katiclops

This is a very serious blog.

Month: October, 2012

Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee – Author of Emperors

I got the book during a trip home to visit my parents, August 2010.

My mom had taken me to Costco.

I always find myself clinging to the books in Costco.

The whole experience is pretty overwhelming to a grad student. A decade of cramped apartments, small town and urban living has meant that I rarely have the means to visit a grocery store that is any larger than a few storefronts, let alone a city block, speak less of the equity or transportation necessary to purchase toilet paper for the year or tomato paste for a family of 50.

Even the idea of getting a shopping cart is still novel to me; what happens if I buy too many groceries to fit into my pack? How will I bike home? I remember my first trip to Red Barn Market on a Double Flyer Wednesday when I bought so many groceries I had to take the bus home. Struggling to strap my bike into the rack on the front of the bus, I stumbled in – head hung in shame – laden with not only my pack, but two massive bags filled with produce. The novelty of seeing household products on steroids, pre-packaged produce for a year, and Ikea-style warehouses of electronics quickly becomes dizzying. I am just as taken aback by the clientele – this particular location the majority fall into the the faction of the public I rarely see (the car-driving, suburban kind). Rapidly I find myself feeling foreign and lost; after a breezy pick-up of any palatable slightly-generic tasting samples, unfailingly I head to Books.

Set in the middle of the store, free from towering merchandise loaded scaffolding, the books are maleable, familiar, in reasonable, relatively low stacks. Archaic and humble compared to the massage chair twin seaters and “Party tents” for eight. Anyone who has previously visited cramped precarious used bookstores can attest to the relative relief the high ceilings and quiet nature of the Costco book section brings. After a quick perusal of redundant DVDs, it is here that I always find myself. And about fifteen minutes later, so does my mom.

“Why don’t you pick out a book?” she offers benevolently. My eyes undoubtably widened at such a suggestion. She urged once more before disappearing back into the metropolitan expanses of sunscreen and dog food: “You’re not home often, go ahead. Get yourself a nice summer book. My treat.” I get to work.

The limited selection at Costco always corners me into really considering books that may have otherwise fallen outside of my periphery. My best guess is that your average bookshop probably stocks no fewer than a thousand titles. In these instances I tend to regulate myself by clinging closely to familiar sections and authors, creating a map by which to navigate the sea of books. I also harangue my friends for recommendations via text message to further guide my perusal (sorry friends!). By contrast our Costco has one hundred titles at most, organized frenetically by relatively short stacks on card tables. Given the limited and un-intimidating nature of their display, I always find myself leafing through everything. Picking up titles indiscriminately, reading the backs absent-mindedly. Sometimes some are pretty good. Some are awful. Regardless, by the time she returned, I still hadn’t found anything that really jumped out at me. Sensing her urge to leave I grabbed the non-fiction, taupe-coloured volume bearing a Pulitzer sticker.

“This one I think.” She flipped it over. Then let out a breath and raised her eyebrows: “You sure? Sounds depressing. Not exactly a light summer read…” She popped into into the incredibly empty cart  and we headed out of the store.

I never started the book that summer. I did bring it with me to Victoria. I think. Silly new grad student, recreational reading is for regular people.

It’s sixteen months before I even crack the spine.

*              *              *

Even an ancient monster needs a name. To name an illness is to describe a certain condition of suffering-a literary act before it becomes a medical one. A patient, long before he becomes the subject of medical scrutiny is, at first, simply a storyteller, a narrator of suffering-a traveler who has visited the kingdom of the ill. To relieve an illness, one must begin by unburdening its story. ...Onkos…from which the discipline of oncology would take its modern name [is]the Greek term for a mass or load…cancer was imagined as a burden carried by the body.

-The Emperor of All Maladies (p. 47)

Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 600-page tome is certainly a physical burden. The novel includes 472-pages of books, and the balance in notes and appendices. The Emperor of All Maladies is intended to read as a biography of cancer. Charting the history and personality of the disease, it’s relationship with mankind. I envisioned it would start in Egypt (it does). It would be full of anguish, of dying. Of old, waif-like women, soberly reflecting on their lives: from Cleopatra through the middle ages, until now. Even the idea of the book didn’t seem right for summer, and it certainly didn’t strike me as good accompaniment to policy studies. However after finishing In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (here and here), I was moved to read another account by a doctor. I started the book at the beginning of the summer, by lakes and on ferries. I finished yesterday, bundled in blankets on a blustery fall evening.

