Way Better Than the Movie: The Golden Compass

the-golden-compassI stayed up late finishing Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. I was tired most of today as a result, but Pullman’s book was well-worth the lost sleep. And I’m happy to be staying up late to finish books again. I used to do this quite frequently when I was younger, so it suggests that I’m finding pleasure in reading again (an issue that seems particular to grad students in English literature). I had seen the film adaptation of The Golden Compass and enjoyed it, but hands down the book is far better. By now I should know that the book is always better (as my partner reminds me constantly), but this is especially clear in Pullman’s series. Not only does the book go farther in terms of plot (the movie leaves off the entire last third of the book), but it also gives more depth and characterization to Lyra, the gyptians, Iorek, and the rest of the characters. The version that I read also included some bonus material in the form of Lord Asriel’s journals. They were a nice touch for the 10th anniversary edition (although probably not worth purchasing the book again if you already have it).

The Golden Compass is set in an alternative universe where all humans have a daemon that they share a special attachment to. The daemon (most often the opposite gender of the human) is a life-long companion and depends upon the human for life (and vice versa). This feature is the key of Pullman’s series and this novel’s plot. It adds an interesting twist to the steampunk world that he creates. I particularly like the way that the human/animal relationship is explored throughout (without being too philosophical or over-the-top). In a way, you could say that the daemon is like a human’s soul … although this might be an extrapolation proved correct or false by the later books.

I had heard that Pullman’s series was explicitly anti-Roman Catholic and I can’t say that this really comes out in the first book. Now, I am not a Roman Catholic, so maybe I missed some clues here but Pullman is clearly in the secular humanist camp. His critique of a too-tight and controlling religious authority (which also murders and tortures children in the far north of Lyra’s world) seems to be at a remove from the world we live in. However, the American Union of Catholics did not think so as they warned Catholics against reading any of the books or seeing the film adaptation. Perhaps what complicates the issue is that the book is children’s literature, aimed at young readers so the fear of a book brainwashing a reader might become a possibility. Personally, I think this is ridiculous because it underestimates a child’s ability to think critically and suggests a problematic reading position where all books which criticize the church or religion are banned (weirdly coming back to Pullman’s semi-buried critique of the church’s censhorship in The Golden Compass). I should stress that I have not read the latter two books, so perhaps these critiques come from the content of those books.

This has gotten a long way away from Pullman’s excellent narrative. The Golden Compass is fast-paced, taking readers into a well-drawn fantastical world.

I would recommend The Golden Compass to fans of children’s fantasy.

Pullman, Philip. The Golden Compass. 1995. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Print.


What Does Justice Mean in Toronto?: thirsty

downloadChalk up one more bit of work slipping into the list as I recently read Dionne Brand’s thirsty. I had meant to read her No Land to Light On, an earlier collection of poetry, but the pressure of a dissertation forced me to include this one instead. And thirsty is a great long poem. This was my second time reading it and I got way more from it than the first time around when I sped through it, looking for usefulness to my research interests. When I read it this time, I took the time to let her words soak in, to look up words I didn’t know, and to take marginal notes on what was going on throughout. In fact, those marginal notes alerted me to how carefully constructed Brand’s book is and allowed me to appreciate her craftsmanship.

thirsty is a series of 33 linked poems that follow the tragic shooting of Alan, a Jamaican, by the Toronto Police Force and the ripple effect in the lives of his mother Chloe, his wife Julie, and his unnamed daughter. Mixed throughout are poems narrated by a first-person speaker, a person at a distance from the shooting and who comments upon the events. All three women’s lives have been essentially stopped by Alan’s death as Chloe retreats into religion, Julie into a broad feeling of emptiness, and the daughter into escaping the neighbourhood on her bicycle. Yet the speaker of the poem introduces this drama in the midst of Toronto, a seething mass of strangers that is at times comforting and at times violent. In reference to the waiting passengers in the city’s subway tunnels, Brand writes:

