps the most important part. Being a quiet island in public space. With all my amenities, I am my own little sailboat, removed and detached in the diplomatic ocean of airports, traceless and free. Being observed and invisible, alone. Suspended in transport, in the ether that is so familiar and calm. Suspended. A moment of weightlessness stolen from the edges of parabolic flight in the seconds before our lives change direction. Free fall. Liberation. Whenever I’m here I always think about the Heart of Gold in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when they bend space in half to make a leap and create a portal to slip through. Airports are like that. Bringing together bits of earth, skipping all that tedious travel, unbound from the chronological passage of physical geographic, replaced instead by the simple screen of sky.

This is also what I came here for.

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11:13 pm.

The rain is rolling down Cook street in thick rapid rivers. The skies are stained sepia from the streetlights and streaks of sordid rain. During this quarter of the year, released from normal circadian strata, we are hatched into the night. Suddenly there is a safety in the evenings. Sixteen hours of darkness expand to fill the balance of the business day. Taking back the darkness, our coats grow long and thick and slick with rain, our eyes grow dark and wide and we reclaim ourselves as creatures of no light. Traffic transformed into some strange shape, a school of underwater sea creatures, shapeless headlights a moving flock of stars. Tendrils of tenuous traffic lights and beacons beaming from buildings form a curious coral reef of relief through which we slip and slither through the smudged, soaking air.

If we can embrace this change, it will be a good November.

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I’m back! So stoked to be blogging with YeahWrite for November as a lifeline to get through this crazy month!

Check it out over at YeahWrite.me!


Discovery.

EhnmmMMmmMM….mmmMMpph.

I feel a cold, soft pencil-eraser pushing into my face. Then a facefull of wooly-undoubtably grey-fur. More fur. Purring. Purring? Who purrs before 7am?! The fur stops moving and I start to feel a tentative, rough lick and nuzzle on my forehead, ever so faintly, every so far away, my alarm.

Griz! Good morning Griz! For what more is there really to say? Being awoken by a 7.5 pound mass of fur – especially one so positively elated at the notion of me giving her just the tiniest bit of food – is not the worst thing I could think of. Not to mention that she has also learned intuitively to respond to my alarm clock by sitting on top of it to muffle to the sound, presenting me instead with her purring pretty face.

What a sweet heart.

I stumble into the kitchen, navigating the shadow-grey mass running figure-eights around my ankles like tires at a drill camp. I run the water, top up her kibble and fish, and fix myself a glass of lemon water. Breakfast is served. It’s crazy to think that three months ago there was no Griz, no morning water: nothing but a caffeine powered tardy sprint to the office.

I stand a few feet back from her voracious slurps and drink my own jar of water, letting my eyes adjust to the light, slowly planning the next half hour and my route to work. The rain on the skylight four feet above my head echoes like run-away dried beans down the bulk-food aisle. Spring rain is inevitable, but losing an hour of sleep,  and a rainfall warning? What a way to start a Tuesday.

Griz chartreux grey cat

Griz, Killoran Gordan, Dec 2012

My ride to work is short, but often unpleasant. A little over 3km it follows a major road and then a shipping route, not to mention that a bike accident a few blocks off my route had left another cyclist in critical condition the day before. It easily could have been me. As is rote for cycling accidents, the story was quickly flooded with notes and observations about bad bikers: helmetless, reckless yahoos that were obstructing the traffic-flow of good citizens. I am often rattled after reading this type of news, but I also know that if I give into my fear I’m libel to trade in my bike for the bus permanently. I strapped on my helmet, threw on my bright yellow jacket and headed out the door.

In honour of the time change, I decided to break my coffee-less Habit and grab one en route to work. Nostalgia flooded over me as I walked in the door. The café had flown under my radar entirely the first year I lived in town. It’s only two blocks beyond Chinatown, a stone’s throw from our house. I stumbled upon it blindly attending a poetry reading, astonished to find that I had been biking by it daily for months. Stumbling in this morning was like stumbling in for the first time, discovering a little self-contained universe right under my nose.

Unassuming, it’s filled with subtle dark wood, skylights and plants. A friendly, hip-yet-unpretentious staff and noteworthy coffee. The clientele consists of a healthy mix of construction workers (as they are open earliest of all the cafés), old men (who spend hours chatting in the lounge), a steady stream of postal workers (the post-office headquarters is next door), students (free wireless) and government workers (they’re everywhere). After my initial visit, I was completely hooked, joining the regulars. Having a welcoming, quiet space turned me around academically, powering me through my last semester and prompting a “thank you” in the Acknowledgements section of my final Masters project. The name of said café? Oh-so-approrpriately: Discovery.