Reading the book was, I assure you, a bit of a massive undertaking – but it was also massively rewarding. I would not necessarily recommend this book to everyone, but would highly recommend it to those interested and committed to the subject. It is a huge, onkos. Lighter than other +500page novels I’ve read, Dr. Mukherjee walks you through cancer easily, gracefully, and humbly. He is able to meet readers where they are at, and writes so compassionately and eloquently the book can be read scientifically or for literare and history. Part of his success comes from his fantastic similes an metaphors that gently walk you through the tangle of oncology:

Cancer is that machine unable to quench its initial command (to grow) and thus transformed into an indestructible, self-propelled automaton.

Or later, he seamlessly develops another metaphor into a macabre explanation:

Halsted took this line of reasoning to its next inevitable step. Volkmann may have run into a wall; Halsted would excavate his way past it.

That being said, it is helpful to have some grounding in biology or even anatomy. The above passage continues  medically, but slips in explanation in a way that (while mildly horrific) is not patronizing.

Instead of stripping away the thin pectoralis minor, which had little function, Halsted decided to dig even deeper into the breast cavity, cutting through the pectoralis major, the large prominent muscle responsible fo moving the shoulder and hand.

Towards the end of book, as he gets into more modern molecular approaches to combatting the disease, I was transported back into a frigid cold Ottawa night, during my first year of biochemistry. Dr. Mukherjee explains that molecular chemists don’t tend to think of molecules as flat two-dimensional things, but as three dimensional objects. That chemists turn into architects and physicists  engineering new pieces to attack vulnerabilities within molecular structures. At a party of a friend of a friend’s, I had shyly injected myself into the corner of the conversation, lamenting over my understanding of my major. Upon over-hearing my struggles our host excused herself, and traipsed back into the room a few minutes later with a tiny grey plastic box. It contained a molecular chemistry modelling kit that she had been similarly gifted five years earlier.

The plastic atoms and little grey connectors nearly saved my life, becoming a staple in our late-night study sessions in the basement of monstrous Thompson Hall residence building. By enacting over and over again, mise-en-scènes of chemical reactions, suddenly the Morse code of pencilled orbits and valences became tactile magnified things.  Small vignettes that I would replay during exams and in our sterile, cavernous labs. It felt like seeing a globe for the first time as a child, and realizing that reality (we all live on a giant orbiting mobile of spheres) is paradoxical more far fetched and simpler than you had previously imagined.

Thompson Hall, (aka Home Sweet Home), Ottawa, November 2003

I have other, hazy memories of humanity in that cavernous year: trekking out the two kilometers in knee-deep snow beside a highway to one of my lab-mates apartments. It was a stone’s throw from my building, but the highway and canal meant an icy switchback over several bridges. Sri Lankan-Canadian, she radiated a warmth and colour that drenched her flat into humanity, transporting our study group from the stark monochrome of grey concrete, bleached labs and snow. On the longest nights she would make thick spicy dahl, plucking a few tiny hot chilis descendent from her one tiny plant of her family’s peppers that she and her sister miraculously kept alive in spite of the climate. She always had a giant pot of soup on, and rice in the cooker; we would eat heaping bowls of rice, drenched in the soup, with scrambled eggs and more chilis served on top.

These brief moments of people in the marching monotony of medicine are part of what makes this book so readable, so real. Dr. Mukherjee helps to cram all of this scientific detail into our heads by sandwiching it between punchy, colourful descriptions of characters and dialogue, turning passages into film and scientists into living breathing people with eye colour and character tic’s:…

…a pugnacious New Yorker who ha declared it her personally mission to transform the geography of American health through group-building, lobbying, and political action. Wealthy, politically savvy, and well connected, she lunched with the Rockefellers, danced with the Trumans, dined with the Kennedys, and called Lady Bird Johnson by her first name….Her disarming smile and frozen bouffant were as recognizable in the political circles in Washington as in the salons of New York. Just as recognizable was her name: Mary Woodard Lasker.

