Archive for the ‘2000s’ Category

honeymoon in purdah alison wearingHoneymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey by Alison Wearing ~ 2000. This edition: Vintage Canada, 2001. Softcover. ISBN: 0-676-97362-0. 319 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

In 1995, a decade and a half after the revolution which resulted in the deposition of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamist fundamentalist government led by Ayatollah Khomeini, a young Canadian woman and her male partner entered Iran on tourist visas. Their official reason: a honeymoon journey. The not so official reason: for Alison Wearing, the chance to explore a country and culture vilified in the Western world as impossibly backwards and more than slightly dangerous for touristing. For her partner Ian, Iran is a second-choice destination. He really wanted to go to Bulgaria, but a fear of travelling alone and, one suspects, Alison’s more focussed drive and tenacious personality, have resulted in this joint trip.

Before taking this trip together … we would spend hours poring over maps, planning long, arduous treks through desolate corners of the earth or road trips across continents.

The only problem was my strong belief in travel as a solitary pursuit. And Ian’s fear of travelling alone… We settled on Iran because it was the only place I couldn’t imagine going on my own. And for a whole stack of other reasons that had nothing to do with our relationship.

The year before we met, I had made my fifth trip to Yugoslavia. I went, in part, to visit friends trapped in the middle of war, but also because the media’s portrait of the place – full of barbarians and void of humanity – made the world seem unlivable. I refused to believe that such a place of unalloyed evil truly existed, that that was the end of the story. I went because I believed that there had to be more. And because I like to look for saints where there are said to be demons.

Iran became our destination for the same reason.

I’m going to share a major spoiler here, one that comes part way through the book. (I don’t feel particularly bound to keep this a secret; it is something of a “first line” in many of the internet reviews I’ve read.)

I have a confession to make. Ian isn’t my husband. We aren’t even lovers, just friends. We forged a marriage certificate just before leaving Montreal using photocopies of his brother and sister-in-laws document, and that is what we are using to get ourselves into hotels. Most proprietors don’t ask and of those that do, two have scrutinized the paper very seriously while holding it upside down, so we needn’t have worried so much about its appearance of authenticity. The thing we should have worried about, perhaps, is the effect that photocopying and whiting out of names on a marriage certificate might have had. By the time Ian and I had reached Iran, his brother’s marriage had collapsed.

So Ian, my fussy, gay roommate and I are romping around Iran quite illegally. And not altogether happily, if only because our interests are not as parallel as we had grown to believe. He is primarily concerned with dead things (history, buildings, wars), and I primarily with living things. Sometimes I find myself wishing he would evaporate, which isn’t to say I don’t still find him endearing. It’s just that our differences have become painfully obvious under this desert light…

So that is the explanation of the double entendre title of this exceedingly revealing (yet not quite forthcoming) travel memoir. The author has been rattling around the world quite independently for some time already, a seasoned traveller indeed. But this trip called out for a partnership, because of the difficulties inherent in a woman attempting to move about unchaperoned by a male relative in a very strictly policed, Islamic fundamentalist country. It is doubtful that, alone, Alison would ever have been permitted to cross the border, with only “tourist” as her declared motivation. A honeymoon journey, while raising some eyebrows, is accepted as a valid excuse, especially when Alison, whenever necessary, willingly dons full traditional garb: manteau, headscarf, and all-enveloping chaador.A woman in a chador mixed with modern dress underneath.

First of all, there is no such thing as “wearing” a chaador. There is only “managing to keep one on.” And I don’t say this as a frustrated novice, but as an observer of scores of women who have been dressing with it most of their lives.

The chaador is a living, wriggling entity, whose preferred habitat is the floor. Any woman trying to cover herself is not only fighting the true nature of the fabric, but also gravity, which has been in cahoots with the chaador since the beginning of time. The moment the chaador is on, wrapped in just the right way, covering all the right things, it begins its dogged descent, squirming along the sleek surface of the hair, hoping to make a clean leap to the neck, where it can secure a foothold for its plummet off the shoulders. An astonishing portion of the wearer’s energy and concentration goes into minimizing the creature’s progress, herding it back into position around her face, leashing it to her fingers and fists, or clamping its skin between her teeth. It doesn’t enjoy being corralled in this way. Thus the constant wrestling. The creature prefers damp, humid surroundings and feeds on sweat.

