Monday, March 31, 2014

March Cultural Roundup

The Goldfinch (1654) by Carel Fabritius
Books 
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Dear Life by Alice Munro
Poetry and Drama by T.S. Eliot

Films
The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Sweden, 2012)
Nebraska (U.S., 2013)
12 Years a Slave (U.S./U.K., 2013) 
Finding Vivian Maier (U.S., 2013)

Theatre:
American Idiot at the Royal Alex, March 14, 2014

Literary
Italian-Canadians at the Table Reading, Grano, March 21, 2014  
Draft Reading at Black Swan, March 23, 2014

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Janissary Revolts

Changez Khan (played by Riz Ahmed) on the morning of 9-11
The Reluctant Fundamentalist (USA/UK/Qatar, 2012) directed by Mira Nair

Mohsin Hamid will appear at TIFF tonight at 7p.m. to discuss his book and director Mira Nair's film. 

The premise of this film intrigued me. Mohsin Hamid, on whose novel this film was based, has an intelligent and sensitive comprehension of the view of America by those most keenly affected by its international military and covert government policies, particularly in the wake of 9-11.

I was especially moved by an anecdote that Hamid related after 9-11 of being in a gym and seeing the smiling faces of some when they learned of the 9-11 attacks on television. It was a shocking, if honest, observation. What was this undercurrent of hostility amongst the seemingly content aspirants of the American dream? What did it mean? 

The film begins in 2011 with the kidnapping of an American professor and suspected CIA operative at Lahore University in Pakistan. Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), an American journalist and undercover CIA informant, arranges an interview with Changez Khan (the exceptional Riz Ahmed, a British actor of Pakistani heritage), a suspected radical academic whom it is assumed is involved in the kidnapping.

But the aptly named Changez's personal history is a complicated one (the inference is clearly that he is one who changes) - a tale that he insists Lincoln listen to and one that undermines the usual ugly stereotype of the America-hating radical with no experience or appreciation of American culture. "I am a lover of America ... " Changez begins in his narrative to Lincoln.

It's a fairy tale beginning for Changez Khan ... Changez is handsome, intelligent, athletic, socially ambitious and comes from an educated, cultured, loving but somewhat impoverished family. His father is a famous, well-respected Punjabi poet. Changez attends Princeton University on a scholarship at the age of eighteen. He excels quickly and soon finds employment at Underwood Samson, a top Wall Street valuation firm under the mentorship of Jim Cross (played effectively by a slithery, Gekko-like Keifer Sutherland).

As an investment analyst, Changez shows businesses how to maximize profit with massive layoffs that devastate their workforces. Changez is a tough, unsentimental, often ruthless, economic soldier in the capitalist trenches and fares very well economically and socially.

He falls in love with Erica (a charming Kate Hudson who is oddly dowdy with her dark hair here), a talented photographer, whom he encounters by chance in Central Park and who is recovering from her own emotional wounds - the recent death of a long-time lover. This romantic sub-plot differs from the book in a significant manner - here Erica is somewhat complicit in the events leading to her lover's death we later learn.

Like many lives, Changez' is violently disrupted by the World Trade Center attacks on 9-11. Changez is in Manila, in the Philippines, on business. He is horrified as he watches the events transpire but we, the viewers, are also horrified to watch as his dismay slowly morphs into a small smile (or smirk) of what appears to be satisfaction at the carnage. He experiences a "split second of arrogance brought low" as he describes it to Lincoln.

In the book, the narrator Changez says:

I stared as one - and then the other - of the twin towers of New York's WTC collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased. ... I wasn't thinking of the victims, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all. The fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.
When he returns to the U.S., he endures a humiliating strip search and detention at the airport in New York presumably becasue of his Pakistani background. This is the beginning of a slow but inexorable disenchantment with the West and all it has to offer.

