Clever Wordplay At Times Beyond Me: Black

BlackI really wanted to love George Elliott Clarke’s Black. He is a master poet and wordsmith whose ability to craft sound into clever phrases is almost unmatched in Canadian poetry right now. However, I found Black at times too obscure, difficult, and/or dense to get into. Let me be clear, this is not Clarke’s fault, but more my own as I did not give it the time it needed to settle. There were parts that I loved, including poems like “Jean Chretien” and “IX/XI,” but too often I found myself uninterested in or unsure of what Clarke was doing. Let me say it again, this is not Clark’e’s fault but mine. Reading poetry in a condensed and compressed timeframe does not do it justice. I feel like I should spend a lot more time with these poems rather than reading them in snatches over a few weeks.

“A Discourse on My Name” is, perhaps, the crowning jewel of the collection. In it, Clarke reflects on his names and their connections back to slavery, the Black Atlantic, and Nova Scotia’s role in both. It is full of rich word play that rolls off the tongue and it is extremely self-reflexive in a productive way. This is the style that I appreciate most in Clarke: his ability to tell the narrative of Black Loyalists in Canada (or Africadia as he calls it) while making clear that this history still matters and carries its chains in the present. He reminds me that Canada has a long and less than clean history with slavery and racism, that, in many ways, we are just as bad as the Americans were, if not worse for claiming naivete or ignorance of this past.

I found the second half of the collection was stronger than the first half as some of Clarke’s work on poetry, poets like Ezra Pound, and experiments in style left me cold. The collection itself is a continuation of the work he did in Blue, his previous collection. The poems in this collection are grouped roughly by theme and framed with black and white photos of a black female nude. I appreciated the groupings, but it meant some sections dragged for me while others left me wanting more. I found the love poetry section too bawdy for my taste, perhaps too sinful as Clarke describes himself at one point.

My sense is that Clarke is a hyper-intelligent poet whose work may be over my head. I love poetry, but I am not in tune with its form or style either. A poem like “Decima,” working with eight syllable lines draws attention to this fact, but I would not have noticed this without it saying so. This kind of poetry reminds me that I am still very much a novice in reading poetry, that I need many more hours of reading (and perhaps writing it) under my belt to start tuning in to all the subtleties of Clarke’s work.

I would recommend this book for those who already know and love Clarke, but for those looking for an intro into poetry, stay away.

Clarke, George Elliott. Black. Vancouver: Polestar, 2006. Print.

Quick and Brutal: The Hunter

hunterWow, that was over fast. This was probably the fastest read book I’ve had so far. I think I may have started this morning. Richard Stark’s The Hunter is noir fiction with Parker the betrayed thief who lays a bloody trail of revenge out over the novel’s 190 pages. L, a colleague who writes on detective fiction, has helped me to make some sense of the various genres of detective/crime fiction and after reading this I can see the importance of these tags. Parker pulls heist or bankroll job once or twice a year to fund his resort hotel lifestyle, but he is betrayed by his wife and a sleazy disgraced gangster, Mal. The plot centres on Parker’s attempt to have his revenge on Mal, but in doing so it also shines a light on New York in what I can only guess is the 1930s. There is an element of stylized description and setting in this book, and I would be amiss not to mention that I have also read Darwyn Cooke’s graphic adaptations of Stark’s series. They are excellent and well-worth a glance if you are interested in graphic novels.

As to The Hunter, I am not sure how I feel about it. Quick and brutal sums up my feelings of the narrative arc of the novel. There is plenty of violence along with the seedier aspects of organized crime. However, I would not say that the novel revels in the violence or the crime. What surprised me was how the novel asks readers to sympathize with the wronged Parker, in part, condoning his quest for a bloody revenge. Parker is a hard man whose ego drives him to “right” the “wrong” done to him. There’s something sexy with Stark’s writing (I should say that Stark is a pseudonym for Donald Westlake). I wanted to root for Parker, but something held me back. Call it a sense that literature should call its readers to higher purposes. This is not to say that all books must be moral, in fact many books shed a light on morals precisely by not being moral, but I found nothing redemptive about this book. I just did not enjoy the misogyny or the casual violence of The Hunter.

This is not to say that Stark’s book is not well-written. It is. It’s just that the subject matter does not interest me in any sustained manner. I never liked The Sopranos, so I am going to go out on a limb and guess that noir fiction is not for me. However, the variety in the selection of detective/noir fiction will hopefully help keep this group from getting stale.

I would not recommend this book to most readers. I suppose if I knew you liked noir fiction, I would recommend it but I don’t really know many who like crime/detective novels to being with.

Stark, Richard. The Hunter. 1962. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008. Print.