You can almost make out his subtle soft voicing, a trace of a British Indian accent. Despite innumerous quotes and literal references throughout the book, there are even more, sublter ones embedded in his descriptions, like the description of how each cancer is unhappy and infected in it’s own way, as to Tolstoy’s opening lines in Anna Karenina (“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”).

The Emperor is also filled with explanations and references to everyday things and trends. For example, for years I always assumed that a Pap-smear was named after the human PAPilloma virus…but in actuality it’s named after it’s creator (and his faithful, devoted wife): Papanicolaou,whose discovery and career is charted in The Emperor. The book fills in historical gaps not covered by popular narrative, like the science behind The Insider.

One does struggle with the layout of the book, but it adds to the experience. It is loopy and and cyclical. Loosely following a chronological format, but doubling back on itself so each strand fits together. You can not tell all the stories from all the perspectives at the same time. Breast cancer is chronologically followed in one section, which leads to genetic coding, which must be explained from the beginning. But even this overarching style, the see-saw back and forth builds the momentum of cancer’s story, highlighting it’s ruthlessness, and the frustration and futility in attempting to halt it’s progression.

It is partially the fatigue of this struggle that made me happy and relieved to have reached the end of the book. It is not entirely depressing. It is not a book about death. Major advances have been made in the past 15 years. But it was nonetheless a constant reminder that death is just around the corner. That genetically cancer is everyone’s end. Death in this book, as with in the Red Tent, is often referred to as an entity. Someone sitting in the corner. Someone that so many cancer patients know. Thom Wolfe is quoted in one of his last letters written during his battle with cancer: “I’ve made a long voyage and been to a strange country, and I’ve seen the dark man very close.” In this book however, death was not painted as defeat, but rather the lines that have created the picture. Without seeing people come close to death, often sacrificing themselves, oncology would not have advanced to where it is today. It is a biography of all the people cancer has stolen from us, and how science has tried to explain their absence, how it is trying to explain the white space. It is a manifesto of medicine, a reminder that science is storytelling.

(Continued tomorrow.)

Diamant’s Tent

The cultural evolution of the taboo completely fascinates me.

I would like to think that I have always been somewhat culturally sensitive, but I would like to attribute my occasionally brazen questioning to nothing more than unabashed curiosity. I realized that this interest might push the envelope a bit once at a friends party in Montréal. My Haligonian friend had moved to the city to improve his French. Doubtlessly facilitated by his French girlfriend, he had moved effortlessly into the European Francophone set in the city. I was always delighted at the chance to practice my skills with native speakers, to see if I could provoke their tight, controlled accents and reserved airs to grow into elaborate hand gestures passionate emoting of their stances on politics and religion. In one such success, a lull in an intensely political debate had provided a chance to replenish our drinks. As I returned, bottle in hand, I found my conversational partner with an atypical grin on his face. “il fait tellement du bien!” He went on to explain that he thought Canadians were completely crazy. That in France, at a party like this, fifty or sixty twenty-somethings crammed into a tiny flat, with liquid fuel, the room would be completely amuck with political discussion (a.k.a., arguments). He couldn’t believe that here in Canada, it was one of the worst things to ask someone about. Although things have since changed in Montréal, at the time I couldn’t help but meekly agree. As I’ve aged, I’m a little sad to also admit that religion seems to have crept into that same category.

Montréal, Printemps d’érable, 2012

I apologize in advance to anyone I may offend with my hazy understandings of religion and my clumsy tendency to smooth over many differences to endless try to relate, to untangle and understand. I grew up going to a public school located between a synagogue and a church, my classmates were almost evenly split between Judaism, Christianity and Other (Muslim, Atheist, Hindi). Mainly monotheistic, my childhood gang chatted about our experiences (the similarities and differences) often while we were young, with curiousity more than contempt or anything else. I remember feeling like I was collecting religious edifices as I was in my pre-teen years, always hoping a family would offer that I accompany them to their place of worship Saturday or Sunday mornings.  I was always faintly jealous of the intense festivities and ongoings of the synagogue compared our somber removed activities with our older congregation. For five years I actually took cello lessons in the basement of the building, where how-to-read Hebrew posters lined the halls, which admittedly, had vague Sunday-school type undertones. Futilely trying to absorb some smidgen of an exotic unknown that always ached in a vaguely familiar way.

