Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Bird's Eye

A Bird's Eye / Cary Fagan
Toronto: Anansi, c2013.
178 p.

This brief novel is told as if from a bird's eye view: a wide view, zooming in on moments, but covering a span of years. The main character, Benjamin Kleeman, is a young boy growing up in Toronto in the 30s -- he finds his own way in life, discovering street magic early on and following up this passion at the library. His close friend and eventually also girlfriend, Corrine Foster, is a spirited black girloriginally from Chicago, who dreams of becoming a jazz singer someday.

These two performers manage to create a kind of life together, growing up and eventually having to make the decision to either stay together or drift apart. Benjamin makes his choice, and the story ends, but a whole new story is beginning for him, one that I'd love to read.

Although this is a small book full of brief glimpses into his life and that of early Toronto, there is so much resonance in the details. It manages to convey a lot of emotional content and evocative imagery in a few words, giving us both of Benjamin's parents in quick succession, both of whom have a strong reality of their own. There are elements that create a love song to libraries, to passion, even to Toronto, within Benjamin's own personal story. I think that in the hands of another writer this might have become a 600+ page saga, with detail added upon detail, but Fagan's technique of broad strokes carries this book and it is a powerful though small portion!

The writing is really controlled and finely polished, allowing for a lot of memorable phrases -- I found many quotable bits! Here's something that Benjamin says about stage magicians at one point, and it really jumped out at me as something that could apply to many artists of all kinds:

The thing about magic is that it must be taken very, very seriously. If you don't, it can become a joke. This is why so many performing conjurers have an attitude of pompous gravity on the stage. They are, at heart, deathly afraid of being laughed at. They need to be believed in, like Tinker Bell in the famous play, or they will fade away. Even more, what a conjurer needs is for himself to believe. To believe that what he does has a deeper meaning.
I really enjoyed this read. It reminded me of origami in a way: deceptively small in size, the story kept unfolding and unfolding, having much more surface area than appeared at first glance. It had detail and yet left enough mystery in the spaces between what was told to allow the reader to imagine and colour in parts of the tale. To me, that gives a story the power to inhabit the reader's imagination and echo in your memory for quite a long time. This is a book well worth seeking out.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Emancipation Day

Emancipation Day / Wayne Grady
Toronto: Doubleday, 2013.
336 p.

This was an unexpected pleasure, a book about family, trust, identity and race, set in Windsor & Newfoundland right around the time of WWII.

It's the story of Jack Lewis, a young serviceman in WWII who is stationed in Newfoundland, as a member of the band (he plays trombone). He is far away from his Windsor home, and from his coloured family there. He was born "white" and has always thought of himself as such, and so he has spent much of his life and energy trying very hard to distance himself from his family. He doesn't tell anyone that his father is black (or 'coloured', as the term was then). This includes Vivian, the Newfoundland girl he meets and marries while in the Navy. So when she finally meets Jack's family, she is in for a bit of a surprise.

I was really engaged in this book, despite Jack himself being a bit of a cipher. I never felt that I was really getting inside the mental process that made him so insistent on identifying as "white". There were, of course, obvious reasons for his decision -- one, to make life easier on himself. Grady really examines the day to day effects of living as a black person in mid-century Windsor and Detroit -- the comparisons between countries were particularly fascinating to me. But more than a story of one man, this is a story of how colour, race, and identity permeates everything. How does one identify oneself, and what effect does it have on everyone around that one person? On society in general?

Reading this book, I felt like I was learning quite a lot about a story I hadn't heard before. I studied Canadian history, and was still just vaguely aware of Windsor's black community, and the fluidity of movement across the border. Examining the beliefs of different members of Jack's family, and how each of them negotiated their own way through life with both race and gender playing a part, Grady is able to paint a complex portrait of a family. The setting is very strong, and the characters are intriguing.

One of my favourite characters was Vivian -- she fell for the rebellious Jack during the war, and even left her home for him. When they arrived in Windsor, and later while living in Toronto, she accepts the fact that Jack comes from a "coloured" family, and also that he himself refuses to admit this. She gets to know his family and sisters and feels comfortable with all of the complexity around their relationships. Things come to a head when she gets pregnant. She suddenly realizes that she won't know if the child will appear black or white, and that their whole future will depend on the baby's appearance -- not any hard fact of being from a black or white background, or in this case, a bit of both -- but solely on what the child looks like. She works out a scenario for herself, confident that she can live with Jack's mother and sisters and raise the child there -- or, that Jack will accept the baby and they'll focus on a white middle-class life. Which is it? I was on tenterhooks near the end, waiting to see what Vivian would do. Somehow I knew that no matter what, she would survive.

Grady says that this was a novel he's worked on for twenty years, that it has been pared down and edited from a sprawling family saga. At times that shows, as time jumps and the action telescopes. But the other alternative would have been to leave it a massive doorstopper, so I am grateful that the balance of the book has been maintained and provides a great read in its final form. I think this is a fabulous read, one that would also fit nicely into the theme for Canada Reads 2014 -- hope to see it show up there!

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

And Then There Were Nuns

Jane ChristmasAnd Then There Were Nuns:  / Jane Christmas
Vancouver: Greystone, c2013.
292 p.

What a delight this book was! It's the story of Canadian writer Jane Christmas, newly engaged but also wanting to explore her lifelong urging toward the contemplative life.

So she and her fiancé decide that they will delay their engagement, giving her a year to live in various convents and examine her possible calling. She admits it's an unusual situation.

She is a wonderful writer, entertaining, self-deprecating and yet not cynical or worried about stating her spiritual affinities. She spends her year living first with the Sisters of St. John the Divine in Toronto, at a special program for "Women at a Crossroads". Through them she makes connections with an Anglican convent in Whitby, England, where she plans to spend 3 months -- yes, there are Anglican nuns, something that she mentions comes as a surprise to most people.. In between she spends a week each as a guest at an English monastery and Catholic convent. Her experiences at each are varying, some good, some not very good. But she sees things, notices details, and works hard to discern if this life is the one for her or not.

There's lots to learn about the life of modern nuns, or sisters, as they are also called. Christmas is able to report on her experience wryly and with humour, but without any mean edge to her tale. She is drawn to this lifestyle and respects those who choose it, for the most part. I found it an illuminating read, full of little facts about church history and church architecture, for example, and also a very interesting point about music. She states that the history of chant goes back a long way in monasteries and convents, and after Vatican II, when it was discouraged, many nuns and monks began getting sick. She goes on to say that chant uses all the vocal frequencies, essentially "tuning" the human body to health, and suggests that the halt of its use may have been partly to blame for the rash of illnesses noticed at that time. This is an interesting idea, though there is no hard research to back it up...but the fact of chant and vocal register is supported by research. I've seen a fair number of articles lately about singing being good for you; chant fits right in.

While I understand the draw of a quiet, cloistered life, the rigid schedule and hard work of a nun's life would be too much for me. Christmas shares the daily round of the various places she stays, and it is clear that to become a nun one would have to be utterly committed. It's a fascinating life, and she is able to describe it lovingly and without any ironic detachment. At times her spiritual experiences made me raise an eyebrow, but overall I found this a great read. It's a fresh eye on a kind of spirituality that is often mocked or treated superficially. It was a quick, absorbing read and I truly enjoyed it.