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Category: Books

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

 

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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.

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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

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

More Clouds (part two)

(Continued from Navigating Cloud Atlas…)

Working nights on Cloud Atlas Sextet until I drop, quite literally, no other way to get off to sleep. My head is a Roman candle of invention. Lifetime’s music, arriving all at once. Boundaries between noise and sound are conventions, I see now. All boundaries are conventions, national ones too. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so. Take this island, midstream between timbre and rhythm, not down in any book of theory, but it’s here! Hear the instruments in my head, perfect clarity, anything I wish for. When it’s finished there’ll be nothing left in me…

The duo of Cloud Atlas book and film compliment each other well.

When I first watched the movie, I was blown away. I had been struggling through the beginning of David Mitchell’s book. I stumbled through the first section, finding it difficult to navigate the old English and identify with the characters. I finished just enough of the novel to allow myself to go see the film, to understand the premise and form a little opinion. Leaving the theater I was convinced that the Wachowskis took a good book, and turned it into an incredible movie. Beforehand I had only made it through about 60% of the book, and was on the fence about whether or not I would even bother finishing it…Leaving the theater, I was so impressed I convinced myself the book warranted another chance.

The sextet of voices Mitchell uses during the story are narratives: interviews, letters, journal entries. They are one way stories focused on experience, light on description and rich in personality. The movie picks up on things and compliments those that the book forgot. Taking advantage of the medium, the Wachowskis flush out Mitchell’s intersecting story-lines with lush scenery and attention to visual details unmentionable in the book. Where in the novel you at times feel as if you are swimming, anchorless in description, scenery and place, the movie is able to compliment the storyline wordlessly with luscious venues that more than make-up for what the book lacks. I have always found film an intense, overwhelming medium; I’m always a little disappointed when a gallery features films, they drain me and rapidly usurp emotional availability for other pieces. At a theater though, you can give yourself over entirely to the experience. Cloud Atlas was so visceral it became corporal: at times you can smell the film.

To be honest, I am not entirely sure if it was the film or the soundtrack that most moved me. I orginally tried to write this post while listening to the music, but I had to shut it off: it’s intensity completely fills every crevice of my little brain, and I can’t really do much else but clean or cook–things that require a different hemisphere. It’s the kind of music that when played during a dinner party, will consume the first lapse of silence that naturally occurs, and continue playing out until the record stops, an uninvited guest.

For writers (and readers-but aren’t we all the same?) and perhaps for everyone, language is the easiest medium through which to buoy yourself. Words invite us to spin a world, our own internal, clumsy experience  Off and on throughout my life I have felt this way. That the volume is just turned up all the time. All the volumes. Once when I was travelling, my hosts left on a trip of their own for a few evenings, leaving me to my own devices. I remember spending a dinner alone, soberly absorbed by the way the tines of the fork felt against my lip, the texture of the bread, even the density of the chair I was sitting on. Part of what makes the book so difficult to navigate *is* the lack of setting, of scene. It’s like reading Room for the first time, you spend the first couple chapters piecing together what is even happening, appreciating turns of phrase and brief, isolated moments before you can get into the horrific meat of the story. The brevity of Cloud Atlas means that you don’t really get this type of gravity.

Aside from a chance encounter with an ESL student while I was writing this, I haven’t had the occasion to chat much about the movie with anyone who has actually seen it and disliked it (she didn’t like it because it was too hard to follow). That being said, einmal ist keinmal: it is impossible to imagine what this movie would be like without having some vague knowledge of what you are going to see next. Having read the book, I was able to parse out the voices and piece together plots that might not have been so obvious. Walking out of the theater I was convinced that the movie was incredible, achieving a depth and dialogue beyond what the written medium could find possible: but after finishing the novel I was satisfied that both mediums had optimized their abilities to tell the story. For example, largely due to the lack of description in the novel, the futuristic passages of the book were difficult for me to conceive (let alone navigate), yet visually the film was able to do this seamlessly and well. On the other hand, the book was able to create personal connections and dialogue that would’ve been impossible in the film.