A not-so friendly South Asian stranger notes that as Changez is "suited and booted" he is safe from persecution in America. Not so. Since 9-11, he faces hostility and misunderstanding (and sometimes violence) primarily because his skin is brown and his ethnicity indeterminate to the casual racist observer. Slashed tires, racist verbal abuse, distrust in the workplace, and, more frighteningly, being mistakenly arrested by an officer seeking a "brown", clearly deranged man on the street shouting disturbing things about homegrown bombs. Changez' emotional response is conflicted and disturbing. He grows a beard as if to emphasize his "foreignness". He grows bitter and increasingly dissatisfied with his life.

He reaches a moral turning point while valuating a failing publisher in Istanbul, Turkey at the behest of his employer. The company is deemed "worthless" but when he discovers the publisher had published and translated his father's work into Turkish, he begins to change.

In the course of his discussion with the unhappy publisher, he compares Changez to a Janissary. The Janissaries were the enslaved non-Muslim boys captured by the Ottoman empire from the 14th to the 17th c. These boys, between six and fourteen, were given to Turkish families to learn the Turkish language, customs and the creed of Islam. They became virtual slaves functioning at the discretion of the Sultan and served as his fiercest forces against the Christians in battle. Then, Changez is told: "as fanatical Muslims, they were set loose on the Christian countries from which they were taken."

In a startling moment of recognition, we realize that Changez, and many young South Asian men like him, are experiencing a similar transformation - tempted and seduced by American capitalism they succumb to Western goals and aspirations but, once disappointed and vilified by those elements who fear Islam in the West, they are forced to return to their home countries and then sometimes are enlisted in the attempt to destroy America.

Changez resigns from his position on Wall Street and ends his relationship with Erica (here the character of Erica disappears but in the novel she faces a grislier fate). He returns to Lahore where he is hired as a lecturer at the university. He voices dissatisfaction with U.S. intrusion in Pakistan and comes to the attention of the CIA as a radical; hence, his interrogation by the American journalist cum secret CIA agent at the beginning of the film.

The structure of the book is very different than the film although I hesitate to compare the two as that is often an unfair comparison. In the film, Changez is a well-meaning, conflicted hero rather than a possible instrument of evil who advocates violence and destruction (without giving away too much let us say that in the film Changez is not positioned as the blazing radical who is set on destroying America). It might be seen as a compromise towards a more acceptable narrative outcome for the Western viewer. In the West, we admire moral ambiguity in our heroes but we can't support the perception of an actively evil protagonist/ hero, on screen.

The director Mira Nair and the screenwriters strive to present a balanced humane portrait of Changez's family and origins - educated, cultured, humorous and sympathetic - a much needed remedy to portrayals of raging, anti-Western fanatics that pervade the media.

Changez is portrayed as nuanced and emotionally conflicted - repulsed by American global bullying and destruction but hesitant to embrace an aggressive and violent response to it. The author and the director have taken an unpopular position and attempted to present a balanced perspective of the enslaved former "colonial" who attempts to change his fate and destiny - and the result is unsettling and thought provoking.

Friday, February 28, 2014

February Cultural Roundup


Planes by Colors, František Kupka, The Great Upheaval exhibit
Films:
August: Osage County (U.S., 2013)
Her (U.S., 2013) 
Gravity (U.S., 2013) 
The Wolf of Wall Street (U.S., 2013)
Captain Phillips (U.S., 2013)
The Great Beauty (Italy, 2013)

Books
The Hole in the Middle by Kate Hilton
The Girl who Loved Camellias by Julie Kavanaugh

Art
The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection, AGO, February 15, 2014

Friday, January 31, 2014

January Cultural Roundup


Films
Pride and Prejudice (U.K., 1995)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (U.K., 1994)
American Hustle (U.S., 2013)

Books
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
Salvador by Joan Didion

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

So she begins ...


This will be my last post for some time ... as much as I have loved doing the A Lit Chick blog for the last seven years, I'd like to move on to a new writing project and I think the blog is sapping my creative juices somewhat after some 600 odd (yes truly odd) blog posts.

