Friday, March 30, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 6th post

As I mentioned in my last post, Wayde Compton founded a press and published Fred Booker's Adventures in Debt Collection in 2006. Booker was working on a novel that would have been centered on Billy LaPointe, one of the characters in the story "Nativity." Booker was apparently sicker than he let on in public, and he died in 2008 of pneumonia (after a long battle with cancer) with this novel unfinished. So it is a bit of a bittersweet accomplishment to have finished this short story collection but then not the more ambitious project he had in mind. Still, clearly better to have gotten one book into print before passing on...

Many of the stories are entertaining and most start well.  They are all about the situations faced by different repo agents going after cars in the Lower Mainland.  Fred Booker was indeed one of the few Black repo agents working in B.C. and he knows of what he speaks.  I give him major props for writing about the world of work, when so many artists are completely removed from real work or at least something other than temp. work.  (I've written two full-length plays myself that tried to take issues of and at work seriously.)  The problem for me is that most of the time the characterization is quite thin; this is the most apparent in "Terpsichore for Man and Woman" where the two characters are kind of put in a situation and wound up like toys (or puppets).  Booker wants to see how the situation would unfold between two of the repo agents who are mutually attracted to each other but know acting on this violates all kinds of internal HR policies.  They speak to each other in ways that sound completely scripted and unreal.  Here's an example:

"But Van, what can we hope to gain from a guy so young?  He can never appear to approve of any one of us without compromising his fragile authority since we'll all know more about the business than he does."
"I don't plan to be a toady, John.  Do you?"

Maybe I could have bought it if the first speaker stopped at the first sentence.  But much of the dialogue goes like this, and I feel Booker does have trouble constructing believable characters (or at least believable dialogue), particularly when writing about white or Asian repo agents.  The stories with a bit more action have sufficient momentum to overcome this problem.  That would include "Matoxy Sixapeekwan," "Incident on Highway 3" and "Woman of the Year."  "Incident on Highway 3" was my second favourite story, despite the somewhat unbelievable denouement where the man who has his car repossessed gets unexpectedly philosophical about it.

The only one that really felt forced was "Nativity" where Booker sets up this extended parallel to the nativity story complete with 3 repo men in the roles of the 3 Wise Kings.  I felt it didn't work at any level, and the less I mention it the better.  I am sorry that we didn't get a chance to see the Billy character set free of this context and in his own novel.

My favourite story is the final story "A Mask for Charlie Dan."  This one has Mel (from "Nativity") going onto a reservation to try to repossess a truck.  Despite learning of the problems that the young man, Charlie Dan, is causing for the elders, Mel runs up against a wall as the community bands together to protect one of their own.  Whether one feels this is justified or not, there is an interesting echoing of various Trickster stories and legends.  This story is actually quite a significant achievement, maybe Booker's most significant artistic achievement, and I would recommend that interested readers seek it out, even if they don't have time to read the entire collection.

This is review 6/13.  I will return to Kroetsch in my next review.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 5th post

This review is going to be a bit different.  It is a joint review of two books by Wayde Compton, a Vancouver-based poet/artist/activist.  Wayde Compton has various articles and book chapters out, many dealing with race in Canada and specifically race in B.C.  In addition, he has collected his poems and spoken-word pieces in two books.  His first book of poetry is 49th Parallel Psalm from 1999 and his current collection of non-fiction (and occasionally autobiographical) work is in After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region (2010).  He also appears to be wrapping up a stint as poet-in-residence at the Vancouver Public Library.  I considered dropping in on his office hours, but didn't really have anything profound to ask him.

Given that politics infuse his poetry, there is quite a bit to be gained from reading 49th Parallel Psalm after reading some of the essays in After Canaan.  I'm not sure it works the other way around, however, i.e. that one gains a deeper appreciation for After Canaan after reading the poems, though one might have a better idea of where he is coming from.

