Monday, 14 November 2016

Star’s Reflection by Gail Nyoka (Book Review)

Star’s Reflection by Gail Nyoka (2016) – YA Fantasy

I have just read a wonderful book. A beautiful book. A compelling mystery, with romance, magic, and a serene reverence that is rare in novels, particularly adventure novels, as this one is. My only disappointment is in the cover. Actually, I like the cover. It's just that a) They should have chosen a different colour for the title, as it blends into the woman's face too much and b) this woman does not look like a person of colour. Which the character is. However! On to the review.

Star's Reflection is Gail Nyoka's second novel. Her first, Mella and the Nanga, was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award (Children) in 2005.

Vida and Sammi are friends in modern day Toronto, Canada. Their maths teacher is rotten to them, as their art teacher was a couple of years before. Nothing new there, and nothing fun, except that they can bemoan together their persecution by him. But when he wrestles violently with a strange woman over a package outside of their school, she throws it to them and tells them to run. They catch it and flee, and with that decision the two friends find themselves inexorably drawn into a dangerous and beguiling drama that stretches over millenia, from the present day back to the time of Queen Nefertari of Egypt.

The package, which they of course open as soon as they get home (wouldn’t you?) is of an ancient mirror, with an ivory handle shaped like a woman whose upstretched arms hold a mirror. The woman’s ears are those of a cow. She is, they learn in time, the goddess Het Heru, or Hathor.

The rest of the book follows two linked lines: the two girls as they cope with the real time danger, and the gradually unfolding story of a young priestess of Het Heru, revealed to them through the mirror, as she lives and learns and loves in a temple in ancient Egypt. In her time, too, there is danger, and the beauty of her desert world and the wonder of dedication to a deity who is celebrated in music, ritual, study, and prayer. How Vida and Sammi react to what they witness in the mirror, and the two groups who vie for its possession, and how the young priestess Little Star confronts the challenges in her own life, form the greater part of the story. But there, too, is struggle over a religion thought dead for thousands of years.

Nyoka’s spare, elegant prose and clear-eyed understanding of both worlds come together in a young adult novel that is as easily attractive to this aging lady. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in girls and their lives, ancient Egypt and its religion, romance, friendship, jealousy, and understanding. Very nicely done.

Friday, 11 November 2016

The Humour is Lonely: a review of The Hills is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith (1959).

 I am sad about this book. I came to it an innocent, knowing nothing of its provenance, expecting to laugh, to learn something about the Hebrides in the 1950s (we have ancestors who came from there, so it’s cool to learn a bit), to enjoy some good writing. It came off of a friend’s shelf. She had three of Beckwith’s books, and is herself of Scottish heritage. I felt safe.

I did laugh. Sometimes quite hard. I did learn things about life in the Hebrides, and was reminded of places and people I knew many years ago—it was good to remember being with them. And yes, there is some excellent writing.

What breaks my heart is the endless caricatures, sometimes bluntly ugly, made of people who welcomed her into their lives. True, she has “fictionalized” it, but it doesn’t matter. Even if every person in the book is unlike anyone she met there, even if no one could think, my God, is that me she is writing about?!, even if every situation is patently not something that happened there, even if she has (and she has) made herself out in as unflattering ways as she has anyone else, it doesn’t matter. She has characterized the whole culture as dirty, foolish, unconsciously gross. She has missed the elegance of other writers who will lightly lampoon themselves and one or two others and let the other characters have their dignity. Why didn’t anyone tell her?

I do not entirely blame the author. She was a person of her times and had not the insight to recognize that just because the rest of the world thought it was okay to lampoon a whole people (or any person), it doesn’t mean it IS okay. There are intimations that she did care about the people whose world she entered and remained in for some years. And yet she was too foolish to realize that THIS KIND OF HUMOUR HURTS. It hurts an individual, and it hurts a culture by upholding stereotypes that dismiss and demean, it hurts the children growing up knowing that this is how they are seen, it hurts the children growing up thinking there is a division between themselves and someone else just because they have different manners, different ways. It hurts any possibility of true friendship between the classes and peoples involved. It hurts.

One of the realizations I had as I read in alternating delight and creeping horror, was that these ugly stereotypes were the reason, or at least part of the reason, that I grew up learning to dislike and distrust the English, the ones with perfect grammar and chilling mannerisms, and to always feel clumsy and ridiculous in comparison to them—because they despised us. I have pretty much healed from that. The world is not black and white to me as it was then. But this book is a sad reminder of that rift, one that extended, and extends, to people of all colours, all classes, all differences.