I will try and dedicate myself to the new project, setting modest goals each day until I complete a first draft.

Until I resume the A Lit Chick blog (and I hope to) ... so she begins.


It's all I have to bring today--
This, and my heart beside--
This, and my heart, and all the fields--
And all the meadows wide--
Be sure you count--should I forget
Some one the sum could tell--
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell.

 It's all I have to bring today ~ Emily Dickinson

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December Cultural Roundup

Alistair Sim from A Christmas Carol
Books
The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon (review)
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison

Comedy
Brian Regan at Queen Elizabeth Theatre, CNE, December 5, 2013

Films
A Christmas Carol (U.K., 1951)
Meet Me in St. Louis (U.S., 1944)
When Harry Met Sally (U.S., 1989)
The Conjuring (U.S., 2013)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Skirmish on Christmas


This is a reprint from a blog posted last year but I think it's still relevant...

Let me say up front that I have a healthy skepticism about the purported "war on Christmas" that is allegedly, and perennially, being waged by atheists, non-Christians and general purveyors of the destruction of Christian culture in the Western world. The biggest (and loudest) proponents of this view are, of course, Fox News and Christian televangelist Pat Robertson, ad nauseum, every Christmas season.

This war is, at best, perhaps a skirmish rather than a war - its militants are armed not with nuclear armaments but some lesser weapon ... say, machetes or, possibly, bayonets. 

What Fox News fails to acknowledge is that the Christmas spirit, such as it is, is omnipresent, pervasive, sometimes annoyingly so, in a society so obsessed with materialism and ostentatious public displays of wealth. It not so surreptitiously follows you into the drugstore, on to street corners, into the workplace, into every retail outlet and coffee shop with merchandise to peddle. It is virtually inescapable for those who do not celebrate it.

One minister recently offered an astute observation as to the biggest threat to the true meaning of Christmas: the rampant consumerism and monetization of everything having to do with Christmas, and not the godless heathens (like me) who don't believe in celebrating the birth of Jesus.

On the other hand, the crusaders against Christmas are tragically repulsed by, and rail against, the appearance of a lone Christmas tree at city hall, artfully designed nativity scenes in malls and the singing of Christmas carols by children in schools. 

I completely understand the unease of those who feel religious prayers should not be conducted in public schools and imposed on all, regardless of their religious belief. I, unconditionally, support the removal of religious symbols in almost all public spaces - the judiciary, municipal, provincial and federal offices, etc ...

Here is the secularist Annie Laurie Gaylor's triumphant crowing when she and fellow believers (or is that non-believers?) managed to have a nativity scene banned from Palisades Park in Santa Monica:
They [the secularists] showed the Christian people of the city what it feels like to have a public park promoting views that offend your personal conscience. These views were on public property that were supposed to be owned equally by everyone.
I agree somewhat and yet ... I can't help thinking what [fill in the indefinite article and  expletive of your choice].

Christmas has taken a distinctly non-religious character for many Canadians, newly arrived immigrant or long established citizen. In an on-line poll conducted by Abacus Data in December, 2011 of 1,004 respondents who were asked if they celebrate Christmas - no fewer than 86% in any given demographic category (and as high as 97% in one category) said that they did celebrate it - regardless of gender, age, province/region, religious affiliation, status as an immigrant or education.

I suspect that many of us do not necessarily celebrate the birth of Jesus - we celebrate something else, a tradition of being with family, gift sharing and charity. As one smart ass noted recently on facebook: "Just 'cause I say 'Merry Christmas' doesn't mean I worship Jesus." Indeed not.

But say we do try and eliminate all vestiges of Christmas from public life ... why stop there? Why not remove all religious paintings from publicly funded art galleries, forbid the singing of Christmas carols on the street and public spaces, halt all St. Valentine's, Easter and St. Patrick's Day celebrations in public schools, all holidays that clearly have a historical, religious Christian origin? No Valentines shared between schoolmates. No Easter egg hunts at school. No images of floppy Easter bunnies bearing chocolate eggs. No images of shamrocks or leprechauns.