In any event, there are 7 essays in After Canaan, most looking at the intersection of race and language and then a related topic hybridity.  Wayde has an article on hip-hop language and one on how certain people seem to pass from one race to another (including a very unusual Irishman who seems to pass for Black).  This is hardly the first time I've heard of passing, but the contemporary examples might be of interest to younger readers.  It becomes evident that this weighs greatly on Wayde, as he is in fact of "mixed" parentage, as his mother is white.  Despite Canada not having the one drop rule, enforced most consistently in the U.S. South, Wayde seems to predominantly identify as a Black Canadian.  Wayde also writes about a friend who introduces him to the finest aspects of jazz culture.  The book ends with a piece on Obama and language, where Wayde reflects on why he was chosen to "speak" for Black Vancouverites and to say what Obama's election meant for them.  Aside from the absurdity of the request, his answer is sincere but really not that surprising.

At least for me, I found the essays that move away from the personal to be more rewarding.  Wayde writes about his friend and sometime mentor Fred Booker, a Black writer who came to Vancouver as a draft dodger during the Vietnam Era and who made a living as a "repo man."  In this chapter, I learned that Wayde had actually started a press to publish Booker's Adventures in Debt Collection,
which I tracked down (and will review next time).

In all of these essays Wayde is writing to some degree about being Black in Canada, and in particular Vancouver, BC where the Black population is miniscule (though in recent decades the Asian population has swelled completely overtaking Blacks and Latinos as the major ethnic minority in the city).  Two events really stand out to him, which are covered in detail in the two strongest essays.  First, the betrayal of early Black settlers by the Governor Douglas of BC in the late 1850s is examined in "Blackvoice and Stately Ways: Isaac Dickson, Mifflin Gibbs and Black British Columbia's First Trials of Authenticity."  Governor Douglas had basically made overtures to Blacks living in San Francisco who were tiring of the overt racism in California.  Apparently, Douglas was thinking of using Blacks as a surplus labour force to occasionally break strikes and so forth.  This group was allowed to land, but then the welcome mat was withdrawn them for many decades (Bill 339 would have actually outlawed Black settled but the legislature adjourned before the bill passed – though it wasn’t law, the status of Blacks in BC suddenly seemed more precarious).  Indeed, after the North won the Civil War, quite a number of these transplants returned to the US.  (Wayde returns to this history directly in the poem "Habeas Corpus," which is an angry or at least frustrated look at the early treatment of Blacks in B.C.  As a poem, however, it is lacking.)

Nonetheless, the Black population of Vancouver grew (slowly) and they predominantly lived in a neighbourhood next to Chinatown called Hogan’s Alley.  The centerpiece of After Canaan is the fantastic essay "Seven Routes to Hogan's Alley and Vancouver's Black Community."   It should come as little surprise that when urban renewal reached Canada in the 1960s, Hogan’s Alley was the first neighbourhood to be targeted.  While the mega-expressway was never built, the neighbourhood was torn up and the population dispersed in preparation for its construction (the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts are the only lasting legacy of this project).  For a variety of reasons Compton examines in this essay, the Black population dispersed throughout Vancouver rather than resettling in a specific neighbourhood enclave.  There are of course positives and negatives to not having a mini-Harlem in Vancouver.  While there is no there there (a place that is uniquely Black) there is also no location that is haunted by a kind of racially-coded poverty (the Downtown East Side is certainly not predominantly Black, for instance).

These two moments inform a fair number of the poems in 49th Parallel Psalm, to which I turn next.

Many of these poems are in the style of performance poetry, i.e. they probably sound best when read live as at a poetry slam.  This style needs to hit home fast, relies heavily on rhythm and perhaps rhyme.  More often than not, they are “edgy” and borrow freely from hip-hop culture.