I had a very basic understanding of the split between the religions, marking their apparitions along with their Holy Texts on a timeline with our cultural meta-narrative, little mental asterisks added in my mind as each religion appeared. Initially this was to understand the Synagogue/Church split, then to understand why my Presbyterian best friend and I did not both go to the Cathedral. Later I used this strategy to add a fuzzy understanding of the Qu’ran and Baha’i, developing a branched flowchart of religion. Later during the Foundation Year Program I stretched a skeleton of the Western Canon, like a fitted bedsheet, over my understandings, resting the whole thing on-top of a box-spring of Greek mythology and philosophy. The Epic of Gilgamesh  would be hanging out underneath the whole thing like that indulgent seldom-used but immensely appreciated sheepskin rug that hits your feet first thing in the morning; something superfluous yet so primitive and necessary that you would secretly be happy with nothing else. All of this aside, there is something decidedly controversial I will be I referencing in this post:

The Bible.

There, I said it.

It happens.

It exists.

The Old Testament, a.k.a. the written Torah is something that has been with Western civilization for millennia. I know religion has been the root of millions and millions of deaths and trouble. Mentioning it to our generation (at least the set I seem to run-with) has the incomparable show-stopping quality of instantly silencing a room unlike virtually no other topic of conversation. People will look at you funny. Religion aside, I believe the Torah has had held major influence on literature. (I can hear your gasps of shock already). I know this is a bit of a taboo subject (especially in Canada), but it’s absence or presence it’s influence on Western thought in undeniable. (N.B. Looking even farther back to mythology, the Torah is obviously influenced by it’s own millennia of literature, but that’s a whole other post).

I have recently finished reading The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. New York Times bestseller, it has been on my list for as long as I’ve been pinching books from my mom’s book-club list. The name of the novel comes from a red tent wherein these nomadic female protagonist inhabit and rest during their menstrual cycle each new moon. For obvious teenaged lady reasons, the central concept of this book really freaked me out from about 13-17 (you’re just going to name it The Red Tent!?!? And then put a semi-naked lady on the cover?!?!  Totally mortifying). When I hit university I was pretty much overcome with the “Yeah I bleed, but I can still go hiking/backcountry camping/wear white pants in karate/run a half-marathon” kind of attitude. The kind stance where if you acknowledge it less, it becomes less of a deal. No one ever told me the book was about the Bible.

So it’s been a decade and a half since the book came out (1997), and after a bit of a tangential discussion at our book club last week I finally decided it was time to get around to reading it. We had been talking about literary classics, how often the abridged children’s version is all you need, when I brought up the Bible came up as a literary work.  I had really only read the whole thing once, when I was in my voracious fascination with religion pre-teen stage (right before fierce rebellion kicked in). I had received Mary Batcheor’s a Children’s Bible in 365 Stories  for my first communion, and I had decided that I should probably just read the whole thing in one go, all 416 pages of it (a tome for a 9 year old!). I  was reminiscing to the group about how much I had loved the Old Testament. The stories are really good, full of deceit, murder, love, travel, a merciless God and tumultuous politics. I hazily offered up a few examples (David and Goliath, Samson, Babel) and then attempted to remember the story of Leah and Rachel. Cue my fellow book-clubbist: The Red Tent!

Finally she spoke with the careful words about the moon. She told me how much she loved the white light, an how she spoke to the moon and called to get by name every month. Leah said the moon was the only face of the goddess that seemed to open to her because of the way the moon called forth the filling and emptying of her body….Are you ready to swallow the moon at last?