But wait ... why not abolish Family Day in Ontario too? Doesn't that discriminate against some people? "What if you don't have a family?" one hapless female whined to me when it was announced that we would have a civic holiday in February named Family Day. Why ... were you raised by wolves? I wanted to ask. She was miffed by the name of the day. Okay, let's call it "Do whatever the heck you want day." Feel better now, girlie?

What a soulless, boring, fastidiously politically correct existence that would be ... to wipe out all the charming little rituals and customs that have a religious origin because some of us are alienated by Christianity (or any other religion or concept). Why eliminate that which is beautiful, charming, fun and artful - the sacred music and Christmas songs, the iconic visual art of the season, the nativity scenes, the Christmas fables for children, the sharing of wonderful treats particular to the Christmas season - because it may offend or is not in accordance with our own particular religious views?

This draconian perspective that requires that we eliminate all that potentially offends or alienates from public life will have a much larger, deleterious effect - it will destroy the goodwill and intentions of those who do not wish to offend, who are not bigoted, but merely wish to celebrate a Canadian tradition - because, yes, Christmas has become for many a Canadian tradition not a religious one, irrespective of one's faith. It's embedded in our culture and history. It's a part of our culture. Canadian culture.

Please, remove that which is racist, ugly and distasteful in society ... oppose intolerance everywhere, in every instance, but does Christmas really fall into that category?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Sweet Girl

 
The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon (Random House Canada), 256 pages
 
This book may be read as a companion piece to Lyon's prior novel The Golden Mean, a well received and loved precursor. You may read a review of it here. It follows the imagined life of Aristotle's daughter Pythias before, and after, the death of her father in the latter part of the 4th c. B.C.

The relationship is gentle, affectionate and charmingly evoked. He is proud of her keen intellect and curiosity; she is protective of, and solicitous towards, her father. Lyon achieves this easily by employing a very natural style of dialogue that flows beautifully and resembles modern speech.

There are no arcane or awkwardly worded passages that prevent enjoyment of the narrative or are overly hampered with historical references. Her descriptions are beautiful, clearly worded, and invite the reader into an easy understanding of the mores of the time.

Historical information is subtly communicated such as the casual reference to Pythias being veiled in public. Of course, you think, as a young girl she would be veiled. Pythias' language towards the slaves is sometimes dismissive, sometimes harsh, while irksome, this too appears realistic for a young girl of her station. Aristotle's colleagues are pleasantly surprised by Pythias' intelligence, and slightly amused.

When Aristotle dies following an ill-advised icy swim from which he never recovers. She is "bequeathed" to Nicanor, a near relation, a soldier, who has been away at war for many years, in his will.

The teenage Pythias is then unhappily thrown into a precarious situation. Herpyllis, the woman who raised Pythias after her mother died, is a former slave elevated by her intimate relationship with Aristotle and has becoem his concubine. However, she has no rights within the household after his death although she is adequately provided for and soon departs. Pythias' prospective husband Nicanor is still at war. Pythias' brother (son of Aristotle and Herpyllis) is too young to assume leadership in the family home which, incidentally, has been loaned to them by an admirer when they are forced to flee from Athens after the death of Alexander the Great. The Macedonians were soon persecuted with the death of the king, who as a Macedonian, served as a protector of other Macedonians against the conquered Greeks in the empire.

She is a teenage girl in a house largely full of unruly servants and slaves.The second half of the book stumbles a bit (at the exact point at which Aristotle dies). Pythias' emotional journey after Aristotle's death is treacherous. She moves from her own home to self imposed homelessness, flirting with a role as a priestess, as a prostitute, as a midwife. She experiments sexually and flaunts convention. This is done in an emotionless manner, her intention is unclear (as is Lyon's). Is she shell-shocked by her father's death? Does she feel abandoned? Is her behavior, in a manner, joyful? Does she feel liberated from patriarchal restraints?