There are hints here of the damage this does to the person in the oppressor role, too. The obvious one is that she must be annihilating the goodwill of the people she lampoons, and yet she blithely and unawarely does it anyway, when she could as well have written the same book without the ugliness. It is like watching a slow motion train crash. You can see it coming, you know what is about to happen, you see the nose of the train ploughing dully into the mountain side, but the engineer cannot or will not make it stop, and all are doomed. Engineer, passengers, standers-by.

But read this. She has gone back to England for a few weeks after a couple of years in Scotland. When she returns the three elderly people she has been living with welcome her with great enthusiasm.

“The fervour of the welcome from all three of them was impressive and made that which I had received in England seem frigid in comparison (pg. 234).”

This insight, which candidly illumines something she has been hinting at in her self-deprecation throughout—her depiction of herself as humourless, arrogant, rude—is poignant. But it is instantly extinguished by her next, rallying-back-from-awareness, blunt instrument of humour:

“It was difficult to repress a feeling of elation, for the geniality of the Gael, despite its lack of sincerity, is an endearing trait (pg. 234).”

Oh, Lillian. How must you have hated yourself to shove that last spike in.

Having written this review, I find out a little bit more about Lillian Beckwith, both from LibraryThing itself, and from her Wikipedia page:

“Her life on the island provided the basis for seven books published between 1959 and 1978, although allegedly, some of her neighbours later felt that the somewhat comical characters on Beckwith’s fictional island of Bruach were too close to real persons, causing Beckwith to become something of a persona non grata in her former home.[citation needed] She moved to the Isle of Man in 1962 and died on 3 January 2004 aged 87.[1]”

If true, it doesn’t surprise me at all that she had to leave the Hebrides.

What shocks me is that (LibraryThing tells me) Pan Books put out a 2016 edition of this work. It shocks me that generations of people both English and, if you believe the reviews on her bookcovers, Scottish, have thought these warmly realistic and hilarious depictions of Hebridean life. 

It is just like the caricatures of First Nations people, and similar to, if more heavy handed than, that of the Newfoundlander, that I grew up with in the same era that she was writing. But surely we don’t sell those images anymore? Surely??

I could be angry—thirty years ago I would have been. Now I am simply sad.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

So, Amos Barton...Thoughts on a Short Novel by George Eliot

So, Amos Barton

A number of years ago an unknown neighbour left a massive copy of Middlemarch by George Eliot on the table in the lobby. (Strictly against the rules, I might add.)

Against my better judgement, knowing I would never read it, yet with a flicker of wishfulness that I wasn’t so intimidated by old and difficult books, so sure that I would find them dull or “beyond me”, and thus confirm my doubt that I had anything but the most pedestrian intelligence, I picked it up.

And put it down.

It remained on my shelf, amongst unread Hardy and untouched Austen, for a period of time. I don’t remember how long or how short. I do remember hefting it off the shelf one brave day and taking my usual reading position and starting in on the first page.

The language was enormous. Never mind that it was nearly a hundred and fifty years old. It was the tongue of an energetic master, a whip-strong language with a mind behind it bursting with energy and observation and thought. At first I was astonished, and thrilled, and moved, but then, wandering into chapter one, I was soon well lost. There was too much I couldn’t understand, too much I had to fight to put any meaning to at all.

I put the book away.

Sometime later, I picked it up again. And then again, always getting at most thirty pages in. I knew that if only I could get over the hump, I would love this book. Or at least, I hoped so. Finally I did the only thing left to me.

I took it to my mother’s in Manitoba, with only nonfiction besides, and stretches of time when there would be nothing else to do. It came alive.

I stopped worrying about the odd bit I didn’t get. I got into the music of her way of expressing herself. I allowed myself to be swept into poor Miss Brooke’s life. I thrilled at the way the author was able not only to collect together all the elements of a world but to make true sense of them, and to do it with words and phrases that seemed plucked out of heaven itself. It was an epiphany.

Fast forward ten years or so. In my cupboard wait two more Eliot books, Silas Marner and The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton. Both much shorter books than Middlemarch, though in an omnibus edition the three do fill the hand and weary the arm. Nevertheless! I had been holding onto these as after dinner mints—the kind long forgotten in pocket lint—and the time had finally come.

I got through Silas Marner unscathed and happy, though it had been a near thing. Poor old Silas. A good man, and I’m glad things worked out. But Amos Barton, now, that was another kettle of fish.