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Discovery Coffee on Discovery st. (Al Champagne)

Coffee strapped in bike rack, it wasn’t until I arrived at work that I realized the news of the accident had subconsciously turned me into an exemplary cyclist: alert and awake, I had worn my lights and brightest clothing, over-emphasized all my turn signals, triple checked my blind spots and stood up extra-straight while I waited to make my left-hand turn in the intersection. An improvement.

A friend once told me that getting what you want out of life is simple; it comes in two steps. The first is recognizing that you want something, and the second is recognizing it when it comes to you.

May you also find unexpected changes to some of your old habits, a silver lining to these grey days and a rinsing away into spring.

Yeah write turns 100 this week! Er, 3! And 100 posts! Go yeah,write!

Selecky’s Party

I

 

 

sat down to write this hours ago.

It is nearly spring here. No, it’s finally spring here. The east coast in me can’t quite believe it yet, but it’s beginning to snow white cherry blossoms and the light has that liberated full-spectrum gilt to it at last. Nowhere else is winter as long as the dreary grey coast.

I biked home fast after work. I stayed a full ten minutes later than I had intended, wrapping myself up too tightly in a PowerPoint presentation and lost sight of the time. 4:15 means GO! This light you looked at so longingly is yours now! I frantically flew out the door and tried a new route home, up a side street and down a hill so steep I thought I’d fly over my handlebars before curling sharply onto the bikepath. The wind is still crisp and winter-clean, but the angle of the sun is a promise that can’t be revoked, and coasting over the clackety-clack wooden footbridge I wanted to scream at every person I crossed: we made it! The winter is done.

In celebration of our newfound daylight I nipped out for coffees before the cafés all closed at 6. The original plan was to write, but we got caught up meandering lazily home, and it hardly seemed worth it to rush over for the slim twigh-lit last half hour. I got take away cups. Because it is a special day (Day of Sunlight), I permit myself to a latté instead of a regular coffee, and I made his a secret decaf. Since the good weather hit the Island this weekend we’ve kept all our windows open, well into the night, like the people who flap around in sandals and shorts before the snow has melted. To compensate we’re both bundled in blankets and heavy sweaters, and Griz is curled up tight against me with her paws clamped firmly over her nose, but the air is fresh and promising and we sleep the sweep sunburnt dreams we’ve missed since September.

The coffee is ice now, thick and rich, forgotten.

this cake is for the party sarah selecky cover

I’ve seen Sarah Selecky’s slick little paperback around. It’s cute. The red Giller sticker is a beacon to the Canadian-lit junkie in me, it turns my head like a pretty bike. Or maybe Tiffany’s blue is has gravitational pull over all women. I like the cover, the empty cracked plate, and the title: This Cake is for the PartyIt’s the kind of title you want to say out loud to yourself several times, and articulate every consonant, like the name Maggie.

I had picked up the book a few times at Munroe’s but always seemed to turn to passages where people were talking in weird accents (having read the book, I am not able to identify which passages I must have stumbled upon). Printed with a tightly bound spine, it’s a book that hurts your thumbs if you try to read it without cracking the binding. But it’s glossy and durable and I loved the typeface. Sarah Solecky was also the name of one of my best friend’s when I was five, which gave the whole book an eerie familiarity to begin with. Maybe that’s part of what put me off, and it never made it to the check-out pile. But then last week I read a great article in the Walrus (Gossip GirlFebruary 2013- you can read the article here). The article was light and funny, articulate and well-written, filled with the kind of insightful insecurities I look for in a novel. This Cake is for the Party: devoured 48 hours after purchase.

2012-06-05 20.05.17

That kind of light, last year, Vancouver

I’ve read more Canadian lit this year than any year before in my life. One of my favourites, Zsuszi Gartner, is actually thanked on the inside jacket. Canadian contemporary lit has a strange little niche unto itself. We’re more somber and sober than our US counterparts, more stark and lonely. Our stories seem to stand out stoically against urban tundra. They seep a strange sort of arctic mysticism… I gauge the overarching flavour and temperament of this group I so desperately want to join the way I suss out the lake temperature by dangling one toe off the dock.

Selecky’s book was originally published in 2010 and is comprised of ten short stories set all over Canada. She writes like someone who has been trained to draw using guide lines. Like those books that I would save up for from the Scholastic catalogue, where they would start with an oval egg, add a cross in the next panel to show you where the eyes would go, and then suddenly a completed portrait in the last pain (with no traced of the x-egg to be found). Like foundation drawing, Selecky starts with simple oval mannequins and stick figures, abruptly filling in the fingers on one hand, the crumbled grass under one foot, the soft hair on her left ear lobe, leaving the rest faceless, ubiquitous. She describes people like pressed flowers no fewer than three times, and speaks about smooth pebbles from a river or lake just as many.

float plane base victoria bc canada summer

Float plane base, Victoria, Summer 2012

This interspersal of wide broad strokes and tiny intricate details is extremely evocative: it’s uncomfortable. In tandem with the fact that her stories take place in a glut of familiar but obscure locations (e.g., Manitoulin Island),  the visceral details that Selecky adds somehow burrow under your skin. They impregnant your mind with small bubbles of memory that flow like a marble through your veins until they unexpectedly burst in vivid total recall of some forgotten memory.