They are the echo chambers for the voices of the gods of
cities. Glass, money, goods. They sit in a universe of halted breaths
waiting for this stop Bay and that stop Yonge and that one St. Patrick

in early morning surrender to factories in Brampton,
swirling grey into the 401 and the Queen Elizabeth Highway,
they hold their tempers, their passions, over grumbling machines
until night, dreaming their small empires, their domestic tyrannies

but of course no voyage is seamless. Nothing in a city is discrete.
A city is all interpolation … (37)

I love these lines. I love how Brand takes the city and turns it into something unfamiliar and strange, a beast that reflects our hopes and dreams, but also takes and takes from us. An earlier stanza reads:

All the hope gone hard. That is a city.
The blind house, the cramped dirt, the broken
air, the sweet ugliness, the blissful and tortured
flowers, the misguided clothing, the bricked lies
the steel lies, all the lies seeping from flesh
falling in rain and snow, the weeping buses,
the plastic throats, the perfumed garbage, the
needled sky, the smogged oxygen, the deathly clerical
gentlemen cleaning their fingernails at the stock
exchange, the dingy hearts in the newsrooms, that is
a city, the feral amnesia of us all.

Again, Brand’s ability to capture the key details of a city stand out. She portrays in broad sweeps the contour of urban life and the way that the city forces us into intimate contact with many strangers. Of course, throughout thirsty, the question of how race interpolates the urban experience looms large. And Brand provides no easy answers to this, instead giving readers the textured details of three interrupted lives. But I think what I love most about thirsty is that it is great poetry. Brand is a very talented poet, and in thirsty, she ties together themes from her whole body of work into a seamless and meaningful whole.

I highly recommend thirsty to anyone who lives in Toronto and fans of poetry.

Brand, Dionne. thirsty. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2002. Print.

Short, But Surprisingly Complex: Of Mice and Men

OfMiceAndMenI have to confess that even though I profess a liking to American literature, I have never read any John Steinbeck. Cue the tomatoes and boo-birds. Well, I can now say that I have, having blazed through his Of Mice and Men. And what a novella it is! It comes in at a very slight 118 pages (with a reasonably large font) and I’m pretty sure that this was the quickest read so far this year. Yet the novella reads so smoothly; Steinbeck has eschewed all extra detail and explanation for a concise and cohesive narrative. The narrative is relatively uncomplicated with two drifters, Lennie – a gentle giant – and George – a short, smooth talker, coming to work on a ranch in Soledad, California (not far from Steinbeck’s own birthplace of Salinas, CA) during the Dirty Thirties. Like most of the drifters, they both dream of owning a small piece of land with a farm and some mixed livestock. The problem with this dream is that Lennie, a character who is “slow,” or in politically correct terms “suffers from mental illness,” tends to force their hasty exit from a town before they build up enough money to buy a farm. The ending, which I won’t reveal, packs a real punch; I’m almost certain my jaw actually dropped despite having some vague recollection of someone telling me the ending before. I am not going to get into disability studies mode and pull apart Steinbeck’s treatment of Lennie, but it is remarkably compassionate. Of course, the other characters’ treatment of Lennie leaves something to be desired.

What made Of Mice and Men stand out for me was the way that it captured the zeitgeist of the Dirty Thirties. If you’ve seen any photos of the 1930s, you’ll know that it was an era of immense upheaval with a huge population of wandering workers (men, women, and children alike). The men that work on the Soledad ranch are all part of this migrant group, moving from place to place in search of a paycheque and relief from their misery. Of course, as Of Mice and Men makes clear, many of these men squander their money on prostitutes and alcohol, but it really was not a good time to be without a job in North America. It is easy to idealize or romanticize these wandering hoboes and their free-wheeling, train-hopping ways (see Into the Wild for an updated version of these men), but Steinbeck refuses to do so.* Their lives are far from simple and the ending will leave you with dark doubts about the desirability of this lifestyle. The promise of a land of one’s own remains as tantalizingly close but firmly out of reach by the end of the novella.