"DJ" is a good example

It opens:
Stimulator of the inner simulacra
Turner of the worlds
Lobe and hip at one with the word
Conduit of the herd
Shepherd of the unheard
Hands on the vinyl
Needle in the curve
Turntable arm prosthetic
Phantom limb pinning down the intersections—

So not only do we have partial rhymes – worlds and herd and unheard and curve – that will work better in performance than on the page, but if the word intersections is read as intersect-ions, most people will catch a partial rhyme or echo with “prosthetic.”  The poet can chose the beats when reading aloud to determine just how he wants the rhyme scheme to work.  The poem sort of simplifies after this somewhat complex opening to shorter lines where there is less ambiguity about where the beat will fall

The waitress wades back through the bass  the mix.
The sound’s humidity
The tinder contagion of humanity and electricity
Touching touching
And she’s gone.

Most of the lines are quite short, though the humanity and electricity line does draw some attention to itself (and clearly is intended to rhyme with humidity).

The lines get shorter still (and the poem moves faster)

From hinges
Snare drum
From this splintered jamb
Bass from pane
We kick the damn
Door down  chant
From chastisement
From names that wound

It is a little surprising that the line doesn’t simply end “door down” but by appending the next thought in the same line, the poem’s momentum actually kicks up another notch.  After continuing to praise the DJ’s skills (and hinting at how the DJ is the North American equivalent of the griot), Wayde and his buddies spill out onto the street:

Rockin in
Our fly new gear
Out hype blue camouflage

The title poem is also basically a hip-hop anthem:

don't lock
or pop
or break
but black
star line us back, rewind us
to Zion's song

then later in the poem the examination of Blackness grows a bit deeper, but still intertwined with the hip-hop beat:

                   ain't but ten black people in all of bee cee

but we can't count 
on the crackers,
and they can't seem to sense us
claiming the numbers is against us.

black like wax tracks,
free-at-last markets, black like
the invisible hand pans.
East Van represent.
blackness in all my cypher,
living on the wages of steal---
This clever, anti-capitalist rant recalls some of the work of the rap group Public Enemy.  I particularly liked "sense us" as a call out to the Canadian Census (which never reports many Blacks in B.C.) and then MLK's free at last sermon joined at the hip to Adam Smith economics, pushed so hard by the movers and shakers of Vancouver.  These kind of poems work best when read quickly, they hit you (mug you?) with their impact, and then they are gone before you can reflect on some of the pieces that don't quite hold together.

Compton does have poems written in a somewhat more reflective style, particularly when he is being more explicitly historic.

"Company" is one of the poems reaches back into BC’s history (to detail the exploitation faced by prospectors, particularly coloured men).


This land
Is the company’s own
Ed, paid for, I wander it,
Prospecting, guessing, divining ground, counting
Days till
This transforms to home …

The HBC cash ‘script’ you can ex
Change it for bottle destiny, ships in
Side or sin
Sold by the shot, bottle of hot
Gin …

This vision of the prospector, weary, longing for home (since it is unclear if BC will ever be home) can be read as depressing or as an emblem of unbowed persistence in the face of adversity.  The language segues into a more overtly religious tone, drawing on the sermons that such a prospector would have likely heard but still mingled with visions of hitting it big (appropriate for a prospector gone gold dust crazy):

… and I,
My church,
Founded on the dashing stones, whichever
Pieces make it through the sluice gates shining
To gather and wash and sell and melt and mould
To trade for tokens or trinkets or tickets to take us
Good great
God Lord
All the way back where we came from.

In the next section of the book, Compton moves forward into the 1950s (prior to the destruction of the Hogan's Alley).  A very amusing anecdote is related in "The Bass" about a man carrying around a bass fiddle case:
Couldn’t play a lick, word was,
Duke ain’t no musician so what heavy burden
He be hiding in that case? Folks in Strathcona
Got to gossiping and meditating all kinds of theory as to what he was packing.
                      Dead PMs
Could know? But we all
had our angle, brother
He never conceded an answer, just smiled
And lugged that case another bloc, hitch-hiking
Off its sphinx-like vibe, its minor-key mystery,
Leaving a trail of gossip, case on him like a tail on a snake,
… but I been around the block
Enough times to know, course,

Ain’t nothing in that case and never was,
Fool started something he couldn’t finish, trying to wear intrigue
Like tweed, can still see him hobbling up the street,
Case too big to walk straight, too empty to open up.