The literal translation of chaador is “tent”, but from my own camping experience this seems a poor translation. The sack-shaped coat and scarf I have on right now are the tent. The chaador thrown overtop feels more like the fly.

Alison Wearing fully embraces the experience of going – literally – undercover in Iran. Though she is deliciously sarcastic and witty throughout, she is also good-spirited and gracefully positive, describing her impressions on every aspect of her travels from the clothes to the food to the various characters she encounters to her long-suffering travelling companion Ian, whom, incidentally,  we don’t really get to know, aside from a few brief vignettes here and there. It is rather as if Alison has chosen to shield Ian from examination, focussing instead on her own emotional and physical journey. It would be most interesting to read a parallel account of the Iranian episode from Ian’s point of view; one suspects his inner voice would consist predominantly of one long, high-pitched scream, triggered by Alison’s continuous flittings off and nonchalant eventual returns: Ian seems to (understandably) spend much of his Iranian time in a state of high anxiety. Alison must have been an utterly exhausting partner for their five months “honeymoon” in Iran.

All criticism aside of the self-indulgence of relatively well-heeled Western travellers sightseeing in troubled Eastern countries – and Alison addresses this dichotomy in her narrative numerous times – this book is an excellent example of a modern travel memoir. It opens a window into a very different culture, and it educates and informs as much as it amuses. And it is very amusing. And poignant, and heart-rending, and – this goes without saying – thought provoking. Well done, Alison Wearing.

Many years have passed since Alison took her Iranian journey and wrote about it so wonderfully well. In the meantime she has married, had a son, and pursued numerous other interests, including the successful production and performance of a one-person stage show based on her childhood, adolescence and young womanhood, much of it centered around the situation of her father’s “coming out” as a gay man – albeit one with a wife and three children – in the 1970s, in conservative Peterborough, Ontario. Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter is Alison’s second memoir, published just this year, some thirteen years after her first book. I am looking forward to reading it with anticipation; I had thought to add it to my Christmas wish list, but I suspect I will acquire it long before then.

Read Full Post »

monkey beach eden robinsonMonkey Beach by Eden Robinson ~ 2000. This edition: Vintage Canada, 2001. Softcover. ISBN: 0676973221. 377 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10.

Fabulous writer, this Eden Robinson.

Part of the time (most of the time) the words flow effortlessly and reading them is like riding the crest of a perfect wave; occasionally the reader is tumbled out of complacence and, gasping a bit from the shock, needs to go back over what has just been read, to readjust to what’s just been thrown at you.

This would have been a solid 10, but I docked the half point because the story fell into cliché right near the end, after brilliantly flouting expectations most of the way through.

Picking snippets at random from the first page of a Google search on Monkey Beach yields these comments: “(C)ombines both joy and tragedy in a harrowing yet restrained story of grief and survival…”; “(F)illed with intense landscapes…”; “(A)ddresses issues related to race, historic oppression, and the clash between cultures in a coming-of-age ghost story…”; “(A) story about childhood, family, loss, grief and life on a 21st century Native-Canadian reserve…”

Ooh, sounds all deep and Can-Lit dark, doesn’t it? But the story transcends these sound-bite assessments. Already at the bottom of the first page I couldn’t look away; I read eagerly to the end (flagging just a little when the author stubbed her toe on the possible-but-slightly-contrived reason for her brother’s motivations regarding that trip out onto the ocean); completely accepted the rather vague ending scenario (who’s really alive? dead? what does it all mean?); and eagerly pressed it into my husband’s hands: “You must read this book!” (And he did, and he loved it, too.)

A surprisingly funny and, yes, cheerful (in places) sort of book for all of the tragedies it describes.

The internet is seething with reviews on this one; I missed it when it first came out, but apparently it was a Giller Prize finalist and a Governor General’s Award finalist in 2000. It apparently made quite a stir, and in the thirteen years since first publication has become a Can-Lit high school/college standard; likely because (cynicism alert!) of its First Nations author, characters, and themes. And (of course!) because it’s a well-written and cleverly complex tale; lots of room for exploration, and the generation of many words of student “analysis”.