Part of what resonated most was the music she mentions: Broken Social Scene, Miles Davis, Metric, Arlo Gutherie. I finally know every artist she mentioned. I’ve lived them. I’ve also sung along loudly to that album in my car. I always wonder if Americans have this proximity when they read fiction. If you lived in New York does the New Yorker resonate with you differently? Are all of these things more vivid to your life? If I were twenty years older would all the literature I’ve been reading smell this much more real, more colourful? We are released.

*       *       *

Pathetic fallacy continues, yesterday’s brief spot of sun blotted out by the relentless rain. But the tension is broken, the promise is there. Technicolour summer is about to arrive.

Welcome to the Real World. We made it.

Yeah RIGHT this week I’m back on yeahwrite :) Check them out!

Daily drop cap by the lovely miss Jessica Hische!

Christie’s Garden II

Continued from Part 1vancouver studio condo main street

Hallway, Vancouver, 2012

Rules.

I read The Beggar’s Garden quickly, over 48 hours or so, and the one lingering thing that clung to me was the rules.

I went to a moxibustion workshop recently. Moxibustion is kind of like acupuncture  except instead of placing pins in energy meridians to activate and balance them, you use heat from a lit wand (a sharpie-sized stick of tightly packed “moxa” or mogwort). It was awesome. The class was partially hosted by a freeskool, on a pay-what-you-can basis, with my amazing teacher volunteering her time, as well as organizing and donating the supplies and the space. The turn out for the workshop was very small, a handful of people from the clinic and two freeskool hosts. Before we began the workshop one of the hosts informed me proudly, with no small condescension that they had “dropped out of school to pursue radical pedagogy” and that they “just couldn’t understand why more people aren’t into learning cool stuff for free.” I stared at them blankly for a moment and blinked, translating their words:  a reform of (radical) the theory of learning (pedagogy). (I hope that this irony of need to translate that is not lost on anyone).

As the workshop progressed I became more and more irate with the “radical pedagoges.” I fully appreciate that our education system is in dire straits, and filled with barriers and debt, however low barrier education opportunities (e.g., our pay-what-you-can workshop) are still not “free.” They are bracketed by contributions and exchanges that can be just as easily capitalized on at the expense of others. Cultural rules and norms still exist, in large part for our safety. Admittedly, some of these rules and practices can create barriers, but some of them exist to ensure the greatest good to the greatest number.

For example, being on time (or thereabouts) is not a convention designed to “keep people down in the system,” but to ensure that people don’t waste their life waiting around. Granted aspects of pedagogy may need to be challenged, but certain rules also arose out of good. Perhaps the most important thing is that it is understood, or at the very least it is acknowledged that rules exist, and that they are embedded as a part of how we communicate. On this level, you could consider grammar and spelling rules of language. Without them written expression would almost be entirely lost: you need to understand the rules in order to break them.

Culturally this happens often. In Mali for example, it is extremely bad form to chat with someone in the morning before they’ve had the chance to wash their eyes and rinse their mouth. People won’t even acknowledge you. You’ve got carte blanche until you’ve done your morning wake-up rinse. If you’re not the best morning person 100% of the time, this is an absolutely fantastic convention.  On the other hand, if you’ve got no idea what’s going on in the situation, everybody comes off as looking incredibly rude. Similarly in relationships this also happens, and surely the onslaught of Valentine’s day themed podcasts and news coverage didn’t help my meditation on the matter.

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Morning, Sélingué, 2004

Christie’s little snippets leave you feeling weightless, but have led you to overarching nagging themes you can not shake the rest of the day, like the introductory ambulance story and geriatric care.