Is it Lyon's view that without the protection of a patriarch (Aristotle and/or her future husband) or a matriarch (Herpyllis), the unprotected female descends into these positions of dependency, exploitation or abuse? As if to underline Pythias' status being akin to slavery as a young, unmarried female, the last act that Pythias performs in the novel is to set her favoured slave Tychos free.

Pythias only regains her equilibrium when Nicanor returns from the wars to marry her, which appears a contradiction to Pythias' independent manner and life. Nicanor, meanwhile, is reluctant to engage with her sexually and this is never explained fully. She is merely puzzled, not dismayed, not concerned. Is it because she views their sexual relations as yet another obligation, as a female, she is not eager to engage in.

For me, the ending is flat, uneventful, with the empowering of Tychos as a freed slave and Pythias seemingly settling in as a wife to Nicanor. Despite Lyon's obvious great talents as a writer, the meaning of this resolution is obscure and unsatisfying. 

Annabel Lyon

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Life Class

Life Class by Pat Barker (Penguin Group, 2007) 249 pages

I came to this book after reading Barker's newest book about the WWI experience entitled Toby's Room. That book focused on the mysterious disappearance of the main character Elinor Brooke's brother Toby who does not return from WWI after serving as a doctor on the front line. The military does not reveal how he died and his friends are strangely reticent to reveal the truth. It's an excellent read - you may read the review here

This book, Life Class, written years ago, serves (for me) as a sort of prequel to Toby's Room and details the lives of three key characters found in the later novel - Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville - before, and during, WWI. 

Paul is a lad from northern England studying at the Slade School of Art. Dispirited, self-critical and intelligent, he considers leaving the school. Elinor piques his interest but so does, apparently, most other attractive females it seems including Elinor's friend Teresa, an alluring and troubled model at the school. 

Barker, a female writer, is adroit at depicting both male lust (Paul and Kit's) and female sexual reticence (Elinor's). Elinor is the object of affection for both Kit and Paul, all art students at Slade. Their professor Henry Tonks, a surgeon turned art professor at Slade, is a real historical personage who went on to document (for medical and historical purposes) the ravages of the war on the faces of the WWI soldiers who survived with extreme facial wounds.

When the war begins, Paul enlists as a Red Cross worker and is sent to the front in Ypres, France. Kit goes on to work with German internees. Elinor remains in the country painting for a time but is soon expected to join her mother at home. Sister Rachel is pregnant and indisposed, brother Toby has also enlisted and her doctor father is working (and possibly philandering) somewhere outside of the family home.

This book is as much about the perception of the value of art, and artists, during troubled times as it is about the war. Elinor's artistic ambition is seen as a lark, a frivolous frill - less important than Rachel's domesticity or Toby's involvement in the war. She is urged to take up nursing but wants to focus on her art, much to the disappointment of the people around her who are cosnumed by the war. 
Much of the book also deals with largely adolescent romantic fumbling - Kit and Paul vying for Elinor, Paul wooing Teresa, a pretty model with an abusive, violent husband, and Elinor trying on the various guises of femininity and womanhood. Kit courting Catherine, Elinor's friend. Paul's experience with a weary, if friendly, French prostitute. 

There is a slight digression when the novel shifts to Elinor's experience with the Bloomsbury group, specifically her encounters with Lady Ottoline Morrell. The author's intent is obscure - to demonstrate that privilege  and the love of art remain despite the war? 

Barker evocatively reminds one of under-examined aspects of the war - the sudden amatory passions that ignited amongst the British populace, the persecution and internment of the citizens of German descent, the many soldiers who returned with unspeakable wounds and injuries (catalogued by artists like Tonks), the uneasy calm and sense of normalcy that surrounds the town of Ypres, and other towns like it, just a short distance from the battleground; Elinor's surreptitious visit to Ypres where Kit is stationed, disguised as a nurse. I am certain many other soldiers engaged in these trysts then ...