I was going to give you a quickie overview, but instead I’m about to cheat big time and refer you to the Canadian Literature Quarterly of Spring 2001, to the article Beauty and Substance by Jennifer Andrews, which nicely sums things up.

Eden Robinson’s Giller-Prize nominated Monkey Beach … [creates] a darkly comic narrative about the life of Lisamarie Hill, a woman who returns to memories of her childhood and adolescence in order to cope with the disappearance of her brother, Jimmy. Robinson, a mixed-blood Haisla and Heiltsuk woman raised near the Haisla village of Kitamaat, has previously published a collection of short stories, Traplines (1996), that won the Winifred Holtby Prize, the Prism International Prize for Short Fiction, and was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Like Robinson, the protagonist, Lisamarie—named after Elvis Presley’s daughter—negotiates various worlds while growing up in Kitamaat. She moves between the eclectically traditional ways of her grandmother, Ma-ma-moo, who educates Lisamarie by sharing her passion for television soap operas and teaching her the Haisla language, and the New World activism of her Uncle Mick. A complex web of contradictions, Mick is a survivor of the residential school system, a Native activist who once belonged to the American Indian Movement, a nomad who can never rest, and an Elvis fan whose passion for the “King” knows no bounds. He offers another dimension of experience to Lisamarie by encouraging her to express herself politically. After losing both Mick and Ma-ma-moo, Lisamarie must figure out a way to put her life back together and come to terms with these ghosts from her past.

The novel traces Lisamarie’s journey to discover the fate of her brother, a boat ride that gives her the time and space to recount her story. The narrative is rooted in the beauty and mystery of place, particularly Monkey Beach, a site of family outings and rumoured sasquatch sightings. Robinson’s ability to evoke characters through dialogue and create vivid images of the community, coupled with her awareness of the intricate links between individuals and the land they live on gives the novel a richly layered texture that conveys the significance of Lisamarie’s mixed-blood heritage (Haisla, Heiltsuk, and European). Although the structure of the novel suspends the immediate action of the story, a risky strategy, Robinson’s narrative weaves together multiple plot lines with subtlety and grace, delicately responding to readers’ desire to know the fate of Lisamarie’s brother and the need to recount her past. Moreover, the comic aspects of the novel provide a wonderful counterbalance to the bleakness of Lisamarie’s life, particularly when she ends up living on the streets of East Vancouver. Robinson creates a novel in which humour may lighten the moment but irony ensures that the full weight of tribal histories of colonization and genocide remains a potent force in the text. This is one case in which beauty and substance join together, creating a novel that delivers what it promises.

What else can I add? If you come across this book, pick it up and start reading. If it hooks you, go on. Its early promise holds up remarkably well.

Then, when you’ve read it, check out the author biography and interview at B.C. Book World.

Read Full Post »

outside the line christian petersen 001Outside the Line by Christian Petersen ~ 2009. This edition: Dundurn Press, 2009. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-55002-859-1. 213 pages.

My rating: 6/10. I must admit I gave this one an extra dash of “like” because it is by a hometown author. If it was by someone from somewhere else, it would likely only rate a 5. Maybe not even that high…

Christian Petersen has also had published two volumes of short stories. I read, greatly enjoyed, and subsequently reviewed the first collection, Let the Day Perish, so was eager to read Petersen’s first full-length novel.

*****

Middle-aged Peter Ellis is an auxiliary probation officer attached to a busy office in a small, unnamed city in the interior of British Columbia. (And though never named, it is very obviously Williams Lake, with a few creative liberties taken here and there; not quite sure why Petersen didn’t just go ahead and “locate” his place; the caginess is perhaps a self-protective measure by an author who lives and works in his own – though obviously slightly fictionalized – setting.)

As a former student of literature and lower-case communist who once attended rallies and freely signed all manner of petitions, (Peter) had never had any interest or intention of getting involved in the Justice System. When he first began working as a probation officer, a few of his friends questioned the move, and thereby his values. With these keen defenders of human rights he took an almost apologetic tone, claimed the job was a trial run, just a means of survival, certainly temporary. He chews gum at a range of paces, aggressively at the moment, while he swivels back and forth in his chair, prioritizing the work at hand. What he didn’t admit to anyone, even to himself for a long time, was that this job hooked him immediately. Every day it places him at the crisis point in someone’s life, tangent to a stupid mistake, a rage, an arrest.