Reading Cloud Atlas was kind of like going on a backpacking trip with one of your best friends childhood best friends. You had heard snippets about them before (probably way more than you realized, before they had a name and a place in your mind). Your friend adores them, but at first you are a little apprehensive: they aren’t quite who you pictured, and they probably aren’t quite how your friend remembers them anyway. At first the trip is awkward: you know you are supposed to like each other and get along – you struggle to find your bearings, adjust your inside jokes; for the first few kilometers you’re working out the pace, the dialogue of your newfound trio. Eventually you (hopefully) come around to the friend. You don’t know the same childhood friend that you thought you were meeting, but in a way you know them better. A more up to date, stripped down version of the person they once were.

Going to watch Cloud Atlas the movie on the other hand, is like meeting someone in their hometown. Things make sense. They may or may not be as you had imagined: but that is how things are. Places and people have weight, shape, explanations for why they appear as such. All of the images that existed in your mind before you had arrived instantly vanish. Each aspect of your friend is explained, even the unnoticed bits, sculpted by the empty space that surrounds them. Their quirky sense of humour? That came from their dad. They have their mother’s eyes and must have gotten their love for Ginko trees from the unmentioned ones that line their childhood streets. Visiting your new friend in their hometown in a way is much more complete. You can breathe the air they breathed, walk the streets they walked and see the city as it stands.

It’s odd though, because in a strange way, the version of the person you met on the hiking trip is a much more complete person.

To be continued …

…The artist lives in two worlds.

*      *      *

And now, a brief announcement about my other world.

I wanted to include a quick footnote, to my tiny audience (Hello all of you! You are more encouraging than you will ever know: thank you, thank you, thank you for reading and following this site :)):

I don’t often include many details about my current life, but I wanted to apologize briefly, (especially to the yeahwrite folks) about my spotty postings the past two weeks. Life has been tumultuous – ultimately, quite hopeful! And very busy…

Recently I have been in the process of interviewing (successfully!!) for a new job. It has been a long and difficult search, and I’m totally thrilled and excited with this new position. I start next week, and I’m looking forward to settling back into a new routine of writing, working and reading. Regardless, lately the process and prospect has detracted from my capacity to focus.

Also, we have adopted Grizelda (aka Zelda or Griz). More details to follow.

Tips for timid cats welcome.

Much love and gratitude to all.

Navigating Cloud Atlas

After my first year of uni, during my final stages of  planning and packing for Africa I found myself staring at a stack of correspondance spread out all over our bedroom floor. I was on exchange in rural Québec, and we were rooming seven kilometers outside of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, which had a grand total of 732 people in it. The family had four children, and in honour of our arrival, they had emptied out their bright blue playroom for my counterpart and I. We slept on two foam mattresses on the floor an arms length away from one another, my letters covered the only small 8×10 empty patch of hardwood.

Mail is always exciting. My parents would forward packages of my mail via multiple rural routes until it eventually arrived at our old school mailbox in front of the giant blue farmhouse. Endlessly indecisive, I had applied for transfers into four other university programs and been accepted. The door to return to Ottawa was still open. I had been mulling over the decision for several weeks as the applications were processed, during my runs alone in empty fields behind our house, pondering while I replanted thousands of tiny conifers in the greenhouses at work and during the 44km bike-ride to our friends in Victoriaville. I had all the brochures and appropriate enrolment forms spread out all over the tiny space, and was (once again) trying to weigh my options, with grids and pro/con lists, when suddenly a calm washed over me: I realized I would never be attending some of these programs.
I had already made my decision.

I had never been to Halifax when I decided to move there. We hatched an elaborate plan for my arrival. I didn’t have any friends there that I knew of, and the first night we arrived our car was broken into and a bunch of our things were stolen.
I had zero expectations. I heard it was a rough town. I knew there was an ocean, that there was a good music scene and that the weather was crazy but that was about it.
I remember the exact moment of calm in knowing that this was what I was going to do. It’s funny, of all the things I have done in my life, I think moving out there was one of the best and most effortless decisions I ever made. The calm I felt during my time there is almost unmatched from everywhere else I’ve ever lived. I’ve heard a lot of people move to Halifax in this way.
And yet, I’m still not ready to even consider going back.