What Kit witnesses as an ambulance driver revolts and shocks the reader - the slow death of the mutilated soldiers, the soldier trapped in a burning vehicle, the wounded children, the numbing of feeling and reaction for one exposed to so much horror. Kit's matter of fact observation, communicated by letter to Elinor, seem totally believable - never overstated in description - stark and straightforward without embellishments. 

The cliche of the "insanity of war" is pronounced and disturbing. An attempted suicide at the front line is studiously stitched back together so that he might be properly shot for desertion. 

My fascination with the First World War sometimes disturbs me ... why pine and moon over WWI soldiers and their suffering and not have a single thought for our own vets returning from Afghanistan here in Canada? My literary obsession with this war sometimes strikes me as silly and hypocritical. I shed no tears for these forgotten men but I often think of the soldiers who returned (or did not) from WWI. Why? Because it is romantic, it involves no real emotional or political commitment on my part ...
This romanticizing is easy and facile. Easy for me to attend a Remembrance Day ceremony and shed a tear while listening to a University of Toronto staff member recite In Flanders Fields before the Soldiers Tower (granted it is a very moving experience for those who have attended it). The ceremony lasts about 40 minutes and is quite elaborate with prayers said, wreathes laid, and hymns and poems read.

Much harder to acknowledge and put pressure on Harper's government to treat these returning vets fairly. I will end with this disturbing note:
The Harper government says it intends to appeal a B.C. court ruling that cleared the way for a class-action lawsuit involving veterans of Canada's war in Afghanistan. A group of ex-soldiers is taking Ottawa to court, alleging that the federal government's new system of compensating veterans violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The government's new veterans charter eliminated the lifetime disability pension for disabled soldiers and replaced it with lump-sum payments. The veterans say the new disability payments are paltry compared to awards given to those who fought in previous wars, and don't keep up with worker's compensation claims — or even civil settlements in personal injury cases. Canadian Press, October 2, 2013
Respect for the military indeed. Let's put our money where our mouth is ... if we value their contribution, let's prove it. Or do we reserve that respect and concern only for those who died years ago and are no longer our concern or problem? 



Saturday, November 30, 2013

November Cultural Roundup


external image soldier_1.jpg
Literary:
The Delware Literary Salon featuring Koom Kankesan, Cathy Petch, Bocelli (aka Paul Salvatori) and Andre Prefontaine, November 3, 2013

Launch of Italian-Canadians at the Table: A Narrative Feast in Five Courses (Guernica Editions) edited by Loretta Gatto-White & Delia De Santis at Columbus Centre, November 10, 2013

UofT Book Club with Linda Spalding and Who Named the Knife?, November 22, 2013

Books:
The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder (please see review here)
Life Class by Pat Barker (please see review here)
T.S. Eliot by Northrop Frye

Films:
The Dallas Buyers Club (U.S., 2013)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Gone to flowers, every one


And where have all the graveyards gone, long time passing?
Where have all the graveyards gone, long time ago?
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Gone to flowers, every one!
When will they ever learn, oh when will they ever learn?

Where Have All the Flowers Gone ~ Peter, Paul and Mary


The Juliet Stories
by Carrie Snyder (House of Anansi, 2012) 324 pages

This is a sometimes disturbing look into a familial situation where the political and personal goals of the adults trump the personal desires and happiness of the entire family, particularly the children. This may not have been the author's intent but this is what we take away from it as readers.

It begins with the young Juliet Friesen's family landing in Nicaragua in the early 1980s during the reign of the Sandinistas, whom the Friesens support against the Contras. Three children ranging in age from a toddler (Emmanuel) to a pre-pubescent boy (Keith) to a near teenager (Juliet) accompany their parents, Bram and Gloria Friesen, social activists involved in a group known as the Roots of Justice.

Rising opposition to the Somoza dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s fomented the Nicaraguan Revolution led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) which attempted to oust the dictatorship in 1978-79. The FSLN then governed Nicaragua from 1979 until 1990. The Contra War was waged between the FSLN and the Contras (supported by the American government) from the early 1980s to 1990. The Friesens arrive in the midst of this chaos. 