Peter shies from judgement, despite or maybe partly to spite his Baptist upbringing. He suffers with imagination like vertigo lately, glimpsing life’s infinite heartbreaking scenarios. He wonders whether it is some errant part in himself, some piece askew, that enables his rapport with the probation clients, the offenders.

Then a client walks into Peter’s life whom he can find no common ground with, no sympathy or rapport.

Twenty-four-year-old Todd Nolin is, despite his relative youth, already washed up, and dealing with it badly. As a teenage hockey star and National Hockey League draft pick rookie player, Todd’s potentially brilliant career has gone sideways on him; he’s been quietly let go from the team with no real reason given, and he’s gone from being totally focussed on hockey and rolling in cash to working in the sports store in his old home town, where he’s come to lick his wounds after his ego-crushing letdown.

While Todd was flying high, he bought a lavish (well, lavish by small-town B.C. standards) house in the upper scale neighbourhood he grew up in, hosted wild parties, and took up with a gorgeous local girl, Marina Faro. Now, two years after the “big time”, all that remains of Todd’s fleeting time as an elite athlete is a hometown hero reputation, an appetite for alcohol and cocaine, a condo, and the lovely Marina. And he’s just screwed up the last two. The reason Todd is in Peter Ellis’ office is because of a recent enraged physical and sexual assault of Marina; one of the terms of Todd’s probation is a restraining order barring him from both his home and girlfriend.

Todd’s not taking it well at all. He takes an immediate dislike to his probation officer, and the feeling is more than mutual, especially once Peter meets Marina and feels stirrings of multiple emotions; a paternalistic protective instinct combined with admiration for her physical beauty, plus the unmistakable stirrings of sexual attraction.

Against his better judgement, Peter lets himself go with his feelings. You see, Peter’s own personal life is a bit of a mess, what with his beloved wife of eight years having walked out on him six months or so ago. She’s left Peter for another woman, and is now living in California, only connecting with Peter to inquire why their house, purchased several years ago with the idea of starting a family, hasn’t sold yet.

Facing personal bankruptcy both emotional and financial, Peter has been letting himself go in more ways than one, and when he breaks that ironclad taboo not to get personally involved with a client, he goes down hard. And Todd is on to him…

The rest of the story falls into predictable patterns, and the dramatic ending is par for the course with this type of novel; nothing out of the ordinary.

This is actually a very ordinary story, an ordinary drama. It’s a step back in some ways from Petersen’s edgy short stories, much more cliché-ridden and safer and tamer, despite attempts to keep it moving by tossing in references to the cowboy culture of the area, and a continuous scornful sub-theme of the bad attitudes and deep stupidity of the local “rednecks”.

That last term was what I found most troubling about this novel, because it shows up way too often. C’mon, Christian, is it you or your character Peter talking here? A few too many cheap digs at the less intellectual inhabitants of our “fictional” town, in my opinion.

That, and the totally stereotypical situation with the gorgeous Marina and Peter’s “urges” being too strong for him to control. No matter if she made reciprocal moves of her own, what was the man thinking?!?

Oh, right. Plot device.

*****

Outside the Line is billed as a mystery novel, but it isn’t any such thing. It’s more of a dramatic-suspense, noir-lite type of story. It also reads very much a “first novel”, a bit rough around the edges here and there, especially in the final dramatic scenes, as if the author was not quite sure how to handle his characters during the physical action. He does seem more at home with the cerebral stuff.

I think the word I’m looking for here is “promising”. What is good in Petersen’s writing is very good indeed, as his well-tailored short stories prove. This novel moves in a different direction, and Petersen occasionally falters along the way. I think I made allowances for the weaknesses in the narrative and especially the plot because I did so want to like this book, and I was curious as to what the author would make of a setting familiar to me from my own experience.