Halifax houseparty, 2008 Photo credit: Ben Dalton

Zero expectations are often the best ways to go about life, books, and when possible: film.

Cloud Atlas came highly recommended. Exceptionally highly recommended. Here is a sample update from one of my literary pals:

So for the last time, everybody read Cloud Atlas. Especially before the movie comes out. It is better than any book you’ve read recently and probably the best thing to happen to novels in decades.

Heck even Ben Affleck liked it. I had been forewarned by friends and pre-viewers to avoid seeing the trailer (by all means) before reading the book, and see the movie at your own risk. Good friends had seen it opening weekend, and returned with rave reviews. A few of us decided to head to pho and cheap night last week. We left the theater reeling.

That being said, if you are intending on reading and/or seeing Cloud Atlas I will not be offended, nay perhaps even recommend that you stop reading this post.

*        *        *

I have picked up several of David Mitchells books before. A few of them are regularly featured at Munro’s for no more than a handful of dollars. Their covers are decent. Provocative, but not captivating. Titles that are slightly ubiquitous: A Thousand Autumns of Jacob Zoet, Ghostwritten – poetic, but almost forgettable. Unfailingly, given enough time I will pick them up, scrutinize the cover, flip them over, skim the back and still intrigued, flip through it again. Each time I’ve put then down and walked away. Mitchell has been short listed for the Booker a number of times before, never made it.Working through Cloud Atlas I wonder if he may have broken the curse.

Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in it’s own language of key, scale and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order.

Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished and by then it’ll be too late.

-Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

To give you a rough idea of the book’s layout, there are six narratives, arranged like Russian nesting dolls, one inside of the other. First up: Adam Ewing, a sickly yet important traveller on a boat in the late 1800s. Next, a series of letters from Robert Frobisher a composer living in Europe during the early 1930s. This is followed by a series of short, punchy chapters with 1970s journalist and protagonist Lisa Rey, in LA. Then comes Timothy Cavendish, a sixty-something year old publisher in London, UK during modern day (2012). This is followed by an interview of Somni-451, the first self-actualized clone in the not-so-distant future: it alludes to a location likely somewhere in Asia (judging from names and other descriptors). Finally, in the middle of the book the last narrative, a yarn told by an old man Zachry, about his escape from what we can only deduce to be Hawaii, sometime in a post-apocalyptical world.

In Mitchell’s novel they are arranged chronologically, cut neatly in half, ended abruptly (one can only postulate by death). The middle narrative is told in entirety, and then, lo and behold, each of the previous narratives are returned to in succession. We find our characters saved at a crucial moment. We had been deceived, they were indeed rescued. In the latter half of the book our suspicions are confirmed that each of the stories are related. The interview of Somni is a relic in the future, the recording captured on a spinning egg,  which becomes a mystic oracle in the future. Each of the previous stories had been interrupted part-way through:  Somni was watching a film of Timothy Cavendish which had gotten stuck. Timothy was reviewing a manuscript about Lisa Rey, which he had forgotten at home. Lisa had inherited half of the letters of Robert Frobisher (the balance of which are then sent to her). Robert had been reading the diary of Adam Ewing, which had been ripped in half; the second half had been used (as he discovers) to prop up his wobbly bed.

Before reaching the midpoint of the book, you do notice some repetition and common threads, but instead of finding it clever (ahead of your cogency the method to the madness), I found it vaguely irritating. An oversight by an editor? Or was I losing my mind? Several times I actually flipped back through the book to assure myself that yes, it was the second time that Mitchell had said “his muscles atrophied” or that the name of the cemetery was the same as…a nuclear reactor? Most of these “coincidences” are most notable in the second half, but regardless, I found myself flipping through the book a lot. Somni; wasn’t that the name of the last character? And what is with this recurrence of Hawaii? (On a slightly unrelated note, my friend and I unwittingly ended up attending a Hawaii spirituality workshop at a festival a few weeks ago. I keep finding the ticket stub everywhere-it seems to have the ability of being in the pocket of every jacket I own all the time….). Yet by the time you reach the second half of the novel you are aware that this beauty in serendipty is around us all the time, we simply chose to ignore it.