"The Bass" is my favourite poem of the collection, partly because the story is amusing and perhaps even instructive and partly the language reaches deeper than those poems that are more purely hip-hop.  A minor-key mystery.  Wearing intrigue like tweed.  These are more reflective, more deliberate choices.  Consequently, the poem can bear repeated readings without wearing out its welcome.

49th Parallel Psalm is definitely worth a read if one is interested in contemporary poetry and one has a high tolerance for performance poetry.  For me, the two stand out poems are "Company" and "The Bass."

This is my 5th review out of 13, and I have some serious catching up to do on the reviewing side.  I'd also like the review of 49th Parallel Psalm to count towards the poetry contest for March.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 4th post

I believe this brings me to Kroetsch's The Studhorse Man.  To me this is Kroetsch's greatest achievement, yet it was only his third novel. Many of his other novels have fine elements and can be quite enjoyable, but they never quite reached this peak (for me at any rate).

Kroetsch reaches further back into literary history for Greek legends (the fact that the main character's horse is named Poseidon tips us off immediately).  There is a fairly interesting literary device in that the story of Hazard Lepage is being retold not by himself or a sympathetic observer, but by Demeter Proudfoot -- a rival for the affections of Hazard's fiance, Martha.  Demeter is pretty open about how he doesn't like Hazard and won't be a reliable narrator (and reveals himself as quite eccentric on all kinds of other matters, i.e. he is writing this account while in a bathtub), but despite this, finds himself caught up in Hazard's story from time to time and does make Hazard's quest appear fairly heroic.

Hazard is trying to breed a strain of blue horses and he wanders all over Alberta looking for farmers still looking to breed their mares at all (very difficult with the rise of the automobile and increasing mechanization).  Hazard occasionally takes the liberty of trying to breed horses without the owner's consent, and this usually lands him in additional trouble.  He meets a number of eccentric characters and gets involved in an epic card game (somewhat of a theme in his [Kroetsch's] work).  He often ends up on the lam, which is not made any easier by not being willing to part with a bluish stallion.  His wanderings are a pretty direct transfer of the Odysseus legend, including ending up (a bit against his will) in the bed of other women but never in his long-suffering finance's bed.  (If I recall, it was actually Poseidon who wouldn't forgive Odysseus and perpetually delayed his return home.)  Obviously, there is a bit of Joyce's Ulysses thrown in the mix as well.  Definitely more overtly funny than Ulysses and one doesn't have to be a classical scholar to get most of the humor ...

It's hard to convey how well the novel works, so I would just urge interested readers to pick up a copy.  It is towards the very top of my list of favourite Canadian novels.

This is review 4/13.  Incidentally, I picked up a copy of Kroetsch's The Puppeteer at the library and that should be the 14th Canadian book I read during the challenge.

The Studhorse Man

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 3rd post

I'm not entirely sure why Bissoondath's The Innocence of Age came to the top of my reading list once I decided to start reading Can. lit. again.  Perhaps it was literally at the top of a stack of  books by Canadian authors that I had owned for a long time (probably almost 15 years ago when I was in grad school at U Toronto) but not read.  A couple of years ago, I finally got to around to the previous top of the stack (My Present Age by Guy Vanderhaeghe), and I thought it was incredible (more or less a Canadian version of A Confederacy of Dunces, though apparently both were written quite independently of each other).  I won't review that here, though if I reread it in the future, I will do so.  I guess I was hoping the Bissoondath book would live up to the other one, though in fact I felt it started strong but ended badly.