Petersen’s Peter Ellis kept reminding my vaguely of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie, in that even though he pulled off the most desperately stupid moves, I still liked him at the end. There’s some good writing going on here, and the characterization of Ellis was one of the better aspects of Outside the Line. (The plot, however, was the weakest bit.)

And as for that whole “first novel is autobiography” thing, it seems alive and well in this case. Christian Petersen is intimately familiar with the B.C. interior’s Cariboo-Chilcotin region, as he grew up in Quesnel, and currently lives in Williams Lake, where he works as a probation officer. Well, “write what you know” is good advice, and in this case it works out fairly decently. This novel was just good enough that I would readily read a second, if it ever makes it to the bookstore shelf.

Kudos to Mr. Petersen for his persistence in honing his writerly craft and branching out genre-wise. Here’s hoping that that more than abundant promise is refined even further in future books.

Note: I don’t personally know Christian Petersen, despite being the same age as he is and sharing the same communities. His author photos look darned familiar though; I’m sure we’ve crossed paths in our daily rounds. Williams Lake is really just a very small town at heart, despite its bold claim to cityhood. I’m looking forward to one day meeting the author in person, perhaps at his next novel launch, if and when that occurs. Despite this rather damning review, I have a genuine liking and admiration for his writing style.

Read Full Post »

Surfacing briefly from the May supreme busy-ness which only escalate in the coming weeks – I’m in the plant nursery business –  to talk a bit about a book. Much as I’d like to maunder on in-depth about everything I’ve been reading recently, there are those pesky time constraints…

A week ago it was below zero (Celsius) and snowing; today, in our region’s typical spring weather extremes fashion, it is forecast to hit the mid-plus-20s. The sun is coming across the valley (we’re nestled at the foot of the east side, tall hills behind us) so until it hits us directly I’m off-duty, as it were, from going out and tinkering with greenhouse ventilation systems. (Well, fans, windows, doors and roll-up hoop house side panels – not very fancy – but “ventilation systems” sounds much more professional, doesn’t it?) 😉

The second Sunday morning cup of tea is at hand – I’ve already consumed the first propped up in bed finishing a re-read of Tom’s Midnight Garden –  and I’ve a short but sweet guilt-free chunk of non-work-related computer time before I need to be really up and moving again. Here we go.

extra virgin annie hawesExtra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month Is Enchanted by Annie Hawes – 2001. This edition: Harper Collins, 2001. Hardcover, first American edition. ISBN: 0-06-019850-8. 337 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

I almost didn’t pick this one up, but was intrigued by the (presumably) Elizabeth von Arnim reference in the subtitle. What I found inside this densely written creative autobiography was a better reward than I deserved for my initial hesitation. It’s taken me a good week of hard-won reading breaks to get through it all, but I was never tempted to set it aside in exchange for something shorter and easier. This one was a quiet pleasure from Prologue to reluctantly-turned last page.

Back in the early 1980s, a young Englishwoman, recently turned down as a “poor risk” in her attempt to receive bank financing to buy her own home in England, is at loose ends and feeling rather sour about life in general. Her sister convinces her to come along on a working trip to Italy, grafting roses for a small commercial operation in the Ligurian hills, in the region of the “Italian Riviera”.

Annie is a rose-culture neophyte, but her obviously experienced sister coaches her through the first thorny weeks, after which, settled well into their temporary occupation, the two find themselves occasionally with time to explore the surrounding countryside. On one of their off-duty hill walks they come across a derelict stone house in a neglected olive grove, and when the local real estate entrepreneur scents their interest, they find themselves possessed of a rural Italian property for the unbelievably cheap sum of 2000 pounds. The facilities are primitive to the extreme – water is bucketed up from a shallow dug well, and an outdoor shower and “earth closet” are needed for sanitary purposes, but the two settle into their new life with optimistic tenacity.

This is a rather different tale from the usual “we bought a place in a foreign paradise and hired quaint locals to fix it up” lifestyle porn. Written several decades after the purchase, the tone is not at all cutesy and patronizing. The sisters go to and from England and Italy regularly for many years – England for the “real” jobs which earn the funds to return to Italy for the love of the place, and, increasingly, the people.