I finished it last night. I am going to tell you, sort of, how it ends, but I am also going to tell you how it begins and how it middles.

This is a very short tale, the earliest of the three, and perhaps Eliot was just learning her craft. Maybe no one had told her that you don’t write books like this. Her betters would surely not let her get away with it now.

We float into a thought-line, that of an opinionated and powerful narrator, identitiy never disclosed, the author herself, of course, who muses on the place and people, takes us into and out of their conversations as the subject matter pertains or fails to pertain to Amos Barton himself. She shows his strengths and his foibles equally, shows the people around him—those who love, those who mock, and those whose loyalties wobble when times are tough. She shows his wonderful wife and their thoughtless friend and the slow diminution of his wife’s health. And then the wife dies.

At this terrible moment, all of these (or many of these) ordinary gossiping not helpful people are touched by his grief and pitch in to buoy him through his poverty and sorrow. At last he is redeemed in their eyes, and his future, though bleached with loss, seems sure.

And then he loses his position as curate, and goes away. We see him once more and he seems at ease with his lot, but his daughter, his eldest daughter, has devoted her life to his care since she was ten years old. She has traded her own life for her mother’s, and though at least she is spared the whole health-whittling thing of childbirth ... it is not a happy end.

It is not so much a story as a wandering character study, though of course it is a story, too, and as with the others, Eliot’s voice is sublime. But for Amos Barton you must not skip the annoying characters or just find the plotline and ignore the descriptions (as of course I would never do) because this book is just life, unfolding in all its meaness and all its happiness and all its regrets, and the author pulls no punches, and no great lesson is learned, and we all just get older in the end.

So I can’t get it out of my head. She didn’t fix things. Not at all. She just laid them out.

Brava, Madame George.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

“Storm Proof” by Casey June Wolf

I have been neglecting my blogs. No essay this time, and no poem by some great poet, though I have one in mind I'd like to beg access to. Instead, a poem from me, written yesterday as the warned of storm hit land near where I live, but by the time it got to me, was gentle as a very angry lamb.

Diana in the Autumn Wind — Paul Klee, 1921.

Storm Proof

the winds are fresh today
fierce   some might say
each branch   each leaf strains
toward my open window
wide   welcoming

cool invisible arms
wander round me

we are both thrashing here
you in jerk and thrust of changing air
me with words on screen and all the
churning heart that goes into them

you are quiet now
a pause in your suffering
in your frantic throwing off
of leaves stitched cell by cell across the months

they are going   gone
as sure as what I cling to rips away
in my mere internal tempests

I looked up   though
not for metaphor
but for companionship
and as I drank the dregs of your wild traverse
and what of those at sea
how welcoming
do your arms appear to them

Casey June Wolf
copyright 15 October 2016

Image: "Diana in the Autumn Wind", Paul Klee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Abandoned Hearth

David Creedon "Hearth"

When I look first at this photo I see all sorts of things I love--the red, the checks, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the comfy rocking chair, the plaster walls.

It's only when I look longer, begin to relax around the warmth the image brings that I see--what's that in the hearth? What's that all over the floor? And the paint peeled ... The disruption of hearth and home call clear to me. Someone, like I am now, faced the loss of a beloved home. For whatever reasons, that person, an elderly one, by the look of the room, left to never return, and the young, if they came, chose not to stay. Not even to pillage all that much. Jesus still presides over the vanished hearts of those he came to tend and guide. The cloth along the hearth still ready, with perhaps a shake of plaster dust, to support the family frames again. Most eloquently, the comfy chair still faces the long dead fire. 

How it must have once looked. You can see the underlying care, the tidiness that brings pride and permits efficiency, the homeliness that encourages rest and quiet times. The icons that invite protection of those who dwell within.

It is too easy to see this photo as something beautiful, kind of funky, supportive of our own poetic self-excitations. It is easy to see it as a trigger to my own sorrow over impending and long-cooled losses, now all hot again. But it is hard to know who sat there, and if he or she was happy, if he or she watched family, one by one, die or leave forever. If he or she was quite content and well cared for by family and friends. If a book ever sat upon the hearth. If songs were regular visitors there. If anyone remembers that once warm, once living room, anymore.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Housing - Guess who pays the price?

A letter I just sent off to as many relevant and irrelevant actors as I could think of:

Dear Politicians.

I live in an apartment building on the Grandview Cut in East Vancouver. I have lived in one room here for thirty years. It is my home, and my roots in the community--including the community of this building, where numerous neighbours have lived for decades--are deep. My income, however, is low. I am on CPP and Persons with Disabilities Income Assistance, totalling a little over $900 a month.