PS – The image I found for the cover is from the original run of the book. It looks pretty amazing. I feel like current trends in book covers just do not match the allure of previous generations.

It’s Cold Out There: The Left Hand of Darkness

220px-TheLeftHandOfDarknessAlthough a little hard to get into at first, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness was an enjoyable read. I’m not going to say it was a thrilling read, but it offered something much deeper and more gritty than some sci-fi that I have read. The novel, actually a collection of different documents, is about Genly Ai, an ambassador from the Ekumen coming to Winter, a planet locked in an Ice Age, and attempting to convince them to join up with the rest of humanity. The Gethenians, Winter’s indigenous population, are unique in the galaxy because they are androgynous, taking a sex once a month during their “kemmer”. As you can see, there is a fair bit going on in terms of narrative complexity, hence my initial problems getting into the novel. Once everything becomes a little more clear, like what the Ekumen is, what the politics of Winter are, and what the general customs of the Gethenians are, the novel becomes a much more enjoyable read. In many ways, I feel like I may have missed a fair bit in the novel’s early chapters simply because I was trying to catch up to Le Guin’s complex world. I learned later that this novel is part of the Hainish cycle in Le Guin’s work, so not having read the earlier books might have made in the initial learning curve a little steep.

Part of the thickness of The Left Hand of Darkness comes from its careful and thorough attention to Gethenian cultures and customs. There are several nations on the planet with Karhide and Orgoreyn the primary settings, yet each has its own unique customs, clan structures and Hearths. The novel reads more like a work of anthropology than a thriller narrative. This was at first a little disappointing as I had been expecting something lighter. I think I might be learning that science fiction is often very heady and idea-heavy rather than plot-driven. However, this density became more compelling the farther I went in the novel so that the myths and folk tales interspersed throughout offered a depth to the narrative.

L, a colleague, complained that Le Guin had this amazing space set up to deal with gender but does not do much with it. I beg to differ as the entire Gethenian people are so alien and strange because of their lack of sexual drive. Their world rarely has wars, has no real sense of inequality, and very different customs relating to sexuality because of the unique biology of the Gethenian body. In the introduction to the edition that I read, Le Guin says that you can treat the novel as a ‘thought-experiment’ (vii) and the androgyny of the Gethenian people is clearly the central thought of this novel. Yet it is also combined with the fact that they live on a very harsh planet which is perpetually winter and resources are not plentiful. Having finished the novel last night, I want to read it again to properly assess L’s claim. Its texture demands the sort of careful attention that I am not sure I gave it. Alas, the reading must go on and this will have to be put aside for another time.

I would recommend this book to readers looking for sci-fi with a deeply philosophical and anthropological bent.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. 1969. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. Print.

War Will Do This to You: Slaughterhouse-Five

slaughterhouse-five-by-kurt-vonnegutDouble dose of American literature! Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five was a great book. It feels weird to say that given the book’s subject matter is the firebombing of Dresden, Germany in World War II that killed more than  135 000 people (although this number apparently has been disputed by military historians). Taking on such serious material, I was surprised by the appearance of time travel, aliens called Tralfamadorians, and the unlikely protagonist Billy Pilgrim. This is a surreal and surprising book.

It opens with a frame narrative of a veteran who did live through the Dresden bombing and has been trying to write a war book for many years. This figure resembles Vonnegut himself and interrupts the narrative at various points to make certain points (like he was at the bombing or to point out which character is him). The novel takes up Billy Pilgrim as its protagonist, an tall and thin man who was training to be an optometrist before he becomes a chaplain’s assistant in the material. He is shipped overseas in 1945 and at the Battle of the Bulge ends up behind enemy lines. There is some great comedy as he meets two scouts and a blood-thirsty but cowardly soldier named Roland Weary. Together they try to make their way back to the Allied side, but are caught and taken to a camp. Eventually, Pilgrim ends up in Dresden working forced labour before he and the other American POWs hide out in a meat freezer called Slaughterhouse Five while the city is bombed into oblivion.

Oh, and did I mention that throughout this, Pilgrim narrates his various time travels, his abduction by aliens, his life on their planet, and his life after the war? These things happen and break up the seriousness of the war sections. Or they seem too, but occasionally Vonnegut drops little bombs on his readers to remind them of the brutal violence in World War II. The extermination camp where the Americans are housed becomes a comic place as a group of well-supplied and well-organized Englishmen entertain them with a play and a feast. The Americans are unimpressed (largely because they are starving and exhausted) and the Englishmen take offense at the American’s lack of interest. When the Americans are sent along, the Englishmen try to reassure them that everything will be great and that Englishmen actually envy the Americans because they will have a sense of purpose now. Just after leaving the camp, Pilgrim spots the frozen corpse of a hobo who had died on the train ride to the camp. It is these little jolts of reality that make Slaughterhouse-Five a great read.