I’ll tease you by revealing that Annie is not all that forthcoming about personal details, but more than makes up for it in her portraits of others, and in her much too brief comments regarding her own family. As well as the sister of the Ligurian enterprise there are three brothers, several of whom chip in to provide much-needed labour and even fire-fighting assistance during the progressive slow Italian house and olive grove renovations which stretch over the years.

Other reviewers – I briefly scanned the book’s page on Goodreads – had issue with some of the stylistic devices the author used, but I found them to be a non-issue, personally. Extra Virgin is written from the “we” viewpoint throughout, only slipping into “I” near the end. Much ironic use of capitalized terms – the Sulky Bar, the Evil Sister, the Poor Stranger, and so on. Again, for me, not a problem. The Author stayed most consistently true to her Chosen Style.

I did just a bit of research on Hawes after finishing Extra Virgin, and was more than intrigued by what I found – Annie’s back story includes a teenage marriage and a residence in Portugal, a child of that (quickly dissolved) marriage, much travelling and a “real” career as a film editor. Not much of this comes out in the Italian tale, but apparently her succeeding books, Ripe for the Picking and A Journey to the South, are more personally revealing. There’s also a Moroccan memoir, A Handful of Honey.

Annie’s second career as a memoirist is a definite success, at least enough so that, according to an author interview which appeared on the Harper Collins website, she now has indoor plumbing in Liguria.

I enjoyed the author’s voice in Extra Virgin enough that I will be seeking out her other books as soon as I am able to. She writes with a wry, dry humour and a very individual style, just short of “travel writer” parody. In a very good way. Loved it.

Oh – one more point in favour. Annie Hawes can certainly write about food! Amazing descriptions of the wild-crafted, gardening and culinary abundance of Liguria. I absent-mindedly found myself lining out yet another flat of basil seedlings and potting up extra eggplant babies while musing on my ongoing reading of Extra Virgin while out in my own very earth(l)y paradise this past week. This book made me hungry. Again, in a very good way.

Read Full Post »

sisters torn cynthia faryon 001Sisters Torn by Cynthia J. Faryon ~ 2001. This edition: Caitlin Press, 2001. Softcover. ISBN: 0-920576-92-3. 297 pages.

My rating: 4/10.

A tragic family story, and much as I respected the author’s desire to record it, it didn’t quite come to life as it might have. Perhaps the attempts at dialect and dialogue didn’t really work out?

This has a small press, “self published” feel to it. It definitely could have used a stronger editorial presence, to clean up grammar, punctuation and proof reading errors, all of which were much too frequent, and got in the way of my fully appreciating the narrative.

*****

From the back cover:

“I promise I will always look afta’ my sista’ no matter what, I will never let go of her hand.”

Little did young Simone realize, as she made this promise to her aunt, that she and young Catherine would spend the next 65 years trying to reconnect.

Abandoned by their parents and separated by the British adoption system, these two young girls would face impersonal orphanages, brutal boarding-out homes, a world war, and separation by an ocean and two continents before they finally met again – in Victoria, B.C.

This is their story as told to the daughter of one of them. It is a story of pain and courage – and hope.

Born to a mismatched couple in the 1920s – their mother “married beneath her” – young Simone and Catherine were placed with relatives when their baby brother tragically died in a gruesome accident (vividly – perhaps too vividly! – recreated by the author) and the marriage dissolved. After a few years, the relatives were unable to financially manage the care of the sisters, so they were placed in a series of children’s homes, always with the proviso that they remain together.

Sadly, this request was not respected, and Catherine and Simone were separated suddenly and without explanation. Though they both attempted to find each other through the years to follow, they were completely unsuccessful, and all attempts at gaining information from the British children’s care ministry were met with stark refusals and, eventually, threats of prosecution.

A damning condemnation of the conditions and attitudes of the time which made such an abusive (and just plain wrong) situation possible.

The story does have a happy, late-in-the-day reunification. Both sisters were also fortunate in finding caring spouses and creating satisfying lives for themselves, but the thread of sadness at the loss of their “true family” wound through their lives, and influenced the lives of their children.

This is a work of creative non-fiction which works reasonably well; it is the author’s first published work. Cynthia Faryon originally wrote it as a family document, but at the request of the her mother, the “Simone” of the story, the author sought and found a publisher for it, Prince George, B.C.’s Caitlin Press.

