Sunday, March 26, 2017


Karyotype / Kim Trainor
London: Brick Books, c2015.
99 p.

This brief, elegaic work really caught me as I read it this week. It's another collection of poetry inspired by scientific themes, in this case, the karyotype (essentially a picture of a person's chromosomes).

At the heart of the collection is the Beauty of Loulan, a mummy found in China's deserts, along the Silk Road. Trainor uses her fascination with the Beauty of Loulan to focus on many aspects of human life, from the sweep of history to the smallest element of what makes us individual.

She illuminates family life, both her own and as a bigger theme, via a viewing of a documentary on these mummies -- and describes the Beauty of Loulan, and the scientists examining her, in poetic images which nonetheless almost made me queasy at times, as they exhume and pick her apart.

But another aspect of this collection, alongside the woven strands of DNA that provide poetic inspiration, is Trainor's look at the woven textiles that are also found with the mummies. The references to weaving, both physically and more poetically, infuse this look at personhood and history. I kept thinking of the wonderful book Women's Work:the first 20,000 Years, which explores textiles and women's history, and the vital place that these skills held in cultures from the very beginning -- and which is by the same author (Elizabeth Wayland Barber) who also wrote a book just on the textiles of these mummies, which inspired Trainor's poems.

In the middle section of the book, Trainor focuses on words and texts which are ephemeral yet have staying power: poems of Akhmatova or Mandelstam, books that were destroyed in the firebombing of the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, notebooks recovered from the fields of WWII, and so on. It's heart-rending, showing the fragility of human life (as in the other poems in this book) but also what remains. 

These themes blend very well, and create a thoughtful reading experience. Humanity remains as physical artifact or as intellectual concept; whichever one it is, there is still meaning for the contemporary viewer.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

How to Draw a Rhinoceros

How to Draw A Rhinoceros / Kate Sutherland
Toronto: BookThug, c2016.
120 p.

This is a debut collection by a law professor and poet, who also happens to be an acquaintance of mine. But that had no bearing on the fact that I adored this book of poetry.

I enjoyed it because of its cleverness, creative wordplay, and focus on science and on a specific theme - obviously the rhinoceros. I've made no secret of my love of the combination of science & poetry - from Alice Major to Madhur Anand, I've always enjoyed this combo.

This book takes the natural sciences as its subject. Sutherland examines the rhino from many angles; historical (the first touring rhino); artistic (Durer's rhinoceros sketches); biographical (sketches of some of the best known zoo owners/beast collectors in history); whimsical (Clara the rhino aboard ship, in law school, in space and more).

Each one has a different light to shed on the place that the rhinoceros has played in human history and culture. There are even some "found poems", something I always find intriguing - these ones are drawn from varied sources, from a 19th C. circus poster, from government reports of poaching, from Theodore Roosevelt & Ernest Hemingway's hunting narratives, as some examples.

The thematic thread - a rhinoceros - holds all of these witty poems together. The facets of the collection provide differing views of natural history and human interference in animal life, and hint of much more to be explored. Thankfully there are some notes on the writing of the poems at the end that may give interested readers a bit more to search out, now that the never-before-considered topic of the rhinoceros seems so fascinating. 

If you have any interest in history, natural or otherwise, and welcome an encounter with new poets and unexpected obsessions, I recommend finding a copy of this satisfyingly enjoyable read.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Kovalyova's Specimen

Specimen: stories / Irina Kovalyova
Toronto: Anansi, c2015.
295 p.

I was first drawn to this book by its gorgeous cover, which I had to highlight at the top of this post. Then I was intrigued by the content: short stories infused with science - biology mostly - all backed up by the author's cred:

Irina Kovalyova has a Master’s degree in Chemistry from Brown University, a doctoral degree in Microbiology from Queen’s University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University. She has previously interned for NASA and worked for two years as a forensic analyst in New York City. She was born in Russia and currently lives in Vancouver.
So these are some powerfully written stories, about scientists, with lots of focus on women, and diverse settings from Russia to Canada to North Korea and beyond. They are simply wonderful.

I enjoyed this whole collection a great deal. From the opening story to the last one (more a novella length) there was cleverness, complex characters and lots of intrigue. Each of them was different enough that you aren't reading the same story from different angles, as happens sometimes in debut story collections. There was so much imagination on display, and a strong feeling of a wide-ranging intelligence colouring each tale. I loved this book.

It's made up of nine stories, some brief & slightly humorous, like "Side Effects" in which a woman gets Botox with unexpected results, some more eerie and disturbing, like "Peptide P", in which scientists study children afflicted with a strange disease after eating hot dogs, and only one that I felt didn't quite fit, "The Big One", a concise tale of a woman & her daughter trapped in an underground parking garage after an earthquake. 