When I realized that these were embedded, intentional, delicately crafted threads, my heart melted. I was instantly ashamed and embarrassed that I could have ever interpreted these repetitions were oversights, or literary blunders. I chided myself for being so pompous.Isn’t that how we so often deal with repetition? To dismiss it as an oversight, an annoyance?

Since my first reading of his book, Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being has remained firmly etched – for better or for worse – in some abscess of my mind. It was then that the segment that first made me fall in love with the book gently recited itself in my mind:

This symmetrical composition—the same motif appears at the beginning and the end—may seem quite “novelistic” to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as “fictive,” “fabricated,” and “untrue to life” into the word “novelistic.” Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion. They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress. It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences. … But it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

For tonight, I leave you with this. Until then, enjoy the beauty in repetition and coincidence.

To be continued tomorrow!

 

– (Trying to be) Day 10 (!) –

Camus and Kathmandu

Bamako to Paris, December, 2004

When I was small, my aunt travelled around the world. I think she was gone for about 20 months, but it seemed like an eternity for a five year old. I must have been barely in first grade. Phone-calls from Asia and Africa were not cheap or regular 25 years ago, and contact was just as sporadic. Pre-wireless, pre-cell phone, Lonely Planet when the planet really was lonely. Postcards were coveted and preciously brought in to show-and-tells.  I remember being completely astonished to receive a pink, hello-kitty type asian digital watch for my sixth birthday. An actual package. Asian seemed like a different unfathomable planet (Africa had been  covered between the Bible, pyramids and Safaris, “jungles et al.” covered Latin America, but Asia…).

Each location would be referenced on our standard-issue cardboard globe, and then cross-referenced in my giant illustrated Children’s Atlas, which admittedly, led to some frustration. For example, Africa was almost entirely crammed on one page, with extremely limited photos; secondly, the several months my aunt insisted on lallygagging through some very tiny European countries, resulted in boredom due to the limited surface area of her travels and page turns. Seriously, another European postcard? IT LOOKS LIKE CANADA ALREADY! Paintings? Who wants more of those!

Quite possibly the most magical thing in the world to me at that moment, I treasured our globe and atlas. Tracing the rivets and snowy elevations on the foreign continents skeptically as my aunt criss-crossed her way around the earth. I couldn’t fathom what a real mountain would look like. Growing up we referred to the Niagara escarpment as a “Mountain,” it was even where I learned to ski (to make matters worse)…all 300 elevated meters of it. Further explanations from my parents did little to advance my conception of it…i.e., Mountains are extremely high. So high they are covered with snow – like where we go skiing? – No, higher than skiing, higher than airplanes. The concept was indeed, mountainous.

My birthday card with the watch mentioned that they had been trekking in the Himalayas, that they had made it to base camp, but my aunt had suffered a bout of altitude sickness and they had to go back. She became delusional, thought she could make the climb up. It had taken them eleven days to get there. I remember placing my fingers over the ridge skeptically, trying to find the *exact* bump that was supposed to be Everest, trying to determine if it *really* was any higher than Aconcagua. Naturally, my cardboard globe was not the most accurate height predictor…

Even now, after living seven years in their shadow, their presence is still one I sense more than their absence. I know others who are to mountains what I am to large bodies of water. The moment I am farther than a few kilometers away from a body of water I start to get antsy, to suffocate a little. The body of water doesn’t need to be huge. A large lake will do, but it needs to be one not conceivably tranversed by swimming. Islands are also acceptable, if the river leads to the sea (I’ll take Montréal). But mountains…the mountains are still growing on me. Like an exceptionally beautiful guest at a party you haven’t spoken with yet, they still look a bit like a false backdrop or a trick my eyes are playing on me with the horizon.