When I finished the book and sat down to write this post, I really grappled with what to say. I was going to use that Kissing Sailor article that has been floating around the internet lately, or recount stories of beautiful Josée, sexologist and mother of four I used to live with, her fierce, feminine, decidedly elegant stance on women’s rights. But I couldn’t write that post, because (aside from the passage above) this book wasn’t a feminist novel. In fact it had virtually nothing in it that I would classify as “feminist” (aside perhaps from a sensuous and detailed understanding of midwifery). In part, I think that this surprise was why I enjoyed the book as much as I did. Once I was finished one of my other friends was recounting how much she had also enjoyed the novel, and described it as a blockbuster story. That is exactly what it was:

I walked into a moonless night, bloodying my feet and battering my knees on the path to the valley, but never stopped until I arrived at the gates of Shechem…

I would bury my husband and would be buried with him. I would find his body and wrap him in linen, take the knife that had stolen his life and open my wrists with it so we could sleep together in the dust. We would pass eternity in the quiet, sad, gray world of the dead, eating dust, looking through eyes made of dust upon the false world of men. I had no other thought. I was alone and empty.

Like Titanic, you know the ending, you anticipate it might be cheesy, and then twenty minutes into it you are on the edge of your seat, gnawing at your nails anticipating what might happen next. Diamant writes vividly and expressively. The novel is told from a semi-observational point of view, which adds to it’s creative non-fiction feel. The research she has clearly devoted towards the book has given back in gold to giving the narrative an effortless, believable voice. Details she includes that are somewhat thoughtful become white noise, contributing to rich character and atmospheric development, and allows the reader to absorb the intense action-packed-ness of the ancient plot line. A bathroom fan or white noise to distill an instinctual, painful tale.

Moreover I think what I really enjoyed most about this book was the fact that I loved re-reading a story I had first read as a 9-year old, and first heard as a 5-year old. Instead of hearing the story as a child, to hear it as a woman, who has loved men, who has become familiar with different types of love. As a sister. As a daughter. I am sure one day too I will have a completely different relationship with the story as a mother. Part of it is an importance of familiarity, to read and re-read and study. Part of it is having a good piece to begin with, but part of it also is having the diligence and commitment to re-read how you are identifying with the story, to mark your own story back against the text.  To re-read them for a different purpose, from a different place, from a different perspective. To hear another facet of the truth that they might hold.

One of my FYP professors pointed out that what our generation is lacking is an overarching meta-narrative. We’ve rejected so much of what has come before us, instead seeking them in other formats. My partner and our friends have been fascinated with Joseph Campbell‘s work, seeing the inter-epochal strands of monomyths (the Hero’s story) being picked up in everywhere from James Joyce to Batman, effectively turning much of pop-culture back into Roman times, extending reiterations back into history. For me, The Red Tent picked up this story the same way Batman picks up Gilgamesh: a way that was accessible, identifiable, and relevant to a 21st century woman, without pandering to a particular sect of religion, but as a myth.

 All myths are the creative products of the human psyche, that artists are a culture’s mythmakers, and that mythologies are creative manifestations of humankind’s universal need to explain psychological, social, cosmological, and spiritual realities.

Finally, in addition to re-reading, I am also experiencing the pleasure of re-writing (and eventually-I promise! *Editing*). Jeanette Winterson ( a true feminist!) wrote a great short story called Weightwhich recounts the myth of Atlas bearing the weight of the world. Over and over again throughout the tiny book Winterson writes the mantra: “I want to tell the story again.” Lately (especially after my foray in yeahwrite 78) I am seeing the importance of blogging in my own meagre attempts at myth-making. In our hunger to become story-tellers, creators and artists. Also, our inexperience, our clumsiness, our need to tell the story again.

Sleep fear

Dreams are private myths, myths are public dreams.

-Joseph Campbell

Legomen at Discovery Coffee, March, 2012

Most young children have overactive imaginations.

Some young children have hyperactive ones.
Ones whose mind provides a 3-D Technicolor sieve through which they strain the rest of the world. Barreling along like a freight train headed everywhere instantly and working on the geometry of spherical thinking.
I was one of those children.

In tandem with my Virgo aptitude for obsessing over details, this meant that seemingly benign events could catalyze a perpetual motion machine of paranoia. The world was a precarious place for this little one. And my adventuresome little soul would attempt to develop solutions to the very worst case of those scenarios.