There is something compelling about the fact that this novel is so absurd. It is as if the wanton violence and destruction involved with the bombing cannot produce anything but a kind of absurdist comedy. When that many people are killed for no real purpose (the War was almost over and there were no military reasons for bombing Dresden), it is hard to approach such an event logically. So Vonnegut approaches it with satire and science fiction. It works quite well and I think may end up teaching this book in the future.

I would highly recommend this book to any reader (maybe not for children).

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade. New York: Delacorte Press, 1969. Print.

Short and Sweet: Train Dreams

Train_DreamsAFJ has been bugging me to read this one for a while. He purchased it for my birthday and I think this is a great gift.  Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a (short) novella set in the Panhandle region of northern Idaho during the 1930s. It is almost minimalist as dialogue and narration is cut down to a minimum, yet there is one element that keeps it from being strictly minimal. At a certain point, magic realism seems to interrupt the narrative and I had mixed feelings about this. It seemed to jar with what had come before. This feeling might come from expectation that Johnson is following a Hemingway/Steinbeck line in the novel. It deals with a working class character in a poor area. There is death, sorrow, trains, and a loner protagonist. But there is also magic and wonder. I suppose this is more my fault than Johnson’s but I note it nonetheless.

The novella centres on Robert Grainier, a jack-of-all-trades who builds bridges, works in lumber camps, homesteads, and runs a delivery business. His life stretches across the early and middle portion of the 20th century although most of the narrative focuses on the 1930s. Grainier is a loner, like Hemingway’s Nick Adams. After the tragic death of his wife and child, Grainier returns to his plot of land and rebuilds his life on his own. He is a quiet and stoic figure. There is a rich cast of itinerant workers that Grainier interacts with including the humorous scene when Eddie tries to woo the widow Claire who seems more interested in Robert himself.

Trains are a constant thread throughout the novella (as the title suggests). Grainier works on their tracks, hears them outside his house, and travels on them to get around the Panhandle region.  I really liked this use of trains probably because after doing a fair bit of historical research on Canadian railways I feel like we as a culture lost something when we replaced the train with the automobile as our preferred mode of transit.

Johnson beautifully paints the Panhandle region and its strange beauty. A number of years ago I bicycled along the Yakima River and I had very vivid recollections of that experience reading this novella. Train Dreams evokes a lost way of life, one where humans lived more closely with the land and their horizon of travels was much more limited. I would not say this novella is nostalgic even if it made me feel that way. The introduction of tall tales and superstition enriched the narrative even if I did not love the ending (sorry J).

I would recommend this book to those with an interest in 1930s stories or those looking for a good short read.

Johnson, Denis. Train Dreams. 2002. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2011. Print.

This Book is Slippery and Surprising: Lolita

lolitaChances are that even if you have not read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita you at least know what it is about. It’s about an older man loving a pre-pubescent girl, or nymphet as Humbert Humbert calls them.  It is is titillating and immoral.* Well, this is what I thought going in. But this is not what the book is about. If you are looking for a pornographic or lascivious book, then Lolita is bound to disappoint you. Yes, Humbert is a pedophile, but he openly admits this at various points. Yes, there is sex between an adult and a minor, but it is never portrayed directly nor is it crude or lewd. What Lolita is about is a self-deluded and totally unreliable narrator.

This is not to say that the novel is not slippery. Humbert is cunning as he tries to get readers to sympathize with him. The novel is set up as a kind of memoir written while Humbert is in jail, long after his relationship with Lolita is finished. I say Humbert is cunning because he gets readers to sympathize with him through his various rationalizations of what is he doing, but then something slips in the narration and we suddenly realize that we have unwittingly crossed some kind of moral line. Nabokov is masterful in his ability to string readers along and then expose them for their own failings. As my friend J said to me about the book, part of its strength is its ability to make us realize that we are all, at heart, animals; we are not so different from Humbert no matter how much we want to be.

This might be the first case, at least since my high school years, where I was nervous about reading a book in public. J and I had a long argument about this, but the fact that most people assume Lolita is an immoral and pornographic book, even though they probably have not read it, meant that I was careful where I brought it out to read. I have read far worse books, yet Lolita’s popular reputation tended to precede itself.

Two things really surprised me in the novel. First, that it is a road novel in the sense that a lot of its action takes place on the road. Humbert and Lolita travel across America several times, and I loved how Nabokov dove into the tourist countryside, exposing its cheapness yet also showing how we enjoy it all the same. A lot of this comes in the first few pages of Part 2, and most of it is quite funny. For example, Nabokov writes “we avoided Tourist Homes, country cousins of Funeral ones, old-fashioned, genteel and showerless, with elaborate dressing tables in depressingly white-and-pink little bedrooms, and photographs of the landlady’s children in all their instars” (146). I could immediately call to mind a couple of different roadside inns that fit this example quite well. This is just one of a number of descriptions that resonated with my own experience travelling across North America.