I was chatting with a friend recently about recent trends in writing-which is so funny in and of itself, the idea that books are just as much in fashion as wedges or skinny jeans. He was going on about his haughty indifference to it all, the comings and goings of trends, before we digressed into dissecting them. He explained to me there are two great emergences: post-colonial literature (Coeteze, Pamuk, Shteynaart) and (ironically enough) redefining the “forgotten” white guy (à la David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen). I had never really thought about it that way before, but alot of contemporary literature does seem to fall neatly into these camps. What is interesting about Beggar’s Garden is that it almost seems to straddle both sides:

Emerging from the alley, he was met by a cold drift of exhaustion and decided to walk home. He started east. He and Anna lived in Strathcona, the oldest residential neighbourhood in the city, besieged in recent years by the young, progressive, and wealthy, who sought to live within bike-commuting distance of downtown and could stomach the neighbourhood’s proximity to the riotous and hellish, but strangely contained, slum of the Downtown Eastside…At first the city had been thrilling-as if their adventurousness, their willingness to scuttle the past, had been rewarded with their own earthly paradise, a temperate garden way out out on the golden fringe of everything, far distant form the entanglements of her family and the yawing absence of his. Yet as years ticked by, something about the city nagged at Sam’s prairie sensibilities. Its beauty now seemed to him almost obscene, as if to build a glimmering city of glass by the sea at the foot of an Olympian rack of mountains, was to invite calamity. …this doomed neighbourhood …had assumed a symbolic station in his mind, an unsightly eruption that the city somehow deserved and couldn’t conceal…a living monument to all unwanted things-and some parts of Sam hoped it would be there forever.

Vancouver feels a bit campy, that there aren’t enough people, that there is this feeling that the city is perpetually sitting at 20% capacity, with it’s resident’s rattling around and playing cosmopolitan dress-up. Toronto is the population of all of BC, and the population of Hamilton is nearly the size of  all the people living on Vancouver Island. When I think of it that way, suddenly the west coast feels very small. In all this mess of interwoven tales, Christie’s Garden seems to fall back into the tiny niche so many Vancouver books seem to fall into, the last frontier of colonialism: post-colonial lit. Vancouver, schiophrenically trying to work through all of these rules that don’t make sense, rules we’ve invented for the roles we are trying to play, in some new form of post-colonial Canadianism.

A great little read, if you can find it. Hats off to Christie.

Christie’s plea for Flowers I

I’m reading again.

You know those weeks and weeks and weeks when you’re stuck? After two months of drifting through a cloud of magazinesbad tv and crossword puzzles in efforts to coax my brain into allowing just one more acronym into permeating the blood-brain barrier, something finally clicked: critical mass was obtained, and I wanted to read again. It was late, dreary. I had no other choice: I bundled myself up and tumbled over to Value Village.

I know, I know. Value isn’t the most ethical place to shop; I do do my best to support our local bookstores and libraries (through the ridiculous late fees I somehow manage to accrue). For us, the thing about VV is that it is insanely convenient  It’s on our block, open until 9 and (although it’s a bit of a grab bag) they often tend to have a decent selection of second hand books. It’s always an interesting array: a smattering of Maeve Binchy novels sandwiched between three different editions of Nicco Ricci’s book and the lesser known titles of best-selling authors. You can always tell what was really hot three years ago by the volume of copies lining the stacks Tuesdays with Morrie and Eat Love Pray seem have been particularly pervasive.

Classics are always in abundance (the books you’ve always intended on reading) – you can afford to be picky on this front: never settle for anything but the nicest editions in the best shape, plenty of copies of Crime and Punishment to go around (you’re going to read it on your Kindle anyway). There is no order here, just sheer chaos, entropic rows upon rows Zadie Smith right next to Babara Kingsolver, Danielle Steele astride Doestoevesky. Your only choice is to descend into a cathartic-catatonic rhythmic state of the thrift store shuffle. Methodologically scanning over each shelf and each row, reading each title, grabbing anything that looks valuable, following the lady chronically restocking the shelves, repeat. Take breaks to skim through Fantasy/SciFi and Cooking to make sure you haven’t missed anything that could have been mis-shelved or hidden and forgotten.

Then, delicately held between copy #87 of Fall on your Knees and this dog-eared copy of Sophie’s World that has lived in the same shelf-spot since I moved to Victoria, there it was:

beggars garden michael christie vancouver book

The Beggar’s Garden.

Michael Christies’ The Beggar’s Garden is a another Vancouver book. A multi-narrative, Christie charts nine peripherally intersecting stories about different people living in the city, spanning it’s width and breadth. Despite being a book of well repute here on the coast, it’s still suffers the collateral of being Canadian: chronically hard to find, new or otherwise. Published in 2011, it was long-listed for the Giller and picked up the City of Vancouver’s book award.

The stories fit nicely into one another, like Timothy Taylor’s Stanley ParkThey contain everything you would anticipate from a Vancouver book, deftly demonstrating the poignancy, empathy and awareness of it’s author. As if articulating the faults of the city absolves us from sharing in it’s guilt. Somehow though, in part in his simplicity, in part for his complete absolution to leave the stories separate, to present them objectively, in with an almost mathematical degree of calculation.