I loved the first story, "Mamochka", about an archivist in Minsk dealing with her daughter's marriage to a Chinese man in Vancouver. It's unexpected, thoughtful, and has a bit of an edge. I also loved the final novella, "The Blood Keeper", which I think was the highlight of the book. It's a longer story about a Russian student of plant genetics, a specialist in orchids, who ends up studying in North Korea where her father has been working for the government. He works on the preservation of Lenin's body & has been called to this fellow Communist country to help preserve the Supreme Leader's corpse. It is full of political intrigue, comparisons of Russian and North Korean communism, informers, love interests, secrets, and a long history of betrayals. It's amazing. It's a page turner but also a lovely meditation on being human and what we do in the name of dogma. As in all these stories, the facets of science and politics interact with family relationships. 

With its intelligent voice and worldly settings, I found this collection a breath of fresh air in Canlit. There are big ideas supported by excellent writing all throughout this book. Highly recommended. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Measure of Light

A Measure of Light / Beth Powning  
Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2015.
336 p.

This was a bit of an outlier of a read for me; I don't usually pick up straight-up historical fiction, especially if it's about early America. 

But I've read other books by Beth Powning before, and think she's a wonderful writer. Plus this features a Quaker woman as a main character so there was that element of religious freedom and women's lives to intrigue me as well.

I thought it was an interesting novel -- slower moving and invested in character development, as in Powning's other novels. It really examines how one lives within a particular society, especially if the social norms are stifling or limiting. Each person interacts with their surroundings differently, and in this book women like Anne Hutchinson, an intelligent and brave woman, flaunt what they consider ridiculous rules - for example, Hutchinson held a theological circle for women in her home, questioning the need for ministers, playing a large role in the Antinomian controversy.

And then there is the main character, based on a real historical figure, Mary Dyer -- a Puritan who flees religious persecution in England to come to Massachusetts in 1635, only to find that there is persecution of another kind in her new surroundings. After being accused of apostasy and having the male leaders of their colony use the stillbirth of her child as proof, she and her husband leave the colony to move to Rhode Island, but she finds she cannot love her other children or her life because of this trauma.

Taking a break to return to England, she is converted by the Society of Friends (the Quakers) and becomes a 'radical' for them. When she returns to the colonies, it's to find that Quakers have been outlawed. But this doesn't stop her.

Mary is a woman who gives up her home, and her family, to speak the truth as she knows it, and is harassed and arrested for it eventually. For the crime of believing that a committee of men was not God, that religious freedom for herself and others was important enough to fight for, in her own Quakerish way, she becomes one of the four Quakers martyred for their beliefs in New England.

This story is beautifully written, in Powning's evocative style. The natural world in both its beauty and harshness is finely observed, and the women's lives - alongside their religious ideals - are realistic and grounded in physicality. As a New Englander raised as Quaker, Powning has an authenticity in the telling that makes this historical setting believable and compelling, both in its starkness and its fervour. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light / Cordelia Strube
Toronto: ECW, c2016.
365 p.

Harriet is 11 (like many other tough and tender Canadian heroines). But Harriet lives in the Shangri-La, a decrepit apartment block full of seniors for whom she does errands for petty cash. And she survives in a dysfunctional family, her brother Irwin with a serious medical condition, her mother overwhelmed and unhappy, and an unsympathetic, messed up stepfather. 

Each chapter she is encountering another situation, either with her friends (such as they are), another family in the building, or her own. The level of oddness and "quirkiness" in the story really accretes and became almost too much for me. Harriet is tough-talking, adult sounding, when she negotiates with the seniors in the building for chore/pay equivalence. She is also a mixed media artist and has dreams of running away to live like Tom Thomson in a cabin in the north woods. At eleven. This combination of vulnerable child and artistic prodigy, a sport in her family, caused me to feel a little bit suspicious of her, due to overfamiliarity with this kind of character.

But as it turned out, I kind of liked Harriet, and by the time I started to actually root for her, well, it was 3/4 of the way through the book and then Strube really threw in a curveball that completely lost me. 

The rest of the book felt like a lengthy denouement that rambled on a bit. Or the beginning of a different story. While I admired the strength of writing and creativity in this book, I'm a little saturated with misery stories and so this tale of a young girl in a crappy situation, trying to make things better through her limited abilities and viewpoint didn't catch me in the way it has so many other readers. 

If you want a completely different opinion on this book that I found decidedly underwhelming, try reading thoughts by Kerry at Pickle Me This  or Angelene at Sad Hat Diaries, both of whom really liked it. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

My Brilliant Career

My Brilliant Career / Miles Franklin
London: Virago, 1980, c1901.
232 p.
This 1901 novel delves into women's agency, desires, and yet again, the issue of income & poverty, and its effects on women in particular.