Hurricane Ridge,Washington, May 2010

When I worked on Nootka I worked with a woman who was ten years older than I; at that point, a decade might as well have been an eon. She was thirty. She had lived a lifetime ahead of me. She had her own apartment. Spunky, solid, short, with the kind of deep wrinkles you get from a hard life, filled with living outside and partying too late when you are beautiful and young and think you will live forever. She had dyed her hair a fiery red, and was the kind of girl you could picture riding a motorcycle. She had just finished community college and had transferred into marine biology for the fall – a source of tender pride. She was incredibly intense and blunt, if she had partied hard in her youth, she was going to be just as rigorous a reformed intellectual in her thirties. Aside from her delicious two week meal plan for our shift (years of working on dive boats had made her a stupendous cook of dried/canned goods), and her love of Shakira, the moment of hers I remember most was during our drive up to the launch in Gold River. I was studying a rock-face, reminiscing about my recent first foray into outdoor climbing at Lighthouse Park and waxing poetic about how cool it would be to get into climbing. Like it was a lifestyle you could shrug on like a jacket (when you’re twenty and healthy you really can just shrug on lifestyles like clothing).  To which she soberly replied: “Yeah, I used to climb. But I stopped when all my friends started dying.” Climbing is not for everyone.

In Freedom Climbers (written by Bernadette McDonald and initially blogged about here), Wanda Rutiewckz explains the mortality that she is seeped in after having over 30 of her closest friends have died climbing:

“I know the value of life, and not only of my own….Every one of us has his own other life. We have our loved ones, but..climbing has become a part of my life. A passion that engulfs everything so that I can’t quit it, just like I can’t quit my own life.”

Earlier in the book Krzytof Wielicki, another climber tries to explain:

“If you want to climb, there is a cost. Usually the cost is the family. I have to say sorry, sorry, sorry. They suffer at home and we suffer on the mountain….To experience pleasure when you have everything against you, you must have some kind of warrior philosophy…It is more appealing. It is more exciting.”

The Polish climbers made tremendous sacrifices to pursue their love, their lives. But what struck me above all is that they don’t feel helpless or trapped under the forces of Communism. They love to climb. They are internationally renown as incredible climbers. So what if they live in Communism? They have an incredible life.they have found true happiness, true raison d’être, freedom.

Polish climbers proved to be a creative lot, and they devised a system within  the system – a strategy that liberated them. They discovered a way to travel outside their borders, to experience new cultures and languages, to follow their passion for climbing and make a living at it. They discovered how to be free!

Sea lions at Cowichan Bay, October, 2012

A few weeks ago I biked up to Salt Spring Island with a friend, and felt so rejuvenated I promised myself I would leave the city at least once a month by bike, to be amongst the quiet, silent fields, the cold chilly ocean and leverage my appreciation for warm, dry clothing. And so, last week I saddled up my Bianchi (to the great expense of my wrists) headed up island to Cowichan Bay, where I eventually found myself fireside in a log cabin discussing the intricacies between French and English culture. At one point, my friend laughed, and apologized, excusing himself. He returned a few moments later with a pocket book and proceeded to read aloud a segment of Joseph Campbell’s retelling of Albert Camus’ version the myth of Sisyphus.

Ancient myth abbreviated, the myth of Sisyphus is that he is punished by the gods for his fascination and disgust of human mortality. His appropriate punishment?  He is sentenced to push a heavy stone up to the top of the hill, only to let it roll down, and then push it back up again for all of eternity.

If this myth is tragic, it is because its hero is conscious. Where would his distress be if, at each step, hope of success encouraged him? Today’s worker toils all the days of his life at the same tasks and his destiny is no less absurd. Still, it is tragic only at those special instants when he becomes aware. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, impotent yet rebellious, knows the full extent of his miserable condition: it is what he thinks about during his descent. The clear-sightedness that was to be his torment at the same time consummates his victory. There is no destiny that cannot be overcome by contempt.

If some days the descent is made in suffering, it can also be made in joy. The word “joy” is not too strong. I imagine Sisyphus coming back toward his rock; as he begins, he is suffering. When the images of the earth are held too strongly in memory, when the call of happiness is too compelling, sadness grows in the heart of the man: it is the victory of the rock; it is the rock itself. The immense distress is too heavy to carry. However, crushing truths die from being recognized. 

The Poles are trapped under Communism, but with a clearsighted task at hand, they are also free and fulfilled. It is not the mountain that is the rock, but the task itself.

Without a clearly defined task at hand, ones efforts are fractured. Fractured efforts are half-truths, foreign words taken out of context and out of their language, useless. If you know one thing well, know one thing extremely, excruciatingly well, and within that one thing, is everything, including it’s futility. One place is every place if you know it well enough. The Poles were able to achieve this through their climbing.