In the first instalment, Christie finds us vulnerable and unaware pulling us with the deftness of a tablecloth disappearing from a place setting:

They sent the wrong paramedic, one I’d never met before. He had sideburns sculpted into hockey sticks and stunk of canola oil. He was in my doorway with the gulping eyes of a rodent and the shocker thing in a red nylon duffle over his shoulder. His partner was old and wheezed bedside him from the three flights of stairs. It had taken me a while to answer the door because I was on the toilet, unable to pee for nervousness.  When I stood, my hamstrings went pins and needles and I steadied myself on the towel bar while taking a minute to arrange my hair.

Everyone knows someone who is old. Everyone is afraid of turning into someone who is old; alone. It’s a story and a scenario that conjures up fear, resonates with familiarity, universality and empathy. Using this as a starting point, Christie is able to teleport us in through a ubiquitous portal into the Downtown Eastside (DTES).

It’s not for a few more chapters until he pulls out the typical Vancouver fare of addiction and juxtaposition:

The pavement is wet and reptilian…the air thick with evaporation. People are out tonight, like every night, hustling, smoking, chatting, shaking hands, screaming. Everybody is buying, selling or collecting things of a certain or possible value….

I was twenty-six when I started smoking crack. Crack. It sounds so ridiculous even when I say it now, so pornographic.

Skimming quickly over the backstory, with this quick nod to the grotesque,  he then turns this into one of the lightest, happiest chapters as we follow-him through a flawless high: airless and clean. His simple ways of writing give a bare-bones west-coast feel to the whole ordeal, letting the rough grain of the wood leave splinters. What I most liked about this book was that it most accurately mirrored life in Van. Each area of town remotely overlapping, sharing walls of a vacuous honeycomb, a hive keeping everyone contained and close but separate, the Hollowness that comes with all Vancouver books.

griz cat chartreux

Good morning Griz! February, 2013

Recently I was listening to “Leaving the Fold” (episode 258 of  TAL). A huge portion of the episode talks about Jerry Springer’s career as a politician. At one point one of the guests launched into a tirad about the idea that the element of surprise in context inversely proportional to your reception of the information; that you should wear your most conservative suit the day you present your most creative ideas. In this way, Christie is sneaky. His writing is simple, and precise, which robs and strengthens it, broaching complex ideas through unassuming avenues:

…today was the funeral. It was held outside the city, so Bernice took the bus. After three transfers she stepped from the vehicle’s hissing doors and asked a boy in a pristine white tracksuit lazing on a bicycle with gold-plated rims where the church was. He flicked his chin grimly at what looked like a mall at the centre of a monstrous parking lot, so vast it reminded her of the sweeping landscape paintings often donated to the store, the ones that never sold because, she figured, they amplified people’s loneliness.

Bernice went to the pencil-lead-coloured coffin and pulled from her purse a wooden caterpillar that wobbled when pulled by its string.  She set the toy beside her in the white satin interior. Karla had a ponytail-a style she’d never worn-and her face was puffy and spatulaed with makeup.

Christie has a way of presenting complex ideas with very simple language, springing them on you softly like buying a time share. He also does this by juxtaposing the stories, without explanation next to one another. Stories of who would most often be perceived as “the most desperate, marginalized” people are portrayed as quite happy, their detachment and highs and lows crowding out any semblance of the sadness of reality in their narratives. Next to this are some of the most quietly desperate stories, like the one about the dog and the yuppie living in a concrete shoebox apartment in the West End.

City’s are strange places indeed.


Continued in Part II

New year, New Yorker, and peacock PhDs

royal roads misty morning january 2013 rru victoria bc

Misty morning, Royal Roads, January, 2013

S

o we made it.

This post is the last in a long serious of abandoned drafts that have sprouted up in the past few weeks.

2012 was a long and intense year; it drew to a close, with the finality and sanctity of a little lifeboat levelling out at the end of a typhoon.

My new job as started, after plunging headfirst into a sea of new faces and fumbling through a wash of acronyms, I finally feel as though I’m beginning to swim my way to shore. I only took a quick three days at Christmas, and in the holiday office-lull I finally made some headway in getting my feet on solid ground. It was a beautiful way to start the new year.

Ogden Point Victoria BC fog canada december 2012

Ogden Point, Victoria, BC – December 2012 

I spent a portion of the break travelling, a portion alone, and the past three weeks working through decluttering my existence. Needless to say, it’s been a reflective, belly-button gazing kind of month.