At the age of five, several months after watching Bambi for the first time and shortly after visiting the fire station with my Sparks troupe, I went through my fear of flames. I began taking family dinners next to the front door (to facilitate an easy exit at the first sign of fire). I started refusing to leave my small purple unicorn duffle-bag (stuffed with my favorite books and trinkets).

I also refused to take off my favorite sweater. Pink and knit by my aunt, it was itchy as anything; this quality only trumped by the fact that I had heard somewhere that wool was somewhat fire retardant. Also as a potential orphan (given my parents frivolous habits of eating at the table), I knew the mean streets of Hamilton could be a chilly place for a five-year old.
I was overheated and overwrought with the notion that my family would perish in flames as they dined foolishly-no more than an additional 20 feet farther from the door.

Endless curiosity and two sets of vintage children’s encyclopedias was oil to my fire, as a fascination with geology would be quickly followed with a paranoia of earthquakes; interest in history followed by anticipation of nuclear attack; dappling in astronomy hotly followed by an extra-terrestrial obsession; and my fourth grade research project on Titanic resulted in vivid visions of drowning our canoe on Georgian Lake (our Novacraft hit no doubt, by a rogue iceberg or freak storm)-followed closely by being taken to court and having my parents lose our house due to unintentional plagiarism of the dictionary.
Having my parents outlaw certain reading and “research” materials only furthered my quest to learn more, bringing me to new and uncharted threats and phobias.

Sea anemones would have incited weeks of nerve-toxin terror.

Tide pool, Ruckle Park, September 2012

Daylight was fine.

It was at the onset of nigh thatt things would begin to move. A truck exiting the nearby highway would be the first sign of an invasion. One night I strained my hearing so much I mis-identified trains passing by our house over two kilometers away as American missiles. The creaks and groans of our wood-frame old two-storey would spiral me off into ghost story land (or worse). Prompting transcripts of Tales from the Dead and reincarnations of campfires to dance in my head.

As I became busier and more taxed with school I gradually began to siphon off my consumption of fodder for fear. I stopped listening to ghost stories on tape, and instead turned my attentions to music. I replaced perusing my grandmother’s National Enquirers with my grandfather’s yellowed collection of Herman anthologies. Irregardless, stress always manifested itself in bouts of insomnia. Years later all my diligent research on apparitions would return, racing through my mind at 3:30 AM.

I thought I’d cured myself.

When I hit my final years of high school, insomnia returned with a vengeance. Huge bags grew under my eyes as I assumed a nightly vigil for weeks on end, waking from three until five AM. Most nights I’d begin by refusing to admit I was awake for the first half-hour. Next, I’d scour the ground floor for bandits (wielding jerry-rigged toy bat as protection). If I was feeling particularly ambitious, once the ground floor was secure, 16-year-old me would make tea. Then I’d prop my eyes open as long as humanly possible while attempting to read trashy and mundane teen fiction novels. Finally, by around 5AM, when I heard my dad getting up for his shift an hour later, as dawn was blearily breaking over the skyline, sleep would grip me; tugging my eyelids back down to closed and releasing my from insomnia’s strange stranglehold.

When I was younger I found ultimately my only real catharsis lay in my catalyst: more research.
Our opening screen door and mysterious thud every morning before 5? The first edition of our paper.
Our house catching on fire is statistically improbable and we lived 800m from the fire station.
Would a lamprey appear out of tub? No, chlorine will take care of that.
The nearest active volcano was Iceland, and the easiest way to avoid poltergeists? Stop thinking about them.

Deciphering my dreams and dissecting my discomforts made them disappear.

But last night, at 3:30AM everything came rushing back.

A review of the Paris Review

Fall, FanTan alley, 2012

(notice the sweet serene emptiness of the season)

F
all always carries with it a seasonal memory, stronger than any other season. Maybe it’s my birth-season, or the highly anticipated (or dreaded) back-to-school, or the olfactory content of burning foliage, harvest and pumpkins. When I was younger (and somewhat rounder) fall was the much anticipated time when we would receive some relief from the +40C smoggy days of the summer, where staggering under the humidex would no longer be an inevitability, and instead I’d be permitted back into long-pants, bulky clothes and school. Now summer breaks into the inevitability of darkness calling for second cups of coffee, and extended café-stays, and for me to pick up knitting projects that have been sitting forgotten since last year.