Now, I know that Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer prize and is probably a more detailed portrait of the Dirty Thirties in the US, but Of Mice and Men is a great little read. If you haven’t read Steinbeck before, I would start here. Of Mice and Men is very easy to pick up and a quick little read. You could probably even read this book in one sitting, yet it is a tight plot with plenty to chew on.

I highly recommend Of Mice and Men for all readers.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. 1937. New York: Bantam Classics, 1958. Print.


*I don`t totally hate Into the Wild. The Eddie Vedder soundtrack is great, there is some gorgeous scenery, and the film’s narrative isn’t half bad. I`m just uneasy with the romanticisation that it lends itself to.

Huge, Violent, and Biblical: Blood Meridian

blood-meridian-novelHaving only read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road prior to this book, I was not expecting what I got. Where The Road is notable for its sparse language, so cut-down it’s almost hard to read at times, Blood Meridian is full of flowing, poetic, even over-blown prose. For your pleasure, here are three examples I picked out at random:

“They rode in a narrow enfilade along a trail strewn with the dry round turds of goats and they rode with their faces averted form the rock wall and the bakeoven air which it rebated, the slant black shapes of the mounted men stenciled across the stone with a definition austere and implacable like shapes capable of violating their covenant with the flesh that authored them and continuing autonomous across the naked rock without reference to sun or man or god.” (145)

“The riders pushed between them [a train of mules] and the rock and methodically rode them from the escarpment, the animals dropping silently as martyrs, turning sedately in the empty air and exploding on the rocks below in startling bursts of blood and silver as the flasks broke open and the mercury loomed wobbling in the air in great sheets and lobes and small trembling satellites and all its forms grouping below and racing in the stone arroyos like the imbreachment of some ultimate alchemic work decocted from out the secret dark of the earth’s heart, the fleeing stag of the ancients fugitive on the mountainside and bright and quick in the dry path of the storm channels and shaping out the sockets in the rock and hurrying from ledge to ledge down the slop shimmering and deft as eels” (203-04)

“The judge smiled. He spoke softly into the dim mud cubicle. You came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgements of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise. Hear me, man. I spoke in the desert for you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay. Even the cretin acted in good faith according to his parts. For it was required of no man to give more than he possessed nor was any man’s share compared to another’s. Only each was called upon to empty out his heart into the common and one did not. Can you tell me who that one was?” (319)

There you have it. Three samples that give you a taste of what Blood Meridian is. It is a novel with an epic scope: a troop of low-lifes, bandits, and thieves are hired by the Mexican government to hunt down and scalp Apaches. The novel is based on actual events, some of which are so ludicrous (like the second quoted piece above) as to beggar belief. While the first two excerpts show some exceptionally long sentences, the third gives a better representation of McCarthy’s style. This is a world unto itself and, once entered, it is hard to leave. At the same time, Blood Meridian is incredibly violent, like ultra-violence (a la A Clockwork Orange) violent. If you have seen the Coen brothers’ adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, then take that as a starting point and multiply it by 10. The borderlands in the 1850s were no fun place and McCarthy has no qualms showing the frontier life to be far from what Hollywood or romantic authors portrayed it. There’s also a strong strain of the Bible throughout, not just in the judge’s speeches (the third excerpt is one) but also in the events themselves. The novel continually comes back to the question of morals and humanity’s purpose. The protagonist, the kid, is a young teenager when he joins up with the judge and Glanton’s gang. He is quickly initiated into a world of bloodshed and violence. At times, McCarthy’s novel borders on the pornographic with all of its violence, but this is part and parcel of the world he crafts (I’m not justifying this violence, I don’t want to get into that). Blood Meridian is what it is. In terms of American literature, it is a pretty important moment in terms of American exceptionalism and the frontier mythology, but I’m not sure this makes it essential reading.