No one ever seems to tell you that or remember that bit about travelling-in spite of all the new adventures, new people and new places you’re ambitiously out venturing towards, inevitably you spend a huge chunk of hours in controlled, cold, public environments, staring at flight schedules, the inside of busses, highways and waiting in solitude. The holidays are exhausting and relaxing in part due to these extremes. What moments you have with people are often intense, emotional exchanges, insulated by vortexes of sterile solitude. Layer this under seasonal memory, apocalyptical apprehensions and the longest days of the year and you have yourself a complete, contemplative, crystalline disaster.

Our brains are the most metabolic, oxygen intensive organs in our bodies, and thinking takes time. This is something I always forget. All of our rush rush rushing everywhere and multi-tasking and fear of silences and empty spaces and no space to think.

photo (38)

We’ve kept our white brick walls empty for the past eight months, sub-conciously for this purpose I think. There is so much texture to white empty spaces, so many imperfections to dwell on. The not-so-perfect pattern of the brick is predictable and calming. Like staring at the white slats in our ceiling, the silence and controlled environments of travelling are so good for this type of processing. In the past decade I cling to them, their predictability and the solace of their silent sanctity.

Insert some emo Eno (Music for Airports?)

So this month things are settling into their new routines. I’m adjusting to my new schedule (headed to bed much earlier!). I’ve also finished a two week cleanse and started running again. I was lucky enough to be sent away for a training course up at Royal Roads University (RRU) for the week.

Appropriately, we’ve been wrapped up in foggy, cool mornings. RRU is actually designated a National Historic Site, and hosts the (original) X-Mansion from the X-Men. Before I went, people had always raved to me about how beautiful the campus was. I brushed it off, but when I arrived I was taken aback: it is stunning. Each morning after my bus ride, I walked about a half hour down a seaside ridge ridge, through a rain forest into this beautiful old estate. To add to the allure, peacocks roam the grounds, looking as though they should all be puffing away on pipes and discussing Voltaire .


Peacocks Royal Roads University 2013 Victoria BC RRU

Peacock PhDs, RRU, January, 2013

All this futile thinking and learning as culminated in a bit of a reading hiatus since I started work. In part, I’ve picked over my bookshelf of low hanging fruit (i.e., the accessible books I was anxious to read), and I’m left staring at quite a few tomes I haven’t mustered up courage to crack (i.e., Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, and DFW’s Infinite Jest).

In efforts pre-emptive mitigation, right before Christmas I picked up Wonderful Town, a 2001 collection of New Yorker stories that focus on New York. For some reason New York always reminds me of Christmas. Maybe something to do with the singular symbiosis of cities. Christmas also spurs me (and many folks I believe) into a bit of a nostalgia. It’s the only time of year I feel driven to re-read novels. The New Yorker seems to provide a nice compromise: new stuff from old authors and a low commitment way to get literary.

As previously mentioned, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the New Yorker, and other literary periodicals, but I think I’m beginning to understand them. Fiction writing is hard. Absolutely, incredibly, intolerably difficult. Not for everyone, but for alot of people. Even those authors I really look up to. The New Yorker was founded as a venue for authors to air their stuff. An unfunded mechanism to bounce ideas around, to try things out, to get feedback. Not all of it is fantastic: some of it is, some of it is crazy, but all of it is inspiring. It encouraged me in my recent forays into prose and made a few of my literary giants seem less large in real life. In seeing some of their stumbles, their rehearsals, the bits that didn’t make it into the final draft; not all of it is great – but it gets better.

I was recently corresponding with a pal (i.e., friend and fellow writer) about my looming April 1st personal deadline to start a fiction project. Part of it is this: of the millions of books that exist in the world, the few hundred we read in our lifetime are (hopefully) among the best. Reading the anthology has reminded me that everyone starts somewhere, that not every day is your best day, and there is virtue in all the work that you do. You just have to do it.

The other thing I loved about this past week, was listening to their fiction podcasts. Each month a published author reads a previously published author of their choice. It’s fantastic, because I get to nerd out and hear David Eggers reading Roddy Doyle,  Junot Diaz attempt a French accent and Pamuk read Nabokov. Personalities that previously only existed in “sacrosanct Times New Roman” warmly flesh themselves out into full personalities, emulating one another, spinning themselves into a web of people and storytellers. It’s a little astonishing really, to hear narratives I have only ever known in my standard inner monologue, suddenly spring alive into a diverse range of accents, ages and cadence.

Without fail, my iPhone tended to die part way home. The January rain of the we(s)t coast delays and skews transit schedules beyond predictability. The blue-lit busses smelling of lip balm and egg salad were often almost as good as the podcasts: unfettered people watching. The more I revert back into the Real World, the more interaction I have with Real People (i.e., people outside of academia) the more I am completely fascinated by the depths of our differences and the synchrony of our similarities. The duality in our endless scope of choices that perpetually serve to limit and marry us to the outcomes of the rest of our lives.

