Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Three (more) Short Essays from Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously (now available at your local or online bookstore)


A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the worth of a word is limited only by the imagination. Take the word ‘chair’ for instance.

When I say ‘chair’ you might imagine a fine cherry wood seat in an elegant dining room, the dirty white plastic chairs in the back yard, a king’s throne, a slab of stone. The possibilities are legion. You might think of the chair you found your aunt slumped in the night she died, patterned with faded roses. You might think of a chair on the Titanic, a chair at the United Nations, an electric chair, your child’s first wooden seat. When you hear the word ‘chair’, you might think of the same word in Italian, French, Serbian, Urdu, Mandarin. You might think of the history of chairs, the construction of chairs, chairs as art, as objects to throw, to prop against a door, to stand on when changing a light bulb or reaching into a high cupboard for dusty muffin tins. The picture of a chair is certainly more restricted than the word ‘chair’, which, in its generic form, leaves almost everything open to the imagination.


Horse moves, slightest of pauses, wagon moves. There is a gap between outbreath and inbreath, between the whippoorwill drawing in its breath and the start of the song; a gap when the pianist has already begun the concerto but no music has yet reached our ears; the gap between seeing lightning in the sky and the word ‘lightning’ appearing in the mind.

That moment of groundless indecision when you don’t know if it’s a star or a shooting star.


It’s intriguing that poetry, that most evanescent of arts, lasts the longest of all cultural artifacts, while architecture, which one would expect to persist as long as the stones of the hills, tends to disappear relatively quickly from the face of the earth.

Thousands of poems of ancient China still exist, can be read today and, what is more astonishing, they can be understood. The poems that deal with the unchanging yet constantly changing world of nature are still extremely accessible, as opposed to those that reference the political world of their time. The four seasons still cycle around today as they did then, maples sprout leaves in the spring, the snow continues to fall each winter and catch in the boughs of the pines, and the mountains mentioned in ancient Chinese poems, while slightly more worn, are still recognizable.

Little remains today, however, of the architecture of ancient China (or any other ancient culture, for that matter, with the exception of enigmatic Egypt). What does remain are those edifices that have been brought low, literally: burial mounds and underground chambers.

Entire cities with their impregnable palaces have disappeared into dust and mist while a simple poem about the moon continues to shine.

Book Review #30: Man Descending by Guy Vanderhaeghe

A classic collection of Canadian short stories by one of Canada's best writers.

First published in 1982, Man Descending, a collection of twelve finely crafted short stories set mostly on the Canadian prairies, won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Vanderhaeghe won the award again in 1996 for his novel, The Englishman’s Boy.

Showing astonishing range, Vanderhaeghe is equally adept at taking on the voice of an eleven-year-old boy stuck on a dusty farm or an unemployed husband whose marriage, like his scotch, is on the rocks (the ‘descending man’ of the title). His characters – man, woman or child – are wholly believable and achingly human. There are no superheroes here – just real human beings with all their foibles and failings, their charms and weaknesses.

He is particularly skilled at describing his creations: the grandmother with a “vinegary voice”; the father who was a “desolate, lanky, drooping weed of a man”; the child who is “loose-jointed” and “water-boned” with boredom; the husband with the “I’m-a-harmless-idiot-don’t-hit-me smile”.

In “Going to Russia”, a doctor interviews a lunatic who is telling the story. As in the other stories, the dialogue flows with the patterns and ripples of genuine speech caught and caged alive and still breathing. With wonderful twists and resonance, the two characters, in discussing a series of letters are actually tracing the ways in which Art imitates Life (and vice versa).

These are rich, satisfying stories with a touch of wry humour. Despite their layers of meaning and unspoken depth that can bear frequent rereadings, they travel lightly. They are like the prairies, in fact: allowing a clear view all the way to the horizon but revealing intriguing detail on closer inspection.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Book Review #29: After Battersea Park by Jonathan Bennett

An extremely funny, well-wrought and highly readable first novel from a Canadian author originally from 'down under'.

Jonathan Bennett’s first novel covers a lot of ground in fewer than two hundred pages. While most of the action takes place in Sydney, Australia, and Toronto, this whirlwind tour of long-separated twins also lands in Hawaii, London, Scotland, Madrid and Mallorca.

Curt, an Australian jazz musician, and William, a Canadian visual artist, were four-year-old twins driven in different directions when their drug-addict father separated from their mother. She soon found she could not feed the children and had to give them up. At age twenty-seven, they learn of each other’s existence and begin a journey that draws them together from different ends of the world.

Bennett has a deft, suggestive touch: “Curt’s aunt, Jilly, found her slumped in her chair. Not late for tennis but dead.” He also has a flair for writing subtle erotic scenes, as in this picnic enjoyed by William and his much older lover: “Spring slid into summer that quiet afternoon, in full view of the city.”

The high points of After Battersea Park are the well-wrought scenes that sparkle with wry humor and wit. He has the ability to place the reader right on the spot: with a crowd of Mallorcans trying to extract a precious cigarette lighter from a storm-water drain (Curt ends by lighting a cigarette and draws a fine round of applause); or hiding in a bedroom closet with William while a couple whose house he has secretly entered make love not ten feet away.

A neatly constructed plot, engaging three-dimensional characters and a touch of devil-may-care impudence make this novel a delight to read.