Cornerstone Cafe, Fernwood, Fall 2012

This nostalgia returns with the change in leaves. I find myself calling the same people, to reminisce about the same things. Every sepia-lit evening autumn tree-lined street the resoundingly similar, sheltering our scarf-warmed night walks with the same leafy familiarity.

However, this has been one year that the passage of time has not slipped by completely unnoticed. In part, this observation was spurred by the closing of three restaurants: my favourite burger restaurant here in town (the building next door is being demolished for a condo-high rise); a pho place we had always intended on visiting (but our regular place is just so good!); and Jane’s on the Commons, the “fancy” restaurant around the corner from my first real place in Halifax (where I lived with three others that became my some of my closest college friends).

It’s funny that although much has happened over the past little while, big immutable life-changing things (people are having children, getting married and buying houses for Pete’s sake!): it’s these little things, when an institution closes, when the venue for so many memories disappears, that are the chapters closing with an unexpected degree of finality. The vacant store fronts haunt you with a sense of your own mortality, that we’re going to melt away like that too one day. Just pack up shop and move back to Vietnam.

Saltspring Island, Ruckle Park, September, 2012

This week something from all this nostalgia spurred me to pick up a copy of The Paris Review while I waited for coffee. Habit is one of those coffee shops that has a (smallish) shelf covered with literature reviews, boutique coffee magazines and local publications. Generally speaking, it tends to have that Whole type of silence that befits smaller cafes where the tiny tables are too close together to speak to your counterpart above so much as a whisper without feeling like you’re on stage. This permits an additional level of coziness as you lean over your beverages to your friend, as well as an additional level of gawking. Government workers come in, discussing projects in loud stage voices without realizing that I can give them nothing, no promotions, and that they are grossly overstepping the sound margins of their tiny tables. Quiet café regulars looking on with intrigue and mild annoyance. Father John Misty oh so appropriately, softly plays in the background, his recent concert discussed in the lulls of rushes by the hushed voices by the barristas.

The Paris Review is one of those thick, $14.95 literary journals that has a smattering of contemporary authors that sound vaguely familiar, poets from the turn of the (last) century (in this one it was Apollinaire).  It is exactly the kind of thick indulgent magazine you vainly intend to read. The weight, size and shape is appealing to the hand, the cover just creatively designed (while remaining decidedly timeless), the authors resonating just enough so that you know you could really be onto something here.

The first time I ever encountered the Review was the first year I was living in France. It was the day before my twenty-second birthday and I had decided to take myself to Paris for the day. It was the first time I’d ever been into the city. I’d heard gushing descriptions from so many people, but only I’d seen it once from the air and twelve hours in Charles de Gaulle two years earlier: unmistakeable tower be dammed. I took the train into Gare du Nord and spent the day wandering around Montmartre, ending the day at Île-de-la-Cité where I planned to take the metro back to the station. I hardly spent a penny all day, wandering around the city with this aching sense of familiarity and nostalgia for a place that I had never known but was genetically programmed into my DNA and culturally conditioned into my soul by centuries of artists and musicians. I walked and walked for hours, aimless, slack-jawed and wide-eyed with no purpose.

Paris, late summer 2006, photo-cred miss Aisha Boyce

Earlier that year I had found a beat-up copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer at the back of a storage locker in London.  I had guiltily devoured the novel and it had lightly coloured my expectations of the city. Here and there, snatches of passages came back to me. As the sun sank, announcing the approach of my 9pm train back to Arras, I looked across the river and realized I’d arrived at Shakespeare and Company, the fabled English language bookstore. As I –bewildered– stumbled inside. From the threshold Miller’s closing lines of his novel echoed out, carved in the first stone step of the shop (“for humanity”).