I will miss the commute, but I am ready for the sunshine.

Literary sabbatical adjourned. Books back next week!

 Thank you all for indulging me in the vanity of a new year’s post.

All the best for 2013.

                           ~kmh

Griz hidden under blanketGriz, 2012 

The Elegance of Muriel Barbery

Morning, Victoria Harbour, BC, November 2012

Starting in September, I have been writing at this one coffee shop near our house (incidentally, today the shoppe was closed for it’s Christmas party…).  It’s far enough away that I needed to get up, get dressed, and think about what I am going to bring with me-I can’t just sprint over, coatless. Routine is vital. When you are unemployed, unattached and floating, you need to create a routine, a regime, a raison d’être. Without these things life can get away from you and move on without you or your consent. It is imperative that you begin each day by getting up and making the bed. Exercise is vital. You must bathe. You must stretch. You must get dressed each day and put makeup on (or at the very least pants without an elastic waistband). These things sound a bit stupidly basic, but after a few weeks of looking they became small mountains, reminders that needed daily tending to to remind myself that not only was I human, but that life is important. That even a fabricated sense of purpose is importent: fake it till you make it.

These past few months katiclops occasionally became my motivation for getting up in the morning. It was a project that I could take with me, that I could build for myself, that was always moving (ever slowly) forward. I hope I do not lose sight of it in the coming months.

Estuary in Mist, Ben Fox, 2012*

*NB: This painting was donated to the awesome Raincoast Conservation Foundation for auction. You can bid on it here.

The coffee shop near our house is very similar to our apartment. It has two skylights, faces south instead of east, with a wall of windows on the street side. It is the same width, and like ours, is quite deep, with the washroom at the back.One wall is white and the other is brick (ours are both white-brick) and the floor is the same distressed, yet maintained (albeit barely) hardwood, the kind of floor  that is so warped it makes your table wobble. It is light and bright, two storeys high, with simple black benches, wooden chairs and metal stools. Art rotates through regularly. Right now it is Ben Fox, who paints large landscapes (1.25x1m) in a sort of Lawrence Harris, emotive style; cutting rock, water and mountain from arching curves and geometry. He finds a symmetry and balance in the shapes. Cutting them out using contrasting colours he puls from muted olive greens and greys. Suddenly: red, pale pink shapes the mountains, a forest frosted by pale blue. It is safe. I like it here. The barristas work, and I work. Other writers work. I had my table. I always arrived between nine and eleven. On the rare occasion when I arrived early or late I got a smile, occasionally an eyebrow shrug. Recently they hired a glut of new barristas. They aren’t as friendly as the old ones. They don’t joke with me, they don’t  seem to notice me, or they do, but courteously pretend they don’t notice I come in, every day, in the same way, alone (anonymity is one of my favourite and most-missed city-living quirks).

*                         *                          *

I picked this book up in October…or was it early november? After getting back from a biking trip up island. There is something so cathartic about long bike trips. Like long hiking trips. Ultimately the only thing you need to do each day is ride. You have a beginning and a destination. There is silence. There is the weather. There is the sky. I yelled at cows. I sang to myself. I thought. The power at my friend’s tiny log cabin in Cedar went out the second night I was there, and we spent three hours chatting around the gloaming fire while we waited for it to flicker back to life. Darkness is the best catalyst for conversation. My friend is taking a year off from university, and has amassed a personal reading list of just over 200 books. He had mentioned he was still looking for a good copy of Ulysses. The next day, (with dry feet, thanks to a fortuitous lobby-find of free Wellingtons), I stopped in at my favourite little consignment shop to browse their curated book collection and pick up a beautiful old copy. However, the first book I laid eyes on was Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog, which had been recommended to me by the same friend who had first gotten me on to David Foster Wallace: I had to try this one too.

I really, really struggled “getting into” this book. I think a huge part of it was that it’s so rooted in the monotony of the everyday, which perhaps at the time, hit a bit too close too home. Once my fabricated routine became finite, I tore through the rest of it in a few days. Elegance is two intersecting stories about two residents of a Hotel particulier in Paris. The story revolves around two voices: one of Paloma, a thirteen year old bourgeosie, who is planning to commit suicide and is very, very bored with life. The other is Mme. Renée Michel, the keeper of the building and a fifty-year-old-something widower. Much like Super Sad True Love Story each alternating chapter (and voice) is further represented by a different typeface (Times New for Mme. Renée and Arial for little Paloma). Although Cloud Atlas does not employ this technique, it is still interesting to have read several books in quick succession playing with character voicing, highlighting the stregths and weaknesses of each author in turn. It’s a bit odd to think of the dominance (or perhaps only my affinity) for first person narratives in contemporary literature, and the use of the third person historically . What would Anna Karenina have read like written by Anna? Is this symptomatic on our masturbatory fascination with the experiential world? Or moreover the narcissistic need of narrative?