If you can stomach the violence, Blood Meridian is worth the read, but be warned if you cannot.

McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. 1985. New York: Vintage Editions, 1997. Print.

The Mundane and Everyday: placeholder

downloadCharmaine Cadeau’s placeholder sneaks onto my list because I am reviewing it for The Goose, journal for ecocriticism in Canada. I had hoped to read it without sacrificing more of the poetry I had initially chosen, but it is increasingly apparent my time is more limited than I thought. Such is life. Anyways, Cadeau’s slim volume of poems is an interesting read. Again, I had the sense that I just did not give it enough time in order to do it justice, so this review is less of a review of her ability and more of a reflection on poetry itself.

placeholder, according to the publisher’s description on the back, is “provisional, roaming, and obsessed with remnants and deferrals”. It also “goes beyond the quotidian in search of that which saves the day or ruins the souffle or makes us all squirm in self-recognition.” These descriptions are very accurate as I found the poems continually coming back to the everyday, searching in the cracks of our mundane lives and finding glimmers of wonder and awe. Some of the poems are very good while others left me wanting. Cadeau has a very good sense of image and I found myself regularly underlining an image or metaphor, amazed at its sharpness and clarity. However, this did not always mean that the poem itself was similarly strong. For example, “Signal breaking up” ruminates on the distances (physical and emotional) between a speaker who is at home awaiting her lover’s arrival from afar. The relationship is sharply defined with a few key images, my favorite being “At home, I’m worrying/ the dark finish/ off the arms of the chair, the part/ that curves down.” This, for me, is an incredible image, conveying a depth of emotion and history in a few lines. However, I found the rest of the poem did not match this image’s quality. The poem stays with this speaker trying to reassure herself she has not made a mistake in the relationship before ending on the dangers of mermaids who may waylay her lover. I didn’t like the ending partly because it introduced a new element to the relationship of the lovers but also because I felt it fell flat.

All of this to say that I’m not sure what to do with poetry anymore. Grand, epic poetry is no longer in style. It died a hard death with the advent of postmodernism (or something like that), such that it seems like most poets now are left with only the everyday or the quotidian to write about. And at a certain point, this poetry fails to excite me. I find myself wanting poets to aim higher, to be grandiose, to take risks. Of course, this type of poetry doesn’t get published anymore. Especially not by a poet with only one previous book of poems to her credit as Cadeau possesses. So is it her fault that the poems are occasionally ordinary? Or is it a publishing system that requires a poet to publish various poems in small literary journals (all of whom want their own style) before they will look at a potential manuscript? I’m just not sure about poetry anymore. Cadeau is a technically gifted poem and a number of poems like “Dog Star,” “Two Can Play,” “Slip,” and “Erosion” all attest to this. placeholder is a good collection of poems, but I am no longer a patient reader of poetry it seems.

I would recommend placeholder to serious readers of poetry because it displays some spectacular pyrotechnics.

Cadeau, Charmaine. placeholder. London, ON: Brick Books, 2013. Print.

Alarming and Still Relevant: Silent Spring

downloadIt shames me a little to admit that this is my first time reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, but it is. And what a book it turned out to be. It more or less got the environmental movement off the ground in the United States in the early 1960s while also causing enough of a stir to get DDT banned. It is a remarkable book in its scope, writing, and the thorough exploration that Carson puts together. And, despite being over 50 years old, it’s remarkably relevant and caused me a fair bit of worry and wonder.

Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, angry at the amount of chemicals being sprayed upon the US and the damage that these chemicals were doing to all forms of life. And it is shocking just how much damage an aerial spraying of DDT can do to a forest or farmer’s field. It will kill almost all the insect life, severely hurt the bird life and eventually end up in our water supply, potentially causing sterility, birth defects and a host of other problems. The scale of damage is huge, but Carson maintains a calm and almost dispassionate tone throughout. It would have been really easy to sink into a hysterical or apocalyptic register given the facts and results of human actions. However, when Carson published Silent Spring, she was not a part of the mainstream scientific establishment nor was she the correct gender for scientists. So, she had to make sure that the style of the book would be acceptable to the general reading public if she was to be taken seriously. And she succeeded on all levels as the public response was so great, the American president John F. Kennedy directed his scientific team to read the book immediately and make policy recommendations based on it.