Hurried, as the store was closing at 8pm, I picked up The Best of the Paris Review which promised over 500 pages of the very best selections of the literary journal. Unbeknownst to my harried decision, the Paris Review was actually published in California, and was based in New York (later, this revelation caused endless disappointment). Nonetheless, this collection of stories introduced me, both to Paris and the Review, with the kind of gentle awe that you behold as you wear a borrowed pair of expensive shoes, the feeling that I’m sure all those wealthy women get when they wear borrowed expensive jewellery to galas.

I loved the thick anthology, dragging it around on my weekend trips, absently choosing selections to read that seemed appropriate. I fell in love with it, the way you love Paris, the way you know it can never be yours. When I started the anthology, it felt a bit like reading The New Yorker when I was babysitting in highschool, with the vague expectation that it was a lot of work, but that eventually it would be easier, that it was good for me. I have since found that reading an actual issue of the Review is quite different. More often than not when I pick up an issue I leaf through to the interviews. They’re normally sandwiched between the contemporary struggling writers and ancient accomplished ones, complete with pictures of them at their struggling sexual prime. Showing them in exotic cafes in Greece or against the Paris skyline, arm in arm with other great coated men. More often than not I give up, abandoning the too long interviews published in full asking all the deep questions that have become small talk because most small talk subjects are now taboo. “Do you believe in God?” or “Did you really love her?”

 

Philip Roth in his sexual prime.

I often move past these interviews with a kind of thirsty desperation. Heading next to the poetry and art, looking for myself in the loopy text, looking for some small snatch of quotable resonance… Something to offer you. To indicate that I am worthy enough of reading such a publication. That I too can identify with the contemporary author. That I too find true solace in Baudelaire or other 19th century flavours of the month. Or often than not I find nothing in them. Disappointment, strange line breaks, attempts at cleverness, and more nothing. But this time it was different, like a coin had dropped. I opened the review to the first story:

I was spending some time at my parents’ place that summer. I was thirty-eight and out of ideas. I had finished my midlife-criss graduate degree a bit early, and after turning in my thesis I promptly fell into the utter despair that comes from completing a long, difficult, and entirely pointless project. I was deeply, profoundly in debt-ruined really-and I had no idea what to do next. …

Man Boob Summer was an uncomfortable, slightly harrowing and slightly funny short story, that resonated with me in this creepy way I had yet to experience…my own coming of age into the literary world. Identifying, really, truly identifying with authors. Later, mid-way through Sam Savage’s Meininger’s Nude:

In college I studied agronomy, geology, comparative literature, chemistry, biology, et cetera. I thought of pursuing each one professionally, of but after a short while each was pushed aside by something else. So I did not give them up in the sense of giving up on them, I was still actively engaged by them when they were pushed aside and replaced by something else that suddenly struck me as more interesting. This flightiness, which I though upon as openness to innovation looked  to others like frivolity, but it wasn’t a crippling disability. Following the road of life, as they say. I kept falling off into the bushes. Buying this house, I see now, was a way of telling myself, since whatever might happen in the future. Here was something I was stuck with.

Sometimes I think of it as an attempt to bury myself alive.

I was shocked and at the same time relieved. These stories were finally speaking to me. Also coming with this was a newfound ability, like secret x-ray goggles that allowed me to pinpoints the exact moments in the stories between meandering reality and fantasy: here. It was as if highlighted, that at this moment exactly is what forged the divide to creative fiction.

Finally our generations voices are in print. People my age are publishing novels (good or bad) and now snippets of our conversations, not just in print but in the Paris Review!

I suppose by that same token, there are probably other people, people who have read the publication for decades that are now struggling to swim through the new authors. Seeking themselves buried somewhere in the texts, seeing their own voices end and disappear. In all my autumn melancholy, the scrap of promise I am holding onto is the realization that as things end, they normally make way for the new. Jane is leaving her restaurant on the Commons to her daughter.

And my favourite burger joint ? Still open. Inherited by the young twenty-something cook, rebranded as Chef’s Quest. It’s just as good. And until that new strata of condos is built, they’ve got the best patio in the city.

King Arthur burger, Yesterday, 2012

Just as cheesy as this post.