“I take all my emotions to the mountains with me,” [Wanda wrote to Marion], “so any fighting I do is with myself, not the mountain…What you can’t do is dominate the mountain. Mountains never forgive mistakes, which is why I keep up a dialogue with them…When I’m up tin that thin air, suffering at every step, I’m able to reach deep into my inner self and in those moments I have a certainty that someone is helping me.”

In my most recent kitchen-cleaning TAL podcast (#169 – The Pursuit of Happiness), I was especially struck by the last segment, when Nancy Updike interview Marcus Johnson, a boxing coach, who believes that we make a conscious choice, every day, to be happy. She goes on to document and illustrates how much work he puts into achieving happiness, how it is a constant daily (achievable) struggle. It is a choice, like living, that needs to be made everyday. And a choice implies a degree of freedom.

Camus concludes that the choice is also ours to make:

All the silent joy of Sisyphus is there. His destiny is his own. His rock is his thing. 

I leave Sisyphus at the base of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But, Sisyphus teaches the higher devotion, a devotion that repudiates the gods and that elevates rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This world, from now on without master, appears neither sterile nor futile to him. Each grain of the stone, each mineral chip of the night-saturated mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle toward the summit, in itself, is enough to fill a man’s heart. We must imagine that Sisyphus is happy.

If the existentialists touted suicide as proof of happiness (we are choosing life every day, we must be happy), then this can then be extended out to the Polish climbers. If they were able to chose to climb, if they had a reason, a purpose, a place to pursue. If they needed to climb the mountains “because they are there” then even in the face of repressive Communism, they too were free.

McDonald goes on to allude to the crumbling legacy of climbing as Communism fell:

…This exuberance of creative expression wasn’t limited to climbers. There was an abundance of artists and writers who thrived creatively during those severely repressed years in Poland. The censorship industry, rather than stifle, seemed to actually stimulate the artistic community. Like the climbers, artists became stronger through oppression; their most creative work came out of the darkest days. When repression collapsed, they collapsed too. They had no idea how to communicate without being rebels. When their world opened, they dried up.

I believe this begs the question vis-à-vis our modern times, are we feeling creative? Are we repressed? Has the internet catalyzed a surge in creativity? Or is it repressing us socially…causing us to be more creative? There is always some type of balance that exists in the universe. An ebb and flow of rights and expression, where are we now? Camus believes that with the choice of destiny comes the choice of happiness:

We do not perceive the absurd without being tempted to write some sort of happiness manual. “But, why must we proceed by such confined routes . . . ?” Well, there is only one world. Happiness and absurdity are its two offspring. They are inseparable. To say that happiness is the inevitable result of absurdity’s discovery would be an error. It also happens that the experience of absurdity arises from happiness. “I conclude that all is well,” says Oedipus, and these words are sacred. They resonate in the world of man that is, at once, both wild and restricted. They prove that all is not, has not been, exhausted. They banish from this world a god who entered it with dissatisfaction and a taste for futile suffering. They make destiny man’s business, a business that men must themselves manage.

In a world of choices, now we must follow through. We must eliminate possibilities and shut doors to allow ourselves to discover a path and follow it. More words from Wanda: “Living means risking, means daring; not to dare is not to live.” Dare to chose to be happy, dare to commit to your passion, dare to be free.

Oh, and you should probably read Freedom Climbers.

– Day 2 –

Climbing to Freedom with Bernadette McDonald

As Hurricane Sandy sweeps the east coast and earthquakes rattle the west, I felt like this might the week to review Freedom Climbers, by Bernadette McDonald. It’s been nearly two months since I tore through this novel. I felt intimidated at first…It was amazing, captivating and gripping.

It has taken me awhile to collect my thoughts about the book simply because it was so good. Partially, this can obviously be attributed to the journalistic prowess of Ms. McDonald, surely too, the editorial staff had something to do with it’s success. The final product is a pleasing size, red and blue jacket and blindingly white paper (it’s only when you are reading off of truly snow-white paper when you realize how rarely you complete such a task). But ultimately, this book is great because of the story. Non-fiction, written by a Canadian, it is the story of these climbers that made me weep (I am by no means a cryer).  It also prompted me to climb a (little) mountain.