Anyway, I knew I wanted to read a book or two by Robert Kroetsch (just to get back into the swing of things up in Canada, not because I was aware of the challenge).  When I mentioned this to a friend of mine who teaches Canadian lit., she said that he had died recently in a car accident.  I was really sorry to hear this, of course, and decided I should go ahead and read through all of Kroetsch's novels (though possibly skipping the first one which is not much at all like his later fiction -- it seems his attempt to make his way in the literary world of the east of the early 1960s before he returned to his roots and more or less found his calling as the postmodern bard of the West).

So to get to the actual review, The Words of My Roaring is the first novel in this more overtly mythic style where Kroetsch sort of draws on folk tales (the exaggerations of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill) as well as the outsized characters who came West in search of "freedom."  These characters are found in several of Kroetsch's novels, and he also often sets up the dichotomy of East vs. West, though subverting it when necessary (or if it makes the tale more amusing).  The most extended meditation on East vs. West comes in Gone Indian, which I hope to discuss next week.

The Words of My Roaring takes place over a roughly 10 day period prior to a provincial election in a small Western Canadian town.  The narrator, the town undertaker, Johnnie Backstrom, has been convinced to run for office against the incumbent of many years, Doc Murdoch.  Doc Murdoch is very popular and well respected, and Johnnie often feels overmatched and often considers dropping out of the race.  Indeed, Johnnie looks up to Doc as a father figure (Johnnie was literally the first baby that Doc delivered), and there are a few hints that Doc might have had a closer than usual friendship with Johnnie's mother.  However, Johnnie does have a certain flair for oration and can be wound up to make all kinds of promises, including the promise that it will rain (not that HE will make it rain) before the election.  Given that the town is suffering from a terrible drought (shades of the Oklahoma dust bowl of the 1930s), he begins to get crowds coming to his rallies after this announcement.

In general, Backstrom is a very flawed figure -- basically well-meaning but easily led astray, violating his pledge not to drink, spending money that his family desperately needs, and finally falling into a torrid affair with Doc's daughter (she nearly convinces him to pull out of the race as well, though ultimately Doc himself convinces Johnnie that he would rather lose a well-fought race than be awarded the position by default).  All through this, Johnnie tries to balance his responsibilities to his job (though there aren't many people who are dying who can afford a fancy funeral), to fixing up his car and to paying some attention to his very pregnant wife!  I find Kroetsch kind of drawing on the famous literary confessions of the past (most notably St. Augustine's and Rousseau's) and perhaps commenting how even the worst heel can come across as justified if he is the one writing out the account.  In general, male shortcomings are clearly on display in this book, and not only Johnnie's...


Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that on the day of the election the skies open up and it pours.  It is unclear whether this means the young man will have his sins washed away.  It is also unclear whether this will sway the election to him (or if he will ultimately withdraw in favour of the good doctor because he did not deserve this bit of good luck).  The election results are not disclosed by the end of the book.

There is actually a tiny shout out to Words of My Roaring in Kroetsch's next novel (The Studhorse Man) when Hazard Lepage and one of his companions park a "borrowed" car behind the funeral home operated by Jack Backstrom MLA, meaning first, that they are all in the same corner of the West, and second, that the undertaker did succeed in being elected to Parliament, though not necessarily at the end of that book but a subsequent contest. 

This is review 3/13.  I've actually done quite well in going through Kroetsch's novels, with only The Puppeteer and The Man from the Creeks left to go, unless I decide I really ought to read But We Are Exiles also.

While I was in the midst of this in tribute, Vaclav Havel passed away, then very shortly afterward, his former colleague Josef Škvorecký also died.  Skvorecky is a tricky case, since he certainly lived much of his life in Toronto, but his work was all published in Czech.  One book which to me definitely is Canadian literature is The Engineer of Human Souls (where the main character is a professor at UToronto); I hope to get to this novel during this challenge (or the subsequent one).  I'll probably try to read through most of Skvorecky's other novels in 2012-13, though only occasionally counting his work towards the challenge total.