The second thing that surprised me was how Humbert actually loses Lolita with more than a third of the novel left. She disappears and he spends several years desperately searching for her. This was a turn I had not expected and kept me turning the pages.

*spoiler alert*

Humbert does find Lolita again, but by this point she is out of his “nymphet” stage. Yet it is at this point that his love for her actually becomes visible. He even recognizes that he has, in a major way, stolen Lolita’s childhood. I really appreciated the emotional depth that Nabokov suddenly springs on the readers. Lolita is a masterpiece. That being said, it is not for everyone. It is about a very problematic relationship that has troubling implications, but it is also quite high-brow in the sense that it is loaded with allusions to French, German, and European literature. If you get an annotated copy, it is probably easier to make sense of the dense writing, but this is not totally necessary either.

I would hesitantly recommend this novel for those interested in American literature. But if the subject matter is not something that you can, at the least, suspend judgment about, then this is not for you.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. 1955. New York: Vintage International, 1997. Print.

*If you have made your judgment based on the movie (Kubrick’s or the other more recent and less successful Lyne adaptation), please read the book. It is different in a number of critical ways.

Vietnam War Stories and So Much More: The Things They Carried

thingsI was skeptical about reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried even though it came with a very high recommendation by my friend J. I am not a fan of war stories. I used to be, but at some point I just got sick of them. After reading this collection, I suspect that this was because I read too many bad or stereotypical war stories. O’Brien’s collection reflects on the Vietnam War and a group of soldiers including a character named Tim O’Brien. There is an autobiographical element to this collection as O’Brien actually did go to Vietnam and many of the characters are thanked in his acknowledgement. However, the first page also states this is a work of fiction “except for a few details regarding the author’s own life.” I am not going to treat the book as a work of autobiography not only because it does not enrich the material but also because doing so takes away from the more fictional and deliberately metafictional elements of the book.

A couple of different stories reflect on the narrator, O’Brien, hearing them and his own or his children’s reactions to them. These are amazing moments that puncture the veil of authenticity that may have saturated a previous story. “Speaking of Courage,” the story of a soldier struggling to come to grips with life after Vietnam as he drives around a small Iowa lake again and again, is followed by “Notes” a story about O’Brien composing “Speaking of Courage” after Norman Bowker, the protagonist, suggested he do it. The links between these two stories are rich and intriguing as that line between fiction and reality is continually bent. By the end of “Notes,” the narrator admits to making up Bowker’s failure to win the Silver Star, a key element in the story. Rather than simply being a “true” war story, O’Brien provides readers with a rich reflection on what it means to experience intense human violence and what it means to write about that violence. Trying to quantify one of these stories as more true and the other as less seems to me a kind of misguided quest.

The Things They Carried is an interconnected series of short stories so that each story meshes and blends with the other stories that surround it. This is not to say that you cannot read the stories as stand-alone pieces, but that you gain something more rich when you read the collection as a whole. Several stories stand out as “centre-pieces” if I can call them that: “The Things They Carried,” “On the Rainy River,” “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” “Speaking of Courage,” “In the Field,” and “The Ghost Soldiers.” These are the lengthiest stories and all were published in journals or magazines beforehand. Yet the shorter interconnecting stories craft a circular narrative about a writer’s own insecurities and anxieties about using his experience of the war as fodder for writing. “How to Tell a True War Story” is both a story about Rat Kiley’s story of a group of soldiers going stir-crazy in the quiet of Vietnam’s jungles and a story about the narrative structures and principles of war stories. At one point, the narrator drops this amazing line: ” In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh.'” (84). That was, in essence, my own reaction to many of these stories. There are no heroes here, there are no easy morals, there is some form of patriotism but it isn’t a “rah-rah, go America” type. In a way, this story colours all the other stories because it self-consciously calls into question how O’Brien has written all of his war stories. Later in the “How to Tell,” the narrator writes “often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again” (88). This, in my humble opinion, is how all the greatest stories work. There is no “real” point to them. They are just stories about life. Yes, you can draw out meanings, political agendas, strategies, literary devices and so on. I am an academic and this is what I do. But a story like, say, James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” or “Speaking of Courage” from this collection really cannot be boiled down to a single point. That is reduction at its worst.

I can see why J recommended this book and I can also see why this book is taught in many creative writing courses. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will, probably, at some point teach it in creative writing courses. It is so good. I highly recommend it.

(Apologies for the rantiness of this review – my brain has been a little scattered lately)

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. Print.