Sadly, the publisher did not edit and polish the manuscript to the extent which it deserved; I feel that a much stronger editorial hand would have resulted in a more smooth and successful presentation of a fascinating and poignant family saga.

I will be passing this book along via a BookCrossing.com release sometime in the near future.

Read Full Post »

one native life richard wagameseOne Native Life by Richard Wagamese ~ 2008. This edition: Douglas & McIntyre, 2008. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-55365-364-6. 257 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10.

*****

After reading Wagamese’s Indian Horse recently, one of the prominent Canada Reads 2013 finalists, I was curious enough about the author to search out what I could find of his other works. The library proved generously supplied, and I chose two biographies, One Native Life, and For Joshua, and have mentally checkmarked two fictions, Ragged Company and Dream Wheels, for a future time.

One Native Life is a collection of short, three to four page reminiscences, anecdotes and mini essays on First Nations identity. Richard Wagamese was removed from his home in childhood due to physical abuse by adults in his birth family, and lived with non-Native families as a foster child and then as an adopted child until he reached his mid teens, when he left home to live independently, with varied success.

Often the only First Nations person in his school and social circle, Wagamese, especially as he matured, frequently wondered about his “differences”, and pondered his inability to feel fully whole with his First Nations heritage treated either as a curiousity or a non-issue by his adoptive family and his friends.

Serious substance abuse, alternating with periods of sobriety, and career and social success, eventually took its toll, laying Wagamese so low that a complete rebuild of his life was essential to his survival. Richard Wagamese looks to have survived his crash to rock bottom, and has more than successfully rebuilt his life into something new and good, though it is obvious that he views this very much as an ongoing process, and not a “done deal” by any means.

One Native Life addresses the healing process of Wagamese coming to terms with his individual circumstance. He seldom comes across as angry or resentful; he is very ready to excuse the actions and attitudes of those in his life by looking at the reasoning – or, often, lack of thought – behind each situation. This is both a memoir and an attempt to address current social conflicts between Native and non-Native ways of thinking and being. From someone who has walked all of these paths, and who has experienced life as a member of both social groups, the thoughts laid out here are definitely deserving of respect and consideration.

Very nicely written, too, as I expected after the more-than-decent quality of Indian Horse. My one nagging problem with this book, the one that kept me from buying into it one hundred per cent, is that it is perhaps a bit too conciliatory and understanding. Wagamese is so darned nice. But he excuses this himself by stating throughout that he wants to see bridges built, not more barricades erected, hence the tone. But it might be easy to dismiss this one because of its gentleness, which is, paradoxically, one of its main strengths.

And I’m also reading another of Wagamese’s memoirs, For Joshua, written five years earlier than One Native Life, and addressed as an open letter to his young son, whom he became estranged from due to his alcoholism, which is plenty full of tragedy and anger and strong emotion. One Native Life, coming as it does later in the sequence, shows evidence of a further healing and a few more years of thinking things through.

An interesting memoir, from an interesting man.

For a much more specific review, go here:   The British Columbian Quarterly – One Native Life

Read Full Post »

safe haven larry gaudeSafe Haven: The Possibility of Sanctuary in an Unsafe World by Larry Gaudet ~ 2007. This edition: Random House, 2007. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-679-31383-0. 274 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10.

*****

Here’s the promotional material from the publisher. Heads up for the predictably effusive tone.

“Sanctuary” is a beautiful word: philosophically rich, culturally intriguing and evocative of so much we cherish — protection, safety, contemplation, solitude. But lurking at the edges of this bright concept are some very dark associations: fear, paranoia, the slamming of gates to exclude the threat of other-ness. Whatever the word means to each of us, and whatever our ancestral legacies, the yearning for sanctuary is a malady we all share to varying degrees, a quest that is both our birthright and our affliction.

These are the assertions of award-winning author Larry Gaudet in Safe Haven, an unorthodox and highly engaging work of imaginative non-fiction. Sure to resonate with anyone who has dreamt of escaping from the pressures of the workaday world — that is, all of us — this book is a highly personal, funny and unflinchingly honest investigation of the power and allure of the idea of sanctuary.