Would it shock you to learn that the Friesens live in impoverished, difficult circumstances where the children face a sometimes hostile environment, squalor, and a sense of alienation from the general (and much poorer) Nicaraguan populace?

Through Juliet's eyes - bright, inquisitive, sensitive Juliet - she bears witness to all. Snyder doesn't shy away from presenting the Nicaraguans as flawed human beings rather than as a victimized, near saintly group striving towards noble revolutionary goals against the Contras. The maid steals, Juliet's playmates torment or ignore her, her parents' Latin American colleagues are sometimes disdainful, hostile even.

We also see that the imminently human Bram and Gloria have had their trysts, their dalliances, with like-minded activists. Bram, a respected leader in their district, attracts every young thing with a political motivation and a lonely heart; Gloria too becomes smitten with a Dutch Red Cross worker who pays her courteous, almost courtly, attention but who returns dutifully to his wife after the families nearly drown during a boat ride in a sudden storm.

Life is random, suddenly frightening or exhilarating:
Life is nothing like Choose Your Own Adventure [a children's book Juliet is reading]. Except for when it is, in its randomness: a cancer cell splitting and and spreading ruthlessly within the bloodstream; a storm rising on a deadly lake. Except for when it is, in the way the ending changes - in memory, in meaning, rather than substance.
A rally that the family attends serves as an apt metaphor. As Gloria surges forward with the crowd trying to touch the sleeve of Daniel Ortega, then President of Nicaragua, as if he is a Messiah, a god, Juliet is swallowed up by the crowd and almost trampled and Keith is lost amongst the rallyers. It is some time before Gloria realizes what has happened and then she dissolves in hysterics.

The parents lurch from one disastrous situation to another - some might call them brave but I find them to be fools who jeopardize the health and happiness of their children. 

Eventually, due to a medical crisis in the family, the Friesens, temporarily sans father Bram, return to Canada with Gloria dissolving into a nervous breakdown before the plane even lands. But the narrative tension shifts with the move to Canada perhaps in a manner that does not aid the novel. 

Juliet's issues seem more mundane, less exotic in Canada: fitting into a new school, dealing with her brother's serious illness, discovering her sexuality and coping with how to present oneself as a female (makeup, clothes, attracting male attention), watching her parents' marriage dissolve and her mother remarrying, dealing with an increased attraction to her new stepbrother. 

Unsupervised, or nearly unsupervised, Juliet drifts into the usual predictable sort of trouble  a teenage girl drifts into. Juliet is brave, sometimes foolish, anxious for experience of all kinds, and Snyder paints a sensitive and poignant picture of the young adult Juliet: 
She thinks of what she is willing to sacrifice in order to burn, to feel her light burning. It is dangerous close to the fire, and she does not feel afraid.
But I feel the second half of the novel set in Canada does not hold together as well as the first half set in Nicaragua. It feels fragmented, snippets of Juliet's new life pieced together to form not quite a whole. Why include the grandmother's admission that she had a brief tryst with a married man during the war? Why include a longish chapter about Juliet's attraction to her stepbrother? There is a randomness that undermines the cohesiveness of the novel.

In her acknowledgments, Snyder notes with gratitude her own personal history and relation to the novel with her parents taking her to Nicaragua as a child and no doubt, in retrospect, it may have seemed an exciting adventure but as it is presented here, and I realize that it may be largely fictional, the adventures appear an exercise in chaos and poor choices in pursuit of a fantastic political ideal, if any, that few could realize.

I fluctuate between the desire to know what is autobiographical and what is not but then I realize it doesn't matter, Snyder has written a truth so beautifully and powerfully about this young girl that it overrides any reality. 