With the new zoning my building has been sold and will be destroyed. Some people are making a nice bit of money off of this, and good for them. The housing they will create has to be offered to us, the evictees: how likely do you think it is that I or most of my neighbours will be able to afford to accept? At my income, there is no way I can find market housing in Vancouver, a city where I have lived for most of my fifty-nine years. Even the worst and most insecure rooms in the Downtown Eastside are skyrocketting in price.

I voted for Gregor Robertson. Twice. I believed there was a vision there that I could get behind, and I trusted him. But I have been deceived. I agree that we need greater density in our cities, just as I agree we need to be more environmentally responsible. But what happens to the vulnerable? What happens to me?

There is a lot of noise about affordable housing coming from all levels of government, but where is it? There are over four thousand seniors on waiting lists for subsidized housing in B.C., and Lord knows how many other folk are clamouring for help. Why are you allowing developers to destroy our homes and not forcing them to include actually affordable housing for low income people? Yes, in the same buildings. We would love to live in them, too.

What is your vision for the city? That all the poor are corralled into blocks built only for them, and those that can't find even that just go away? I have never wanted to go into BC Housing. I have chosen instead to stay in a mixed building, where there are old, young, children, pets, students, workers, disabled, pensioners, even a little backyard wildlife, all together the way a community is supposed to be. You are breaking my heart.

If I want to stay in this neighbourhood where I have lived for thirty-five years, I must finally try to find subsidized housing. The waiting list, I am told, is two and a half to three years on average. How long will it take for the permits to be granted so they can tear my building down? Eighteen months to two years, the landlord says. And so where do I go, where do we all go, all of us all over the Lower Mainland, all over the country, who are having our homes destroyed because it is a great market to make money in, but not, apparently, a great market to provide low-income housing? If you don't want to build enough good, safe, community-oriented, integrated subsidized housing, then why do you keep the CPP and Welfare rates so low that we can't afford to live? Do you care at all? Do you really want to turn your back on the reality and just make yourselves look good by promoting one or two new facilities while we are facing the workhouse, here?

All right, I am getting overwrought, you are right. I know that is not how we are supposed to behave. But how would you feel, Gregor, Christy, any of you, if suddenly and for the second time you were about to lose your home, with nowhere to go and no money to get there, because somebody else thought it would benefit them?

The thing is, you have probably (and I hope it is so) never known that kind of fear. You have probably grown up in safe housing, and always known that if you didn't have the money now to get the kind of living arrangement you wanted, you soon would. Patience and hard work would get you there. In such worlds it is hard to even imagine the terror and grief that wash over those who have not been so lucky, and who face losing everything.

I, too, have been patient. I have cultivated patience of necessity to a degree I could not have imagined when I was young, because so very often in my life I have simply had no choice--no choice about illness, no choice about poverty, no choice about loss. I have grown that patience like a tender plant, so that I could live with equanimity in spite of all those lacks, and focus instead on the bounty in my life.

And I have worked very hard, if almost never for pay. I have worked to serve the vulnerable people around me, family and neighbours, I have worked to preserve my health, I have worked to try to make this world a better place. Now I face my coming old age with a gnawing in my bones. 

So no, Gregor. I will never vote for you again. I expect nothing from any of you, much as I wish and pray for it--not even that you will ever read this letter. But I had to speak.

And I can't quite extinguish the hope that I will find, somehow, a place to live where I can feel safe, and happy, and at home, without losing everything I have in the meantime because I and it have no place to rest. You had better wish me luck.

Casey June Wolf

Image: Home (2015)

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Creating—Don't Do It!

MacDonald Beach by William D

I found this note I had scribbled to myself on 2 December 2013. On reading thought, hmmm. Good point.

Two thoughts emerge as I explore MacDonald Beach in Richmond. (Herons in clusters; mountains against a blue sky; the brush of Southlands, concealing Vancouver—illusion of not being in a city; snow geese gathered on the foreshore across the river from where I stand; underfoot, abundant moss and tiny lichens, pebbled with beach grass and crowded with broom; thin ice in puddles: I press to hear it squeak.)

1) Creativity is not important. The clamour to be creative is another trap, another pressure to produce.

2) What is valuable about it is its root: the moment of stopping, of enveloping the world around you in your awareness. Stay with that and don't create—unless the urge is a flood that brings you joy.

Image by: William D.