The other great thing about Silent Spring is that it is a very good example of how science can be well-written without sacrificing content. Too often, scientific reports and publications are written in jargon-heavy and obscure language so that readers need at least one graduate degree to penetrate them. Silent Spring requires no such thing as Carson demonstrates an elegance in writing that makes her concern – the overuse of pesticides – accessible and understandable without diluting the science. This is the best form of science writing and one that I personally enjoy reading. Bill Bryson writes in a similar manner and is worth checking out if you enjoyed Silent Spring (it feels weird writing that because, really, you shouldn’t enjoy reading Silent Spring given the destruction it details).

I would highly recommend this book to anyone worried about the overabundance of chemicals in everyday life, or to anyone with an interest in environmentalism generally.

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. 1962. New York: Mariner Books, 2002. Print.

Sharp, Dark, and Startling: In This City

clarke-city-225So, more work creeping into the list at this point as I am falling behind the pace in my dissertation work. But Austin Clarke’s 1992 collection of short stories In This City is a great read. If you don’t know Clarke’s work, you need to go and read some of his stuff. He is probably one of the most under-rated Canadian writers. He was writing hard-edged black fiction for almost 40 years before he finally received some recognition in his 2002 Giller Prize win for The Polished Hoe. His Toronto trilogy (consisting of The Meeting PointStorm of Fortune, and The Bigger Light) is worth picking up if you can find it.

Enough gushing about Clarke, on to the stories of In This City. The collection is set almost entirely in Toronto during the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the recurrent motifs in the stories is the shooting of a Jamaican man by the Toronto Police, an event that sends out ripples of fear and catalyzes the growing anti-racism movement. If you didn’t know, Toronto unfortunately has a long history of racist police brutality leading to the formation of the Black Action Defense Committee in the wake of the 1988 Lester Donaldson shooting (see this page if you want more on some of the violence that has occurred). The characters in Clarke’s collection vary in age, gender, and politics with some hoping to just get by and others furious and protesting this racist atmosphere. Where some writers can let their politics overtake the narrative, I think Clarke is much more sophisticated than that. The opening story, “Gift-Wrapped,” centers on a young girl from Timmins who is trying to make it in Toronto. However, her skin colour seems to have limited her job opportunities to just getting by in an office tower on Bay Street. As Christmas approaches, she feels alone, having almost no friends except a lesbian co-worker who took a pass at the narrator and a former roommate who has left the city. Her white boss once took a pass at her after taking her out for drinks as well, and the story seems to be heading towards the maudlin. However, Clarke throws a twist I did not see coming when *spoiler* the same boss shows up at her door on Christmas morning because his wife knows that she has no one in the city on Christmas day. This action is wonderfully ambiguous: does Bill actually mean well in this action, or has he been forced into it by his wife and some form of potential guilt? But I also think that it is an uplifting gesture of humanity when the narrator has seen how cold and indifferent the streets of Toronto can be in the winter. Similarly, “I’m Running for my Life” paints a complicated picture of a black domestic’s relationship with her white employer whose wife has just left him.

Clarke is a powerful writer and the stories in In This City will open up new views of Toronto. I read some of these stories while wandering the city’s streets and the city that Clarke explores is very different from the one in tourist brochures. These stories are particularly eye-opening if you, like me, are white and sheltered from the raft of problems that come when poverty, racism, and violence meet. 

I highly recommend Clarke’s collection of stories for any fans of CanLit and especially for the citizens of Toronto.

Clarke, Austin. In This City. Toronto: Exile Editions, 1992. Print.