For my birthday we rented a car for the day and drove up the Sea to Sky highway to Whistler. I hadn’t been up there since 2008, and then only twice: once in the torrential rain with a highway engineer and his family; and once in the dark, playing loud alt-rock from the nineties and singing along at the tops of our lungs on a spontaneous midnight road-trip to Skookumchuck hot springs in Lillooet. This trip was in the light, in the dry, on the wide, flat, new divided highway. We had miraculously been upgraded to a new VW Beetle (thank you hotwire) and I felt as though we had won the lottery.

Generally speaking I do not drive cars with any kind of engine pick-up or brakes (my first and only car, Thomas, warrants a much longer tribute in a future blog post), so driving a brand new Beetle, with all of these things on a crazy highway was icing on the cake. We bought burritos and hiked them up to the top, eating them in brilliant sun before heading to steam and sauna and nap for the afternoon. I finished the book there, in the mountains by the fire on my birthday. The summit of the Chief fresh in my mind and ache on my body. Liberation.

Vancouver, September, 2012

In Newfoundland we climbed some mountains. They are the first ones I ever remember climbing right to the very top.  The first ones I ever remember getting that little summit-high. My co-worker, my supervisor and I were always the three who would stick it out right to the end, the three locals preferring to relax on grassy knolls at the bottom, and the Torontonian stranded with the weak ankle.

My supervisor was a Newf and might as well have been half mountain goat. She’d leap and scramble ahead without a second thought. My co-worker, an Ottawatonian, was tall and lanky, moving deftly and assuredly along with all the grace of an orangutang swinging through tree tops. He was slower though, he had to stop regularly and reflect aloud, commenting on the silence, the scenery. He had a sister, and at times I suspected he lagged behind instinctively because of me. I would lumber along, head down, so engrossed with moving my heavy stout frame and red MEC pack precariously up the cliff that I would forget to look up. Often I wouldn’t even realize until I was almost be on top of him, stopped dead in his tracks. He would be staring off into the horizon, pondering aloud, or eagerly with his camera outstretched: “Do you mind taking another one? Right here would be great.

He was obsessed with this idea that his parents would have no good pictures of him if he went missing or died, and we were endlessly taking solo shots of him part way up the mountains, on top of the mountains or against the stark salty Atlantic vistas. He told me a few years later, when we met at a food court in Ottawa one frigid, snowy winter that he really regretted that – that he should’ve taken more pictures of all of us, of what was actually happening. That when he was going through all his pictures at home they looked a bit ridiculous, this shoebox filled with all these shots of him against empty landscape. That it wasn’t the place, but the moment.
Not that you can really capture that on film anyway.

The Newfoundland mountain tops also provided us with the rare instances of cellphone reception, where he would always call his father and she would always text her boyfriend. Cell-phoneless until 2007, I would just stare out in the direction of Europe and attempt to conjure up some sense of genetic, ancestral longing. Occasionally I would look west, in the direction of home. He would always speak to his father in Persian, and each time we reached the peak he would tell him that: “his space was empty.” I thought it was one of the most beautiful thoughts you could have about someone, that of their absence but also their place. Sometimes as he would say this I would mentally import my people around me, perching them on rocky bits of the peak and for a moment their presence would be there with me, briefly, on top of the world.

This is why they climb. For the open space. For the silence. For the moment of elation and freedom the second you arrive at the top. For the release from your feet, from staring at terrain and rock faces for hours, for days for weeks. For the moment where you finally look up, look out, look across at the horizon of other peaks. The moment you are free to stop thinking that you are going to the top. For that moment when you finally get there. The release from the trees and the faces…Only to look out, across, at the ocean of peaks, at the ocean of other trials, potentials, of needing to know what it looks like from over there. From that one.

It’s easy to see how people get addicted to this stuff.