*Originally published on descant.ca/blog on November 14, 2013

Carrie Snyder 



Monday, November 18, 2013

What he left behind


I was angry with Lenny*. Very angry. He had left us with two months unpaid rent. Bouncing cheques. Delayed payments sometimes in cash if at all. Frequent protestations that he could still pay the rent after months of evidence that he could not. And a filthy apartment strewn with his left behind junk.

I was less sympathetic than R about Lenny staying in the unit. Yeah, Ms. I-volunteer-with-the-homeless. I was really irritated with and anxious about the overdue rent. It's a little different when it's your pocketbook and time that's affected I found. I didn't have a personal connection with Lenny. I barely knew him. But even I didn't have the heart to try and remove him when it was clear that things were heading south for him. The girlfriend left, leaving him alone to pay the rent. He seemed to have lost his job and whether he lost it, or was laid off, was unclear. He seemed to be having some mental health issues.

You may not think it, but it is difficult to remove a tenant, both physically and psychologically. And we didn't have the heart to proceed. 

R was the one who would talk to him when issues arose - he was sleeping during the day, unkempt and apathetic, with no apparent employment (he said he was working nights now - was he?), the house a mess, and no promise of future rent in sight.

What he left behind wasn't pretty either. An apartment full of garbage ... discarded clothes and shoes in the closet and in garbage bags lying around ... uneaten food in the fridge and the cupboards ... filthy, rusted, corroded appliances that had not been cleaned in years ... a closet full of used cat litter ... cupboards full of food that was rotting away ...

It was difficult to show the apartment in such a state. The little apartment had so many advantages. Nice street in a lovely Victorian-era house. Beautiful if unkempt garden. A newly renovated bathroom. Good neighbours. But not in this state ... nary a serious nibble from the many people who came to view the apartment. Nada.

It needed a extreme cleaning makeover. I didn't think even a cleaning service could tackle this without charging some exorbitant fee. R and I decided to roll up our sleeves and tackle it ourselves. The kitchen was the worst ... okay, starting with the kitchen it was.

We went through the cupboards first ... we emptied them of bags of old brown rice, numerous pouches and boxes of assorted herbal teas, mineral supplements, healthy pastas, likely purchased ages ago by the ex-girlfriend before his troubles seem to start. She had worked in a health food store and apparently brought home all this nutritious food for them - now largely unused it appeared.

About a year and a half ago, R had received a phone call from the girlfriend: she said if Lenny tried to cash a cheque and it had her name on it, that account was now defunct and we shouldn't cash it. Sure enough he did try and give us one. We asked for another. That went through but others sometimes did not. Then he started paying in cash. Sometimes not until mid month. Then not at all. Finally he said he would leave of his own volition and was moving in with a near relation to care for them and receive a government subsidy for doing so. We had no idea if this was true but I admit I was relieved.

Last Christmas he asked us to change the locks on the apartment. Why? He was afraid that the girlfriend would come back and try and get in. To do what? He wouldn't say. He didn't push very hard and we weren't about to change the locks unless he had a good reason. He then suddenly dropped his request and said it was fine, that there was no need to do so.

He left behind a dozen pairs of shoes - some of them hers. Really ... what female leaves without her shoes? Was she forced out? Stormed out? Too anxious to leave and forgot them?

We continued looking through the cupboards. R found some packet samples of anti-depressants, some unused, deep in the cupboards. It looked to me like samples a sympathetic doctor might have given a patient who could not afford them or didn't have an insurance plan. But why unused? Did he give up on them? Did they not allay his symptoms? Did they not work?

Ugh, wizen-hearted landlady ... you feel horrid now don't you? Yes, I do.

Even though the car is on the fritz and I'm paying for an emergency root canal (luckily for me partially covered by insurance) and the house needs some work ... I am trying to forget Lenny's debt. My (our) troubles seem small, minuscule. As I scrubbed and wiped and poured cleanser over every possible surface, my anger ebbed away and I flushed it wholesale down the sink with the dirty water and all the uncharitable thoughts I'd been having. And that felt really good.

*Not his real name