I learned after beginning Elegance, that the book was originally written in French. It has also been made into a(n apparently) popular French film (also available on US Netflix!) It is always a little funny reading a translation. It is like hearing a story repeated from a friend…You know you are hearing 98% of what is going on, but there all these quirky little anomalies, the beautiful ambiguities of language, where often, the character and talent of the author most prominently comes out. For example, this clunky passage:

The use of the imperative and the “I beg you” does not have the good fortune to find favor with me, particularly as he believes I am incapable of such syntactical subtleties, and merely uses them out of inclination, without having the least courtesy to suppose that I might feel insulted.

In French, this wouldn’t have felt clumsy and square. French is peppered with large old-fashioned ways of expressing oneself, and like any language the translations feel klutzy and slightly gauche as a result. As a whole, Elegance embodies so much of what I have come to regard as being very “French” in it’s meandering, slightly navel-gazing analysis of the everyday; the micro-analysis and cross-examination of the quotidienne. For example, from Paloma:

…If you want to understand my family, all you have to do is look at the cats. Our two cats are fat windbags who eat designer kibble and have no interesting interaction with human beings. They drag themselves from one sofa to the next and leave their fur everywhere, and no one seems to have grasped that they have no affection for any of us. The only purpose of cats is that they constitute mobile decorative objects, a concept which I find intellectually interesting, but [does not apply to them]…[our family is] utterly spineless and anesthetized, emptied of all emotion.

Another aspect that struck me as a particular bit of discrete commentary, was that this story took place almost entirely at home. In France I remember being told that an Englishman would invite you for supper the first time you met him, but then never again, but the Frenchman will take weeks to invite you, but then he won’t stop! While I was in France, everyone loved their third places: cafés, bars, restaurants. Like a bar in Spain, most of these places are interchangeable, they are the third place. It is not at all uncommon to drink coffee and to have breakfast in the same café you have tapas after work, and beer while you watch the soccer match in the evening. In Canada there is alot of awkwardness around third spaces, maybe because of the Prohibition, or religion, or maybe still again our affinity for living in the country. Here, we like to keep all these places very clearly separate, and far apart if possible: food, dancing, bars – all deemed very, very different things from coffee shops. We are so dependent on third spaces, a place outside of home and work. But for the characters in this novel, home is their work, and also their third space. There is no commentary on this, but as someone  who was eking out purpose in a third space, I really struggled with this monosetting of the book.

Despite my reservations, I must give the book the same kind of credit: it was a bit of a farce on today’s youth: artificial depth, empty quests in education, foreign cultures and old texts, harsh judgements and critiques arising from apathy and excess, when the elegance lies in the haggard old workhorses. That in assuming all romantic stories exist in youth we overlook the beauty and richness that arises in old age. That youth perhaps become so haunting because we have the longest time to be haunted by it. Elegance is effective as a novel because of it’s tongue-in-cheek ability to not take itself too seriously. That all of it’s philosophizing and name dropping, it’s snippets of poetic genius (“for those who have no apetite, the first pangs of hunger are a source of both suffering and illumination”), it’s ultimately just a trite little story. At one point Barberry even states it out explicitly:

I have always been fascinated by the abnegation with which we human beings are capable of devoting a great deal of energy to the quest for nothing and to the rehashing of useless and absurd ideas. I spoke with a young doctoral candidate in Greek patristics and wondered how so much youth could be squandered in the service of nothingness. When you consider that a primate’s major preoccupations are sex, terrtory and hierarchy, spending one’s time reflecting on the meaning of prayer for Augustine of Hippo seems a relatively futile exercise…a shameless use of resources.

For the most part, Elegance is an uncomfortable book, in the same way that Michael Franzen’s Freedom is uncomfortable for Americans. It isn’t easy. It teases out our insecurities, holds up a mirror and picks at our sore points, our frailties and invented purposes with comfort ourselves with. I have spoken to  alot of people who haven’t enjoyed this book, have found it challenging or difficult.

Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary–and terribly elegant.

This book is filled with exactly what it critiques, ultimately leaving a hedgehog. It is a trite story, it is all it is. That is why it is happy. That’s why it begs this type of tongue-in-cheek analysis…why the “humour of Kafka” was not lost on Barbery.

For what is culture but a further expression of taste?

A plucky little roman: well worth a quick read.

 

Lille France nord pas de calais 2009Lille, France, January 2009, photo credit: David Foisy

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