Sybylla Melvyn is the eldest daughter of a family living in NSW, Australia, and her father's bad decisions have drawn the family into poverty. He's also taken to drink. Sybylla is a prickly and obstinate kind of girl; she doesn't click with her family --
I am a piece of machinery which, not understanding, my mother winds up the wrong way, setting all the wheels of my composition going in creaking discord.
Fortunately for her, she's sent to live with her grandmother for a while. This is a much more civilized, luxurious life, and she enjoys it - the art and culture she's exposed to are just her thing. She enjoys being free from grinding labour, and likes feeling noticed and appreciated. She even draws the attention of Harold Beecham, an older neighbour, a single man who is a fairly successful farmer. 

But then she's sent home again (and this brief encounter with opportunity and glamour of a sort, followed by a return to poverty and routine reminds me of Stefan Zweig's The Post Office Girl, a harrowing book -- though Sybylla doesn't take the same way out). She must help the family out by working as a housekeeper for a nearby family, a job that clashes with her every instinct, so much so that she has a breakdown and must return home. At this point she receives a proposal from Harold, but refuses to take the easy way out and let a good marriage save her. She is going to save herself, and have the Brilliant Career she dreams of. 

That is the basic plot, but this book is so much more. The writing is powerful and visceral, with Sybylla's longings clearly expressed. She's an interesting character - hard to like in some ways, but awfully easy to identify with in others. She is suspicious of good fortune, can't believe anyone would be able to love her, and yet is extremely ambitious and sure of herself at the same time (a bit like Elizabeth Taylor's Angel in her view of herself.)

This book also gives a strong picture of social conditions in rural Australia in the 1890s, in its casual descriptions of Sybylla's life. It's fascinating. It's also very interesting that Franklin was both pleased and taken aback by the success of this novel, and eventually withdrew its publication due to so many people assuming it was autobiography. It wasn't released again until after her death. This book was also followed by a sequel, My Brilliant Career Goes Bung, which was written around the same time but only published in 1946 for the first time. 

If you like prickly characters and strong writing, I do recommend this classic Australian novel. There a lot of interesting commentary that is somehow still relevant to our lives. 

Further Reading:

Strangely enough, Sybylla's sense of her self reminds me of two diaries published in the early years of the 20th century, both in her character and in the high literary style that comes through. Opal Whiteley's very popular The Story of Opal was told in a naive, childlike manner, while The Story of Mary Maclane was a bit darker and more desperate, but they were both writers who felt very out-of-place in their remote (US) communities. Sybylla is nowhere near as mannered and twee as either, but there are definite similarities.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Penny Plain

Penny Plain / O. Douglas (Anna Buchan)
Toronto: Hodder & Stoughton, c1920.
314 p.

I read this Scottish novel not in the reprint version shown here, but online via the Open Library -- one of my favourite places to find older, pre-copyright date of 1926 novels. I was reminded to search it out thanks to Leaves & Pages' thoughts on it - it sounded like the kind of cozy read I was in the mood for. 

Surprisingly, it also dealt with the question of income and a woman managing a family on very little. But this time, it's a little more fairy-tale like, in a pleasing way.

Jean Jardine is 23, and prematurely maternal, as she is responsible for her 3 brothers -- 19 yr old David, heading off to Oxford where Jean worries he won't be able to fit in with his wealthy classmates; 14 yr old Jock who is straightforward and lively; and 7 yr old Gervase, an adopted brother who is artistic and typically high spirited for a young boy. They live in a small cottage in the small Scottish town of Priorsford, which is perhaps a wee bit Cranford-ish. The cottage is so lovingly evoked that I wished I could join them in the sitting room for a while. 

Into their quiet round appears the Honourable Pamela Reston, who is taking a mental break from her whirlwind social life in London to *think*, now that she's 40 and decisions must be made. She immediately takes to Jean. And most conveniently, she has a handsome, single, younger brother who is coming for a visit...

I think you can guess what will happen. But Douglas does not make this seem sentimental and trite -- there is enough backbone to Jean that she takes some convincing, there is a little more work to be done before she'll just fall into anyone's arms, despite the financial benefits. Add to this all the various 'characters' we meet in Priorsford, and the undercurrent of seriousness -- it's just postwar, after all, and people have lost family members, they've lost financial security, and it all affects them. 

But Jean's essential goodness is rewarded - not by an old woman at a well giving her diamonds falling out of her sweet mouth every time she speaks, but by an unexpectedly legacy which is entirely due to her unselfish kindness unknowingly given to the right person. It feels equally fairy-taleish though! 

This is a light, enjoyable read, perfect for a few hours of comfort reading. There's Shakespeare, art, community, friendship, fashion, some humour, and of course True Love. As said at Leaves & Pages, this is "a true period piece", set in its own time and revealing its unstated norms throughout. A pleasant look at a good family moving up in the world, even if primarily by chance. 

There is a sequel, Priorsford, which I will most likely search out the next time I'm in this reading mood. It would be nice to go back for a visit sometime.