“At that moment I felt I had the gift of infinite time…I felt no triumph, but I did feel that God was near me…”

-Wanda Rutkiewicz, on her thoughts of summiting K2

A few years later across the Atlantic at Arthur’s seat
Edinburgh, Scotland – January, 2007

The premise of Freedom Climbers is great, probably not one many people know. During Communism, Poland was bound by the forces that were, restricted from traveling and repressed by the system. What happened? Climbing. A small group of people began getting really, really into mountain climbing. First the Tatras, then on to the Himalayas. Poland’s currency was massively undervalued in the 70s and 80s: as a result few imported items were available in the country. Ice axes had to literally be forged at a blacksmiths shop, “just short of plucking the geese [themselves]” mountaineering jackets assembled and sewn by hand.

Climbers on the Katowice smokestacks.
Photo credit: Krzysztof Wielicki borrowed from this blog.

After an act passed permitting social clubs to receive payment and funding, a new development occurred that greatly facilitated expeditions. Climbers would approach many of the factory owners regarding their high chimneys (which needed to be kept in good paint and fine repair). Normally, re-painting the stacks was an expensive, labourous and convoluted task, involving several weeks, permits, installation of scaffolding, etc. Climbers would approach the owners and offer to repaint in a matter of days, quickly, using their ropes and no scaffolding. Many owners agreed – even for a heady profit that was paid to the climbing club, the owners recouped a large savings. Climbing clubs were quickly financed and helped facilitate more interest and more revenue.

Overland transportation to Nepal, from Freedom Climbers

Other strategies included recruiting foreign climbers (and foreign funds) to be part of Polish climbing expeditions, as well as Polish climbers working ingeniously to maximize the value of the zloty. One way would be to purchase as much as was undervalued within Poland  (i.e., food), and then travel overland to Kathmandu where they would resell as much as they could and swap with international climbers for missing items. Polish climbers would also scrounge the mountainside and abandoned base camps for tents and other lost gear that could be salvaged, reclaimed and repaired.

Polish climbers were special. They were tough, tenacious and supremely focused on their goals. They were geniuses. They knew how to live with uncertainty. They manipulated an impossible system so well that they were able to realize their dreams. They travelled, saw the world and lived lives of adventure and intensity. They had the perseverance of pioneers and the values of patriots.

You can tell Bernadette McDonald is a climber, that she lives amongst the mountains.  The book is dense with research and lots of focus on the technical aspects of climbs. McDonald’s simple, barebones style, is a bit like offering stage directions to a screen play. It is has such a phenomenal pretense, the characters have such chemistry, such lofty ambitions, the political climate almost unfathomable to a North American…the writing doesn’t need to be amazing, because the story is simple and incredible and rich with emotion. The simple style that she offers the story does not detract, but rather strengthens it’s richness. The fact that the writing does not detract from what is going on in the book is a testament to it’s virtue. It is well tailored clothing over an incredible body, invisible Emperor’s Clothes, allowing us to feel as though the story is springing up out of history. Resting lightly on literary and historical quotes – a perfectly matched seam, an immaculately pressed crease.

The use of pictures throughout the book is part of the captivation: these were real people. These were real people who were climbing while I was alive, while my aunt was there. Looking through the pictures I was overcome with the breathless tangibility of living breathing history, they way you feel when you are in Berlin, drinking by the wall or standing at Checkpoint Charlie. The recent truth is screaming from the ugly, contemporary architecture in an ancient city. History alive. And not just everyday history, but something immense that has just happened. This book was filled with the kind of palpable history that is pulsing through Berlin, the echoes that scream at you from living, abandoned buildings, the way – just for a second – time slows down as something monumental is taking place. These people are my parents age. That’s the year I went to preschool. This was just happening. Looking through the photos that span twenty-five years of the book the reality becomes all the more immediate.

These are people.
They are aging.
They are living – they are the highest humans in the world.
And they have died.

“We should not presume to judge those who seek out danger on the world’s highest places or demand to be told the meaning of what they do..Simply, when they pay the ultimate price for their passion, we should remember them.”

-Wanda Rutkiewicz

This book is a testament to their memory.

Andrzej Czok and Jerzy Kukuczka on Dhaulagiri 
Photo credit: Adam Bilczewski from Freedom Climbers

– Day 1 –

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.)