I'd like to read or reread a few other Toronto novels, including Morley Callaghan's A Fine and Private Place, Atwood's Cat's Eye and Findley's Headhunter.  If I have time, I will then pick up on some Montreal works: Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute, Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Blais's St. Lawrence Blues (read this many, many years ago and could definitely get more out of it the second time around) and perhaps the most intriguing: How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired by Dany LaFerriere.  If there is any time at all left over, I am also seriously considering Hill's The Book of Negroes, Urquhart's The Stone Carvers, and MacLennan's Barometer Rising (with Two Solitudes and the Watch That Ends the Night for subsequent challenges).  That should definitely keep me busy through the end of June!

Words of My Roaring

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 2nd post

I'll only have a few minutes to write some thoughts on this short story collection and then circle back a bit later (it is due at the library today!).  The collection is Better Living through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner, a Vancouver-based author.  These are sort of sardonic views of Vancouver and North Vancouver residents, but in almost all cases, the characters are shallow stereotypes (to make some point or other) rather than actual characters.  Most of the stories are about different Vancouver "types" slamming up against each other, mixed with some surrealistic touches.  There is a place for this kind of writing, but it kind of strikes me as a less successful version of what Donald Barthelme did decades ago.

The only story that had any depth (to me) was "We Come in Peace" where 5 angels come to inhabit 5 high schoolers and totally change their lives.  A school bully becomes thoughtful.   A geek becomes popular.  An anorexic girl begins eating.  Etc. Their mission doesn't last long, and most of the kids are left off worse after the angels depart.  This was definitely the most interesting and successful story to me.

The title story kind of wimped out at the end, where it implies that a former anarchist has blown up her own son (because the city council won't actually implement road calming measures on her block!), but leaves it just open enough for the tender-hearted to imagine or arrive at a different ending.

While I didn't think "Once, We Were Swedes" was that successful, the set-up -- a woman heading into early menopause while her male partner seems to be getting younger and younger (and completely sidestepping responsibility) -- is interesting.  I will say that while I occasionally feel middle-aged, there have been several incidents here in Vancouver where college coeds have offered to give up their seat for me that have made me feel really aged (only took the offer once and that was when I had a large load of groceries).  Maybe there is something to the idea of Vancouver being so overrun by hipsters that it does make people feel prematurely old.

Edit to add: one element of the story which has stuck with me (the sign of an at least partly successful story) is that the man becomes a roadie for this alternative band who appear to be already famous on their very first gig.  The band does this call and response thing with the audience -- "I thought I saw a pussy cat" and they call back "You did, you did see a pussy cat!"  I can totally imagine something like that happening.  I'm imagining another pop hook based on "those meddling kids!" from Scooby-Doo, but the rest of the line has terrible rhythm, so maybe it would be best as part of a techno remix song.

One story I definitely disliked was "The Adopted Chinese Daughters' Rebellion" which basically took mockery of the trendy folks who adopt baby girls from China too far. The families in the neighborhood all outdo themselves in providing an authentic home life for their daughters, while the daughters just want to be typical Canadians and go to the mall.  That's ok as far as it goes, but then to have the parents bind their girls' feet!  Too far over the line for me. 

So she definitely shows some promise, but to me, the writer doesn't go beyond the surface of things and settles for cheap shots a lot of the time.  She definitely strikes me as someone who spends far more time reading other blogs than actual literature, and I'll leave it at that...

This is my second review of 13, and I have a long backlog of books I've read and now need to review.

I just realized that this is the 13th Canadian book I have read since the challenge begun!  This also means I have 11 reviews to get caught up on, but the harder part of the challenge is over.  One of my secondary goals was to read 13 different Canadian authors during this challenge, and Zsuzsi brings me up to 7 unless I have forgotten one.  In my next review, I will sketch out the books I am considering reading past 13 (some of which will probably roll over into next year's challenge).