Safe Haven begins and ends in the soft fog of coastal Nova Scotia, taking side trips into the ruined shrines of ancient Greece (with a fictional Bayou-born international spy serving as tour guide), journeying by rail through the frozen vistas and forlorn social realities of Canada’s north and dipping into Gaudet’s own Acadian heritage of displacement.

Booking a year for this project, Gaudet moved with his wife, Alison, and their two small boys to a newly constructed barn by the sea in the fictionally named community of Foggy Cove. His intent: to chart the meaning of sanctuary through the ages, using his family’s solitude as an idyllic jumping-off point. But the project becomes far more complicated than he’d envisioned, and far less idyllic. Envying his children who can oversee uncomplicated imaginary civilizations in a sandbox, Gaudet cannot shake the awareness that he is complicit in the very iniquities from which he seeks to shelter his family, from the environmental toll of their septic tank on this ecologically sensitive land, to the wince of a lobster he is about to boil for dinner. He must also contend with the guilt he feels for having hijacked his wife and children, potentially for naught. As Alison’s desire to return to the comforts and stimuli of urban life grows with every month spent in isolation, Gaudet knows their idyllic days in Foggy Cove are numbered.

In his search for the diverse meanings of sanctuary, Gaudet illuminates the dysfunctions and hidden costs of the way we live — and challenges us to find ways to bring down the walls that keep so many of us estranged from our own experiences. Safe Haven is an entertaining and illuminating romp through the fog-shrouded territory of sanctuary through ages and mythologies, guided by an engaging author who is not afraid to shine the light directly on his own fallible and highly likeable self.

My take:

This book is quite beautifully written, but my initial desire to totally enter into and embrace the author’s ideas was increasingly difficult to maintain as I learned more and more of the author’s personal life, and, in particular, his relationship with his wife, Alison. This seems deeply troubled, and Gaudet’s continual apologies to Alison for dragging her way out to the wilds of Nova Scotia, despite her yearnings for her “real life” of urban sophistication in the city, felt very passive-aggressive in a “this marriage may have issues” sort of way. Or perhaps a cigar is just a cigar, and it was all stream-of-consciousness writing with no below-the-surface vibe breaking through.

Some fascinating stuff in here, all about the author’s most complicated life and how he got to where he is today, but the continual first-person referencing ruined it for me. If one counted up all of the “me”s and the “I”s in this one, they’d outnumber every other word ten to one. Or at least that is the impression I am left with.

So – basically a vanity project, with some gorgeous passages worth anthologizing, or at least quoting in a blog, except that I didn’t mark those pages and I am very ready to part ways with this book and return it to the library shelves. Here’s the thing: it is stamped “Received 2007” by the library, and it appears to have been unread until my checking out of it in 2013. Absolutely crisp and clean and tight. That’s five years, and no one has apparently touched it, except for me on one of my random-selection forays into the non-fiction aisles.

What does that mean, I wonder? It’s not a bad book; some parts are truly excellent. The man can definitely write. Maybe the pervasive (though most probably non-intentional) self-promoting tone has prevented this one from being truly likeable and accessible to the vast majority of those of us unable, through the results of our own career and lifestyle choices, or by those unpreventable twists of fate, to sit out on a sabbatical year in our second home and ponder on the deeper universal concepts implicit in our lifestyles.

Am I glad I invested the time in reading this? Sure. It was thought-provoking and life affirming and occasionally mildly amusing. A lot of Gaudet’s thoughts resonated deeply with me; I felt much the same when I had small children under my care, as he did when writing this book, all broody and protective and suspicious of the world’s vast potential for hurting those I love. And Gaudet’s cutting comments on the prevalence of “sanctuary porn” in our society were absolutely spot-on. I liked him the very best when he probed delicately and accurately on what we choose to divert ourselves with, and how we feed, and are fed, on the stuff of fantastical escapist dreams.

Would I read this book again? Not very darned likely. Unless, of course, it would be to mark out those few memorable passages for future reference. Long ago in another time of my life I kept a series of journals, in which I frequently noted down personally-appealing bits of other people’s writing; I no longer do that, but I thought of it while reading Safe Haven.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »